Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Meeting Notes: September 16, 2009

"Siege of Yorktown: Example of Formal 18th Century Siege Warfare," Glenn F. Williams

The situation was that there were approximately 6500 Continentals surrounding New York City with Rochambeau and about 4500 French on Rhode Island. Greene was heavily engaged in North Carolina and, of course, the war on the frontier was continuing.

On July 28, 1781, deGrasse told Rochambeau that he would be going to the Chesapeake. Then on August 2nd Lafayette saw Cornwallis fortifying Yorktown. He informed Rochambeau and next, of course, on August 14th Rochambeau notified Washington. About three days later the first units began crossing the Hudson as they were heading very quickly down to Yorktown.

Approximately half of the main Continental Army was on the road to Yorktown with the others staying behind to try to convince Clinton that there was still a strong presence there in New York. There were approximately 2500 Americans and 4500 French heading down to Yorktown.

At the Head of Elk, there were approximately 80 vessels taking the soldiers down to Yorktown.

In the 1600’s Vauban described siege warfare and of course everyone was still copying him.
Mr. Williams then described at length how siege warfare operated with the Americans opening up their first parallel on October 6th. Thus on October 7th the British awakened to see the first trenches! The rainy weather helped with visibility, muffling the sound, of course making the digging so much easier. There were trench guards and what we call pioneers and there were, of course, the famous battles of redoubts 9 and 10 with the French attacking redoubt 9 and the Americans under Alexander Hamilton attacking redoubt No. 10. Once the French and Americans won they changed the orientation of the guns so that they could be firing on the British.

Mr. Williams noted that “point blank range” meant not so much that you were right next to the people in shooting, but that their guns were at ground level.

The goal of siege warfare was to open up a breach into the lines of the enemy and to avoid a frontal attack. The idea was to get the enemy to give up without much of a fight so that there wouldn’t be a lot of casualties.

The British tried to get out at Gloucester but that didn’t work, and so finally the surrendered around October 18th.

The surrender actually took place in what is known as the Surrender Field. There had been a lot of negotiations about what would happen, but George Washington insisted that the Surrendered Soldiers would be taken as prisoners of war and would not just be sent back to Europe.

It’s interesting to note that Cornwallis did not appear for the surrender and the British officer offered the sword first to Rochambeau, but Rochambeau pointed to Washington, but then Washington said that Lincoln should receive the surrender sword. Lincoln received it symbolically but then returned it and then they all had dinner together!

During the question and answer session, one of the questions was where the prisoners of war were sent? Mr. Williams explained that they had been sent to the Winchester area mostly.

Another question was why was Yorktown so significant, because of course the war did not end officially for several years thereafter. Was it really a political victory or maybe men and material victory? Mr. Williams indicated that it was really a combination of both. Factors: The Americans had won at Saratoga and now that they had won at Yorktown and so another British field army had been “taken off” the board. So really at this point there was only about one more field army left in New York, which was about 7000 strong, as well as some other British in Canada and on the frontier I believe. Frankly, according to Mr. Williams, everyone was just really “war weary”.

It’s interesting to note, as Mr. Williams pointed out earlier in the lecture, that the American Revolutionary War had become a minor theater of a more global world war and that’s the reason the French had to go back and forth, for example to the Caribbean because there was fighting going on in the Caribbean, in Asia, Europe, etc.

Another question was where or not the slaves did the digging and the answer was that even though there were a lot of slaves who helped especially with cutting trees and so forth, the actual digging of the trenches was an army job done by soldiers.

In conclusion, I would report that this was a very interesting presentation and it was made even more interesting by virtue of the numerous slides that were presented.