‘Tis done! And Britain for her madness sighs!
Take warning tryrants, and henceforth be wise.”
Now picks and shovels would be as important as muskets and cannon. Having been given the open ground on the British center, the allies were going to lay siege, trenching their way to the inner works by the regular approaches systematized by the French marshall Sebastien de Vaubin a century before. In this effort, Washington would call on Baron von Steuben, probably the only officer in the American camp who had ever actually seen it done. At fourteen he was witness to the siege of Prague and, as an aide to Frederick the Great, took part in the siege of Schweidnitz at the close of the Seven Years War. In the dark of 6 October, the digging of the first parallel began in earnest, 1,500 French and Americans making the sandy soil fly. (There had not been such prodigious digging since that March night in ’76 when Washington’s men had thrown up works on Dorchester Heights to frown down on the British garrison in Boston.) By next light, they had completed 2,000 yards of trench opposite the southwest face of the British lines. Over the next two days they manhandled the big guns into position. On the afternoon of 9 October the tall Virginian put the match to the first gun on the American line; a moment later fifty more went off with a furious roar. Despite the tumult, the Americans could hear a triumphant cheer from their French comrades across the way. The next day French guns pitched into the bombardment, sending shot and shell both into British lines and over the town into the little squadron on the York. HMS Charon and two transports hard by were set ablaze by red-hot shot and driven off. The British guns answered back as best they could, and the peninsula shook with thunderous and ceaseless violence. By the third day of the pounding, British fire was fairly well beaten down. As one weary redcoat confided to his diary, “I now want words to express the dreadful situation of the garrison… Upwards of a thousand shells were thrown into the works this night.” British dead were hastily buried in shallow graves. The wounded, many of them unimaginably maimed, were carried to field hospitals, but there was no sanctuary anywhere on the York. As the redcoats suffered under the tempest of allied iron, a fifth column–smallpox–was raging in their camp. The survivors now were sick, on short rations, and worn ragged by the relentless cannonade. Cornwallis, driven from his blackened headquarters by the shelling, was acutely aware of the closing ring. He wrote frankly to Clinton, “nothing but a direct move to the York River which includes a successful naval action can save us. Against so powerful an attack we cannot hope to make a very long resistance. ”
The weary lieutenant who wrote of the garrison’s “dreadful situation” owed some of his sleepless misery to an argument and an impasse in far-off New York. Clinton had promised relief but could not prevail upon Admiral Graves to put to sea. Graves privately feared the consequences of trying to force the mouth of the bay against a powerful French fleet and publicly insisted that in any case he could do nothing until he repaired the damage done in the fighting off the Virginia Capes. Washington had had more persuasive powers over his naval arm: he had at length convinced Grasse to remain in the bay at least to the end of the month. (He wanted more–he wanted Grasse to sail up the York and pound Cornwallis from the river–but he would be satisfied to simply hold the bay while the siege tightened.) As for the redcoat on the line, if he could even hear himself think in the ceaseless thunder of the guns, he might wonder a moment about deliverance from the north. But he had more pressing and perilous matters immediately to hand. On the night of 11 October, Washington’s men began digging the second parallel, this just 300 yards from the southwest salient. Once this trench was complete, both the French and American wings would be within storming distance. The second parallel, however, would not be secure until the redoubts on the American right–Nine and Ten–were taken. In the dark of 14 October Washington pushed two assaulting parties forward, one French and aimed at Redoubt Nine, the other American light infantry aimed at Ten and hugging the river on the extreme right. Surging forward in the darkness, the light infantry under youthful Colonel Alexander Hamilton cut through the abatis and swept over the parapet at the point of the bayonet. The fight was over almost as soon as it began. At the jumping-off point for the attacks, a French officer had with some hauteur told Hamilton that he would be happy to send reinforcements if he needed them. Now Hamilton reported the “unspeakable satisfaction” of sending a courier in hot haste to the French to offer them reinforcements. For as the French advanced on Nine, they became entangled in the abatis and the redcoats had put up a stiff fight before being overwhelmed by their old antagonists. By daylight, the second parallel ran 2,000 yards straight down to the water’s edge. When the guns were up, the allies would blast the British trenches flat. That day Cornwallis wrote once more to Clinton: “We shall soon be exposed to an assault in ruined works, in a bad position, and with weakened numbers. The safety of the place is therefore so precarious that I cannot recommend that the fleet and army should run great risk in endeavoring to save us.”
Graves had intended to sail on 13 October, but before he put to sea a sudden thunderstorm broke over the harbor, knocked a couple of his ships about, and persuaded the admiral to pause once more for repairs. If Cornwallis was to escape the tightening noose, it would have to be by his own exertions. But there was not much fight left in the earl. His lieutenants had been urging him for some time to attempt a breakout. He gave grudging permission to a sortie at first light of 16 October. Some 350 men under Colonel Robert Abercrombie made a rush at the enemy lines, scooped up some prisoners, and spiked six guns before being driven off. It was perhaps a bright moment for British honor, but it did not alter their predicament one whit. That night Cornwallis played his last card. He ferried his sick and wounded as well as a thousand of his most fit troops–the Guards and light infantry–to Gloucester Point across the river. He intended to get the entire army across by dawn, launch an attack against the thin line of French Regulars and Virginia militia, and break out to the north. A desperate march might take them to the Delaware and a juncture with Clinton. The boats returned from their two-hour crossing about midnight, loaded the second detachment, and started for the far shore again. Ten minutes later a vicious gale blew in and scattered soldiers and sailors all over the river. By the time the gale blew itself out around two a.m. on 17 October, Cornwallis’ forlorn hope was exhausted as well. The boats and their sodden, shivering crews were rounded up once more and the first detachment returned to Yorktown. Cornwallis’ men had borne as much as flesh and blood could bear. His officers urged him, in respect for their unflinching service, to surrender. The earl now dictated: “Sir, I propose a cessation of hostilities for twenty-four hours, and that two officers may be appointed by each side… to settle terms for the surrender of the posts at York and Gloucester.” About nine o’clock a red-coated drummer climbed the blasted parapet near the center of the British lines and beat a parley. Not a man could hear it over the clamor of the guns. No man needed to. A moment later an officer appeared waving a white handkerchief. Then came a profound silence, complete but for the rattle of a single drum.
Cornwallis and Washington conferred in the Virginian’s headquarters in the Moore House a half-mile behind the American lines. Neither spoke of it, but it is likely that both remembered that bitter January dusk on the Delaware in 1777. Then Cornwallis boasted that he would reach out in the morning and “bag the fox.” The fox had slipped away in the night and struck Princeton hard. Now the fox had bagged Cornwallis and all his hounds. Washington intended to drive these negotiations as strenuously and as swiftly as he had this triumphant siege. He was not about to give Graves and the British fleet an opportunity to attempt an eleventh-hour rescue. Cornwallis briefly hoped he might receive the same generous terms that Burgoyne had received from Gates at the Saratoga “Convention”; that is, his soldiers and sailors would be paroled home not to fight again until properly exchanged. As it happened, this 17th of October was the fourth anniversary of Burgoyne’s surrender. Cornwallis’ gambit was declined. Washington and his inner circle had a different surrender in mind: the humiliation Benjamin Lincoln and his army had suffered upon the fall of Charleston. Washington would insist on precisely the same terms that Cornwallis had imposed on Lincoln. Cornwallis’ entire command, 1,157 soldiers and 840 seamen, were now prisoners of war. They would march out of their ruined fortifications with their flags furled, ground their arms, and tramp off into captivity. John Laurens, who had been with Lincoln at Charleston, remembered the final indignity of that surrender. Eighteenth-century convention allowed the beaten army to march out to one of the enemy’s tunes, a modest final gesture of defiance. Even this Cornwallis had denied to Lincoln, and now the gratuitous insult would come home to him.
At eleven o’clock on 19 October Washington, Rochambeau, and Admiral de Barras (acting for Grasse) received and signed the surrender document at Redoubt Ten. Cornwallis had signed for the British army and Captain Thomas Symonds for the Royal Navy. Under their signatures, Washington ordered an aide to write, “Done in the trenches before Yorktown in Virginia, October 19, 1781.” As it happened, at almost the same hour Clinton and Graves and 6,000 troops were clearing New York harbor for the Chesapeake where Clinton, at any rate, believed he and Cornwallis would fight the great battle that would give them America. But the great battle for America had just been won. At two o’clock the British marched out of Yorktown toward a meadow a half-mile down the Williamsburg Road. Denied the privilege of playing one of the enemy’s tunes, the bands played, according to one tradition, an old tune with new lyrics popular in London that season, “The World Turned Upside Down.” On either side of the surrender field, the French and American armies were drawn up in smart lines. Between them now came the long scarlet column with General Charles O’Hara of the Guards at their head. The tough British veterans, so disciplined on the battlefield, now in this final mortification, were not so disciplined on the surrender field. They broke step and their eyes wandered to the resplendent French. They could not bear to look upon the ragged peasant army and the self-taught soldier who had brought them after six years of struggle to this dismal day. When Lafayette snapped out an order and had his bandsmen play “Yankee Doodle,” the Recoats could not help but turn and look at last. While Washington waited impassively, O’Hara rode slowly toward Rochambeau to offer his sword. Rochambeau, restrained, tactful, and cooperative to the end, explained that the man he wanted was across the road in blue and buff. O’Hara now approached Washington with his sword, but his humiliation was not yet over. Where was his commander, the general wanted to know. Lord Cornwallis was ill, O’Hara offered, and had appointed him his deputy. Very well then: the earl’s deputy would surrender to his, and with a generous gesture Washington directed the Guardsman to Benjamin Lincoln, who touched O’Hara’s sword in acceptance. The grim redcoat column now marched on and ground their arms in disgust. Among the allies, one remembered, “universal order and silence prevailed.”
Cornwallis could avoid the surrender ceremony but not the inevitable dispatch to Sir Henry Clinton: “Sir, I have the mortification to inform your excellency that I have been forced to give up the posts of York and Gloucester, and to surrender the troops under my command, by capitulation on the 19th instant.” That said, Cornwallis was quick to shift the blame from himself to Clinton, who, in fairness, promised relief that never came. (Clinton and Graves did at length reach the bay–five days late.) But in the end Yorktown was not so much Cornwallis’ defeat as it was Washington’s victory. His cool-headed calculation, careful management of men and materiel, and relentless energy had driven Cornwallis to his last post. Washington was a general officer who commanded from the front.
Now that the decisive battle had been fought, it was possible to take the measure of Washington’s extraordinary achievement. In a narrow tactical sense, Washington’s combat record was not impressive. Of ten major encounters only three were American victories, Trenton, Princeton, and Yorktown, and two of these were more flying raids than pitched battles. In the other seven Washington was either defeated or forced to settle for a drawn battle. At Long Island, only Howe’s puzzling inertia saved Washington from utter disaster and in all likelihood the end of the Revolution. But in the long flight from Long Island Washington shaped the strategic principle that would guide him in the struggle ahead: it was possible to win this war simply by not losing it. Given the immense resources of the British Empire, its battle-tested army and redoubtable navy, Washington meant to “avoid a general action.” A decisive American victory on the battlefield, even if it could be won, was unlikely to mean ultimate victory, but the destruction of his army meant the end. Hence, the strategy was “to protract the war,” to soldier on, to make the British spend and sweat and march and bleed until the struggle exhausted the will of either King or Commons. Doing so, Washington understood, meant raising, training, and equipping a Regular army directly along European lines. The war could not be won by militia or by partisan bands, for neither could achieve anything without “an army to look the enemy in the face.” Americans cherish the ideal of the Revolutionary citizen-soldier, the Minute Man who left plow or shop to meet the hour of crisis. But in truth America chiefly owes her independence to the sturdy, long-suffering veterans of the Continental Line.
Nor did Yorktown quite mean the end of the fighting. London waited uneasily for news from the York Peninsula, an anxiety it had not felt since it waited for word from Burgoyne on the banks of the Hudson in ’77. On 25 November the government’s worst fears were confirmed. HMS Rattlesnake sailed up the Thames with a dispatch from Graves at the mouth of the Chesapeake. Cornwallis had capitulated. The British hold on North America was in essence reduced to Canada, New York, Charleston, and Savannah. The American secretary, Lord George Germain, took the news to the prime minister at 10 Downing Street. “O God, O God,” North cried. “It is all over. It is all over.” George III, however, was not yet persuaded the end had come. In a speech the next day he reiterated his resolve to prosecute the American war to victory. Parliament was in session, and the king professed his pleasure at what he believed to be the support of the House of Commons. “I do not doubt,” he wrote, “that if measures are well concerted a good end may yet be made to this war.” Contrary to popular myth, the king was not mad–at least not at this time–but he was stubborn, short-sighted, and inflexible. The American war was moving into its seventh spring, the world war into its fifth year, and Britain now stood utterly alone: in addition to the declared antagonists America, France and Spain, the League of Armed Neutrality (Russia, Prussia, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, and Austria) continued to stretch and sap Britain’s naval power. Even Holland, a longtime ally, had been a declared enemy since 1780.
But the government’s trouble was not only on the battlefields and the high seas. It was perhaps above all in the House of Commons, where support for the war was eroding daily. The political pressure on Germain, chiefly responsible for the conduct of the American war, became unbearable after Yorktown and he resigned. Lord North, the king’s prime minister, had been begging to resign for some time but had been repeatedly refused by the king. On 22 February 1782, the opposition in Parliament tried to push the war issue toward a resolution. They proposed a message to the king declaring that “the war in America be no longer pursued for the impracticable purpose of reducing the inhabitants to obedience by force.” It failed by a single vote. The proposal reached the floor again a week later, this time in the coils of a budget bill, and passed 234 to 215. Now the opposition prepared to remove North from the office he so manifestly did not want. Charles James Fox, an enemy of the war from the first, announced he would call for a no-confidence vote, a vote the North government could not win. The king made an eleventh-hour attempt to organize a war ministry without North, but it came to nothing. When the country gentlemen, the king’s staunchest allies in Commons, said that they would vote with the opposition, it was finished. On 20 March North resigned, and the opposition formed a new government with Lord Rockingham as first minister. It was impossible to say which event distressed the king more deeply, North’s departure or Rockingham’s return. It was time for Britain to negotiate a peace, both with her former American colonies and her European antagonists. There was in London one last, strange epilogue: George III wrote out a declaration of abdication. Having been abandoned by the House of Commons, whose constitutional powers he had consistently respected, he could “be of no further Utility to his native country which drives him to the painful step of quitting it forever.” In the end, it was Lord North who prevailed on the king to keep his throne. George III was not the tyrant Jefferson had made him out to be. He was a rigid, self-righteous man who had tried to do his duty as he saw it, but was utterly overwhelmed by a crisis beyond the limits of his vision and ability.