The Battle of Spencer's Ordinary

The Battle of Spencer's Ordinary, Virginia, was fought on June 26, 1781, between Continental troops and local militia from the army of the Marquis de la Fayette and Loyalist and Hessian troops under British Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe. On June 23, British commander Charles Cornwallis ordered Simcoe to take his Queen's Rangers and a detachment of Hessian troops to destroy boats and supplies on the Chickahominy River. Upon learning of the move on June 25, la Fayette directed Colonel Richard Butler with a regiment of Pennsylvanians, a detail of Virginia riflemen, and 120 cavalrymen and light infantry under Major William McPherson to intercept Simcoe on his way back to Williamsburg. After marching all night, the patriot troops caught up with Simcoe near Spencer's Ordinary, at the fork of the Jamestown and Williamsburg roads, about six miles northwest of Williamsburg. As la Fayette explained, McPherson's light infantry made an immediate charge on Simcoe's Rangers, who repulsed the Americans and counter-attacked. By then, however, the Virginia riflemen arrived on the field and "behaved most gallantly and did great execution." The result was a "smart" back and forth engagement. Simcoe broke off the fight to fall back to Williamsburg when he became concerned that la Fayette's main body was on the way. At the same time, Butler, hearing that Cornwallis would soon arrive with heavy reinforcements, was also anxious to end the battle and therefore did not pursue the enemy.

la Fayette wrote that "Lord Cornwallis was heard to express himself vehemently upon the disproportion between his and our killed, which must be attributed to the great skill of our rifle-men" — an assessment that was true enough, although the casualty totals varied widely between la Fayette's account and that of Cornwallis. La Fayette reported that his troops killed 60 and wounded more than 100 of Simcoe's men, while Cornwallis admitted to 33 killed and wounded. Nevertheless, la Fayette's losses — 9 killed and 12 wounded — were still minor in comparison. The body of one of Simcoe's lost Loyalist officers — 20-year-old Cornet Charles Jones of Weston, Massachusetts, who had been a Harvard student when the war began — was returned to Williamsburg and buried in the city with full military honors.

In an important sense, the battle represented the beginning of the end of the American Revolution. Lafayette informed Virginia Governor Thomas Nelson, Jr., that "Your return to Richmond and this little affair will particularly mark his Lordship's retreat and the recovery of every part of the state not under naval protection." All that was left to Cornwallis was the protection of the British navy, which the Comte de Grasse's fleet eliminated with his defeat of the British fleet at the Battle of the Capes just over a month later, which set the stage for the decisive campaign at Yorktown.

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