Friday, May 18, 2012

Washington vs Cornwallis and the French are heroes

Before the Revolutionary War came on the scene Yorktown was a thriving town, made prosperous by the shipping of tobacco from its very active docks.  At the start of the war there were approximately 250 buildings and homes in the town. By the end of the war there were less than 70.  But the battle of Yorktown turned out to be the most decisive battle of the Revolutionary war and, finally, decided the fate of this new country.

In May of 1781 British General Charles Cornwallis moved his considerable army in and took over the town.  He wanted the port as a base to take control of all of Virginia.

Cornwallis believed that most of Washington's troops were in the New York area preparing to attach there so he felt confident in his setup in Yorktown.

Washington did a good job of making Cornwallis think that.  He created large encampments in the outlying New York area with lots of tents--mostly empty--plus activity that suggested troop movement in the opposite direction toward New York.
Then he stealthily moved his troops toward Yorktown,  first by ship then by marching with the protection of night.
 Washington's troops of farmers and hunters alone could never have defeated Cornwallis' professional, well-trained army , but they had help.  The French fleet under Adm. Francois Comte de Grasse had sailed up from the West Indies and blockaded the mouth of Chesapeake Bay to stop any further help from reaching Cornwallis;  plus Washington's troops had allied with the French army under Gen. Jean Baptiste, Comte de Rochambeau in New England and together they were marching on Cornwallis.    

Notice how they attacked without loading their muskets-- to maintain the element of surprise.

These embankments were dug at night,  right under the noses of the British.  Dirt was carried in makeshift baskets and all was done by thousands of men working silently under the cover of darkness. Great numbers of cannons and wagons and supplies were moved into a little canyon at the edge of the field--all without alerting the British.

To better understand the strategies, I purchased a CD that tells the story, step at a time, while I drove the grounds.  It is narrated by two actors playing the parts of two of the generals and I must say, the entire tableau became very real to me as I went from encampments to battle scene.

Once the fighting started it was nine days of constant bombardment of cannon and artillery. Cornwallis was finally backed up to the York River and in an effort to retreat he put his troops in all the boats and ships along the docks and sent them across the river. But in the midst of the retreat a very severe storm blew up the river and destroyed many of the boats drowning great numbers of the retreating soldiers. The great british army was finally defeated and, though some fighting continued for several more years, the war was essentially over.

And it was the French who saved the day.  Their cannons line the walkways and remind us that we owe them quite a debt. 

As I was walking along this line of cannons I noticed a group of about 8 or 10 men ahead of me.  They had a guide who was explaining what they were seeing and I heard one of the men with a heavy accent ask a question.

I could not resist--I had to know where they were from.  Well, it  turned out they were very high-ranking officers from their own armies--in 6 other countries--visiting our military base here.  Their guide was an officer from our neighboring base.  We happened to be standing in front of the French embankment at that moment and I asked, "Who of you is from France?"  One gentleman acknowledged that he was.  I walked over,  held out my hand and said, "I want to thank your country for what they did for us."  He gave me a huge smile and shook my hand.  But when I asked if I could take their picture they all said 'no'.  So what you see above is the best I could get. And I will smack anyone I ever again hear use the phrase 'freedom fries'.

I was reminded anew of the amount of history in such close proximity.  Less than 100 years after Cornwallis,  Yorktown would be involved in several battles of the Civil War.
But strangely enough, only 20 miles east of Yorktown lies Jamestown.  It was in 1607 that Jamestown was the birth of the British colonies  and 175 years later and only 20 miles away the British lose their colonies. 
I have the CD of the battle of Yorktown and will gladly pass it on to anyone who may be visiting this area sometime in the future or who would just like to hear it.  If anyone reading this would like the CD please email me at with an address to mail it.  First one I hear from gets it.

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