The Revolutionary War’s Yorktown Campaign forced the surrender of the British army and effectively ended the years-long conflict. Few events in American history compare in importance with Lord Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.
But it is not often recalled that the Continental Army’s offensive thrust, helping to seal this conclusive American victory, boasted its prelude here in Culpeper County 240 years ago this week.
By early 1781, an exasperated George Washington wished to conclusively deal with the raiding, marauding and pillaging of British Redcoats by forcing them into a position where they could be defeated, once and for all. And fortunately for Gen. Washington—and for the future of our country—he commanded military forces that were manifestly up to this task.
In March 1780, France had sent the Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic Ocean to tell Washington that it would soon send a nation-saving infusion of arms, ships and men. Ultimately, Lafayette helped secure more than 5,000 French soldiers for the American cause; they would prove invaluable in the Siege of Yorktown.
In 1781, Washington ordered Lafayette to link up his 1,200 New England and New Jersey troops with Gen. Anthony Wayne’s 800 Pennsylvania soldiers. With the marquis in overall command, the generals’ forces would unite in Central Virginia and proceed south toward Albemarle County to intercept British troops headed for Charlottesville to seize military supplies there.
Camped near Ellwood plantation in eastern Orange County, the marquis knew that before he could advance toward the enemy, he must wait for Wayne’s Brigade to arrive from Maryland. So on June 4, 1781, Lafayette crossed into Culpeper County at Ely’s Ford, where he forcefully wrote Wayne, “I ardently wish for a junction.”
Proceeding west on what is now State Route 610, Ely’s Ford Road, Lafayette’s troops arrived at the Great Fork Church (1732) and camped for two days. The site of the church, oldest in Culpeper County, is at today’s Madden Farm, and is identified today by a small cemetery. (The structure did not survive the Civil War.)
On June 6, Lafayette’s command proceeded west on Madden’s Tavern Road (Route 610) toward Stevensburg. Arriving in Stevensburg, the marquis headed south on the Old Carolina Road (Route 661), and then west on Algonquin Trail (Route 647).
Here, a brief but significant historical digression is in order.
The Rapidan River’s original Raccoon Ford is situated a mile upriver from today’s Raccoon Ford, and the ancient turnoff from Algonquin Road toward the Rapidan is today a quiet farm lane. The first Raccoon Ford was mostly abandoned before the Civil War.
The original ford road today in Culpeper, immediately south of the Rapidan, remains highly discernible and proceeds southward just east of the ruins of The Retreat, the famous Stringfellow family property. The Stringfellow Cemetery (abandoned) is east of the ruins, situated along the original Raccoon Ford Road.
As Lafayette’s Raccoon Ford Road crosses into Orange County, it ascends through a gentle ravine up toward Route 611 (Raccoon Ford Road), crosses that road, then climbs today’s Mount Airy Road. From there, it heads to Rhoadesville and other points, south.
On June 6, Lafayette arrived at Old Raccoon Ford and rested his command for two days. On June 7, Lafayette impatiently wrote to Wayne, “The movements of the enemy renders it of the Highest importance that we may soon come near to them.” On June 8, Lafayette marched to Rhoadesville and camped there the night of June 8.
Wayne’s Brigade crossed the Rappahannock River at Norman’s Ford, then utilizing the Old Carolina Road through Stevensburg, traversed the Rapidan at Raccoon Ford, where it finally caught up with Lafayette on June 10.
After being joined by Wayne’s Brigade, Lafayette’s reinforced command took off after Lord Cornwallis in a forced march. From that point onward, Lafayette disrupted and harassed British foraging plans. Aware that Lafayette and Wayne had linked up, Cornwallis withdrew to the east.
The British army later entered the trenches at Yorktown on the lower James River. And in October 1781, after a decisive siege, the army of Gen. Charles Earl Cornwallis surrendered—an American victory secured, in no small measure, via the enormous contributions of Lafayette.
Grateful to the Marquis de Lafayette for his considerable military service in support of their liberty, the citizens of Culpeper County were deeply honored in 1825 to greet the marquis and President James Monroe at Greenwood on Orange Road during Lafayette’s celebrated tour as “guest of the nation.” Culpeper’s Green family served a fine lunch, with iced toddy, to the marquis and Monroe.
In return, Gen. Lafayette issued a “cordial and affectionate shake by the hand” to every person who desired to meet him.
Civil War historian Clark B. Hall, a Star-Exponent columnist, lives in Culpeper County. Write him at email@example.com.