Episode 072

Battle of Yorktown – Part I

In what many consider the final battle of the Revolutionary War, George Washington faces off against Charles Cornwallis in Yorktown, VA

== The following is an automatically generated transcript for this episode, please excuse any spelling, grammatical or content errors. ==

We’re going to jump straight into the Battle of Yorktown and to start our conversation there we’re going to start on the British side with charles cornwallis we’re going to start a few weeks back from where ourlast episode the battle of the Chesapeake ended up for about the past five episodes we’ve mentioned that Cornwallis is retreating from South Carolina up through North Carolina and into Virginia and really all I’ve done is just kind of touch on that but I want to back up a little bit and tell that story from Cornwallis’s perspective how thatrelates to George Washington and ultimately how those pieces movetogether to create the situation thatwill become the Battle of Yorktown so buckle up here we go

We’ll start our story on a May 15 1781 which was five days before Cornwallis and his army reached petersburg virginia major general william phillips commander of the forces in the Chesapeake died of a tidewater fever the saddle Cornwallis’s Cornwallis had looked forward to seeing him again they were old comrades with him Clinton and himself had cut their teeth in Germany during the Seven Years War the British officers that served during the Seven Years War there was an air of being set apart in fact they felt that they were superior to all others there was almost a brotherhood there and when they were much younger Phillips Clinton and Cornwallis had actually dreamed of commanding together Clinton and Cornwallis had long since fallen out and phillips and clinton were no longer close the curtain Wallace remain fond Phillips whose death dampen the pleasure he felt arriving in Virginia Phillips was a fat and comfortable man and he might have steady Cornwallis and at this moment Cornwallis need that he was tired from a long and depressing campaign and he was looking for excuses for the abandonment of the Carolinas

He was also looking for direction he had made it to virginia with a thousand men who had seen too much combat but once they’re even he did not quite know what heshould do Benedict Arnold who by this time had turned to the side of the British was there in Virginia decretum now Cornwallis didn’t take comfort and Arnold’s presence he definitely took comfort in the presence of Arnold’s troops which was 5,000 men present and fit for duty and now in his command a week later reinforcements arrived which he divided between his own force and thepost at Portsmouth he also pondered the orders under which Phillips had operated in which of course my chain of command for now his he was to establish a post on the Chesapeake and Clinton had also instructed Phillips to cooperate with Cornwallis but not to undertake a major campaign on his own nearing the end of May Clinton learned of Cornwallis’s march to Virginia the news didn’t please Clinton but he did not react decisively what should we do now?

George Washington did not appear to offer an immediate threat to New York and he seemed unlikely to be able to strengthen his army in Clinton’s mind American public finances and American morale had nearly collapsed the French a new board were more of a threat for they had ships as well as troops but the British Navy had been pretty well confined in a tough injury blockade however Clinton was concerned about Admiral Francois just have palled grass who with 20 ships of the line had sailed from breast on march 22nd Clinton had been warned of his coming by the ministry but he could do little about it except pass on the news to George Rodney who is the naval commander in the West Indies across this force gave the french naval superiority in north america which was a circumstance of immense importance but one which the ministry ignored until it was too late no attempt was made to stop the Frenchman in European waters and no reinforcements of ships was sent to America until june and that reinforcement was hardly worth the name as it did consists of three ships as for Cornwallis in June

Clinton’s sent instructions that he was to develop abase in the Chesapeake capable of sheltering warships Clinton also wrote warningly that soon orders would be sent for the return of troops in Cornwallis his army to join and projected operations along the Delaware these instructions went out from new york on jun 11 and 15 and reach Cornwallis on the twenty-sixth before they did he had disrupted life in Virginia my first driving lafayette from richmond and then turning loose lieutenant colonel john Simcoe and the Queen’s Rangers for a strike against Baron von Steuben at point a fork the juncture of the rivanna and fluvanna rivers student had to run before this rate as men would not fight as simcoe captured arms and ammunition Cornwallis next sent our good friend Bannister Tarleton after the Virginia legislature which was at Charlottesville which he reached on jun 4th on the Swift cut Tarleton nearly captured governor Thomas Jefferson at Monticello Jefferson escaped by a mere 10 minutes the day after Cornwallis reach williamsburg he read the letters Clinton had written two weeks before they have formed him tha the would not to conduct a major campaign so he might harass the enemy and he was to construct a naval station clinton by this time was attempting to ready himself for several possibilities franco-american attack on New York or push into Pennsylvania to upset the enemy hence he urged Cornwallis to send troops to New York six regiments of infantry plus calorie and artillery Cornwallis was too tested by these orders and perhaps a little confused at any rate he immediately looked for a site for a naval base first recounting door town deciding against establishing himself there he began a march to Portsmouth from which the troops would be sent to New York

Before he left williamsburg he despatched a letter to clinton and when she virtually declared his unwillingnessto remain in Virginia under the conditions his chief had laid down and requesting permission to retire to charleston south carolina until he heardfrom clinton however he would remain in Virginia and scout out a naval station the move from williamsburg began leisurely in July the fourth lafayette followed and on july sixth sent mad Anthony Wayne to hit what he thought was the British rearguard near Jamestown Cornwallis enforce lay in ambush at green spring and we talked about this and i believe is said 69 or 70 which was called the Battle of utah spring in the Battle of green springs now during that battle Wayne led has been forward and the British spring the trap lafayette help to extricate Wayne but when it was over there were a hundred forty-five Dead Americans on the field Cornwallis then led his army across the james river before Cornwallis arrived at Portsmouth fresh letters from clinton found him and kept finding him with instructions toget the troops scheduled for New York ready for a Pennsylvania expedition instead then as he loaded his troops for Philadelphia he was ordered to hold the williamsburg neck to keep back troops from New York and he seemed to beinstructed to fortify old point comfort or your town but to send any troops to New York that he no longer needed

By the end of July Cornwallis had decided to abandon portsmouth keep his entire force and fortify yorktown in August second he became putting his troops sure they’re Clinton did not object when he heard of this disposition now while Clinton and Cornwallis were thrashing about and confusion and indecision George Washington try to sort out his problems and assess hispossibilities now it’s been awhile since we’ve talked about Washington you have to remember he’s been camped around New York for several months now and like we said a few episodes agoit’s really been a stalemate between heand Clinton his army was still dressed in rags and suffered from shortages ofevery description the rate of desertion may have slowed but was still high his allies the French said in newport awaiting reinforcements and on the English ships that blockaded them the naval commander the comp bra new on the scene in May was an unknown quantity but Rochambeau lieutenant general who led the French army had made a favorable impression since his arrival in july of 1780

Rochambeau was seven years older than Washington had served with distinction in France’s European Wars but he did not know America and he spoke no English he had good military ability however and his personal qualities honesty intact made him an ideal choice for command and his acceptance of hissubordination to Washington also added his value in may have 1781 Rochambeau in Washington decided on operations around New York City if possible and such force as to compel Clinton to recall troops from Virginia Rochambeau would bring the French fleet to Boston where it might be more easily protected when Washington learned in June that Admiral grass had sailed from breast for the West Indies it would be coming to the American mainland duringthe summer he did not give up his plans for an attack on New York City he did not know the size of grosses force nor did he know where cross intended to use it early in july the franco-american operations around New York began but they enjoyed no great success there was little fighting around the city and inthese days largely because the Allies had trouble getting into positions from which to attack while they maneuveredthe commander speculated about grassesintentions when he come to New York or Virginia and would he give them naval superiority

On august fourteenth Washington received a letter from bra with the answer cross had left the West Indies for the Chesapeake with 29 ships and over 3,000 troops although grasses naval strength was formidable do not guarantee to the French supremacy in American waters but it might lead to full control and Washington decidedalmost immediately to act as if it would he therefore informed Rochambeau that the two armies must move to the Chesapeake as rapidly as possible five days later on august the 19th he had the continentals in motion with the French coming along soon afterwards now to hide these movements from clinton was going to be impossible Clinton would know that Washington was moving his entire force the Washington could you know through a little sand in his eyes maybe smoke and mirrors kind of confuse them a little bit so he proceeded tofake preparations for an attack on NewYork from New Jersey he had the roads and bridges in new jersey near the city repaired in a large oven for bakingbread can startdid then near the end of August he started three columns marching toward the city as if positioning themselvesfor an attack Clinton watched apprehensively and did not guess the destination of the Allied Force until sep tember the second when the American army passed through Philadelphia the French following a route recommended by Washington march through in the next two days by the middle of sep tember the two armies had transported themselves some450 miles along with baggage andsupplies the move showed Washington’s organizational talents their best he had a few officers planned it selecting the roots and collecting the horses and wagons that were so vital inthe transport of stores Washington seems to have saturated himself in the details as well as the larger outlines of the move horses and oxen must be collected at strategic points magazines with flower beef and run must be set up wagons for tents must carry tense if officers as their want powder baggage on them throw it off repair roads and bridges well in advance and five boats and small ships to transport the troopsdown the Chesapeake the mastery of detail so familiar to those who knew Washington appeared in all these concerns and in the orders that swarmedout of his pen after 16 paragraphs of detailed instructions to Benjamin lincoln who was in charge of sailingdown the Chesapeake Washington added this PostScript

“the tow ropes or painters of the boats ought to be strong and of sufficient length otherwise we shall be much played with them in the bay and more than probably lose many of them”

while engage with logistics Washington pondered strategy and tactfully urge cross to use his force as vigorously as possible across ships reached the Virginia capes on august the 26th and by the 31st or an anchor inside the bay just about that time Thomas Graves who had succeeded the former fleet commander sailed from New York with 19 ships of the line his destination was the Chesapeake where he hoped he would find the French fleet in September the fifth he found it and fought a battle that was a standoff we talked about this in our last episode before the halloween one which was entitled the battle of the Chesapeake while the two fleets maneuvered in the open seas bra who had left Newport a week earlier slipped into the bay behind them standoff left Cornwall is securely in a net effect graves virtually admitted by returningto New York in September the 13th cross spent most of the next month beingnervous Washington carefully tutored him in the opportunities now available to their side but he feared entrapment in the bay Washington convinced him to prolong his stay until the end of october and then persuaded him that by taking up a station in the open seas he would unnecessarily expose the franco-american army grows gave way onboth matters but steadfastly refused tosend ships up to York to cut Cornwallis off after the combined army had movementinto position against him

That move began at 4am in September the 28 when French and American forces marks from williamsburg together the two armies numbered around 16,000 troops including 3000 Virginia militia they swung out in a long column most on foot because horses were in short supply and needed elsewhere to help drag up the heavy guns and ammunition light artillery was spaced up and down the column rather than concentrated in thehere as was the usual practice for the fear of resistance from the British they wanted to protect the artillery so rather than keeping it all in the back of the line they spread it out through the line so that way if the British hid them somewhere along the line theywouldn’t lose everything and or they would have some artillery to use in thatengagement as the Sun rose in the skyapproved more dangerous than the enemywho remained in his works at Yorktown the Sun burned down and caused more than a few men to fall out by late afternoon most of the Allied army was in camp within two or three miles of the enemy’slines the town of Yorktown itself sits on a low plateau overlooking the YorkRiver ravines cut through the plateau in the town running down to the water’s edge there were marshes just to the northwest of the town and others to the south and southwest warmly creek in a pond later the southeast a second creek ran through the Western marsh and emptied into the York farther to the south and west late pigeons he’ll wear the pigeon quarter a slight rise cover by tall pine trees the road from williamsburg entered the town from the northwest and the hampton road from the South Cornwallis had set up two lines of defense the outer consisted of little more than three readouts the pigeon quarter the farthest about 1,200 yards from Yorktown and the star or fusiliers read out about the same distance to the north west along the edge of the river an interline wondering 300 or 400 yards at the most from your town had been begun but it’s trenches readouts and batteries were not yet complete the Allies awoke on the morning of september’s the 30th to discover that Cornwallis had abandoned the readouts in the pigeon quarter

The British continue to hold the star redoubt their defenses for the most part now rest along the inner line over the next few days they sank several large boats close in along the shore now this was a measure taken to discourage an assault by water to their rear they also gradually slaughtered their horses since they lacked forage for them aside from these actions some small-scale patrolling and the improvement of trenches and readouts remains largely inactive for the next two weeks as late as october the 12th Washington called Cornwallis’s conduct quote passive beyond conception a belief that Clinton would extricate him may explain this passivity during the first two weeks ofthe siege in the last week has this belief collapsed passivity yielded to paralysis and to despair the mood on the American side however approached enthusiasm the French of course look forward to settling old scores with their ancient enemy and had many left over from the recent war to take up but it was the Americans who most relish the opportunities of the seach they had endured much and absorb so many blows in the previous six years and now theymight return one which would probably in the war and secure their independence this possibility did lead to a little bit of an occasional insanity militia man stood on the parapet of one of thefirst works constructed by the Americans quote and damn his soul if he would dodge for the buggers the buggers being the British firing cannon in his direction captain james duncan who watched this madness without trying to stop itthey reported that the man quote had escaped longer than could have been expected and growing foolhardy brandish his Spade at every cannonball that was fired till unfortunately the ball came and put an end to his capers two days later captain Duncan and a detachment of light infantry just escaped service as the target they have been sent forward in the trenches torelieve another Union unit and here we’ll find a historical example about how the military typically has no fear the relief of these soldiers was accomplished with drums beating and colours flying if the enemy heard the drums or more likely notice the colors and decided to fire at the men who areobviously under them so be it an eighteenth-century gentleman should always plays his honor above his life or so the convention had it captain Duncan had his doubts which grew into revulsionat the order next given by his commander Colonel Alexander Hamilton as Duncan told it they arrived at the forward toward trench and planted their colors quote our next manoeuvre was rather extraordinary we were ordered to mount the bank front the enemy and they’re about word of command go through all the ceremony of soldiery ordering andgrounding our arms and although theenemy had been firing a little beforethey did not now give us a single-shot British we have been filled with astonishment at this display is

Duncan later remarked more likely the British officers who watched admired the performanceperhaps some wish that they had ordered it themselves their men however doubtless would have echo Duncan’s judgment of Hamilton quote one of the first officers in the American army who in this instance wantedly expose the lives of his men the French they’re not so given to these wild flourishes also relieved their infantry and workingparties to the beating of drums when they did at least until Rochambeau or the practice which he characterized as a vain glory to cease a very solid and psychologically secure commander Rochambeau noted that the drums attractive British fire honor evidently could survive silence and was most enjoyed by the living whatever else the confidence of the Allies spawned it generated powerful 04 the work and work the troops did in theopening days of october the artillery had to be dragged up and in place and pressure had to be exerted on the British strong the artillery from the James where it had landed to yorktown took time and the labor of many horses and men while these men and animals sweated at their task others began digging in improving the readouts captured in the pigeon quarter andthrowing up works on both ends of thetown once these were begun sappers started zigzagging trenches forward toward the enemy few nights later in the darkness of october the 6th 1st parallel was opened it was a trench 600 yardsdistance from the British and parallel to their works this trench which was some 4,000 feet long initially ran from the river on the southeast side of thetown to a large ravine it was virtually completed a day later

I want you to kind of ponder this for a little bit so a 4,000 foot long trench and we know a mile is what 52 5600 feet something like that so this is at least about three-quarters of a mile and you know the trenches were several feet deep that’s a that’s a lot of Earth to move in a day during the next two days the French and Americans anchored itwith readouts don’t communications trenches and depose for stores and ammunition in place batteries slightly ahead of the parallel although Cornwallis had a degree of passivity he did not ignore this threat their candidate picked up the next few daysand at times so impressed an acute American observer named George Tucker that he characterized it smart smart may have been but it was not heavy enough to stop the Allied armies from in placing their own artillery by the Act afternoon of october the ninth they had a sufficient number of guns and mortars inposition to reply from that time whenthey made life miserable for everyone inyour town British and German soldiers the few civilians who had not fled and the black slaves who had volunteered have been forced to remain within a few days the Allied artillery established its superiority there soon was more of it and it proved surprisingly accuratethis fire would be described today as direct fire the cannoneers could see their targets and do not have to depend on forward observers to quote call it in French Gunners more practice than the Americans claim to be able to put six consecutive rounds and the embrasures of enemy batteries the Americans lacked this fine touch but they too fired with an accuracy that distress the enemy the day after the Allies open bombardment all safe to of the English embrasures had been closed not necessarily destroyed but shut up during daylight toprevent the destruction at night they reopened them and return as much fire as possible

Not only the British work suffered under the Allied pounding from october the night on there was little sleep for those in the town civilians ran to quote hastily contrived shelters along the riverbank soldiers burrowed into the ground and trenches and readouts and Cornwallis himself lived in kind of a grotto which is a rough underground cave still the dead andwounded piled up in a German soldier remarked on the bodies in town quote whose heads arms and legs had been shot off food supplies to not run out but the army which had eaten putrid meat and warming biscuits at least since early September did not fare well sickness brought on by bad food andwalking capacitated hundreds of soldiers two days after the allies began shelling october eleventh they dug a second parallel this one about 300 yards from the main enemy line the same procedure was used with sappers calling out trenches under the watchful care of infantry in another day the trench was almost finished this time the British exact a price from the infantry the Allies step forward at two or three hundred yards the light artillery foundthe range Cornwallis who had carefully hoarded powder and shells remove restrictions on firing over the nextweek however the Allied artillery gradually assumed control has more forward batteries were opened and the British works brought under even heavier fire on the night of october the 14th the Allies completed the second parallel simultaneous assaults on to British readouts number nine number ten these attacks were a compound of terror andromance made in darkness by troops carrying unloaded muskets they succeeded only because of surprise and the bravery of the troops the French who took number nine the larger of the two readouts incurred heavier casualties in the Americans the beta stick the head to force their way through may have beenthicker than the one the Americans had encountered or they may have been less well prepared for itwhatever the reason the barricade held up and the British muskets cut them down finally the artifices clear the way andthe french infantry rush through into the ditch and up the parapet once inside to read out they found the going easier as some of the British retired to their right the Americans under Alexander Hamilton broke down the defenses as soon as they found it and swarmed over the readouts two figures before they could organize a response by morning the readouts have been connected to the second set oftrenches and the Allies had a position suitable for final storm final desperate assault did not prove necessary not much fight remain in the British they exhausted what there was over the next three days around midnight on october the 15th a small raiding party of British broke into the second parallel spiked six pieces into batteries one French and one American these Raiders acted for the sake of British pride and soon after encountering resistance they retired to their main lines

The next night in a desperate effort to escape Cornwallis begin ferrying his troops across the river to glow caster his intention was to mass sufficient force to break out and then to lead his army to New York he had put about a thousand men across the river a squall blew up and made further transport possible by the time the windand rain fell off further effort was useless the troops were crossed back to Yorktown and Cornwallis began to preparehimself to surrender that day his linestook a frightful battering from enemy artillery

On october the 17th Cornwallis in an officer to Washington with a proposal for surrender terms were discussed that day in the next a little before noon on october the 19th washington signed and at two in the afternoon the british army marched out to surrender however the surrender or yorktown were not directly into war Britain still had an army in New York City charleston south carolina parts of Georgia canada Halifax and the West Indies and we’ll see how that plays out in our next episode…


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