Sunday, February 18, 2024

ARP299 Siege of Yorktown

Last week we covered the naval battle that gave the French Navy control of the waters around Yorktown, Virginia.  The week before that, we covered the march of the armies under Continental General Washington and French General Rochambeau, to confront the British army under General Cornwallis at Yorktown.

Storming Redoubt #10
Washington and Rochambeau arrived in Williamsburg on September 14, 1781. Their respective armies were still marching, several days away.  Washington met with Lafayette, who was already in command of a force there, and received the good news that the French fleet had defeated the British and controlled Chesapeake.  With the combination of French fleets under Admirals de Grasse and de Barras, the French had 36 ships of the line to prevent any British naval interference.

Admiral de Grasse, however, also reminded Washington that the clock was ticking.  The armies had to defeat the British at Yorktown within the month, after which de Grasse was taking his fleet back to the West Indies.  Washington sailed out to meet de Grasse on his flagship the Ville de Paris.  He got the admiral to agree to extend his stay until the end of October, and to send a few ships up the Chesapeake to hurry the arrival of the armies.

British Defenses

In the British camp, General Cornwallis was mindful of the forces arrayed against him.  He sent messages to General Clinton in New York saying that he could hold out for about six weeks, and was anxiously awaiting the promised relief fleet once Admiral Digby arrived in New York from London with additional ships.  Cornwallis had offloaded cannons from several British ships in the Chesapeake, and aligned others so that they could fire on an enemy, if it tried to storm the British defenses at Yorktown.

His position on the high ground covered a line of bluffs.  To his rear was the York River.  Cornwallis had scuttled ships near the bank to prevent the enemy from trying to land ships or moving ship based cannons too close to shore.  Across the river, the British also held Gloucester Point, where Banastre Tarleton had taken command.  The fortified position was initially set up to control ship access to and from the Chesapeake Bay. By this time, it was still held as a possible means of evacuation if the enemy overran Yorktown.  About 1000 of the British army was deployed there, with seven redoubts to protect the soldiers and prevent an enemy advance by land.

Cornwallis had about 8300 soldiers under his command. His army had built a line of defense around the main defenses at Yorktown, anchored by ten redoubts containing cannons, and connected by trenches. It was enough to prevent a direct assault on his position, but would inevitably fall under a slower siege against a much a larger enemy.  Cornwallis had to place his hopes on the Clinton's promise to send a relief fleet.

On September 22, Cornwallis tried to damage the French Navy in the Chesapeake.  The British deployed five fire ships at night, sailing the burning ships into the French fleet, hoping they would catch fire.  Several of the ships got close, but the French Navy managed to avoid them.

The following day, news arrived that British Admiral Digby was expected to arrive in New York any day with ten more ships of the line.  Washington dismissed this intelligence.  Even if true, the French fleet would still outnumber the British.  Admiral de Grasse, however, was more concerned.  He recalled how difficult it was to get his fleet out of the Chesapeake when the British fleet under Admiral Graves  had arrived.  If Graves had been more aggressive, he probably could have defeated the larger French fleet before it could assemble properly. To prevent that risk, de Grasse wanted to withdraw all of his ships out of the Chesapeake and into the open Atlantic.  He even considered sailing up to New York to attack the British fleet there.

Washington would have welcomed a French fleet in New York six months earlier.  However, doing this now would ruin plans for the siege, which relied on French naval cannons for support, and French ships to transport troops across the water.  Washington sailed out to meet with de Grasse again, to dissuade the admiral from leaving.  Fortunately, the fear subsided when it turned out that Digby arrived with only three more ships of the line.  The French fleet would remain in place.  Washington had hoped to use French ships to harass the enemy from the York River, and to gather intelligence on enemy positions.  De Grass, however, refused to risk any ships by bringing them that close to the enemy cannons.

The Siege Begins

By the end of the month, the allies had their soldiers and equipment ready to go.  Rochambeau had marched 5000 French soldiers from Newport, added to the over 3000 that de Grasse had carried from the West Indies.  This meant that France had more than 8000 soldiers ready to fight. Washington had managed to march close to 3000 Continentals from New York, when combined with the Continental forces already in Virginia under Lafayette, Wayne, and von Steuben, he managed to assemble a Continental force of close to 6000. This was more Continentals than Washington had under his command since the battle of Monmouth, three years earlier.  In addition, another 3000 or so of militia assembled to participate.  Among them was Washington’s 25 year old step-son, Jack Custis. 

Washington and Rochambeau at Yorktown
On September 28, the combined armies marched out of Williamsburg to confront the British at Yorktown.  The French army took up the left flank with the Americans on the right, closest to the York River.  The allies agreed on a siege. It would have to be an aggressive one since the French fleet had to leave within a few weeks.  Without the French fleet, the British could either reinforce or evacuate Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown.

On the night of October 5, the Continentals began laying out the lines for a trench about 600 yards from the British lines.  Since this was within artillery range of the enemy, it had to be done quietly and completed before the night was over.  The weather was cloudy, with a steady rain covering their activities.  General Washington personally visited the digging to ensure everything was going according to plan.

The planners then disguised their work before morning.  That following night, the Continentals deployed a group of pickets in front of their lines to block any enemy patrols, then began digging their trenches. To distract the enemy, they lit bonfires on another part of the line.  As hoped, that made the British think the activity was taking place near the fires, and directed their cannon fire there during the night.  Meanwhile the sappers and miners began digging their trenches in the dark and rain. 

By the following morning, the Continentals had dug a trench about 2000 yards long, with four cannon emplacements.  The work continued.  Daylight brought cannon fire as the British were now aware of the enemy trenches.

Colonel Alexander Hamilton commanded a regiment assigned to protect the trenches.  Hamilton had been Washington’s aide for much of the war.  The two had parted on bad terms a few months earlier, and Hamilton had been concerned that Washington would refuse to give him a combat command.  Washington, however, was never one to hold a grudge, and allowed Hamilton to take this position of honor, and danger.

Over the next few days, the Continentals continued their work on the trenches.  In order to prevent being hit by enemy fire, they deployed lookouts to watch for when a British cannon was being lit.  The lookout would call for everyone duck down in the trenches so that the cannonballs would usually simply fly over their heads.

Washington fires the first shot at Yorktown
By October 10, the trenches were completed.  They had placed 41 cannons, howitzers and mortars in the trenches.  These were not just small field cannons.  They included 24 pounders that could obliterate enemy buildings and fortifications. Washington was given the honor of firing the first shot.  According to an American who was being held behind British lines at the time, that first shot crashed into a home killing the British Commissary General as he sat at a dining room table with other officers, including General Cornwallis.

When the allies had arrived, the British pulled back from some of their defensive lines.  Cornwallis did not want to let some of his relatively isolated redoubts become targets for American or French raids.  General Clinton had promised him reinforcements by October 5, so his goal was to keep his army concentrated and rebuff any attacks until help arrived.

By putting his entire army in a relatively small area of about 500 yards by 1200 yards, he created an inviting target for allied artillery.  Cannonballs and shells rained down heavily on the British lines, both day and night, for several days.  As most of the buildings were destroyed, many British soldiers moved down to the shore of the river and tried to dig shallow bunkers in the sand. Cornwallis had a bunker built in the garden next to the house where he was staying, so that he could also take shelter from the unrelenting bombardment.

Cornwallis decided to get rid of the army's horses.  He could not feed them and did not want to allow the enemy to capture them, so he ordered all of the horses slaughtered.  The carcasses were dumped in the York River.  But the tides brought many of the rotting corpses back to shore, where the stink must have become unbearable.

Also with the British were hundreds of escaped slaves.  Cornwallis had allowed them within his lines, as long as they were the slaves of rebels.  As the siege continued, he had to stop feeding them and could not provide them with any shelter from the enemy’s fire.  

Battle Map of Yorktown
Despite all efforts, British forces continued to dwindle, not only from enemy fire, but disease also took its toll.  Food and supplies were running short.  Many of the British cannons had been destroyed by enemy fire.  Everyday, the British commander found the situation becoming increasingly desperate.

Despite French control of the Chesapeake, the British were able to slip smaller boats in and out of Yorktown.  Cornwallis was able to send and receive messages with General Clinton in New York.  On October 9, Cornwallis sent a desperate letter to Clinton that he needed support, now.  He sent reports of the enemy trenches and the near continuous artillery fire.  His letter reported about 70 men killed, then in a postscript a few hours later, noted that the casualty rate had gone up to over 100.  The following day, although his message had not yet reached Clinton, Cornwallis received another letter from Clinton promising to arrive soon with reinforcements.  Clinton told him that Admiral Digby had arrived and that he hoped the relief fleet would depart New York by October 12.

The British still held the smaller fortification on the other side of the York River at Gloucester Point.  The allies deployed a force of French marines and Virginia militia to keep the British there occupied, but did not attempt to storm the position.

The British still had a warship, the Charon, anchored just off shore. The French Navy did not want to get that close to British lines, and allowed the enemy ship to remain.  On the night of October 10, the French army began firing hot shot at the Charon, that is cannonballs heated in a fire so that they would burn the ship when they came into contact.  The fire managed to burn the ship, completely destroying it.

The following night, the Continentals began work on a second line of trenches, this one only a little more than 300 yards from the British lines.  Once again, they completed enough work under the cover of darkness in one night to provide a new defensive trench.

This second trench was a little shorter than the first one because the allies could not dig it all the way to the river. The British had given up most of their redoubts, but still held two redoubts, known as redoubts nine and ten, that blocked further entrenchments.  The allies however, could fire from a closer range, and had increased the total number of artillery pieces to 71.

In the British lines, things seemed to become only more desperate.  Even so, Cornwallis kept up the army’s morale with the hope that reinforcements from New York should be arriving any day.  British cannons still had plenty of ammunition and continued to exchange heavy fire with the enemy.

Assault on Redoubts 9 & 10

Many of the Continental officers who were commanding the men in the trenches, taking considerable enemy fire, argued that the time had come to charge the enemy lines and finish the battle.  Both sides knew that the French fleet was going to leave soon, and both expected a British relief fleet to arrive at any time.  They could not sit around an wait forever.

Taking Redoubt #10
Washington and Rochambeau waited a few days to see if the second set of trenches had any impact on the enemy’s will to fight.  As the fighting continued, they agreed to an assault on Redoubts #9 and #10.

Washington assigned General Lafayette to take Redoubt 10. Rochambeau would assign a French detachment under Baron de Viomenil to take Redoubt 9 at the same time. Given the difficulty of the assault, Viomenil argued that the French should take both redoubts and leave the Continentals out of it. Lafayette took that as an insult to his Continentals and quickly quashed that idea.

For the Continental assault, Lafayette chose Colonel Jean-Joseph Sourbader de Gimat to lead the assault.  The colonel was a fellow Frenchman who had come to America with Lafayette and was serving in the Continental Army. He had served as Lafayette’s aide for many years, but in 1780, took command of an infantry regiment.

Colonel Hamilton was not happy with Lafayette’s choice.  Hamilton and Lafayette had been good friends for many years. Leading the assault on the redoubt was a high profile command that would help any career if it came off successfully Hamilton wanted to lead the assault himself, but Lafayette would not budge.  Hamilton then appeared directly to General Washington.  We don’t know exactly what Hamilton argued with Washington, but for whatever reason, Washington sided with Hamilton and instructed Lafayette to let Hamilton lead the assault.

Another former Washington aide, and friend of Hamilton and Lafayette, Colonel John Laurens, was given the responsibility to move behind the redoubt and cut off any enemy escape.  The First Rhode Island Regiment was chosen to take part in the assault. The regiment was often called the Black regiment because of the high number of African-American soldiers in its ranks.

Washington personally addressed the division.  The men got into position on the evening of October 14, with the plan to lay low until after dark. When they heard the signal from the French artillery, 400 Continentals would rise up and storm Redoubt #10.  Another 400 French soldiers would rise up and storm Redoubt #9.

Sappers would cut through the British abatis.  They would drop bundles of sticks into the trenches around the redoubts.  The attackers would carry ladders to get over the enemy walls.  All of this had to happen under enemy musket and cannon fire.  Lafayette ordered that all guns not be loaded so that a premature fire would not alert the enemy to the attack. The assault would be fought with swords and bayonets.  

Storming Redoubt #10
It was a difficult task, but when the signal came at around 8:00 PM, the attackers rose and stormed the forts.  Both divisions stormed the redoubts and took on the enemy in hand to hand combat.  Once the Continentals entered Redoubt #10, the fight was over in a matter of minutes.  

The Americans managed to storm and take Redoubt #10 first, while the French were still cutting out the abattis in front of Redoubt #9.  Recalling the French commander’s suggestion that the Continentals were not up to the task, Lafayette stood atop the redoubt wall to proclaim that his men had taken the Redoubt and asked how they were doing.  The angry de Viomenil, shouted back he would be there in five minutes.  The French then stormed and took Redoubt #9.

The French managed to capture 120 enemy soldiers in Redoubt #9.  The Americans captured about 70 in Redoubt #10.  By the following morning, both redoubts were incorporated into the Allied lines.

The capture of the Redoubts only made things more desperate for Cornwallis’ army.  Without food to feed them, Cornwallis drove the escaped slaves out of his lines and toward the enemy.  The desperate escapees ended up setting up camp in the middle of the battlefield, between the two lines, unable to continue the protection of the British, and unwilling to return to the slavery that awaited them behind the American lines.

General Henry Knox brought up American Cannons into Redoubt Number 10.  The allied artillery barrage against the British in Yorktown continued its incessant pace, only from a closer range now.

By the morning of October 16, the British position was becoming desperate.  Cornwallis knew that, unless a British relief force arrived soon, he could not continue to defend against the siege.

In a desperate attempt to stop the enemy cannons, Cornwallis ordered Hessian commander Johann Ewald to storm the French artillery and spike their cannons.  The Hessians managed to get to the enemy batteries, but found that the nails they brought to spike the cannons were too large.  Instead, they jammed bayonets into the fuse holes, broke them off, and withdrew.  Unfortunately for the British, the French were able to remove the bayonets and resume their fire.

With the British situation even more desperate, Cornwallis realized that, unless a British relief force arrived within days, he would almost certainly have to surrender.

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Next Episode 300 Surrender at Yorktown 

Previous Episode 298 Battle of the Capes

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Further Reading


Yorktown Battlefield, History of the Siege:

Chronology of the Siege of Yorktown:

Hatch, Charles E. “Gloucester Point in the Siege of Yorktown 1781.” The William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, vol. 20, no. 2, 1940, pp. 265–84. JSTOR,

Riley, Edward M. “Yorktown during the Revolution: Part I.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 57, no. 1, 1949, pp. 22–43. JSTOR,

“Yorktown during the Revolution Part II. The Siege of Yorktown, 1781.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 57, no. 2, 1949, pp. 176–88. JSTOR, 

Wright, John W. “Notes on the Siege of Yorktown in 1781 with Special Reference to the Conduct of a Siege in the Eighteenth Century.” The William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, vol. 12, no. 4, 1932, pp. 230–50. JSTOR,

Idzerda, Stanley J. “Indispensable Allies: The French at Yorktown.” The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), vol. 5, no. 4, 1981, pp. 166–77. JSTOR,

Yorktown, Redoubt No. 10:

Fix Bayonets: The Revolution’s Climactic Assault at Yorktown:

Burdick, Kim “What they Saw and Did at Yorktown’s Redoubts 9 and 10” Journal of the American Revolution, April 7,2020:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

March to Victory: Washington, Rochambeau and the Yorktown Campaign of 1781,  (

Johnston, Henry P. The Yorktown Campaign and the surrender of Cornwallis, 1781, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881.

Tarleton, Banastre A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America, London: T. Cadell 1787. 

Rice, Howard C. The American Campaigns of Rochambeau's Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, Princeton University Press, 1972 (borrow only). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Davis, Burke The Campaign that Won America, Eastern Acorn Press, 1970 (borrow on 

Fleming, Thomas Beat the Last Drum;: The siege of Yorktown, 1781, St. Martin’s Press, 1963 (borrow on

Grainger, John D. The Battle of Yorktown, 1781: A Reassessment, Boydell Press, 2005 
(borrow on

Ketchum, Richard M. Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution, Henry Holt and Co. 2004. 

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on 

Philbrick, In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, Penguin Books, 2019. 

Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan Company, 1952. 

Wickwire, Franklin B. Cornwallis and the War of Independence, Houghton Mifflin, 1971 (borrow on  

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

1 comment:

  1. I’d continue on into the constitution and federalist papers