- Historic Sites
Triumph At Yorktown
Two hundred years ago everything depended on a French fleet leaving the Indies on time; two American armies meeting in Virginia on time; a French fleet beating a British fleet; a French army getting along with an American one; and a British general staying put.
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
Minutes later the sally-port gate of the Horn Work swung open and a mounted group led by a handsome officer resplendent in the dress uniform of a general of the Coldstream Guards emerged. It wasn’t Lord Cornwallis. The earl, unable to face the humiliation of it all, was too “ill” to appear and had sent Brigadier General O’Hara as his deputy. Ignoring the American party, O’Hara rode up to Rochambeau to surrender Cornwallis’ sword. The French commander stonily pointed across the road to the American commander in chief. As O’Hara, muttering an apology for his “mistake” and an explanation of Cornwallis’ nonappearance, offered the sword to Washington, the general waved him aside to General Lincoln. The latter reached out, touched the hilt, and told O’Hara to keep it.
The story is still often told that Washington’s gesture was in revenge for Lincoln’s humiliation at Charleston. Not so. If Cornwallis had sent a deputy, he would have to deal with his deputy, who happened to be Lincoln—although both American generals undoubtedly took great satisfaction from the coincidence.
Behind General O’Hara the defeated army began its passage “under the yoke” between the silent allied ranks. The blue-and-green-clad Germans came first, stepping out smartly to the Surrender Field, which was ringed by Lauzun’s mounted hussars, jaunty in light blue uniforms and fur-trimmed pelisses. There they stacked arms briskly and made way for the British. They had served faithfully and well, but it wasn’t their war, and they were happy to escape with whole skins from a fight in which they had no stake.
With the British it was different. Proud, combat-tested regiments, the 17th Leicestershires, 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, 33rd West Ridings, 43rd Oxfordshires, 71st Fraser Highlanders, 76th Highlanders, and 80th Royal Edinburgh Volunteers had repeatedly faced and driven these same Continentals from the field, albeit with increasing difficulty. The Fusiliers had covered the retreat from Lexington, stormed the Bunker Hill ramparts with the 17th, and had charged at Long Island, Brandywine, Germantown, Camden, Guilford Courthouse—and it had all come to this!
On they came, slowly and reluctantly, to the lugubrious beat of a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.” Although most of them wore new uniforms, their demeanor didn’t match their haberdashery. Alignments were sloppy, they didn’t bother to keep in step, and many were unsteady on their feet after a final go at the rum kegs before their enemies got there. Some faces were stained with tears, all wore defiant scowls. Englishmen, as their enemies from William the Conqueror to Adolf Hitler have discovered, do not surrender graciously. At the Surrender Field they flung their muskets on the growing piles, disgustedly ripped off cartridge belts, and sullenly returned to Yorktown.
Washington didn’t linger for the entire ceremony. Returning to headquarters, he wrote a laconic dispatch to the Continental Congress announcing the triumph. Before dark, Colonel Tilghman was on his way to Philadelphia.
While the victorious allies, with the reluctant help of their prisoners, tidied up the battlefield, the British fleet drew nearer. A couple of days out, news of the surrender reached Clinton and Graves and they turned back. Everybody sensed that the long, bloody ordeal was drawing to a close.
Five years earlier thirteen mutually suspicious but angry colonies had proclaimed their independence. At Yorktown, with the help of France, they made it stick. The war dragged on for two more years, but with the surrender of Cornwallis American independence was assured.