Thursday, October 8, 2009

An Historic Battlefield – The Siege of Yorktown in 1781

History repeats itself; and in the siege now in progress before Yorktown, we have on a much large scale, the repetition of the siege of 1781, to result, we cannot doubt, in like manner – in the triumph of Liberty over its enemies.

On the 28th of September, 1781, Gen. Washington marched from Williamsburg, on the peninsula between the James and York rivers, for the even then old Yorktown. He was accompanied by Rochambeau, Chatelleux Du Porteall of the French army. Lafayette was already in advance, and the Count de Grasse lay off with the French fleet in Lynhaven Bay. The allied army, including militia, amounted to about 16,000 men. The English army did not number more than 7,500.

The main body of the English, under Lord Cornwallis, was encamped in the open ground around the town, within the range of outer redoubts and field works calculated to command the peninsula, while a detachment of 600 or 700 men held Gloucester Point, projecting from the opposite shore far into the river, and narrowing it to the space of one mile. Communication between was protected by the batteries and English ships-of-war lying under the batteries.

The allied army advanced upon the town – the Americans having the right and the French having the left – and pressed on so eagerly that in the night of the 30th, Lord Cornwallis withdrew from his outer lines, and the works he had evacuated were the next day occupied by the besieging army which invested the position in a semicircle; 2,000 men were stationed on the Gloucester side for the purpose of keeping up a rigorous blockade, which after a sharp skirmish, terminating unfavorably for the British, they made no further attempt to interrupt.

On the night of Oct. 6, the first parallel was opened within 600 yards of the British lines, and by the evening of the 9th several batteries and redoubts were completed, and the fire of the allies became very effective, compelling the enemy in many cases to withdraw his cannon from over the town, set fire to the Chaser frigate, of 44 guns, and several transports, which were entirely consumed.

The second parallel was opened on the night of the 11th, within 300 yards of the British lines, when finding that it was flanked by two advance redoubts in front of the British works, it was determined on the 14th to carry them by storm, and accordingly two attacking parties, one American, led by Lafayette, with whom served Alexander Hamilton, as Lieut. Colonel, the other French, led by the Baron de Viomenil, toward the close of the day rushed upon their works, and, though receiving a hot and rapid fire, returned not a single shot, but carried them at the point of the bayonet – Hamilton leading the American column with his battalion of light infantry. These captured works being now included in the second parallel, the fire upon the fort became so fierce that surrender seemed unavoidable. A vigorous sortie, led by Lieut. Col. Abercrombie, was made on the 16th of October, but was triumphantly repulsed, and Lord Cornwallis then conceived the desperate plan of passing his force over to Gloucester Point, and thence, mounting them as best he might by impressed horses – to force his way through Maryland to Philadelphia. A part of the army were actually thus transferred, when a storm arose, which put an end to the transportation of the rest of the army, and as soon as possible those sent over were brought back. On the morning of the 17th the fire of the allies became so hot that the place was no longer tenable, and Lord Cornwallis asked a cessation of hostilities for twenty-four hours, and the appointment of Commissioners to treat of surrender.

Gen. Washington replied that only for two hours could he consent to suspend hostilities and transmitted at the time such articles of capitulation as he would be willing to grant. Commissioners were appointed in conformity, on the 18th on both sides – Viscount de [Noailles] and Col. Laurens on the side of the Allies, Colonel Dundas and Major Ross, on behalf of the English. They agreed upon certain articles, of which a rough copy only a rough copy was made, but this General Washington transmitted to Lord Cornwallis early on the 19th, expression his expectations that the terms would be agreed to and signed by 11 o’clock, and that the garrison would march out by 2 p.m. Accordingly at that hour the posts of Yorktown and Gloucester Point, with their garrisons, and the ships in their harbor with their seamen, were surrendered to the land naval forces of America and France. The army, artillery, arms, military chest, and public stores of every kind, were surrendered to Gen. Washington – the ships and seamen to Count de Grasse; the total number of prisoners, excluding seamen, rather exceeded 7,000 men, among whom were two generals, thirty-one field officers, three hundred and twenty-six captains and subalterns, &c.

The negotiation of surrender was opened on the eleventh day after breaking ground, and the capitulation was signed on the thirteenth day.

The military and naval forces surrender as “prisoners of war – the artillery, arms, accoutrements, and military chests and public stores of every denomination, to be delivered up unimpaired – the garrison to march out at 2 o’clock, to a place appointed in front of the post, with shouldered arms, colors cased, and drums beating – they are then to ground their arms and return to their encampment – officers to retain their side-arms, and officers and soldiers to keep their property, and no part of their baggage or papers to be subject to search or inspection.” The spot on which this memorable surrender was made is well known. It is designated in a plan of the siege, and is soon, we may trust to be rendered more memorable by a like surrender of a much larger army – and thus combine in one glorious memory two great victories on the same ground. – {N. Y. Tribune, 17th.

– Published in The Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Saturday, April 26, 1862, p. 2

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