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Head Quarters Before York, October 16, 1781
SIR: I had the honor to inform your Excellency in my last, of the l2th. instant, that we had the evening before opened our second parallel. The 13th. and 14th. we were employed in compleating it. The Engineers having deemed the two Redoubts on the left of the enemy's line sufficiently injured by our shot and shells to make them practicable, it was determined to carry them by assault on the evening of the 14th. The following disposition was accordingly made. The Work on the enemy's extreme left to be attacked hy the American Light Infantry under the command of the Marquis de la Fayette. The other by a detachment of the French Grenadiers and Chasseurs commanded by Major General the Baron Viomenil. I have the pleasure to inform your Excellency that we succeeded in both. Nothing could exceed the firmness and bravery of the Troops. They advanced under the fire of the Enemy without returning a shot and effected the business with the Bayonet only. The reports of His Excellency the Count de Rochambeau, The Marquis de la Fayette and Lt. Colonel Hamilton, copies of which I inclose, enter more particularly into a detail of the mode in which the attacks on the part of the French and American Columns were Conducted. We made prisoners in both Rcdoubts one Major, 2 Captains, 3 subalterns and 67 privates.
The Works which we have carried are of vast importance to us. From them we shall enfilade the enemy's whole line and I am in hopes we shall be able to command the communication from York to Gloucester. I think the Batteries of the second parallel will be in sufficient forwardness to begin to play in the course of this day.
The enemy last night made a sortie for the first time. They entered one of the French and one of the American Batteries on the second parallel which were unfinished. They had only time to thrust the points of their Bayonets into four pieces of the French and two of the American Artillery and break them off, but the spikes were easily extracted. They were repulsed the moment the supporting Troops came up, leaving behind them seven or eight dead and six prisoners. The French had four officers and twelve privates killed and wounded, and we had one serjeant mortally wounded.
I inclose your Excellency a Return of the killed and wounded of both Armies up to the present time. It is much smaller than might have been expected. I have the honor etc.
Washington report on seige of yorktown - History
Siege of Yorktown
Representative objects recovered at the site of British Redoubt No. 9 during the archeological exploration that preceded its reconstruction.
CAPTURE OF REDOUBTS NO. 9 AND NO. 10. Prior to the attacks on these redoubts, Washington had ordered a feint on the extreme left against the Fusiliers Redoubt and also a demonstration at Gloucester Point to distract the enemy. For several days before the assault, allied gunners directed fire to weaken the positions, a fire that actually was not very harmful. The attacks were made at 8 o'clock, after dark, on October 14, in one of the most dramatic and heroic moves of the siege of Yorktown, and it proved to be a definite turning point in the operations.
Redoubt No. 10 was attacked by 400 Americans drawn from Lafayette's Light Infantry Division and commanded by Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton, who, being officer of the day, had claimed this honor, when the assignment was first given to another. He was assisted by Lt. Col. Jean-Joseph Sourbader de Gimat, Lt. Col. John Laurens, and Maj. Nicholas Fish. The detachment moved out at the prearranged signalthe burst of six shells. The American soldiers carried unloaded muskets, as they advanced in darkness, since the assignment at hand was to be done with bayonets. On reaching their objective, they charged without waiting for the removal of the abatis (an entanglement of pointed tree tops and branches which ringed the redoubt), and thereby saved a few minutesan interval that could have been costly. Within 10 minutes the position was in American hands with a loss of 9 killed and 31 wounded, according to Hamilton's own report.
As the Americans were moving out for their attack from the right end of the First Allied Siege Line, a party of 400 French soldiers led by Col. William Deux Ponts, with the Baron de l'Estrade second in command, launched an assault on Redoubt No. 9 from the temporary end of the second seige line. French casualties mounted when the detachment halted until the abatis was cleared, Then the cry was "on to the redoubt." A British charge was met by musket fire and a countercharge which took the French over the top, and the redoubt was theirs. Losses, however, totaled almost 25 percent, including 15 killed. The entire operation lasted less than half an hour.
LAST DAYS OF THE SIEGE. Immediately following the capture of the two key redoubts, troops moved up to resume work on the second siege line. Before morning, this line was extended all the way to the York River and incorporated the formerly held British Redoubts No. 9 and No. 10. Communicating trenches were opened to the First Allied Siege Line and, adjacent to Redoubt No. 9, a large American Battery was begun. On October 15, Ebenezer Wild recorded: "The works were carried on last night with such spirit that at daylight we found the parallel [line] extended quite to the river on our right and nearly completed. Batteries are erecting with great expedition."
With this turn of events, Cornwallis knew that he must act and act quickly or all would be lost. The web had tightened and the destruction of his positions, plus sickness and casualties among his troops, made his situation critical, even perilous. Against the fully operating allied second line, he would be unable to hold out for 24 hours.
On the night of October 15㬌, Cornwallis ordered an attack against the second line. This was launched, 350 strong, under Lt. Col. Robert Abercrombie at a point near the center of the line. It was a gallant sortie, yet it accomplished little, for, within a few hours, the guns which had been spiked by the British were again firing upon Yorktown.
On the night of October 16㬍, Cornwallis ordered all of his effectives moved across the river to Gloucester Point. This, he thought, might enable him to make a breakthrough, which could be followed by a quick march north toward New York. The effort was futile. He was handicapped by a shortage of small boats, and a storm about midnight further interfered with the operation.
Early on the morning of the 17th he recalled those who had crossed the river. Later that morning he held a council with his officers, and at 10 o'clock a drummer in red, accompanied by an officer, was sent to a point on the parapet on the south side of Yorktown to beat a "parley."
Cornwallis' situation was hopeless. Casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) during the siege, it seems, numbered about 552 for the British, 275 for the French, and 260 for the Americans. Of these totals, more than one-fourth were killed in action. Yorktown was surrounded at close range, relief had not yet come, and the enemy was superior in men and firepower. In short, his position was untenable. Surrender was now the only alternative. Cornwallis himself reported: "We at that time could not fire a single gun. . . . I therefore proposed to capitulate."
The Yorktown Campaign of 1781
Learn more about Washington's great triumph at Yorktown in October of 1781.
Supported by the French army and navy, Washington's forces defeated Lord Charles Cornwallis' veteran army dug in at Yorktown, Virginia. Victory at Yorktown led directly to the peace negotiations that ended the war in 1783 and gave America its independence.
Now or Never: The Yorktown Campaign
Watch our new animated presentation on the 1781 Yorktown Campaign.
The Yorktown Campaign
Check out our encyclopedia article on the 1781 Yorktown Campaign.
Count de Rochambeau
Learn more about Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, better known as the Count de Rochambeau who alongside General George Washington defeated the British at Yorktown
Yorktown Lesson Plan
Check out our free lesson plans on the Yorktown Campaign for elementary, middle, and high school use.
Map: The Yorktown Campaign
View and download a copy of our new Yorktown Campaign map. Learn more about how the armies all arrived at Yorktown in the Fall of 1781.
Map: The Siege of Yorktown
View and download a copy of our new Siege of Yorktown map. This more detailed map will show you the positions of the British, Hessian, French, and American forces.
The Articles of Capitulation
Read the articles of capitulation - the agreed upon terms of Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.
The Men Who Lost America
How and why did Britain lose the Revolutionary War? Check out our interview with author Andrew Jackson O'Shaugnessy.
The Winter Patriots
Learn more about Washington's crossing of the Delaware River and the fateful battles of Trenton and Princeton.
Map The siege of Yorktown, April 1862
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Yorktown: Battle for Victory
Celebrates the 225th anniversary re-enactment of America's momentous 1781 Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown, Virginia. The four-day commemorative event was held October 19-22, 2006, with many of the events staged on . Read all Celebrates the 225th anniversary re-enactment of America's momentous 1781 Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown, Virginia. The four-day commemorative event was held October 19-22, 2006, with many of the events staged on the original field. Four different battle re-enactments feature r. Read all Celebrates the 225th anniversary re-enactment of America's momentous 1781 Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown, Virginia. The four-day commemorative event was held October 19-22, 2006, with many of the events staged on the original field. Four different battle re-enactments feature re-enactors from arou. Read all Celebrates the 225th anniversary re-enactment of America's momentous 1781 Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown, Virginia. The four-day commemorative event was held October 19-22, 2006, with many of the events staged on the original field. Four different battle re-enactments feat. Read all Celebrates the 225th anniversary re-enactment of America's momentous 1781 Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown, Virginia. The four-day commemorative event was held October 19-22, 2006, with many of the events staged on the original field. Four different battle re-enactments feature re-enactors from around the world portraying Continental Soldiers, American Militia an. Read all
Siege of Yorktown, 4 April to 4 May 1862
Battle during the American Civil War that first suggested that all was not well with General George McClellan&rsquos Peninsula Campaign. A force of no more than 11,000 men, spread out across the Peninsula east of Richmond, stopped the advance of over 50,000 Union solders on 4 April, and delayed the progress of that army for a month before withdrawing just before McClellan was finally ready to begin bombarding the Confederate lines.
Having taken command of the Army of the Potomac after the disaster of First Bull Run (21 July 1861), McClellan had undoubtedly created a very fine army. However, over the autumn and winter of 1861-2 he had done nothing with that army. Worse, he had refused to give any information about his plans for 1862. As the winter dragged on, McClellan&rsquos inactivity and silence caused a rising tide of criticism in Washington. Worse, he was a known democrat, and so to some his motives were suspect.
Finally, on 27 January 1862 Lincoln issued his General War Order No. 1, in which he ordered all Union armies to begin a general advance on 22 February (George Washington&rsquos birthday). Four days later, on 31 January 1862 he issued Special War Order No. 1, in which he ordered the Army of the Potomac to advance on the line from Washington, through Manassas Junction and on towards Richmond.
The main purpose of this order appears to have been to force McClellan to reveal his own plan. It worked. On 3 February McClellan wrote a long letter in which he gave the details of his plan. He wanted to use the Union&rsquos control of the sea to move the army down to coast to Urbana, on the Rappahannock River. If Johnston&rsquos army remained around Centreville, it would find itself twice as far from Richmond as McClellan. In theory this would allow McClellan to march into Richmond almost unopposed (in reality, McClellan never seemed to master rapid movement &ndash one can&rsquot help but feel that Johnston would have been given plenty of time to rush back to Richmond!).
In the event, Johnston pre-empted McClellan&rsquos plan. His army was at best only a quarter as large as McClellan feared, and its position at Centreville was obviously vulnerable to being outflanked by sea. Johnston&rsquos main fear at the start of 1862 was that McClellan would march down the Maryland shore of the Potomac, cross over near the mouth of the river and cut him off. Accordingly, on 9 March 1862, the Confederate army left its positions around Centreville.
McClellan was still at Washington. As Johnston withdrew, he did actually move across the Potomac in force (and relatively quickly), but only in the hope of catching the Confederate rearguard. As the Union soldiers entered the Confederate lines, it became clear that the Confederate position had never been as strong as believed, nor had their army been as large as expected.
The Confederate move also forced McClellan to adopt his fallback plan, for an attack via the peninsula between the York and James Rivers, starting from Fort Monroe, a Union held position at the tip of the position. With much of the strategic purpose of the move gone, McClellan now emphasised other advantages, including the apparently superior quality of the roads on the Peninsula, which would allow his army to move much more quickly than the muddy tracks in north Virginia.
The army began to move during March. Two of the four corps were to move to Fort Monroe at the tip of the Peninsula and march along it&rsquos full length. Another was to move further west, to outflank any positions on the Peninsula while McDowell&rsquos corps was to move to West Point, at the north western corner of the Peninsula. McDowell&rsquos corps never made that move. McClellan had to fight at Yorktown with the two corps landed at Fort Monroe, although this still left him with many many more men than Magruder.
McClellan&rsquos initial plans were based on poor intelligence. His assumption was that the Confederates would fortify Yorktown just as the British had done during the War of Independence, allowing McClellan to bypass it to the south and isolate the garrison. This theory was based in part on a poor quality map of the Peninsula that placed the Warwick River parallel to the York and James Rivers, running along the length of the Peninsula. Instead, it flows almost completely across the Peninsula from north to south, presenting a potentially formidable barrier to any army.
The Confederate commander, General John Magruder, had taken advantage of the line of the Warwick to construct a fortified line across the entire peninsula. His fortifications at Yorktown were thus only the northern end of his line. McClellan would have to fight his way through. However, when the two armies first came into contact, Magruder had at most 17,000 men, to face a Federal force of at least 42,000 men (probably many more, perhaps as many as 60,000, but the exact figures for effective troops present at Fort Monroe at the start of April are not clear &ndash a situation not helped by McClellan&rsquos tendency to exaggerate the size of units removed from his control while underestimating those that he had retained!).
McClellan arrived at Fort Monroe on 2 April. Parts of his army had been present in force at the tip of the Peninsula for some time, but had not used the time to reconnoitre the Confederate positions in any detail. Thus, when the army began to move on 4 April McClellan still had no clear idea of the Confederate positions.
As the great march finally began, McClellan&rsquos promise of better weather and good &lsquosandy roads&rsquo was proved to be no more than wishful thinking. Heavy rains began, and the roads on the Peninsula soon turned out to be no better than those in Northern Virginia that McClellan had put so much effort into avoiding! McClellan&rsquos reports were filled with complaints about the roads for the rest of the campaign!
Worse was to come. As the army moved west, the left flank was expecting an easy march past Yorktown. Instead, as they advanced through the rain a line of Confederate defences loomed before them. Magruder had fortified the entire line of the Warwick River, giving the Confederates a thin grey line across the Peninsula.
It was a very thin line. On 5 April Magruder had 12,000 men, of whom half were in the fixed defences around Yorktown. The remaining 6,000 men were spread out along thirteen miles of defences along the Warwick River, at rather less than 500 men per mile. At worst, McClellan could have attacked this line with some 25,000 men. Magruder certainly expected an immediate attack, and ordered his men to sleep in the trenches.
To his relief, McClellan stopped. In his report on the Peninsula campaign, McClellan described the line on the Warwick as virtually impregnable. His corps commanders appear to have shared his view. At the southern end of the Confederate lines one crossing point over the river (Lee&rsquos Mill) was defended by what even McClellan called the &lsquoOne gun battery&rsquo (correctly), and yet was still considered to be too strong to assault!
Magruder not had much time to prepare his line along the Warwick. His first plan had been to hold the Union advance even further east, but lack of men forced him to pull back to what he felt was a weaker line but one that could possibly be held for a period with the troops under his command. The fortifications around Yorktown required half of his men. Along the line of the Warwick River, Magruder used a series of five dams to raise the level of the river, making it almost impassable for most of its length. Two of these dams were associated with mills (Lee&rsquos and Wynn&rsquos) while the final three had been built by the Confederates. Each of the dams was protected by artillery and extensive earthworks, in order to prevent McClellan&rsquos men destroying them.
McClellan&rsquos chance to easily break the Confederate line soon passed. The Confederates proved able to quickly reinforce Magruder from troops in the immediate vicinity and from the main Confederate army, recently withdrawn from Manassas. By the time Magruder was superseded, he was confident that his defences could withstand any possible assault.
No such assault came. On 16 April the Federals launched an attack on the position at Lee&rsquos Mills, partly to find out exactly what the Confederate position actually was (it was largely hidden in the trees that lined the Warwick), and partly to see if the Confederates could be forced out of their positions by an artillery bombardment. At the time Magruder felt that this attack was intended to be a serious attack on his lines, partly because McClellan was seen to be watching the fight develop. Ironically, McClellan&rsquos presence removed any chance that a serious assault might have developed.
Instead of risking an assault, McClellan now prepared for a formal siege. For the rest of April his men worked to put their siege guns in place ready to bombard the Confederate lines. Finally, by the start of May he was about ready to open fire. By now, McClellan had convinced himself that he was outnumbered along the Warwick, and had already begun his endless stream of calls for reinforcements. After a winter of delays and inaction around Washington, this renewed inactivity on the Peninsula began to worry many in Washington, and provoked some increasingly pointed messages from President Lincoln.
All was not well on the Confederate side. From Richmond the situation looked much worse. An increasingly large Union army was now established threateningly close to the Confederate Capital. Joseph Johnston, the Confederate military commander in Virginia had a rocky relationship with President Jefferson Davis. Robert E. Lee was now in Richmond, acting as the President&rsquos military advisor.
They now clashed on the issue of when to withdraw from the Yorktown line. On 22 April Johnston reported that the Yorktown lines were so weak that &lsquoonly McClellan could have hesitated to attack&rsquo. He recommended an immediate withdrawal to defensive positions around Richmond, but was overruled by Lee. It was only at the start of May, when it was clear that the bombardment was about to begin, that Johnston withdrew from the Yorktown lines. On the night of 3-4 May, the Confederate troops withdrew with such skill that it took the Union forces some time the next day to realise they were gone!
The siege of Yorktown took most of the point out of McClellan&rsquos Peninsula campaign. The loss of a month allowed the Confederates to prepare new positions around Richmond and to move reinforcements to oppose the Federal advance. However, despite the month lost at Yorktown, McClellan was still in a very strong position. He would soon be in place to attack Richmond, with, if he had only known, a much larger army than could be found to oppose him. The successful defence of Yorktown was just the first of a series of Confederate successes to which General McClellan was to make important, if unintentional, contributions.
Yorktown Chronicles Films
These films envision the conversations of two great men as they reflect on the American Revolution and their pivotal role in how it plays out. Generals George Washington and Charles Cornwallis share vivid accounts of the war’s beginnings, their armies, fierce battles, global involvement and how it all ends.
Tax and Control: Generals George Washington and Charles Cornwallis speak on British measures to tax and control the American colonies. See the film »
Commanding an Army: Generals Washington and Cornwallis convey why they chose to accept command of an army. See the film »
The Declaration of Independence: Generals Washington and Cornwallis tell of the reaction to the Declaration of Independence. See the film »
Introducing the Army: Generals Washington and Cornwallis recount the many faces of their armies. See the film »
The World Stage: Generals Washington and Cornwallis convey global response to the American Revolution. See the film »
North and South: Generals Washington and Cornwallis report the highlights of the Revolution in the North and South. See the film »
Siege of Yorktown: General Cornwallis describes the Battle of Yorktown, and the decision to surrender. See the film »
After the War: Generals Cornwallis and Washington reflect on their achievements following the end of the American Revolution. See the film »
5th. The rear of the French army having reached Philadelphia and the Americans having passed it—the Stores having got up & every thing in a tolerable train here I left this City for the head of Elk to hasten the Embarkation at that place and on my way—(at Chester)—received the agreeable news of the safe arrival of the Count de Grasse in the Bay of Chesapeake with 28 Sail of the line & four frigates—with 3000 land Troops which were to be immediately debarked at James town & form a junction with the American Army under the command of the Marqs. de la Fayette.1
Finding upon my arrival at the head of Elk a great deficiency of Transports, I wrote many letters to Gentn. of Influence on the Eastern shore,2 beseeching them to exert themselves in drawing forth every kind of Vessel which would answer for this purpose and agreed with the Count de Rochambeau that about 1000 American Troops (including the Artillery Regiment) and the Grenadiers & Chasseurs of the Brigade of Bourbonne with the Infantry of Lauzen’s legion should be the first to Embark and that the rest of the Troops should continue their march to Baltimore proceeding thence by Land, or Water according to circumstances. The Cavalry of Lauzen, with the Saddle horses & such teams of both armies as the Qr. Masters thereof might judge necessary to go round by Land to the place of operation.
Judging it highly expedient to be with the army in Virginia as soon as possible, to make the necessary arrangements for the Siege, & to get the Materials prepared for it, I determined to set out for the Camp of the Marqs. de la Fayette without loss of time and accordingly in Company with the Count de Rochambeau who requested to attend me, and the Chevr. de Chastellux set out on the3
On 5 Sept., GW informed the president of Congress that he had received a letter from Brig. Gen. Mordecai Gist announcing the arrival of de Grasse’s fleet (DNA:PCC , Item 152). Gist’s letter, dated Baltimore, 4 Sept. 1781, is in DLC:GW . See also David Humphreys to Gist, 5 Sept. 1781 (NN : George Washington Papers, facsimilies and transcripts). By 7 Sept., GW was able to report that the French fleet from Rhode Island was “hourly expected” to join de Grasse’s fleet (“Circular to Gentlemen on the Eastern Shore of Maryland,” 7 Sept. 1781, DLC:GW ). According to Jonathan Trumbull’s journal, GW had left Philadelphia with his suite and about three miles below Chester met the express from de Grasse. He then returned to Chester to inform Rochambeau and Congress of the French fleet’s arrival ( TRUMBULL  description begins “Minutes of Occurrences respecting the Siege and Capture of York in Virginia, extracted from the Journal of Colonel Jonathan Trumbull, Secretary to the General, 1781.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 14 (1875-76): 331–38. description ends , 332). Rochambeau had decided to come from Philadelphia to Chester by water. As the ship approached Chester, “We discerned in the distance General Washington, standing on the shore and waving his hat and a white handkerchief joyfully. . . . MM. de Rochambeau and Washington embraced warmly on the shore” ( CLOSEN description begins Evelyn M. Acomb, ed. The Revolutionary Journal of Baron Ludwig von Closen, 1780–1783 . Chapel Hill, N.C., 1958. description ends , 123).
2 . GW is referring to his circular letter, dated 7 Sept. 1781, to “Gentlemen on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.” Copies were sent to Christopher Birchead, Robert Goldsborough, James Lloyd Chamberlaine, Richard Barnaby, Nicholas Thomas, John Bracco, and James Hindman (DLC:GW ).
3 . GW made no entries for 6 and 7 Sept., but Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., his aide-de-camp, made notations on these days: “6. Breakfast at Christiana Bridge, where our boats, stores, &c. are brought from Delaware Water through Christiana Creek, debarked and carried a[c]ross by land about 12 miles to the head of Elk. Here they are again embarked up the Elk River and transported down the Chesapeake. The General proceeds to the Head of Elk where the troops and a great part of the stores are arrived and beginning to embark.
“The want of water craft obliges part of the troops to march by land to Baltimore, and eventually as far as An[n]apolis. Many ox and horse teams are sent on by land, the General expecting to find little or no means of land transportation in Virginia. The many rivers and great abundance of water communication almost superceeding the necessity of that convenience.
“7. At Elk writing letters, forwarding troops, stores &c. The country through which we have passed greatly pleased with the prospect of our Expedition” ( TRUMBULL  description begins “Minutes of Occurrences respecting the Siege and Capture of York in Virginia, extracted from the Journal of Colonel Jonathan Trumbull, Secretary to the General, 1781.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 14 (1875-76): 331–38. description ends , 332–33).
8th. and reached Baltimore where I recd. and answered an address of the Citizens.1
1 . While GW and his party were in Baltimore they stayed at Daniel Grant’s Fountain Inn. For a description of GW’s reception in Baltimore, see Md. Journal , 11 Sept. 1781. The address of welcome of the citizens of Baltimore to GW and his reply, both dated 8 Sept. 1781, are in DLC:GW . The address was presented to GW at a banquet held on the evening of 8 Sept. at Lindsey’s Coffeehouse in honor of the arrival of the French fleet ( SCHARF  description begins J. Thomas Scharf. The Chronicles of Baltimore Being a Complete History of “Baltimore Town” and Baltimore City from the Earliest Period to the Present Time . Baltimore, 1874. description ends , 189–90).
9th. I reached my own Seat at Mount Vernon (distant 120 Miles from the Hd. of Elk) where I staid till the 12th. and in three days afterwards that is on the 14th. reached Williamsburg. The necessity of seeing, & agreeing upon a proper plan of cooperation with the Count de Grasse induced me to make him a visit at Cape Henry where he lay with his fleet after a partial engagement with the British Squadron off the Capes under the Command of Admiral Graves whom he had driven back to Sandy hook.1
1 . GW, who had not seen his home since his departure in May 1775, was accompanied to Mount Vernon by Lt. Col. David Humphreys, one of his staff, while the “rest of the family jogg on easily” ( TRUMBULL  description begins “Minutes of Occurrences respecting the Siege and Capture of York in Virginia, extracted from the Journal of Colonel Jonathan Trumbull, Secretary to the General, 1781.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 14 (1875-76): 331–38. description ends , 333). GW’s aides arrived at midday on 10 Sept. and Rochambeau and his staff in the evening. Chastellux and his aides came the next day (see GW to Chastellux, 10 Sept. 1781, NjP ). Trumbull noted: “A numerous family now present. All accommodated. An elegant seat and situation, great appearance of oppulence and real exhibitions of hospitality & princely entertainment.” On 13 Sept. the party left Mount Vernon for Williamsburg and “between Colchester and Dumphries meet letters giving an account of an action between the two Fleets, & that the French were gone out from the Bay in pursuit of the English. The event not known. Much agitated” ( TRUMBULL  description begins “Minutes of Occurrences respecting the Siege and Capture of York in Virginia, extracted from the Journal of Colonel Jonathan Trumbull, Secretary to the General, 1781.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 14 (1875-76): 331–38. description ends , 333). In light of the news from the Capes, troops moving south were temporarily halted (see CLOSEN description begins Evelyn M. Acomb, ed. The Revolutionary Journal of Baron Ludwig von Closen, 1780–1783 . Chapel Hill, N.C., 1958. description ends , 129).
After Rodney’s departure from the West Indies for England (see entry for 7 Aug. 1781), Sir Samuel Hood had sailed for New York, joining Graves there on 28 Aug. The combined fleets of Graves and Hood, consisting of 19 ships of the line, did not sail from New York until 31 Aug. Both admirals underestimated de Grasse’s strength. Still unaware of the arrival of de Grasse, the British fleet reached the Chesapeake on 5 Sept. and virtually stumbled into the French fleet anchored just inside the bay (see Verger journal, RICE description begins Howard C. Rice, Jr., and Anne S. K. Brown, eds. The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783 . 2 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1972. description ends , 1:137–38). The two fleets met on 5 Sept. off the Chesapeake in a 2½-hour action. The results were inconclusive, but the two fleets remained in contact, 6–7 Sept., drifting south to the vicinity of Cape Hatteras, which allowed Barras’s fleet from Newport to sail into Chesapeake Bay unmolested. By 11 Sept. the French fleet was back in the Chesapeake, and on 14 Sept. the British fleet sailed for New York. For a description of the engagement off the Capes, see Graves to Philip Stevens, 14 Sept. 1781 ( GRAVES PAPERS description begins French Ensor Chadwick, ed. The Graves Papers and Other Documents Relating to the Naval Operations of the Yorktown Campaign, July to October, 1781 . New York, 1916. description ends , 61–69 RICE description begins Howard C. Rice, Jr., and Anne S. K. Brown, eds. The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783 . 2 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1972. description ends , 1:137–38 GOUSSENCOURT description begins Chevalier de Goussencourt. “A Journal of the Cruise of the Fleet of His Most Christian Majesty, under the Command of the Count de Grasse-Tilly, in 1781 and 1782.” In The Operations of the French Fleet under the Count de Grasse in 1781–2 as Described in Two Contemporaneous Journals . Edited by J. G. Shea. New York, 1864. description ends , 69–75 JOURNAL OF AN OFFICER description begins “Journal of an Officer in the Naval Army in America, in 1781 and 1782.” In The Operations of the French Fleet under the Count de Grasse in 1781–2 as Described in Two Contemporaneous Journals . Edited by J. G. Shea. New York, 1864. description ends , 155–58 HOOD description begins David Hannay, ed. Letters Written by Sir Samuel Hood (Viscount Hood) in 1781, 1782, 1783 . London, 1895. In Publications of the Navy Records Society , vol. 3. description ends , 28–36).
On the way to Williamsburg, Trumbull noted that the party heard “rumours of the return of the French Fleet, with some advantage, which relieved our fears” ( TRUMBULL  description begins “Minutes of Occurrences respecting the Siege and Capture of York in Virginia, extracted from the Journal of Colonel Jonathan Trumbull, Secretary to the General, 1781.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 14 (1875-76): 331–38. description ends , 333). Both GW and Trumbull mistakenly date the party’s arrival in Williamsburg as 15 Sept. rather than 14 Sept. St. George Tucker states that GW reached the city about four o’clock in the afternoon. “He had passed our camp which is now in the rear of the whole army, before we had time to parade the militia. The French line had just time to form. The Continentals had more leisure. He approached without any pomp or parade attended only by a few horsemen and his own servants. The Count de Rochambeau and Gen. Hand with one or two more officers were with him. . . . The Marquis [de Lafayette] rode up with precipitation, clasped the General in his arms and embraced him with an ardor not easily described. The whole army and all the town were presently in motion. The General—at the request of the Marquis de St. Simon—rode through the French lines. The troops were paraded for the purpose and cut a most splendid figure. He then visited the Continental line” (St. George Tucker to Frances Tucker, 15 Sept. 1781, COLEMAN description begins Mary Haldane Coleman. St. George Tucker: Citizen of No Mean City . Richmond, Va., 1938. description ends , 70–71). In Williamsburg, GW lodged at George Wythe’s house. In the evening “an elegant supper was served up” and “an elegant band of music played an introductive part of a French Opera” ( BUTLER description begins “General Richard Butler’s Journal of the Siege of Yorktown.” Historical Magazine, and Notes and Queries concerning the Antiquities, History, and Biography of America 8 (1864): 102–12. description ends , 106).
On 15 Sept., GW wrote to de Grasse, expressing his desire for a conference aboard the admiral’s flagship, the Ville de Paris , and requesting de Grasse to send some form of conveyance for GW and his officers (DLC:GW ). In the evening he dined with Lafayette and on 16 Sept. with Baron von Steuben ( BUTLER description begins “General Richard Butler’s Journal of the Siege of Yorktown.” Historical Magazine, and Notes and Queries concerning the Antiquities, History, and Biography of America 8 (1864): 102–12. description ends , 106).
17th. In company with the Count de Rochambeau—the Chevr. Chastellux—Genls. Knox & Duportail, I set out for the Interview with the Admiral & arrived on board the Ville de Paris (off Cape Henry) the next day by Noon and having settled most points with him to my satisfaction except not obtaining an assurance of sending Ships above York and one that he could not continue his fleet on this Station longer than the first of November I embarked on board the Queen Charlotte (the Vessell I went down in) but by hard blowing & contrary Winds, did not reach Williamsburg again till the 22d.1
1 . On 17 Sept. de Grasse sent a small vessel, the Queen Charlotte , captured from the British, to convey GW and his party to the Ville de Paris for the conference. Also accompanying GW were aides David Cobb and Jonathan Trumbull, Jr. ( TRUMBULL  description begins “Minutes of Occurrences respecting the Siege and Capture of York in Virginia, extracted from the Journal of Colonel Jonathan Trumbull, Secretary to the General, 1781.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 14 (1875-76): 331–38. description ends , 333). For an amusing but perhaps apocryphal account of GW’s reception by de Grasse aboard the flagship, see CUSTIS description begins George Washington Parke Custis. Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington . New York, 1860. description ends , 235–36. See also TRUMBULL  description begins “Minutes of Occurrences respecting the Siege and Capture of York in Virginia, extracted from the Journal of Colonel Jonathan Trumbull, Secretary to the General, 1781.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 14 (1875-76): 331–38. description ends , 333–34. GW’s revolutionary accounts record the expenses of the trip to and from the French flagship as £25 (DLC:GW ).
De Grasse had already warned Rochambeau and GW that the stay on the Chesapeake of his fleet and Saint Simon’s troops would be limited, probably not extending beyond mid-October (see DONIOL description begins Henri Doniol. Histoire de la Participation de la France à l’établissement des États-Unis d’Amérique: Correspondance Diplomatique et Documents . 5 vols. Paris, 1886–92. description ends , 5:520–22). The question uppermost in GW’s mind was whether de Grasse would be able to extend his stay until the British could be forced to surrender, particularly if the siege of Yorktown proved to be protracted. The series of questions dealing with the campaign posed by GW at the conference and de Grasse’s replies are in DNA:PCC , Item 152.
22d. Upon my arrival in Camp I found that the 3d. Maryland Regiment had got in (under the Command of Colo. Adam)1 and that all except a few missing Vessels with the Troops from the head of Elk were arrived, & landing at the upper point of the College Creek2—where Genl. Choisy3 with 600 Fr. Troops who had from R. Isld. had arrived in the Squadron of Count de Barras4 had done before them during my absence.
1 . Lt. Col. Peter Adams was in command of the 3d Maryland Regiment.
2 . College Creek is a branch of the James River.
3 . Claude Gabriel, marquis de Choisy (b. 1723), a brigadier general in the French army, had commanded the French troops left behind in Newport to guard Barras’s fleet and the French artillery ( DONIOL description begins Henri Doniol. Histoire de la Participation de la France à l’établissement des États-Unis d’Amérique: Correspondance Diplomatique et Documents . 5 vols. Paris, 1886–92. description ends , 5:493). In Aug. he sailed with Barras’s fleet to the Chesapeake and was now ordered to “take command of the Troops ordered to besiege the village of Gloucester, a post opposite the town of York held by the English, in which they had 1,100 men in addition to their hospitals and stores. The troops under M. de Choisy included the Lauzun Legion, 800 men from the garrisons of our ships, and 1,500 militia” (Clermont-Crèvecoeur’s journal in RICE description begins Howard C. Rice, Jr., and Anne S. K. Brown, eds. The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783 . 2 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1972. description ends , 1:56).
4 . At this point the page of the diary ends. Since the words that follow do not appear to belong to the previous sentence, a page or pages containing entries for the 23 and 24 Sept. may be missing.
25th. Admiral de Barras having Joined the Count de Grasse with the Squadron and Transports from Rhode Island, & the latter with some Frigates being sent to Baltimore for the remr. of the French army arrived this day at the usual port of debarkation above the College Creek and began to land the Troops from them.
28th. Having debarked all the Troops and their Baggage—Marched and Encamped them in Front of the City and having with some difficulty obtained horses & Waggons sufficient to move our field Artillery—Intrenching Tools & such other articles as were indispensably necessary—we commenced our March for the Investiture of the Enemy at York.
The American Continental, and French Troops formed one column on the left—the first in advance—the Militia composed the right column & marched by the way of Harwoods Mill. Half a mile beyond the halfway Ho[use]1 the French & Americans seperated. The former continued on the direct road to York, by the Brick House.2 The latter filed of to the right for Murfords bridge,3 where a junction with the Militia was to be made. About Noon the head of each column arrived at its ground, & some of the enemys Picquets were driven in on the left by a Corps of French Troops, advanced for the purpose, which afforded an oppertunity of reconnoitering them on their right. The enemy’s Horse on the right were also obliged to retire from the ground they had Encamped on, & from whence they were employed in reconnoitering the right column.
The line being formed, all the Troops—Officers & Men—lay upon their arms during the Night.
1 . Halfway House was operated as a tavern on the old Williamsburg Road and, as its name implies, was halfway between Williamsburg and Yorktown.
2 . The Brick House appears on a number of contemporary maps on the road between Williamsburg and Yorktown approximately four miles west of Yorktown and six miles east of Williamsburg, in York County.
3 . Murford’s Bridge crossed Skiffes Creek, which flows into the James River.
29th. Moved the American Troops more to the right, and Encamped on the East side of Bever dam Creek,1 with a Morass in front, about Cannon shot from the enemys lines. Spent this day in reconnoitering the enemys position, & determining upon a plan of attack & approach which must be done without the assistance of Shipping above the Town as the Admiral (notwithstanding my earnest sollicitation) declined hazarding any Vessells on that Station.
1 . Beaver Dam Creek, or Great Run, is about halfway between Yorktown and Wormley Creek. The creek and its branches formed a marsh about the middle of the allied lines which stretched from the edge of the York River above Yorktown to Wormley Creek.
30th. The Enemy abandoned all their exterior works, & the position they had taken without the Town & retired within their Interior works of defence in the course of last Night—immediately upon which we possessed them, & made those on our left (with a little alteration) very serviceable to us.1 We also began two inclosed Works on the right of Pidgeon Hill2—between that & the ravine above Mores Mill.3
From this time till the 6th. of October nothing occurred of Importance—much deligence was used in debarking, & transporting the Stores—Cannon &ca. from Trebells Landing (distant 6 Miles) on James Riv., to Camp which for want of Teams went on heavily and in preparing Fascines, Gabions, &ca. for the Siege—as also in reconnoitering the Enemys defences, & their situation as perfectly as possible, to form our parallels & mode of attack.
The Teams which were sent round from the head of Elk, having arrived about this time, we were enabled to bring forward our heavy Artillery & Stores with more convenience and dispatch and every thing being prepared for opening Trenches 1500 Fatiegue men & 2800 to cover them, were ordered for this Service.4
1 . On the night of 29 Sept. the British abandoned the outer defenses in the area between Yorktown Creek and Wormley’s Pond and withdrew into positions within the town. The British decision to abandon the outlying works was prompted by a letter to Cornwallis from Clinton, 24 Sept. 1781, informing him that considerable reinforcements were to sail from New York by 5 Oct. ( CORNWALLIS description begins Charles Ross, ed. Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis . 3 vols. London, 1859. description ends , 1:120). Cornwallis replied on the 29th that “I shall retire this night within the works, and have no doubt, if relief arrives in any reasonable time, York and Gloucester will be both in possession of his Majesty’s troops” ( CORNWALLIS description begins Charles Ross, ed. Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis . 3 vols. London, 1859. description ends , 1:120–21).
2 . Among the other defenses, the British had abandoned the redoubts at Pigeon Quarter and Pigeon Hill approximately two miles southwest of the town. Clermont-Crévecoeur’s journal notes that GW “immediately sent the grenadiers and chasseurs to take possession of them. We converted a redan they had also abandoned into a redoubt and built a fourth to tie them all together” ( RICE description begins Howard C. Rice, Jr., and Anne S. K. Brown, eds. The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783 . 2 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1972. description ends , 1:57).
3 . Moore’s Mill was on Wormley’s Pond at the head of Wormley Creek.
4 . On 27 Sept., GW had received welcome news from de Grasse, suggesting that he had abandoned the prospect of cruising to intercept British Admirals Digby and Hood and was willing to commit his fleet to the investiture of Yorktown (de Grasse to GW, 25 Sept. 1781, WASHINGTON AND DE GRASSE description begins Institut Français de Washington. Correspondence of General Washington and Comte de Grasse, 1781, August 17–November 4 . Washington, D.C., 1931. description ends , 51–52). GW also requested and received 600 to 800 marines from the French ships. On the 27th de Grasse had reluctantly agreed to GW’s request for the French troops, but added “I earnestly beseech Your Excellency to dispense in future with the necessity of demanding men from my vessels. I am mortified that I can not do all that I would wish, but there is no doing impossibilities” ( WASHINGTON AND DE GRASSE description begins Institut Français de Washington. Correspondence of General Washington and Comte de Grasse, 1781, August 17–November 4 . Washington, D.C., 1931. description ends , 56–57).
During this period GW also ordered construction and fortification of a trench commanding the main British defenses. He personally inspected the ground selected for this first parallel on 1 Oct., narrowly escaping fire from the British defenses 300 yards away. The parallel was not occupied until the siege guns could be transported from Trebell’s Landing on the James River six or seven miles from Yorktown. A minor contretemps was presented to GW by Lafayette when he requested command of the right wing of the siege army in place of Benjamin Lincoln, who held the position by right of seniority. GW refused as tactfully as possible (Lafayette to GW, 30 Sept. 1781, DLC:GW ). On 3 Oct. the marquis de Choisy moved his troops in tighter formation about Gloucester Point. In the process the duc de Lauzun, one of his officers, encountered Banastre Tarleton’s Dragoons, resulting in an action also involving the Virginia militia which GW described somewhat excessively in General Orders as a “brilliant success.” On 5 Oct. the army rejoiced at the news of Nathanael Greene’s success at Eutaw Springs, S.C. Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., notes that during these days there was almost no fire from the British on the Americans busily digging in on the Yorktown perimeter. “A matter of Speculation. The General determined to return no fire upon the enemy till our batteries are all ready to play to some purpose” ( TRUMBULL  description begins “Minutes of Occurrences respecting the Siege and Capture of York in Virginia, extracted from the Journal of Colonel Jonathan Trumbull, Secretary to the General, 1781.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 14 (1875-76): 331–38. description ends , 335).
On December 20, 1780, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold sailed from New York with 1,500 troops to Portsmouth, Virginia. He first raided Richmond, defeating the defending militia, from January 5–7 before falling back to Portsmouth. Admiral Destouches, who arrived in Newport, Rhode Island in July 1780 with a fleet transporting 5,500 soldiers, was encouraged by Washington and Rochambeau to move his fleet south, and launch a joint land-naval attack on Arnold’s troops.
Lafayette was sent south with 1,200 men to help with the assault. However, Destouches was reluctant to dispatch many ships, and in February sent only three. After they proved ineffective, he took a larger force of 8 ships in March 1781, and fought a tactically inconclusive battle with the British fleet of Marriot Arbuthnot at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Destouches withdrew due to the damage sustained to his fleet, leaving Arbuthnot and the British fleet in control of the bay’s mouth.
On March 26, Arnold was joined by 2,300 troops under command of Major General William Phillips, who took command of the combined forces. Phillips resumed raiding, defeating the militia at Blandford, then burning the tobacco warehouses at Petersburg on April 25. Richmond was about to suffer the same fate, but Lafayette arrived. The British, not wanting to engage in a major battle, withdrew to Petersburg on May 10.
On May 20, Cornwallis arrived at Petersburg with 1,500 men after suffering heavy casualties at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. He immediately assumed command, as Phillips had recently died of a fever. Cornwallis had not received permission to abandon the Carolinas from his superior, General Henry Clinton, but he believed that Virginia would be easier to capture, feeling that it would approve of an invading British army. With the arrival of Cornwallis and more reinforcements from New York, the British army numbered 7,200 men. Cornwallis wanted to push Lafayette, whose force now numbered 3,000 men with the arrival of Virginia militia.
On May 24, he set out after Lafayette, who withdrew from Richmond, and linked forces with those under the command of Major General Baron von Steuben and Major General Anthony Wayne. Cornwallis did not pursue Lafayette. Instead, he sent raiders into central Virginia, where they attacked depots and supply convoys, before being recalled on June 20. Cornwallis then headed for Williamsburg, and Lafayette’s force of now 4,500 followed him. Clinton, in a confusing series of orders, ordered Cornwallis first to Portsmouth and then Yorktown, where he was instructed to build fortifications for a deep water port.
French and Americans Join Forces
On July 6, the French and American armies met at White Plains. Although Rochambeau had almost 40 years of warfare experience, he never challenged Washington’s authority, telling Washington he had come to serve, not to command.
Washington and Rochambeau discussed where to launch a joint attack. Washington believed an attack on New York was the best option, since the Americans and French now outnumbered the British defenders 3-to-1. Rochambeau disagreed, arguing the fleet in the West Indies under Admiral Comte de Grasse was going to sail to the American coast, where easier options than attacking New York could be attempted.
In early July, Washington suggested an attack be made at the northern part of Manhattan Island, but his officers and Rochambeau all disagreed. Washington continued to probe the New York area until August 14, when he received a letter from de Grasse stating he was headed for Virginia with 29 warships and 3,200 soldiers, but could only remain there until October 14. De Grasse encouraged Washington to move south so they could launch a joint operation. Washington abandoned his plan to take New York, and began to prepare his army for the march south to Virginia.
On August 19, the march to Yorktown led by Washington and Rochambeau began, which is known now as the “celebrated march.” About 4,000 French and 3,000 American soldiers began the march in Newport, Rhode Island, while the rest remained behind to protect the Hudson Valley. Washington wanted to maintain complete secrecy of their destination. To ensure this, he sent out fake dispatches that reached Clinton revealing that the Franco-American army was going to launch an attack on New York, and that Cornwallis was not in danger.
From September 2-4, the French and American armies marched through Philadelphia, where the American soldiers announced they would not leave Maryland until they received one month’s pay in coin, rather than in the worthless Continental paper currency. Rochambeau generously loaned Washington half of his supply of gold Spanish coins. It significantly strengthened French and American relations.
On September 5, Washington learned of the arrival of de Grasse’s fleet off the Virginia Capes. De Grasse debarked his French troops to join Lafayette, and then sent his empty transports to pick up the American troops. Washington made a visit to his home, Mount Vernon, on his way to Yorktown.
In August, Admiral Sir Thomas Graves led a fleet from New York to attack de Grasse’s fleet. Graves did not realize how large the French fleet was, and neither did Cornwallis. The British fleet was defeated by de Grasse’s fleet in the Battle of the Chesapeake and forced to fall back to New York.
On September 14, Washington arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia.