Skip to content

The Story of the Campaign And Siege of Yorktown

The American Revolution

[Written by H. J. Eckenrode, Historian of the Virginia Conservation and Development Commission, for the United States Yorktown Sesquicentennial Commission. Published by The United States Senate in 1931 as Senate document No. 318, a paper back publication of 54 pages.]


In preparing an account of the Yorktown campaign of 1781 many works were consulted. Those to which I am most indebted are The Revolutionary War and the Military Policy of the United States by Francis Vinton Greene; The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis, 1781, by Henry P. Johnston; The British Navy in Adversity by Capt. W. M. James; A Naval History of the American Revolution, by Gardner W. Allen; France in the American Revolution by James Breck Perkins; The Marquis de Lafayette in the American Revolution, by Charlemagne Tower.

H. J. Eckenrode.

THE American Colonies were owned, or claimed by England from the dates of their settlement, beginning with Jamestown in 1607, until 1776. Settled mainly by colonists from England, Scotland, and Ireland, though also by Hollanders, Germans, and Frenchmen, the Colonies faithfully reproduced English institutions. The rights of Englishmen were carefully preserved for all in the Colonies. Parliament was represented by the colonial assemblies, one for each colony, and the laws passed by these assemblies were the principal laws of the Colonies, even if English law was also observed.

The English Colonies were for a long time drawn by close ties to the mother country on account of the menace of the French in Canada, but they desired a still greater degree of liberty than they enjoyed. After the fall of Canada and the treaty of Paris (1763), which transferred Canada to Great Britain, the grievances of the Colonials became more vivid because there was no longer danger of foreign invasion. And at this moment, when everything depended on the attitude of England toward the Colonies, King and Parliament took on a domineering air. Great Bntain had incurred great war debts and burdensome taxation, and British politicians concluded to levy taxes on the people of the Colonies, who had no voice in Parliament. Consequently Parliament, in 1765, passed the famous stamp act, which required the putting of stamps on newspapers and legal documents.

For a moment it was not certain what the Colonies would do in regard to this aggression on their rights of self-government and self-taxation by the mother country, but the doubt was soon settled by Patrick Henry. Henry, in the Virginia House of Burgesses, succeeded in passing resolutions denouncing the action of Parliament, and from that time until 1775 the British Government and the Colonies were in conflict. The other Colonies at once followed Virginnia’s lead in resisting the stamp act, and Parliament repealed it. The retreat, however, was only temporary, and other taxes succeeded the stamp act, followed by oppressive measures. Later the center of resistance was moved to Boston, which was for a time punished by the British Government by being closed as a port for commerce. The Colonials refused to abandon their claim to seff-government; Parliament refused to recede from its right to tax the Colonies as a part of the British Empire. Since neither party would give way, a military struggle was bound to come. The Colonials believed they were fighting for the principles established by Magna Charta in 1215.


The war opened at Lexington, Mass., in April, 1775, when a column of British troops, on the way to Concord to destroy military stores belonging to Massachusetts, was opposed by minutemen, or militia. The British troops fired on the militia, killing and wounding a few of them. When the British returned from Concord they were set upon all along the way by the brave farmers, and their march nearly became a rout. About the same time Lord Dunmore seized powder at Williamsburg belonging to Virginia, thus beginning the war in the South. A New England army gathered before Boston, where the British troops were quartered, and in June, 1775, the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought, in which the Americans showed great valor and inflicted heavy losses on the British.


Before this event representatives from the thirteen Colonies had met at Philadelphia and established the Government of the United States of America. This Continental Congress, as it was called, adopted the New England army as its own and appointed George Washington, of Virginia, Commander in Chief. Washington at once went to Boston and assumed command.


The story of Washington now became that of the Continental Army. The British were expelled from Boston,but they took NewYork in September, 1776, having defeated Washington in the Battle of Long Island inAugust. Some time before, on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress had declared the United States to be a free and independent Nation. But the national life began under gloomy auspices, for in the latter half of i776 the Continental Army, beaten and discouraged, almost dissolved. It was held together by the will of Washington, who, on Christmas night of 1776, crossed the Delaware River through the floating ice and surprised and captured a British detachment at Trenton, N.J. Some days later he defeated another detachment at Princeton, N.J. These vktories put new life into the American cause. The year 1777 witnessed a British invasion of New York from Canada under Gen. John Burgoyne. Burgoyne, however, had to march for hundreds of miles through unbroken forest. Detachments of his army were beaten by local militia, and he himself was defeated and forced to surrender at Saratoga, N.Y.


While Burgoyne had been blundering down from Canada, Lord Howe had sailed to Philadelphia with the main British army. Washington was defeated in two battles at Brandywine and Germantown, Pa., and Philadelphia, the American Capital,fell into British hands. The British occupied it in the winter of 1777-78, while the remnant of Washington’s army froze and starved at Valley Forge, a few miles west of the city.

EVENTS OF 1778, 1779, AND 1780

The victory at Saratoga, together with the efforts of Benjamin Franklin, the American envoy to Paris, brought France into the war in 1778. A French fleet came over to Washington’s assistance. Lord Howe abandoned Philadelphia, falling back across New Jersey to New York in June, 1778. On the way he was attacked at Monmouth Courthouse, N.J., bywashington,who won a victory after a fierce engagement. The year 1779 passed without notable events, but in 1780 the British, defeated in the North,turned their attention to the South with marked success. Charleston, S. C., was captured; and the American Army in the South, under the command of General Gates, the victor of Saratoga, was utterly routed at Camden, S.C. Georgia and North and South Carolina largely came under British control.


Washington now sent Nathanael Greene, of Rhode Island, to oommand the southern army, nearly destroyed under Gates. Greene carried on his campaign with great caution and much success. Cornwallis, the British commander in the South, was unable to take him at a disadvantage as he had Gates. Still in 1780 the American cause, in spite of French assistance, seemed at a low ebb. In New York the American general, Benedict Arnold, attempted to betray the strong fortress of West Point to the British, and was only foiled by what seemed to be an intervention of Providence, when the British agent, Major Andre was captured.


The tide turned in the autumn of 1780. In October a British force was cornered at Kings Mountain, N. C., by a gathering of frontiersmen from Virginia and North and South Carolina, who won a great victory with little loss. In January, 1781, Cornwallis’s cavalry commander, Banastre Tarleton, was beaten at the Cowpens, S.C., by Daniel Morgan, who had done great service at Saratoga. Cornwallis now pursued Greene across the State of North Carolina and into Virginia, hoping to end the war in the South at a blow. Unable to catch the Americans, he returned to North Carolina, followed in turn by Greene, who had been reinforced. On March 15, 1781, the two armies clashed at Guilford Courthouse in the fiercest battle of the war. Greene at last yielded up the field, but Cornwallis’s army had been so roughly handled and his losses were so great that he fell back to Wilmington, and most of North Carolina came into American hands again.


Virginia had not been the scene of serious military operations since 1776, when the last royal governor was expelled. However, it was much exhausted by the struggle. It largely supported Washington’s army in the North in the early period of the war, and it sent most of the arms within its limits to that army. Its paper currency was worthless, and the State was bankrupt. In 1779 and 1780 British forces landed at Portsmouth to make raids and met with little resistance from the militia. The helplessness of the State in the face of the raiders led the British to think of establishing a permanent post on Chesapeake Bay. In the last days of 1780 Benedict Arnold, the traitor, who had become a brigadier general in the British Army, sailed into Hampton Roads with a small force to establish a base for raids in the Old Dominion.


Arnold was noted for his boldness. He had no idea of plundering and burning merely in the vicinity of Portsmouth and then sailing away, as other British raiders had done. He aimed at striking a blow at the heart of the State. Without pausing more than a day or two, he pushed straight up the James River and landed at Westover, the most notable plantation in Virginia. Then he hastened by road to Richmond, audaciously leading his small force to what might have seemed Certain destruction.

Actually, he had little to fear because of the State’s prostrate condition. There were no regular troops at hand, and it took several days for the militia to assemble in force at the courthouses in the country. Arnold calculated on doing what he intended within those few days of grace.

Thomas Jefferson, Governor of Virginia, was forced to flee because he had no means of defending Richmond. A small militia force did attempt to make a stand, but it was easily scattered. Then the capital of Virginia lay at the invader’s mercy. Richmond in those days had just become the capital and was a mere village. However, some supplies and military stores were there, and these Arnold destroyed, together with a quantity of tobacco. A foundry near Richmond was burned. Then, as the militia were gathering, Arnold returned to Westover and took ship there.

It seemed that he would go and come entirely unopposed, but George Rogers Clark, the conqueror of the Northwest, then in Virginia, determined that this shame should not be. Arnold landed some men on the James River bank to attack militia, and Clark ambushed this force, killing and wounding a number. Then because he had only a handful of militiamen, the gallant Clark was forced to retire. Arnold returned to Portsmouth, where he threw up some earthworks by way of protection and settled himself. The British thus held another port between Wilmington, N. C., and New York.


At that time Baron Steuben, the officer from Frederick the Great’s Prussian Army who had reorganized the American Army and drilled it into efficiency at Valley Forge, was the Continental commander in Virginia. He had no regular troops, but he had been busy drilling the militia, which lacked food, clothes, weapons, everything. Washington strongly desired to capture Arnold,whose treason had made him especially obnox ious and who was a ruthless plunderer. He now determined to send the Marquis de Lafayette to Virginia to see if he could entrap Arnold. Lafayette was a young French noble who had come over tojoin the Americans. He had been made a major general and had distinguished himself by his bravery and good sense.


Washington’s Army lay near New York observing the British Army in that town and hopeful of getting a chance to attack it. Washington himself was set on the capture of New York, but he sent Lafayette to meet the dangerous situation developing in Virginia. The plan was for Lafayette to attack Arnold at Portsmouth while a French fleet sailed down from Newport, R. I., and bottled him up on the sea side. A French army under Rochambeau had landed at Newport in June, 1780.

Lafayette left Pompton,N. J., on February 23, 1781,with 1,200 New England and New Jersey troops. On March 3 he reached the head of Chesapeake Bay, from which point he was to put his men on transports to take them to Portsmouth. Going to Virginia ahead of his force, he received the discouraging news that the French Fleet had come and gone.

A small French fleet had, indeed, put into Chesapeake Bay, but found that the Elizabeth River, on which Portsmouth stands, was too shallow. On leaving Chesapeake Bay the fleet ran into a British squadron under Admiral Arbuthnot and, though it had the better of a fight, sailed away. The attempt to capture Arnold thus was an entire failure, and Lafayette returned to Washington’s army in mortification.

The threat of Arnold at Portsmouth now suddenly became a menace when another British force, under General Phillips, sailed into Chesapeake Bay. The only opposition to this force was a handful of troops and a mob of militia collected by the good Baron Steuben, who was trying, in German, French, and broken English, to drill men naked, starving, and utterly ignorant into soldiers. The Virginia militiamen finally rendered good service.

The British force under Phillips, the senior officer, who was accompanied by Arnold, came up the James River. Towns and tobacco warehouses along the river were plundered and burned. Petersburg was the point aimed at; and Steuben and Peter Muhlenberg, assisting him, were courageous enough to oppose their half-trained militia to the British regulars in an effort to save the city, April 25, 1781. The battle of Petersburg was the first engagement of the Yorktown campaign. Steuben could not have hoped to win, but the value of his discipline and training was evident in the resistance made by the militia and in their orderly retreat. The last days of April were spent by Arnold in plundering and burning along the James River near Richmond. However, he did not cross over to Richmond, on the north side, because Lafayette was now there with about a thousand Continentals and some militia. For a second time Washington had sent him South; and at Frederkksburg, on April 25, 1781, the young French noble assumed the command of the American forces in Virginia.

For a while Lafayette was content to protect Richmond and the north side of James River from devastation. However, early in May he crossed the river and on May 10 reached the Appomattox River opposite Petersburg. There his guns fired on the British in the city across the stream. At that very time Phillips lay dying in a house within the range of Lafayette’s guns, though the Americans did not know this. Three days later Phillips died, leaving the command of the British force to Arnold.


Arnold’s presence, indeed, acted as a magnet, drawing both sides to Virginia. The traitor had first drawn Lafayette in the effort to capture him; then Phillips had come to his support. He was now about to be superseded by the British commander in the South, who had decided to carry his army into Virginia. Earl Cornwallis had come to the conclusion that he could not conquer the South unless the Old Dominion was subdued. He had won a great victory at Camden, but Greene had prompdy come down through Virginia, and Greene was a better general than Gates. Supplies and reinforcements went to Greene from the North through Virginia. If that State was conquered, aid for the patriots in the Carolinas would become impossible, as the British held the command of the sea.

Cornwallis, leaving Wilmington, entered Virginia on May 16, 1781.


Cornwallis plodded slowly along the bad roads of those days, reaching Petersburg on May 20. With him came Banastre Tarleton, the famous cavalry commander, whose courage, ferocity, and tireless activity had made him a terror to the patriots of the South With Arnold was the other noted cavalryman, Simcoe. The combined force seems small 7,500 men-but the troops were well-trained veterans and the officers were brilliant. At that moment it appeared that Virginia was in imminent danger of being conquered.


Meanwhile Lafayette was at Wilton, a plantation house on the north side of the James River a few miles below Richmond. Able to oppose Arnold, he could not possibly resist Cornwallis’s overwhelming army. The British general, realizing the importance of destroying the only Continental force in Virginia, left Petersburg on May 24 in the hope of catching Lafayette, Marching eastward, he crossed the James River at Westover.

Lafayette, however, was not to be caught napping. Breaking camp, he rapidly retreated northward, passing through Rich mond. Cornwallis followed by parallel roads to the east. The chase continued for several days, but when Lafayette crossed the North Anna River in safety Cornwallis gave up the pursuit. He turned westward, following the Virginia government, which had fled from Richmond to Charlottesville. Lafayette meanwhile made his way to the Rapidan River, near the town of Culpeper, where he joined forces with General Wayne, hero of Stony Point. “Mad Anthony” had been sent to Virginia to reinforce Lafayette. Gradually the whole Continental Army was being drawn in that direction. Wayne brought with him his Pennsylvania regulars, excellent troops if few in number. Lafayette now felt strong enough to follow Cornwallis and harass him, and he, too, marched toward Charlottesville in order to protect the military stores in that vicinity.


Cornwallis did not reach Charlottesville. The weather was hot, the roads were bad, his army was worn out with marching. Stopping on the James River at Elk Hill, a farm belonging to Thomas Jefferson, which he ruthlessly plundered, he sent out two raiding columns, one under Tarleton to capture the Virginia government, the other under Simcoe to destroy stores on the upper James River. Tarleton was foiled in a curious way. A patriot, Jack Jouett, loafing at an inn, saw the British cavalry ride by and at once guessed that Charlottesville was the objective. Imitating Paul Revere, the patriot rode across country by devious ways and reached Charlottesville ahead of Tarleton. In this way Jefferson and the Virginia government were saved. Simcoe was more successful. Deceiving Baron Steuben into believing that the whole British Army was with him, he destroyed a quantity of abandoned stores.


Cornwallis now gave up the idea of immediately conquering Virginia. He decided that it would be necessary to fortify a post on the seacoast, where he could be in easy communication with Sir Henry Clinton in New York. Besides, the weather was very hot and his men were badly in need of rest. Furthermore, Clinton, fearing that Washington was about to attack New York, called on Cornwallis for troops. Accordingly he turned eastward on June 15, passing tlirough Richmond and continuing on toward Williamsburg. At once Lafayette and Wayne followed him, unable to meet him in open battle but hoping to harass him. The Frenchman acted with great caution, camping at night in such a way that his troops could be easily concentrated at need.

On June 26 a party of Americans came into conflict with some British cavalry at Spencer’s ordinary, near Williamsburg, and a sharp brush followed. The Americans were encouraged by the fight they put up, even if they were not victorious. There was nothing at Williamsburg to hold Cornwallis, and he wished to reach the sea. Accordingly, he left Williamsburg, July 4, 1781, while the Americans were celebrating the Fourth of July, on the move that ended at Yorktown.

Lafayette realized that Cornwallis was moving to the James River with the purpose of crossing, and hoped to get a chance to attack while the British Army was divided by the river, a mile wide at that point. Breaking camp on July 5, Lafayette also marched toward Jamestown.

On the morning of July 6 Lafayette, 8 miles from Jamestown, received reports that Cornwallis was then crossing the river. He immediately sent Wayne, with 500 men, to attack the rear guard still at Jamestown. Wayne marched to Green Spring, about 2 miles from Jamestown and half a mile from Cornwallis’s outposts. There the American leaders heard con- flicting news, and sent for the rest of the army to come up.


Green Spring, noted as being the estate of the seventeenth-century governor, Sir William Berkeley, was marshland on the southern side, that toward Jamestown. Across this marsh a road and causeway ran from Green Spring house into the inain road from Williamsburg to Jamestown. A mile from the swamp the main road would carry the Americans into Cornwallis’s camp. The British Army was still there, for its commander had foreseen the probability that the Americans would attack him while engaged in crossing the river. Only Simcoe’s rangers had as yet been ferried over.

Wayne spent the early afternoon skirmishing with the British pickets. Gradually these pickets fell back, allowing Wayne to advance; a part of his force crossed the swamp on the causeway. The American van reached the wood on the British side of the marsh; fighting went on there for some time.


It was now 5 o’clock in the afternoon and Wayne, with 500 men, was within a short distance of the whole British Army, drawn up in line of battle just in the rear of the woods. Shortly before this the rest of the Continentals had arrived on the field.

Lafayette was uncertain whether or not the British Army had crossed the river and he acted with caution, sending a part of his remaining Continentals across the morass to Wayne but keeping the greater partm reserve at Green Spring. Pushing ahead along the river to survey, Lafayette discovered that the British Army had not crossed. He at once rode back, determined to withdraw Wayne across the marsh.

While he was gone the battle began. Cornwallis, tiring of waiting, threw off the mask and ordered his lines to advance. Suddenly Wayne found himself, with his small force, in the immediate front of the whole British Army. His peril was imminent and an instant decision had to be made. Retreat across the causeway was difficult, if not impossible. To await the advancing army would be to invite ruin. There was no other course but to attack, and Wayne took this course. He ordered his men to charge the British, whom he knew to be several times the number of his force. The desperate move succeeded. The Americans, advancing, were soon engaged in a furious fight with the enemy. But the British had been brought to a halt, and Cornwallis was uncertain as to the size of the force attacking him. The result was that Wayne was able at length to withdraw his men across the causeway to safety on the other side. It was too late in the afternoon for the British cavalry to pursue.

Lafayette thus escaped destruction, though by a narrow margin. The Battle of Green Spring was more important than the losses on both sides-about 250 men-would indicate. The destruction of Lafayette’s army at that moment of depression would have been a serious blow to the American cause, for it included a considerable part of Washington’s forces. A great success might have caused Cornwallis to abandon his withdrawal to the seaside, and the Siege of Yorktown would never have taken place. As it was, Cornwallis had won a success, but it was only partial, and he did not alter his plans. His army crossed the river and moved on to Portsmouth without further molestation.


The conquest of Virginia had failed. Cornwallis, fromCobham, immediately opposite Jamestown, sent Tarleton on a long raid through southern Virginia, in which nothing was accomplished beyond some plundering and burning. Cornwallis had gone to Portsmouth for the purpose of sending a part of his army to Clinton, in New York, but instead of doing so he moved his army to Yorktown early in August and began fortifying that place.

Clinton had changed his plans; he had decided not to draw on Cornwallis for troops. He instructed Cornwallis to fortify Old Point Comfort as a naval station and occupy Yorktown also, if necessary. Cornwallis had Old Point Comfort examined for a naval station, but decided the channel was too wide to be commanded by his guns. He then moved on to Yorktown and settled there, not realizing the trap into which he had fallen. If he had made Old Point Comfort his base, he could have crossed over to Portsmouth on the approach of hostile forces, but at Yorktown he was in a position difficult to defend and almost impossible to escape from. This decision was the event that decided the war in favor of the Americans.


While Cornwallis in Virginia was waging a campaign that was on the whole favorable, Washington was wrestling with the dangers and anxieties of his situation. His army was dwindling, not growing. The Continental Congress had no resources left, and but for French help it is probable the American Army could not have kept the field in 1781.

Washington’s army was so small that, unless the French came in force, he could do nothing. Sir Henry Clinton, in New York, had an army of 10,000 seasoned veterans and a large naval force. Washington, confronting him at West Point, had only 3,500 Continentals, mainly from New England. The New York troops were on the frontier; those of New Jersey were in their State, while the Pennsylvanians were with Lafayette; they had just displayed their valor at Green Spring. The southern troops were mainly in Greene’s army. The French Army, commanded by Comte Rochambeau, was 4,000 strong and was camped at Newport, R. I. (since landing in July, 1780), protecting the French Fleet there. However, a larger French army and a larger French fleet had been promised, though they had not come. It will be seen that everything depended on this reinforcement.


In spite of the discouraging situation, Washington planned to attack the British. On May 22, 1781, the American leader went to Wethersfield, Conn., to confer with Rochambeau and his associates. A plan was agreed on, to be changed if circumstances warranted.

New York was the Bntjsh base in the United States, and its capture would mean the complete overthrow of the British power in the North. For this reason-because of the over-whelming importance of New York-Washington naturally wished to take it. Besides, the British Army in New York had been reduced by forces sent to the South. The city might possibly be captured by a combined French and American attack. However, the situation of New York, on an island, made a movement agamst it almost impossible unless the French held command of the sea, and this they did not have. The French Fleet at Newport was blockaded by a larger British Fleet.

On the other hand, something might be done in the South, where the two American armies-that of Greene in South Carolina and that of Lafayette in Virginia-were badly in need of reinforcements. Washington, however, hesitated on taking his army south because the British held command of the sea and the men would have to march overland, by bad roads, without proper food and equipment, and the New Englanders did not wish to go South in the summer. Besides, if Washington left New York, Clinton would be free to reinforce Cornwallis in Virginia. The problem was knotty.

The plan adopted was to attack the British either in New York or in the South, as circumstances rnight determine, pref erably in New York. The immediate plan called for a junction of the French force at Newport with Washington’s army on the Hudson, to be followed by an attack on New York if that seemed promising.

This was all that could be done at the moment. Washington knew that Comte de Grasse had sailed from France for the West Indies with a great fleet, but he did not know what that fleet would do. At that time Spain and France, allies, were seeking to conquer the British islands in the West Indies, in which they were more interested than in the war going on in the United States.


At Wethersfield, Washington did something of still greater importance than hold a council of war; he wrote to Luzerne, the French minister at Philadelphia, urging him to use his influence to bring De Grasse to the American coast to aid in the campaign. Meanwhile, pending word from the French admiral, Washington and Rochambeau decided to proceed with the mpvement against New York by land. Washington returned to his army and began to make preparations.

In the middle of June Washington received news that made him joyful. Rochambeau wrote that Dc Grasse was coming to America-with his powerful fleet to take a hand in the war. This changed the whole aspect of affairs. Moreover, Cornwallis was invirginia, apparently bent on the conquest of the State. There was a new combination to be thought of, something besides New York to be aimed at. From now on Washington watched Cornwallis’s maneuvers in Virginia with increased interest, smce he had begun to think that a movement to the South, so difficult in the case of South Carolina, might be feasible in the case of Virginia.

Rochambeau had received, on June 9, a letter from DeGrasse announcing that he would sail for the United States and that he could not stay long, as he would be obliged to return to the West Indies. The allied commanders would have to decide the point for which he should sail. Rochambeau, answering, advised him to look into Chesapeake Bay on his way up the American coast, to see if anything could be done there, and then keep on to New York to join the allied armies in an attack on that city. Rochambeau was merely repeating to Dc Grasse what had been decided on at Wethersfield.


The first week in July the French troops from Newport joined Washington on the Hudson near Peekskill. Washington was akeady planning to attack the British forts north of New York, but his arrangements fell through and nothing came of the plan. Yet Washington’s movements against the city convinced Clinton that New York was the object aimed at. In this way the British commander came to call on Cornwallis, in Virginia, for aid, bringing to an end the latter’s dream of conquering that State.

On August 14 another letter from Dc Grasse reached the allied commanders on the Hudson, news of the utmost importance. The French admiral announced that he would sail for Chesapeake Bay on August 13, in the hope of operating-there rather than against New York, and asked for the immediate cooperation of the land forces, as he would have to set sail on his return to the West Indies by the middle of October.


Washington long cherished the idea and was the originator of the plan of a campaign against Cornwallis in the South if an attack on New York should not seem feasible. In fact, he was considering two plans-an attack on New York or an attack on Cornwallis at Yorktown. Which plan was to be chosen de- pended on circumstances, and now the circumstances pointed to Yorktown. One factor that decided Washington was that the French naval officers did not wish to enter New York Harbor in the face of opposition, a perilous thing to do with a British fleet as large or larger at hand. It was much safer to act in Chesapeake Bay, at a distance from New York.

The chief glory of the decision belongs to Washington. If he had declined to act or had acted reluctantly, the whole plan would have fallen through. For some time Washington had been seriously considering a move south, and when this message came from De Grasse he was ready for it. And, as a matter of fact, the plan itself was of less importance than the skill with which the plan was carried out. Few soldiers of any age have shown greater military ability than Washington exhibited in the crisis of the Revolution.

Washington, when he once reached a decision, acted swiftly. He had shown this when he so suddenly turned on the victorious British at Trenton and Princeton at the end of the campaign of i776. He showed it again now in the Yorktown campaign.


The movement against Cornwallis was one of great difficulty. The British in reality had a larger naval force in American waters than the French had, if their forces were brought together. The British had more troops than the Americans and French, if those troops were brought together. In other words, everything depended on the bringing together of the French and American land and naval forces at Yorktown while the British naval and land forces were divided. This was the gist of the matter.

But how was the French-American Army to slip away to Virginia while Clinton remained passive in New York? If Clinton should suspect the destination of Washington and Rochambeau, he could bring together his ships and sail for Chesapeake Bay with the bulk of his army. Then, on arriving, the French and Americans would find the tables turned. Even if Clinton did not come, other things might occur. Suppose that DeGrasse did not arrive from the West Indies on time, that he was detained by accident or beaten by the British Fleet: Then the French and American Armies would have made a long and trying march entirely in vain. Many things might happen to defeat Washington’s plans. That those plans went through smoothly is due in a large degree to Washington’s preparations and energy. No military movement made in America ever exceeded in difficulty this cooperation of two armies at New York with a fleet in the West Indies many hundreds of miles away. For that purpose the timing had to be perfect. Armies and fleet must reach Chesapeake Bay at nearly the same time, or else Cornwallis would take the alarm and escape southward into North Carolina at the appearance of either army or fleet alone. He would have to be blocked both by land and sea.

As late as the 1st of August Washington thought that an attack on New York was more promising. For one thing, he did not know where Cornwallis was, and Cornwallis at Portsmouth could have retreated into North Carolina if a hostile fleet and army appeared. Washington could not have foreseen that the British general would place himself in a position from which there was no retreat except by sea.


Probably the movement against Yorktown succeeded because of its very boldness. Probably Sir Henry Clinton did not believe that Washington would leave New York and New Jersey practically defenseless while he carried the French and American Armies to Chesapeake Bay. Indeed, he was so convinced that Washington was determined to attack New York that he did not understand Washington’s change of plan until too late to foil it. This shows the great skill with which Washington conducted his operations in 1781. Although giving up the movement against New York, he had so used the threat as to paralyze the British general there.

Washington, in fact, had turned his intended attack on New York into a feint. Ovens were built in New Jersey for the French troops, implying a long stay there. But at that very moment the allied commanders were preparing to move.

The troops selected for the service were the 4,000 Frenchmen commanded by Rochambeau and 2,000 Continentals, mainly of the New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island line, with Hazen’s Canadian regiment. The rest of Washington’s army–10 Massachusetts regiments, 5 Connecticut regiments, and other troops–consisting of less than 4,000 men, remained to guard West Point and the Highlands.

On the morning of August 19, 1781, the Army began to march from Dobbs Ferry. Moving through New Jersey, Washington appeared to be preparing to attack New York from that side. Therefore Clinton, expecting to be attacked, was not surprised at the move and entirely failed to read Washington’s intentions.

The Americans crossed the Hudson at Kings Ferry on August 21 and 22; the French, laden with camp equipage, were slower, not crossing until August 26. Washington, who had taken up his quarters in the Smith house at Haverstraw, where Arnold plotted with Andre’, supervised the crossing.

The Army now moved by three roads toward Princeton. On August 28 the two forces camped near Chatham, where they remained a day. Even now it seemed that Washington might be aiming at New York. But on August 30 the marching columns bore abruptly away from New York and headed for Princeton and Trenton.

The movement from the vicinity of New York had been managed with great sliill. Only the commanding officers knew the destination, and consequently the British learned nothing of it from spies or deserters. However, t here was now no longer any reason for secrecy, and the two armies marched rapidly to the Delaware River. It had been planned to transport the troops by water to Wilmington; but there were not enough boats, andso the march continued by land. Crossing the Delaware on September I, the Americans reached Philadelphia on September 2, the French on the following day.


Washington and Rochambeau had arrived in that city in advance of the armies on August 30. The generals and staff officers, alighting at the City Tavern, received an ovation from the crowd. The party then went to the house of Robert Morris, Superintendent of Finance, for dinner. Toasts were drunk to the United States, the Kings of France and Spain, the allies, and Count de Grasse, the French admiral. In the evening there was a general illumination of the city in Washington’s honor.

The marching troops were also warmly received. The Americans marched through Philadelphia without stopping. The feet of the marchers raised such a dust as almost smothered the hundreds of spectators. The soldiers moved to the music of fifes and drums; behind came the cannon and the wagons carrying tents and provisions.

The French Army, following, was welcomed even more heartily. In fact, few Americans had ever witnessed such a parade. The French troops, beautifully uniformed in white broadcloth, with different~olored facings for the several regiments, were the best-appointed soldiers then in the world. Moreover, they had a brass band, and brass bands were a novelty to the Americans of that age. The uniformed men marching in perfect time, the beautiful flags, the music of the band, made up such a scene as Philadelphia had never before seen. The French passed in review before the Continental Congress, the Members of which took off their hats to Washington and Rochambeau. The generals passed on ahead of the troops, reaching Chester on September 5. That same day the Soissonnais Regiment gave a dress drill in the presence of 20,000 spectators in Philadelphia. The superb troops, clad in white coats faced with pink and wearing white plumes in their hats, made a brilliant appearance. That night the French minister, the Chevalier de la Luzerne, gave a great banquet. Amidst the revelry a courier arrived. Luzerne read the dispatch while the guests waited in breathless interest. Finally the French minister arose and announced: “Thirty-six ships of the line, commanded by the Comte de Grasse, are in Chesapeake Bay, and 3,000 troops have disembarked and are now in communication with the Marquis de Lafayette.” It was a happy crisis to a gorgeous entertainment.

The French delayed in Philadelphia while the Continentals were pressing onward. On September 4 the latter made a march of 20 miles, through Chester, Brandywine, and Wilmington. On September 6 they reached Head of Elk (now Elkton), a short distance from Chesapeake Bay. They had marched 200 miles in 15 days, and in hot weather. On September 6 the French arrived, and the troops were ready for the last stage of the journey.


Everything depended on Dc Grasse’s cooperation, and before September 5 Washington and Rochambeau had had no news of the French admiral. They knew that British squadrons under Rodney and Hood were in the West Indies, and they feared that these had intercepted DC Grasse. But information soon relieved the suspense. Washington, arriving in Chester on the afternoon of September 5, received word that DC Grasse was in Chesapeake Bay. Overjoyed at the way in which his plans were working out, he issued a complimentary order to his army on the next day, September 6. At the same time the American troops, for the first time in many weary months, received pay, and in good money, too-borrowed from the French.


Meantime what was happening in Virginia? Corriwallis had now been in that State since the latter part of May. Since the midd]e of July Lafayette had been content to watch him from a distance. After the Battle of Green Spring Lafayette retired westward, taking up a position on the James River at Malvern Hill (later famous as the scene of the great battle of July 1, 1862), 15 miles below Richmond, where he could prevent Cornwallis from sending raiding parties in that direction. When he heard that Cornwallis had sailed up Chesapeake Bay instead of to New York, the Frenchman broke camp at Malvern Hill and finally took up a position on the Pamunkey River (the upper York), where he was able to keep watch on Cornwallis at Yorktown. He was greatly in need of cavalry, but the British horse under Tarleton and Simcoe had abandoned their raids.

Lafayette had long urged Washington to come to Virginia and take command in person. On August 25 he received word from Washington that he was about to move south with a part of his army and that De Grasse was on the way to the Chesapeake. It was now Lafayette’s part in the war game to prevent Cornwallis’s retreat into North Carolina in case the British general discovered the cdmbined land and naval attack about to be made on him. Wayne, who had started off to join Greene in South Carolina, was recalled at once, and took up his position on the south side of the James River opposite the famous colonial estate of Westover. The consequence was that if Cornwallis attempted to cross the James River and escape southward he would find Lafayette and Wayne in his path.


The whole campaign now turned on which side should command the sea for the next few weeks. Up to this time during the whole course of the war the British had possessed the great advantage of having entire command of the sea. This control of the water had enabled Sir William Howe to take New York in 1776 and Philadelphia in 1777; it made it easy for Clinton to besiege Charleston in 1780. It seemed to promise immunity to Cornwallis at Yorktown. But Washington hoped that the British superiority at sea might be overcome, and his hope was now destined to be fulfilled.

The French had had a small fleet at Newport, R. I., for some time. That fleet had sailed to Chesapeake Bay in March, 1781, to aid in an attack on Arnold, but it did nothing more than fight an indecisive action with Admiral Arbuthnot and return to Newport. Its present cornmander, Barras, longed to go off on a wild-goose chase to Newfoundland, though the French needed every ship to secure overwhelming strength at Yorktown. Barras was finally induced to sail for Chesapeake Bay instead of Newfoundland, and this was the last link in the chain of circumstance that led to the victory of Yorktown.

The British might have been in superior force in the waters of the United States, if that had been their only object. But they were fighting in the West Indies as well as in the United States, and their main fleet, under Admiral Rodney, lay at a West Indian island. Rodney, learning that Dc Grasse had sailed westward, returned to England after sending Admiral Hood to join Admiral Graves, the British naval commander at New York, and head off DeGrasse.


Hood sailed from the West Indies with 14 ships of the line (large warships) and 6 frigates. Reaching Chesapeake Bay on August 25, he looked in and found no French there. Accordingly, he kept on to New York and informed Graves of DeGrasse’s expected coming.

Meanwhile DC Grasse had arrived at the Virginia capes. He entered Chesapeake Bay on August 30, only five days after Hood. His force was the most imposing naval array ever seen on the American coast. It consisted of 28 ships of the line and 6 frigates, and it brought 3,000 French troops under the command of the Marquis de St. Simon.

Lafayette had already requested the immediate cooperation of the French troops, for he knew that Cornwallis must soon realize his peril and might try to escape southward. To make this impossible Lafayette moved from the Pamunkey River to Williamsburg, where he joined forces with Wayne and St. Simon. The French-American force took up a position on September 7 across the York-James Peninsula confronting Cornwallis whose retreat southward was now rendered impossible. His only chance of deliverance was in the British fleet. And this was still a possibility.

Rodney had not believed that Dc Grasse would sail for the Chesapeake with his whole fleet, but would only send a part. Graves, in New York, had expected to make an expedition to Newport to attack the French Fleet there; but on August 31 he received word that Barras had sailed from that port, and he inferred that the French gquadron was bound for the Chesapeake. Barras had only done this in answer to Washington’s urging, as he preferred to operate to the north, and independently of DeGrasse. Graves sailed for the Chesapeake soon afterwards, hoping to catch Barras there before the arrival of DeGrasse. His fleet numbered 19 ships of the line, as against Barras’s 8 ships of the line.


Graves’s fleet appeared off Chesapeake Bay on the morning of September 5, 1781. At 8 a. m. a French frigate doing scouting duty reported the arrival, and DC Grasse hoped it was Barras’s squadron from Newport. At 10 a. m. the British discovered the presence of the French ships. In the next hour the British admiral had a full view of the French Fleet anchored near the mouth of the Chesapeake, at Cape Henry.

By this time Dc Grasse had learned that the strange sails were those of the enemy and not of Barras. He accordingly made preparations to sail out of Chesapeake Bay in order to have sea room for the engagement he knew was at hand. The fact that the British had in a sense surprised him gave them a great advantage. The British ships were coming down before the wind in compact order while the French admiral was engaged in the process of getting out of the harbor and into the ocean. If Graves had attacked the leading French ships as they straggled out of the harbor, one by one, he must have won a victory.

Instead of doing so, Graves formed his fleet in a line from cast to west, which brought his ships parallel to the French ships that had sailed out into the ocean This was at 1 p. m. A little after 2 o’clock Graves signaled the ships to change their course. At that time the French Fleet was about 3 miles away.


At 2.30 p. m. Graves decided that the time had come to attack. The British were approaching the French. At 3.45 p m. Graves hoisted the signal to “bear down and engage the enemy.” The leading ships were now near enough to the French to open fire, and soon the hostile craft were exchanging broadsides. The British ships, keeping strictly in line, were not all engaged. As there was a gap between the French van and the Center and rear, DC Grasse ordered his leading ships to steer away from the British, so that he might form a proper line before coming to a close contest. This movement took the French ships out of the range of British fire, and about Sunset the action came to an end.

Graves had lost a great opportunity to win a decisive victory, since DeGrasse was at a disadvantage in coming out of the harbor and forming line of battle. While only a few ships had been closely engaged, the firing had been effective and several hundred men were killed and wounded on each side. The French loss had been a little heavier, but, on the other hand, the British ships had received the greater damage. Graves, who wished to renew die action the next morning, now learned that four of his fleet, the Montagu, Shrewsbury, Terrible and Ajax, were not in condition for fighting. The battle was not a great one but its influence on history was more important than that of Trafalgar.


The next day, September 6, was calm, and the two fleets remained in sight of each other, making repairs. Graves sent for his admirals, Hood and Drake, and held a council of war. Hood thought the fleet should make for Chesapeake Bay, but Graves decided otherwise. The two fleets remained watching each other without fighting for the next two days, September 7 and 8. The French had the better position in regard to the wind and might have attacked the British, but they did not do so.

On September 9 DeGrasse made the move that decided the fate of the campaign. With the wind blowing in the right direction he put back to Chesapeake Bay. Admiral Hood was much disturbed at DeGrasse’s action and wished Graves to follow, either to reach Chesapeake Bay first and prevent DeGrasse’s entrance or to attack the French before they reached the bay. Graves held another council of war, and Hood repeated his opinion that the fleet should sail for Chesapeake Bay, though he realized that DeGrasse now had too long a start to be caught.

The British did nothing until the evening of September 11, when Graves finally made sail for Chesapeake Bay. A frigate was sent ahead to scout. The frigate reported that the French Fleet was inside the Capes and that it now numbered 36 ships of the line. How had this happened? While DeGrasse and Graves had been out in the ocean watching each other Barras, from Newport, had sailed into Chesapeake Bay and anchored. DeGrasse, on returning to Cape Henry, was overjoyed to find his colleague there with eight stout warships.


The situation had now entirely changed; the French were in such superior force that the British would run a terrible risk in attacking them. Graves, not knowing what to do, held a third council of war. The council decided that, owing to the position of the enemy, the condition of the British ships, and the approaching season of storms, “effectual succour” could not be given Cornwallis. It was determined to go back to New York to repair. On September 19 the British Fleet came to anchor in New York Harbor.

The crisis of the Yorktown campaign had come and passed. The critical period extended over the days, September 5-9. If De Grasse had been defeated in this period or if he had been kept out of Chesapeake Bay and forced to sail away, the British Fleet would have rescued the army at Yorktown. What determined the event was the concentration of the French naval forces at Cape Henry, the importance of which had not been seen by DeGrasse and Barras but which was evident to Washington. In fact, Washington’s urging had brought Barras to Chesapeake Bay to join DeGrasse; consequently Washington should be looked on as the mind that really shaped events to bring about the victory of Yorktown.

Cornwallis’s fate was now, in all probability, sealed, for the French Fleet was blockading him while the British Fleet was on the way to New York. The British would have to make repairs and collect other ships before they could return to the Chesapeake. This would take some time, and meanwhile the French and American Armies would have every opportunity to overthrow Cornwallis at Yorktown. Only great swiftness and determination on the part of the British leaders at New York could prevent his ruin. Washington’s strategy was crowned with the most brilliant success. He had brought together the French and American land forces and the French fleets at Yorktown while the British were divided, their main army and their fleet being at New York. It is well to speak of Yorktown as a providential event, but we should never forget that it was primarily due to the military skill and hearty cooperation of Washington and Rochambeau, to both of whom the main glory belongs.


While DeGrasse was making his successful junction with Barras, Washington was having his difficulties with the army. At Head of Elk, near Chesapeake Bay, Washington expected to load his army on transports and carry it by water to Yorktown, thus saving a long and toilsome march. He had written ahead to have boats waiting for the troops, but when the troops arrived few boats were there. A thousand Continentals and several French regiments embarked on the boats, while the rest of the allied armies marched by land. Crossing the Susquehanna River and making about 20 miles a day, the troops reached Baltimore on September 12. At that time Baltimore was probably the best-built city in the United States. The French officers commented favorably on the wide, straight streets and the sidewalks, then a novelty.

At Baltimore Washington was able to get shipping. DeGrasse sent some of his ships up the bay. At Annapolis most of the troops that had marched to Baltimore embarked on five frigates and nine transports. They sailed down Chesapeake Bay and into James River. Landing at several places in the vicinity of Jamestown, the various regiments made their way to Williamsburg, where the French and American Armies were concentrating for the last stage of the march to Yorktown.


Washington and Rochambeau didnot wait to see their troops on the ships. On September 8 they left Head of Elk and, riding horseback, reached Baltimore on the same day. Leaving Baltimore the next morning, they arrived at Mount Vernon that evening, having ridden 60 miles in the day. Washington had not seen his home since he left it, on May 4, 1775, to take his seat in the Continental Congress. He stayed there for two days, entertaining the French officers accompanying him. On September 12 the journey was resumed. Riding at speed the party reached Williamsburg on September 14, where Washington assumed command of the allied forces.

The naval and land forces were now united and prepared to attack Cornwallis. The whole movement had been executed with wonderful efficiency. No accident of any consequence had marred the cooperation of the armies and fleets, separated at the beginning by i,600 miles of land and water. The skill of the French naval and army officers deserves all praise, but it should never be forgotten that Washington was in supreme command, that the responsibility was thus his, and that the chief glory should be his also. The movements that culminated in the Siege of Yorktown form one of the most brilliant chapters in the history of the eighteenth century.

De Grasse’s services in every way were important. He was enthusiastic, resourceful, and energetic for the American cause. He not only brought a great fleet but an army of 3,000 French soldiers under General St. Simon, with a supply of artillery from the West Indies; but, more vital still, he was able to borrow a large sum of money from the Spanish in Habana. As the French and Americans were both in a low state financially, this reinforcement was most timely.


Great credit is also due Lafayette for his conduct at Williamsburg. After the arrival of St. Simon’s division he had under his command 7,000 troops, mostly of good quality. There were 19,000 sailors and marines in the French Fleet. DeGrasse felt that he must sail on lis return to the West Indies by October 15, and Washington and Rochambeau had not yet come. There was thus a strong sentiment among the French officers for an immediate attack on Cornwallis. If Cornwallis were attacked and captured before the arrival of the allied armies from the North, the glory would be Lafayette’s; his name would stand high in history.

Lafayette decided not to make the attempt. In the first place there was the chance of bloody defeat. Still more potent was Lafayette’s feeling of loyalty to Washington. He knew that Washington was on his way to take command, and he did not think he should deprive his chief of the glory of the victory. His orders were to hold Cornwallis until the main armies arrived, and he carried out his orders with the strictest fidelity.

He wrote Washington on September 1:

I am ill a charming position, at the head of a superior body of men; but I am not in such haste as the Comte de Grasse and, having a sure game to play, it would be folly in risking an attack to expose anything to chance.

Lafayette convinced the French officers, who reluctantly gave up their plans for an immediate assault and impatiently awaited the coming of Washington and Rochambeau. 


At 4 o’clock in the afternoon of September 14 the guns at Williamsburg fired a salute as Washington and Rochambeau approached the town. The allied generals, with Lafayette and St. Simon, reviewed the two armies. A great banquet was held that night and the French band played airs from operas. It was the greatest occasion that Williamsburg had ever witnessed.

Washington at once prepared to visit DeGrasse and complete the arrangements. On September 17 Washington and Rochambeau and Chastellux and Knox set out; and, at Cape Henry by noon of September i8, they stepped on the deck of DeGrasse’s flagship, the Ville de Paris, the largest warship then in the world and destined to be taken by the British in the following year.

Washington’s dignity and charming manners made him well liked by the polished French officers, and DeGrasse welcomed him as cordially as Rochambeau had done some months earlier.

This interview was important. DeGrasse had stated that it was necessary for him to set sail from the American coast on October 15, now less than a month off. This would allow little time for a siege, and Washington persuaded himto prolong his stay until the 1st of November. He thus secured more than a month for the investment of Yorktown. A strong wind sprang up and Washington was detained on the flagship for some time. It was not until September 22 that he was able to reach Williamsburg.

DeGrasse now brought dismay to the allied generals. It was still possible that a British fleet might appear to rescue Cornwallis, and DeGrasse greatly feared that it would. The British Admiral Digby was supposed to be making for Chesapeake Bay. On September 24 DeGrasse wrote that he would have to sail out to meet Digby but that he would leave the troops under St. Simon.

If I am forced by the winds, or as a result of a contest, not to come back, have the goodness to send the regiments to Martinique on the boats left in the river.

Washington’s consternation at this news may be well imagined, for if DeGrasse sailed away the effort to take Cornwallis would be brought te naught. Still, he could not interfere with DeGrasse’s management of his own fleet. However, the dreaded emergency did not arise, for Adriiiral Digby did not put in an appearance. Thus DeGrasse remained in Chesapeake Bay through the critical days of the siege.

Washington at Williamsburg hurried preparations to move to Yorktown. His headquarters were in the Wythe house. Williamsburg was no longer the capital of Virginia, but William and Mary College, then probably the leading school in the United States, gave it importance.


Early on the morning of September 28, 1781, the allied forces moved out of Williamsburg on the road to Yorktown. Taking the “great road,” the Continentals, followed by the French, moved in single columns for some miles. Then the two armies separated. The Virginia Militia, marching farther eastward, joined the Continentals at Munsfords Bridge. The French took the shorter route, which brought them in on the west side of Yorktown.

At some distance from the village the allied armies encountered the British pickets, which at once fell back. No casualties occurred. The allied armies took position in line of battle from the York River above the town to Beaverdam Creek, the French to the west, the Americans on the east. They were about a mile from the defenses at Yorktown.


Cornwallis now realized for the first time the extent of his danger. He had never expected to be besieged at Yorktown, but had selected it primarily as a naval station. On the land side it was difficult to defend, as it had no natural advantages. “Nothing but the hope of relief,” Cornwallis said, “would have induced me to attempt its defense.”

The town stood on the bank of the York River, there a beautiful blue estuary a mile wide but broadening out immediately below the place. Cornwallis had ringed it with fortifications– earthworks. Two redoubts on his right covered the river roadto Williamsburg; three stood at the rear of the town, commanding the approaches; three were on the left facing down the river; the other two, Nos. 9 and 10, were also on the left and in advance of the main line. Another redoubt, called the Hornwork, defended the road to Hampton. Sixty-five cannon were mounted in these various earthworks, but most of them were of light caliber.


Such were the inner defenses of Yorktown, those immetliately about the town. But Cornwallis wished outer fortifications as well. Back of Yorktown a deep ravine extends from the river halfway around the inner works; below, Wormeleys Creek is a formidable obstruction. These two natural obstacles protected the British wings, leaving between them a raised tract of solid earth known as “The Gorge.” Over the gorge ran the road to Hampton and the main road to Williamsburg. To protect the gorge, over which approach would be easy, the British engineers laid out three redoubts, one on each side of the Williamsburg road and one commanding the Hampton road. In advance of the inner line and close to the river road to Williamsburg a large star-shaped earthwork was thrown up, known as the “Fusileers’ Redoubt,” which was garrisoned by men from the Royal Welsh Fusileers. Across the river from Yorktown the village of Gloucester Point had also been fortffied with a line of entrenchments mounting 19 cannon.


The allied army was composed of Continentals, Virginia Militia, and French Regulars. At Williamsburg the Continentals were formed into three divisions of two brigades each; Lincoln, Lafayette, and Steuben were the division commanders. Lafayette’s division, which formed the extreme right of the allied line, included the select troops of the American army, the corps of Light Infantry. The Light Infantry numbered about 1,400 men, nearly all of them New Englanders. Steuben’s division included the Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia Continentals. Lincoln had under him the New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island troops. The artillery was commanded by Gen. Henry Knox. Gen. Chevalier du Portail was chief of engineers. He and Lafayette, Lieutenant Colonel Gimat, and Major Galvan were Frenchmen holding commissions in the Continental Army. Several companies of sappers and miners and some dragoons made up the rest of the Continentals, who numbered 5,500 in all.

The Virginia Militia numbered 3,000, and were commanded by the governor of the State, Gen. Thomas Nelson, jr.; under him were Generals Weedon, Lawson, and Stevens. The French Army was composed of seven regiments of infantry, an artillery force, and a legion of cavaky, number- ing in all about 7,600 men, under the command of Lieut. Gen. Count de Rochambeau, with the Baron de Viomenil, the Count de Viomenil, the Chevalier de Chastellux, and the Marquis de St. Simon as major generals. In addition to the troops, France had in the fleet 19,000 seamen, so that the entire French contingent was 26,600, greatly exceeding the American. Of land forces the allies had about 16,000 men, against the 8,000 British shut up in Yorktown. This difference in numbers was not excessive, considering the fact that the allies were the assailants and naturally needed a much larger force. What made the British position well-nigh hopeless was the presence in York River and Chesapeake Bay of the great French Fleet, cutting off aid.


The British troops at Yorktown were veteran soldiers of many campaigns. There were regiments present whose numbers had been thinned by hard marching and fighting: The Guards, the Twenty-third, Thirty-third, Seventy-first, Seventeenth, Forty-third, Seventy-sixth, and Eightieth Regiments of the line; the German Regiment; the Hessian Regiment; the Anspach Regiment; Tarleton’s Legion; Simcoe’s Rangers; and some North Carolina Tories. The only general officer besides Earl Cornwallis was O’Hara. The British, with some marines, numbered about 8,000 men, but more than a thousand were on the sick list.


On September 29 the American troops moved over to the right-that is, toward York River below Yorktown. Beaverdam Creek, the headwater of Warwick River, was made the dividing line between the French and American Armies. The Americans were to the east of it, the French to the west. About 4 o’clock in the afternoon the Americans went into the camps they occupied in the siege.

The morning of September 30 brought a surprise to the allied forces. The light of dawn revealed the fact that the British outer works at the Gorge were deserted; the enemy had fallen back inthe night to the inner fortifications immediately around Yorktown. This disinclination of the British to fight seemed to Washington and Rochambcau a good sign. In reality, it appears that Cornwallis withdrew to his inner lines because he expected to be relieved by a British fleet and did not think it worth while to make a contest over the outer works. He had just received a message from Clinton that the latter was coming to his assistance with 23 ships of the line and 5,000 troops.


The abandoned ground was occupied by the allies on the same day, September 30.

The abandonment of the outer British line enabled Washington to ride closer to the inner works and view them. The British opened fire on Washington and his stiff, but the commander calmly continued his observations with the cannon balls whistling about him. Washington was a man of the utmost physical as well as moral courage. On September 30 the chief tragedy of the siege took place. Col. Alexander Scammell, of New Hampshire, one of the best-esteemed officers in the American Army, while examining the deserted British works, was surprised by some of the enemy troopers. He gave himself up but was shot in the back. He died a few days later.

The Americans lost little time in turning the abandoned British works into a line of fortifications for themselves. The work went on briskly in spite of the British cannonade, which did little harm. When these works were finished what had been Cornwallis’s outer line became Washington’s first fortified position.

The next few days were spent by the allies in busy preparation. The lack of means of transporting cannon and baggage was especially felt. The heavy artillery had been brought by sea by Barras and put ashore at Trebell’s landing, on James River, only 6 miles from Yorktown, but it was difficult to carry the big guns over those 6 miles of bad road Washington sent his own baggage horses and asked the other officers to do the same, in order that the siege artillery might be brought up without delay. Meanwhile the troops were busy at work digging trenches. Steuben, who was the only American officer who had seen a siege, played an important part in the construction of the fortifications.


Cornwallis had thrown up some trenches on the Gloucester side of York River and Tarleton’s Legion and Simcoe’s Rangers were there under command of Lieutenant Colonel Dundas. Watching this force was General Weedon with 1,500 militia. The British cavalry rode about the country, much as they pleased, foraging for provisions. In order to prevent this, a force of French horse under General de Choisy was sent over to Gloucester. On October 3, at a place called the Hook, Tarleton, returning from a raid, came into conflict with a French cavalry force conrrnanded by the Duke de Lauzun. After a sharp brush Tarleton hastily retreated, pursued by the French, who were brought to a halt as British infantry came to the rescue of the cavalry. This affair put an end to foraging in Gloucester.


Meanwhile Washington had been pushing the work on the fortifications so vigorously that by the evening of October 9 everything was in readiness for the opening of the bombardment of the British works. Cornwallis had taken up his headquarters in Secretary Nelson’s house immediately in the rear of his lines. Among the allies Lincoln’s headquarters were on the extreme right and advanced. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln was second in command to Washington, whose headquarters were in the rear of the left of the American line and near the headquarters of Count Rochambeau, which were in the rear of the right of the French line. The two commanders were thus close together and able to meet quickly in case of emergency.


The final advance on Yorktown was made by what were called “parallels”; that is, earthworks in a parallel position to the British works. The ravine south of the town prevented operations against that portion of the British line, but the more open ground on the British left, near the river, gave the allies a good opportunity for attack. The first allied parallel was 2,000 yards in length; it was 600 yards from the British Center and 8oo yards from the British left; the difference in distance was due to the redoubts 9 and 10, which stood in advance and near the river.

Work on the parallel began on the evening of October 6. French and Americans, 4,300 strong, marched at dusk to the scene of labor. The digging was done by 1,500 of the men while the remaining 2,800 acted as a guard against attack. The soil was sandy, the troops worked hard, the night was dark and rainy. When day broke the British sentries saw that a long embankment had grown up in the night as if by magic. The loss in doing this important work was very small On the extreme left the French made an attack on the fusileers’ redoubt, which was repulsed by the enemy.


The siege was conducted with order and system. In the morning of October 7 Lafayette’s light infantry marched into the newly constructed trenches with colors flying and drums beating. They planted the American flag on the parapet of the earthwork. Other troops followed them into the trenches.


On October 7 and 8 the work of fortification continued. The batteries approached completion. Meanwhile the British had made little effort to interfere with the allied operations. The British works had not been constructed on a definite plan and were not calculated to stand a long siege; the fire of the British cannon was comparatively feeble.


By the afternoon of October 9 the allies had completed a number of batteries, from which the mouths of cannon frowned on the defenders of Yorktown. The first shot from the American guns was fired by Washington himself amid the enthusiasm of the soldiers. On the next day, October 10, two new batteries opened fire–the “Grand French Battery” mounting 10 cannon and 6 mortars, and the American battery of 4 cannon and 2 mortars. One of the principal objects aimed at was Secretary Nelson’s house, Cornwallis’s headquarters, which was almost destroyed by shell fire. Cornwallis then moved farther into the town, to the house of Gen. Thomas Nelson, Governor of Virginia, who commanded the militia on the American line. It is said that Nelson had the cannon fire on his own house because it sheltered the British general.


The British sank a number of small vessels they had brought to Yorktown. The frigate CAaron was set on fire by hot balls from the French guns and burned to the water’s edge, making an agreeable spectacle to the allied soldiers on the shore. By the afternoon of October 11, 52 pieces of artillery were playing on the British works, the return fire from which had now almost ceased. Indeed, the British guns could not hold their own with the allies’ heavy artillery.


The allies constructed a second parallel from three to five hundred yards in advance of the first parallel. At dusk of October II detachments from the two armies moved out of the trenches into the open and began digging; by morning they had thrown up an entrenchment 750 yards long, 3 1/2 feet deep, and 7 feet wide. Steuben and Wayne were present, urging on the men. Once when a shell fell near the two generals Steuben threw himself into the trench for protection, and Wayne, following, stumbled over him. “Ah, Wayne,” said Steuben, ” you cover your general’s retreat in the best manner possible.”


The two outer redoubts on the British left near York River prevented the allies from encircling the British works, and it was resolved to take them by storm. The earthwork on the right, on the immediate bank of the river, redoubt No.10, was assigned to the Americans, while the French took the slightly larger work to the left known as redoubt No.9. The soldiers of both countries selected for the work were stimulated by a friendly rivalry.


The night of October 14 was chosen for the enterprise. Four hundred Frenchmen formed the storming party for redoubt No.9, and an equal number of Americans of the Light Infantry, who Lafayette said were as good as any troops in the world, were to attack redoubt No.10. When the signal was given, at 8 o’clock, the French moved forward in columns from the trenches. On nearing the British works the attackers were discovered by a Hessian sentry. Immediately the enemy opened fire. The abatis (felled trees with sharpened branches) in front of the redoubt delayed the French for a few minutes until the pioneers cut a passage through with axes. When the way was opened, the French rushed in and went over the top of the earthwork. In a few minutes the enemy threw down their arms, and the redoubt had been taken by the French; 15 of the attackers were killed and 77 wounded. The British lost 18 killed and 50 prisoners.


The American assault was equally successful. Led by Alexander Hamilton and composed chiefly of Connecticut men, with some from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the column moved forward through the darkness to the redoubt. This was a square earthwork standing on the bluff overhanging the river. The Americans, rushing forward, refused to wait for sappers to remove the abatis but scrambled through it or over it and reached the ditch. Another moment and the attackers swarmed across the ditch and over the parapet, and within 10 minutes time from leaving their own lines had captured the redoubt. The Americans lost 9 killed and 25 wounded. Washington issued an order highly praising the officers and men for their conduct that night. No sooner were the redoubts taken than other troops came up and began digging; by morning the captured works were a part of the second parallel. On October 15 Cornwallis wrote Clinton:

My situation now heoomes very critical **** Experience has shown that our fresh earthen works do not resist their powerful artillery. **** The safety of the place is, therefore, so precarious that I can not recommend that the fleet and army should run any great risk in endeavoring to save us.


The British commander was now well-nigh hopeless; but it was the custom in sieges for the defenders to make sorties against the attackers, and the British followed the custom. On the night of October 15, 400 men left the British lines and rushed against the second parallel. They spiked four cannon in a French battery, but French troops came to the rescue and repulsed the British, with a loss of about 20 men on each side. The sortie proved to be an entire failure.


The British commander now realized that his position was nearly hopeless, but he determined to make one effort to escape before surrendering. On the night of October 16 he began ferrying troops to the Gloucester side of the river, with the purpose of breaking through the besieging lines and attempting to make his way to New York by land. It was a desperate plan, but the situation was desperate. At midnight a storm arose, preventing the further transfer of troops. At dawn those who had crossed were brought back to the south side of the river.


At 10 o’clock in the morning of that day, October 17, a little drummer boy in red uniform mounted the British parapet and began to beat what was called a “parley,” which meant that the British sought to negotiate. The drum was well-nigh inaudible at a distance, but tbe drummer boy was visible, and when an officer sprang up beside him and waved a white hand-kerchief everybody knew the meaning. Cornwallis was asking for terms. The officer and drummer boy, getting down from the earthwork, approached the American lines. Blindfolded, they were brought to the rear of the lines. They bore a message from Cornwallis to Washington asking for a suspension of hostilities for 24 hours while terms of surrender might be considered. Washington answered that he would suspend his fire for two hours, in which time Cornwallis might submit his condit ions. Cornwallis returned terms that Washington could not accept, and the latter now sent a demand for immediate surrender. He still feared that a British fleet bearing an army might come and break up the siege at the last moment. As a matter of fact, the fleet and army did arrive on October 24, a few days too late. Cornwallis soon agreed to surrender his army.


On October 18 representatives of both sides met in the Moore house, which stands near the river about a mile east of Yorktown. Two officers came from each army. The terms were agreed on and then sent to Washington and Cornwallis. Washington demanded that the papers be signed by 11 o’clock on the morning of October 19 and that the British troops should march out of Yorktown at 2 o’clock. Cornwallis signed the terms and returned them. The siege was over.


At noon a small body of French and American troops entered Yorktown and took possession. Promptly at 2 o’clock the British Army began to file out of their works and take the Hampton road. The British wore new red uniforms; their flags were cased and their fifes played the tune, The World Turned Upside Down. They passed between confronting lines of French and Americans. The French were on the east, theAmericans on the west of the road. The Continentals were not imposing in their worn clothes; and the militia, ragged and almost naked, were placed behind them to be out of sight. The French troops made an inspiring show in their white uniforms and white plumes, with their white silk flags fluttering in the breeze.

In front of each line and about the middle the commanding officers took their place, Washington and his staff before the American line and Rochambeau before the French. At the head of the slowly moving British column was General O’Hara. Cornwallis pleaded illness, and O’Hara bore his sword. When O’Hara reached the group of French officers in front of the line he presented the sword to Rochambeau. Rochambeau, instead of taking it, motioned to Washington across the road. O’Hara then turned to the American commander and held out the sword, with the hilt forward, after the prescribed fashion. Washington did not receive it, but directed O’Hara to Lincoln, nearby. To him O’Hara then handed the sword, which is said to have been immediately given back.

The surrender was completed by the presentation of the flags and the laying down of arms. Lincoln led the column of defeated troops to a field about a mile and a half from the British works, where the road to Hampton bends east. In this field the colors were turned over to the officers designated to receive them and the British privates stacked arms. Some of them angrily threw their muskets on the ground and others shed tears, but before long the beaten soldiers were fraternize ing with the allies in good fashion.

Seldom has so monumental a victory been attended with such small losses, but victories are not measured in importance by the number of casualties. According to most accounts, the British lost 156 killed and 326 wounded. The allies lost 72 killed and 190 wounded. Other accounts make the losses larger. The sick list on both sides was large, and probably more men died of disease than of wounds.


At midnight of October 24, 1781, one of Washington’s aides, Lieutenant Colonel Tilghman, reached Philadelphia. He roused Thomas McKean, the President of Congress, with the great news, which very soon was vibrating through the city. Congress, meeting next morning, adjourned for a thanksgiving service. The whole world was electrified by the news that a British Army had surrendered to Washington. The American cause, which two months before had seemed so gloomy, was now crowned with triumph.


The British Parliament regarded the struggle as over. Soon a majority appeared in that body favoring peace with America. On November 30, 1782, the provisional articles of peace were signed by commissioners from both countries, and on September 3, 1783, the final treaty was formally ratified. The United States had become an independent Nation. Its establishment has been followed by the spread of democratic goverrment in all parts of the world.

The conquest of Virginia had failed. Cornwallis, fromCobham, immediately opposite Jamestown, sent Tarleton on a long raid through southern Virginia, in which nothing was accomplished beyond some plundering and burning. Cornwallis had gone to Portsmouth for the purpose of sending a part of his army to Clinton, in New York, but instead of doing so he moved his army to Yorktown early in August and began fortifying that place.

Clinton had changed his plans; he had decided not to draw on Cornwallis for troops. He instructed Cornwallis to fortify Old Point Comfort as a naval station and occupy Yorktown also, if necessary. Cornwallis had Old Point Comfort examined for a naval station, but decided the channel was too wide to be commanded by his guns. He then moved on to Yorktown and settled there, not realizing the trap into which he had fallen. If he had made Old Point Comfort his base, he could have crossed over to Portsmouth on the approach of hostile forces, but at Yorktown he was in a position difficult to defend and almost impossible to escape from. This decision was the event that decided the war in favor of the Americans.