Yorktown, Siege of

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Yorktown, Siege of

YORKTOWN, SIEGE OF. September-October 1781. Admiral Francois Jean Paul, Comte de Grasse's twenty-eight ships of the line arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake River on 30 August 1781. The fleet, serving the Patriot cause, caught two British frigates at anchor, capturing one and sending the other into the York River. As a result, the Royal navy in New York received no notice that De Grasse was in Virginia. De Grasse brought 3,300 French troops from the West Indies, commanded by Major General Claude-Anne, marquis de Saint-Simon, Montbléru.

While Saint-Simon's troops were landing at Jamestown on 5 September 1781, Lieutenant General Charles Lord Cornwallis had one last chance to fight his way up the peninsula to Richmond and retreat into the Carolinas. The commander of American troops in Virginia, Major General the Marquis de Lafayette anxiously deployed his forces so as to block this route. After some probing, Cornwallis declined to make the attempt. Confidently expecting the Royal navy would rescue him, Cornwallis continued to fortify his positions at Yorktown and Gloucester Point to await their arrival. This opportunity closed when Admiral de Grasse's fleet drove the Royal navy off in the battle of the Chesapeake Capes, and Admiral Jacques Melchior Saint-Laurent Barras brought his squadron from Newport into the bay while the two fleets were still at sea. Meanwhile, the Franco-American armies commanded by Major General George Washington and Lieutenant General the comte de Rochambeau (Jean Baptiste Donatiatien de Virneur) progressed from New York towards the Chesapeake. As he moved southward, Washington picked up new troops, such as the Third and Fourth Regiments of the Maryland Line, which had recently been recruited at Baltimore. Joining them in Virginia were that commonwealth's militiamen, who were commanded by Virginia's governor, Thomas Nelson. The Chesapeake encirclement was complete when all these troops arrived at Williamsburg by 26 September.

As he withdrew within Yorktown, Lord Cornwallis faced a severe moral dilemma. While his troops marched through Virginia they were viewed as liberators to thousands of African American slaves, who flocked to their columns and provided domestic labor for the troops, intelligence information for the staff, and geographic familiarity with the countryside that proved particularly useful. According to Hessian Captain Johann Ewald, every officer had four to six blacks and a similar number of horses, as well as one or two "Negresses for cook and maid." Every soldier's woman had a couple of black servants and eventually every enlisted man had "his Negro, who carried his provisions and bundles." For the enslaved, a red coat was a symbol of liberty. They brought with them foodstuffs, horses, cattle, sheep, and poultry. Estimates of the number of blacks with Cornwallis start at 3,000 and go to many times that number.

The hard hand of war inflicted by the British and their black Loyalist allies impoverished the Lower Neck and Southside Virginia. But close confinement within British fortifications at Portsmouth and Yorktown contributed to the spread of the dreaded smallpox, typhus, and typhoid, which apparently killed many of the self-made freedmen. Although their labor contributed significantly to the construction of fortifications at both places, in the end they died or were among the approximately 2,000 blacks that Cornwallis ultimately expelled from Yorktown. Their story is one of the great tragedies of the Yorktown siege.


Cornwallis established his main line of defense close to the town, with an average depth of only 400 yards between the river and the line of fortifications, and with a width of only 1.200 yards. Yorktown was not selected as a place for withstanding a protracted siege and did not provide good defensive terrain. It was flat, offering little defilade and depriving the defenders of the other advantages of high ground (observation, fields of fire). Yorktown Creek and Wormley Creek would have furnished excellent natural obstacles on which to organize a defense if the British garrison had been large enough to cover such a long perimeter, but this was beyond their capability, particularly in the absence of naval superiority.

The inner line of fortifications comprised ten batteries, some sixty-five guns, and eight redoubts. The principal strongpoint was known as the "horn work," and was located astride the road from Hampton. Forward of this position, to defend the half-mile of flat ground between the heads of the two creeks, were several outworks. This area, part of which was known as Pigeon Quarter, was the principal approach for an attacker. Along the river, west of Yorktown and covering the Williamsburg Road where it entered from that direction, was a strong position called the Fusilier Redoubt, since it was held by a detachment from the Royal Welch Fusiliers (Twenty-third Regiment). On the opposite flank were the detached Redoubts Nine and Ten.

Gloucester Point was important not only in connection with Cornwallis's original mission of establishing a naval station but also as a base for foraging. The position was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas, and its fortifications included four redoubts, three batteries, and a line of entrenchments.


On 27 September Washington organized the American Continentals into three divisions of two brigades each. These were commanded by the Marquis de Lafayette, Benjamin Lincoln, and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben. The artillery brigade, small troops of cavalry, and detachments of sappers and miners rounded out the regular units. The total strength of the Continental troops approximated 5,500. Additionally, Governor Thomas Nelson of Virginia commanded a division of militiamen of approximately 3,500. Governor Nelson personally financed many of the Virginia militiamen, and the failure of the Commonwealth to reimburse him contributed to his subsequent financial difficulties.

Rochambeau's contingent was made up of the four regiments that had marched from Newport (the Regiments Bourbonnais, Royal Deux-Ponts, Soissonais, Saintonge) and the three that had come with de Grasse (Regiments Agenais, Gâtinais, and Touraine) plus 600 artillerymen, the Duke de Lauzun's Legion (comprising horse and foot soldiers), and marines detached for operations against Gloucester. Total French ground forces amounted to approximately 8,600, to which must be added at least 19,000 French sailors who manned the ships blockading the entrance to the Chesapeake and the mouth of the York River from British relief efforts. Obviously, the French contribution to the victory vastly outnumbered that provided by the Americans. Nonetheless, Washington commanded the allied ground forces.

To defend Yorktown and Gloucester, Cornwallis had what historian Henry P. Johnston terms "the élite of the King's army in America." He had brought the following units from the Carolinas: the Brigade of Guards, the Twenty-third, Thirty-third, and Seventy-first Foot Regiments, the light infantry company of the Eighty-second Regiment, Banastre Tarleton's British Legion, the North Carolina Volunteers, and the German Bose Regiment. The remainder of his troops had come south with Benedict Arnold and William Phillips: two battalions of light infantry, the Seventeenth, Forty-third, Seventy-sixth and Eightieth Regiments, the Queen's Rangers, two Anspach Battalions, the Hessian Regiment Prince Hereditaire, and a jäger company. These were supplemented by a Royal artillery detachment, in addition to naval guns and gunners. About 800 marines were also on hand, plus pioneers and other detachments. Total ground forces totaled approximately 8,900 before the siege began. The Royal navy forces included approximately 850 sailors and ten naval vessels plus several dozen transports, victuallers, and privateers. Cornwallis had the heavy guns from the ships installed in the Yorktown fortifications. There was dearth of senior officers, however. Brigadier General Charles O'Hara was the only other general, and among the field grade officers there were only two colonels, twelve lieutenant colonels, and twelve majors.


The American allied forces started from Williamsburg on the morning of 28 September and moved to within a mile of the Yorktown defenses by dark. The light infantry of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercromby was on the British right, but withdrew as the French wing advanced in that sector, and Tarleton's mounted troops withdrew to the Moore House when the American wing arrived to the southeast of Yorktown. Cornwallis sought to pollute area wells by having animal carcasses and the bodies of deceased african americans thrown into them. He began forcing his black refugees out of the little town. On 29 September Washington and his officers examined the enemy position while their troops deployed to invest Yorktown. Orders were issued for the siege artillery and stores to move up from Trebell's Landing on the James River—a difficult operation because sufficient draft animals were not available and the heavy guns had to be moved over ten miles of sandy roads.

De Grasse stationed Admiral Barras and ships of the line off Cape Henry at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, and ordered several frigates to lie off Old Point Comfort (modern Fort Monroe), while the remainder of the French naval forces blockaded the British naval vessels in the York River. A British attempt on 21 September to employ several merchantmen as fireships against the French had failed to dislodge the enemy. By early October ten merchantmen had been sunk in front of Yorktown in an effort to impede the French men-of-war.

On Sunday morning, 30 September, the Americans and their allies were pleasantly surprised to discover that the enemy had abandoned the three outposts covering the approach from the southwest—the two astride Goosley Road in the Pigeon Quarter and another one to the north covering a road across the top of Yorktown Creek. Although Cornwallis has been severely criticized for his failure to hold these positions to buy time, his decision was sound in the light of the information available to him. He had received word from Sir Henry Clinton on the 29th that a fleet would leave New York for his relief on about 5 October. Since the three abandoned outposts were vulnerable to envelopment by the superior allied force, Cornwallis believed he could best employ his limited forces in a defense of the inner line during the week or so it would take for relief to arrive.

At Gloucester, General George Weedon's Virginia militia, which opposed the British garrison under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas, were reinforced on 28 September by Lauzun's Legion. On 1 October, General Claude-Gabriel, marquis de Choisy assumed overall command and, about the same time, 800 French marines were detached for service on this front. Tarleton's Legion joined Dundas on 2 October. After a spirited clash at Gloucester on 3 October, Choisy kept the British bottled up until the end of the campaign.


Washington and Rochambeau wasted no time undertaking the siege of Cornwallis's position. On 6 October the main allied force opposite Yorktown was ready to break ground for their formal siege operations. Following techniques developed by French marshal Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban early in the century, French engineers directed the implementation of his principles of investiture, circumvallation, countervallation, bombardment, and excavation of parallel entrenchments that went ever closer to the British lines. While the French pushed forward on the left, driving the pickets into the Fusilier Redoubt and forcing the Royal Welch Fusiliers to make a stubborn defense of their position, the Americans began edging closer on the right.

To divert attention from the main effort, Saint-Simon's troops started a Flying Sap toward the Fusilier's Redoubt. Meanwhile, the trace of the 2,000 yard-long first parallel was staked out by engineers and well-organized work parties moved forward after dark to dig. Favored by a dark, rainy night and sandy soil, some 1,500 men shoveled enough dirt to have protection in their trench and four redoubts before daylight. Saint-Simon's diversion started drawing enemy fire about 9 p.m. (a French deserter had alerted the British), but the working parties were subjected to little shelling during the night. Cornwallis probably did not realize that the first parallel had been started until the morning of 7 October, when his troops could see it at a distance of 600 to 800 yards from their positions.

On 9 October the first allied batteries were ready to start the bombardment. To divert British attention from the allied right, Washington gave Saint-Simon the honor of opening the show at 3 p.m. on the opposite flank. Early the next day another four batteries were in action—two French and two American—bringing the total to at least 46 pieces. By 10 a.m allied fire had inflicted such damage that the British could return only about six rounds per hour. The superiority of French artillery and the expertise of French engineers proved decisive in the prosecution of the siege.

On 10 October the battery commanded by Captain Thomas Machin began a bombardment of the town with targeting advice from Governor Thomas Nelson, who directed fire against his uncle's house because he thought it was the location of Cornwallis's headquarters. Actually the British general was in a bunker near the hornwork.

French artillery hot shot set the British frigate Charon on fire during the night of 10-11 October, and another three or four vessels were also destroyed by hot shot from Saint-Simon's guns. The British moved the remainder of their vessels closer to Gloucester to evade the French artillerymen. Charon was the largest of vessels in the York River which were either destroyed, scuttled, or surrendered by the British. Meanwhile De Grasse sent planned to send Le Vaillant (sixty-four guns) and L'Expériment (fifty guns) up the York to bombard the town and fleet from the river. This never happened due to the surrender.


Work had been started on the second parallel on 11 October, but two detached British works, Redoubts Nine and Ten, had to be reduced before the American end of this parallel could be completed. As a preliminary step in the reduction of these two positions, French engineers directed construction of an epaulement (a raised defensive wall or elevation) on the eastern end of the second parallel as close to the redoubts as this work could be accomplished. Digging started at dusk on 11 October. All possible allied artillery was brought to bear on the two redoubts, and on 14 October Washington was told that an assault was now feasible.

Redoubt Number Ten was closer to the York River, and Alexander Hamilton claimed the honor of leading the American assault there. Grenadiers and chasseurs of the Gâtinais and Royal Deux-Ponts would make a simultaneous attack on Redoubt Number Nine. It would be commanded by Colonel Guillaume, comte de DeuxPonts with Colonel Claude, Baron d'Estrade as second in command.

Saint-Simon and Choisy started were to conduct diversionary demonstrations on the Allied left wing and at Gloucester, but these efforts began after the redoubts had fallen. At 7:00 p.m, Hamilton and Deux-Ponts sent their troops forward silently into the darkness. The Americans had their muskets unloaded, and they took Redoubt Ten by the bayonet.

The French column had advanced about 120 yards when they were challenged by a sentry from the parapet of Redoubt Number Nine. The 120 British and Hessian defenders under Lieutenant Duncan McPherson then opened fire as the French rushed forward. While the pioneers worked to clear obstructions so that the entire column could scale the parapet, other officers and men went up without waiting for support.

After inflicting heavy losses on the French before they scaled the parapet, the defenders tried to take refuge behind a line of large casks within the redoubt. The French fired into the huddled mass, and then prepared to close with cold steel. The British and Hessians threw down their arms and surrendered. General Antoine-Charles, baron de Vioménil, who had over-all command of the French attack, arrived and ordered Deux-Ponts to consolidate his position and prepare for a counterattack from the main enemy lines. This threat, however, did not materialize.

Hamilton's attack took place simultaneously, and the Americans were fired on shortly after the Hessian sentinel challenged the French column, some 200 yards away. Lieutenant John Mansfield led his forlorn unit of twenty men from the Fourth Connecticut Regiment into the redoubt, and was supported immediately by the leading battalion. The attack was a brilliant success, costing the Americans only nine killed and twenty-five wounded. The French lost fifteen killed and seventy-seven wounded. In Redoubt Number Ten the enemy had six officers and sixty-seven men captured; eighteen were killed and fifty captured in Redoubt Number Nine.

Cornwallis did not counterattack, but he massed all possible guns against the captured works. The allies moved working parties out immediately to throw up a protective wall of dirt at the back of the redoubts and to incorporate them into the already completed portion of the second parallel.


Completion of the second parallel had not only the obvious effect of moving allied guns within closer range of the enemy lines, but it also permitted batteries to enfilade the defenders. The standard reaction to such a threat is for the defenders to sally forth and spike the most dangerous guns. Therefore, at about 4 a.m. on 16 October, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercromby led 350 hand-picked British troops out on this mission. Hitting near the boundary between French and American troops in the second parallel, and near two unfinished batteries where no working parties were then located, Abercromby led his raid westward along the trench. Pretending to be an American detachment, he surprised an element of the Agenais Regiment, most of whom were asleep. After spiking four guns he continued down the trench until he sighted another position. Louis-Marie, count de Noailles discovered the British and started a fight that drove them back to their lines. The raiders had nonetheless spiked two of the American guns before withdrawing. However, the guns had been ineffectually spiked with bayonet points, and the allies had them back in action within six hours.

On the night of 16-17 October, Cornwallis tried to ferry his effective troops across the river, with a view to fighting his way to New York via the Gloucester lines. Insufficient boats and an exceptionally severe storm frustrated this effort. On 17 October, the fourth anniversary of General John Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga (New York), the allied artillery started the heaviest bombardment yet delivered. According to some estimates, more than one hundred artillery pieces were in action.


Sometime between 9 and 10 a.m. on 17 October, a British drummer appeared on the parapet of the horn work. A redcoated officer then came out in front of the lines with a white handkerchief. The guns gradually fell silent. An American ran out, blindfolded the officer, and led him into the lines. The British officer bore a message from Cornwallis to Washington proposing surrender.

The British commander asked for a 24-hour truce to work out terms. Washington gave him two hours to submit his proposals. The latter were received about 4:30 p.m., and commissioners met the next morning (18 October) at the Moore House (home of Augustine Moore) to settle details. Dundas and Major Alexander Ross represented Cornwallis; Noailles and John Laurens represented the allies. Washington had stated that "The same Honors will be granted to the Surrendering Army as were granted to the -Garrison of Charles Town," but British appeals and objections resulted in a prolonged and heated session at the Moore House. Washington's representatives could show him only a rough draft by midnight, but the morning of 20 October he had written his comments on the draft, had the surrender document transcribed, and sent it to Cornwallis to be signed by 11 a.m. Cornwallis was also informed that Washington expected the garrison to march out at 2 p.m. to surrender. Between 11 a.m. and noon the document was back, bearing the signatures of Cornwallis and Captain Thomas Symonds, who was the senior British naval officer present. Washington, Rochambeau, and Barras signed for the allies.

Except for the article based on British precedent at Charleston, that "The troops shall march out, with colors cased, and drums beating a British or a German march," the surrender terms were honorable. Cornwallis and his principal officers could return to Europe on parole or go to an American port in British hands. The sloop Bonetta was put at the temporary disposal of Cornwallis "to receive an Aid de Camp to carry dispatches to Sir Henry Clinton; and such soldiers as he may think proper to send to New York." This last provision was a device for getting rid of American deserters to whom Washington could not grant prisoner-of-war status and with whose disciplining he did not wish to be burdened. The troop capacity of the Bonetta was 250, and most of those who reached New York on 2 November aboard her were deserters and Loyalists. Surrender terms permitted the British officers to retain their side arms and all personnel to keep their personal effects. The infantry of the Gloucester garrison grounded their arms there, but the John Graves Simcoe's and Tarleton's cavalry capitulated with their swords drawn and their trumpets sounding.

At noon two detachments of 100 men each—one French, one American—occupied two British redoubts southeast of Yorktown. The rest of the victorious army formed on both sides of the Hampton road, along which the vanquished would march to the surrender field, about a mile and a half south of Yorktown. At 2 p.m. the British troops came slowly down the road, allegedly to the tune of "The World Turned Upside Down," but contemporary accounts mention only "melancholy marches."

The man most intimately responsible for their predicament was not, however, at their head. Cornwallis was "sick," so General Charles O'Hara of the Guards acted as his deputy. An interesting scene of military etiquette resulted when O'Hara asked his French escort to point out Rochambeau and the Guardsman then raced ahead to present himself to this officer. With a devastating savoir faire, Rochambeau pointed across the road to Washington. The ruddy Irishman bowed and turned about to face Washington, with an apology for his "mistake." Seeing that Cornwallis would not appear, Washington directed O'Hara to his second in command, General Benjamin Lincoln. A persistent myth is that Lincoln received the surrender in compensation for his surrender at Charleston; However, it was a matter of military etiquette that Washington sent the British general to his American counterpart.

Between lines of finely dressed French troops and shabbily dressed American ones, the British and German regiments arrived one by one to present arms; ground their weapons, accoutrements, and cased colors; and return to Yorktown. Some of the prisoners threw their muskets onto the ground in an effort to damage them. There are no authentic details on the surrender of the colors.


Of the 16,600 allied ground forces in Yorktown and Gloucester, casualties did not exceed 400. Cornwallis had an initial strength of at least 9,750. A total of 8,087 soldiers and sailors surrendered. Surrendered troops would subsequently be marched to camps in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

Captured British property included 244 pieces of artillery, at least 2,857 small arms, 24 transports (many of which were small craft), 40 wagons and teams, 260 horses, a military chest of £2,116, and 24 regimental standards, plus ammunition and stores. Cornwallis had surrendered one fourth of the total British military strength in America. Prior to the surrender, the British scuttled most of their naval and cargo vessels.


By mid-September, Henry Clinton had decided to send a relief expedition to Yorktown, but there were numerous delays even after the arrival of Admiral Robert Digby (who was to transport Clinton's troops) and the repair of damages inflicted by De Grasse off the Chesapeake Capes on 5 September. Clinton sighted the capes on 24 October but, as a French officer put it, "ilétait trop tard. La Poule était mangée" ("Too late. The hen had been eaten"). Learning of the surrender, Clinton returned to New York without a fight. Even if he had arrived earlier, De Grasse's foresight in bringing his entire fleet from the West Indies virtually assured that Graves, Digby, and Hood would not have been able to fight their way through and land Clinton's troops at Yorktown.

Washington did his utmost to persuade De Grasse to remain long enough to support operations against the Southern ports. The admiral reluctantly refused, however. His refusal was the consequence of his agreement with the Spanish authorities as to when they might expect his return to the West Indies. On 5 November he sailed away, but he promised to return the following summer.

The siege left Yorktown in a state of ruin from which it never recovered. The surrendered forces remained two days before leaving under militia escort for camps in Maryland and Virginia, and during this time their officers were treated to a series of dinners. Trenches were filled in to prevent their use by a returning enemy force, and the allied army was dispersed. General Arthur St. Clair started south with 2,000 Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware regulars, to reinforce General Nathanael Greene. Washington led the rest of the Americans back to their posts on the Hudson River. Rochambeau's troops remained in Virginia until spring, and on 23 June 1782 started their march back to Newport, Rhode Island.

Congress learned of the victory at Yorktown when Tench Tilghman reached Philadelphia at 3 a.m. on 22 October. As the news traveled north and south there were celebrations throughout the new nation. The fateful news arrived in London about noon on Sunday, 25 November. Frederick Lord North, then prime minister of Britain, who had retained his aplomb through previous disasters, is reported to have received this last intelligence with, "Oh God! It is all over!" The coordinated campaign strategy, the tactical victory of De Grasse's French naval forces over the British fleet, combined with the skillful prosecution of the siege, produced the most decisive military victory of the American war. Historian Jerome Greene concludes: "Contrasted with the British facility for ineptitude and mismanagement, the Allies exhibited a cohesion of purpose paralleled by an admirable ability to coordinate their maneuvers toward the desired objective." Although it would take two years more to conclude the Peace of Paris, after 19 October 1781 the independence of the United States of America was never in doubt.

SEE ALSO Chesapeake Capes; Flying Sap;Gloucester, Virginia; O'Hara, Charles; World Turned Upside Down.


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