With Cornwallis At Yorktown

PrintPrintEmailEmailWhile the French fleet was preventing the evacuation of Cornwallis by sea, French and American troops laid siege to his land positions. Some idea of the rigors of that siege has come down to us in the diary of a German corporal named Stephan Popp. The document, recently found in the library of the Historical Society in Bayreuth, Germany, Stephan’s native town, has been translated by the Reverend Reinhart J. Pope of Racine, Wisconsin, the corporal’s great-great-great grandson, and edited by Merle Sinclair of Milwaukee. In this excerpt, we join the good soldier Popp on July 31, when he and his fellow mercenaries arrived to aid in the defense of Yorktown.

—The Editors

 

We were put ashore and at once camped beyond the city. Lord Cornwallis was already here with the greatest portion of his troops … Fortification began in Gloucester, also in Yorktown, for no one could know what we would experience here....

August 26. A French war fleet appeared out on the sea which was said to come from the West Indies with many transport ships and troops. Therefore the fortifying went on strongly day and night, and we hardly had time for eating. Often we had to eat [raw] meat.

August 31. The French ships now showed clearly before the harbor. They drew up in a line on the sea, occupied the straits, and placed troops ashore at Hampton. Many transport ships were said to be standing in the James River....By land a great number of rebels and French approached from Williamsburg. Therefore we had to look forward to an attack by the foe daily by land and by sea....

September 4. Today we changed our camp, because, if the enemy should sail into the harbor, they might do much damage … with their heavy guns....

September 19. We saw the enemy was transporting many troops across from Baltimore on sloops. Many houses of the city were broken down and taken away, because a strong line was being made there …

September 29. This morning the first one of our regiment was shot and wounded. Also many of the English and Hessians were shot and wounded at the outposts by the riflemen. At night about 1:00 all the regiments in the line moved back to the city, all in silence, because the enemy always came nearer …

September 30. The enemy at times tried an attempt upon our left bank, charged three times upon our redoubt, but was driven back into the woods … This month we had hard work and poor provisions.

October 1. The enemy began to fortify heavily to really block us up. They threw no shots against us, because they had no cannon yet. But we fired steadily upon them and destroyed much of their labor again. We … had no rest day or night....

October 2. The enemy still did not give fire, in spite of the fact that we bombarded them all the time, night and day, without cease. But they continued to fortify strongly and took care of themselves, made all their works with fascines and sand baskets, as is the custom with the French. They built batteries and trenches, one upon the other. Some deserters came over from them who said they were planning to advance on us and that General Washington had come across from Jersey at Baltimore with eight to ten thousand regular troops and militia and had effected a union with General Green. The French under the command of General Comte de Rochambeau, Marquis de la Fayette, and Prince von Saarbrücken were said to be fifteen thousand strong …

October 9. In the afternoon about 3:00 the foe began to fire upon our right flank … At night around taps the enemy began to bombard our left flank....Early in the morning we had to pitch our tents in the trenches of the line, because of the heavy cannonading by the enemy....The inhabitants of the city fled with their belongings to the river and hid themselves on the hillside in sand and rocks. Still they did not entirely escape, for many of them were fatally injured through the ricocheting of the bombs …

The ships in the harbor also suffered much from the bombs and shells … [Our soldiers] began to desert in large numbers, and left the commands, watches and posts. Why? Out of fear! The Hessian regiment from Bosche, which stood in the second line, a little behind us, had … many dead and wounded daily. We in our two regiments did also. The light infantry which stood in the horn works had the most dangerous spot and lost the most men. All the marines and sailors from the ships were divided up in the trenches and batteries … to help with the work.

October 14. At night between 7:00 and 8:00 the enemy attacked our left flank. A little before this they had stormed our right, where they were unsuccessful. They had to draw back with great losses. Then it began on our left. The enemy crept unnoticed close to the barricade of the trench. The French grenadiers made the attack … and gained the wall after a stubborn counterattack without firing a shot. There they captured the command of some hundred men. A part of them saved themselves by flight. Some were even shot by us with grapeshot, mostly English and Hessians. A Hessian was found in three pieces. Some who would not give up were stabbed to death. The enemy was also supposed to have lost many dead and wounded at this attack. They occupied the fort at once and made themselves stronger and stuck out their flag. They made a dreadful cry and hurrah at doing this. In this commotion many deserted. They were said to be over three to four thousand …