- 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
Sixty-five artillery pieces were formed into fourteen batteries, four of which were sited on the beach below the bluff to fend off amphibious attacks. Most, however, were light field guns, the only heavies being short-range naval 18-pounders from the frigate H.M.S. Charon . A smaller frigate, Guadeloupe , was anchored near the Fusilier Redoubt. Rations were in fairly good supply but artillery ammunition was worrisome.
The army of approximately eight thousand men was a mixture of British and German regulars. Seven British infantry regiments plus a “brigade of guards” and one of light infantry constituted the backbone, bolstered by two battalions (regiments) of Anspachers and two Hessian Regiments, one of the latter commanded by a major with the stout but un-Teutonic name of O’Reilly. The “guards” weren’t royal household troops but a composite of the grenadier companies of the line regiments, so designated because they were led by an officer of the Coldstreams, Brigader General Charles O’Hara. The light brigade consisted of the light companies of the same regiments.
While Washington spent the twenty-ninth, a Saturday, in a thorough survey of the British position preparatory to attacking the outposts, siege artillery and stores began moving from Trebell’s Landing on the James River, a mile and a half above Carter’s Grove Plantation (now part of Colonial Williamsburg). The going was glacial, however, in the absence of the artillery teams, still en route overland from Head of Elk. Some horses and oxen were rounded up, including Washington’s personal baggage teams, but the unwieldy guns had to be manhandled six miles over soft, sandy roads.
That same day Cornwallis heard from Clinton that a relief force would leave New York on October 5. Confident he could hold out that long, the earl abandoned his outposts, which were promptly occupied by the allies. He was later criticized for giving them up without a fight, but with the information and strength he had, he was probably right.
The only fighting took place on the left, where St. Simon launched a probing attack against the Fusilier Redoubt. It was beaten off, but the French established a trench line and batteries close enough to reach the anchorage behind the bluff as well as into the town itself. For the next week the front was quiet as both sides dug in. The British kept up a steady but ineffective longrange fire to which the Americans made no reply. One of the batteries had a bulldog mascot which, whenever a gun was fired, took off across no man’s land in pursuit of the shell. The Americans wanted to catch and send him back with an insulting message tied to his tail, but he looked so mean that nobody would volunteer to be dogcatcher.
Having decided to take Yorktown by siege rather than by a quicker but more costly frontal assault, the allies exchanged muskets for axes, picks, and shovels. Thousands of men cut saplings from which they made and stockpiled gabions (bottomless wicker baskets to be filled with earth to strengthen gun emplacements) and big bundles of sticks called “fascines.” Others set up and filled supply and ammunition dumps and aid stations.
Since the ravine and open ground ruled out the left and center, respectively, the main approach was to be made in the right, or American, sector. The siege was to be conducted with all the formalities of European practice, although, except for Steuben, none of the Americans had ever even seen one. Rochambeau, however, was a veteran of fourteen, and he quietly took charge. Washington signed the voluminous and detailed orders, but French officers wrote them, after which Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens of his staff translated them into English.
The first step was to build a line of redoubts and batteries with connecting trenches parallel to and within effective artillery range of the defensive position. From there, while siege guns battered the defenders, zig-zag approaches would go forward to a second, closer parallel, the process being repeated until the besiegers were near enough for a final rush.
The only break in the fighting lull occurred across the river. Washington sent eight hundred marines loaned by de Grasse to reinforce Weedon and put French Brigadier Claude Gabriel de Choisy in command. Cornwallis countered with Tarleton, Simcoe, and their mounted outfits. On October 3 Choisy, advancing toward Gloucester Point, collided with a foraging party under Tarleton. A brisk skirmish flared, during which Lauzun and Bloody Ban almost crossed swords in a mounted saber duel before the British withdrew.
Meanwhile, Washington, Rochambeau, and the division commanders roamed the front. On one occasion the American general, with an army chaplain tagging along out of curiosity, was fired on, and the shot landed close enough to shower them with dirt. As the shaken minister examined his spattered hat, the general smiled and said, “Mr. Evans, you’d better carry that home and show it to your wife and children.”