- 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
The overcautious Graves let his chance get away. In the battle that followed, only a dozen of his ships got into action, and no more than eight of them took a significant part against fifteen French. If the battle had a hero, it was Commodore Louis Antoine de Bougainville, commanding the French van. Bougainville, who had already given his name to an exotic flowering shrub and a tropical Pacific island destined for sinister fame among a later generation of Americans, inflicted most of the damage. The affair wasn’t conducted very brilliantly on either side, but it sufficed.
For three days the fleets jockeyed within sight of each other, moving farther away from the bay. Finally, at nightfall on the ninth, de Grasse turned back. Arriving the next morning, he found that Barras had slipped in while the battle was going on. Now faced with thirty-six ships of the line, double his own strength, Graves withdrew to New York. As one naval historian later put it: “He had lost no engagement, no ships. … He had merely lost America.”
While the army was closing up around Williamsburg, Washington, Rochambeau, and their staffs visited de Grasse aboard his flagship, the 104-gun Ville de Paris , then the mightiest warship in the world. As Washington reached the deck, he was engulfed in a bear hug by the effusive Frenchman. Hearing their tall leader greeted as “My dear little general!” put a strain on the dignity of his staff, but all managed to keep a straight face except Henry Knox. The portly chief of artillery let out a loud guffaw.
More likely to bring a smile to Washington’s stern features was a commitment by de Grasse to stay to the end of October. The admiral refused to bring his big ships close enough to participate in the bombardment of Yorktown but he offered several hundred marines to help out. The fleet took no further part in the actual investment, but its presence assured there’d be no escape for Cornwallis by sea.
On September 28 the reassembled army left Williamsburg for Yorktown, eleven miles away. It was organized in two “wings” (the term “army corps” hadn’t yet been invented). In the absence of exact figures, overall strength has been variously estimated from sixteen to twenty thousand, with the Americans, including militia, slightly outnumbering the French. It may have had as many as one hundred twenty artillery pieces—Barras brought eighty from Newport—of which about one hundred eventually went into action. Most were 18- and 24-pounder guns, plus howitzers and siege mortars.
The American wing had three divisions, each made up of two brigades, commanded by Lafayette, von Steuben, and Major General Benjamin Lincoln, who was also Washington’s deputy. Two brigades of Virginia militia were held in reserve under Governor Nelson, while General Weedon’s brigade was sent across the York River to block any escape via Gloucester Point.
Rochambeau led the French wing of two divisions. One was made up of the four regiments that had marched from Rhode Island, the other of the three regiments brought by St. Simon from the West Indies. St. Simon, felled by malaria but determined to be on hand, rode at the head of his column in a litter. With no need for mounted troops in a trench battle, Lauzun’s Legion followed Weedon to the other side of the river.
The march encountered no resistance. By late afternoon Yorktown was loosely encircled just out of artillery range. To prevent a surprise attack, Washington ordered everyone to “lay on their arms” for the night.
For Cornwallis, outnumbered at least two to one, Yorktown was not a strong place to stand. The foreground was clear and flat, with no dominating features. In the American sector facing the British left, a wooded stream bed called Wormley’s Creek offered a covered approach to within easy range of his main line. The earl later insisted he would never have considered holding out had he not been promised relief.
His principal defensive position consisted of a continuous line of trenches, batteries, and redoubts about three hundred yards from the river encircling the village in an arc some one thousand yards long. The right flank was covered by a star-shaped fort called the Fusilier Redoubt because it was garrisoned by one of Cornwallis’ best regiments, the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Behind the redoubt a steep, heavily wooded and swampy ravine constituted a major obstacle to a direct assault. Two more advanced redoubts, Numbers Nine and Ten—the latter also known as the Rock Redoubt—guarded the left. In the center, facing an open area known as the Pigeon Quarter, a strongly manned salient, the Horn Work, discouraged frontal attack. Three outposts were placed farther forward in the open.
To deny Gloucester Point to an attacker as well as providing a jump-off for a possible breakout, Cornwallis built another line there. Eventually this position was occupied by twelve hundred men, including Tarleton’s British Legion and Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers.