"The Road to Yorktown: Jefferson, Lafayette, and the British Invasion of Virginia," John Maass
A few months prior to the Yorktown campaign, the armies of Cornwallis and Lafayette played the military equivalent of “cat and mouse” across the landscape of Central Virginia.
“Many history books give only 2-3 pages to Lafayette’s Virginia campaign,” said historian John R. Maass at the September 17 meeting of the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond. “This was Lafayette’s major independent command. From mid-April until mid-September his time in Virginia was his major show during the War.”
Maass is currently working on a book about Lafayette’s Virginia campaign prior to Yorktown, and will be leading an American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond bus tour on November 16 to many of the sites where Lafayette’s army marched and camped.
“Almost all of Lafayette’s campaign sites in Virginia can still be found today if you know where to look,” said Maass. “Many of the sites are known and most of his campaign correspondence still exists today.”
In February 1781 Lafayette left Washington’s army with a detachment of 1,000-1,200 light infantry who were from New England and New Jersey. The troops headed to Virginia with the mission to attack British soldiers camped in Portsmouth under the command of turncoat General Benedict Arnold, and to hang Arnold if they captured him.
Lafayette’s troops arrived in Richmond between April 28-29. In fact Lafayette’s army arrived just in time to prevent British troops under the command of General William Phillips from crossing the James River at Manchester to loot and burn Richmond. Phillips’ troops retreated from Manchester back to Petersburg, where Phillips caught a fever and died on May 15.
On May 20 the British army under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis reached the Petersburg area after its long march across the Carolinas and Southside Virginia. Cornwallis had approximately 5,000 troops, including 500-600 cavalry under the command of Colonel Banastre Tarleton. These forces were much larger than Lafayette’s 1,000-1,200 troops which included only 40-50 cavalry.
“Lafayette’s goal was not to fight a big battle with Cornwallis,”said Maass. “He wanted to shadow the British and wait for the arrival of reinforcements coming from the north under the command of Mad Anthony Wayne.”
At all times Lafayette wanted to keep a river between his army and the much larger British army. Lafayette also wanted to keep his army between the British and Hunter’s Iron Works, a major supplier of American swords and other war materials which was located in Falmouth, just across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg.
On May 24 the British marched out of Petersburg and crossed the James River near Westover Plantation in Charles City County, where they camped. After Cornwallis crossed the James River, Lafayette’s army packed up all of the supplies they could carry and marched northward out of Richmond via what is today Route 1.
Lafayette’s army crossed Upham Creek in today’s Lakeside neighborhood at what was then called Brook’s Bridge. From this bridge his army continued its march northward and crossed the Chickahominy River at what was called Winston’s Bridge, near what is today Green Top Sporting Goods. While Lafayette marched northward, the British marched northwest and then north from Westover Plantation, burning tobacco and other commodities which they couldn’t carry with them.
“Cornwallis was interested in burning stuff and wrecking stuff,” said Maass. “Tobacco was frequently used as a currency to pay American troops so burning tobacco was a means of burning American currency.”
The British marched through the Malvern Hill and White Oak Swamp areas and camped near Bottom’s Bridge on the Chickahominy River and what is today Route 60. From Bottom’s Bridge the British continued their march northward toward Old Church in northeastern Hanover County and then toward Newcastle, a town with 50-60 structures that was located on the Pamunkey River. At this time Newcastle was a large river port but nothing exists today other than an archaeological site.
After reaching the Pamunkey River the British marched northwest along the river, passing through Hanovertown and reaching Hanover Courthouse on May 30 where they rested in the Hanover Tavern area. Along the way they burned warehouses, captured French cannons and destroyed them.
From Hanover Courthouse the British continued their march northwestward to what was called Cook’s Ford, near what is today the Route 1 bridge across the North Anna River near Kings Dominion. During the Civil War, this area was part of the North Anna Campaign.
“This was Cornwallis’ farthest point north, other than some movement with his cavalry forces,” said Maass. “From here he was only 20 miles from Fredericksburg and those iron works that were located just across the Rappahannock River.”
Meanwhile, Lafayette’s troops left the Richmond area and marched northwest on the Mountain Road toward Dandridge’s Plantation, which was located on the South Anna River and modern-day Vontay Road in the Rockville area of Hanover County. The plantation house still exists today and is now called “Oldfield”. During the American Revolution, Dandridge’s Plantation served as a supply center for Lafayette’s troops and their horses.
After resupplying his army Lafayette headed toward Beaverdam in northwestern Hanover County and then across the North Anna River at what was called Davenport’s Ford, and today is Route 738. Lafayette’s immediate goal was to move toward Fredericksburg and stay between the British and Hunter’s Iron Works. However he also wanted to avoid getting too close to Tarleton’s cavalry.
“Tarleton’s troopers were literally occupying Lafayette’s camps only 90-120 minutes after Lafayette’s small forces had retreated,” said Maass.
Lafayette’s army continued its northerly march and on May 31 they passed Mattaponi Church, a wooden structure near the Ta River. His army continued northward to the site of the old Spotsylvania Church , near what is now the new Spotsylvania courthouse complex. They camped in this area around June 2.
From Spotsylvania Courthouse his troops headed northward toward the Rappahannock River where they hoped to meet the American reinforcements under the command of Mad Anthony Wayne. Earlier these reinforcements had crossed the Potomac River near Leesburg and were marching southward to meet Lafayette in the Fredericksburg area.
Lafayette’s men crossed the Po River on Corbin’s Bridge (modern-day Route 612) near what is today Todd’s Tavern. They camped in this area for one day.
While Lafayette continued to move northward, Cornwallis made the decision near modern-day Kings Dominion to turn westward and launch raids against this part of Virginia which was only lightly defended by the Americans. His goal was to capture and destroy American supplies and crops in such areas as Scottsville, Columbia, Cuckoo Tavern, Shadwell and Charlottesville.
Leading the British attack was the two-pronged advance of Colonels John Simcoe and Banastre Tarleton. Simcoe’s forces marched on what was known as Three Chopt Road (modern-day Route 250), and then changed direction toward Columbia. The rest of Cornwallis’ infantry headed toward Elk Hill (just west of Columbia) and then toward Point of Fork at the confluence of the James and Rivanna Rivers.
Tarleton’s cavalry rode through Cuckoo Tavern on their way to Charlottesville with the goal of capturing Governor Thomas Jefferson and members of Virginia’s General Assembly, who had fled to this area from Richmond. Fortunately for Jefferson and most of the legislators, Captain Jack Jouett spotted Tarleton’s cavalry and rode approximately 40 miles from Cuckoo Tavern to Charlottesville via a shorter route than Tarleton’s route to warn the governor and legislators about the planned British cavalry raid.
While the British headed toward Columbia, Point of Fork and Charlottesville, Lafayette continued his trek northward through what is known as The Wilderness, the same terrain that would become even more famous during the Civil War. Lafayette’s army camped near Wilderness Run and what is today the intersection of Routes 3 and 20. From this campsite Lafayette’s army crossed the Rapidan River at nearby Ely’s Ford in search of Mad Anthony Wayne’s reinforcements.
After Lafayette received word of the British movement toward Charlottesville he sent orders to Wayne for him to change direction and head toward a rendezvous with Lafayette’s army in an area between Culpeper and Orange Courthouse. Lafayette’s army then headed west and south where his troops re-crossed the Rapidan River at Raccoon Ford, one of the best crossings on the Rapidan River because its riverbanks were low.
On June 10 the forces under Lafayette and Wayne met each other approximately four miles from Raccoon Ford at what was formerly known as Verdiersville and is now known as Rhoadesville. The exact site of the rendezvous is not known.
The combined forces then headed westward toward Orange Courthouse and then generally southward on what is modern-day Route 15 toward Zion Crossroads. They camped in this area near what was called Boswell’s Tavern. From there, they marched to a site called Boyd Tavern, which was east of Charlottesville on a creek. At this point Lafayette got word that Cornwallis had turned eastward and was headed back toward Richmond, which the British entered on June 16. They stayed in Richmond approximately three days before marching off toward Williamsburg, which they reached on June 25.
“It looks as if all Lafayette did was retreat but there was no way he could tangle with Cornwallis,” said Maass. “Lafayette was aware of this and how his troops had very limited supplies.”
Maass is a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C., and holds a PhD in early American history from The Ohio State University. He is also the author of the following three books:
1. The French and Indian War in North Carolina: The Spreading Flames of War
2. Horatio Gates and the Battle of Camden—“that unhappy affair,” August 16, 1780
3. Defending a New Nation, 1783-1811