In the summer of 1781, General Lord Cornwallis and his 6,000 British regulars began to move from Richmond east towards Williamsburg. Tasked with the effort of quelling Virginia’s revolutionary resistance, Cornwallis put chase to the Continental Army of about 3,000 soldiers and militiamen under the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette was able to evade Cornwallis’ forces for about a month, until General Anthony Wayne reinforced his Continental Army. These reinforcements bolstered Lafayette’s Army to 4,000 men, and gave him the confidence to strike out against Cornwallis’ frequent raids against colonial assets.
On June 25th, Lafayette received word that Cornwallis had sent a detachment of Queen’s Rangers under Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe to forage for food and destroy colonial vessels along the Chickahominy River. Intending to intercept Simcoe’s forces, Lafayette and Wayne ordered American Colonel Richard Butler to confront Simcoe with a mixed group of Pennsylvania cavalry and infantrymen under Captain William McPherson, and two companies of Virginia riflemen led by Majors Richard Call and John Willis. The next day on the 26th, around 100 colonial infantry and cavalrymen encountered Simcoe’s vanguard near Spencer’s Ordinary. The first action occurred when Captain McPherson and his cavalry were charged by Simcoe’s own mounted troops. In this initial action McPherson fell from his horse, and several of his men were taken prisoner. After this small melee, Colonel Butler’s main force began to arrive just as Simcoe’s infantry was advancing to support his cavalry. Simcoe learned from the prisoners that Lafayette’s main force was near by, and he ordered that this information be relayed to Cornwallis in Williamsburg. Simcoe also had his men construct tree barricades near Spencer’s Ordinary to provide a defensive position against any attack. The British Lieutenant Colonel then formed his men into a manipulative formation meant to cause Butler to assume he possessed a large amount of soldiers. This ploy initially was successful, and Simcoe ordered an infantry charge against Butler’s lines to again give off the impression that his force was much larger than it actually was. Butler’s men were able to withstand this charge, and Simcoe then ordered a cavalry charge and discharged a cannon against the Colonial forces. After this skirmish and stalemate both detachments retreated, for fear of engaging the main body of either opposing force.
The aftermath of this foray resulted in 9 killed, 14 wounded, and 32 captured Colonials, and 11 killed and 25 wounded British soldiers. Simcoe was forced to leave his wounded men under a flag of truce in Spencer’s Ordinary. Both army detachments retreated to their respective camps, and would meet again at the Battle of Green Spring on July 6th later that summer.
Fryer, Mary Beacock, and Christopher Dracott. John Graves Simcoe, 1752-1806: a Biography. Dundurn Press Ltd., 1998.
Johnston, Henry Phelps. The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis, 1781. Harper & Brothers, 1881.
Lossing, Benson John. The Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution: Or, Illustrations, by Pen and Pencil, of the History, Biography, Scenery, Relics, and Traditions of the War for Independence. Harper & brothers, 1860.
Lytle, Richard M. The Soldiers of America’s First Army, 1791. Scarecrow Press, 2004.
Historical Marker “Spencer’s Ordinary W-35,” courtesy of Lindsey Smith, 2012.
“General Cornwallis,” The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, www.history.org (accessed May 2, 2012).
“Queen’s Rangers Seal,” Historical Narratives of Early Canada, www.uppercanadahistory.ca (accessed May 2, 2012).
“John Graves Simcoe,” Historical Narratives of Early Canada, www.uppercanadahistory.ca (accessed May 2, 2012).