The Decisive Victory at Yorktown II

Siège de Yorktown by Auguste Couder, c. 1836. Rochambeau and Washington giving their last orders before the battle.

When the French army marched into White Plains under a warm July sun, America’s soldiers cheered them. Over the next couple of days, the two armies paraded for one another. Some French observers thought their ally looked “rather good,” but others were alarmed at finding that many of Washington’s troops were barefoot, and that some were too old for the demanding life of a soldier, while others were disquietingly young. Some seemed startled at discovering that numerous African Americans were serving in the Continental army, and one guessed that blacks composed 25 percent of the American soldiery. But one French soldier thought the African Americans were “strong, robust men” who made “a very good appearance.” Still another remarked that a Rhode Island regiment made up largely of blacks was the “most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuver” of all the Continental units.

A couple of weeks before the armies linked up, Rochambeau finally revealed to Washington that de Grasse was bringing his fleet northward. Aware by then that Cornwallis was in Virginia with a large and growing army—it would top out at 8,500 men—Washington grew more flexible. Perhaps a Virginia campaign was preferable to fighting for New York, he said, though he vacillated on the matter. Given the chance that de Grasse would never arrive, the Allied commanders kept their focus on preparations for retaking New York. And they waited. Everything depended on de Grasse. He might be coming to New York. He might be coming to Virginia. He might never leave the Caribbean. Or, he might sail northward, but something—the enemy, a hurricane—might prevent his ever reaching North America. Days passed. Weeks went by without word. Finally, on August 14, the thirty-ninth day after the two allied armies came together, a dispatch rider brought word from de Grasse. His fleet had arrived at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.

Through the spring and summer Clinton’s intelligence had been so good that he, too, was aware that de Grasse planned to come north. Indeed, Clinton had probably known it before Washington. Like his adversaries, however, Clinton did not know de Grasse’s destination. Drawing on the information that he possessed—some of which was erroneous, as is often the case with military intelligence—Clinton and the naval officials in New York made a series of educated guesses. They assumed that de Grasse was most likely to sail for New York. They also believed he would leave some of his warships in the Caribbean and send others to France. As Clinton had requested naval reinforcements from the West Indies, he surmised that the Royal Navy would remain superior in North American waters, even after de Grasse was joined by the French squadron in New England. Some conclusions reached by those in Britain’s high command in New York were mistaken, though the errors were largely due to faulty and incomplete information. In retrospect, Clinton’s most egregious error was not in his judgment about the size of the rival fleets but in his failure to summon Cornwallis’s army to New York. Even so, Clinton’s decision was understandable, if flawed. London had long since embraced a southern strategy and stressed waging aggressive war in the South, and early in the summer Clinton had been reproached by Lord Germain for having paid insufficient attention to the Chesapeake. Furthermore, while Cornwallis might accomplish little in Virginia, his presence at least tied down large numbers of Continentals who otherwise would have joined Washington’s army outside New York.

Soon after de Grasse’s message arrived, Washington ordered Lafayette in Virginia to do all within his power to prevent Cornwallis’s escape from the Peninsula. At about the same moment, the Allied soldiers began crossing from New York into New Jersey. Their commanders had done what they could to convince Clinton that they continued to plan a campaign to retake New York. They built field ovens, essential for a siege army, permitted misleading correspondence to fall into British hands, and for the first days of the march to Virginia, the armies followed the route they would have taken had their intention been to rendezvous with de Grasse at Sandy Hook for a joint attack on New York. Their hope was to forestall until it was too late for Clinton to opt to take his army to Virginia or to call Cornwallis to New York. The Allies’ deception worked, though Clinton’s hand was stayed mostly by his belief that de Grasse would never achieve superiority in the Chesapeake.

The French and American soldiers trudged south under a searing August sun. Crowds of onlookers gathered throughout New Jersey to see the spectacle. Learning from the spectators that the French had given Washington hard currency with which to pay for this operation, the American soldiers somewhere in New Jersey refused to take another step until they were paid a month’s wages, something they had not received in well over a year. Washington paid them and the trek resumed.

The armies were now following the route that Washington had taken in his disconsolate retreat from New York five years before. The gloom of 1776 was gone, however. It had been replaced by an optimism that grew when word arrived during the march that de Grasse’s fleet had successfully linked with the French naval force that had descended from New England. The French squadron would indeed be superior to the Royal fleet. The soldiers marched through Princeton and Trenton. A day later, under a warm blue sky, they began crossing the Delaware River.

Over three days in early September the two armies paraded through Philadelphia, “raising a dust like a smothering snow-storm,” according to one soldier. The last time the Continental army had marched through Philadelphia had been in 1777 when it was en route to Brandywine. Congressman John Adams, who had watched the army’s pass-by on that occasion, had been struck by the soldiers’ lack of precision and absence of jauntiness, and when the last man disappeared from his sight, Adams had fretfully hurried to a church to pray. The mood was different in 1781. The French were not only going into the looming fight alongside the Continentals, but resplendent in their spit and polish white coats faced with green, they also looked like “the perfection … of discipline as soldiers,” according to one member of Congress. James Lovell, Adams’s successor in the Massachusetts delegation, thought the mood among congressmen who had watched the show of arms was one of “high Glee.”

On reaching Wilmington, Washington learned that Cornwallis was in Yorktown and that Lafayette, with more than two thousand Continentals and four thousand Virginia and Maryland militia, was nearby. Washington was reassured about Lafayette’s chances of confining Cornwallis until the Allied armies arrived. Swept with euphoria, Washington, who normally exhibited an implacably grave and reserved manner, suddenly smiled, laughed, and waved his hat, and when Rochambeau arrived, the American commander hugged him with unrestrained passion. An astonished French officer said that Washington had “put aside his character as arbiter of North America and contented himself for the moment with that of a citizen, happy at the good fortune of his country. A child, whose every wish had been gratified, would not have experienced a sensation more lively.” Until Lafayette’s letters arrived, Washington and Rochambeau had only known that their destination was Virginia. Now they knew it was Yorktown.

The French and American soldiers marched to Head of Elk, where some allied units boarded vessels that would rapidly convey them to Virginia. But there were not enough boats for everyone. Telling his Continentals that the “success, or disgrace of our expedition depends absolutely upon the celerity of our movements,” Washington ordered others to “hurry … upon the wind of speed” to Annapolis and Baltimore, where more vessels could be found. By September 26, thirty-eight days after setting out from Dobbs Ferry, the last allied soldier was ashore near Yorktown. Long before then—in fact, while Washington was at Head of Elk—de Grasse, with an overarching superiority of nine warships, had defeated a British fleet in what came to be known as the Battle of the Virginia Capes. Perhaps deservedly called by one historian “the most important … naval engagement of the eighteenth century,” de Grasse was in control of the Chesapeake. Cornwallis could no longer be rescued by sea.

Early in September, well before the first Allied troops debouched onto Virginia soil, Cornwallis discovered that the enemy armies were coming after him. Nearly two additional weeks passed before he learned that de Grasse had slammed shut his seagoing portal to safety. During that crucial stretch, some of Cornwallis’s officers urged him to try to fight through Lafayette’s lines and escape. The British enjoyed a slight numerical advantage, and Cornwallis also had far more regulars under his command than Lafayette possessed. Cornwallis contemplated the advice, though in the end he spurned it. Aside from the crushing humiliation of fleeing Virginia after abandoning the Carolinas, Cornwallis knew that he was safer in Yorktown than on the run. To have to forage for food while dogged by Lafayette—and ultimately by a huge Allied army—was a formula for disaster. Besides, he continued to hope that Clinton would send assistance. After making his decision to stay put in Yorktown, Cornwallis had received word that a relief expedition consisting of four thousand men was being sent and should arrive on October 5.

Alas, for the umpteenth time in this war when speedy British action was essential, it was not forthcoming. The relief expedition’s departure from New York was held up for a month while repairs were made to vessels damaged in the Battle of the Virginia Capes. As September faded into October, Cornwallis found himself alone and under siege.

Under normal circumstances, the Allied commanders might have opted to simply try to starve Cornwallis into submission. However, a protracted siege was not an option. De Grasse promised to remain until the end of October, but no longer, as his orders were to move on in November. The Allies had six weeks to force Cornwallis’s capitulation, and they might not have even that long. Should a great storm churn through the Chesapeake—and hurricanes were not unknown in October—de Grasse’s squadron could be ruined, much as d’Estaing’s had been badly damaged off Rhode Island in 1778. Rochambeau thought it imperative to act with speed, and with every advantage on the side of the Allies, he radiated optimism. The Allies had some nineteen thousand men, more than double the number that Cornwallis commanded, and a third more cannon than the British possessed. From the outset, the confident French commander assured Washington that the outcome was “reducible to calculation.” It was a sentiment shared by the American troops. “[W]e have got [Cornwallis] in a pudding bag,” one exclaimed, while another, as if on a rabbit hunt, boasted that the Allies had “holed him and nothing remained but to dig him out.” From the beginning, General Anthony Wayne believed victory was a “most glorious certainty.”

The cheer within the Allied lines was not misplaced. The beginning of the end for Cornwallis came on October 5. Allied sappers, working at night in “great silence and secrecy,” began digging the first artillery parallels, soon to be the initial home of the Allies’ siege guns. On the American side, Washington struck a few ceremonial blows with a pickax to kick off the work. After four nights, the Allied field guns were in place, the French to the west of Yorktown, the Americans on the east side. When all was ready for the first shot to be fired, Washington once again did the honors in mid-afternoon on October 9. Scuttlebutt had it that the ball he fired tore through a house in town in which several British officers had gathered for mess; supposedly, the redcoat seated at the head of the table had been killed. After that initial shot, all the guns erupted with a mighty blast. Day after day, nearly a hundred guns laid down a thunderous barrage that went on around the clock. Every day approximately 3,600 rounds slammed into Yorktown, a tiny village that could have fit into one little corner of a large city such as Boston or Philadelphia. In no time, every house and building was reduced to rubble and bodies of men and horses littered the landscape. Cornwallis’s soldiers sought shelter in trenches and basements, and the commander himself moved his headquarters into an underground bunker. The artillery in the initial parallel was about 350 yards from nearest British soldier. When the second parallel opened about a week later, the allied gunners were only 150 yards away.

Cornwallis did everything he could to protract the siege, hoping that with time something, anything, might save him and his army. He reduced his men’s rations, then cut them even more. To save his scant supplies, Cornwallis also ordered the slaughter of hundreds of horses, directing that their bodies be dragged down to the York River, and he banished the runaway slaves who had fled to what they thought would be the secure haven provided by the British army. These African Americans had never soldiered, but they had toiled throughout the preceding weeks as cooks, maids, and laborers on behalf of the British army, accompanying it like “a wandering Arabian or Tartar horde,” in the words of a German officer. Some of Cornwallis’ officers condemned his decision as shameless and “harsh,” and others spoke of “herds of Negroes,” many of them “trembling” with fear, setting off across the unfamiliar landscape, running once again in what for most was to be a forlorn quest of their freedom. Cornwallis saw it not only as necessary for the salvation of his army but also as the sole chance these unfortunates had of escaping certain capture by the rebel soldiers.

With the guns now capable of blasting away at almost point-blank range, all that remained to bring the operation to a speedy end was to seize the British redoubts at each end of the Allied lines, steps that would make the steady bombardment fully efficient. The French were assigned responsibility for taking redoubt Number 9 in their sector; the Americans were to take Number 10 in their area. Alexander Hamilton, who was once Washington’s aide but since July had commanded a New York light infantry battalion, beseeched the American commander to put him in charge of the American operation. Doubtless hoping to reward Hamilton for years of service at headquarters, but also wishing to further the young colonel’s postwar political ambitions by giving him the opportunity to win glory, Washington acquiesced. Shortly before the attack, possibly while sitting in a trench redolent with fresh-turned dirt, Hamilton wrote his pregnant bride of ten months: “Five days more the enemy must capitulate … then I fly home to you. Prepare to receive me in your bosom.”

Storming of Redoubt #10

Hamilton had volunteered for a dangerous mission. He was given three infantry battalions numbering about five hundred men, black and white. Hamilton’s force would have a huge numerical superiority, as it was known that only about fifty redcoats were in the redoubt. The attackers carried empty muskets, but their bayonets were in place; as the fighting would be in close quarters, the Continentals might do immense damage to one another if they fired their weapons. Some officers were armed with swords. A few men carried a spontoon. Sappers and miners, armed with axes, were in the van of the assault force; their job was to remove abatis and clear other impediments that the British defenders had installed on the redoubt’s periphery. Hamilton sounded the order to move out into the black night at seven P.M.

Catching sight of the approaching enemy at nearly the last moment, the redcoats laid down a heavy fire with musket and small field guns. The Americans charged full bore, leaping into the redoubt; some rushed in through holes that had been opened during the previous days of shelling. The fight that followed was desperate, a hand-to-hand battle between men who fought like savage animals. Soldiers used their bayonets as knives, their guns as clubs. Some swung axes and some fought with their fists. It was brutal. When it was over and the redoubt was taken, 10 percent of Hamilton’s men were casualties. Three-quarters of the British defenders were dead or wounded. Hamilton was unscathed. On the same night, and at virtually the same moment, the French took redoubt Number 9.

Storming of Redoubt #9

Now, as Hamilton had told his wife, it was almost over. The heavy guns pounded away for two more days, October 16 and 17, before Cornwallis waved a flag of truce. It was the ninth day of the merciless bombardment. About 7 percent of Cornwallis’s men had been killed or wounded, and his situation was nearly hopeless. He wanted to talk. In reality, he wanted to spin out the discussions, stalling for more time, hoping for a miracle. The Allied commanders would not give Cornwallis the luxury of time. They demanded that he agree to surrender the next day or the guns would open up again. That next day, October 18, Cornwallis signed the surrender accord. The terms were tough, nearly identical to those that Clinton had imposed on Lincoln in the American surrender at Charleston, except that this accord provided that the Americans could recover their property from Yorktown—that is, they were entitled to reclaim the slaves they had lost.

At two P.M. on October 19—six and one-half years to the day since someone had fired the first shot of this war on the village Green at Lexington, Massachusetts—Cornwallis’s army formally surrendered in Yorktown, Virginia. The defeated British troops, tired, hungry, and sullen, marched somberly from the utterly destroyed little village to the field of surrender. They passed between a long row of French troops on their left, neatly attired in their white parade uniforms and exhilarated by their victory—and at having survived the siege in which some four hundred of their comrades had been casualties—and a line of bedraggled Americans on their right, equally happy to be among the living at the end of this siege that had left some three hundred Americans dead or wounded. (Ironically, fewer British than Allied soldiers were casualties, though 556 were killed or wounded.) Oddly, the defeated British soldiers were neatly attired, having turned out in newly furnished uniforms. Some observers thought the proud redcoats did not hide their mortification at having to surrender to upstart colonial soldiers. Music from a British army band filled the air. The anecdote later caught on that the musicians played the contemporary favorite “The World Turned Upside Down.” In all likelihood, the story is not true, though it is known that the band—performing with drums draped with black cloth and ebony ribbons dangling from fifes—played sorrowful music throughout much of the ceremony. It was a gorgeous fall day, warm and sunny, and the leaves were hurrying toward the peak of their autumn splendor. Many residents of nearby Williamsburg, frequent victims of British raiders during the past eighteen months, had gleefully come to witness the British capitulation, and not incidentally to search for slaves who during recent months had fled to the presumed safety offered by the redcoats.

In time, the principal officers of the three armies at Yorktown rode to the surrender site. Cornwallis was not to be seen. He remained at his shattered headquarters pleading sickness, though no one then or subsequently believed his professions of indisposition. Cornwallis was more likely humiliated than ill, and he would have been less than human had he not been angry as well. He had been given the nearly impossible task of pacifying a huge region awash with the enemy’s regulars, militia, and partisans, and at least in his judgment he had never possessed adequate manpower for doing the job. Nor was that all. He had been left twisting in the wind in Virginia by Clinton and those around him long after they should have seen that it was reckless to keep large numbers of troops anywhere other than in and around New York. Cornwallis placed the onus of surrendering on Brigadier Charles O’Hara, a British officer for a quarter century who had suffered two serious wounds at Guilford Courthouse.

Washington must have dreamed of this moment a thousand times, but when it at last arrived, he refused to accept the surrender of an officer who held a rank subordinate to his. By rigidly adhering to a European code of martial etiquette, Washington denied himself the delicious ecstasy of accepting the decisive British capitulation. His second in command, General Lincoln, accepted O’Hara’s sword, after which that hearty British officer rode from the field with tears in his eyes. Next, the soldiers who had served under Cornwallis came forward in an orderly manner to lay down their arms. Glum and quiet, these men faced an uncertain future; they now were prisoners of war in the care of an enemy that at times had been unable to properly feed, clothe, and house its own soldiers. A French band belted out upbeat tunes as these drawn and troubled soldiers passed into captivity.

More than eight thousand prisoners were taken at Yorktown, of whom close to 15 percent were Germans. Roughly five hundred men who had soldiered under Cornwallis were not among the prisoners. According to the surrender terms, Cornwallis had been permitted to dispatch one vessel to New York, a ship that was supposed to carry only letters from the soldiers. Cornwallis cheated. Not entirely unexpectedly, he loaded the ship with his Loyalist soldiers and a few Continental army deserters.

No one knows how many African Americans had come to Yorktown with Cornwallis. Upwards of ten thousand slaves in Virginia had fled to the British army, almost all during 1780 and 1781. The runaways had died in droves, mostly of smallpox and typhoid fever. It is possible that some, though no one knows how many, may have had the good fortune to have been shipped to New York or Charleston prior to the siege. Many who came to Yorktown with Cornwallis perished in the course of the siege, mostly from diseases, though some were victims of the Allied shelling.

The victors who entered the rubble-strewn remains of Yorktown found corpses “all over the place,” including the bodies of “an immense number of Negroes” who had died “in the most miserable manner” from smallpox. Meanwhile, many soldiers, hot for booty, were hired by local slave owners to scour the area in search of their runaway chattel. Some Continental army officers joined the search, looking for African Americans they had once owned. General Washington was one who spent some time combing the countryside. He found two of his slaves who had escaped in the raid of the HMS Savage. He sent them back to Mount Vernon and a lifetime of servitude.

In this hour of triumph for a revolution waged for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Washington also found the time to congratulate his army on the victory that had brought “Joy” to “every Breast.”

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