MILITARY HISTORY DATABASE
Lafayette (1757-1834), painted in 1779 by Charles Wilson Peale at the request of George Washington. Peale had personal contact with Lafayette at Washington's army headquarters and executed several works with Lafayette's image. The young French marquis volunteered to serve in the US Continental Army at his own expense. This painting shows Lafayette in his American Major General's uniform. His date of rank was 7 December 1776, when he signed up with the American representative in Paris. Lafayette appearently holds the record as the youngest commisioned regular general officer in the US Army. Link to webpage on Lafayette is at the end of this page. [Detail of painting held by Washington & Lee University.]
Lafayette's Virginia Campaign was a prelude to, and at the end, part of the Yorktown Campaign of 1781. Visiting the Yorktown Campaign Webpage before this page is recommended for viewers not familiar with general scope of that campaign in the American Revolution. The other distinctive parts of the Yorktown Campaign that followed this 'prelude' are: the arrival of De Grasse's French naval fleet [involving the Second Battle of the Capes and introduction of additional French military forces], the strategic march of the allied armies of Washington and Rochambeau from New York to Virginia, and the successful allied siege of Birtish positions at Yorktown, Virginia. Links to webpages on the these other parts are at the end of this webpage. |
The complex events comprising the Yorktown Campaign of 1781 unfolded so smoothly that it sometimes mistakenly suggests there was a prior grand design -- a plan. This misconception is corrected when considering the military operations that led to the positioning of the British force at the town of York in Virginia. This vulnerable location of the main British army in the South, in a heretofore minor theater of operations, was equally as essential to defining the 'Yorktown Campaign' as were the allied armies of Washington and Rochambeau, and the French naval fleet of de Grasse.
Preliminary Developments and Background to the Campaign:
BRITISH SOUTHERN STRATEGY and the VIRGINIA THEATER
- BRITISH SOUTHERN STRATEGY and the VIRGINIA THEATER
- STRATEGIC SITUATION in Early 1781
- LAFAYETTE's MISSION and INITIAL ACTIONS
Fundamental to the British grand strategy in the American Revolution was the belief that there was a potential to raise a large Loyalist following in the southern American colonies. While there is some circumstantial support for this, the promise was never realized, in part, due to the aggressivness of the Rebel Partisans. In particular, the Partisans were most effective in intimidating the Loyalists in the Carolinas, where the British made their major effort in 1780 and early 1781, and even achieved some significant military victories over American regular forces.
A related factor in examining the British 'Southern Strategy' of 1780 and early 1781, was that it was launched as an effort to expedite a British victory over the rebellion. With limited land forces, but effective dominance over the coastal waters of the colonies, the British appeared to have secured a strangling hold over the major port cities along the Atlantic. Only a few like Boston and Philadelphia were not again in their hands. The British lacked the numbers to press inland and to force their control more thoroughly. Raising local Loyalist units would help solve this shortfall in numbers. However, there were some arguments as to whether this would really be necessary, as the hinterlands were really not a threat to more lucrative economic strongholds (New York City, Charleston) in British possession. Time was on the British side in wearing down the will and morale of a large segment of truly uncommitted in the American colonies.
On the other hand, time meant continued expenditures for the English crown to maintain and to support large military and naval forces and operations around the world, in addition to disruption of valuable commerce. To many the situtation appeared to be an unacceptable stalemate. One who held this latter view was the British General Lord Cornwallis. He commanded the British army in the Southern theater after Clinton returned to New York following the capture of Charleston, South Carolina (12 May 1780).
The fall of Charleston set in motion a significant expansion of the British southern offensive as a way to offset a stalemate in the Northern theater. The British leaders had anticipated popular Loyalist sympathy in the Southern colonies. Following another great victory over the main American Army in the Southern theater, at Camden, South Carolina (16 Aug 1780), the British commander, Cornwallis, proceded to march into North Carolina with his main regular army in two columns, and a large Tory force under the command of a regualr British officer in a third separate column. However, British plans for raising a large Loyalists' force were seriously thwarted by the destruction of the Tory force at King's Mountain, SC (7 October 1780).
Virginia had been out of the war as a theater of significant armed conflict since a few nuissance raids in the Tidewater country early in 1776. Its Virginia Continental Line had perforemed with distinction in most other parts of the colonies, only to be captured at Charleston.
Virginia's role in the war was primarly logistical. Importantly it exported tobacco, which provided considerable commerical credit internationally as well as within the colonies. The American army, particularly in the south, was dependent on Virginia for shipments of salt (used in the preservation of rations) and arms and gunpowder. The overall commander of the British forces in the colonies, General Clinton had paid only casual attention to Virginia prior to 1781, with the deployment of raiding forces. In the spring of 1779, Clinton sent a joint naval and army force from New York to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and up the James River. British troops under Major General Edward Mathews went ashore at Portsmouth and raided Suffolk and Gosport. After burning hogheads of tobacco and destroying ships, the British embarked without suffering any casualties.
STRATEGIC SITUATION in Early 1781
In December 1780, Clinton sent to Virginia the the American tratior, and now British Brigadier General, Benedict Arnold, accompanied by Colonel John Graves Simcoe, with about 1,200 men. This force arrived in Virginia 30 December, and attacked Richmond 5 January 1781. Arnold's force began deleivering havoc and destruction along the James River and Hampton Roads port towns. Virginia's governor, Thomas Jefferson, was unable to raise forces to resist Arnold's ventures and appealed to Washington.
In the north, Washington and Rochambeau were in winter quarters, and in the very early planning stages of how to initiate their first combined operation. Washington was focused on the capture of New York City, but realized that he needed the added French military forces and most especially naval support for such a demanding objective. Rochambeau was not optomistic of receiving any more forces from France and expressed his preference for a less costly endevor than to besiege the strong British position at New York.
In the south, the King's Mountain defeat forced Cornwallis to temporarly withdraw back into South Carolinia. However, a small engagement set in motion a series of unplanned operations. At Cowpens, SC (17 Jan 1781), a well led force of American Continentals and militia routed a small force led by the famous British cavalry officer, Tarleton. The embarassment caused Cornwallis to conduct a chase to catch the American force, which joined with the larger American army under Greene. Cornwallis was confident that his professional British army was more than a match against the newly resurrected American southern Rebel troops. The British commander eagerly led his army in a frustrating chase that bought them deeper inland, back into North Carolina without the Loyalists forces originally considered necessary for such a venture. Cornwallis was compelled to jettison much of his baggage to expedite his army's movement, while he also drew further from the his coastal logistical base that was vital to British regular army operations in the colonies.
LAFAYETTE's MISSION and INITIAL ACTIONS
In Feburary 1781, Washington, sensitive to the pleas of the Virginia Governor, ordered Lafayette south with a picked force of some 1,200 New England and New Jersey troops. As unit commanders he had Colonel Joseph Vose of Massachusetts, Lieutenant Colonel de Gimat, a very able Frenchman who had arrived in American with Lafayette, and Lieutenant Colonel Francis Barber of New Jersey. This small command was to be complemented by a French force of 1,200 troops from Rochambeau's expeditionary army at Newport RI. The French troops were to be taken to Virgina by the French naval squadron [see 8 March].
- 13 February 1781
- French squadron under naval Captain de Tilly slipped past a British 'blockade' of Newport and headed to Virginia to go against Benedict Arnold. Tilly entered the Chesapeake and anchored at Lynnhaven Bay. Arnold removed his ships further up the Elizabeth River, where the warter was too shallow for the French fleet. Having taken a few small British ships, Tilly's squadron returned to Newport 24 Feb. [This French naval expedition preceded the one that departed 8 March with French forces intended to join Lafayette in Virginia.]
- 24-28 February
- Lafayette and his force reached Morristown, NJ, 24 Feb. Lafayette proceeded to Philadelphia, PA, as his contingent marched toward Trenton, NJ. His troops spent the night of 26 Feb. at Somerset, and reached Trenton on the 28th.
In Philadelphia, Lafayette received 'four companies' of artillerymen along with some artillery pieces (12 'heavy pieces' and 6 'smaller ones'). He then joined his force at Trenton.
- 3 March
- Lafayette and his force arrived at Head of Elk (Elkton, MD). However, there were not enough boats for his men to proceed down river. Lt. Col. Gouvion was sent ahead to Virginia to contact von Steuben.
- 8 March
- Lafayette moved his men to Plum's Point and Cecil's Ferry, where they eventually were taken to Annapolis, MD. Lafayette, with a small escort, boarded a sloop Dolphin' and went on ahead of his troops to Annapolis. From there, he took a barge and proceeded further down the Bay with the intention of meeting von Steuben in Virginia.
Meanwhile, French Admiral Destouches, with 1,100 grenadiers and chasseurs under Baron de Vioménil, Rochambeau's second in command, departed Newport, RI, for Virginia waters. A British fleet set out in pursuit 36 hours later, and got ahead of the French.
- 14 March
- Lafayette, with his small escort party, arrived at Yorktown, Virginia.
- 15 March
- Lafayette met with von Steuben, who was at Williamsburg with a small militia force, attempting to constrain Arnold, who was camped Portsmouth.
Meanwhile in the Carolinias: Eventually, Greene offered to give battle. Cornwallis managed to win a very costly victory at Guilford Court House, North Carolina (15 March 1781). Cornwallis did not feel strong enough to engage in another battle until he had been sufficiently resupplied. The resurgent strength of the Americans demonstrated in this battle, and the failure to win Loyalists' following in the Carolinias was creating another stalemate for the British.
- 16 March
- 'First Battle of the Virginia Capes' was fought between French Destouches and British Arbutnot. After an indecisive naval engagement, Arbutnot quickly positioned his damaged squadron at the mouth of the Chesapeake. Destouches did not believe that his damaged squadron could force the British line. Result was that the British prevented French entering the Chesapeake. The French squadron returned to Newport on 26 March. With it were the French regulars that were to have supported Lafayette in a Virginia campaign.
- 20 March
- A British naval squadron entered the Chesapeake Bay, bringing additional British forces under the command of General Phillips, who took over command of British troops already in the colony under Arnold.
- 25 March
- Lafayette learned of the disappointing outcome of the 16 March naval engagement off the Virginia Capes. Dejected, Lafayette returned to Annapolis and prepared to lead his troops back to Washington's headquarters.
Returning to Annapolis, Lafayette traveled by land, passing through Fredericksburg, VA [30 March], and then paid a visit to Mount Vernon, VA. [Mrs. Washington was away, with her husband at his NY headquarters. There is no record at Mount Vernon with whom Lafayette might have met -- if anyone. However, this would be the first of several visits the Marquis would make the famous home of his hero.] Lafayette crossed into Maryland from Alexandria, VA.
- 26 March
- More British vessels arrived with reinforcements to bring Phillips' command to a strength of over 3,000 regular troops. He also had two agressive and capable subordinate commanders in Arnold and Simcoe.
- 3 April
- Lafayette rejoined his troops at Annapolis. He responded to Greene's request to send some artillery to the south. He began leading his own small army back north to rejoin the main American army under Washington in New York.
- 8 April
- Lafayette and his small force arrived back at Head of Elk, where he received a dispatch [written by Washington on 6 April] instructing Lafayette to return back south, and to put himself under Greene's command. The prospect of marching back south, caused some of Lafayette's men [all from northern colonies] to desert.
- 12 April
- Lafayette's force reached the Susquehanna River and received further instructions from Washington to the effect that Lafayette could remain in Virginia. Further, General Greene encouraged LaFayeette to move against the British forces in Virginia so as to keep them from joining Cornwallis in the Carolinias.
- 15 April
- Lafayette re crossed the Susquehanna, dramatically calling it his 'Rubicon', as he started back south.
- 16 April
- Lafayette reached Baltimore a day before his men. He had about 1,000 men plus a company of artillery. He learnd that General Phillips was now in command of British in Virginia. [Phillips had commanded the British artillery in the Seven Years' War battle at Minden (1 Aug 1759), where Lafayette's father was killed.]
- 18 April
- Phillips took his troops up the James River, in a campaign of raids and destruction.
John Simcoe landed (19 or 20 April) at Burwell's and deployed to Chickahominy river and to Yorktown. They forced Virginia militia under James Innes to retreat from Williamsburg. Simcoe scouted Yorktown, rode to Chickahominy River shipyard and burned the Thetis.
- 18 April (about)
- Phillips also sent a flotilla of six vessels with twelve to eighteen guns each and a half-dozen smaller craft to proceed north up the Potomac River; the object was to block the passage of Lafayette's troops across the Potomac and to harass the area. The British temporarly occupied Alexandria, which capitulated with embarassing ease. Lund Washington paid the British a ransom to prevent harm to Mount Vernon. The British burned tobacco warehouses at Cedar Maryland, and released slaves from Robert Carter's plantation.
- 19 April
- Lafayette left Baltimore, and joined his troops the next day. Deciding to reach Richmond as soon as possible, Lafayette left his artillery and sick to follow at a later date, as he conducted forced-marches back to Virginia.
- 22 April
- Simcoe's units re joined Phillips in an advance of the British up the James River. Arnold took his units from Portsmouth to join in this distinctive 'James River Campaign'. Anticipating Phillips' and Arnold's objective, Rebel leaders abandoned Richmond. American military depot supplies were moved from Petersburg to Point of Fork (where Rivanna flows into the James River).
PHASE ONE, PART ONE: LAFAYETTE ENTERS VIRGINIA and CONFRONTS SITUTATION of ARNOLD and PHILLIPS
- 21 April 1781
- Lafayette crossed the Potomac into Virginia, and arrived at Alexandria. Phillips' force was joined by Arnold's units as they passed Westover on the James, en route toward Petersburg and Richmond.
Meanwhile in the Carolinias: It was about this date that Cornwallis, at Wilmington, NC, decided to go to Virginia. His position in North Carolina was hopless in obtaining popular support and a return to South Carolina would give an impression of a falied campaign. Joining up with the agressive British raiders in Virginia offered new promise.
- 25 April 1781
- Lafayette arrived at Fredericksburg.
Meanwhile in the Carolinias: Cornwallis began his march from Willimington. Departure of his army extended until 29 April.
- 25 April 1781
- 'Battle of Petersburg' took place at Blandford (about a mile east of Petersburg).
Roughly 2,300 British defeated about 1,000 militia under Steuben and Mulenberg in a late afternoon battle where British artillery contributed significantly to the outcome. The pursuit continued to Chesterfield County CH. British occupied Petersburg.
PHASE ONE, PART TWO: LAFAYETTE MANEUVERS vs PHILLIPS and ARNOLD
- 27 April
- Arnold routed a flotilia [about 20 ships] at Osborne (on James River), and rejoined Phillips.
- 28 April
- Arnold and Phillips burn Chesterfield CH.
- 29 April
- After a full day's forced-march, Lafayette arrived at Richmond with about 1,200 Continentals in the evening. The town had only a small corps of militia under General Thomas Nelson.
- 30 April
- In the morning, British forces under Phillips and Arnold reached Manchester, across the River from Richmond. They suspected that von Steuben, with some more militia, would soon join Lafayette in the city. The British decided not to force the issue. In the evening the British returned to Osborne's, and then continued further down the James River.
Lafayette and von Steuben 'celebrated victory' with a grand review of their New England regulars and Virginia militia. Suspecting that Phillips might go to Williamsburg, Lafayette directed Nelson's militia to go to Williamsburg. Brig. Gen. Weedon was sent with his militia corps to Fredericksburg.
- Early May
- Lafayette moved to Bottom's Bridge (16 miles from Richmond), across the Chickahominy River to a position closer to Wiliamsburg, Fredericksburg and to the vicinity of Jamestown, where Phillips was camped.
Lafayette's wagon train finally arrived, along with dispatches from the northern headquarters [at New Windsor]. Washington invited Lafayette to return to NY if he preferred. Lafayette stayed.
- 7 May
- Phillips was taking his forces towards the mouth of the James when he received Cornwallis' instructions to meet Cornwallis at Petersburg. Phillips turned about and headed up river. On 8 May, Phillips landed at Brandon and marched to Petersburg.
- 8 May
- Lafayette crossed to the south bank of the James River and marched toward Petersburg. Approaching that town on 10 May.
Meanwhile in the Carolinias: Greene enjoyed 'a good exchange' near Camden, at Hobkirk's Hill, SC (25 April). Lord Rawdon abandoned Camden 10 May. Greene gave Lafayette independent command in Viriginia.
- 10 May
- As he approached Petersburg, Lafayette discovered the British had already beat him there. There is no evidence that Lafayette entered Petersburg temporarly before he withdrew to the north of Osborne's. We wrote to Steuben from Osborne's on 10 May.
- Later, Lafayette returned to Richmond area -- around Kingsland Ferry and Wilton, on the north side of the river.
Lafayette was expecting to be reinforced by General Wayne's rifle corps. However, Wayne experienced a series of problems mobilizing as well as confronting a mutiny. Fortunately, Phillips and Arnold believed that Wayne had already joined Lafayette, and they were cautious in moving against the marquis.
- Cornwallis' army began entering Virginia.
- 13 May
- Phillips died of fever and was buried at Petersburg. Arnold took temporary command of the British force in Virginia, but Lafayette refused to exchange communications with the tratior.
- 20 May
- Cornwallis joined Arnold at Petersburg.
Cornwallis arrived with 1,500, [there may have been 5,305 under Arnold] and on 20 May received reinforcements from Clinton, to have a total strength of 7,200.
Lafayette reorganized his corps. His strength at this time is estimated to be about 900 to 1,000 Continentals, 2 brigades of militia under Mulenburg and Nelson [numbering between 1,200 and 2,000], about 40 cavalrymen [dragoons that remained of Armand's Legion, and some volunteer horsemen under John Mercer and Nicholas Moore], and 6 pieces of artillery. The militia presented a serious problem as many were constantly coming and going.
- 22 May
- Meanwhile, at Wethersfield, CT, Conference: Washington and Rochambeau met to plan a combined campaign. It was agreed that the British position at New York would be the primary objective, but that other options (such as deploying to the South) would be considered if the situtation and circumstances warranted.
PHASE TWO: CORNWALLIS CHASES LAFAYETTE
- 23 May
- Tarleton raided Chesterfield County CH, in a rainstorm that prevented the militia guards from firing their weapons; they were captured.
- 24-26 May
- Cornwallis marched from Petersburg to Westover, and remained until 26 May. During this period, Gen. Leslie arrived with British reinforcements from New York. Leslie was then sent to command a defense of Portsmouth. Arnold departed back up north. British strength is estimated to be at 7,000 after reinforcements from NY. [If this is so, it seems the reinforcements merely made up for attrition due to sickness etc. Cornwallis' dispatches did complain of the high rate of illness in his forces.]
- 24 May
- Date of Lafayette's letter to Washington saying that he is "not strong enough even to get beaten." His force is estimated to have been about 3,000, with most being militia.
- 27 May
- Lafayette abandoned Richmond and withdrew northwest. He camped between Allen's Creek and Gold Mine Creek [Winston's Bridge?]
Cornwallis moved to White Oak Swamp on 27 May.
- 27-30 May
- British raided Chesterfield County, destroyed bridge at City Point, and crossed the James River below Richmond at Westover.
- 28 May
- Steuben went to Point of Fork to defend the American military depot. Lafayette fell back north as Cornwallis moved toward the Pamunkey. Lafayette's general scheme was to keep himself between Cornwallis' much larger force and a line of communications to the north, from which direction Wayne's forces would eventually arrive.
Cornwallis went to New Castle [Old Church, today], with the obvious intention to get behind Lafayette's line of communications.
- 29-30 May
- Lafayette at Dandridge's.
- 30 May
- Cornwallis reached Hanover County CH on the North Anna River, but Lafayette stayed ahead of him, and arrived at Anderson's Bridge.
- 31 May
- Lafayette reached Mattaponi Church.
- 1 June
- Cornwallis, after making an excursion to Aylett's, re crossed the Chickahominy at Bottom's Bridge. He reached Cook's Ford on the North Anna River and stopped. He became aware that Wayne's force was getting close to joining up with Lafayette. Cornwallis decided to stop chasing Lafayette.
- 2 June
- Lafayette reached Corbin's Bridge. He learned of the Briitsh evacuation of Camden, and the fall of Fort Motte, Orangeburg and Fort Granby. He received Greene's dispatch, dated 16 May, that informed Lafayette of von Steuben's new orders to stay in Virginia.
Unfortunately Greene's instructions to von Steuben to this effect were intercepted and the Prussian remained in doubt for some time as to his line of command status. Von Steuben would not learn until 12 June that he had been ordered to stay in Virginia, and be under Lafayette's command. Lafayette was sensitive to von Steuben's feelings, and never pushed the matter, though he was not fully aware of von Steuben misunderstanding.
CORNWALLIS RAIDS to the WEST
- 3 June
- Cornwallis sent Tarleton on a raid to Monticello to capture Thomas Jefferson, and then to Charlottesville to capture some legislators. Tarleton had 70 mounted infantry and 180 dragoons [recruited since Cowpens].
John Jouett rode during the night (of 3-4 Jun) to warn Jefferson at Monticello, and then on to alert Charlottesville of Tarleton's mission.
Cornwallis sent Simcoe's loyalist legion, the Queen's Rangers (300 men) to attack Point of Fork. [See 6 June].
Cornwallis took his main army through Goochland CH to destroy supples stored there.
- 4 June
- Tarleton missed Jefferson at Monticello, but managed to capture seven members of the legislature and some officers at Charlottesville. The governor and the assembly barely escaped to Staunton, where they set up a new capital roughly 32 miles west of Charlottesville.
- 4 June
- Lafayette crossed the Rapidan at Ely's Ford. He headed west to Culpeper Church (about 20 miles farther upland on the Rapidan -- an off shoot of the Rappahannock River.
- 6 June
- Lafayette crossed to the south bank of the Rapidan at Raccon Ford.
Cornwallis continued his march southwest, crossing Ground Squirrel bridge, to Elk Hill.
- 5-6 June
- Simcoe raided Point of Fork, form which Steuben retreated, and Simcoe destroyed the American miliary stores there.
Stuben was alerted 3 June, but proceeded to relocate stores rather than prepare a defense of the depot. Steuben had about 500 men, many new levies and some militia. He did not expect to have a good chance against a possible attack by Cornwallis' full army. Simcoe had about 200 infantry and 100 cavalry, with a 3-pdr, and was able to fake the appearance of a larger force. The Americans evacuated during the night of 6 June, leaving ten pieces of ordnance and considerable arms and powder. Steuben retreated into North Carolina.
- 7 June
- Cornwallis arrived at Elk Hill (mouth of Byrd Creek) near Point of Fork. Simcoe, Tarleton, Cornwallis and the main British army camp at Elk Hill until 14 June.
- 8 June
- Wayne crossed the Rapidan at Raccoon Ford, en route to join Lafayette.
- 10 June
- Wayne [with about 800 Continentals] joined Lafayette after crossing the North Anna River at Brock's Bridge. This brought Cornwallis' and Lafayette's strengths near to equal numbers.
- 11 June
- Lafayette crossed Boswell's (Mumford's and also known as 'Boswell's Tavern', now a village of that name). Lafayette remained there the night.
- 12 June
- Lafayette's militia knew of an abandoned back road which many perceived as impassable. By cutting their way through somes sections, his light infantry managed to reach Mechunk Creek, a branch of the Rivanna River in 2 days. [The road has since been called 'The Marquis Road']. Lafayette set up camp at Mechunk Creek, and was joined by some 600 Virginia militia under William Campbell. The location of the camp and the added forces suprised Cornwallis, and discouraged his further ventures towards Charlottsville or Staunton.
However, the British raids effectively undermined the credibility of leadrship in Virignia. On 12 June, the legislature elected Thomas Nelson to succeed Jefferson as governor. Jefferson's term had expired 4 June.
Cornwallis recalled Tarleton, and decided not to push toward the American depot at Albemarle CH. He also did not want to initiate an attack on the recently enlarged American force. Lafayette's position was reconnoitered by Tarleton, leading to some small skirmishes.
LAFAYETTE SHADOWS CORNWALLIS
- 14-15 June
- Cornwallis began to withdraw to the east by 14 June. Lafayette left camp at Mechunk Creek, followed British at a distance. Now with almost 4,000 men, Lafayette was seeking an advantagous occasion to engaged Cornwallis.
- 16-19 June
- Lafayette remained at Col Dandridge's house, near Allen's Creek. Von Steuben, now fully aware that he is to serve under Lafayette, joined him.
[Around this time, Washington's letter to Lafayette was intercepted. It, along with another to General Sullivan, contained information of the decision made at Wethersfield that made New York City the primary allied objective.]
- 18 June (on or about)
- Cornwallis reached Richmond with his main army. Tarleton's dragoons and Simcoe's jagers went to Williamsburg. Over the next several weeks, there were occasional skirmishes between American militia with Tarleton's reconnaissance patrols.
- 20 June
- Cornwallis departed Richmond, crossed Chickhominy River at Bottom's Bridge and marched towards Williamsburg.
- 23 June
- Cornwallis took his army across Bottom's Bridge and went to New Kent CH.
- 24 June
- Cornwallis, en route to Williamsburg, stopped at Bird's Tavern.
- 25 June
- Cornwallis reached Williamsburg. He received instructions from Clinton for half of his force to be sent to assist in the defense of New York.
Lafayette informed Washington of Cornwallis' movement to Williamsburg. Washington received this prior to 13 July.
- 25 July
- Lafayette at Bird's Tavern (near New Kent CH). Butler's van took positon at Spencer's Ordinary.
- 26 June
- A relativley small engagement took place at Spencer's Ordinary between Col Richard Butler [of the PA Line] and Maj William McPherson mounted infantry [50 dragoons] and Simcoe's force. Outnumbered British were reinforced by Cornwallis. Estimated 31 Americans were captured, 10 British were killed and 30 wounded. Lafayette was not present; he was at Rawson's Ordinary.
- 27 June
- Americans camped at Tryee's Plantation, 20 miles northwest of Williamsburg.
- 4 July
- As Lafayette's forces celebrated the Fourth, Cornwallis departed Williamsburg and began moving toward Jamestown. His intent was to cross the James River and, once on the southern shore, march to Portsmouth. From there he would embark the troops whom Clinton had requested be returned north.
- 5 July
- British moved to Chickahominy Church.
Cornwalls knew that his intended crossing of the James River would be evident to Lafayette, and that it would tempt the marquis to take advantage of a vulnerable moment when the British force would be separated by the river's water. The seasoned British veteran saw a chance to teach the upstart Frenchman and his American rebels a lesson -- if not even delivering them a serious defeat.
- 5 July and morning of 6 July
- Cornwallis sent Semcoe's Queens Rangers and baggage over to Jamestown island, and then across the river by ferry. Lafayette brought his force up to the area of Green Spring 'plantation'. The British sent out some false 'deserters' with misinformation to reinforce the perception that only a rear guard remained on the north bank. Between Green Spring plantation and James Island, Cornwallis positioned a few outposts and screening formations to make it look like the expected rear-guard deployments of a withdrawing army. He concealed his main British army in the woods just north of James Island.
- 6 July
- It was all too temprting for Lafayette, who had been waiting for such a chance since being reinforced by Wayne, and then shadowing Cornwallis' movements back towards the east. Perceiving the false division of the British army, as Cornwallis had intended, Lafayette directed Wayne, with about 500 men, to advance upon what the Americans believed was only a small sized British rear guard positioned just southeast of Green Spring.
Lafayette drew up about a third of his army close to the Green Spring plantation. He kept most of his militia several miles to the north, as he did not anticipate confronting a large enemy force.
At about 1500 hours, Wayne's force of about 500 men advanced toward the southeast along a narrow causeway through a swamp area. Lafayette soon sent about 400 more men to join Wayne. Once across the causeway, Wayne deployed his troops. To his left flank [north] were the rifle 'corps' companies of Call and Wills, and McPherson's Light Horse troop (that included 'Armand's Legion and First Light Dragons). In the center were Graves Light Infantry, Massachusetts artillery (2 guns), Stewart's and Craig's Pennsylvanian battalions, and some Pennsylvanian artillery [with two 4-pounders). [Later, Maj Galvan's light Infantry Battalion joined.] On the left flank [south] were Gimat's and Butler's infantry battalions.
As Wayne advanced forward, Lafayette conducted a personal reconnaissance. Apparently Lafayette was a good distance from Wayne's right flank, possibly along the river's bank which provided a view of the activity behind the British front positions. This alerted Lafayette that a much larger than expected number of British forces remained on the northen shore. Realizing the real situation, Lafayette rode to warn Wayne, but heard the sounds confirming that the battle had already been joined.
It was about 1730 hours, as Wayne's left flank was advancing easily, that Galvan (from his center position) was allowed to rush forward upon an apparent abandoned British artillery site. The Americans were surprised when a considerable number of British emerged from the woods to defend their artillery. It was also at this time that Cornwallis realized he could not wait any longer to spring his trap. He had hoped to draw more Americans into his snare, but the day was getting late. By 1800 hours, Cornwallis launched his hidden, and much larger British force, in a broad frontal attack in the center. At the same time, another part of the British line began a movment, though the woods, to turn the left flank of Wayne's force on the southeast side of the causeway. Only about 2,000 of the much larger British army could be crowded into the constrained battleground.
Though he was too late to halt Wayne's attack, Lafayette quickly set up a line of his still uncommitted troops at the northwest end of the causeway for Wayne's troops to fall back upon. Though notified of this action, Wayne was confronted with having to break contact with the British that were pressing in. The American Continentals in the center began retreating as they were threatened of being enveloped, and the militia on the left was collapsing.
Wayne directed a tactical response which marked the reputation of this otherwise small engagement. He directed a daring, short 'attack' that surprised British regulars, and temporarly blunted their assault. This effectively prevented a dangerous disorganized retreat. Wayne's force was able to withdraw without the immediate press of British forces. The British soon had to discontinue their pursuit due to darkness. Such an attempt would have put the British at a disadvantage in crossing the narrow causeway and then confronting a large American force drawn up to give battle. It was not worth the risk.
Cornwallis' trap almost worked, but his mission was to get to Portsmouth. He withdrew his force to Jamestown Island the night of 6 July. By 8 July, his army was fully across the James, and Lafayette moved to Jamestown. Lafayette was able to make considerable propaganda out of this battle -- after all, he 'occupied the battlefield'. However, the truth is that the Americans suffered about 139 [28k, 99w, 12m], (out of about 900 engaged) to the British 75 'total casualties' (out of 2,000+ engaged).
- 6 July
- Meanwhile north of New York City: French and American allied armies joined at White Plains.
FINAL MANEUVERS and 'CHECKMATE'
- 7 or 8 July
- Lafayette occupied the James Island.
Cornwallis was at Cobham in Surry County.
- 9 or 10 July
- Lafayette arrived at Williamsburg.
- 9-24 July
- Tarleton led an impressive 400 mile round-trip cavalry operation to Amelia CH, Prince Edward CH, and New London in Bedford County. He returned back through Dinwiddie CH and to Petersburg.
During this raid, the legendary Peter Francisco fought with nine of Tarleton's men at Ward's Tavern. He killed two of the dragons and escaped.
- 10-17 July
- British marched to Suffolk, then on to Portsmouth.
- 13 July
- Meanwhile at the allied camp, north of New York City: Washington wrote to Lafayette that he would soon send an officer to communicate "matters of very great importance". [Appears that Lafayette received this around 1 August.]
- 20 July
- Cornwallis [at Portsmouth] received Clinton's dispatch [dated 11 July] that canceled the recall of troops, and directed Cornwallis to fortify Old Point Comfort at Hampton and to establish an outpost at Yorktown. However, Cornwallis' engineers determine that the soil at Old Fort Comfort was not suitable for fortifications. Cornwallis abandoned Portsmouth for Yorktown. [See 1 August]
Lafayette is confused by Cornwallis' movements and divided his force: He bivouacked the main body of 2,200 at Malvern Hill (half way between Richmond and Williamsburg). Wayne, with small force (new Virginia recruits and some riflemen under Daniel Morgan) were sent to shadow Cornwallis' movements more closely.
- 30 July
- Meanwhile at the allied camp, north of New York City: Washington wrote a communiqué to Lafayette stating that "if we find ourselves incompetent to the siege of New York" the allied force may endevor to expell the British from Virginia. On 1 August, Washington entered in his diary that he was turing his views more seriously to an operation in the south. [See 14 August -- 'decision day'.]
- 1 August
- Cornwallis occupied Yorktown.
Lafayette suspected that Cornwallis might be heading north -- possibly Baltimore -- and planned on an overland march to follow and to harass the British if that were the case. Lafayette reached Richmond on 1 Aug, and learned that Cornwallis went to Yorktown.
Lafayette soon obtained the valuable services of an African-American slave, called 'James'. James, pretending to be in the service of the British, managed to enter and depart Yorktown with information.
- 4 Aug
- Still suspecting Cornwallis might move north, Lafayette went to Newcastle [Old Church], on the Pamunky River.
- 6 Aug
- Lafayette wrote to Washington that Cornwallis appared to be staying at Yorktown.
- 13 Aug
- Lafayette moved through New Kent CH, crossed Pamunky River, and camped at Montock (at the forks of the Pamunky and Mattaponey rivers, west of West Point). He was still uncertain of Cornwallis's intentions.
[Events outlined below are covered in more detail in the main webpage on the Yorktown Campaign. See link below.]
- 14 Aug
- DECISSION DAY
Washington learned of de Grasse's intention to go to the Cheseapeake. About the same time he learned of Cornwallis being at Yorktown. The decision is made that launches the Yorktown Campaign.
Washington wrote 15 August letter to Lafayette to keep Cornwallis at Yorktown and to expect "aid from this quarter." He described more explictly of the grand scheme in a 21 August letter that was carried personally by Duportail to be shown to DeGrasse and to Lafayette.
- 19-21 Aug
- Major part of Allied armies departed New York camps.
- 25 Aug
- De Barras' naval squadron departed Newport, RI, with siege train.
- 30 Aug
- De Grasse arrived at mouth of the Cheasapeake Bay.
[Adm Graves took the British fleet out of NY, heading for VA.]
- 2-4 Sep
- Allied armies marched through Philadelphia.
About this time, Duprotail arrived at Lafayette's headquarters at Montock Hill and reported Washington's grand plan.
- 2/3 Sep
- St. Simon's 3,100-man force began to disembark at Jamestown. St. Simon placed his force under Lafayette's command. The French and American units joined at Green Spring and began moving to Williamsburg.
- 5-6 September 1781
- Second Battle of the Virginia Capes.
- 5 Sep
- Lafayette and St Simon arrived at Williamsburg
- 8 Sep
- De Barras entered Cheaspeake Bay and sailed to the James River.
- 14 Sept
- Washington, Rochambeau, Chasteleaux arrived at Williamsburg.
- 18 Sep
- Washington and Rochambeau met de Grasse aboard the Ville de Paris. Also present were Knox, Chastellux and Duportail. (Lafayette did not attend.)
- 20 Sep
- The allied armies from New York began arriving at Williamsburg.
- 26 Sep
- The Allied armies from the north completed their arrival at camps around Wiliamsburg. Militia continued to add to Lafayette's force in Virginia and to join with Washington's troops as they moved south from New York. A rough estimate is that the Americans had 5,700 Continentals and 3,100 militia at the begining of the siege of Yorktown. The 7,000 plus troops in the French land army does not count French naval forces on ships and that served on land, mainly to support the artillery.
Force sizes varied during the campaign and estimated strengths are indicated in the foregoing narrative outline. In particular, the militia counts were very uneven, with the most arriving toward the end of the campaign when the Yorktown Campaign had begun.
Figures for casualties were not reported on a systematic basis. Those for the British were better than for the Americans. Again, estimates are provided at the appropriate places in the foregoing narrative outline.
Most importantly, this campaign was the product of evolving circumstances and quick decisions. Its development and its final disposition were not envisioned by the senior American or British commanders a month prior to mid August. It was only in mid July that Washington indicated his awarness of the unusual situtation developing in Virginia. It was not until mid August that Washington, in conjunction with learning of De Grasse's schedule, recognized that Lafayette's campaign in Virginia had delivered a valuable target to warrant a major shift in his strategic priorities and plan.
Lafayette's campaign in Virginia should, in itself, dispel the legend that a 'Yorktown Campaign' was planned months in advance by Rochambeau and Washington. See link at end of this page to webpage on the 'Yorktown Campaign Decision'.
Historic road and location markers identify a few of the sites of the '1781 Campaign'. Very few original structures remain. Fords and some major towns witnessed more intense military use during the American Civil War, which holds a greater imprint upon the Commonwealth's memory.
Many articles and books on the Yorktown campaign have chapters on Lafayette's Virginia campaign. The primary sources are scattered in personal journals, memoirs, and letters of the various famous participants, as well as in some Virginia archives. Most of these are brought together in two fine secondary works that provide extensive coverage of the campaign:
- Louis Gottschalk's Lafayette and the Close of the American Revolution.
- The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London, 1942 and 1965. The top biography on Lafayette, this is one of 4 volumes, published 1935-50). pages 189-306 cover Chapters IX ('Lafayette Nearly Bags Arnold'), X ('Lafayette Escapes Cornwallis'), XI ('Cornwallis' Retreat') through XII ('Lafayette Coops Up Cornwallis').
- Stanley J. Idzerda's Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution; Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790, Volume IV, April, 1781 - December 23, 1781.
- Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1981. Part I. 'The War Moves to Virginia', Part II. 'Cornwallis the Hunter Becomes the Prey', Part III. 'Victory at Yorktown'.
- John E. Selby's The Revolution in Virginia 1775-1783.
- The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1988. Discussion of Lafayette's Virginia campaign begins at Chapter 14 (p.265) and continues into part of Chapter 15 (up to p.295).
See further secondary sources and some contemporary accounts in ...
for the Yorktown Campaign and
Franco-American Alliance in the American Revolution
French Military Expedition to North America (1780-83)
Page created 15 March 2001;
Last revised 24 February 2014.