Year 2 Day 142 Yorktown

This morning we headed off for Yorktown.  It too is situated on the same peninsula as Jamestown but unlike Jamestown, it is located on the York River side of the peninsula and near where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay.  Jamestown is located about 30 or so miles up the James River.  While Jamestown was founded well up James River to be well hidden from the Spanish entering Chesapeake Bay, Yorktown is more conveniently located for ships entering the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.  It was this easy port access for landing troops and supplies that lead the British to select it as a base of operations.

The National Park Service maintains the battlefield and offers a fairly simple museum on its grounds.  When we arrived, we first explored the museum and then decided to take the driving tour of the battlefield.  The Park Service has road makers along the way, noting various stops where historically significant activities took place.  Mary Margaret read the history of each stop after which I ran out and took pictures.

We then drove into the village of Yorktown which had a distinct touristy feel for us.  While somewhat quaint, it really was not our cup of tea.  After a nice lunch, we drove over to the American Revolutionary War Museum.  This is part of the same historical foundation that runs the Jamestown Settlement Museum that we loved so much yesterday.  Following the same format, this museum had a wonderful series of galleries to wander through along with outside reconstructions of an American revolutionary army camp and a small farming village.

Our timing was wonderful because as we started to explore the museum, a historian met us and invited us to attend his lecture on the battle of Yorktown that he was about to start.  It was a real treat to attend and we learned a lot of background information that we might have otherwise missed.

Once the lecture was over, Mary Margaret and I decided to split up since our time was now short and there was so much to see.  I went outside to explore the reconstructions while she explored the galleries.  We met back up at the theater where we both attended a film about the history of the revolution but it paled in comparison to the lecture that we had earlier attended.

I will offer a brief write up of what we learned during the lecture and, in the process, sprinkle some of the photos I took today so you can see what I am trying to describe.

Yorktown was made famous by the defeat of General Cornwallis and his British troops by General Washington and his combined army of American and French troops back in 1781 which was the last major battle during the Revolutionary War.

By the summer of 1781, the United States had been at war with England for over six years. The first shots had been fired in April 1775 on the village green in Lexington and at North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. Merely sustaining the army had been a major accomplishment for the Americans, who did not have much money, food or clothing. The winters of 1777-78 at Valley Forge and 1779-80 at Morristown were particularly devastating, with many soldiers freezing and starving to death, and some giving up and returning home.

In the summer of 1780, the Americans received a major boost to their cause when 5,500 French troops, commanded by Comte de Rochambeau, arrived at Newport, Rhode Island. France had been sending supplies to the United States all along, but after France and England declared war against each other in 1778, French King Louis XVI sent troops and naval assistance to the United States to engage the enemy.

When Rochambeau’s forces arrived, the British were operating on two fronts. General Clinton, commander of British forces in North America, was occupying New York City after a largely unsuccessful attempt to control the northern and middle colonies. General Lord Cornwallis was leading through the southern colonies an army that had already captured Savannah and Charleston. The main American army under Washington was stationed along the Hudson River above New York City.

In the spring of 1781, Washington traveled to Rhode Island to meet with Comte de Rochambeau and plan an attack on Clinton. A French fleet was expected to arrive in New York later that summer, and Washington wanted to coordinate the attack with the fleet’s arrival. As planned, Rochambeau’s army marched in July and joined with Washington’s troops outside New York City, only to learn that the French fleet was sailing to the lower Chesapeake Bay.

Washington changed his strategy to make Clinton think he was planning to attack him, while instead sneaking away to the south to trap Cornwallis. In order to fool Clinton, Washington had his men build big army camps and huge brick bread ovens visible from New York to give the appearance of preparations for a stay. Washington also prepared false papers under his signature discussing plans for an attack on Clinton, and let these papers fall into British hands. Leaving a small force behind, Washington and Rochambeau set out for Yorktown in mid-August. By early September they were parading before the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and they arrived in Williamsburg, 13 miles west of Yorktown, in mid-September.

Cornwallis was in Yorktown because he had been ordered by Clinton during the summer to provide a protected harbor for the British fleet in the lower Chesapeake Bay. Cornwallis chose Yorktown because of its deep-water harbor on the York River. His army spent the latter part of the summer fortifying Yorktown and Gloucester Point across the York River.

The French fleet, as part of the overall plan, entered the lower Chesapeake Bay in the end of August and disembarked 3,000 French troops to wait for Washington and Rochambeau in Williamsburg. On September 5, they encountered the British fleet in a naval engagement known as the Battle of the Capes. The British suffered damage to their ships and returned to New York, while the French, commanded by Admiral de Grasse, remained in the lower Chesapeake and established a blockade.

By the end of September, approximately 17,600 American and French soldiers were gathered in Williamsburg, while 8,300 British soldiers were occupying Yorktown.

The British forces included a small number of German auxiliary troops hired to help fight the war. Cornwallis recognized the odds were in the allies’ favor, and he sent Clinton a note asking for help. Clinton responded that a British fleet with 5,000 men would sail for Yorktown from New York on October 5.

Cornwallis had his men construct a main line of defense around Yorktown that consisted of ten small earthen walled forts (called redoubts), batteries with artillery and connecting trenches. The Americans and French marched from Williamsburg to Yorktown on September 28 and began digging a trench 800 yards from the British defense line to begin a siege. By October 9, the allies’ trench was finished and their artillery had been moved up. Firing at the British continuously, they had virtually knocked the British guns out of action by October 11. Cornwallis had the additional misfortune to learn at that time that Clinton’s departure from New York had been delayed.

Battle of Yorktown Map

During the night of October 11, the allies began a second trench 400 yards from the British. The next days were spent bringing up artillery and strengthening the new line. The new line could not be completed, however, without capturing British redoubts 9 and 10. On the night of October 14, 400 French stormed redoubt 9 and 400 Americans stormed redoubt 10, capturing them in less than 30 minutes. Nine Americans and 15 French died in this brief and heroic action.

On October 16, the British tried two desperation moves. Early that morning they attacked the allied center, attempted to silence a French Battery, but the French cannons were firing again in less than six hours. Late that night they tried to evacuate Yorktown by crossing the York River in small boats to Gloucester Point. However, a violent storm hit the area at midnight, scattering the boats and forcing an abandonment of the escape.

Realizing the situation was hopeless, Cornwallis sent forth a British drummer on October 17, followed by a British officer with a white flag and note indicating a request for a cease fire. A number of notes passed between Cornwallis and Washington that day as they set the framework for the surrender. The next day, October 18, four officers–one American, one French and two British–met at the Moore House, one mile outside Yorktown, to settle surrender terms.20180522_125618

On October 19, most of Cornwallis’ army marched out of Yorktown between two lines of allied soldiers–Americans on one side and French on the other–that stretched for more than one mile. The British marched to a field where they laid down their arms and returned to Yorktown. They did not know that on that very day, Clinton sailed for Yorktown from New York with 5,000 troops.

News of the British defeat at Yorktown spread quickly. Celebrations took place throughout the United States. London was shocked. The British prisoners were marched to prison camps in Winchester, Virginia and Frederick, Maryland. The American army returned to the Hudson River, while the French army remained in Yorktown and Williamsburg for the winter. Clinton and Cornwallis eventually returned to England where they engaged in a long and bitter public controversy over who was to blame for the British defeat at Yorktown.

Though the British still had 26,000 troops in North America after Yorktown, the political resolve in London to win the war was nothing like it had been before Yorktown. The war had been lengthy and costly. Replacing Cornwallis’ captured army was a questionable proposition, particularly because the British also were engaged in military struggles in India, Gibraltar, the West Indies and Ireland. Thus, the British Parliament in March 1782 passes a resolution saying the British should not continue the war against the United States. Later that year, commissioners of the United States and Great Britain signed provisional articles of peace. In September 1783, the final treaty was signed which ended the war and acknowledged American independence.

Here are a few of the photos of the colonial farmstead that was reconstructed at the museum.



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