Yorktown Dates: September 28-October 19, 1781Forces Engaged: American Colonial and French:
American - 15 battalions of the Continental Line, organized into three divisions each of two brigades (about 4,500 infantry); three brigades of Virginia state militia (roughly 3,000 infantry); 17 companies of artillery (400 artillerymen) as well as a small number of pioneers, cavalry and odds and sods - a total of about 8,000 troops under GEN George Washington.
French - (Land Forces) 15 battalions of regular infantry (including two of marines) and a "legion*" of 1 battalion-equivalent (about 8,000 infantry but including 2 squadrons of light cavalry and a small number of artillerymen); eleven companies of artillery (670 artillerymen) under LTG Comte de Rochambeau.
French - (Naval Forces) 1 x 110 gun battleship, 3 x 80 gun battleships, 17 x 74 gun battleships, 3 x 64 gun small battleships, 1 x 36 gun heavy frigate, 3 x 32 gun frigates, 2 x 26 gun light frigates, 1 x 16 gun brig under RADM Comte de Grasse.
British, American Loyalist and German:
British - (Land Forces) 14 regular infantry battalions including 2 of marines in three brigades, 230 artilleryman, 20 cavalry (roughly 5,250 troops - note, however, that many of these are down with disease and assorted "fevers"); 2.5 loyalist militia battalions (about 500 troops all arms)
German - Anspach-Bayreuth: 2 regiments regular infantry and an attached artillery company (about 1,000 infantrymen, 40 artillerymen and 3 light cannon) Hesse-Kassel: 2 regiments regular infantry, 1 light (jager) company and an attached artillery company (930 infantrymen, 50 artillerymen, 4 light cannon)
Total: 7,750 all arms under LTG Charles, Earl Cornwallis
British (Naval Forces) 1 x 98 gun battleship, 1 x 90 gun battleship, 12 x 74 gun battleships, 1 x 70 gun battleship, 4 x 64 gun light battleships, 1 x 50 gun cutdown battleship, 2 x 38 gun frigates, 2 x 32 gun frigates, 2 x 28 gun light frigates, 1 fireship under RADM (Red Squadron) Thomas Graves
(*Note: one of the military fads of the late Eighteenth Century was something called a "legion", a sort of combined-arms force that, in the case of Lauzun's Legion was nominally composed of 8 companies: four infantry (one Grenadier, one Chasseur, two Fusilier), one Artillery, two light cavalry (Hussar) and one Support (Artificier) company.The French brought Lauzun, and the British had a loyalist outfit called the "British Legion" which is better known as "Tarleton's Legion" after its commander, LTC Banastre Tarleton (aka "Bloody Ban").
Strength returns for the British Legion at Yorktown list 25 officers, 216 troopers, of which probably more than half were dragoons (heavy cavalry/mounted infantry), leaving less than 80-100 light infantry.The 18th Century legions were something of a military oddity, given that either the cavalry had to move at a walking pace or take the infantry up behind them to stay together, and the tactics of light infantry and light cavalry or dragoons were sufficiently opposed as to make the combination difficult to operate effectively. In practice the legion infantry was usually brigaded with other infantry and the cavalry acted in the scouting and shock roles with other cavalry. By Napoleonic times the legion system had effectively been abandoned, a victim of the increasing specialization of the military arms)
The Powers and Their Intentions: One thing that makes Yorktown so interesting is the intersection of the warring entities. Each had their intentions, several of which they had no intention of disclosing even to their own allies and which, in many cases, worked against their allies' interests.
The British: had perhaps the most straightforward mission; put down the rebellion and return the American colonies to their (in British eyes) proper position as a vassal to the Mother Country. But...the British position had been immensely complicated by the entry of France and Spain to the war as allies of the American rebels. For one thing, Britain's already long supply lines were made even more precarious by the threat of French warships, and British trade (as always, crucial to British prosperity) threatened by privateers of all nations.
And in the long view, Britain had colonies more vital to its world power, economic security and national pride than the American littoral. In particular India and her associated dominions, Gibraltar, and her Caribbean colonies were highly valuable, and much at risk were the American venture to soak up too many troops, too many ships and too much interest...Another thing that became a major factor in deciding the fate of British America was the political game-playing between the Secretary of State for the American Department, Lord George Germain (officially the CINC for North America), GEN Henry Clinton, the commander of the British expeditionary force in the colonies in rebellion, and LTG Cornwallis. We will discuss this further when we talk about the Yorktown Campaign, but suffice to say that Germain was a man of many illusions, one of which was his military acumen; Clinton was a man of many resentments, one of which was his inability to play well with others, and Cornwallis was a man of many doubts, one of which was NOT in his own opinions. The collision of these three men would serve the Crown poorly in the American colonies.
The French: intended to "help" the upstart Americans to the extent - exactly and no further than humanly possible - that they served to discomfort and dismantle the British Empire. Remember, the French and their native American allies had fought a war with the American settlers and their British then-patron as recently as a generation. France was not just a monarchy but a Monarchy, whose Bourbon rulers had little affection for what, to them, was a congeries of backwoods lawyers and mobocrats addled on the writings of levelers and anarchists.France's ambition in North America was to use the American rebels as cannon fodder for the British; to tie down as many British maneuver units and naval vessels as possible while scooping up British possessions elsewhere. The crucial part of this strategy was the official abandonment of any claim on the former French dominions in what is today Canada. No matter what Rochambeau and de Grasse might tell the Americans, France's sugar islands in the Antillies were infinitely more important to the French than American "liberty"; the freedom of a Philadelphia scrivener wasn't worth the bones of a single Alsatian grenadier.
The Americans: had a simple but maddeningly complex task - stay alive and stay unconquered. It was said of the British Admiral Jellicoe that he could lose the First World War for Britain in an afternoon. Well, the commander of the American field army could lose an entire continent in a day's fighting. Washington can never be considered a tactical genius; pretty much every British commander in the American theatre kicked his ass at some point or another. But he also knew that tactical defeat was, in the long view, immaterial. He had his gaze firmly fixed on the single thing he needed to accomplish; keep the Continental Army intact, in the field, and effective. He didn't have to win, much, (and he didn't) but he had to keep the British from cornering him and destroying the Continental Line.His relationship with his "allies" was more complex. He needed the footsoldiers, artillerymen, sappers and engineers the French provided. Even more, he needed the money, the supplies and...absolutely most of all...he needed the warships. The United States wouldn't assemble an effective Navy for another twenty years, and by effective I mean a navy with capital ships, ships-of-the-battle-line, battleships. The stories of the exploits of the big American frigates are all very heroic and good for sparking naval tradition, but the reality was that the British 74-gun man-o-war - in her masses - had closed the American ports and stoppered the American coast. British seapower enabled British landpower to move strategically at will and forced American land forces to defend more area than they could reasonably cover. We will see...the famous name and famous date is Yorktown in October, but the real decisive battle was an inconclusive engagement fought in the shallow sea off the mouth of Chesapeake Bay in early September.
But while accepting all this assistance, he also couldn't afford to be seen as an auxiliary or vassal of the powerful foreigners, either. Even while the French troops outnumbered his own, when the French were acting as the navy the Americans didn't have, he needed to act - and be seen as acting - as the commander-in-chief of the allied forces. If America were to do anything but trade subservience to Britain for subservience to France, Washington had to do more than just fight - he had to LEAD, and be known and seen to lead, those forces to strategic victory.
The Campaign: Lord North, the Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1778 and Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the American colonies, cherished three illusions about the war they were waging.
1. That the war would be a conventional war in the European sense - that is, that by defeating armies, taking and holding major cities and similar high-value terrain that they would discourage the rebels.
2. That the American colonists included a sizeable and virulent breed of Loyalist that needed merely the discouragement of the main rebel armies to arm themselves and take the field against their rebel neighbors.
3. And that all this could be run out of London; done relatively quickly, easily and cheaply; and would not require any particular effort to involve the population of the British Isles.
It's said that we pay a price for everything we believe that is not true. I'm not sure if that's always the case - certainly there is a large part of the American public that seems to be trying to live in the 21st Century as if it were not - but in North's and Germain's cases it certainly was. Germain in particular was the real artificer of the war, to the extent that any control was asserted from London, and his beliefs made fools of him and his commanders from 1775 until the last trooper sailed from New York harbor eight years later.
In the case of the "Southern Campaigns", what got him in trouble was misconception #2; the notion that the Southern colonies were a Loyalist hotbed. To some extent this was as true as anywhere else in the colonies. Modern scholarship estimates that somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the total white population of the colonies was actively royalist. But in this case the decisive factor was the loyalist exiles in London, several of whom had access to Germain, and had convinced him that a solid body of King's troops in the Carolinas and Georgia would be sufficient to raise a genuine mass of loyalist forces.
Today these people would be telling you about cash for gold and male enhancement products.
The reality was that from 1775 to 1778 the American rebels held most of the positions of power and influence south of the Potomac River, and they had used them ruthlessly, merely suppressing loyalists when merely unruly, bleeding and scattering them when in arms. By the time the British returned, in late 1778 and 1779 many of the loyalists who might have armed themselves were either in flight, dead, dispossessed or afraid enough of the possibility of the former to prevent them from turning out. The British and their Tory partisans also learned the lessons of guerilla war; being strong in one place means nothing in another. While the main British armies succeeded at Augusta, Georgia in 1779 and Charleston in 1780, the backcountry - and, remember, most of the colonies were backcountry at this point - was a deadly dangerous place to be a Tory.
But near the British main force was a dangerous place to be for a rebel in 1780. First MG Lincoln went into the bag with 5,000 patriot militia and Continentals in May of 1780. Then, after another defeat at Waxhaws in May, came the worst defeat in the open field of the Southern campaigns; Camden. MG Gates, the hero of Saratoga, lost the battle and most of his little army, probably as many as 2,000 out of 3,700 engaged. Gates himself fled with the first routing Virginia and Carolina militiamen. It was disastrous at the time, but, in the long run, possibly the best for the patriot cause. Lincoln and Gates were out of the way, replaced by men like Nathaniel Greene and Daniel Morgan, and the British confidence in aggressive stand-up engagements was raised beyond any rational bounds.
The British, meanwhile having already divided their forces upon France's entry - Germain dispatched 5,000 men to the West Indies - had divided them again, and the command of those forces as well. Clinton had returned to New York, where his 14,000 were pinned down overwatching Washington's army and the newly-arrived French forces under Rochambeau. Cornwallis had been left behind in the Carolinas with 8,000. which, after the rout of Camden must have seemed like more than enough to secure the entirety of the Carolinas and Georgia.
At this point the hopes of the rebellion must have seemed very slim, indeed. It was in this dismal autumn that the patriots surrounded MAJ Ferguson and his loyalist militias at King's Mountain in the hinterlands of the western Carolinas.
The destruction of Ferguson's forces was the first of a series of bloody hammerings inflicted on the British and Loyalists. MG Greene had, like Washington, realized that victory or defeat were not nearly as important as bleeding out the British troop units, 3,000 miles from their recruit depots. So first at Cowpens in January, then northward towards Virginia in February, and finally at Guilford Courthouse in March, Greene made Cornwallis divide his forces even further, abandon his supplies and lose men to ambush, desertion and disease. By the time the losses of Guilford had been absorbed, Cornwallis was finished with the Carolinas. It was his intention to march into Virgina, the colony he perceived to be the source of most of the rebel supplies and untroubled by war since 1776. Cornwallis believed that cutting the Virginia-Carolinas links would take both in a coup de main.
In this he was acting against GEN Clinton's - his nominal superior - direct orders to concentrate at a port city and await naval support. Here the weird British command structure was at fault again, as Germain and Cornwallis planned this in a series of letters, bypassing Clinton (as at Saratoga) without informing him that the strategy Clinton thought he was effecting had been changed. As Cornwallis marched north from Wilmington, North Carolina in April he set out on the road that led to Yorktown.
The Sources: Again, we're dealing with a major event that occurred amidst a literate culture and engaged two major European and an emerging North American government(s). Aside from official records we have letters, diaries, histories and personal accounts of the campaign, the various engagements and the siege itself. Among the better recent concise works is part of the Osprey campaign series by Brendan Morrissey.
The Engagement: It wouldn't have been right, given that so much of the war in the American colonies was precipitated and exacerbated by mistakes, illusion and error to have the final campaign begin on any other note. So it should be understood that the entire rationale behind Cornwallis' move from North Carolina to Virgina in April, 1781 was an utter fuckup.
As we're discussed, the only significant rebel force in the South at the time was Greene's army. Cornwallis, like the British commanders before him, thought along conventional lines. Greene had fled the field at Guilford; therefore Greene was beaten. It only remained to mop up his army and flay the rebel logistical base in Virgina. He was ready to do the latter...and reports from Carolina led him to believe that his subordinate Rawdon had done the former at Hobkirk's Hill. Confident that the elusive devil Greene had been sent back to Hell, Cornwallis marched on.In fact, Greene HAD been defeated but, as always, defeated but not dismayed remained at large in the Carolinas, proceeded to mop up the British garrisons of North and South Carolina, and pen up Rawdon in Charleston. Cornwallis had abandoned the southern colonies in the mistaken belief that they were secure while his abandonment lost them to Britain permanently.
Cornwallis, who had burned his supply train to try and catch the elusive Greene, marched from Wilmington to Petersburg, Virginia in just under a month. Dry weather and a hostile countryside ran up his sick list and ran down the morale of his troops. By the time he closed in Petersburg more than 2,000 of his 7,000 troopers were down with heat exhaustion, typhoid and other "fevers" endemic to the insalubrious Virginia tidewater.
And his Continental opponent, Lafayette, was playing Greene's Fabian game, refusing direct engagement, harassing, and delaying.
And if this was not frustrating enough, GEN Clinton was back in action again, worried about Franco-American actions against the New York garrison and displeased at Cornwallis' march into Virginia. He demanded that Cornwallis obey his instructions to establish a naval base on the Chesapeake Bay at Portsmouth, as well as sending reinforcements to support New York. Cornwallis, frustrated at his inability to pin down the rebel field army and determined to obey Clinton's orders for a change, marched down to the Chesapeake tidelands. His chief of engineers having determined that Portsmouth (and the alternative, Old Point Comfort near Hampton, Virginia) were unsuitable, Cornwallis embarked his force for the small town of Yorktown, arriving in early August.In New York, GEN Washington was meeting with his French counterpart, LTG Rochambeau.
The partnership was an especially amicable one, particularly since the Frenchman, though a very experienced soldier, was willing to defer to his host; he is said to have told Washington that he had come "to serve, not to lead".
What he could - or would - not do was enlighten Washington as to the movement of the French fleet. Every late summer and autumn since 1778 the French West Indies squadron had sailed north into American waters to escape the hurricane season. This year the venue of American operations would depend on the arrival of the French warships. In May and again in early July Washington and Rochambeau met and discussed their options. Washington wanted to attack Clinton in New York, whom he outnumbered 3:1; the British were stronger in the South than they had been since 1779, while being weaker in the north than ever since 1775.
Finally by mid-August Rochambeau had definite news; de Grasse would be in American waters only for several months, and no further north than the Chesapeake.
That was that. Leaving MG Heath with the New England militia and most of the New England battalions of the Continental Line, Washington and Rochambeau marched south across the middle colonies, feinting at Sandy Hook, and the first elements of allied cavalry reached Lafayette outside Yorktown on 12 September. This meant that the allies were equal in numbers - and especially in mounted troops - to Cornwallis' force.
But none of the parties knew what had been happening out at sea.
The French Royal Navy had an unenviable history. Never much more than a poor second to the British fleet it had been hammered flat in the Seven Years' War. Although materially rebuilt, the French warships also suffered from what might be termed an "excess of strategy". They are described by Morressey as seeing "the overall objective more important than risking all in the uncertainty of battle" and to the extent that it affected their tactics and gunnery to their detriment.The record of the French Navy in the American War was undistinguished, their inaction partially stemming from their own predilictions and partially from the Bourbon's unwillingness to sacrifice their strategic gamepieces for their dubious American "ally". So the tactically indecisive "First Battle of the Capes" on March 16, 1781 was a pretty typical example of the French naval style; Commodore Destouches was outfought by British RADM Arbuthnot, turned back from his attempt to force entrance into the Chesapeake, and though even at Versailles he was considered to have done poorly some of his officers whined that no decorations were issued for the mess.
But another officer was joining the fight, and ADM de Grasse had orders to engage the enemy if needed in order to support Rochambeau. He arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake on August 30, set up a blockade of Yorktown, and prepared to await the arrival of his counterpart ADM Barras, en route from Newport, RI, with Rochambeau's siege train. In the late morning of Sept 5 a French frigate reported the sighting of RADM Graves fleet from New York.
The ensuing "Second Battle of the Capes" wasn't exactly Trafalgar. In two hours of gunfire the British sustained serious damage to six battleships, the French to four. Graves did an indifferent job of leading his squadron, was accused of contradictory and misleading signals, and allowed the action to be dictated by de Grasse even though the British held the "weather gage", that is, were upwind of the French and could choose to run down upon them or stay away. The two fleets maneuvered southeast over the next three days, looking for an advantage and unwilling to accept combat on less than opportune terms.
Finally de Grasse, worried that the faster British ships could turn and outrace him to the Chesapeake, turned at night and sailed back to the bay. Unbelievably, Graves had not set a single frigate to observe de Grasse's squadron. The French, now reinforced by Barras' squadron, gained the mouth of the Chesapeake, and after several more days Graves sailed away, defeated.
Once trapped inside Yorktown the actual siege was methodical and typical of the sieges of the 18th Century. The lines of circumvallation were closed between September 30 and October 2. A sally by Tarleton's British Legion was messily repelled by Lauzun's Legion on October 3, ensuring that the surrounded garrison would not be able to acquire food or fodder. The "first parallel" was begun on October 6 and was completed October 10, the "grand batteries" opened fire the previous day, and the "second parallel", less than 400 yards from the town itself, was begun on October 11.
The night of October 14 came the final formal engagement of the war.
A composite battalion of the Royal Deux Ponts and the regiment Gatenois stormed Redoubt #9 and another composite unit, Hamilton's and Lauren's Light Infantry, took the neighboring Redoubt #10.
Cornwallis sallied a trench raid in the early morning of October 16; light infantrymen and guardsmen stormed into a battery in the second parallel, spiked seven guns and killed or wounded some 21 men. The guns were in battery by sunup.
That evening the British commander attempted to break out to the the eastern shore of the James, but was defeated, this time by an autumn storm. Near 10am on October 17th a drummer beat the parley. After two days of meetings and commissions, the instruments of surrender made the British and German troops prisoners of war. They were allowed to march out "with the honors of war", the officers to be paroled and Cornwallis could use HMS Bonetta to ferry his belongings to New York without inspection. The British troops could not play a French or American tune on the march to surrender (to prevent a mockery in song) and had to keep their colors cased.
So in the 19th the garrison marched out, supposedly to a regimental band (probably no more than fife and drum) playing "The World Turn'd Upside Down", although there is no contemporary source for this. Cornwallis himself claimed to be to sick to lead the surrender, but deputised his 2IC, COL O'Hara, who surrendered his sword first to Rochambeau who declined and pointed to Washington, who in turn deferred to his own second-in-command, MG Lincoln.The British troops refused to salute the American colors, and after the surrender many American officers, few owning real uniforms and broke what with Continental pay months in arrears, were treated to the aggravating sight of their nominal allies and enemies entertaining each other and fraternizing as professional soldiers. The memory would run deep.
In early November Washington proposed that de Grasse assist in attacking and taking Savannah and Charleston to clean the British out of the South. De Grasse, however, had a secret agreement with Spain to winter in the Caribbean and eventual defeat at the Battle of the Saintes in April, 1782. He sailed in the first week of November to leave Washington to slope off north to pen Clinton in New York while Rochambeau wintered in Virgina.
The Outcome: Tactical and strategic American rebel victory, and tactical French victory.
The Impact: The real impact of the defeat was to the people and the polity of Great Britain, where Lord North cried "Oh God! It is all over!" on hearing the news of Cornwallis' surrender. The French and Spanish were in arms, India and the Caribbean colonies in danger (remember how much of British foreign policy was made around India?) and the national debt increasingly ugly. Lord George Germain resigned in February, 1872. In March the North ministry lost a general election and was replaced by a less intransigent group of Whigs, who made peace and acceptance of American independence a condition of forming a government to the Crown.
Ironically, in the peace treaty negotiations that followed the French tried to undercut the American alliance by negotiating a separate peace with the British, while the Spanish were more actively hostile to the establishment of a separate American state than Great Britain. The British found themselves more than willing to negotiate with their former subjects as "13 United States" if it meant an end to the Franco-American alliance. Indeed, after the passage of the Jay Treaty in 1794 and France's own Revolution in 1798 France and the United States would fight an undeclared "Quasi-war" in the waters off North America and the Caribbean.
Of course, the new nation's troubles with her old mistress weren't over, either...
Touchline Tattles: There's not much funny, odd or cute about this battle. It was desperation and deception all around, and even the victors found much to be dissatisfied about.
Perhaps the saddest tale contained within the siege lines of Yorktown - as well as within the greater story of American independence - was the fate of the least considered of all the people on that battlefield; the black men, women and children who had chosen to follow Cornwallis' army to escape chattel slavery.
The British were no abolitionists. Slavery was legal in Great Britain, her dominions and territories until 1802. But, much as Lincoln did in 1862, the British could use the American colonists' fear of their own property as a weapon. After Governor Dunmore's acts to tempt rebel slaveowners' black wealth from them in 1775, many slaves saw the British forces as liberators. And, in fact, to give him credit, GEN Carleton, the commander of the New York garrison in 1782, refused American demands for the return of their "property", and embarked with any black man who wanted to leave. Most did.
But there was no such hope for the black men in the trenches of Yorktown. Their American masters showed up with a flag of liberty that brought them only chains, that would not fly for them for another eighty-four years.
Rather than to dwell on this grim picture, I prefer to contemplate Madame Le Comtesse Rochambeau; plainly the Hubba-Hubba Girl of 1781 or whatever the 18th Century catchphrase was for a very lovely woman. M'sieu le Comte was obviously not just a homme de la guerre; it appears he had some skill in the arts as a maitre de l'amour as well. So on that note, let us leave the soldiers, the lovers and the diplomats to history. Their day is done, and we have now to deal with the world they have bequeathed to us:
"The serving men do sit and whine, and think it long ere dinner time:
The Butler's still out of the way, or else my Lady keeps the key,
The poor old cook, in the larder doth look,
Where is no goodnesse to be found,
Yet let's be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn'd upside down."