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“We was amazingly fortunate”
—OR—Through the American Revolution with Pluck & Cheek
October 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 6
The anchored French ships made an inviting target for a fire-ship raid. James and two fellow lieutenants promptly volunteered for this dangerous duty. With them came a Mr. Campbell, a lieutenant aboard a Loyalist privateer. James wanted them all to be placed under the command of Captain Palmer of the Vulcan, an established fire ship. But the British commodore decided to let each man operate independently. James describes the British effort, which came on the night of September 22.
“The wind being between the north and west on this evening, it was judged practicable to attack the advanced ships of the enemy and, having assembled on board our vessels, we cut our cables at midnight and ran down the river. At two o’clock we came within sight of the enemy, and were advancing with every probability of success, when from some cause, unaccountable as strange, Mr. Campbell, of the privateer, set fire to his vessel. This proved as unfortunate as dangerous, for the enemy, who was before keeping no lookout, cut their cables, beat to quarters, and having fired twenty or thirty shot at us, retreated in a precipitate and confused manner. Mr. Conway at this time set fire to his vessel, and soon after Mr. Symonds to his; when, seeing the French launches rowing towards us, and no probability of grappling the enemy and running a risk of my retreat being cut off, in which case no quarter is gave, I set fire to my vessel with no other view than to prevent her falling into the hands of the enemy. However, bad as this sad business ended, we ran two ships of the line on shore, and, if pursued with any enterprising people, in that situation [they] might, in my opinion, have been destroyed at last. We arrived at our tents about six in the morning with the loss only of one man wounded who was blown up in setting fire to the vessel, and not much satisfied with the expedition, from which we at first promised ourselves honour and promotion.”
On September 25 James and eight other naval officers took command of the Yorktown batteries and exercised the guns to the satisfaction of Lord Cornwallis. On September 28, Washington and Rochambeau appeared before Yorktown, and James was among the first to open fire on them with his guns. A week of cannonading followed while the Americans and French labored on their siege trenches. On the fourth of October, James notes in his journal his first sign of alarm: “We kept up as heavy a fire on them as our want of ammunition would allow.”
On October 9 the French and American batteries began to return the British fire. James and his naval friends, used to fighting their battles with cannon, soon realized they were in for a pasting. Their guns were simply no match for the allies’ heavier weapons, and their dwindling ammunition rendered them even more impotent.
On the tenth, James had to sit and watch while French gunners set his ship, the Charon, on fire with hot shot. “From our being quartered at the guns in front of the army, that timely assistance could not be given her which was necessary to extinguish the fire, and she broke adrift from her moorings and drove on board a transport to which she also set fire, and they both grounded on the Gloucester side where they burnt to the water’s edge. The loss of our things in the Charon are so very trivial when compared to the more distressing scenes of the garrison that I shall say no more on this head than that we saw with infinite concern one of the finest ships in the navy of her rate totally destroyed on this day.”
That same evening the first lieutenant of the Charon was forced to quit his battery, “the shot and shell having dismounted his guns and tore up his platforms.” It was an experience that would soon be repeated all along the British line. By October 11, James was writing, “I now want words to express the dreadful situation of the garrison. Upwards of a thousand shells was thrown into the works on this night, and every spot became alike dangerous. The noise and thundering of the cannon, the distressing cries of the wounded, and the lamentable sufferings of the inhabitants, whose dwellings were chiefly in flames, added to the restless fatigues of the duty, must inevitably fill every mind with pity and compassion.”
On October 12, the seamen from the transports simply refused to man their batteries in the “hornwork,” as the British called the projecting angle in the center of their lines. It was the most exposed position in Yorktown, open to devastating fire from both right and left. Lieutenant James immediately volunteered to replace them, and with Cornwallis’ warm approval led a midshipman and thirty-four seamen to the fray.