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Posted on Jul 24, 2006 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

Walk Where They Fought: Path to Victory!

By Barnet Schecter and Robert A. Selig

Where to Strike?

Clinton learned of de Grasse’s approach in mid-May and, much alarmed, made preparations to deflect the blow. The British commander in chief pulled his troops back to New York while ordering Cornwallis to establish a stronghold in a suitable harbor on the Yorktown Peninsula before the French fleet could take shelter there.

In early July, Marie Jean Paul Joseph Roche Yves Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette’s force of 5,000 Americans had advanced against Cornwallis’s army and sealed off the neck of the Yorktown peninsula at Williamsburg. A month later, Cornwallis selected Yorktown, a tobacco port city on the York River about 10 miles east of Williamsburg.

Still waiting for news from de Grasse, Washington kept up his maneuvers against New York. By the first week in July, Rochambeau had marched 5,000 troops from Newport, across Connecticut to the Hudson River, and by the end of the month, the Franco-American allies had a force of some 11,000 men. However, the allied generals could find no vulnerable points in the British defenses at New York, prompting Rochambeau to write to de Grasse suggesting that the Chesapeake Bay might be a better location to coordinate a joint offensive.


On August 14, 1781, de Grasse’s response to Rochambeau’s letter at last reached Washington: The fleet in the West Indies would sail to the Chesapeake, arriving in August and staying only until mid-October. Thus, for the sake of temporary naval superiority on the North American coast, de Grasse was about to take an audacious gamble. He would bring his entire fleet of 28 ships there and leave his station guarding France’s important West Indian colonies at the mercy of the British. De Grasse apparently calculated that such a risky move would seem inconceivable to the British – and he was right.

The time limit was a disappointment to Washington, but in addition to the fleet, de Grasse would bring 3,000 soldiers who could reinforce Lafayette before Washington reached Virginia. Washington finally, and reluctantly, had to “give up all idea of attacking New York,” which had been his greatest goal since the retreat in 1776. He felt “obliged” to relinquish the prized city by circumstances beyond his control. The pronouncement from de Grasse resolved once and for all the lingering uncertainty that had plagued Washington since the alliance began: The time, the place, and the opportunity to create a decisive naval advantage had now been established.

The Move to the Chesapeake

Although the point of the allied attack was determined, a daunting and dangerous task remained. Washington had at most two months to march and transport the allied forces with all of their equipment and supplies 450 miles to join Lafayette and coordinate with de Grasse for an attack on Cornwallis – while masking the movement from Clinton for as long as possible. Since the army had no money or credit, Washington simultaneously called on the states to contribute wagons and provisions and to muster the local militia to repair the roads leading to the Chesapeake, which were in terrible condition. Fortunately, the French ships from Rochambeau’s base at Newport could be dispatched to Virginia and used to bring the heavy siege artillery and cumbersome barrels of salted meat that would be crucial to the success of the land forces.

Gen. Charles Lord Cornwallis’ defeat at Yorktown triggered the
British government to negotiate an end to the American Revolution.

Keeping only 2,500 men – mostly militia – under General William Heath at New York in the Hudson Highlands to occupy Clinton with the threat of an attack on the city, Washington’s and Rochambeau’s combined force crossed the Hudson River to New Jersey and pretended to prepare for an invasion of Staten Island. Washington then marched his troops south through New Jersey at the end of August and made a feint toward Sandy Hook, as if to rendezvous for an attack at the entrance to New York’s waters. The elaborate subterfuge worked: Clinton remained inactive in New York, continuing to believe the main march was a diversion to pry him from the city. Finally, on September 2, he belatedly informed Cornwallis of the bad news: Washington’s army, which had already reached Philadelphia, was headed his way.

Washington had much cause for anxiety too, however. As he moved toward the northern end of the Chesapeake, where the allied troops would embark on a fleet of small vessels for the last leg of their trip to Virginia, Washington could only wonder if de Grasse’s fleet and the French ships from Newport would arrive safely. If stronger British naval forces managed to defeat de Grasse, the entire Chesapeake plan would fall apart. Washington, therefore, was ecstatic when he learned that de Grasse had arrived at the Chesapeake on August 30 and met no resistance. Lafayette gained 3,000 reinforcements and the French fleet controlled the waters around Yorktown.

Realizing that he might be able to trap Cornwallis’ army at
Yorktown, Washington gave up on recapturing New
York and decided to seize the opportunity
presented by the decisive naval advantage in the Chesapeake Bay.

On the road south of Chester, Pennsylvania, Washington turned his entourage around so he could greet Rochambeau, who was traveling to Chester by way of the Delaware River. As his boat pulled up to the dock, the French general was amazed to see the reserved American commander wildly waving his hat and handkerchief with both arms. When Rochambeau debarked, Washington gave him a hug that lifted him off the ground. The allied generals proceeded through Delaware and Maryland, crossed the Potomac into Virginia, and made a quick stop at Mount Vernon – which Washington had not visited since the war began. They then headed south to Williamsburg to join Lafayette.

Washington, Rochambeau and Lafayette plan
for the siege of Yorktown in this copy of an engraving by
O.M. Fontaine.

Closing the Trap

On September 5-10, de Grasse’s ships fought off a British fleet at the mouth of the Chesapeake, enabling the French ships arriving from Newport to sail into the bay unopposed. The Battle of the Virginia Capes preserved the French navy’s grip on the Chesapeake and closed the trap on Cornwallis’s army. Washington and Rochambeau reached Williamsburg ahead of the army on September 14. While the allied troops moved down the Chesapeake in small vessels from Head of Elk, Baltimore and Annapolis over the next 10 days, Washington visited de Grasse on his flagship and persuaded him to keep his fleet in the bay long enough to ensure the success of the joint operation. On September 28, the complete allied army of some 18,000 men set out from Williamsburg to lay siege to Yorktown.

The ensuing siege of Yorktown followed the classic pattern of 18th-century European warfare. (See Siege of Yorktown map.) Siege lines were constructed parallel to the British defensive lines and artillery batteries were emplaced to begin the process of bombarding the defenders. Allied engineers dug saps – zigzag-shaped trenches oriented toward the enemy position – which permitted construction of the next set of parallel lines that moved infantry and artillery ever closer to Yorktown’s defenses. As the artillery moved closer, the effect of the bombardment on the British position was magnified.

The Franco-American victory at Yorktown featured
classic European-style siege warfare. While the
allied artillery pounded Cornwallis’ defenses, engineers
and sappers moved the allied lines ever closer.
With outside relief from the sea cut off by Adm. de Grasse’s
French fleet, Cornwallis’ fate was sealed.

With Cornwallis’ forces trapped inside the city, their only hope of rescue was a British naval expedition, which Clinton dispatched too late. On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis’ army marched out of Yorktown and laid down their arms nearby in a clearing that became known as Surrender Field. They marched there to the tune of “The World Turned Upside Down.”

The allied victory at Yorktown convinced British political leadership in London that the war could not be won. Although negotiations dragged on until 1783, the American triumph at Yorktown 225 years ago proved decisive.

American and French forces capture Yorktown.

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1 Comment

  1. Can you please edit your comment under the picture of the Artillery above Section 9. These are not British uniforms, but Continental Artillery; they have light blue field pieces (a color established by BG Knox) the yellow hat trim of artillery (lasted up though the War of 1812) , and the black faced with red coats of the Ist Continental Artillery.

    I have been in the Artillery since 1975 and can send you references if you need them.

    Thank you,

    Ralph S. Siegrist
    Rear Det Commander
    1-108th FA BN