- 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
By October 6 the allies were ready to open the first parallel. That night, forty-three hundred men from the divisions of Lincoln and the Baron de Viomenil spread out in rain and darkness across the front from the Horn Work to the river, a line about two thousand yards long between seven hundred and eight hundred yards from the British entrenchments. While most of the troops formed a protective screen, fifteen hundred men were detailed to dig.
Out of the darkness in the middle of the American sector appeared a tall Continental officer. General George Washington was handed a pick, took a couple of symbolic swipes at the ground, and the digging began. By morning the trench was deep enough to protect the laborers despite heavy shelling and minor damage.
By late afternoon of the seventh the parallel was ready for occupancy. Lafayette’s Light Division drew the honors, marching in with flags flying and drums beating. After the colors were planted, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton added a defiant twist by ordering his battalion to mount the parapet, face the enemy, and execute the manual of arms. The startled defenders let the insult pass without firing a shot.
Not until October 9 were sufficient batteries in place to begin the bombardment. First honors went to the French gunners on the far left, who opened about 3:00 P.M. and soon drove the Guadaloupe from its anchorage to the Gloucester shore. Washington was present when the first American battery let fly two hours later and he personally touched off the first round. Tradition has it that his shot landed in the dining room of a Yorktown house where British officers were just sitting down to dinner, killing one and wounding others.
Next morning four more batteries were ready, including a French Grand Battery of ten 18- and 24-pounders and six mortars. As one of the American batteries prepared to open fire, Governor Nelson, who was present, was invited to select the first target. Without hesitation he pointed to a large brick house on a slight rise in the middle of the village. “There,” he said. “That’s my house, the best in town. Lord Cornwallis is probably using it for his headquarters.” When the gunners seemed reluctant to zero in on his handsome home, Nelson offered five guineas for the first hit. Subsequent damage apparently wasn’t great: the house is still there, still occupied, with cannonballs imbedded in the walk Before the day was out, at least forty-six big guns were pouring destruction into the hapless town. Steadily and inexorably the British fortifications began to disintegrate under unceasing day-and-night bombardment. Feeding the troops in the lines became increasingly difficult for all but the Germans. They feasted on chocolate taken from a Dutch merchant.
Cornwallis was driven from his town billet to cover under the cliff. A story is still told in Yorktown that he lived in a “grotto” there, and a shallow cave is so identified, although it is more likely that he pitched a tent close to the cliff.
The night of the tenth, hot shot from St. Simon’s guns set fire to the Charon , which broke its moorings and collided with a couple of transports. All went up in flames, after which Cornwallis scuttled most of the remaining vessels.
The allies were getting cocky, and touches of professional rivalry surfaced. Viomenil, in command .of the French section of the parallel, took it upon himself to warn Steuben of the danger of a British sortie and offered the use of eight hundred men if he got in trouble. Steuben loftily informed the messenger that he not only needed no help but was prepared to send eight hundred to bail out Viomenil. After the messenger left, Anthony Wayne reminded Steuben that he had only one thousand men in the whole division.
Steuben grinned. “Ja, I know Wayne … but if I boasted a little it was only for the honor of your country.” Wayne solemnly shook hands, then turned to a group of eavesdroppers and reminded them they’d heard what the man said and that it was up to them to make good. He was cheerfully reassured.
A few days later Wayne and Steuben were up front when a shell landed in the redoubt. Both hit the dirt, Wayne landing on top of Steuben. As they dusted themselves off after the explosion, the Prussian chuckled: “Ah, ah, Wayne. You cover your general’s retreat in the best manner possible.”