Unbearable Heat and "Billions" of Insects: The Guards in Tidewater Virginia

As part ten in our series on the Brigade of Guards' 1781 "Road to Yorktown", this article continues the narrative of their 1781 campaign with the Guards' actions following their arrival in Petersburg in late May of that year. As in previous entries, it is adapted heavily from research by Linnea M. Bass and William M. Burke available on the 4th Company's website.

While awaiting further orders from Lieutenant-General Henry Clinton in New York, Lord Cornwallis departed Petersburg on May 24 and headed north to Richmond to dislodge Continental troops that had come south under the Marquis de Lafayette, and to destroy rebel gunpowder magazines and other stores. The British commander ultimately marched as far north as Bowling Green (25 miles south of Fredericksburg), and sent Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his British Legion as far west as Charlottesville where the Virginia Assembly was meeting (Tarleton would nearly capture Governor Thomas Jefferson).

By June 16, Cornwallis was back in Richmond (after a brief sojourn occupying Jefferson's plantation at Elk Hill northwest of Richmond) and nine days later his army entered Williamsburg, Virginia's former colonial capital. There, he received his orders from Clinton to embark part of his forces for their return to New York (Cornwallis chose to do this at Portsmouth, a city across the James River to the south). Clinton was fearing/anticipating a climactic battle with Washington and the French in the North, and was essentially dismissing Cornwallis' plan of attack in Virginia.

The re-created 4th Company encamped on the Virginia Peninsula in July (2019).

Officers, enlisted men, and camp followers of the 4th Company re-enact Cornwallis' arrival on the Peninsula.

While the army was encamped in Williamsburg, a draft of Guards arrived, bringing with it an additional 153 privates and 10 officers. And what a shock to their constitution it must have been, as Hessian Captain Johann Ewald noted in his memoirs:
For six weeks the heat has been so unbearable that many men have been lost by sunstroke or their reason has been impaired. Everything that one has on his body is soaked as with water from the constant perspiration. The nights are especially terrible, when there is so little air that one can scarcely breathe. The torment of several billions of insect, which plagued us day and night, appears to be over now for certain. (Ewald, p. 314)
The main force of the army departed on July 4 (of all days, American Independence Day) and arrived in Jamestown to prepare their crossing southward. But not before one last engagement on this side of the river. Attempting to draw approaching Continental forces into a trap, Cornwallis tricked the Americans into believing that only his rearguard remained in Jamestown. When forces under General Anthony Wayne attacked, they were met by two full lines of the British Army at Green Spring. In the end, the American suffered nearly twice as many casualties, but Cornwallis chose not to pursue the retreating Continentals due to the lateness of the hour.

A French map depicting the Battle of Green Spring, published in 1781.

He instead proceeded to cross the James, and arrived in Suffolk by July 14.


Cecere, Michael (2017), The Invasion of Virginia (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing)

Ewald, Captain Johann (1979), Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven, CT: Yale-LJ Diversity Press)