- Historic Sites
September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
The allies started out from Williamsburg early on the twenty-eighth of September. Two days later they were facing Cornwallis’s troops. The attackers settled on a siege—more time-consuming than an assault but less costly in lives. This was a highly technical, almost ritualistic operation, and none of the Continental officers had ever tried one before. But Washington’s impeccably professional ally Baron von Steuben knew how it was done, and the allies started digging in. On the afternoon of October 9 the French batteries on the allied left opened fire; a couple of hours later Washington touched off the first American shot. The next morning more batteries were in place, and Gov. Thomas Nelson, asked to pick the best target, pointed. “There,” he said cheerfully. “To that house. It is mine, and … the best one in the town. There you will be almost certain to find Lord Cornwallis and the British headquarters.” By the end of the day, the British defenses had started to melt under the iron pecking of forty-six guns.
It was over for the British then, although they held out for a week, while more and more cannon opened up on them. There may have been a hundred in action by the morning of the seven-teenth, when a drummer appeared on the lip of the British works and began beating a parley.
So it was that on a bright, fair afternoon a British army marched from the defenses they couldn’t hold, went past ranks of the soldiers who had fled from them so often in the past to a meadow a mile and a half away, and there—some weeping—threw down their weapons. There were still plenty of armed British soldiers in America, and two more years more of skirmishing lay ahead before the final treaties were signed. But the war was over.
The meadow is still there, just a field with a split-rail fence, but eloquent enough. You look out over it from a round concrete platform, then walk down past a choir of bronze guns, each stamped on its barrel SURRENDERED BY THE CAPITULATION OF YORK-TOWN OCT 19, 1781 .
The meadow where the British surrendered is still there, just a field with a split-rail fence, but eloquent enough.
The National Park Service Visitor Center does an excellent job of orienting you, gives you a map, and even lets you walk through the captain’s cabin and gundeck of a full-size British frigate. You can also rent a tape on which actors playing Lieutenant Colonel Dundas of the British 80th Infantry and Colonel Butler of the 2d Pennsylvania Battalion conduct you about the battlefield. This is a lot better than it sounds, and since the field itself has never been built over, you get an excellent sense of the operation. French and American cannon are still mounted in the earthworks, and you can visit the trim white house of a local merchant where the terms of surrender were hashed out, and the redoubt where Washington signed them, adding the line: “Done in the trenches before Yorktown in Virginia October 19, 1781.”
I was struck most strongly, though, by a stretch of road that runs back into the woods from the right wing. This was the approach route the American soldiers took going back and forth from their camp to the trenches. It was deserted when I drove along it, very still and dim beneath the glowing branches that met overhead. I found it quite easy to envision the traffic that once was here: thousands of American soldiers, some in buckskins, some in hunting shirts, some actually in uniform. There would have been a few men among them who had the whole war in their faces, who had cut and run from the British on Long Island, and at Monmouth, and at Brandywine. There never had been as many soldiers as there should have been, and yet, somehow, there were always enough. It was good to think of them now, joking and cursing and complaining but feeling the tide running their way at last, moving with their shovels through the golden weather to seize victory from all the hungry, beaten years.