COLUMN: Lafayette in the Virginia Campaign, Part II

Published 2:00 pm Friday, June 21, 2024

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Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of articles leading up to the bicentennial celebration. 

By Frank and Gloria Womble

Benedict Arnold was encamped in Portsmouth in a defensive position too strong to assault, thwarting Lafayette’s mission to capture him. British General Henry Clinton reinforced Arnold with an additional 2,000 men under Major General William Phillips. Phillips assisted Arnold in conducting raids along the James River, burning tobacco warehouses, hitting military storage facilities, and making off with wagons, livestock, horses, and other provisions. Von Steuben, Muhlenberg, and Lafayette had too few men and supplies to stop them.

On March 16, 1781, French and British fleets battled near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The French fleet returned to Rhode Island, while the British fleet linked up with Arnold and gained control of the Chesapeake Bay. Phillips, placed in overall command of British forces in Virginia, proceeded to conduct another raid, taking Petersburg on April 25. Phillips then moved toward Richmond, but by then, Lafayette had his troops there and thwarted the British attempts to take Virginia’s capital.

On May 13, Phillips died in Petersburg from fever, and Arnold was temporarily in command of the British army in Virginia. One week later, Major General Charles Lord Cornwallis arrived, bringing his army out of the Carolinas. With additional reinforcements from New York, Cornwallis was in command of over 7,000 troops. Arnold returned to New York. Facing this new foe, Lafayette wrote Washington on his inability to combat the British: “Was I any ways equal to the Ennemy, I would Be extremely Happy in My present Command — But I am not strong enough even to get Beaten.”

Cornwallis moved to Williamsburg in late June, where he received orders to move to Portsmouth and send some of his army to New York City. Lafayette followed Cornwallis fairly closely, emboldened by the arrival of reinforcements to consider making attacks on the British force. On July 4, Cornwallis departed Williamsburg for Jamestown, planning to cross the James River en route to Portsmouth. Lafayette saw an opportunity to attack Cornwallis’ rear guard during the crossing. Things did not go as planned.

Cornwallis had anticipated Lafayette’s idea and laid an elaborate trap. On July 6, 1781, Brigadier General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, leading Lafayette’s advance forces, was ambushed near Green Spring Plantation. General Wayne’s forces were nearly caught in the trap; only a bold bayonet charge against the numerically superior British enabled his forces to retreat. The action reinforced the perception among his contemporaries that his nickname “Mad” Anthony was justified. Satisfied with the victory, Cornwallis did not pursue the retreating Americans and instead crossed the James as planned and moved on to Portsmouth.

Lafayette’s respect for Cornwallis was even greater after Wayne’s narrow escape. On July 9, 1781, he wrote to his brother-in-law and fellow French officer Viscount de Noailles: “This devil Cornwallis is much wiser than the other generals with whom I have dealt. He inspires me with a sincere fear, and his name has greatly troubled my sleep. This campaign is a good school for me. God grant that the public does not pay for my lessons.” 

The American Friends of Lafayette is partnering with Suffolk 250 and the Constantia Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, to commemorate the bicentennial of Lafayette’s Farewell Tour with events in Suffolk in 2025: A memorabilia exhibit from Jan. 23 to March 1 at the Suffolk Center for the Cultural Arts; Lafayette’s arrival on Feb. 23 at the Suffolk Visitor Center/Riddick’s Folly; a banquet on Feb. 25 at the Hilton Garden Inn Suffolk Riverfront; and a reception on Feb. 26 at the Washington Smith Ordinary in Historic Somerton.

Frank and Gloria Womble are life members of the American Friends of Lafayette. Frank is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Gloria is the America250 chair of Constantia Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, in Suffolk.