- 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
A British officer with a white flag joined the drummer as the firing ceased and started toward the allied lines. An American ran out, blindfolded the man, and led him in. He carried a message from Cornwallis to Washington proposing a halt in hostilities to discuss surrender terms. The earl asked for twenty-four hours. Washington, suspecting a stall until help arrived, gave him two.
For the rest of the day, while messengers shuttled back and forth, an almost eerie silence settled over the peninsula that for days had trembled to the shock of the massive cannonade. The opposing parapets were soon crowded with soldiers staring at each other across shot-scarred ground where, not long before, they would have courted death by raising their heads.
Four years earlier, to the day, Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne had surrendered at Saratoga.
The next day John Laurens and the Vicomte de Noailles, Lafayette’s brother-in-law, met two British officers in the home of Augustine Moore near the river (the restored house is now a stop on the National Park Service’s tour of the battlefield) to arrange terms. Haggling continued well into the night before agreement was reached. At 11:00 A.M. ,, October 19, the papers, signed by Cornwallis, were delivered to Washington at the Rock Redoubt. He added a line: “Done in the trenches before Yorktown in Virginia, October 19, 1781,” then signed. Rochambeau and Admiral de Barras, representing de Grasse, who was too ill to come ashore, added their signatures. Far to the north the British rescue fleet was just clearing New York harbor.
Washington’s conditions were generous, with one exception. Remembering General Benjamin Lincoln’s humiliation at Charleston the year before, he decreed the same for the British army. It must march out with colors cased and bands playing only British tunes instead of the traditional “honors of war,” which permitted the vanquished to come out with flags flying—oddly enough to a tune of the victor’s (either as an acknowledgment of the courtesy or as a last gesture of defiance). The British representatives demurred but reluctantly agreed when Laurens, a fiery South Carolinian who had been taken at Charleston, declared the article would remain or he ceased to be a commissioner.
Friday, the nineteenth, was a warm, bright October day. Very early the allied bivouacs were bustling with activity as the troops spruced up for the final scene of the drama. Shortly before noon long columns poured out of the French and American camps to positions in double ranks on both sides of the main road from Yorktown. The fields behind them soon began to fill with civilians who converged from all over the peninsula on foot, in carriages, and on horseback to watch the curtain fall.
The formation extended for more than a mile from the second allied parallel to a large, grassy meadow, now preserved as the “Surrender Field” by the Park Service. The French in dress whites, bright regimental facings, shiny black gaiters, plumes, and silk battle flags, were a colorful contrast to the drab Continentals and the militia behind them, who paraded in the only clothes they possessed.
When the units were in place, detachments of American and French infantry made a symbolic occupation of the battered Yorktown defenses. As Ensign Ebenezer Denny of the 2nd Pennsylvania Continentals prepared to raise the unit colors on the parapet, he was forestalled by Steuben, who snatched them away and planted them himself. The impulsive act so outraged pudgy Colonel “Dickie” Butler, commander of the Pennsylvanians, that after the ceremony he blew off steam with a stinging letter of protest. Steuben took it as an insult, and a duel was only avoided by the personal intervention of Washington and Rochambeau.
Although Denny lost his moment of triumph, eighteen-year-old Ensign Wilson had his. As part of the surrender ritual a detail of British and German captains was to turn over the cased colors. When they found a like number of American sergeants lined up to take them, the rank-conscious English officers balked. Hamilton solved the contretemps by designating Wilson, the youngest officer in the Continental Army, to receive the flags. Wilson accepted them one by one and transferred them to the NCOs.
Shortly before two o’clock, drums rattled and the waiting lines snapped to attention as Washington, Rochambeau, and their staffs in full dress trotted up the road to the head of the line. As they took their places, Admiral de Barras provided the only light moment to the solemnity of the occasion. Barras, who could stand solidly on the pitching quarter-deck of a man-of-war in the wildest storm at sea, had no such security on the back of a horse. When his mount stretched to relieve itself, the admiral let out a yelp of alarm: “Help! My horse is sinking!” A snicker, quickly suppressed, rippled through the staffs.