“We was amazingly fortunate”


The next eight hours were the most harrowing in James’ life. “In fifty-two minutes after my arrival in the hornwork the enemy silenced the three left guns by closing the embrasures, shortly after which they dismounted a twelve-pounder, knocked off the muzzles of two eighteens, and for the last hour and a half left me with one eighteen-pounder with a part of its muzzle also shot away, with which I kept up a fire until it was also rendered useless.” Every man in his party was killed or wounded except James, and “most of the wounded lost an arm or leg and some both.” As the first lieutenant of the Charon relieved him at six o’clock that night, even James’ luck ran out. A shell burst between them, and gave him “a contusion” of the face and leg. “In short,” declared James, “myself and the midshipman, both wounded, were the only two that returned out of thirty-six, having stood a close cannonade with the enemy for eight hours, who had ninety-seven pieces of heavy cannon playing on us all that time. I quitted the works about a quarter after six, having received the thanks of Lord Cornwallis, who was in the redoubt during the greatest part of the time.”

For the next few days, James manned other batteries on the Yorktown ramparts, but it was clear to him that the British cause was sinking fast. On the night of the sixteenth, James and his fellow sailors stood by their guns, maintaining what fire they could, while Cornwallis ferried the elite of his army across the York River to Gloucester in a last desperate attempt to break out of the trap. A violent midnight storm ruined the operation, and the next day Cornwallis asked for terms.

The surrender was only mildly mortifying for James, since Yorktown was an Army failure. Moreover, his American friends, notably the indefatigable Jones family, rushed to his aid with food and money the moment Cornwallis’ men laid down their arms. Mr. Jones, perhaps with an eye toward marrying off one of his daughters, even declared that if Lieutenant James was to be imprisoned in America, he would ask General Washington to parole him to his house. But under the terms of the surrender, naval officers were permitted to return to Europe, and Lieutenant James sailed out of American history on December 9, 1781.

His adventures were by no means over, however. When war broke out with republican France, James took to the sea once more, and survived another series of narrow escapes and even livelier escapades. His remarkable good luck was climaxed by a cruise as captain of the raider Corso , on which he amassed some £25,000 prize money. After the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, he built himself a handsome house near the seaport of Falmouth in southwestern England, where he settled down contentedly with his wife and two daughters. He held a desk job at Falmouth throughout the Napoleonic Wars and became a rear admiral on the retired list two years before his death in 1828 at the age of seventy-six.

Afloat or ashore, in peril of his life or enjoying himself with an “amiable fair,” Bartholomew James never lost his genial good humor. Summing up his “hazardous battles and skirmishes” in America, he declared himself “fortunate in all cases but that of promotion.” It is hard to think of such a likable young man as an enemy.