October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
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.
Long after midnight, October 23, 1781, hoofbeats broke the silence of slumbering Philadelphia’s empty streets. Reeling in the saddle from exhaustion and shaking with malarial chills, Lieutenant Colonel Tench Tilghman, aide to General George Washington, pulled up to ask an elderly German night watchman how to get to the home of Thomas McKean, president of the Continental Congress.
Having pointed the way, the watch resumed his round, excitedly ringing his hand-bell and bellowing in fractured English: “Past dree o’clock und Cornval-lis ist ta-gen! Past dree o’clock und Cornvallis ist tagen!”
Four days earlier at an obscure river hamlet on Virginia’s Tidewater, Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, Earl Cornwallis, had surrendered a beleaguered British army to a Franco-American force under Washington.
The year now drawing to a close had not begun so auspiciously. It was, in fact, one of the blackest hours in the struggle for independence. In September, 1780, Benedict Arnold, one of Washington’s ablest men, had defected, almost taking the vital Hudson River fortress of West Point with him. American finances were a shambles. Despite the presence of a French army and naval squadron in Rhode Island, the French alliance was turning sour, and British arms seemed everywhere invincible.
A powerful army under Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton lay secure in New York City while Washington’s half-clad Continentals watched hungrily from their cold camps along the Hudson. In North Carolina Nathanael Greene was running for his life before the relentless pursuit of that same Lord Cornwallis, and the Royal Navy had a lock on the coast from Canada to Spanish Florida.
On New Year’s Day, 1781, six regiments of the Pennsylvania Continental Line mutinied, followed by part of the New Jersey Line. Order was restored, but the mutiny cost Washington half his Pennsylvanians, until then among the most reliable troops in the army. At the same time, Arnold, now a British brigadier general, landed in Virginia and swept unopposed to Richmond, burning and pillaging as he advanced.
But if the rebellious colonists had troubles, so did the British. Maintaining an army in combat three thousand miles from England was a terrible strain on a nation with no friends in Europe, which found itself at war with France, Spain, and Holland in addition to its erstwhile colonies. The command system was falling apart. Clinton, commander in chief in New York, was disgusted, feeling sorry for himself, and quarreling with everyone. Cornwallis, ostensibly his subordinate, was doing as he pleased in the Carolinas with the tacit approval of Lord George Germain in London, who, as Secretary of State for American Colonies, compounded the confusion by trying to run the war from home.
The navy was in poor shape. Keeping the long Atlantic supply line open, holding the American coastline, protecting the English Channel, Gibraltar, the Mediterranean, and far-off India were almost more than it could handle. Should England lose, even briefly, her tenuous superiority in American waters, the war would be in jeopardy.
The chain of events leading to Yorktown began early in 1781 with a series of uncoordinated maneuvers in widely separated areas—in New York, Virginia, New England, North Carolina, and the West Indies. Their convergence was a delicate balance of calculated risks, careful planning, execution, and luck on one side aided by mediocre leadership and insubordination on the other.
In late February, Washington acted to take some pressure off defenseless Virginia by sending his colorful inspector general, “Baron” Friedrich von Steuben, to teach green recruits how to become soldiers. Steuben set up shop in the Piedmont west of Richmond and began to whip some five hundred volunteers into Regulars with his particular amalgam of enthusiasm, energy, and multilingual profanity.
Washington also dispatched the twenty-three-year-old Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier south with three battalions of light infantry to take care of Arnold. It was the Marquis de Lafayette’s first independent command, but the ungainly and excitable youth measured up to the challenge.
First, he had to face another incipient mutiny. The troops didn’t like the idea of going so far from home. Lafayette rounded up the principal agitators, executed one and pardoned another under the muzzles of a firing squad, then paraded the division and chewed it out. Anyone who objected, he announced, didn’t have to go. All he had to do was step forward, get his’ dishonorable discharge, and go home.
Nobody called his hand. Near the end of April he reached Richmond with one thousand Continentals and two thousand militia, just in time to prevent the British from burning the town. Not ready for a showdown, the raiders withdrew to Portsmouth on the coast.
Meanwhile, deep in the North Carolina wilderness, one of the decisive battles of the war had been fought. Greene won the race for safety, crossing the Dan River into Virginia with Cornwallis’ breath hot on the back of his neck. Having lost the quarry and outrun his supplies, the latter fell back toward Hillsboro, North Carolina. Greene promptly recrossed the Dan and became, in turn, the pursuer.
In mid-March Cornwallis turned and attacked Greene at Guilford Courthouse, a country crossroad just north of present day Greensboro. He won a tactical victory but took heavy casualties, which virtually wrecked his army. Three days after the battle he began a two hundred-mile retreat to Wilmington on the coast. Greene let him go. In the opinion of many military analysts, the British won a battle at Guilford but lost the war. Thereafter it was all downhill for Cornwallis.
While restoring his muscle at Wilmington, Cornwallis indulged in some deep thought. His Carolina experience convinced him that a Southern campaign must be won in Virginia, but he couldn’t sell Clinton, who wanted him to secure Georgia and the Carolinas. On April 25 Cornwallis took the bit in his teeth. In violation of orders and without prior notice to Clinton, he set out for Virginia, a march of two hundred and twenty miles. Clinton was appalled. Instead of ordering his ambitious subordinate back to the Carolinas, however, he made the best of what he considered a poor situation. He even sent reinforcements.
Earlier a contingent of two thousand men had reached Virginia, and Major General William Phillips replaced Arnold in command. When Cornwallis arrived at Petersburg on May 20, however, he found that Phillips had died of typhoid fever seven days before. Phillips, who had been captured with Burgoyne at Saratoga and exchanged, was one of Britain’s best artillerymen. His loss would be felt keenly later.
The arrival of two more British regiments and two battalions of Germans raised Cornwallis’ strength to seventy-two hundred, with a corresponding leap in his confidence. “The boy cannot escape me,” he gloated as he took after Lafayette.
The boy was well aware of his predicament. He had already complained to Washington that he was “not strong enough even to get beaten.” Lafayette withdrew to Fredericksburg over ground that the great-grandsons of his men, both North and South, would know with bitter intimacy eighty years later. His immediate concern was to avoid Cornwallis’ clutches pending reinforcement by Anthony Wayne.
“Mad Anthony” left York, Pennsylvania, on May 26 with three regiments of the reorganized Pennsylvania Line and a six-gun artillery battery. The Pennsylvanians were still surly, but Wayne, who held an even lower opinion of mutiny than Lafayette, squelched them with ruthless efficiency. After shooting a couple of ringleaders, he locked all the ammunition in his supply wagons and pointed the cowed troops south with empty muskets. By the time they reached Virginia, he had marched the mutinous spirit out of them.
Three days after Wayne’s arrival General William Campbell checked in with six hundred riflemen, and a week after that Steuben arrived with four hundred and fifty newly trained Continentals. His presence raised a potentially sticky question of command. Lafayette, the senior, was young and inexperienced; Steuben, twice his age, was a battle wise professional. The difficulty evaporated when Steuben came down with a convenient case of gout and took sick leave.
Now facing an American force of two thousand regulars, thirty-two hundred militia, and six hundred rifles, Cornwallis got another jolt when the jittery Clinton ordered him to return three thousand men to New York. Accordingly, he pulled back to Williamsburg. Lafayette followed cautiously.
Raiding columns under Lieutenant Colonels Banastre Tarleton and John Simcoe, meanwhile, were raising hell west of Richmond. While flushing the Virginia legislature out of its temporary refuge at Charlottesville, “Bloody Ban” narrowly missed collaring Governor Thomas Jefferson. Warned with only minutes to spare, the author of the Declaration of Independence hightailed it down one side of Monticello’s mountain while Tarleton’s dragoons were pounding up the other.
Falling back to Portsmouth after laying a trap for Lafayette at Green Spring that the marquis almost blundered into, Cornwallis found himself bombarded with a series of on-again-off-again orders from Clinton before being told to keep everything and establish a naval base in Virginia. The exasperated earl chose Yorktown. He landed there in early August and at his leisure began to fortify the place with the aid of some two thousand runaway slaves, among them some from Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Although not easily defended against a land attack, Yorktown was a good choice for an advance naval station, its deep anchorage big enough to accommodate a large fleet. Cornwallis knew its weakness but, having been promised more troops, was confident he could hold it as long as the navy controlled Chesapeake Bay. If the place got too hot, he could always escape by sea.
Settled in 1691 on a sixty-foot cliff above the York River—only half a mile wide at that point—Yorktown, then simply called York, had been a busy tobacco port with some three hundred houses and three thousand inhabitants clustered along a single main street and four cross streets. Extensive dockage lined the riverbank. After 1750, however, the town began to slip. By 1781 its dwindling population occupied about seventy houses, with many empty buildings falling into ruin.
The leading resident was Thomas Nelson III, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of Virginia’s wealthiest men. A jovial fat man whose affability and fund of off-color stories hid an inner core of steel, Nelson shortly succeeded Jefferson as governor and set about reviving Virginia’s war effort, stepping on a lot of toes and bankrupting himself in the process.
While Lafayette and Cornwallis shadowboxed in the Tide-water, the long threads of a victorious strategy were being drawn together five hundred miles to the north. On May 21 and 22 Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French army, met at Wethersfield, Connecticut. After deciding to join forces along the Hudson, they surveyed the strategic possibilities, including a move against Cornwallis.
Recapturing New York was an obsession with Washington. “Papa” Rochambeau, as he liked to call himself, wasn’t enthusiastic, especially after a good look at the British defenses. Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur had been a soldier for forty of his fifty-six years and knew his trade. Nevertheless, he went along with Washington’s wishes.
After the meeting, Washington wrote to various subordinate commanders and congressional leaders, going into some detail about his proposed attack. On June 5 the pouch containing his dispatches landed on Clinton’s desk. To this day nobody is sure whether the capture was a lucky break or a deliberate plant. Many on Clinton’s staff suspected the latter, but Clinton was convinced, until too late, that he was the Franco-American objective.
The French joined the Americans on July 6 after a smartly conducted march of two hundred and twenty miles in eleven days over wretched, dust-choked roads in midsummer heat. They consisted of the royal Bourbonnais, Soissonnais, Saintonge, and Deux Ponts regiments plus artillery and the Duke of Lauzun’s legion of light infantry and hussars. In their brilliant uniforms—pure white, with each regiment bearing its own color on collars and lapels, the sergeants wearing ostrich plumes in their caps, and the Duke of Lauzun’s officers astride tiger-skin saddlecloths—they may have looked like comic opera soldiers but they were as tough as Scotland’s “ladies from hell.”
If the Americans were awed by the lavish equipment of their allies, the latter were equally amazed at how the former made do with almost nothing. Each recognized and respected the quality of the other. Except for minor dustups, the armies got along well.
Meanwhile, another loop in the snare to choke Cornwallis was taking shape. In early summer Admiral the Comte de Grasse brought a powerful French fleet to the West Indies. He was to cooperate with the Spanish there but had leeway to help Washington if the opportunity arose. Fortunately, the Spanish were not eager to start anything.
Rochambeau wrote de Grasse explaining the situation, imploring him to come soon with whatever reinforcements he could scrape together, as well as badly needed cash to pay the armies. He outlined both the New York and Virginia options, subtly emphasizing the latter and trusting the admiral to read between the lines. De Grasse didn’t disappoint him.
A major miscalculation by the British naval commander in the Indies helped. Admiral Sir George Rodney, returning to England, didn’t think the French would leave their sugar islands and merchant shipping unprotected with an enemy fleet at hand. He departed with six ships of the line, leaving Admiral Sir Samuel Hood with only fourteen to deal with the French, now reinforced to twenty-eight of the line.
It was one of the great strategic mistakes of the war. Instead of dispersing his fleet, Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse, Marquis de Grasse-Tilly and Comte de Grasse, concentrated it, borrowed three infantry regiments and General Claude Anne de St. Simon from the San Domingo garrison and raised 1,200,000 livres in silver by popular subscription in Havana. On August 5 he sailed north. No British admiral would have dared such a gamble.
On August 14 Washington learned that de Grasse was coming, that his destination was Chesapeake Bay, and that he could stay no later than October 15. Suspecting he’d been outflanked, Washington exploded. Everybody—most notably Rochambeau—kept out of his way until the storm had blown itself out. Despite his disappointment, Washington scrapped his cherished New York project and began to plan a southward move.
Leaving some four thousand men under Major General William Heath to watch Clinton, the Franco-American army moved to King’s Ferry on the Hudson, where it crossed between August 20 and 25. Next day it began the historic four-hundred-and-fifty-mile march to Virginia. Security was so tight only Washington, Rochambeau, and a few key staff officers knew where they were going.
An elaborate cover plan was laid on to confuse the British. Wooden landing craft were conspicuously displayed among the columns, roads leading to Staten Island—logical jump-off for a shore-to-shore assault on Manhattan—were repaired, and the French made a big gesture of building bake ovens. Clinton was completely duped. Not until the Americans were out of reach did it dawn on him that he’d been hoodwinked.
The feint having succeeded, the allies swung south through New Jersey, crossed the Delaware River at Trenton, and reached Philadelphia at the end of August. After parading through the capital the columns continued on to Head of Elk, an inlet at the top of the Chesapeake (now Elkton, Pennsylvania), where they arrived September 6.
In the West Indies, Admiral Hood had learned that de Grasse was going north, although it never occurred to him that the Frenchman was taking his whole armada. On August 10 Hood set sail for the Chesapeake with his fourteen ships. He arrived at the mouth of the bay on the twenty-fifth, found it empty, and continued on to New York. While the British were sailing up the coast, Vice Admiral Jacques-Melchoir St. Laurent, Comte de Barras, slipped out of Newport, Rhode Island, with eight battleships, four frigates, and sixteen supply vessels loaded with siege artillery, ammunition, and fifteen hundred barrels of salt beef. British Admiral Thomas Graves, his strength increased to nineteen of the line with the arrival of Hood, set sail from New York to intercept Barras.
Despite a calm front, Washington was worried. At Philadelphia he had expected to hear that the French fleet had reached the Chesapeake but all he learned was that Barras had put to sea and that Graves was on the prowl.
De Grasse was the key. Even without Barras the allies probably could wrap up Cornwallis, though it would take longer and be more costly. But if anything happened to de Grasse—a scattering storm or defeat by the British, a distressing habit of French admirals—the game was up. French naval superiority in the Chesapeake was crucial.
Washington left Philadelphia on September 5 to catch up with the army while Rochambeau proceeded more leisurely by boat to Chester, Pennsylvania. A few miles beyond Chester a courier from the south met Washington on the road. The general took one look at the dispatches, whirled around, and headed back to Chester at a gallop. As Rochambeau’s boat neared the landing, his party beheld the usually reserved Washington on the dock jumping up and down like a schoolboy, waving his hat in one hand and a handkerchief in the other. A few minutes later two normally dignified generals were happily whacking each other on the back.
De Grasse had reached the bay and was already landing St. Simon’s troops at Jamestown. Barring accidents, Cornwallis was doomed. As Virginia militia general “Joe Gourd” (the ex-tavern-keeper’s name was George but his men had hung the nickname on him) Weedon wrote: “We have got him handsomely in a pudding bag.”
His mind at ease, Washington ordered the march to continue, then set off on a bruising sixty-mile ride to Mount Vernon, his first homecoming in six years. There he relaxed for three days and entertained Rochambeau. As he was about to rejoin the army on September 12, however, he got disquieting news.
On the fifth the British fleet had appeared off the Virginia Capes, and de Grasse had sailed out to meet it. There had been a sea battle beyond the horizon, but nobody knew who won. After the sound of gunfire had died away, neither fleet had returned. Halting the army at Annapolis, Washington and Rochambeau rode hard for Williamsburg, arriving late in the afternoon of the fourteenth. Lafayette welcomed them warmly, but he didn’t know where de Grasse was either. Twenty-four hours later the clouds lifted. De Grasse was back, Barras had come in and was off-loading the guns and stores at landings along the James. As soon as his transports were empty, he sent them up the bay to ferry the waiting troops to the final rendezvous.
The fleets had fought an indecisive, two-hour engagement known today as the Battle of the Virginia Capes. Graves surprised the French fleet at anchor in Lynnhaven Bay, short seventeen hundred seamen ferrying St. Simon upriver and with four big ships absent patrolling the mouths of the James and York rivers. Slipping his cables, de Grasse cleared hastily for action but came out in ragged formation.
The overcautious Graves let his chance get away. In the battle that followed, only a dozen of his ships got into action, and no more than eight of them took a significant part against fifteen French. If the battle had a hero, it was Commodore Louis Antoine de Bougainville, commanding the French van. Bougainville, who had already given his name to an exotic flowering shrub and a tropical Pacific island destined for sinister fame among a later generation of Americans, inflicted most of the damage. The affair wasn’t conducted very brilliantly on either side, but it sufficed.
For three days the fleets jockeyed within sight of each other, moving farther away from the bay. Finally, at nightfall on the ninth, de Grasse turned back. Arriving the next morning, he found that Barras had slipped in while the battle was going on. Now faced with thirty-six ships of the line, double his own strength, Graves withdrew to New York. As one naval historian later put it: “He had lost no engagement, no ships. … He had merely lost America.”
While the army was closing up around Williamsburg, Washington, Rochambeau, and their staffs visited de Grasse aboard his flagship, the 104-gun Ville de Paris , then the mightiest warship in the world. As Washington reached the deck, he was engulfed in a bear hug by the effusive Frenchman. Hearing their tall leader greeted as “My dear little general!” put a strain on the dignity of his staff, but all managed to keep a straight face except Henry Knox. The portly chief of artillery let out a loud guffaw.
More likely to bring a smile to Washington’s stern features was a commitment by de Grasse to stay to the end of October. The admiral refused to bring his big ships close enough to participate in the bombardment of Yorktown but he offered several hundred marines to help out. The fleet took no further part in the actual investment, but its presence assured there’d be no escape for Cornwallis by sea.
On September 28 the reassembled army left Williamsburg for Yorktown, eleven miles away. It was organized in two “wings” (the term “army corps” hadn’t yet been invented). In the absence of exact figures, overall strength has been variously estimated from sixteen to twenty thousand, with the Americans, including militia, slightly outnumbering the French. It may have had as many as one hundred twenty artillery pieces—Barras brought eighty from Newport—of which about one hundred eventually went into action. Most were 18- and 24-pounder guns, plus howitzers and siege mortars.
The American wing had three divisions, each made up of two brigades, commanded by Lafayette, von Steuben, and Major General Benjamin Lincoln, who was also Washington’s deputy. Two brigades of Virginia militia were held in reserve under Governor Nelson, while General Weedon’s brigade was sent across the York River to block any escape via Gloucester Point.
Rochambeau led the French wing of two divisions. One was made up of the four regiments that had marched from Rhode Island, the other of the three regiments brought by St. Simon from the West Indies. St. Simon, felled by malaria but determined to be on hand, rode at the head of his column in a litter. With no need for mounted troops in a trench battle, Lauzun’s Legion followed Weedon to the other side of the river.
The march encountered no resistance. By late afternoon Yorktown was loosely encircled just out of artillery range. To prevent a surprise attack, Washington ordered everyone to “lay on their arms” for the night.
For Cornwallis, outnumbered at least two to one, Yorktown was not a strong place to stand. The foreground was clear and flat, with no dominating features. In the American sector facing the British left, a wooded stream bed called Wormley’s Creek offered a covered approach to within easy range of his main line. The earl later insisted he would never have considered holding out had he not been promised relief.
His principal defensive position consisted of a continuous line of trenches, batteries, and redoubts about three hundred yards from the river encircling the village in an arc some one thousand yards long. The right flank was covered by a star-shaped fort called the Fusilier Redoubt because it was garrisoned by one of Cornwallis’ best regiments, the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Behind the redoubt a steep, heavily wooded and swampy ravine constituted a major obstacle to a direct assault. Two more advanced redoubts, Numbers Nine and Ten—the latter also known as the Rock Redoubt—guarded the left. In the center, facing an open area known as the Pigeon Quarter, a strongly manned salient, the Horn Work, discouraged frontal attack. Three outposts were placed farther forward in the open.
To deny Gloucester Point to an attacker as well as providing a jump-off for a possible breakout, Cornwallis built another line there. Eventually this position was occupied by twelve hundred men, including Tarleton’s British Legion and Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Minutes later the sally-port gate of the Horn Work swung open and a mounted group led by a handsome officer resplendent in the dress uniform of a general of the Coldstream Guards emerged. It wasn’t Lord Cornwallis. The earl, unable to face the humiliation of it all, was too “ill” to appear and had sent Brigadier General O’Hara as his deputy. Ignoring the American party, O’Hara rode up to Rochambeau to surrender Cornwallis’ sword. The French commander stonily pointed across the road to the American commander in chief. As O’Hara, muttering an apology for his “mistake” and an explanation of Cornwallis’ nonappearance, offered the sword to Washington, the general waved him aside to General Lincoln. The latter reached out, touched the hilt, and told O’Hara to keep it.
The story is still often told that Washington’s gesture was in revenge for Lincoln’s humiliation at Charleston. Not so. If Cornwallis had sent a deputy, he would have to deal with his deputy, who happened to be Lincoln—although both American generals undoubtedly took great satisfaction from the coincidence.
Behind General O’Hara the defeated army began its passage “under the yoke” between the silent allied ranks. The blue-and-green-clad Germans came first, stepping out smartly to the Surrender Field, which was ringed by Lauzun’s mounted hussars, jaunty in light blue uniforms and fur-trimmed pelisses. There they stacked arms briskly and made way for the British. They had served faithfully and well, but it wasn’t their war, and they were happy to escape with whole skins from a fight in which they had no stake.
With the British it was different. Proud, combat-tested regiments, the 17th Leicestershires, 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, 33rd West Ridings, 43rd Oxfordshires, 71st Fraser Highlanders, 76th Highlanders, and 80th Royal Edinburgh Volunteers had repeatedly faced and driven these same Continentals from the field, albeit with increasing difficulty. The Fusiliers had covered the retreat from Lexington, stormed the Bunker Hill ramparts with the 17th, and had charged at Long Island, Brandywine, Germantown, Camden, Guilford Courthouse—and it had all come to this!
On they came, slowly and reluctantly, to the lugubrious beat of a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.” Although most of them wore new uniforms, their demeanor didn’t match their haberdashery. Alignments were sloppy, they didn’t bother to keep in step, and many were unsteady on their feet after a final go at the rum kegs before their enemies got there. Some faces were stained with tears, all wore defiant scowls. Englishmen, as their enemies from William the Conqueror to Adolf Hitler have discovered, do not surrender graciously. At the Surrender Field they flung their muskets on the growing piles, disgustedly ripped off cartridge belts, and sullenly returned to Yorktown.
Washington didn’t linger for the entire ceremony. Returning to headquarters, he wrote a laconic dispatch to the Continental Congress announcing the triumph. Before dark, Colonel Tilghman was on his way to Philadelphia.
While the victorious allies, with the reluctant help of their prisoners, tidied up the battlefield, the British fleet drew nearer. A couple of days out, news of the surrender reached Clinton and Graves and they turned back. Everybody sensed that the long, bloody ordeal was drawing to a close.
Five years earlier thirteen mutually suspicious but angry colonies had proclaimed their independence. At Yorktown, with the help of France, they made it stick. The war dragged on for two more years, but with the surrender of Cornwallis American independence was assured.