Low on supplies after his pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Guilford Court House, British General Charles Lord Cornwallis left North Carolina and proceeded north into Virginia, meeting an army under the command of Benedict Arnold outside of Petersburg. The combined British force then moved east towards the Virginia Peninsula, intent on reaching Portsmouth and gaining access to supplies and reinforcements from the main British army in New York.
During this movement, Cornwallis was shadowed by an American force of around 4,000 men under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette. Informed that Lafayette was closing in, Cornwallis prepared a defensive position near the Green Spring Plantation, hoping to ambush the smaller Continental force and eliminate a potential threat.
On the morning of July 6th, 1781, Lafayette accompanied his advance guard under the command of General Anthony Wayne. Upon reaching Green Spring, the Americans began skirmishing with pickets under the command of Banastre Tarleton. Lafayette, believing that he had caught the rearguard of the British army, called for the rest of his force to join the battle.
As Wayne formed up, Lafayette examined the field. Riding forward, he noted a large group of men in red coats formed in lines. Realizing that Cornwallis had set a trap, Lafayette galloped back to the advance guard under Wayne, but it was too late.
Advancing with several regiments, Wayne marched right into a veteran British brigade commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas. Dundas’s Brigade smashed through the American right flank with a decisive bayonet charge while the American left was hard-pressed by British light infantry.
Lafayette gave the order for the entire American force to withdraw. Wayne’s men formed a rearguard. For fifteen minutes the two sides blazed away at each other. Eventually, Wayne decided that the carnage was too great for his men and ordered a retreat. The Americans fell back to Richmond in order to regroup and re-supply. Lafayette asked for Washington to send further reinforcement from the main army to replace his losses. Meanwhile, Cornwallis received new orders to set up a permanent supply base at Yorktown.