Cornwallis had left Wilmington and marched north, with the expressed purpose of conquering Virginia. The events which followed this movement were of momentous importance, as they led to a final termination of the war which had so long desolated the country, and enforced the acknowledgment of American independence. For the first time since the formation of the treaty with France the efforts of the latter country became of marked utility to America, and the French fleet and army had the honor of assisting in the closing scene of the war.
VIRGINIA was destined to be a theatre of still more decisive operations. Lord Cornwallis reached Petersburg, without much opposition, on the 20th of May, and forming a junction with Major-General Phillips, was now at the head of a very powerful army. The defensive operations in opposition to this hostile force were principally intrusted to the Marquis de la Fayette. The marquis advanced to Richmond; but such was the superiority of numbers on the side of the British that he retired with his little army, which consisted of about one thousand regulars, two thousand militia, and sixty dragoons. Lord Cornwallis advanced from Petersburg to James River, which he crossed at Westtown, and, marching through Hanover County, crossed Pamunkey River. The young marquis followed his motions, but at a guarded distance; and his judgment in the selection of posts, with the vigor of his movements, would have reflected honor on a veteran commander.
In the course of these marches and countermarches, immense quantities of property were destroyed by the British troops, and several unimportant skirmishes took place. Earl Cornwallis, who had marched with his army to Portsmouth, was at length instructed by an express from Sir Henry Clinton to secure Old Point Comfort or Hampton Road as a station for line-of-battle ships, and was allowed to detain any part or the whole of the forces under his command for completing that service. A strong and permanent place of arms in the Chesapeake, for the security of both the army and navy, being a principal object of the campaign, and Portsmouth and Hampton Road having been pronounced unfit for that purpose, Portsmouth was evacuated, and the British troops, amounting to seven thousand men, were transferred to Yorktown. Lord Cornwallis assiduously applied himself to fortify his new posts.
While the officers of the British navy were expecting to be joined by their fleet in the West Indies, preparatory to vigorous operations in Virginia, Count de Grasse with a French fleet of twenty-eight sail of the line entered the Chesapeake, and, having blocked up York River with three large ships and some frigates, moored the principal part of his fleet in Lynnhaven Bay. From this fleet three thousand two hundred French troops, commanded by the Marquis de St. Simon, were disembarked, and soon after formed a junction with the Continental troops under the Marquis de St. Simon, were disembarked, and soon after formed a junction with the Continental troops under the Marquis de la Fayette, and the whole combined army took post at Williamsburg. Admiral Graves, with twenty sail of the line, attempted the relief of Lord Cornwallis; but, when he appeared off the capes of Virginia, M. de Grasse went out to meet him, and an indecisive engagement took place. While the two admirals were manoeuvring near the mouth of the Chesapeake, Count de Barras, with a French fleet of eight line-of-battle ships from Rhode Island, passed the British fleet in the night, and got within the capes of Virginia; and by this combination the French had a decided superiority. Admiral Graves soon took his departure; and M. de Grasse re-entered the Chesapeake.
In the mean time, the combined forces of France and America, by an effectual but unsuspected plan of operations, were tending, as to a central point, to Virginia. As early as the month of May, a plan of the whole campaign had been fixed on by General Washington in consultation with Generals Knox and Du Portail on the part of the Americans, and Count de Rochambeau and the Chevalier Chastellux on the part of the French, in an interview at Wethersfield. The project was to lay siege to New York in concert with a French fleet, which was to arrive on the coast in the month of August. In prosecution of this plan, the Northern States were called on to fill up their battalions, and to have their quotas of militia in readiness on a week's notice. The French troops marched from Rhode Island and joined the American army early in July. About the same time, General Washington marched his army from its winter encampment, near Peek's Kill, to the vicinity of King's Bridge; General Lincoln fell down North River, and took possession of the ground where Fort Independence formerly stood; and the British with almost the whole of their force retired to York Island. General Washington was diligent in preparing to commence operations against New York. Flat-bottomed boats sufficient to transport five thousand men were built near Albany, and brought down Hudson's River to the neighborhood of the American army; ovens were built opposite to Staten Island for the use of the French troops; and every movement was made for the commencement of a siege. About the middle of August, General Washington was induced to make a total change of the plan of the campaign. The tardiness of the States in filling up their battalions and embodying their militia, the peculiar situation of Lord Cornwallis in Virginia, the arrival of a reinforcement of three thousand Germans from Europe to New York, the strength of the garrison of that city, and especially intelligence from Count de Grasse that his destination was fixed to the Chesapeake, determined the general to direct the operations of the combined arms against Lord Cornwallis.
Having resolved to lead the expedition in person, he committed the defence of the posts on Hudson's River to Major-General Health, and proceeded on the grand enterprise. While, with consummate address, he kept up the appearance of an intention to attack New York, the allied army, amounting collectively to twelve thousand men, crossed the North River, and passed on by the way of Philadelphia to Yorktown. General Washington and Count Rochambeau reached Williamsburg on the 14th of September, and, with Generals Chastellux, Du Portail, and Knox, visited Count de Grasse on board his ship and agreed on a plan of operations.
Yorktown is a small village on the south side of York River, whose southern banks are high, and in whose waters a ship of the line may ride with safety. Gloucester Point is a piece of land on the opposite shore, projecting deeply into the river. Both these posts were occupied by Lord Cornwallis; and a communication between them was commanded by his batteries, and by some ships of war. The main body of his army was encamped on the open grounds about Yorktown, within a range of outer redoubts and field-works; and Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton with a detachment of six hundred or seven hundred men held the post at Gloucester Point. The legion of the Duke de Lauzun, and a brigade of militia under General Weedon, the whole commanded by the French general De Choise, were directed to watch and restrain the enemy on the side of Gloucester; and the grand combined army, on the 30th of September, moved down to the investiture of Yorktown.
In the evening the troops halted about two miles from York, and lay all night on their arms. Causeways having been constructed in the night over a morass in front of the British works, the Continental infantry marched the next morning in columns to the right of the combined forces. A few cannon-shot were fired from the British work on the Hampton road; and some riflemen skirmished with the pickets of the Anspach battalions on the left. The two armies cautiously observed each other; but nothing material occurred until evening, when an express-boat arrived at Yorktown with a letter from Sir Henry Clinton to Earl Cornwallis, giving him assurance that joint exertions of the army and navy would be made for his relief. To this letter is attributed an order for the British troops to quite the outward and retire to the inner position; in compliance with which, that movement was effected before day-break. The next morning, Colonel Scammell with a reconnoitring party, falling in with a detachment of picked dragoons, was driven back, and in attempting a retreat was mortally wounded, and taken prisoner. He was an officer of great merit, and his death was deeply lamented. In the course of the forenoon the allies took possession of the ground that had been abandoned by the British.
On the 9th and 10th of October the French and Americans opened their batteries. On the night of the 11th the second parallel was opened within three hundred yards of the British lines. The besiegers being annoyed in their trenches by two redoubts that were advanced in front of the British works, it was proposed to carry them by storm. The reduction of one redoubt was committed to the French; of the other, to the Americans. The Marquis de la Fayette commanded the American detachment of light infantry, against the redoubt on the extreme left of the British works; and the Baron de Viomenil led the French grenadiers and chasseurs against the other, which was farther towards the British right, and nearer the French lines. On the evening of the 14th the two detachments moved firmly to the assault. Colonel Hamilton led the advanced corps of the Americans; and Colonel Laurens, at the head of eighty men, turned the redoubt, in order to take the garrison in reverse and intercept their retreat. The troops rushed to the assault with unloaded arms, and in a few minutes carried the redoubt, with inconsiderable loss. The French were also successful. The redoubt assigned to them was soon carried, but with less rapidity and greater loss. These two redoubts were included the same night in the second parallel, and facilitated the subsequent operations of the besiegers.
On the 16th a sortie was made from the garrison by a party of three hundred and fifty, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Abercrombie, who forced two batteries and spiked eleven pieces of cannon; but, the guards from the trenches immediately advancing on them, they retreated, and the pieces which they had hastily spiked were soon rendered fit for service. In the afternoon of the same day the besiegers opened several batteries in their second parallel; and in the whole line of batteries nearly one hundred pieces of heavy ordnance were now mounted. The works of the besieged were so universally in ruins as to be in no condition to sustain the fire which might be expected the next day. In this extremity, Lord Cornwallis boldly resolved to attempt an escape by land with the greater part of his army. His plan was to cross over in the night to Gloucester Point, cut to pieces or disperse the troops under De Choise, and, mounting his infantry on the horses belonging to that detachment, and on others to be seized on the road, to gain the fords of the great rivers, and, forcing his way through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Jersey, to form a junction with the royal army at New York. In prosecution of this desperate design, one embarkation of his troops crossed over to the Point, but a violent storm of wind and rain dispersed the boats and frustrated the scheme.
In the morning of the 17th several new batteries were opened in the second parallel; and, in the judgment of Lord Cornwallis, as well as of his engineers, the place was no longer tenable. About ten in the forenoon his lordship, in a letter to General Washington, requested that there might be a cessation of hostilities for twenty-four hours and that commissioners might be appointed to digest terms of capitulation. The American general in his answer declared his "ardent desire to spare the further effusion of blood, and his readiness to listen to such terms as were admissible," and granted a suspension of hostilities for two hours. The general proposition stated by Lord Cornwallis for the basis of the proposed negotiation being such as to lead to the opinion that the terms of capitulation might without much difficulty be adjusted, the suspension of hostilities was prolonged through the night. Commissioners were appointed the next day to digest into form such articles as General Washington had drawn up and proposed to Lord Cornwallis; and early the next morning the American general sent them to his lord ship with a letter expressing his expectation that they would be signed by eleven, and that the garrison would march out by two in the afternoon. Lord Cornwallis, submitting to a necessity absolutely inevitable, surrendered the posts of Yorktown and Gloucester Point with the garrison, and the shipping in the harbor with the seamen, to the land and naval officers of America and France. By the articles of capitulation, the officers were to retain their side-arms and private property. The soldiers, accompanied by a due proportion of officers, were to remain in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania; and to go on parole to Europe or to any maritime port occupied by the English in America.
The garrison marched out of the town with colors cased; and General Lincoln, by appointment, received the submission of the royal army precisely in the same manner in which the submission of his own army had been previously made at the surrender of Charleston.
The army and officers, and particularly the artillerists and engineers, received great approbation for their excellent conduct in this decisive operation. Several of the officers were promoted, others were honorably mentioned, while the Count de Rochambeau received the highest acknowledgments. Congress passed resolutions of thanks to the French officers and army, and resolved that a monument should be erected at Yorktown in commemoration of the triumphant event.
General Washington, on this very joyful occasion, ordered that those who were under arrest should be pardoned and set at liberty, and closed his orders in the following pious and impressive manner: "Divine service shall be performed to-morrow in the different brigades and divisions. The commander-in-chief recommends that all the troops that are not upon duty do assist at it with a serious deportment, and that sensibility of heart which the recollection of the surprising and particular interposition of Divine Providence in our favor claims." Congress resolved to go in solemn procession to the Dutch Lutheran church, to return thanks to Almighty God for crowing the allied arms with success, and issued a proclamation appointing the 13th day of December "as a day of general thanksgiving and prayer, on account of this signal interposition of Divine Providence."
Although some minor hostilities continued, the surrender of Cornwallis virtually ended the war, which now grew strongly unpopular in England. Commissioners for negotiating peace were soon after appointed. On the part of the United States these were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens; on the part of Great Britain, Mr. Fitzherbert and Mr. Oswald. Provisional articles were agreed to on November 30, and a cessation of hostilities was ordered on January 20 of the following year. During this year the independence of the United States was generally acknowledged throughout Europe, and the final treaty of peace was signed on September 3. The British had been compelled to evacuate Savannah and Charleston during 1782, and on the 25th of November, 1783, New York was evacuated, and the country finally freed of the foe against whom its people had so long and so bitterly contended.
Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 2)