Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Recently uncovered: at least ten British ships sunk during the Siege of Yorktown

In the waters of the mouth of Virginia’s York River, there are as many as twenty-six ships, swamped since the Siege of Yorktown 229 years ago. In recent years a total of nine have been located and identified, and according to an article in the Virginia Gazette, a ship that is believed to be the tenth will be featured this weekend at a presentation coinciding with the anniversary of the siege, commemorated annually on October 19—the date Lord Cornwallis, commander of British forces in the South, surrendered to George Washington in 1781.

Several of the ships were sunk by cannon fire, but many were intentionally scuttled by British forces to keep the fleet from falling to the enemy during a battle that had turned into a complete rout. The following day, in a letter to Henry Clinton (the British general who failed to come to the rescue in time), Cornwallis reported that during the preceding three weeks the French and American armies had moved their artillery batteries closer and closer to the British lines, maintaining a relentless and devastating barrage:
Our works in the meantime were going to ruin . . . Our numbers had been diminished by the enemy’s fire, but particularly by sickness, and the strength and spirits of those in the works were much exhausted by the fatigue of constant watching and unremitting duty.
What Cornwallis fails to relate is one tactic that Ron Chernow recounts in George Washington: A Life:
In desperation Cornwallis took former slaves who had defected to the British lines and contracted smallpox and pushed them toward the allied lines in a version of germ warfare. One American soldier reported "herds of Negroes" who had been "turned adrift" by Cornwallis for this grisly purpose.
Soldiers examining the battlefield after the surrender were shocked at the large number of black cadavers.

The Articles of Capitulation were signed at 11:00 a.m. on October 19, but the signal event marking the surrender occurred at 2:00 p.m. when the allied forces lined up along a lane a half mile long. The contrast was dramatic: the French on the left side, with dress swords and polished boots, the Americans on the right, as eyewitness Baron von Closon described them, “clad in small jackets of white cloth, dirty and ragged, and a number of them were almost barefoot.” Drummers led the almost 8,000 defeated British and Hessian soldiers as they marched between the columns, their colors furled. Reportedly, the British troops studiously ignored the American side, looking only at the French as their fifes and drums played “The World Turned Upside Down.”

Another German officer, Captain Johann Ewald, captured in his diary the significance of what he saw:
I have seen many soldiers of this army without shoes, with tattered breeches and uniforms patched with all sorts of colored cloth, without neckband and only the lid of a hat, who marched and stood their guard as proudly as the best uniformed soldier in the world. With what soldiers in the world could one do what was done by these men, who go about nearly naked and in the greatest privation? Deny the best-disciplined soldiers of Europe what is due them and they will run away in droves . . . But from this one can perceive what an enthusiasm—which these poor fellows call ‘Liberty’—can do!

Related LOA works: George Washington: Writings (includes 43 pages from his Journal of the Yorktown Campaign, May 1–November 5, 1781); The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence

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