The Glory of Yorktown
By Captain Jean Henri Clos, U.S.R.
[Published by the Yorktown Historical Society, Yorktown, Virginia, 1924]
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As EARLY AS 1621, and only fourteen years after the first English settlement was made on this Continent at nearby Jamestown, a royal patent was granted to the lands now occupied by Yorktown.
During the following century, which marked the unremitting struggle of hardy pioneers to insure a permanent colony in Virginia, the territory in and about Yorktown witnessed repeated encounters between the English settlers and the Indians. While the marriage of Pocahontas, the daughter of the Powhattan, to Captain John Rolfe had established peace and amity between the two races, after her death in 1619 warfare began. The horror of Indian massacre occurred for the first time in America in 1622, and a second massacre took place in 1644. But, notwithstanding these setbacks, the Virginia colony steadily progressed in population and expanded in territory.
In 1691, by an Act of the General Assembly of Virginia, fifty acres of land were purchased for a port town on the York River, and Yorktown was founded. The price paid for the land was 10,000 pounds of tobacco–which was then the standard “currency” of Virginia. This land was surveyed in 83 half-acre lots and a number of streets were laid out and named–all of which remain to this day.
There are a number of old structures in Yorktown, dating to its earliest days–the Episcopal church erected in 1700; the Custom House built in 1715; the hotel opened in 1725; and a number of dwellings dating from 1699 forward. These have withstood three burnings to which the town was subjected in three successive wars.
Yorktown, ancient and venerable, became heroic and glorious in 1781, when it witnessed the crowning victory of the Revolutionary War, which achieved American independence and assured the establishment of the United States.
The Invasion of Virginia
ON APRIL 25th, 1781, the British army under LORD CORNWALLIS set out from Wilmington, N. C., to conquer Virginia.
For more than a year, CORNWALLIS had been ravaging Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, without definite success. He then determined to subjugate Virginia, for the reason, as he relates: “I was finally persuaded that, until Virginia was reduced, we could not hold the more southern provinces; and that, after its reduction, they would fall without much difficulty.” The British commander believed that control of Virginia, because of its central position among the colonies, would be followed by the control of all America.
The American forces in Virginia at that time were under the command of the MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE, who had previously been directed by GENERAL WASHINGTON to combat the British forces under Phillips and Arnold then operating in the State. LAFAYETTE endeavored to prevent the junction of the troops under Phillips and Arnold with the approaching forces under CORNWALLIS. However, he did not succeed; and the two British armies effected a junction on May 20th at Petersburg, Va.
LAFAYETTE was at Richmond when CORNWALLIS reached Petersburg. The youthful French commander of the American forces had received orders from General Greene to defend Virginia; and to this object he directed his entire attention. In a letter to Major-General Baron von Steuben, on May 17th, 1781, LAFAYETTE writes: “General Greene directs that my detachment be stationed in Virginia, where I am to take command of the troops. What necessity obliged me to do was at the same time consistent with the arrangements of the general.”
LAFAYETTE’S first purpose was to make his army stronger. The nucleus of his force was his own detachment of Colonials assigned to him by WASHINGTON, and which he had brought down from the North. There were small detachments of militia under Muhlenberg, Weedon, Nelson, Stevens and Lawson, who were operating in different parts of the State. Major-General Steuben was endeavoring to organize regiments of the Virginia line from recently enlisted recruits. General Wayne was daily expected with some Pennsylvania troops sent down by General Greene.
But all of these scattered troops, even if united in time, were still unable, because of inexperience and lack of equipment, to resist the progress of the enemy. LAFAYETTE applied in every direction for more men and more supplies. He wrote to Jefferson and to Nelson, to Morgan and Weedon, urging them to lend help. “Our regular force,” LAFAYETTE wrote on May 21st, “is near one thousand, our militia are not very strong on the returns, and much weaker in the field. We have not one hundred riflemen, and are in the greatest need of arms.”
The outlook for the American army was not promising; and the best that LAFAYETTE could do was to attempt a weak defensive. His own nature was to take a strong offensive; but, reflecting that a defeat might forfeit the entire State, he became extremely cautious. “Were I to fight,” he wrote to his commander-in-chief on May 24th, “I should be cut to pieces, the militia dispersed, and the arms lost. Were I to decline fighting, the country would think itself given up. I am therefore determined to skirmish, but not to engage too far; and particularly to take care against their immense and excellent body of horse, whom our militia fear as they would so many wild beasts.” This conservative plan LAFAYETTE followed to the end; and by it saved himself, his army, and the State.
On May 27th, LAFAYETTE learned that the enemy had crossed the James River. He therefore headed towards Fredericksburg, in order to keep open his communications with General Wayne and the North. CORNWALLIS possessed four thousand five hundred regulars, against which LAFAYETTE could muster only two thousand militia and one thousand light infantry. “I am not strong enough,” he wrote, “even to get beaten.”
Notwithstanding the superior strength of CORNWALLIS over LAFAYETTE, the former felt it out of his power to conquer Virginia, until he received further re-enforcements from his commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Clinton, whose headquarters were in New York. Hence, CORNWALLIS determined to first accomplish the defeat of LAFAYETTE’S army, and so wrote to Clinton on May 26th: “I shall now proceed to dislodge LAFAYETTE from Richmond; and with my light troops to destroy any magazines and stores in that neighborhood which may have been collected for his use or use General Greene’s army. From thence I propose to move to the Neck at Williamsburg, which is represented as healthy, and where some subsistence may be procured; and keep myself unengaged from operations which might interfere with your plan for the campaign, until I have the satisfaction of hearing from you.” This letter explains his subsequent movements.
CORNWALLIS moved forward from Petersburg on May 24th. “The boy cannot now escape me,” he wrote, referring to the youthful LAFAYETTE; and he sought to make good his boast. He crossed the James River, twenty-five miles below Richmond, and on the 27th encamped at White Oak, whence he moved forward to Newcastle, Hanovertown and North Anna.
But LAFAYETTE had retreated rapidly, and could not be overtaken by the British. While at Goldmine Creek, he wrote to General Baron von Steuben: “LORD CORNWALLIS did intend to turn our flank; these schemes he seems to have abandoned, and is on his way to Fredericksburg… We march on a parallel line with the enemy, keeping the upper part of the country, and ready to turn back in case the movement is only a feint.”
Meanwhile CORNWALLIS halted on the North Anna. The rapidity of LAFAYETTE’S retreat made an engagement impossible. So CORNWALLIS contented himself with destroying arms and stores. These forays were the only alarming incidents of the invasion. While they disturbed the inhabitants, they did not cause much damage. But even those marauding expeditions were not of long duration–thanks to LAFAYETTE’S energy and strategy.
LAFAYETTE was awaiting re-enforcements from Pennsylvania, where General Wayne was to have been dispatched with one thousand men in February. But lack of arms and supplies and un- satisfied payrolls, delayed departure until May. Wayne reached Frederick, Md., on May 30th, whence he wrote to LAFAYETTE: “I well know the necessity of an immediate junction, and beg leave to a’sure you that anxiety for that event is equal to your wishes, may it be speedy and propitious. I wish our numbers were something more; however, we must endeavor to stem this torrent; and if we have it in our power to command success, I truth my dear Marquis, that we shall produce a conviction to the world that we deserve it.” After further exasperating delay, Wayne’s forces finally made a junction with LAFAYETTE’S army on June 10th.
With this re-enforcement of a thousand good soldiers, under a gallant general -LAFAYETTE lost no time in marching toward his powerful British antagonist. But he was still very cautious. His primary object was to protect the stores threatened by CORNWALLIS; and this he promptly succeeded in doing. On June 13th, LAFAYETTE wrote to General von Steuben: “… We have again got between the enemy and our stores. Nothing was lost except what was left at the Point. …. I request my dear sir, that you will immediately return this way, and, with the Continentals and Militia under your command, hasten to firm a junction with us. . . . Should the enemy make the conquest of this State their main object, our united force is not too much to resist them.”
To date, the military advantages of the Virginia campaign had all been with the British. They had gone where they pleased and had done what they pleased. There had been no real fighting, because there was no American force which ventured to meet them. Recognizing his insufficient strength, LAFAYETTE had kept out of harm’s way, and played a waiting game until he should become strong enough to strike.
On June 15th, CORNWALLIS broke camp at Elk Hill and moved east toward Richmond. Here, finally, was a retrograde movement by the enemy, which CORNWALLIS doubtless undertook in order to reach the waters of the Chesapeake, to await further instructions and re-enforcements from his commander-in-chief in New York.
As the enemy moved back, LAFAYETTE followed. However, he refrained from taking the offensive, because his force was still too weak to be a match for the British regulars. He hung close upon the enemy’s rear, to watch and harass them. One of his reports reads: “LORD CORNWALLIS is retiring… and we are following him.” The tables were finally turned: the late pursuer was now the pursued.
From Richmond, CORNWALLIS resumed his march on June 20th toward the Coast. LAFAYETTE continued to follow, his advance guard generally entering the town the day after the enemy had left. But he was most discreet in following, and constantly maintained a posture of defense, ready to fall back again, should the enemy turn about and attack him. He studiously continued to avoid a general engagement.
By this time, LAFAYETTE’S army had grown to about to about four thousand five hundred men. His practice was to scatter the troops on different roads, to convey the impression of large numbers. The army never camped in line, and yet was so skillfully handled that concentration could be rapidly effected. Organized in this way, and always on the move, marching as often by night as by day, LAFAYETTE followed CORNWALLIS down the Peninsula.
The withdrawal of CORNWALLIS from the central part of the State indicated an altered purpose. He had entered the State to subjugate it. He had been engaged at this task for several months, without any decisive result. He had started to pursue LAFAYETTE, but was now being pursued by LAFAYETTE, instead. Expecting right along to receive re-enforcements from his commander-in-chief, he was now requested to send re-enforcements to the latter in New York, where Clinton was being seriously threatened by WASHINGTON.
The entire British army was thereupon concentrated at Portsmouth, and preparations were made to transport a considerable portion of into New York. Meanwhile, Clinton had changed his mind about withdrawing any of CORNWALLIS’ forces; but permitted him to retain the whole a total of about seven thousand, rank and file. Clinton’s new instructions to CORNWALLIS were that he should abandon Portsmouth, which was regarded as unhealthy for the troops, and to fortify Old Point Comfort in order to protect British shipping in Chesapeake Bay. However, army engineers reported the Point unsuited for a naval base; and CORNWALLIS then moved up to Yorktown, which he began to fortify (together with Gloucester, across the river) as the best available naval station.
In order to obtain a full perspective of the American military position at this period, it is necessary to visualize the situation up North, where WASHINGTON and the main Continental forces were located at West Point on the Hudson. The commander-in-chief, with a half-clothed, half-fed army, had been sustaining the cause of the Revolution for six anxious years. At this time his forces numbered only about three thousand Continentals. They were too weak to combat the well-trained, well-equipped army often thousand men which the British commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Clinton, then had in New York.
During the first half of 1781 ,WASHINGTON had no prospect of doing much in the North, and could do little to assist the South. He was waiting for additional contingents of troops to be raised by the various States; and was also expecting further re-enforcements from the French.
On May 22nd, WASHINGTON and his staff conference with Count de ROCHAMBEAU, the French commander-in-chief, whose army of four thousand men was encamped at Newport, Rhode Island. A plan of operations was agreed upon, which contemplated a junction of the French with the American army on the Hudson, and a joint attack upon the British position at New York.
Meanwhile, word was received that the Comte de GRASSE had sailed from France with a powerful fleet and with re-enforcements; and that he would arrive in North America about July 15th.
It was not until the first week in July that ROCHAMBEAU, with the French troops from Newport, formed a junction with the American troops ‘on the Hudson. WASHINGTON immediately started operations against the British at New York.
The surprise attack on the enemy s forts at Kingsbridge on July 2nd did not prove effective; and the allied troops fell back to Dobbs Ferry. But on July 21st, WASHINGTON made a reconnaissance in force of all the northern defenses of Manhattan Island. Those operations disturbed the British commander and made him apprehensive of possible danger. They induced Clinton to call for re-enforcements from CORNWALLIS which was exactly what WASHINGTON desired, in order to improve the position of LAFAYETTE in Virginia.
On August l4th,word was received from Admiral de GRASSE that his fleet would sail from the West Indies direct to Chesapeake Bay, with a view of aiding American operations in that quarter. This news from the French admiral put an entirely different aspect on the whole situation. WASHINGTON describes this sudden change as follows in his Journal: “Matters having now come to a crisis, and a decided plan to be determined upon, I was obliged–from the shortness of Count de GRASSE’s promised stay on the coast the apparent disinclination of their naval officers to force the harbor of New York, and the feeble compliance of the States with my requisition for men hitherto, and the little prospect of greater exertion in the future-to give up all idea’ of attacking New York; and instead thereof to remove the French troops and a detachment from the American army to the head of the Elk, to be transported to Virginia, for the purpose of co-operating with the force from the West Indies against the troops in that State.” So, finally, the army on the Hudson under WASHINGTON was to play a direct part with the army in Virginia under LAFAYETTE in the Yorktown Campaign.
The march of WASHINGTON’S army from the Hudson to the York, a distance of four hundred miles, was one of the outstanding episodes of the Revolutionary War. For the men and the means of that time it was a great effort; for the commander-in-chief it was a courageous under-taking. The final issue depended upon the exact co-incidence of several independent movements, both by land and sea. It depended upon the timely arrival of the French fleet under DeGRASSE; upon the full co-operation of the French army under ROCHAMBEAU; upon the ability of the forces under LAFAYETTE to hold their present position in Virginia; upon the ability of WASHINGTON to get his allied forces past the watchful British army at New York; and especially upon the chance of CORNWALLIS remaining at Yorktown until all these separate movements had been accomplished
But good fortune favored the American cause. CORNWALLIS did remain at Yorktown, and was in just the right position to be cornered–when De GRASSE appeared with the French fleet, and when WASHINGTON and ROCHAMBEAU appeared with the allied armies. Then the net was rapidly drawn around the British forces, both by land and by sea.
The importance of the timely arrival of Admiral de GRASSE with the French fleet is difficult to over-estimate. Not only was the co-operation of the French fleet essential to LAFAYETTE in cornering the British army at Yorktown, but it was equally valuable to WASHINGTON in breaking the stalemate into which the War had developed.
While De GRASSE was still in the West Indies, he received despatches from ROCHAMBEAU, which revealed the critical situation then existing in the American colonies. “Come!” ROCHAMBEAU wrote to De GRASSE. “America is in distress. Bring with you from Santo Domingo the troops of the Marquis de St. Simon. Obtain from the colony a loan of 1,200,000 livres, and bring them also.” Later ROCHAMBEAU again wrote to De GRASSE: “I will not deceive you, sir. These people are at the end of their resources.” And, still later, he urged: “General WASHINGTON has but a handful of men. . . . The army of CORNWALLIS is in the heart of Virginia. . . . You can well understand under these conditions how urgent it is that you bring some troops with you. . . . This country is at bay. All its resources are failing at the same time.”
De GRASSE made up his energetic mind at once; and on August 5th sailed from Santo Domingo for Chesapeake Bay, with twenty-eight vessels and fifteen hundred troops. The good ships, fresh troops and fine artillery, which DeGRASSE brought, proved to be the “balance of power” that WASHINGTON required to win the battle of Yorktown – and the War for American Independence.
Resuming the thread of events in Virginia, when LAFAYETTE learned that CORNWALLIS had abandoned Portsmouth and had sailed up to Yorktown, he took a position about 30 miles up the river. On August 25th, LAFAYETTE received word from his chief that De GRASSE with his fleet was surely coming to Virginia and that WASHINGTON with the allied army was moving down from the North to his assistance. The point was now to keep CORNWALLIS ignorant of these movements as long as possible, and also to prevent his possible retreat into North Carolina.
At the end of August, the following was the situation: CORNWALLIS fortifying leisurely at Yorktown; LAFAYETTE in a camp of observation at Holt’s Forge; Wayne on the James River opposite Harrison’s Landing; WASHINGTON’S army marching south; and De GRASSE entering Chesapeake Bay. CORNWALLIS did not yet know about the approach of WASHINGTON and De GRASSE.
There was only one present hazard; namely, that CORNWALLIS should suddenly realize his danger, leave Yorktown, and try to escape into the Carolinas. So, as soon as the French fleet arrived, LAFAYETTE concerted with the Marquis St. Simon (who commanded the French troops that came with the fleet) to land at Jamestown, while LAFAYETTE moved down from the Pamunky, and Wayne moved south on the James. This simultaneous junction was successfully effected on September 7th, and the entire force, with LAFAYETTE in command, took up a strong position across the peninsula at Williamsburg, a dozen miles north of Yorktown.
CORNWALLIS reconnoitered LAFAYETTE’S camp, with a view of breaking through; but apparently considered the hazard too great. He seemed to prefer to await the arrival of the promised British fleet with re-enforcements, that would be able to raise the blockade of the French fleet, and bring relief. But the British ships were held up in New York for repairs, and did not reach Chesapeake Bay until after the French fleet had entered. The English admiral later attempted to dislodge the French fleet; and a naval battle was fought on September 5th, and which the advantage remained with the French. Thereupon the British fleet returned to New York, leaving De GRASSE master of the Chesapeake. Had the British fleet been victorious in this naval engagement, the Yorktown campaign would have had a different ending.
The situation of CORNWALLIS had now become serious. LAFAYETTE had cut off his retreat by land, and De GRASSE had cut off his escape by sea. Furthermore, re-enforcements for the Americans were on the way, and by September 26th all the troops–Washington’s, Rochambeau’s, St. Simon’s and Lafayette’s–were concentrated in front of Williamsburg. On September 27th, WASHINGTON issued marching orders for the next morning, and all was made ready for the final grapple with the enemy.
The campaign thus developed was the great surprise of the Revolution. After six weary years of indecisive warfare, WASHINGTON’S strategy finally created a favorable situation which offered an opportunity for a decisive military success. By suddenly abandoning his proposed attack on Clinton at New York, and boldly marching four hundred miles south, he was able to fall unannounced upon CORNWALLIS at a point where succor could not arrive in time to save the British army.
The Siege of Yorktown
ON SEPTEMBER 28th, 1781, the American and French armies moved forward from Williamsburg toward Yorktown. The troops all moved in light marching order, ready for action at a moment’s notice, and eager for the opportunity to fulfill the instructions of the commander-in-chief issued the day before: “If the enemy should be tempted to meet the army on the march, the General (WASHINGTON) particularly enjoins the troops to place their principal reliance on the bayonet, that they may prove the vanity of the boast which the British make of their peculiar prowess in deciding battles with this weapon. He trusts a generous emulation will actuate the allied armies; that the French, whose whose national weapon is that of dose fight, and the troops in general that have so often used it with success, will distinguish themselves on every occasion that offers. The justice of the cause in which we are engaged, and the honor of the two Nations, must inspire every breast with sentiments that are the presage of victory.”
CORNWALLIS offered no resistance to the approaching allied troops. His pickets fell back as the combined columns appeared in sight. Although there was some desultory firing, no casualties occurred in this advance; and the allied army, forming in line of battle, rested within a mile of the British posts. WASHINGTON’S brief order in the evening indicated the proximity of the combatants: “The whole army, officers and soldiers, will lay on their arms this night.”
When CORNWALLIS selected Yorktown as a naval base, he probably did not anticipate the contingency of a siege, because the place was not especially favorable for defense. “Nothing but the hope of relief” said CORNWALLIS afterward, “would have induced me to attempt its defense.” The town stood on the high bank of the York River, and CORNWALLIS surrounded it with a line of earthworks and redoubts. He also took up an outer position, about a half mile in advance of his inner line. Across the river, the village of Gloucester had also been fortified with a line of entrenchments and redoubts.
The allied American and French army was composed of about sixteen thousand men; while the British army consisted of about seven thousand five hundred men. These troops now were facing each other at Yorktown, and their exertions were to determine the control of this Continent.
The siege of Yorktown was begun on September 28th, the allied army spreading out into permanent camp in a semi-circle from the banks of the York above the town around to Wormley Creek below. The American forces occupied the right wing, and the French forces occupied the left wing, Beaverdam Creek being the dividing line.
On the morning of September 30th, it was discovered that the enemy had quietly abandoned their outer position during the night, and had retired with their guns to the inner defenses of Yorktown. This was a pleasing surprise to the besiegers, who thus secured the outer works without a struggle.
This unexpected move by CORNWALLIS was probably prompted by his desire to save his troops as much as possible, in view of a letter he had just received from Sir Henry Clinton, stating that twenty-three ships and five thousand men could be expected soon, to relieve York- town. This news gave much satisfaction to CORNWALLIS, who immediately replied: “I shall retire this night within the works, and have no doubt, if relief comes in time, York and Gloucester will be both in the possession of his Majesty’s troops.” But CORNWALLIS was too hopeful and failed to consider the uncertainty of naval operations at that time.
The abandonment of the outer works hastened the end. WASHINGTON was much pleased, as it simplified future operations. In a letter to the President of Congress he said: “By this means we are in possession of very advantageous ground, which command their (British) line of works in a very near advance.” What had just been CORNWALLIS’ outer line of defense now became WASHINGTON’S first offensive position.
After carefully reconnoitering the enemy’s position on the 29th, the allied officers pronounced the ground very favorable for the prosecution of the siege. The outlook was so promising that WASHINGTON addressed his troops as follows: “…The advanced season and various conditions render it indispensably necessary to conduct attacks against Yorktown with the utmost rapidity. The General therefore expects and requires the officers and soldiers of this army to pursue the duties of their respective departments and stations with the most unabating ardor. The present moment offers, in prospect, the epoch which will decide American Independence. A vigorous use of the means in our power cannot but insure success. The passive conduct of the enemy argues hu weakness and the uncertainty of his councils. The liberties of America and the honor of the allied arms are in our hands. Such objects must excite a patriotic emulation in the greeted actions and exertions; their consequences will amply compensate every danger and fatigue….”
The first week of October was used by the American and French troops in offensive preparations, such as making gabions, fascines and stokes, bringing up guns and surveying for nearer approaches. It was a busy interval–no man busier than WASHINGTON himself “Much diligence,” writes WASHINGTON, “was used in debarking and transporting the stores, cannon, etc., from Trobell’s Landing on James River (distant six miles) to camp, which for want of teams went on heavily.” The commander-in-chief’s orders of October 2nd state: “It is of the utmost importance that the heavy artillery should be brought up without a moment’s loss of time.”
The morale of the Allied troops was excellent and the highest spirit prevailed in camp; the daily work was carried on with vigor and with cheerfulness. The general sentiment of these preparatory days is reflected in a letter from General Wayne: “The investiture of the British army under LORD CORNWALLIS was effected the 29th ultimo. . . . We are now in such forwardness that we shall soon render his Lordship’s quarters rather disagreeable. However, the reduction of that army will require time and some expense of blood, for we cannot expect that LORD CORNWALLIS will tacitly surrender 5000 combatants, without many a severe sortie. His political and military character are now at stake; he has led the British king and ministry into a deception by assuring them of the subjugation of the Carolinas, and his maneuver into Virginia was a child of his own creation, which he will attempt to nourish at every risk and consequence… I have for some time viewed him a fiery meteor that displays a momentary lustre, then fails-to rise no more. That great officer General Greene first eclipsed his glory-he next met a Fabius in that young nobleman the MARQUIS LAFAYETTE; and is now encompassed by a WASHINGTON, which renders his ruin certain. . . . P.S.-We are most distressed for shoes, shirts, and overalls-some needles and thread would tend to make our coats last longer.”
Part of the British forces under Colonel Tarleton were located at Gloucester Point, directly across the river from Yorktown, where they had entrenched themselves. WASHINGTON directed Brigadier-General de Choisy, with a force of American and French troops, to surround the British and prevent their escape; and within a few days the enemy was effectually penned in at Gloucester.
Through constant industry and superhuman energy, WASHINGTON’S army completed the siege preparations of Yorktown by October 6th. The guns were up, the materials ready, the enemy’s works carefully reconnoitered, the ground in their front minutely surveyed. For the first time during this six years’ struggle the Americans had the exhilarating sensation of reducing a hitherto dreaded enemy by purely scientific methods of warfare. So far, the war had been an endless succession of attacks and skirmishes; of advances and retreats, of marching and countermarching-with only an occasional battle of magnitude. It had been six years of stolid patience and Stout endurance; of rough camp life and bitter privation. The constant grievous lack of food and clothing and munitions was overcome only by eternal hopefulness and unbeatable determination.
This was the situation on October 6th, when active siege operations began. CORNWALLIS had posted his army compactly along the entrenchments around the town. WASHINGTON had deployed his army in a semi-circle around Yorktown, with each of the two wings resting on the river, which was guarded by the French fleet. The investment is complete; the enemy cannot escape; and the next step is to tighten the lines and force a surrender.
The final advance on Yorktown was made by parallels. For the attacking forces this was a valuable advantage, since it contracted their front and lessened their labors. The line of the first parallel extended from Pidgeon Quarter, nearly opposite the British center, around to the bank of the York River below.
On the evening of the 6th, a force of about four thousand troops marched forward to the designated ground. The Americans, under Major-General Lincoln, took the right half of the line; the French, under Baron Viomesnil, took the left half. The troops as they came up were placed by the engineers at proper intervals along the the projected line, and began digging; and, as the soil was sandy, rapid progress was made. Complete success attended this first important step. The enemy neither saw nor heard what was going on until daybreak revealed the long line of embankment rising ominously in their front. WASHINGTON’S diary states: “Before morning our trenches were in such forwardness ai to cover the men from the enemy’s fire. The work was executed with so much secrecy and despatch that the enemy was, I believe, totally ignorant of our labor till the light of the morning discovered it to them.”
For the next ten days, the siege was conducted with the greatest system and activity. “The enemy,” says Colonel Butler, “seems embarrassed and confused; their fire is feeble and their works are not formed on any regular plan.” The truth was that CORNWALLIS little dreamed he would be subjected to a siege, and therefore had not prepared for it.
Industrious digging on the part of the Allies continued night and day; and by the 9th a sufficient number of batteries had been erected to open the bombardment of Yorktown. The serious work of the siege now began. On the 10th, LAFAYETTE, who was general-officer of the day, invited Governor Nelson to be present at the opening of the fire from one of the batteries. “To what particular spot,” LAFAYETTE asked, “would your Excellency d’red that we should point the cannon?” “There,” replied Nelson, “to that house. It is mine and is the best one in the town. There you will be almost certain to find LORD CORNWALLIS and the British headquarters. Fire upon it, my dear Marquis, and never spare a particle of my property so long ai it affords comfort or shelter to the enemies of my country.”
By the 11th, fifty-two pieces were belching from the allied batteries upon the enemy, and had succeeded in nearly silencing their fire. At noon on this day, CORNWALLIS wrote to Clinton: …Many of our works are considerably damaged…. Against so powerful an attack we cannot hope to make a very long residence.”
The turning point in the siege came even sooner than was expected. This was due principally to a second parallel which was constructed about five hundred yards beyond the first parallel, and within storming distance of the British lines. This new parallel was opened on the night of the 11th by detachments of American and French troops under command of Baron von Steuben. It was an exciting and busy night, with its alarms of sorties by the enemy, and the whizzing of shot and shell from the first parallel over the heads of the diggers. Both Steuben and Wayne (second in command) were exposed to fire; and once when a shot fell near them they both threw themselves into a trench, Wayne on top of Steuben. “Ah, ha, Wayne,” laughed Steuben, “you cover your general’s retreat in the best possible manner.”
The second parallel was incomplete for com pact investment, unless it could be extend to the river. But here was a serious obstacle, namely, two outer British redoubts, Numbers 9 and 10, which must first be taken. The resolution to storm them was formed as soon as the necessity became apparent. The assault was assigned to the choice corps of the allied army, the light infantry under LAFAYETTE; and the time selected was the night of the 14th. The French troops, Colonel Deuxponts, stormed Redoubt No. 9, which was captured within thirty minutes. The American troops, under Colonel Alexander Hamilton, stormed Redoubt No.10, which was captured within ten minutes. WASHINGTON was enthusiastic over the success of these brilliant feats, and praised the troops unstintingly.
No sooner were the redoubts taken, when the supporting sappers fell to digging; and by morning both redoubts were included in the second parallel, which thus became complete. The besieged were now dangerously menaced; and CORNWALLIS wrote to Clinton on the 15th: “Last evening the enemy carried two advanced redoubts on the left by dorm; and during the night have included them in their parallel which they are at present busy in perfecting. My situation now becomes critical; we dare not show a gun to their old batteries, and I expect their new ones will open us tomorrow morning…. The safety of the place, therefore, is so precarious, that I cannot recommend that the fleet and army should run any great risk in endeavoring to save us.”
On the night of the 15th, the British made a sortie, for the purpose of crippling some unfinished batteries. But the enemy was driven back, and the sortie proved of no avail. CORNWALLIS now thoroughly appreciated his dangerous position; but determined to make a, desperate effort to escape before surrendering. On the night of the 16th, he began to transfer his troops to the opposite side of the river, at Gloucester Point, with a view of breaking through the besiegers there with his whole force, and by rapid marches push northward to New York.
In regard to this projected escape CORNWALLIS later said: “The success of this attempt would, no doubt, have been precarious, and I cannot say that it would have been practicable to reach New York; but, in our desperate situation, I thought it well deserved a trial.” But the elements interposed to stop him. At midnight a storm arose, which prevented the crossing of all his troops. And at dawn those who had already crossed returned to their old stations at the works, which were now crumbling away under the point-blank fire of the new batteries from the second parallel. Further resistance was useless. “We at that time could not fire a single gun,” reports CORNWALLIS. “I therefore proposed to capitulate.”
On October 17th, at ten o’clock in the morning, a drummer mounted the enemy’s parapet and began to beat a “parley.” Although he could not be heard, he could be seen and the cannonading stopped. A British officer next appeared, waving a white flag. He was met by an American officer, and conducted to the rear, where he delivered a message from CORNWALLIS to WASHINGTON. The British commander asked that hostilities be suspended for twenty-four hours, and that commissioners be appointed to formulate the terms of surrender. WASHINGTON, however, requested CORNWALLIS to submit his proposals in writing within two hours. CORNWALLIS complied, and submitted the terms on which he proposed to capitulate–which included the inadmissible condition that his troops should be sent to England upon parole not to serve again in the war. But WASHINGTON-who desired to waste no time, for fear that the delay might bring relief to the enemy replied with an ultimatum to the effect that the British army must surrender as prisoners of war. CORNWALLIS yielded; and the next day the commissioners met to digest and embody the articles of surrender. On the morning of the 19th these were submitted to CORNWALLIS, accompanied by a note from WASHINGTON intimating his expectation that the terms would be signed by eleven o’clock that morning, and that the troops would march out to deliver their arms at two o’clock that afternoon.
Before eleven o’clock the articles were signed; and at two o’clock the British army evacuated their works. As the prisoners moved out of their entrenchments, and marched along Hampton Road, they found the allied American and French armies drawn up on either side of the way, and extending for more than a mile toward the field of surrender. At the head of the respective lines were the commanding generals–Washington, Rochambeau, Lincoln, Lafayette, Steuben, Knox and their staffs.
CORNWALLIS sent his sword by the hands of General O’Harra for delivery to WASHINGTON, as a token of submission; and General Lincoln was delegated to receive it. The British army then marched to the designated field; and each regiment in turn moved forward and deposited their arms. This was the final act in the great military drama.
The news of the Surrender of CORNWALLIS was everywhere received with the profoundest joy. WASHINGTON’S official report reached Congress on the 24th. Next morning, Congress met to hear the dispatches read; and then proceeded in a body to church, where services of thanksgiving were held. Later, Congress passed resolutions of thanks to the army, and for the erection of a commemorative monument at Yorktown.
Throughout the country there were celebrations and bonfires, with banquets and orations. The President of Yale University wrote to WASHINGTON: “We rejoice that the Sovereign of the Universe hath hitherto supported you ai the deliverer of your Country, and the defender of the liberty and rights of Humanity. We share the public joy, and congratulate our Country on the Glory of your arms, and that eminence to which you have ascended in the recent victory over the EARL OF CORNWALLIS and his army in Virginia.”
In France, the king, Louis XVI, upon hearing of the surrender, ordered a “Te Deum” to be sung in the metropolitan church of Paris; and requested the citizens to celebrate with illuminations the great victory achieved in America.
Even in England, the news of the surrender was received with resignation; and many Britishers rejoiced that the end of the long fratricidal war was now near. Opinion in Parliament rapidly changed after the disaster; and early in 1782 the Commons voted to authorize the King to make peace with America. On the 4th of March a resolution was passed: “….that the House would consider as enemies of his Majesty and the Country all those who should advise, or by any means attempt, the further prosecution of offensive war on the continent of North America, for the purpose of reducing the revolted Colonies to obedience by force.” Those resolutions were received by the English public with general demonstrations of joy. In America they were received with gratitude and relief. Peace was now assured.
On November 30th, 1782, commissioners from both countries met and signed provisional articles of peace; and on September 3rd, 1783, the definitive treaty was formally ratified.
Six years of warfare, from Lexington to Yorktown, was finally at an end. The long and bitter struggle for freedom was at last crowned with success. The Independence of America was now achieved. A new Nation was born–which was destined promptly to achieve a pre-eminent position among the nations of the world.
1782 * Epilogue * 1924
AFTER THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR, the village of Yorktown became the center of a rich agricultural district. But its serenity was again disturbed during the War of 1812, when British troops invaded Virginia and set fire to Yorktown, burning down many of its historic buildings.
Again in 1862, during the war between the Northern and Southern States, Yorktown was the scene of prolonged military struggle. A Confederate army under General Magruder occupied the old Revolutionary forts and trenches, which had been restored and strengthened. When the Union army under General McClellan advanced up the east coast Yorktown was taken and was used as a base during the Peninsular campaign in the operations against Richmond.
During the World War, in 1917-1918, Yorktown was the naval base for the combined American battleship fleet.
Thus, in the four great wars of our national history, Yorktown has played a prominent part. Because of its many historical connections, Yorktown has a surprising interest to every patriotic American.
But, strange to say, notwithstanding its repeated and glorious part in making history, Yorktown has so far been almost completely overlooked by our government and by our people. Although, shortly after the great victory of 1781, Congress voted to place a commemorative monument on the battlefield, more than a hundred years elapsed before that monument was actually erected.
Recognizing the need for concerted adion, certain groups of public-spirited citizens have undertaken to provide ways and means for the restoration and preservation of the Yorktown battlefield in order to make it a national patriotic shrine.
Through the efforts of Virginia Patriotic Societies, a movement is now in progress to secure Congressional amendment of a Bill calling for the establishment at Yorktown of a National Park. The success of these endeavors will save for posterity a sacred spot, about which cluster some of the most significant events connected with our life as a Nation.
In the preparation of the condensed history of the Battle of Yorktown the following Authorities were consulted:
Manuscript Journal of General Washington
Diary of Lieut. Reuben Sanderson
Account of Yorktown Surrender by Lt. Col. Harry Lee
Description of Yorktown Surrender by Col. Fontaine
Report of the Surrender by Lord Cornwallis
The Siege of Yorktown by Col Richard Butler
Lafayette’s Expedition to Virginia by Edward M. Allen
Narrative of the Campaign by Sir Henry Clinton
Journal of the Siege of Yorktown by Chaplain Evans
The Yorktown Campaign by Henry P. Johnston
A Journal of the Southern Expedition, 1780-1783, by Sgt. Major William Seymour
Journal of the Campaign by Lieut. William Feltman
Memoirs of General Samuel Graham
The Campaign in Virginia in 1781 by Benjamin Franklin Stevens
Journal of Operations 1780-1781 by Count Fersen
Correspondence of Marquis de Lafayette
The Revolutionary War by Gen. Francis Vinton Greene
Campaigns and Battles of the Revolution by Edward Everett Hale
Memoirs of the Duc de Lauzun
A History of the Battles of the Revolution by Charles Carleton Coffin
Letters of Governor Thomas Nelson
Battles of the American Revolution by Henry Beebe Carringion
The American Revolution by John Fiske
Memoirs of Lieut. Col. Tench Tilghman
History of the Campaign of 1780-1781 by Lieut. Col. Banastre Carleton