The World Turned Upside Down: The Siege of Yorktown

Saratoga, New York, October 17, 1777. British General John Burgoyne capitulated to American General Horatio Gates after the armies clashed in two battles at Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights. The surrender was the tipping point of the American Revolutionary War, which led the French to sign an alliance with America in her fight for independence.

Three years later, the Comte de Rochambeau arrived in Newport, Rhode Island with a French army intent on supporting General George Washington’s Continental Army effort to defeat the British in a war that had endured many Patriot losses.

Comte de Rochambeau

When Rochambeau arrived on July 11, 1780, Washington’s sights were myopically focused on attacking New York in a move that might defeat General Sir Henry Clinton, commander of all British forces in America. Rochambeau and Washington met twice in the coming year. The last meeting was held in Wethersfield, Connecticut on May 20, 1781. Rochambeau argued that the Southern theater where British General Lord Charles Cornwallis was chasing American General Nathanael Greene through the Carolinas was a better choice; specifically Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay.

Lord Charles Cornwallis

On the same day as the conference, Cornwallis arrived at Petersburg, Virginia after suffering heavy casualties at the Battle of Guilford Court House at the hands of Nathanael Greene. Cornwallis had not received permission from Clinton to abandon the Carolinas, but he believed that Virginia would be easier to capture because General Lafayette, who Washington had sent to Virginia with 1200 light infantry to act against the corps of the enemy (specifically the traitor General Benedict Arnold which is another story) had moved north leaving the south and west of the state open.

Admiral de Grasse

Washington’s hope hinged on the arrival of French Admiral de Grasse’s fleet in New York harbor to block up any British fleet which might be in the harbor and as a sufficient means of conveyance transport for Continental and French troops. Although he agreed to rendezvous with Washington’s army in White Plains, New York to attack Clinton, Rochambeau had a secret agenda. He wrote to de Grasse:

I must not conceal from you, Monsieur that the Americans are at the end of their resources, that Washington will not have half of the troops he is reckoned to have. It is therefore of the greatest  consequence that you will take on board as many troops as possible; that 4,000 or 5,000 men will not be too many, whether you aid us to destroy the works at Portsmouth, Virginia or to force Sandy Hook in seizing New York. There, Monsieur, are the actual and sad pictures of the affairs of this country.

By July 7, the allied forces were gathered at White Plains. Together they totaled some 5,000 troops. But on August 1, 1781, Washington received a letter from Lafayette that caused him to reconsider his desire to attack New York.

Cornwallis is taking up a strong position at Yorktown and Gloucester, sealing himself off if the British fleet should not be on hand to rescue him. Yorktown is surrounded by a river and a morass. Gloucester is a neck of land projecting into the river and opposite Yorktown.

That decision was made for him when Washington received a dispatch on Tuesday August 14 that de Grasse declined to sail to New York because he did not want to risk his ships navigating the difficult waters of the harbor and the Hudson River. Instead, he proposed to sail up the Chesapeake with twenty-nine ships and 3,000 troops. Admiral de Barras anchored in Newport, Rhode Island would rendezvous with de Grasse.

The allied armies marched south to Virginia. The logistical details of moving two armies plus hundreds of camp followers along with munitions and equipment was slow when speed was of the utmost importance before the French fleet decided to sail out of the Chesapeake.

When the news arrived at British headquarters in Manhattan that de Barras had left Newport, the British fleet embarked under the command of Admiral Thomas Graves. On September 5, the fleets encountered one another near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay near Yorktown. A battle ensued, that wound down at sunset, with the British fleet drifting eastward and away from the bay. The next day, Admiral Graves determined that his fleet had suffered too much damage to engage the French again, and sailed back to New York.

Battle of the Chesapeake Bay

The snare had been sprung trapping Cornwallis’ army in Yorktown, Virginia, situated between the James and York Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. The little town was on a high stony bluff that ran parallel to the York River. It occupied a strategic location controlling upstream portions of the river and its tributaries and their access to the Chesapeake Bay.

When the allied armies arrived in mid-September, they set up below the town, pinning Cornwallis against the river. Washington set up camp in forested land about a mile from the enemy’s left. Rochambeau’s tents were pitched five hundred yards to the north. Washington’s principle officers, including his second in command, General Benjamin Lincoln, as well as General Lafayette, General Baron von Steuben, and artillerist General Henry Knox were camped along the perimeter of the encampment.

Cornwallis and his staff were quartered in the governor of Virginia’s house: General Thomas Nelson. Cornwallis received a letter from Sir Clinton that assured him, “I shall endeavor to reinforce your command by all means within the compass of my power.”

Cornwallis had never contemplated the possibility of a siege. Yet here it was, the reality of it staring at him like so many horrible eyes from Hell. He declared to his officers, “Nothing but the hope of relief will induce me to attempt this defense.” Still the British quietly abandoned their advanced posts and sneaked back to the defensive lines around Yorktown.

“Their movement is not only unmilitary,” Pennsylvania General Anthony Wayne proclaimed, “but an indication of confused precipitation and I do not understand why Cornwallis has done it.”

By the night of October 5, the allies began laying out a trench called a parallel. A steady rain masked the sounds of the sappers and miners (the men digging and clearing the trench) making their way across a broad, undulant field plowed into deep furrows by the enemy’s cannonballs. Sharpshooters protected the men digging the trenches in case of an enemy sally as Cornwallis sent infantrymen to clear the trench, but the sharpshooters repulsed them.

With the British cleared from the trench, a tradition associated with a siege was the Opening of the Trenches, a ceremony in which the troops of the day marched to their appointed places with drums beating and banners flying before planting their flags in the rampart ahead of them. Colonel Alexander Hamilton, an aide to George Washington, had threatened earlier to resign from the army if he wasn’t given a field command. Washington pacified him and Hamilton led some of his new infantry unit in the ceremony. Washington had the honor of igniting the bore hole of one of General Knox’s heavy siege guns and ceremoniously discharging the first shot from the American battery.

Washington firing the first gun.

At daybreak, the Continentals commenced an uninterrupted stream of fire that produced a relentless, unnerving, and deafening roar. The French Grand Battery opened and their 18- and 24- pound siege cannon were pounding Yorktown. Residents fled to the waterfront and hid in hastily built shelters on the sand cliffs. Dozens were killed and wounded—many with arms or legs severed—while their houses were destroyed. Cannonballs plunged into the York River and sent up streams of cascading water. British boats went up in flames under the bombardment. The Nelson house where Cornwallis was quartered was partially destroyed forcing the general and his staff to find shelter in a grotto.

On the night of October 11, the allied armies’ sappers and miners began work on the second parallel, just three hundred yards from the British fortifications of redoubts 9 and 10 near the York River. Rochambeau came to inspect the trenches proclaiming “We shall see if the pear is ripe.”

Washington held a secret war council on the night of October 13. It was determined that the allied forces would take redoubts 9 and 10 the following night. General Lafayette would command the charge against redoubt 10 on the right with a second of his choosing— Colonel de Gimat. The French under General Baron De Viomenil would assault redoubt 9 on the left.  Lafayette’s choice of second infuriated Alexander Hamilton. He went to Washington to complain that he had seniority over Gimat and that he should be second. Washington pacified Hamilton. Colonel John Laurens, another young aide to Washington, would also lead a battalion.

The bayonet assault would be conducted with the sappers and miners leading the way to cut through the abatis (sharpened tree trunks) arming the enemy redoubts. The sappers and miners were told:

You will advance beyond the trenches and lay down on the ground to await the signal to advance which will be three shells fired from the battery near your position. Your watch word is ‘Rochambeau’. This signal will also deploy the French waiting to assault redoubt 9.

 They determined Rochambeau a good watch word because if it was said fast, it sounded like “rush on boys.” The sappers and miners crept into position. Then, three shells with their fiery trails mounted the air in quick succession and lit the sky over Yorktown. “Up! Up!” was reiterated through the detachment of waiting men. They sprinted across a quarter mile landscape pocked and rutted from exploding shells toward the redoubt with British musket fire raking them as they ran, but the men cried “the fort’s our own” and “rush on boys!” They reached the redoubt. Snapping off the edges of the abatis, they cleared a passage for the infantry. The miners, who were told not to enter the fort, surged past their officers declaring, “We will go!”

Behind the sappers, Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens and their infantry battalions leaped out of the trenches and ran toward redoubt 10. To their left, the French regiments under Comte Deux-Ponts were hacking at the abatis surrounding redoubt 9 while Hessian sentries shouted “Who’s there?” and opened fire. Hand to hand combat commenced, but in ten minutes it was over and the Americans and French took possession of the redoubts.

Storming of Redoubt 10

Cornwallis wrote to Clinton:

My situation now becomes very critical. We dare not show a gun to their old batteries, and I expect that their new ones will open tomorrow morning. Experience has shown that our fresh earthen works do not resist their powerful artillery, so that we shall soon be exposed to an assault in ruined works, in a bad position, and with weakened numbers. The safety of the place is, therefore, so precarious that I cannot recommend that the fleet and army should run the great risk in endeavoring to save us.

Then the British tried to retreat to Gloucester across the York River on the night of October 16 only to be deterred by a terrible thunderstorm. The following morning, a British drummer beating a parley appeared on the enemy’s parapet.  A British officer stood beside him with a white handkerchief in his hand. Cornwallis had surrendered.

Colonel John Laurens

Now, the terms of the surrender were to be negotiated. Colonel John Laurens was one of the commissioners. He was by General Benjamin Lincoln’s side when the garrison at Charleston manned with 5000 troops fell on May 12, 1780. Lincoln surrendered to General Sir Henry Clinton and Clinton had denied Lincoln’s army the honors of war.

When an army fought bravely and well before surrendering, the vanquished soldiers were accorded the honors of war, which meant that they marched from their works with flags flying, drums beating, and their band playing a tune of the conqueror.

The humiliation was reciprocated as part of the terms. When the British commissioners protested that Cornwallis wasn’t present at Charleston, Laurens stated, “It is not the individual that is here considered. It is the nation. This remains an article, or I refuse to be a commissioner.”  The terms of the surrender were accepted by both parties.

At noon on Friday, October 19, 1781, a glorious, warm autumn day, sunny and bright with the leaves on the trees just beginning to turn, a portion of the trenches and fortifications surrounding Yorktown were leveled so that the British and Hessians could march out of their works onto Hampton Roads where the allied armies were lined up two ranks deep in a line that stretched for more than a mile with the French on the left and the Americans on the right.

At two o’clock, the mournful distant sound of fifes and drums were heard coming from Yorktown. The waiting armies silenced. The British army which had been reduced from 8,000 to 5,000, with 550 killed or wounded, 2,000 sick and 200 deserters, marched out of Yorktown led not by Cornwallis but by his second in command, General Charles O’Hara, to the slow beat of the drum, their twenty-two regimental flags ignominiously furled and stored in their cases.

O’Hara gave apologies for Cornwallis’ absence and then tried to surrender his sword to Rochambeau. Rochambeau indicated Washington. Washington indicated his second in command, General Benjamin Lincoln. Lincoln accepted the sword and his humiliation had been repaid.

General Benjamin Lincoln

The American Revolutionary War lasted two more years until the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783. The surrender also had an effect on Great Britain’s other global endeavors such as the Siege of Gibraltar. And now America would face her biggest challenge of all—how to govern herself.

The Siege of Yorktown is part of my four book historical fantasy series on the American Revolution—Angels and Patriots. I used a lot of references including biographies so I could see the siege from the different points of view from those who were there.

To name a few, some of Connecticut Private Joseph Plumb Martin’s points of view as a sapper were delightful. There was the amusing story of Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Henry Knox working in their captured redoubt and arguing over whether or not it was manly to jump behind a blind when the British fired shells into the redoubt. I suppose a shout out should go to the French. Viva la France!

This is my July 3 contribution to the Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop about American History June 28 – July 4, 2021! Catch up on the other great blogs in this series. https://www.facebook.com/Historical-Writers-Forum-Blog-Hop-Page-313883642875335

Resources:

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.

Ketchum, Richard. Victory At Yorktown New York: Henry Hold and Company, LLC, 2004. Print.

Lockhart, Paul. The Drillmaster of Valley Forge New York: Harper Collins, 2008. Print.

Martin, Joseph Plumb, Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier, The Narrative of Joseph Plumb Martin New York, Dover Publications, 2006, Print. Originally published 1830.

Mattern, David B. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. Print.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. In The Hurricane’s Eye New York: Penguin Books, 2018. Print.

Puls, Mark. Henry Knox Visionary General of the American Revolution New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Featured Image: The painting Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull is on display in the Rotunda of the US Capitol. General Benjamin Lincoln is in the center on the horse.

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