its importance to American history, it is
little known to most Americans. The reasons
for this are varied, perhaps the biggest being
that it was not a battle fought by Americans.
fought between the French and British fleets
with some support to the French by Spain. No known
American was involved, but Frances
involvement was on behalf of the Americans and
without it, most historians agree, we would
have lost the revolution to establish the
United States. Likewise in the ensuing siege
of Yorktown, the presence and participation of
the French was a critical factor in the
victory something for which not enough
Americans have an appreciation. To learn more continue to read this page based on a Wikipedia article with an insert from a
professor at the U.S. Navy Historical Center, there are excerpts from the writings
of others, illustrated with graphics I found
on the internet.
~ ~ ~
The Revolutionary War lasted a lot longer than most of us realize. Begun in 1775, the war didn't end for six long years, and wasn't fully resolved for another two. During this time, American forces had some notable victories, and also more than a few ignoble defeats at the hands of the British. Some of these battles have been inscribed on the nation's consciousness so deeply they are remembered in name (if not in complete detail) by its citizenry more than two centuries later. For instance, as schoolchildren we all learned the following names: Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Saratoga, Fort Ticonderoga, Valley Forge, and Trenton (or "Washington crossing the Delaware"). This litany of sacred spots (which includes Valley Forge even though no battle was fought there, since we all know the name), began with "the shot heard 'round the world," and ended decisively with the surrender of the British General Cornwallis, at Yorktown, Virginia. Yorktown was the endpoint of the war, we all learned as children, and the surrender of the British forces to the ragtag Americans was the decisive victory which forced the British to negotiate an end to the entire conflict. But what we weren't taught is that this battle may not have been such a key one if it hadn't been for a naval battle which had happened over a month earlier. This battle -- called variously the "Battle of the Chesapeake," or the "Battle of the Virginia Capes" -- is one very few Americans have even heard of. This is probably due to the fact that no Americans took part in the battle -- or even witnessed it (except perhaps from afar) -- because it was a slugfest between the British and the French navies. But if the Battle of the Chesapeake hadn't happened, it is very likely General Washington wouldn't have won the Siege of Yorktown, and the American Revolution would have continued on for a lot longer than it did -- and may have been lost, in the end. Which is why it's a shame that almost nobody remembers such a turning point in our country's history.
History sees things as inevitable, but it's worth remembering that they didn't seem so at the time these events were happening. America wasn't exactly "winning the war" leading up to Yorktown. Here is how James Michener put it in his fictionalized historical novel Chesapeake (from which I'll be quoting throughout this article, for both Michener's admirable prose, and for the reason that this is where I learned about the Battle of the Chesapeake myself):
In that year  the English army, consolidated at last under a succession of daring generals, began to chew the south apart. Victory upon victory crushed General Washington's lieutenants in Georgia and South Carolina, and it became clear that a few colonial farmers, no matter how brave, were no match for hundreds of well-trained English regulars supported by large guns.
And when General Cornwallis began ravaging Virginia, and Admiral Rodney assembled a fleet of battleships in the Caribbean, ready to invade the Chesapeake, it seemed obvious that the revolution was doomed. New York lay in English hands; Philadelphia was neutralized; Boston and Newport were powerless to send support, and no major port along the Atlantic was open to American vessels, even if any had succeeded in penetrating the blockade.
Men had begun to openly talk of defeat and started calculating among themselves what kind of terms they might be able to wheedle from the victorious English.
The mighty British navy, in other words, pretty much owned our Atlantic coastline through a successful blockade of all American shipping. It was at this crucial point that the French really entered the fray in a big way. General Lafayette and General Rochambeau lent significant military experience (and forces) to General Washington's land-war efforts, which began to turn the tide in Virginia. This resulted in besieging Yorktown, but that's getting ahead of the story. Because today we're more concerned with the aid the French navy lent to our revolutionary war effort.
To fully understand what happened, you have to remember that the biggest problem in waging war back then was communication. The French and British fleets, independent of each other (obviously), formed up their fleets in the Caribbean. They had absolutely no way of knowing what was happening in any other part of the world, aside from letters carried by other ships. Largely out of touch with both their home countries, and the front lines of the war, much depended on outwitting the other commanders, and strategically putting your forces where they'll do the most good. But again, up-to-the-minute information about any particular place was simply non-existent to a ship's captain, meaning they largely had to make educated (and, hopefully, lucky) guesses.
And the British guessed wrong. In the first place, the most brilliant of their admirals went back to Britain, and didn't even participate in the Battle of the Chesapeake. Admiral Rodney figured the French had sailed back to Europe, and went looking for them there (where he would also avoid the Atlantic hurricane season). He guessed wrong, and because he did, the British fleet was headed by much-less-experienced officers, who went on to make some key mistakes.
What remained of the British fleet first arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, but they found no French ships awaiting them there. The Brits then figured that they had miscalculated where the French were planning their attack, and promptly sailed up to New York. Eventually, they figured out their error -- that the Chesapeake was indeed the intended target -- and they moved back down the coast.
By this time, the French, led by Admiral de Grasse, had arrived in the Chesapeake, and had anchored their ships on the Virginia side. Many officers and men disembarked, both to aid the American forces in northern Virginia in their efforts against Cornwallis, and for some shore leave to round up some provisions for the fleet. This was the situation the British fleet found the French fleet in, as the British arrived at the mouth of the bay. As Michener put it:
"And worst of all, [de Grasse's] position allowed him no room in which to maneuver. He was trapped, and when scouting boats rushed in with news that Admiral Rodney was bearing down with the entire Caribbean squadron, he realized his peril. If de Grasse had been a prudent man, he might have surrendered then and there, for the enemy had every advantage except one: the British ships were sleek-bottomed and free of worm; their crews were complete and battle-hardened; they had the advantage of the wind and ocean space in which to maneuver; they had guns of shattering power manned by the best seamen in the world. The only disadvantage the English suffered was that Admiral Rodney, a tested leader in battle, was not aboard the ships....
But de Grasse didn't even know this. What followed next was a monumental display of ineptitude by the British admiral, and a very brave gamble by the French. Instead of swooping in and destroying the French sitting at anchor, the British admiral dithered and essentially did nothing. This allowed de Grasse to leap into action -- which he did. With the heavily-reduced crews he had aboard, he cut anchor and fled the mouth of the Chesapeake for open ocean. Stunningly, this tactic worked. It should not have worked -- the French would have been torn apart if the British had acted faster. Instead, the French escaped and leveled the battlefield significantly.
But not completely, as the British belatedly leapt into action themselves, and performed a maneuver -- using sail-powered vessels and communication with flags, mind you -- which turned their entire fleet 180 degrees in the blink of an eye. This impressive feat of coordination left the British with the advantage of wind (off their larboard quarter), and tide, and position over the French fleet. But it did give the French one further advantage -- the British leading ships (the "van") had, due to the U-turn, now become the rear of the British battle line, essentially taking them out of the brunt of the main battle. The British ships in the rear -- where an admiral would normally put his least-capable ships -- had now become the van, and would lead the battle.
Six hours after the two fleets had spotted each other, the firing began. Dozens of ships on both sides let loose their broadsides. While today it's hard to comprehend, these ships individually carried 70, 80, even (in the case of one or two ships on both sides) 100 cannons. That's a lot of firepower, by any standard. And those numbers are per ship -- and each side had roughly two dozen ships. This was without a doubt the greatest naval battle America had ever seen. Except that, as I mentioned before, very few (if any) Americans actually saw it.
Once again, from Michener:
...[A] massive burst of flame exploded from the English ships, and cannonballs ricocheted with fearful effect across the French decks. The battle for the future of America had begun.
... Wooden cannonballs had been used in hopes they would throw jagged splinters through the bodies of French sailors, and that is what happened. Before the smoke had cleared, the decks of the French ships were red, and young sailors sped about with buckets of sand to help the gunners maintain their footing, but before the latter could prepare their guns, a second volley of wooden balls exploded, adding to the devastation.
. . .
... [F]or two agonizing hours under a dying summer sun the guns roared, and the implacable ships moved ever closer; even pistols reverberated. The lead ships of the English line created unimaginable devastation on the French decks, already undermanned, and for a while it seemed that the French must crumble. But toward dark the terrible efficiency of their gunfire began to take its toll. Down came the soaring English masts, down fluttered the gallant sails. One English ship after another began to limp, and then to falter, and finally to fall away.
It was a curious fact that in this culminating struggle of the revolution, this engagement foreseen by Washington as the one which would determine everything, not a single American participated. ...
When the day ended, neither fleet had won. No colors were struck. No ship was sunk. Of course, the English admirals decided to burn the Terrible, sorely damaged, but later this was held to be a craven act.
Neither side won. The battle would actually continue for days, drifting ever further away from the Chesapeake itself. But while neither side technically "won" the battle, the British most definitely "lost." Their naval blockade was effectively broken by the Battle of the Chesapeake. As a result, the French wound up in possession of the bay. And as a direct result, the American forces besieging Yorktown were helped out in two enormous ways. The French, as a result of their subsequent domination of the Chesapeake Bay, were able to supply the American land forces with heavy artillery -- without which the Yorktown siege would have been far more difficult. But the biggest reason that the victory at Yorktown most likely would never have happened without the French's (relative) success in the Battle of the Chesapeake is that it denied the British in Yorktown their resupply route, and -- most importantly of all -- any hope of an escape route. Because British ships couldn't come to their aid, the British had to abandon all hope of retreat, and instead were forced to surrender to General Washington and his colonial army. Cornwallis' surrender happened less than two months after the Battle of the Chesapeake.
And Yorktown was where we won the whole war. The British soldiers knew how monumental this victory was, too -- the mighty British Empire, on whom "the sun never sets," had just been defeated by a ragtag irregular army of farmers. The British military band, while the official surrender at Yorktown took place, showed they understood the enormity of what was happening -- by playing a song called "The World Turned Upside Down."
Michener sums up the importance of the naval battle, in our final excerpt from Chesapeake:
This engagement was one of the decisive battles of history, for when it was terminated, with the French line of battle still impregnable, the English had to withdraw, leaving the Chesapeake open to the French fleet. Rochambeau was now able to bring thousands of French soldiers south for the final thrust against Cornwallis; the iron blockade of the Atlantic ports was broken.
It became a battle without a name, a triumph without a celebration. It accomplished nothing but the freedom of America, the establishment of a new system of government against which all others would eventually compare themselves, and a revision of the theory of empire.
Which is why, this Independence Day, I will personally be lifting my glass in a toast to a French admiral, and the French sailors who served under him. Because without Admiral Compte de Grasse's efforts, we might not even have an Independence Day to be celebrating. The Battle of the Chesapeake deserves to be remembered. This military triumph deserves a bit of celebration. By all Americans. So, I hope you'll join me in honoring the good French admiral. Lift a glass and give grateful thanks to his bravery and his heroic efforts on behalf of our own revolution -- whose successful end he made possible:
l'Amiral Compte de Grasse! Vive la révolution!"
[Note: This is a statue of Admiral
Compte de Grasse, located on the grounds of the
Cape Henry Memorial in Virginia. This was the
closest point of land in Virginia to where the
Battle of the Chesapeake took place, at the
southern end of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Cape Henry Memorial is part of the National
Chris Weigant blogs at: <a href="http://www.chrisweigant.com/2010/07/02/the-forgotten-battle-which-won-the-american-revolution/">ChrisWeigant.com</a> This is both a reference to his blog and the article from which I drew his words.
blog of Joe Wheeler
On July 4, 1776, American patriots
signed the Declaration of Independence from
Great Britain. War was declared. For five long
years, George Washington led his ragtag army in
battle against the well-trained British forces.
More often than not, Washington was defeated in
these clashes, but each time managed to escape.
It was a battle-weary people, with little in the
way of good news to cheer them up, that faced
the definite possibilityeven probabilitythat
they would lose to the worlds greatest
superpower that September of 1781. But there was
a wild card in the deck: France, Great Britains
fiercest enemy. It was a global war the two
nations fought, thus Britain was not at liberty
to further weaken the global war by allocating
more warships and troops to the American
rebellion than it already had. France took
advantage of this golden opportunity to
embarrass its enemy by sending a fleet to the
rescue of the American rebels.
The French Admiral Comte de Grasse
proceeded with his entire fleet of 24 ships from
the West Indies to the Chesapeake Bay.
Meanwhile, sailing from New York, Admiral Thomas
Graves with 19 British ships left New York. On
September 5, at Virginia Capes, the two forces
collided. Because of being becalmed (no wind to
propel them), their fighting was indecisive.
Then, reinforced by additional vessels and siege
guns from Newport, R.I., the French sailed back
into the Chesapeake to take final control of the
During late summer of 1781, the
Marquis de Lafayette (serving under Washington)
had so harassed Cornwalliss troops that hed
been forced to retreat from Wilmington, N.C. to
Richmond, VA, then Williamsburg, and finally,
near the end of July, to Yorktown, which he
proceeded to fortify. Lafayettes forces, now
totaling 8,000 troops blocked Cornwallis from
escaping anywhere by land. Cornwalliss army of
7,000 kept waiting in vain for the British
reinforcements to arrive. Under the naval
umbrella of the French fleet, Washington
dramatically moved 7,000 additional
Franco-American troops from New York to
Virginia. But Cornwalliss last hope, Thomas
Graves, felt he had no alternative but to return
to New York after the stand-off at Virginia
Capes. As a result of this, after strategizing
with British General Sir Henry Clinton, a
British rescue fleet, two-thirds the size of the
French, set sail from New York on October 17
with 7,000 British troops. But it was too late:
Bombarded by the French fleet on one side and
16,000 allied troops on land, Cornwallis
surrendered his entire army on October 19, thus
assuring victory to the allied forces.
Joe Wheeler's Blog is entitled "Wednesdays With Dr. Joe" at http://joewheeler.wordpress.com/
His comments above were taken from his remarks before the 29th Zane Grey's West Society Convention, on August 3, 2011, and later on his blog.
Continuing with the article from Wikipedia (edits, inserts and illustrations added)
an insert regarding the
The Siege of Yorktown, Battle of Yorktown, or Surrender of Yorktown , the latter taking place on October 19, 1781, was a decisive victory by a combined assault of American forces led by General George Washington and French forces led by the Comte de Rochambeau over a British Army commanded Lieutenant General, Lord Cornwallis.
General George Washington
Comte de Rochambeau
Lieutenant General, Lord Cornwallis
In 1780, 5,500 French soldiers landed in Rhode Island to assist their American allies in operations against British-controlled New York City.
French Fleet at Newport 1781
George Washington reviewing the French fleet at Newport
by David Wagner
Following the arrival of dispatches from France
that included the possibility of support from the
French West Indies fleet of the Comte de Grasse,
Washington and Rochambeau decided to ask de Grasse
for assistance either in besieging New York, or in
military operations against a British army
operating in Virginia. On the advice of
Rochambeau, de Grasse informed them of his intent
to sail to the Chesapeake Bay, where Cornwallis
had taken command of the army. Cornwallis, at
first given confusing orders by his superior
officer,Henry Clinton, was eventually ordered to
make a defensible deep-water port, which he began
to do at Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis's
movements in Virginia were shadowed by a
Continental Army force led by the Marquis De
Marquis de Lafayette
The French and American armies united north of New York City during the summer of 1781. When word of de Grasse's decision arrived, the combined armies began moving south toward Virginia, engaging in tactics of deception to lead the British to believe a siege of New York was planned. De Grasse sailed from the West Indies and arrived at the Chesapeake Bay at the end of August, bringing additional troops and providing a naval blockade of Yorktown.
He was also transporting 500,000 silver pesos collected from the citizens of Havana, Cuba, to fund supplies for the siege and payroll for the Continental Army. While in Santo Domingo, de Grasse met with Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, an agent of Carlos III of Spain. De Grasse had planned to leave several of his warships in Santo Domingo. Saavedra promised the assistance of the Spanish navy to protect the French merchant fleet, enabling de Grasse to sail north with all of his warships and three regiments of troops that had been previously loaned to Spain.
Main articles: Franco-American alliance and Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War.
On December 20, 1780, Benedict Arnold sailed from New York with 1,500 troops to Portsmouth, Virginia. On his way, he raided Richmond, defeating the militia, from January 57 before falling back to Portsmouth. French Admiral Destouches, who arrived in Newport, Rhode Island in July 1780 with a fleet with 5,500 soldiers, was encouraged by Washington and French Lieutenant General Rochambeau to bring his fleet south, and launch a joint land-naval attack on Arnold's troops. The Marquis de Lafayette was sent south with 1,200 men to help with the assault. However, Destouches was reluctant to dispatch many ships, and only sent three in February. After they proved to be ineffective, he took a larger force of 11 ships in March 1781, and fought a tactically inconclusive battle with the British fleet of Marriott Arbuthnot at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Destouches withdrew due to the damage sustained to his fleet, leaving Arbuthnot and the British fleet in control of the bay's mouth.
On March 26, Arnold was joined by 2,300 troops under command of Major General William Phillips, who took command of the army. Phillips resumed raiding, defeating militia, and then burning warehouses of tobacco at Petersburg, Virginia on April 25. Richmond was about to suffer the same fate, but Lafayette arrived, and the British, not wanting to engage in a major battle, withdrew to Petersburg on May 10.
May 20, Charles Cornwallis arrived at Petersburg
with 1,500 men after suffering heavy casualties
at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, joining
the army of Phillips, who had recently died of a
fever. Cornwallis had not received
permission to abandon the Carolinas from his
superior, Henry Clinton, but he believed that
Virginia would be easier to conquer, feeling
that it favored an invading army.
With the arrival of Cornwallis and more reinforcements from New York, the British Army numbered 7,200 men. Cornwallis wanted to push Lafayette, whose force now numbered 3,000 men with the arrival of militia. On May 24, he set out after Lafayette, but Lafayette withdrew from Richmond, and linked up with forces under the command of Baron von Steuben and Anthony Wayne. Cornwallis did not pursue Lafayette; instead, he sent raiders into central Virginia, attacking depots and wrecking supply convoys, before recalling them on June 20. Cornwallis headed for Williamsburg, while Lafayette's force of now 4,500 men followed. General Clinton, in a confusing series of orders, then ordered Cornwallis first to Portsmouth and then Yorktown, where he was instructed to build fortifications for a deep water port.
Colonial Port of Yorktown
Another view from National Park Service
On July 6, the French and American armies met at White Plains, north of New York City. Although Rochambeau had almost 40 years of warfare experience, he never challenged Washington's authority, telling Washington that he had come to serve, not to command.
and Rochambeau discussed where they should
launch a joint attack. Washington
believed that an attack on New York was the best
option, as the Americans and French outnumbered
the British 3 to 1. Rochambeau disagreed,
arguing that the fleet under Admiral de Grasse,
which was headed to the West Indies, was going
to head to the American coast afterwards where
easier operations other than attacking New York
could be done. In early July,
Washington suggested that an attack be made at
the northern part of Manhattan, but both his
officers and Rochambeau disagreed.
Washington continued to probe the New York area,
until August 14, when he received a letter from
de Grasse that he was headed to Virginia with 29
warships and 3,200 men, but would only remain
there until October 14. De Grasse
encouraged Washington to come south where they
could launch a joint operation. Upon receiving
this news, Washington abandoned his plan to take
New York, and began to prepare his army for the
march south to Virginia.
The march to Yorktown led by Washington and Rochambeau began on August 19, and has become known as the "celebrated march", 4,000 French and 3,000 American soldiers began the march in Newport, Rhode, Island, while the rest remained behind to protect the Hudson Valley. Washington wanted to keep absolute secrecy as to where they were headed. Washington sent out fake dispatches that reached Clinton, and convinced him that the Franco-American army was going to launch an attack on New York, and that Cornwallis was not in any danger.
Map of the "Celebrated
The French and American armies paraded through Philadelphia from September 2 to 4, where the American soldiers proclaimed they would not leave Maryland until they received one month's pay. The Continental Congress complied, giving them the money. On September 5, Washington learned of the arrival of de Grasse's fleet off the Virginia Capes. De Grasse debarked his French troops to join Lafayette, and then sent his empty transports to pick up the American troops. Washington made a visit to his home, Mount Vernon, on his way to Yorktown.
In August, Admiral Sir Thomas Graves
led a fleet from New York to attack de Grasse's
fleet. Graves did not realize how large the
French fleet was, and neither did Cornwallis.
The British fleet was defeated by de Grasse's
fleet in the Battle of the Capes or Battle of
the Virginia Capes, also known as the Battle of
the Chesapeake and as the Battle of Chesapeake
Inserted into the Wikipedia article on the Siege of Yorktown is more data on the Battle of the Capes
Battle of the Capes
insert to the Wikipedia article from the U. S.
Navy Historical Center follows
Siège de Yorktown by Auguste Couder, c.1836. Rochambeau and Washington giving their last orders before the battle. Rochambeau pointing and Washington on his left.
The French Fleet Blocked British Entry to Chesapeake Bay
On September 26, transports
with artillery, siege tools, and some
French infantry and shock troops from the
Head of Elk, the northern end of the
Chesapeake Bay arrived, giving Washington
command of an army of 7,800 Frenchmen,
3,100 militia, and 8,000 Continentals. Early on September 28,
Washington led the army out of
Williamsburg to surround Yorktown. The French took the
positions on the left while the Americans
took the position of honor on the right. Cornwallis had a chain of
and batteries linked by earthworks along
with batteries that covered the narrows of
the York River
at Gloucester Point. That day, Washington
reconnoitered the British defenses and
decided that they could be bombarded into
submission. The Americans and the
French spent the night of the 28th
sleeping out in the open, while work
parties built bridges over the marsh. Some
of the American soldiers hunted down wild
hogs to eat.
On September 29, Washington moved the army closer to Yorktown and British gunners opened up on the infantry. Throughout the day several British cannon fired on the Americans but there were few casualties. Fire was also exchanged between American riflemen and Hessian Jagers.
Cornwallis pulled back from all of his outer defenses, except for the Fusilier's redoubt on the west side of the town and redoubts 9 and 10 in the east. Cornwallis had his forces occupy the earthworks immediately surrounding the town because he had received a letter from Clinton that promised relief force of 5,000 men within a week and he wished to tighten his lines. The Americans and the French occupied the abandoned defenses and began to establish their own batteries there. With the British outer defenses in their hands, allied engineers began to lay out positions for the artillery. The men improved their works and deepened their trenches. The British also worked on improving their defenses.
September 30, the French attacked the
British Fusiliers redoubt. The
skirmish lasted two hours, in which the
French were repulsed suffering several
casualties. On October 1, the allies learned
from British deserters that, to preserve
their food, the British had slaughtered
hundreds of horses and thrown them on the
beach. In the American camp,
thousands of trees were cut down to provide
wood for earthworks. Preparations for the
parallel (trench) also began.
the allies began to put their artillery into
place, the British kept up a steady fire to
disrupt them. British fire
increased on the 2nd and the allies suffered
moderate casualties. General Washington
continued to make visits to the front,
despite concern shown by several of his
officers over the increasing enemy fire.
On the night of October 2, the British
opened a storm of fire to cover up the
movement of the British cavalry to
Gloucester where they were to escort
infantrymen on a foraging party.
On the 3rd, the foraging party, led by
Banastre Tarleton, went out but collided
with Lauzun's Legion, and John Mercer's
Virginia militia, led by the Marquis de
Choisy. The British cavalry quickly
retreated back behind their defensive lines,
losing 50 men.
October 5, Washington was almost ready to
open the first parallel. That
night the sappers and miners worked, putting
strips of pine on the wet sand to mark the
path of the trenches.
nightfall on October 6, troops moved out in
stormy weather to dig the first parallel:
the heavily overcast sky negated the waning
full moon and shielded the massive digging
operation from the eyes of British sentries.
Washington ceremoniously struck several
blows with his pick axe to begin the trench.
The trench was to be 2,000 yards (1,800 m)
long, running from the head of Yorktown to
the York River. Half of the
trench was to be commanded by the French,
the other half by the Americans. On the
northernmost end of the French line, a
support trench was dug so that they could
bombard the British ships in the river.
The French were ordered to distract the
British with a false attack, but the British
were told of the plan by a French deserter
and the British artillery fire turned on the
French from the Fusiliers redoubt.
October 7, the British saw the new allied
trench just out of musket-range.
Over the next two days the allies completed
the gun placements and dragged the artillery
into line. The British fire began to weaken
when they saw the large number of guns the
Storming of Redoubt #10
Led By Lt. Col Alexander Hamilton
painted by Eugene Lamy
By October 14, the trenches were within 150 yards (140 m) of redoubts #9 and #10. Washington ordered that all guns within range begin blasting the redoubts to weaken them for an assault that evening. Washington planned to use the cover of a moonless night to gain the element of surprise. To reinforce the darkness, he added silence, ordering that no soldier should load his musket until reaching the fortifications- the advance would be made with only "cold steel." Redoubt 10 was near the river and held only 70 men, while redoubt 9 was a quarter of a mile inland, and was held by 120 British and Germans. Both redoubts were heavily fortified with rows of abatis (a field fortification for an obstacle formed of the branches of trees laid in a row, with the sharpened tops directed outwards, towards the enemy) surrounding them, along with muddy ditches that surrounded the redoubts at about 25 yards (23 m). Washington devised a plan in which the French would launch a diversionary attack on the Fusiliers redoubt, and then a half an hour later, the French would assault redoubt 9 and the Americans redoubt 10. Redoubt 9 would be assaulted by 400 French regular soldiers under the command of the German Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm von Zweibrucken and redoubt 10 would be assaulted by 400 light infantry troops under the command of Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton. There was briefly a dispute as to who should lead the attack on redoubt #10. Lafayette named his aide, Jean-Joseph Sourbander de Gimat, who commanded a battalion of Continental light infantry. However, Hamilton protested, saying that he was the senior officer. Washington concurred with Hamilton and gave him command of the attack.
French Storming of
6:30 pm, gunfire announced the diversionary
attack on the Fusiliers redoubt. At
other places in the line, movements were made
as if preparing for an assault on Yorktown
itself, which caused the British to panic.
With bayonets fixed, the Americans marched
towards redoubt #10. Hamilton sent Colonel
John Laurens around to the rear of the redoubt
to prevent the British from escaping.
The Americans reached the redoubt and began
chopping through the British wooden defenses
with their axes. A British sentry called a
challenge, and then fired at the Americans.
The Americans responded by charging with their
bayonets towards the redoubt. They hacked
through the abatis, crossed a ditch and
climbed the parapet into the redoubt.
The Americans forced their way into the
redoubt falling into giant shell holes from
the bombardment of the redoubts. The British
fire was heavy, but the Americans overwhelmed
them. Someone in the front shouted,
"Rush on boys! The fort's ours!" The British
threw hand grenades at the Americans with
little effect. Men in the trench
stood on the shoulders of their comrades to
climb into the redoubt. The bayonet fight
cleared the British out of the redoubt and
almost the entire garrison was captured,
including the commander of the redoubt, Major
Campbell. In the assault, the
Americans lost 9 dead and 25 wounded.
The French assault began at the same time, but they were halted by the abatis, which was undamaged by the artillery fire. The French began to hack at the abatis and a Hessian sentry came out and asked who was there. When there was no response, the sentry opened fire as did other Hessians on the parapet. the French soldiers fired back, and then charged the redoubt. The Germans charged the Frenchmen climbing over the walls but the French fired a volley, driving them back. The Hessians then took a defensive position behind some barrels but threw down their arms and surrendered when the French prepared a bayonet charge.
With the capture of redoubts 9 and 10, Washington was able to have his artillery shell the town from three directions and the allies moved some of their artillery into the redoubts.
fire on Yorktown from the allies was heavier
than ever as new artillery pieces joined the
line. Cornwallis talked with his
officers that day and they agreed that their
situation was hopeless.
On the morning of October 17, a drummer appeared followed by an officer waving a white handkerchief. The bombardment ceased, and the officer was blindfolded and led behind the Allied lines. Negotiations began on October 18 between two British officers, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas and Major Alexander Ross, and Colonel John Laurens, who represented the Americans, and the Marquis de Noailles, who represented the French. To make sure that nothing fell apart between the allies at the last minute, Washington ordered that the French be given an equal share in every step of the surrender
The articles of capitulation were signed on October 19, 1781. Signatories included Washington, Rochambeau, the Comte de Barras (on behalf of the French Navy), Cornwallis, and Lieutenant Thomas Symonds (the senior Royal Navy officer present). Cornwallis' British men were declared prisoners of war, promised good treatment in American camps, and officers were permitted to return home after taking their parole. At 2:00 pm the allied army entered the British positions, with the French on the left and the Americans on the right. The British had asked for the traditional Honors of War (marching out with dignity, flags waving, muskets shouldered, and playing an enemy [American] tune as a tribute to the victors), but remembering that the British, on taking Charleston earlier in the war, had refused the Americans (under Benjamin Lincoln) the same privilege, Washington firmly denied their request. Consequently, the British and Hessian troops marched with flags furled, muskets reversed in shame, while according to unsubstantiated legend the British drummers and fifers played the tune "The World Turn'd Upside Down" - actually a popular British marching tune of the time, and in line with custom, but curiously appropriate under the circumstances. Yes, that is the tune you have been hearing. The British soldiers had been issued new uniforms hours before the surrender and until prevented by General O'Hara some threw down their muskets with the apparent intention of smashing them. Others wept or appeared to be drunk. 8,000 troops, 214 artillery pieces, thousands of muskets, 24 transport ships, wagons and horses were captured.
British General O'Hara surrendering his troops walking through the American and French lines
Cornwallis refused to meet formally with Washington, and also refused to come to the ceremony of surrender, claiming illness. Instead, Brigadier General Charles O'Hara presented the sword of surrender to Rochambeau. Rochambeau shook his head and pointed to Washington. O'Hara offered it to Washington, but he refused to accept it, and motioned to his second in command, Benjamin Lincoln, who had been humiliated by the British at Charleston, to accept it. The British soldiers marched out and laid down their arms in between the French and American armies, while many civilians watched. At this time, the troops on the other side of the river in Gloucester also surrendered.
French casualties were 60 killed and 194
wounded and the American casualties were 28
killed and 107 wounded: a grand total of 88
killed and 301 wounded.
British official casualty return for the siege
listed 156 killed, 326 wounded and 70 missing.
Cornwallis surrendered 7,087 officers and
enlisted men in Yorktown when he capitulated
and a further 840 sailors from the British
fleet in the York River. Another 84 prisoners
had been taken during the assault on the
redoubts on October 16. Since only
70 men were reported as missing, this would
suggest that 14 of the men officially marked
down as killed had in fact been captured.
This gives a grand total of 142 killed, 326
wounded prisoners and 7, 685 other prisoners.
Jerome A. Greene mentions a German account
that gives much higher figures: 309 killed and
Washington refused to accept the Tenth Article
of the Articles of Capitulation, which granted
immunity to American Loyalists and Cornwallis
failed to make any effort to press the matter.
"The outcry against the Tenth Article was
vociferous and immediate, as Americans on both
sides of the Atlantic proclaimed their sense
was endemic in the marshlands of eastern
Virginia during the time, and Cornwallis's
army suffered greatly from the disease; he
estimated during the surrender that half of
his army was unable to fight as a result. The
Continental Army enjoyed an advantage, in that
most of their members had grown up with
malaria, and hence had acquired resistance to
the disease. As malaria has a month-long
incubation period, most of the French soldiers
had not begun to exhibit symptoms before the
days later, on October 24, the British fleet
sent by Clinton to rescue the British army
arrived. The fleet picked up several Loyalists
who had escaped on October 18, and they
informed Admiral Thomas Graves that they
believed Cornwallis had surrendered.
Graves picked up several more Loyalists along
the coast, and they confirmed this fact.
Graves sighted the French Fleet, but chose to
leave because he was outnumbered by nine
ships, and thus he sent the fleet back to New
the British surrender, Washington sent Tench
Tilghman to report the victory to Congress.
After a difficult journey, he arrived in
Philadelphia, which celebrated for several
days. This was entirely justified since
Yorktown marked the last major battle of the
war in North America. The British Prime
Minister, Lord North, is reported to have
exclaimed "Oh God, it's all over" when told of
the defeat. Washington moved his
army to New Windswor, New York
where they remained stationed until the Treaty
of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783,
formally ending the war.
siege of Yorktown is also known in German
historiography as "die Deutsche Schlacht"
("the German battle"), because Germans played
significant roles in all three armies,
accounting for roughly one third of all forces
involved. According to one estimate more than
2,500 German soldiers served at Yorktown with
each of the British and French armies, and
more than 3,000 German-Americans were in
The British Surrender at
by Joseph Plumb Martin.
Plumb martin was a sixteen year old
was promoted to Sergeant and was in the
Continental Army until the conclusion of the
war in 1783.He
participated in many important actions
including the battles of
age of 70, the venerated veteran then living
narrative by Jospeh
Plumb Martin begins -
Soon after landing we
We marched from
Here, or about this
time, we had orders from the Commander in
Chief that, in case the enemy should come out
to meet us, we should exchange but one round
with them and then decide the conflict with
the bayonet, as they valued themselves at that
instrument. The French forces could play their
part at it, and the Americans were never
backward at trying its virtue. The British,
however, did not think fit at that time to
give us an opportunity to soil our bayonets in
their carcasses, but why they did not we could
never conjecture; we as much expected it as we
expected to find them there.
We went on and soon
arrived and encamped in their neighborhood,
without let or molestation. Our Miners lay
about a mile and a half from their works, in
open view of them. Here again we encountered
our old associate, Hunger. Affairs, as they
respected provisions, &c., were not yet
regulated. No eatable stores had arrived, nor
could we expect they should until we knew what
reception the enemy would give us. We were,
therefore, compelled to try our hands at
foraging again. We, that is, our corps of
Miners, were encamped near a large wood. There
was a plenty of shoats all about this wood,
fat and plump, weighing, generally, from fifty
to a hundred pounds apiece. We soon found some
of them and as no owner appeared to be at hand
and the hogs not understanding our inquiries
(if we made any) sufficiently to inform us to
whom they belonged, we made free with some of
them to satisfy the calls of nature till we
could be better supplied, if better we could
be. Our officers countenanced us and that was
all the permission we wanted, and many of us
did not want even that.
We now began to make
preparations for laying close siege to the
enemy. We had holed him and nothing remained
but to dig him out. Accordingly, after taking
every precaution to prevent his escape, [we]
settled our guards, provided fascines and
gabions, made platforms for the batteries, to
be laid down when needed, brought on our
battering pieces, ammunition, &c. on the
fifth of October we began to put our plans
One-third part of all
the troops were
put in requisition to be employed in opening
the trenches. A third part of our Sappers and
Miners were ordered out this night to assist
the engineers in laying out the works. It was
a very dark and rainy night. However, we
repaired to the place and began by following
the engineers and laying laths of pine wood
end-to-end upon the line marked out by the
officers for the trenches. We had not
proceeded far in the business before the
engineers ordered us to desist and remain
where we were and be sure not to straggle a
foot from the spot while they were absent from
us. In a few minutes after their departure,
there came a man alone to us, having on a surtout, as we
conjectured, it being exceeding dark, and
inquired for the engineers. We now began to be
a little jealous for our safety, being alone
and without arms, and within forty rods of the
British trenches. The stranger inquired what
troops we were, talked familiarly with us a
few minutes, when, being informed which way
the officers had gone, he went off in the same
direction, after strictly charging us, in case
we should be taken prisoners, not to discover
to the enemy what troops we were. We were
obliged to him for his kind advice, but we
considered ourselves as standing in no great
need of it, for we knew as well as he did that
Sappers and Miners were allowed no quarters,
at least, are entitled to none, by the laws of
warfare, and of course should take care, if
taken, and the enemy did not find us out, not
to betray our own secret.
In a short time the
engineers returned and the afore-mentioned
stranger with them. They discoursed together
some time when, by the officers often calling
him Your Excellency, we discovered that it
was General Washington. Had we dared, we might
have cautioned him for exposing himself too
carelessly to danger at such a time, and
doubtless he would have taken it in good part
if we had. But nothing ill happened to either
him or ourselves.
It coming on to rain
hard, we were ordered back to our tents, and
nothing more was done that night. The next
night, which was the sixth of October, the
same men were ordered to the lines that had
been there the night before. We this night
completed laying out the works. The troops of
the line were there ready with entrenching
tools and began to entrench, after General
Washington had struck a few blows with a
pickax, a mere ceremony, that it might be said
General Washington with his own hands first
broke ground at the siege of Yorktown. The
ground was sandy and soft, and the men
employed that night eat no idle bread (and I
question if they eat any other), so that by
daylight they had covered themselves from
danger from the enemys shot, who, it
appeared, never mistrusted that we were so
near them the whole night, their attention
being directed to another quarter. There was
upon the right of their works a marsh. Our
people had sent to the western side of this
marsh a detachment to make a number of fires,
by which, and our men often passing before the
fires, the British were led to imagine that we
were about some secret mischief there, and
consequently directed their whole fire to that
quarter, while we were entrenching literally
under their noses.
As soon as it was day
they perceived their mistake and began to fire
where they ought to have done sooner. They
brought out a fieldpiece or two without their
trenches, and discharged several shots at the
men who were at
work erecting a bomb battery, but their shot
had no effect and they soon gave it over. They
had a large bulldog and every time they fired
he would follow their shots across our
trenches. Our officers wished to catch him and
oblige him to carry a message from them into
the town to his masters, but he looked too
formidable for any of us to encounter.
I do not remember,
exactly, the number of days we were employed
before we got our batteries in readiness to
open upon the enemy, but think it was not more
than two or three. The French, who were upon
our left, had completed their batteries a few
hours before us, but were not
allowed to discharge their pieces till the
American batteries were ready. Our commanding
battery was on the near bank of the [
The siege was carried
on warmly for several days, when most of the
guns in the enemys works were silenced. We
now began our second parallel, about halfway
between our works and theirs. There were two
strong redoubts held by the British, on their
left. It was necessary for us to possess those
redoubts before we could complete our
afternoon, I, with the rest of our corps that
had been on duty in the trenches the night
but one before, were ordered to the lines. I
mistrusted something extraordinary, serious or
comical, was going forward, but what I could
not easily conjecture.
We arrived at the
trenches a little before sunset. I saw several
officers fixing bayonets on long staves. I
then concluded we were about to make a general
assault upon the enemys works, but before
dark I was informed of the whole plan, which
was to storm the redoubts, the one by the
Americans and the other by the French. The
Sappers and Miners were furnished with axes
and were to proceed in front and cut a passage
for the troops through the abatis, which are
composed of the tops of trees, the small
branches cut off with a slanting stroke which
renders them as sharp as spikes. These trees
are then laid at a small distance from the
trench or ditch, pointing outwards, and the
butts fastened to the ground in such a manner
that they cannot be removed by those on the
outside of them. It is almost impossible to
get through them. Through these we were to cut
a passage before we or the other assailants
At dark the
detachment was formed and advanced beyond the
trenches and lay down on the ground to await
the signal for advancing to the attack, which
was to be three shells from a certain battery
near where we were lying. All the batteries in
our line were silent, and we lay anxiously
waiting for the signal. The two brilliant
planets, Jupiter and Venus, were in close
contact in the western hemisphere, the same
direction that the signal was to be made in.
When I happened to cast my eyes to that
quarter, which was often, and I caught a
glance of them, I was ready to spring on my
feet, thinking they were the signal for
starting. Our watchword was Rochambeau, the
commander of the French forces' name, a good
watchword, for being pronounced Ro-sham-bow,
it sounded, when pronounced quick, like
We had not lain here long before the expected signal was given, for us and the French, who were to storm the other redoubt, by the three shells with their fiery trains mounting the air in quick succession. The word up, up, was then reiterated through the detachment. We immediately moved silently on toward the redoubt we were to attack, with unloaded muskets. Just as we arrived at the abatis, the enemy discovered us and directly opened a sharp fire upon us. We were now at a place where many of our large shells had burst in the ground, making holes sufficient to bury an ox in. The men, having their eyes fixed upon what was transacting before them, were every now and then falling into these holes. I thought the British were killing us off at a great rate. At length, one of the holes happening to pick me up, I found out the mystery of the huge slaughter.
The American attack on Redoubt #10
As soon as the firing
began, our people began to cry, The forts
our own! and it was Rush on boys. The
Sappers and Miners soon cleared a passage for
the infantry, who entered it rapidly. Our
Miners were ordered not to enter the fort, but
there was no stopping them. We will go, said
they. Then go to the d 1, said the
commanding officer of our corps, if you
will. I could not pass at the entrance we had
made, it was so crowded. I therefore forced a
passage at a place where I saw our shot had
cut away some of the abatis;
several others entered at the same place.
While passing, a man at my side received a
ball in his head and fell under my feet,
crying out bitterly. While crossing the
trench, the enemy threw hand grenades (small
shells) into it. They were so thick that I at
first thought them cartridge papers on fire,
but was soon undeceived by their cracking. As
I mounted the breastwork, I met an old
associate hitching himself down into the
trench. I knew him by the light of the enemys
musketry, it was so vivid. The fort was taken
and all quiet in a very short time.
Immediately after the firing ceased, I went
out to see what had become of my wounded
friend and the other that fell in the passage.
They were both dead. In the heat of the action
I saw a British soldier jump over the walls of
the fort next the river and go down the bank,
which was almost perpendicular and twenty or
thirty feet high. When he came to the beach he
made off for the town, and if he did not make
good use of his legs I never saw a man that
All that were in the
action of storming the redoubt were exempted
from further duty that night. We laid down
upon the ground and rested the remainder of
the night as well as a constant discharge of
grape and canister shot would permit us to do,
while those who were on duty for the day
completed the second parallel by including the
captured redoubts within it. We returned to
camp early in the morning, all safe and sound,
except one of our lieutenants, who had
received a slight wound on the top of the
shoulder by a musket shot. Seven or eight men
belonging to the infantry were killed, and a
We were on duty in
the trenches twenty-four hours, and
forty-eight hours in camp. The invalids did
the camp duty, and we had nothing else to do
but to attend morning and evening roll calls
and recreate ourselves as we pleased the rest
of the time, till we were called upon to take
our turns on duty in the trenches again. The
greatest inconvenience we felt was the want of
good water, there being none near our camp but
nasty frog ponds where all the horses in the
neighborhood were watered, and we were forced
to wade through the water in the skirts of the
ponds, thick with mud and filth, to get at
water in any wise fit for use, and that full
of frogs. All the springs about the country,
although they looked well, tasted like
copperas water or like water that had been
standing in iron or copper vessels....
In the morning, while
the relieves were coming into the trenches, I
was sitting on the side of the trench, when
some of the New York troops coming in, one of
the sergeants stepped up to the breastwork to
look about him. The enemy threw a small shell
which fell upon the outside of the works; the
man turned his face to look at it. At that
instant a shot from the enemy, which doubtless
was aimed for him in particular as none others
were in sight of them, passed just by his face
without touching him at all. He fell dead into
the trench. I put my hand on his forehead and
found his skull was shattered all in pieces
and the blood flowing from his nose and mouth,
but not a particle of skin was broken. I never
saw an instance like this among all the men I
saw killed during the whole war.
After we had finished our second line of trenches there was but little firing on either side. After Lord Cornwallis had failed to get off, upon the seventeenth day of October (a rather unlucky day for the British) he requested a cessation of hostilities for, I think, twenty-four hours, when commissioners from both armies met at a house between the lines to agree upon articles of capitulation. We waited with anxiety the termination of the armistice and as the time drew nearer our anxiety increased. The time at length arrived it passed, and all remained quiet. And now we concluded that we had obtained what we had taken so much pains for, for which we had encountered so many dangers, and had so anxiously wished. Before night we were informed that the British had surrendered and that the siege was ended.
The British Laying Down Their Arms
The next day we were
ordered to put ourselves in as good order as
our circumstances would admit, to see (what
was the completion of our present wishes) the
British army march out and stack their arms.
The trenches, where they crossed the road
leading to the town, were leveled and all
things put in order for this grand exhibition.
After breakfast, on the nineteenth, we were
marched onto the ground and paraded on the
right-hand side of the road, and the French
forces on the left. We waited two or three
hours before the British made their
appearance. They were not always so dilatory,
but they were compelled at last, by necessity,
to appear, all armed, with bayonets fixed,
drums beating, and faces lengthening. They
were led by General [Charles] OHara, with the
American General Lincoln on his right, the
Americans and French beating a march as they
passed out between them. It was a noble sight
to us, and the more so, as it seemed to
promise a speedy conclusion to the contest.
The British did not make so good an appearance
as the German forces, but there was certainly
some allowance to be made in their favor. The
English felt their honor wounded, the Germans
did not greatly care whose hands they were in.
The British paid the Americans, seemingly, but
little attention as they passed them, but they
eyed the French with considerable malice
depicted in their countenances. They marched
to the place appointed and stacked their arms;
they then returned to the town in the same
manner they had marched out, except being
divested of their arms. After the prisoners
were marched off into the country, our army
separated, the French remaining where they
then were and the Americans marching for the
During the siege, we
saw in the woods herds of Negroes which Lord
Cornwallis (after he had inveigled them from
their proprietors), in love and pity to them,
had turned adrift, with no other recompense
for their confidence in his humanity than the
smallpox for their bounty and starvation and
death for their wages. They might be seen
scattered about in every direction, dead and
dying, with pieces of ears of burnt Indian
corn in the hands and mouths, even of those,
that were dead. After the siege was ended,
many of the owners of these deluded creatures
came to our camp and engaged some of our men
to take them up, generally offering a guinea a
head for them. Some of our Sappers and Miners
took up several of them that belonged to a
Colonel Banister; when he applied for them
they refused to deliver them to him unless he
would promise not to punish them. He said he
had no intention of punishing them, that he
did not blame them at all, the blame lay on
Lord Cornwallis. I saw several of those
miserable wretches delivered to their master;
they came before him under a very powerful fit
of the ague. He told them that he gave them
the free choice either to go with him or
remain where they were, that he would not
injure a hair of their heads if they returned
with him to their duty. Had the poor souls
received a reprieve at the gallows they could
not have been more overjoyed than they
appeared to be at what he promised them; their
ague fit soon left them. I had a share in one
of them by assisting in taking him up; the
fortune I acquired was small, only one
dollar. I received what was then called its
equivalent in paper money, if money it might
be called; it amounted to twelve hundred
(nominal) dollars, all of which I afterwards
paid for one single quart of rum. To such a
miserable state had all paper stuff called
Our corps of Sappers
and Miners were
now put on board vessels to be transported up
the bay. I was on board a small schooner; the
captain of our company and twenty others of
our men were in the same vessel. There was
more than twenty tons of beef on board,
salted in bulk in the hold. We were obliged to
remain behind to deal out this beef in small
quantities to the troops that remained here. I
remained part of the time on board and part
on shore for eighteen days after all the
American troops were gone to the northward,
and none remaining but the French. It now
began to grow cold, and there were two or
three cold rainstorms. We suffered exceedingly
while we were compelled to stay on shore,
having no tents nor any kind of fuel, the
houses in the town being all occupied by the
Our captain at length
became tired of this business and determined
to go on after the other troops at all
events. We accordingly left
Joseph Plumb Martin,
A narrative of some of the adventures,
dangers and sufferings of a revolutionary
soldier; interspersed with anecdotes of
incidents that occurred within his own
observation (Hallowell, ME.: Glazier,
Masters & Co., 1830), 16575.
Next is the paper by Dr. Harold Larrabee of Union College -
That which was shown here are the first eight pages of the twelve page article that appeared in the Journal of the Societe Des Americanistes
for the complete paper/article see:
Harold A. A neglected french collaborator in
the victory of Yorktown, Claude-Anne marquis
de Saint-Simon (1740-
1819). In: Journal de la Société des Américanistes. Tome 24 n°2, 1932. pp. 245-257.
doi : 10.3406/jsa.1932.1858