September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
George Washington and I both had a hard time getting to Yorktown. Washington had trouble for the usual reasons: he had to move an unfed, unpaid, unhappy army that was nowhere near large enough for the job at hand. I had trouble for the usual reasons too: the plane, slated to leave for Norfolk at six o’clock, expired on the runway, and I sat over minute, expensive airport drinks until midnight, when a diverted Richmond flight got me there. The Hertz people were still awake in Norfolk, and I made my way over and under the Chesapeake via the Bay Bridge Tunnel and headed for Colonial Williamsburg, where I was staying. Then, incredibly, a mile and a half away from the biggest tourist attraction on the Eastern seaboard, I got lost.
I mention my own travel woes in the same breath as Washington’s not just through megalomania but because, as cryptic highway signs flared green in my headlights, it occurred to me that all the familiar fixtures of the trip—the look of the airport, the sleeping towns I was driving through, everything that I wholly, if unconsciously, associate with the country I live in—are the direct result of Washington’s journey to these parts. At Yorktown, we won America.
Like everything else in our Revolution, it was a close call. The beginning of 1781 found Washington and his little thirty-five-hundred-man army camped on the highlands of the Hudson. Across the river Sir Henry Clinton held Manhattan with more than ten thousand men. Six years after Washington had taken command of the Continental forces the goal seemed as distant as ever. “We seem to be verging so fast on destruction,” he wrote, “that I am filled with sensations to which I have been a stranger. …”
But some things had changed for the better. Up in Newport four thousand sturdy French regulars under Gen. Comte Donatien de Rochambeau were waiting on Washington’s word. In late spring the Frenchmen moved south to join up with the Continentals for operations against Clinton. Then word came through that Adm. François de Grasse was sailing for the Chesapeake with twenty-nine warships and three thousand troops.
Washington instantly changed his plans. Four hundred and fifty miles to the south, Earl Charles Cornwallis, who had been fencing with the Marquis de Lafayette’s Continentals in Virginia, had gotten orders from Clinton to take and hold a good port. He had chosen Yorktown and was settled in there with seven thousand soldiers. If a daunting number of things went just right, he might be cut off.
Washington and Rochambeau started out on August 20; two weeks later they were in Philadelphia (along the way, Rochambeau had to lend twenty thousand dollars from his war chest to pay the American troops); on September 5 Washington got the exhilarating news that Grasse had arrived safely; and later in the month Washington’s first units entered Williamsburg, twelve miles from Yorktown.
Here was the city where brave things had been said about making the most of treason in the days before the war. It had been the capital of Virginia then, but now it was beginning the long senescence that, in the end, would allow its scrupulous—in fact, nearly miraculous—restoration. It’s the place to stay if you’re visiting Yorktown. Not only is it fascinating in its own right, but the House of Burgesses, the Governor’s Palace, the dozens of gardens great and small all speak of the tranquillity and order of the regime that managed this prosperous colony for a century and a half before malcontents tore everything apart. The very beauty and logic of the old colonial capital suggest how truly bold an enterprise those ragged American soldiers had embarked on.
Staying in Williamsburg also gives you the opportunity of driving one of the loveliest roads in America, the Colonial Parkway, which connects the city with Yorktown. If you go when Washington did, you will find the trees flagrant with autumn, the days warm at noon and cool in the evenings, and the sweet, melancholy smell of woodsmoke everywhere.
The Park Service suggests you tour the battlefield first, but I think it’s a good idea to begin by taking a look at the fix Cornwallis had got himself into. Founded in 1691 on a bluff above the York River, Yorktown was a once-prosperous tobacco port whose fortunes had slipped considerably by the 1770s. It’s a pretty town now, a sort of small, unrestored Williamsburg, and its main street is commanded by the Nelson House, a handsome Georgian building whose brickwork still bears the scars of the bombardment. It is not a good place to withstand a siege, but Cornwallis wasn’t expecting one; he believed help was on the way. And so it was—a fleet under Adm. Thomas Graves. Admiral de Grasse sailed out to meet it. The French did not often do well against the British in fleet actions, and it is perhaps the greatest stroke of fortune of this most fortunate campaign that they did this time. The two fleets fought it out on September 5, and although Graves lost no ships, he was badly roughed up. He headed back to New York, dismissing the engagement as “a lively skirmish.” King George III knew better. When he heard about the action, he wrote, “I nearly think the empire ruined.”
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 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.