- 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
Henry Knox took a different view of a similar situation with Alexander Hamilton. They were casually discussing a recent order about shouted warnings of approaching shells. Hamilton scorned the regulation as “unsoldierly,” but Knox thought it a good idea. Suddenly, the cry went up: “A shell! A shell!” Both dove for cover as two shells landed in the emplacement. Hamilton hid behind the bulky Knox, who threw him off toward the sputtering projectiles. Fortunately, Washington’s future Secretary of the Treasury scrambled back before they went off. The danger past, Knox rounded on Hamilton. “Now what do you think, Mr. Hamilton, about crying, ‘Shell’? But let me tell you not to make a breastwork of me again.” That’s how the exchange came out in the language of late-eighteenth-century memoirs; the actual remark was probably more pungently informal.
Under cover of the bombardment, approach trenches pushed forward. The night of October 11 the digging of the second parallel began, unhindered by the defenders, who were shooting at the first. By morning troops were in the new position and wheeling additional guns into place. The parallel couldn’t be extended to the river, however, until Redoubts Nine and Ten were eliminated.
Soon after dark on October 14 they were stormed in quick, smartly executed bayonet attacks. Four hundred American volunteers swarmed into the Rock Redoubt while the French took the other. American casualties were light, among them Sargeant William Brown of the 5th Connecticut. For his courage and coolness as a member of the “forlorn hope” advance party, Brown was awarded the Badge of Merit, one of the few known recipients of the first United States combat decoration, now the Purple Heart.
During the attack Washington and his staff moved into the open between the parallels to observe as best they could in the darkness. When random shells began to drop uncomfortably close, Lieutenant Colonel David Cobb became concerned for the safety of his chief. “Sir,” he said, “you are too much exposed here. Hadn’t you better step back a little?”
Washington froze him with a glance and in an icy tone replied, “Colonel Cobb, if you are afraid, you have the liberty to step back.” Poor Cobb subsided but didn’t accept the invitation. When cheers from the front signaled success, the general quietly expressed satisfaction, called for his horse, and rode calmly back to headquarters.
By morning the parallel had been extended to include the captured redoubts, and more guns wrestled into position. The besiegers could now sweep the British works from end to end at almost point-blank range. With at least one hundred guns combing the lines, British gunners couldn’t serve their pieces, which in any event were almost out of ammunition. Casualties and sickness were further reducing their capacity to take much more.
After enduring the pounding for nearly a week, Cornwallis threw his first—and only—counterpunch. A sortie struck an unfinished battery emplacement on the hinge between the French and Americans, penetrated briefly, and spiked several guns before being driven out. The spiking was done hurriedly, however, and all were soon back at their deadly task.
In New York, meanwhile, General Clinton was frantically convening councils of war and tearing his hair trying to get Admiral Graves off the farthing and complete repairs to his damaged warships. He had concocted a scheme to move south with the fleet and five thousand troops, lure de Grasse out to sea, and slip into Chesapeake Bay àla Barras, but his subordinates weren’t overwhelmed. In the unlikely event they could fight their way through to Cornwallis they might well find themselves in the same trap.
Despite reinforcements raising his strength to twenty-five ships of the line, Graves was in no rush to tangle with de Grasse’s thirty-six and he kept stalling. Although the newly arrived Admiral Robert Digby ranked Graves, he had no intention of taking a failure rap and declined to assume command. Not until October 17 was the expedition ready to sail, only to be delayed two more days by contrary winds. By then it was too late.
With his defenses crumbling around him and casualties mounting, Cornwallis finally yielded to subordinates’ pleas to break out. By abandoning artillery, heavy baggage, and the sick and wounded, he might be able to cross the river, brush Choisy aside, and flee north. If he got a couple of days head start, there was a fighting chance he could evade pursuit long enough to link up with a relief column.
During the night of October 16 he began ferrying his infantry to Gloucester. One wave got across before a severe squall swept in, scattered the boats, and forced cancellation of the gamble. There was only one decision left, and Cornwallis, a decent man with great concern for his troops, bit the bullet.
About 10:00 A.M. on October 17, with the bombardment at its height, a red-coated drummer boy appeared on the parapet of the Horn Work. He couldn’t be heard over the thunder of the guns, but everybody knew what it meant. He was beating the internationally recognized call for a parley.