• U.S.

National Affairs: At Yorktown

4 minute read

Off Yorktown, Va., the U. S. S. Arkansas stretched her gray length at anchor in the York River. Ashore, seven companies of Marines and blue-jackets stood by, while two artillery regiments from Fort Eustis saluted the flag with heavy guns. Three military bands struck up. The troops marched. Officials viewed and reviewed. Among the speechmakers were: Governor Trinkle of Virginia, Brigadier General William R. Smith (representing President Coolidge), George A. Elliott of the Delaware Historical Society, Brigadier General R. Allyn Lewis of the Old Guard of New York, Captain Charles Nungesser, famed French ace.

All remembered, all were celebrating, Oct. 19, 1781, the day on which Lord Cornwallis surrendered his sword to General George Washington and the American Revolution came to an end at Yorktown.

The afternoon of Oct. 16, 1781, was cloudy. The sun sank sullen and red. With the night, came winds and rain. Stretched in a semicircle about Yorktown, American troops under General Washington lay in their earthworks, some putting back into service the guns of two redoubts that had been captured and spiked by a British assault under Lieutenant Colonel Abercrombie in the forenoon but recovered later in a counterassault. About 300 yards away lay the British, in the inner circle of Yorktown’s earthwork defenses. In the town, Lord Charles Cornwallis took counsel with his officers. North of them, the York River hissed and splashed as the whistling wind and driving rain whipped its surface. It was apparent to the British chiefs that they were bottled up. Their plan had been to fortify Yorktown as a base for the British fleet; but the French admiral, De Grasse, controlled all the Chesapeake coast; and now Washington was behind Yorktown on land with 16,000 men. Lord Cornwallis issued his orders. Detachments would attempt to cross the river to Gloucester Point; and, if the crossing could be effected, all would follow and there await reinforcements from General Clinton. Towards midnight, the detachments attempted a crossing; but the storm had risen higher; and all returned to Yorktown, hopeless, with the dawn.

At 10 o’clock on Oct. 17, during a heavy cannonading from the American guns, Washington’s men saw a British drummer mount the enemy’s parapet. His beating could not be heard for the cannon; but, when a British officer climbed up beside him waving a white kerchief, it became evident the drummer was sounding a parley. All around the lines firing ceased; the British officer was blindfolded and led behind the American lines where General Washington received Lord Cornwallis’ request that hostilities be suspended and a joint commission be named to draw up terms of surrender.

The next afternoon, the British troops, decked out in new uniforms but with their colors sheathed, marched out of Yorktown between the French and American ranks lined up on both sides of the Hampton road. The British bands played an old British march, The World Turned Upside Down. In a field just off the road, a squadron of French Hussars were drawn up in a wide circle, into which the British were directed to march. Came the commands : “Present arms! Lay down arms! Put off swords and cartridge boxes!” Then the British marched back into Yorktown to rest before being sent to prison camps in the South.

But Lord Cornwallis—Charles Cornwallis Cornwallis, second Earl and (later) first Marquess of Cornwallis— had not appeared at the surrender. He had sent in his stead General O’Hara, bearing his sword to General Washington. When the sword was presented, General Washington bowed, but referred General O’Hara to General Benjamin Lincoln as the American representative. Back in Yorktown, Lord Cornwallis sat alone with his defeat. A florid, vigorous man of 45, “distinguished by independence of character and inflexible integrity,” a gallant soldier and, before the Revolution’s outbreak, a staunch opponent of England’s colonial policy in the House of Lords, he was too proud to accompany his troops in their hour of humiliation. Upon receipt of his parole, he returned to New York, later to England, where, far from being censured unjustly as he might have been, he soon received a vacant Garter, the Governor-Generalship of India; later a marquessate and the viceroyalty of Ireland.

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