Green Spring Plantation, a few miles from the center of modern-day Williamsburg, was considered a showplace property during the 1600s. Its 7,000 acres along the James River was the home of Governor Sir William Berkeley. It was known for agricultural innovation, greenhouses, horses and pottery.
The main house was located several hundred feet beyond today’s main road (Route 614). The foundation remnants still exist, but archeological studies have placed any structure remains under protection. A small brick structure with a below ground foundation and about eight-foot high walls can be seen from the main road. This is what is left of an old jail.
War came to the property during the summer of 1781. British General Lord Cornwallis did not like his situation on the Virginia peninsula. His superior, General Henry Clinton, had urged Cornwallis to find a defensive position in the area. Cornwallis opted to dig in at Yorktown. His decision sealed the fate of the British Empire in America.
Prior to settling in Yorktown, though, Cornwallis left Williamsburg during early July and marched toward Jamestown. He wanted to cross the James River and reach Portsmouth. Since American and British forces in Virginia were shadowing each other, the Marquis de Lafayette had General Anthony Wayne keep an eye on Cornwallis. American troops were camped on the Green Spring property and about 500 of them watched the British rear guard.
At Jamestown, when Cornwallis realized that his forces would be vulnerable to attack as they tried to cross the river for Portsmouth, he attempted to draw the American forces into a trap. To deceive the Americans, Cornwallis hid most of his army along Powhatan Creek near Jamestown and along a swamp that lies a mile or two east of the site of the Green Spring manor house.
Wayne’s troops skirmished with the British rear guard on Friday afternoon, July 6, as Cornwallis hoped to lure him and eventually Lafayette deeper into the trap. The Frenchman, not totally convinced that the British were really leaving the peninsula without one last attempt at a general engagement, ordered the main body of his army to catch up with Wayne.
Lafayette, who had personally reconnoitered the area along the river, anticipated Cornwallis’ plan and quickly warned Wayne. But, he was too late. Wayne suddenly found himself facing Cornwallis’ entire force.
Wayne saw the British army deploy before him. With both armies ready for battle, Wayne made a bold move. Aware that the British lines extended beyond his flanks, Wayne decided to charge. This surprised the British. They did rake the American lines with cannon grapeshot and musket fire, but the British did not advance.
Lafayette appeared on the field and he held Wayne’s men, mostly Pennsylvanians, in formation as they withdrew in good order. During this withdrawal coordination, Lafayette had two horses shot from under him.
About 130 Americans were killed or wounded. The British lost about 75. Wayne and his men retreated the short distance to the Green Spring manor area. With daylight now gone, Cornwallis lost his chance to pursue the Americans.
The Site Today
About 200 acres of the original Green Spring Plantation are preserved as part of the Colonial National Historical Park. The site includes archaeological and architectural remnants of the manor house and ancillary structures. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on December 29, 1978.
The manor property is not open to the public. To see a portion of it, park along Route 614 after passing a sign that reads “Green Spring Plantation.” From this vantage point, the remains of the jail can be seen. The manor house was located on the hill rising above the jail.
The battle site is a short distance away. Travel along Route 614 and then follow the signs for the Jamestown Plantation. The road heads in the direction of Powhatan Creek, where Cornwallis tried to trick the American troops.
The scene of battle is adjacent to several roadside markers that overlook an open field. The trees beyond the field mark the swamp where the British hid while waiting for Wayne. Cornwallis planned to embark where the Jamestown restoration now is located.
[Images: Mike Virgintino]