- 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
Meanwhile, deep in the North Carolina wilderness, one of the decisive battles of the war had been fought. Greene won the race for safety, crossing the Dan River into Virginia with Cornwallis’ breath hot on the back of his neck. Having lost the quarry and outrun his supplies, the latter fell back toward Hillsboro, North Carolina. Greene promptly recrossed the Dan and became, in turn, the pursuer.
In mid-March Cornwallis turned and attacked Greene at Guilford Courthouse, a country crossroad just north of present day Greensboro. He won a tactical victory but took heavy casualties, which virtually wrecked his army. Three days after the battle he began a two hundred-mile retreat to Wilmington on the coast. Greene let him go. In the opinion of many military analysts, the British won a battle at Guilford but lost the war. Thereafter it was all downhill for Cornwallis.
While restoring his muscle at Wilmington, Cornwallis indulged in some deep thought. His Carolina experience convinced him that a Southern campaign must be won in Virginia, but he couldn’t sell Clinton, who wanted him to secure Georgia and the Carolinas. On April 25 Cornwallis took the bit in his teeth. In violation of orders and without prior notice to Clinton, he set out for Virginia, a march of two hundred and twenty miles. Clinton was appalled. Instead of ordering his ambitious subordinate back to the Carolinas, however, he made the best of what he considered a poor situation. He even sent reinforcements.
Earlier a contingent of two thousand men had reached Virginia, and Major General William Phillips replaced Arnold in command. When Cornwallis arrived at Petersburg on May 20, however, he found that Phillips had died of typhoid fever seven days before. Phillips, who had been captured with Burgoyne at Saratoga and exchanged, was one of Britain’s best artillerymen. His loss would be felt keenly later.
The arrival of two more British regiments and two battalions of Germans raised Cornwallis’ strength to seventy-two hundred, with a corresponding leap in his confidence. “The boy cannot escape me,” he gloated as he took after Lafayette.
The boy was well aware of his predicament. He had already complained to Washington that he was “not strong enough even to get beaten.” Lafayette withdrew to Fredericksburg over ground that the great-grandsons of his men, both North and South, would know with bitter intimacy eighty years later. His immediate concern was to avoid Cornwallis’ clutches pending reinforcement by Anthony Wayne.
“Mad Anthony” left York, Pennsylvania, on May 26 with three regiments of the reorganized Pennsylvania Line and a six-gun artillery battery. The Pennsylvanians were still surly, but Wayne, who held an even lower opinion of mutiny than Lafayette, squelched them with ruthless efficiency. After shooting a couple of ringleaders, he locked all the ammunition in his supply wagons and pointed the cowed troops south with empty muskets. By the time they reached Virginia, he had marched the mutinous spirit out of them.
Three days after Wayne’s arrival General William Campbell checked in with six hundred riflemen, and a week after that Steuben arrived with four hundred and fifty newly trained Continentals. His presence raised a potentially sticky question of command. Lafayette, the senior, was young and inexperienced; Steuben, twice his age, was a battle wise professional. The difficulty evaporated when Steuben came down with a convenient case of gout and took sick leave.
Now facing an American force of two thousand regulars, thirty-two hundred militia, and six hundred rifles, Cornwallis got another jolt when the jittery Clinton ordered him to return three thousand men to New York. Accordingly, he pulled back to Williamsburg. Lafayette followed cautiously.
Raiding columns under Lieutenant Colonels Banastre Tarleton and John Simcoe, meanwhile, were raising hell west of Richmond. While flushing the Virginia legislature out of its temporary refuge at Charlottesville, “Bloody Ban” narrowly missed collaring Governor Thomas Jefferson. Warned with only minutes to spare, the author of the Declaration of Independence hightailed it down one side of Monticello’s mountain while Tarleton’s dragoons were pounding up the other.
Falling back to Portsmouth after laying a trap for Lafayette at Green Spring that the marquis almost blundered into, Cornwallis found himself bombarded with a series of on-again-off-again orders from Clinton before being told to keep everything and establish a naval base in Virginia. The exasperated earl chose Yorktown. He landed there in early August and at his leisure began to fortify the place with the aid of some two thousand runaway slaves, among them some from Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Although not easily defended against a land attack, Yorktown was a good choice for an advance naval station, its deep anchorage big enough to accommodate a large fleet. Cornwallis knew its weakness but, having been promised more troops, was confident he could hold it as long as the navy controlled Chesapeake Bay. If the place got too hot, he could always escape by sea.