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[p351] Earl Cornwallis moves to James river. -- Affair near James island. -- Earl Cornwallis marches to Portsmouth. -- Hampton road not approved of as a station for the navy. -- Earl Cornwallis takes possession of York town. -- Portsmouth evacuated. -- The French fleet enter the Chesapeak. -- La Fayette takes post at Williamsburgh. -- General Washington's force concentrated at Williamsburgh. -- York town invested. -- Two redoubts carried at York town by the French and Americans. -- Sortie from York town. -- Surrender of York town and Gloucester.
During the late operations in Virginia, intelligence reached Sir Henry Clinton, which gave him some uneasiness for the posts immediately under his command. The extensive frontier of York, Staten, and Long islands, required a powerful body of troops, as well as minute circumspection and military arrangement: Strong information (a.) of the intended approach of the combined army of France and America, who could receive any supplies of men and provisions from the neighbouring populous provinces, naturally excited jealousy in the commander in chief, who had not at this period eleven thousand effectives to counteract their designs: He, therefore, whilst the storm threatened New York, and the climate rendered the King's troops inactive or sickly in the Chesapeak, required a detachment from Earl Cornwallis, if he was not engaged (b.) in any important enterprise; and [p352] recommended to him a healthy station, with an ample defensive force, till the danger was dispersed to the northward.
Earl Cornwallis, judging the call for troops positive and pressing, and that his command, after such a diminution, would not be adequate to maintain his present position, determined instantly to leave Williamsburgh, and retire to (a.) Portsmouth; whence he might send the troops specified in the requisition to New York: For the execution of this project, it was necessary to cross James river; and James island presented the most convenient situation to secure an unmolested passage to Cobham. The navy, under the direction of Captain Aplin, being prepared for such an undertaking, on the (a.) 4th of July the royal army marched by the left, and arrived the same day in the neighbourhood of James island, which is separated from the main land by a small gut of water, not two feet deep at the reflux of the tide. The advanced guard, under Lieutenant-colonel Simcoe, passed to the island, and from thence to Cobham in the evening. The legion cavalry and two companies of mounted infantry were directed to cover the right flank and rear of the British column during the march: Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton moved to a church, eighteen miles from Williamsburgh, which he understood was fortified and garrisoned by the riflemen who lay in front of the American army: By surprise he got within the abbatis, the church yard, and the church, and dislodged the enemy with some loss: He afterwards proceeded towards Tyre's plantation, when, under the advantage of a heavy rain, he drove in the pickets, and communicated a general alarm to the Marquis de la Fayette's corps. In the mean while, the British army reached their encampment near James island, to which place the cavalry slowly retired.
[p353] The position occupied by the King's troops was equally strong and convenient; the right was covered by ponds, the center and left by morasses, over which a few narrow causeways connected it with the country, and James island lay in the rear. On the 5th, the stores and wheel carriages began to pass, which employment would continue till the 7th, when it was imagined (b.) the boats would be ready for the troops. On the morning of the 6th, the foragers from the cavalry were ordered into the front, who reported that the enemy were advancing. Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton, after the party returned, gave money and encouraging promises to a negroe and a dragoon, to communicate false intelligence, under the appearance of deserters. These emissaries were directed to inform the Americans, that the British legion, with a detachment of infantry, composed the rear guard, the body of the King's troops having passed James river. In the afternoon a patrole of cavalry was beat back over one of the causeways on the left, and Lieutenant Grier, who commanded it, was wounded. Soon after, the American riflemen insulted the outposts, whilst a body of continentals advanced towards the morass: The British cavalry supported the pickets on the left, in order to contain the enemy within the woods, and to prevent their viewing the main army: Earl Cornwallis directed Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton to continue this manoeuvre, and he ordered the battalions and regiments to remain quiet in their camp, where they were concealed from observation. Before sunset, (c.) the Marquis de la Fayette had passed the morass on the left, with about six hundred militia, nine hundred continentals, and some cannon; bodies of riflemen attacked the other pickets; and the remainder of the American force took post at a brick house, beyond the wood and the causeway. Upon the first cannon shot from the enemy, the [p354] British army formed and advanced, when the dragoons fell back through the intervals made for them by the infantry.
Lieutenant-colonel Dundas's brigade, (d.) composed of the 43d, 76th, and 80th regiments, with two six-pounders, under Captain Fage, sustained the weight of the enemy's attack. The conflict in this quarter was severe and well contested. The artillery and infantry of each army, in presence of their respective generals, were for some minutes warmly engaged not fifty yards asunder. The other part of the line, consisting of the two battalions of light infantry, Lieutenant-colonel Yorke's brigade, (1.) the brigade of guards, and the Hessians, met with little or no resistance, being opposed only by small parties of militia, who made a precipitate retreat: But on the left of the British, the action was for some time gallantly maintained by the continental infantry, under General Wayne, against the 76th, 80th, and part of 43d. The legion cavalry formed a second line behind the 80th, and the light companies, under Captain Champagne, dismounted to reinforce the 76th. The affair was not ended before dark, when the enemy abandoned their cannon, and repassed the swamp in confusion. The woods, the morasses, and the obscurity of the night, prevented the pursuit of the cavalry. The Marquis de la Fayette rallied part of the Americans to the troops posted beyond the swamp, and halted some hours at the Green Springs, to collect the fugitives. Earl Cornwallis returned to his encampment. The King's troops had five officers wounded, and about seventy men killed and wounded. The steadiness of the new regiments, who bore the brunt of the action, did honour to those corps; and the conduct of Lieutenant-colonel Dundas, who commanded them, was highly animated and meritorious. On [p355] the part of the Americans, near three hundred continentals and militia were killed, wounded, and taken.
The events of this day were particularly important, and claimed more attention than they obtained. The Marquis de la Fayette had made a long march, in very sultry weather, with about fifteen hundred continentals and one thousand militia, to strike at the rear of the British before they passed to James island: Too great ardour, or false intelligence, which is most probable, for it is the only instance of this officer committing himself during a very difficult campaign, prompted him to cross a morass to attack Earl Cornwallis, who routed him, took his cannon, and must inevitably have destroyed his army, if night had not intervened. His lordship might certainly have derived more advantage from his victory. If the two battalions of light infantry, the guards, and Colonel Yorke's brigade, who had all been slightly engaged, or any other corps, and the cavalry, had been detached, without knapsacks, before dawn of day, to pursue the Americans, and push them to the utmost, the army (e.) of the Marquis de la Fayette must have been annihilated. Such an exploit would have been easy, fortunate, and glorious, and would have prevented the combination which produced the fall of York town and Gloucester. It was suggested to Earl Cornwallis, in opposition to the plan of pursuing the victory, that Sir Henry Clinton's requisition for troops was a circumstance of greater consequence, and more worthy of attention. This was allowed to be a strong and forcible reason; but at the same time it was represented, that the exertion of half, or two thirds of the British army, in pursuit of the Americans, would not occasion delay, or in the least derange [p356] the original design of proceeding to Portsmouth. Experience fully evinced and justified the propriety of this opinion.
Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton, with two hundred dragoons and eighty mounted infantry, was ordered to proceed after daybreak across the swamp, in pursuit of the enemy; and three companies of light infantry were directed to take post beyond it, until he returned. Some wounded men and deserters joined the British before they reached the Green Springs, where the Marquis de la Fayette had rallied his troops after the action. The dragoons then struck into the road by which, about two hours before, the Americans had retreated, and they had not advanced four miles when they met a patrole of mounted riflemen. The captain who commanded it, and several of his men were killed or taken: The remainder were pursued into the Marquis de la Fayette's army, who had been forced by extreme fatigue to repose themselves not more than six miles from the field of battle. In this situation they would have been an easy prey to a powerful detachment of the British, who could have marched into their rear by several roads, whilst the light troops amused them in front; or the infantry might have followed the route of the continentals in case they retreated, and the English dragoons and mounted infantry could have passed through the woods into their front, or on their flank, and have impeded and harassed them till the foot could force them into action. Either of these plans must have succeeded against a corps that was destitute of cavalry; that had made a forced march in very hot weather during the preceding day; that had been routed, and had retreated without refreshment or provisions. When the late defeat, the diminished force, and the bodily fatigue of the Americans, are contrasted with the recent success, the superior numbers, and the active vigour of the British, it may fairly be [p357] presumed, that less time than twelve hours would have given, without the smallest hazard, a decisive advantage to the King's troops.
When the cavalry and mounted infantry returned to camp, the army were ordered to cross to James island. On their arrival at that place, a considerable part of the baggage, bat horses, and stores, were not transported to Cobham, and the rear guard did not embark till twenty-four hours after the action; which circumstances incontestibly prove, that a temporary pursuit of the enemy, with a powerful detachment, would not have retarded the main operation of passing James river: Or, supposing the march to Portsmouth had been put off for twenty-four hours, would not the public service have been sufficiently benefited by the destruction of La Fayette's corps, to justify the delay? No demand of Sir Henry Clinton for troops could be deemed pressing before the dispatch Earl Cornwallis received on the 8th (C.) at Cobham; and in his lordship's answer to that letter, he mentions, that the corps will proceed to Portsmouth, to wait the arrival (f.) of the transports; no time, therefore, would have been lost by pursuing the enemy. In few words: Is it judicious to halt with a superior army, and not prosecute a victory? The solution of this question leads to others relative to the mode of proceeding proper to have been followed in this instance. It would surely have been more judicious to have adopted a change of measures at this critical junction; to have countermanded the expedition to Portsmouth; to have prepared to push the enemy before daybreak; to have pursued the Marquis de la Fayette till his corps was exterminated; and to have exercised discretionary powers for the advantage of the troops, and the benefit of the nation, by ordering the transports from Portsmouth, and the stores and baggage [p358] from Cobham, to meet the victorious army at Williamsburgh; who, after their successes, might have detached to New York, with little or no loss of time, and have maintained their post and their reputation.
The day after the King's forces arrived at Cobham, Earl Cornwallis sent Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton with the legion cavalry and eighty mounted infantry to Prince-Edward court house, and from thence to New London in Bedford county, and ordered him (E.) to destroy on his march, all ammunition, clothing, and stores of every kind, intended for the American service: Private corn and provisions, except such as might appear necessary for the maintenance of the possessors, were likewise to be burned, to prevent the South-Carolina army receiving benefit from such supplies. After executing these instructions, he was to endeavour to intercept any British prisoners or American light troops returning to the northwards, and then retire at his leisure to a detachment of the royal army at Suffolk.
On the 9th of July, Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton left Cobham, and proceeded upon this distant expedition by long movements in the morning and evening: By which means the heat and darkness were as much as possible avoided, and time afforded for refreshment and repose. The light troops soon reached Petersburg, advanced to Prince-Edward court house, and from thence towards the river Dan. The stores destroyed, either of a public or private nature, were not in quantity or value equivalent to the damage sustained in the skirmishes on the route, and the loss of men and horses by the excessive heat of the climate. The intelligence which occasioned this march was exceedingly imperfect: [p359] The stores, which were the principal object of the expedition, had been conveyed from Prince-Edward court house, and all that quarter of the country, to Hillsborough and General Greene's army, upwards of a month before the British light troops commenced their move. A halt of two days in Bedford county discovered that General Greene had made no detachment to the northward, but that he was engaged in the siege of Ninety Six. This information induced Tarleton to resume his march, by a different route, towards the royal army; and the dragoons and mounted infantry having completed an expedition of four hundred miles, attended with many unfavourable circumstances to the corps, who were almost destitute of necessaries and accoutrements, joined the King's troops at Suffolk fifteen days after their departure from Cobham. A detachment from the Marquis de la Fayette's army might have been transported over James river near City point, and, by posting themselves at the head of Black water, would have endangered the retreat of the British, by blocking up the pass at that place, and over which they must unavoidably return; because the banks of Black water are in other parts so marshy, that there is no approaching them, either to make use of rafts, or to cross the river by swimming. General Wayne was indeed detached to Goode's (a.) bridge above Petersburg; but in that position he could give no obstruction or embarrassment to the movements of the light troops.
Upon the junction of the legion cavalry and mounted infantry, Earl Cornwallis marched to Portsmouth: Previous to that event, he had detached part of the corps intended for embarkation to that place; but before they sailed an express arrived from Sir Henry Clinton, forbidding (F.) the King's troops to pass James river, and desiring his [p360] lordship to regain Williamsburgh neck, in case he had quitted it, in order to secure Old-point Comfort and Hampton road, as a station for line-of-battle ships. The commander in chief allowed his lordship to detain any part, or the whole, of the forces that were embarked, to complete this service, which was deemed important for the army, and indispensably necessary for the navy.
At Portsmouth the royal army encamped in front of the redoubts which covered the town: The garrison, composed of the 17th regiment, other British detachments, and the two Anspach battalions, continued to perform the duty within the fortifications. The infantry constructed huts as soon as they arrived on their ground, to shelter them from the scorching heat of the climate. The greatest part of the cavalry passed the ferry to Norfolk, and marched into Princess-Anne county. At this period the British legion received new clothing and appointments, which were soon properly fitted, and, for the first time, that corps was properly equipped. Whilst the dragoons were thus employed, a detachment of foot and hussars, by taking post at a bridge, secured a tract of country which supplied all the horses of the army with forage.
Meanwhile, Major-general Leslie departed for Charles town, and the chief engineer and the captains of the royal navy proceeded to examine Old-point Comfort; when, not approving (G.) of the situation, as eligible either for fortification or to cover shipping, they made a report accordingly. Earl Cornwallis, on viewing the place, coincided in opinion (a.) with those officers, and embarking the two battalions of light infantry, the Queen's rangers, and some regiments of the [p361] line, sailed up York river. In the beginning of August, his lordship landed detachments at Gloucester and York town, and afterwards disembarked the whole force that accompanied him. Immediately after Earl Cornwallis had occupied these posts, he dispatched an express to Brigadier-general O'Hara, requiring a reinforcement of infantry from Portsmouth by the row boats of the army and fleet, and at the same time he sent directions (I.) for Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton to move to Sowell's point, in order to place his regiment and the mounted infantry on board small vessels, prepared to transport them to Hampton road. The legion dragoons commenced their passage on the 6th, and the horses were unshipped the same evening, by throwing them into deep water near the shore. No accident whatever happened in consequence of this mode of debarkation, and the cavalry joined Earl Cornwallis the next morning. In the mean time, the transports which had proceeded up York river were ordered back to Portsmouth to receive Brigadier-general O'Hara's division of troops as soon as the works at that place were destroyed. This business being completed, whilst the heavy stores and cannon were conveyed into the quarter-master general's and the ordnance vessels, the rear guard embarked without molestation, and the whole Virginia army was (a.) assembled on the 22d at York town and Gloucester.
Upon the arrival of the first division of the King's troops, Earl Cornwallis gave directions to Lieutenant Sutherland, of the engineers, to trace out a chain of redoubts to cover Gloucester. This village is situated on a point of land on the north side of York river, and consisted at that time of about a dozen houses. A marshy creek extends along part of the right flank: The ground is clear and level for a mile [p362] in front: At that distance stands a wood: The space which it occupies is narrowed by the river on the left, and a creek on the right: Beyond the gorge the country is open and cultivated. The 80th regiment, who were afterwards joined by the Hessian battalion of Prince Hereditaire, soon made considerable progress in the works that were to fortify this post. York river is one of the principal branches of the Chesapeak. From its mouth to Gloucester the channel is deep and broad: York town and Gloucester confine it in a narrower bed, their distance not exceeding an English mile; when the water again extends itself, and for some leagues affords convenient anchorage to ships of any burden. York town, before the war, was a place of considerable trade: Great part of the houses form one street, on the edge of a cliff, which overlooks the river: The buildings stand within a small compass, and the environs of the town are intersected by creeks and ravines. Different roads from Williamsburgh enter York in several directions; and the main route to Hampton passes in front of it. The ground was surveyed (b.) as soon as the redoubts on the other side of the river were found to be in a tenable condition, and works were proposed by the engineers: After some consideration, the plan was approved (c.) of, and the troops, after levelling some houses, proceeded to construct the fortifications. Working parties were ordered from all the corps, except the legion, who remained at the advanced post with some mounted infantry.
After the action near James island, the Marquis de la Fayette had retired into the forks of the Pamunkey and Matapony, whence he sent General Wayne with a corps across James river. On the return of the King's troops to Williamsburgh neck, he called in his detachment, advanced [p363] into New-Kent county with the main body, and dispatched a party of militia to the neighbourhood of Gloucester to annoy the British foragers in that quarter.
While the infantry of the line were employed in constructing the defences of York town and Gloucester, the Queen's rangers and the legion were equally active in collecting forage and cattle from the country for the use of the army. Lieutenant-colonel Simcoe managed his detachments in front of Gloucester with great dexterity, and met, in consequence, with trifling interruption. Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton made several expeditions to Williamsburgh, and by such moves covered all the country for the foraging parties between that place and Hampton. One excursion was pushed farther with success: Lieutenant-colonel Abercrombie with the light infantry proceeded to Williamsburgh, whilst the legion cavalry advanced and defeated, with very little loss, about three hundred militia, at Chiswell's ordinary, on the Newcastle road. The unexpected appearance of the British dragoons struck the Americans with such astonishment, that they in general abandoned their arms without firing, and retreated with great precipitation.
Near the end of August, the Guadaloupe of twenty-eight guns, left York town, to proceed to New York with dispatches from Earl Cornwallis, and from Captain Symonds of the Charon, who commanded His Majesty's ships in the Chesapeak. At this period, the sea officers imagined that the British fleet from the West Indies would be discovered off the capes by the frigate, and the land officers expected that a considerable body of troops would soon arrive from New York, to strengthen the King's forces for solid operations in Virginia, and likewise to garrison the works which were constructing for the advantage and protection of both army and navy. These suppositions, [p364] which were well grounded, diffused among the royalists general satisfaction; but their prospects of glory were suddenly obscured. On the 30th, the French fleet, of twenty-eight sail of the line, from the West Indies, under the orders of the Count de Grasse, entered the Chesapeak. The advanced guard of his squadron, consisting of the Glorieux, a coppered seventy-four, and the Diligente and Aigrette frigates, met the Guadaloupe near the capes, who, not understanding their signals, kept aloof, and afterwards, by swiftness, made good her retreat to York town; whilst the Loyalist, a bad twenty-gun ship, who was stationed in the bay, after a gallant struggle in the mouth of the channel, fell into the possession of the French.
The Count de Grasse, without loss of time, blocked up York river with three large ships and some frigates, and moored the principal part of the fleet in Lynhaven bay. Upon his arrival within the capes, he dispatched information of that event to General Washington in the Jersies, and to the Marquis de la Fayette, who was encamped near the Chickahomany. The disembarkation of the troops brought in the line-of-battle ships from the West Indies immediately took place, and the continental army in Virginia advanced to the Green springs on the 3d of September, to form a junction with the Count de St. Simon. The Marquis de la Fayette soon after moved the French and Americans to Williamsburgh.
In the mean time Earl Cornwallis practised (L.) various means to send intelligence to New York of the situation and force of the French fleet. Patroles of the legion cavalry were continually detached to the shores of James and York rivers, and daily reported to his lordship [p365] every occurrence worthy of his attention: They informed him of the movement of the boats with troops towards the Chickahomany, and of the different manoeuvres of the Count de Grasse. On the 5th, the French ships were observed to make repeated signals, and it was soon discovered that an English squadron was approaching. Notwithstanding the absence of a number of officers and seamen, employed in the disembarkation of St. Simon's brigade, and of another detachment engaged in procuring water, the French fleet got underway, and stood out of the capes.
This state of hope was interrupted by the arrival of Count de Barras's division in the Chesapeak from Rhode island. Intelligence soon after reached York town, that Count de Grasse had repulsed the British fleet, and was returning to the bay. Before this period accounts were brought to Earl Cornwallis that General Washington, with a large body of continentals, and Count Rochambeau, with the French army, were preparing to form a junction with La Fayette, by descending in transports from the head of Elk river in Maryland, under the convoy of the French ships. In this situation, blocked up by sea, and exposed to a powerful combination on shore, Earl Cornwallis turned his attention towards the corps already arrived at Williamsburgh.
Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton was desired to reconnoitre the position of La Fayette and St. Simon, and to use every expedient to obtain exact intelligence of their numbers. After several spies were sent out, the British dragoons and two companies of mounted infantry advanced towards the enemy. A picket of militia, at the mill dam on the Hampton road, was dislodged, and the cavalry were led to the left off the main route, in order to force another detachment, who commanded the shore of James river, by being posted on the cliffs which [p366] overlooked it. This being accomplished, and a disposition being made to secure a retreat, Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton selected three officers and six men, well mounted, to proceed with him, at half speed, to the right of the encampment at Williamsburgh; whence, from discovering the situation of the enemy, who had taken ground near the college, he repaired unmolested to York town. Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton's report, and a return of the French and Americans, brought in by a woman, suggested to Earl Cornwallis the feasibility of an attack. It was designed that the army should contrive their march, so as to be able to commence the action before daybreak: That time was deemed eligible, because the ground near and in Williamsburgh is cut by several ravines, and because the British column, in advancing on the long and straight road through the town, would not be so much exposed to the enemy's cannon, under cover of the night, as during the day. This plan was reasonable and judicious, and would probably have been executed with success.
Another disposition might also have been adopted. A body of two thousand infantry, with six or eight pieces of artillery, might have been embarked in the boats of the navy and army, and have been conveyed into Queen's, or Capahosack creek, where they could easily have been landed, under the protection of the gallies and armed vessels, on the flank, or in the rear of Williamsburgh; whilst Earl Cornwallis, with the principal part of his infantry and cannon, and the whole of his cavalry, approached the enemy in front. No apprehension for so powerful a detachment as two thousand men could be entertained, if the main army moved at a concerted period for the object of attack. This design was esteemed of too complex a nature. Earl Cornwallis fixed his approbation on the former plan; and was deliberating on the time he should carry it into execution, when expresses from Sir Henry [p367] Clinton, dated in the beginning of September, (M.) saying, that he would do his utmost to reinforce the army in the Chesapeak, or make every diversion in his power, and that Admiral Digby was expected on the coast; retarded the project, and finally make his lordship abandon the resolution of attacking La Fayette.
This change of opinion cannot be passed over without observation. When Sir Henry Clinton wrote his first letter, he was but partially acquainted with the state of affairs to the southward. He had heard that Washington was moving from the Jersies, and that a report was circulated by the Americans, declaring their expectations of a French armament on the coast: Which rumours, with a description of the state of the British fleet, amounting to nineteen sail of the line and some fifties, he endeavoured to communicate to Earl Cornwallis by a duplicate and triplicate in cypher. At the time of writing his second letter, he had received his lordship's account of De Grasse's arrival in the Chesapeak, and a confirmation from the country of the report of Washington's movement, with at least six thousand Americans and French, towards Maryland. He then says, that the best way to relieve Earl Cornwallis is to join him as soon as possible with about four thousand men from New York; but that he cannot venture to move until the passage is open. Before these letters, which doubtless contained the whole of Sir Henry Clinton's information on the subject, reached Virginia, Earl Cornwallis, who commanded His Majesty's troops in that quarter, had explicit intelligence unfolded to him, that Count de Grasse had blocked up the Chesapeak, and that a French brigade had been conveyed from the line-of-battle ships, up York river, to join the American forces in Virginia: That Count de Grasse, on sight of the English [p368] fleet, had proceeded out of the capes to engage them, and that Count de Barras's division from Rhode island, in the intermediate time had arrived in the bay: That Count de Grasse had repulsed Admiral Graves, at the head of the New-York and West-India fleets, without the assistance of De Barras's (b.) squadron, or of four ships and a detachment of seventeen hundred seamen left in York and James rivers: That General Washington and Count de Rochambeau, with a large body of troops, were marching to the head of Elk in Maryland, in order to concentrate their force in Virginia: That the French fleet had (a.) returned triumphant into the Chesapeak, to assist and protect the land operations of the French and Americans: And, that the fortifications of York town were in too unfinished a state to resist a formidable attack. These events being fully known at York town, and many of them totally unknown in New York, manifested to Earl Cornwallis, that a confederacy was forming much too powerful for him to oppose, and that there existed no substantial reason to believe, that the British commander in chief would be able, either to counteract the designs of the enemy, or to give serious assistance to the King's troops in Virginia. A review, therefore, of past circumstances, and a candid construction of Sir Henry Clinton's letters, as effectually recommended an attack upon Williamsburgh before the arrival of Washington, as did either the weakness of that post, or the eagerness of the allied powers to complete their combination. That this conclusion may not be deemed premature, it is necessary to describe the strength of the troops at this time under the orders of the English and American commanders.
Earl Cornwallis, when the French and Americans took post at Williamsburgh, had near six thousand men fit for duty. The infantry [p369] were all good, most of them chosen troops; the detachment of field artillery unequalled; and the cavalry, to the amount of four hundred, in excellent order. Besides this regular force, there were sufficient numbers of marines, seamen, convalescents, and refugees, to have manned the batteries, and maintained the works at York town and Gloucester, against any attempt of the French fleet during the absence of the British army. The force of the Marquis de la Fayette did not exceed four thousand fighting men. The full complement of the battalions of Agenois, Gatinois, and Touraine, under the orders of Count de St. Simon, was eight hundred each regiment: Not more than two thousand men, the volunteers of St. Simon inclusive, were landed, who were in a very sickly state, being much debilitated by scurvy, and other complaints contracted in the West Indies. The return of La Fayette's and Wayne's brigades, and of Steuben's eighteen-months men, did not reach seventeen hundred fit for duty. The militia could not be numerous on the arrival of the French, because they were dismissed for the summer on the movement of the King's troops for Portsmouth, and the time did not yet allow a large body to be assembled.
The vulnerable situation of Williamsburgh, the comparative state of the two armies, the slender hope of relief for one party, and the certain reinforcements which were approaching the other, undoubtedly suggested vigorous and decisive measures to the British at this juncture: An attack, therefore, upon La Fayette, as it was reasonable and judicious, might have been effectual and conclusive. Or, the knowledge Earl Cornwallis had of public affairs at this period, would have justified him to his country, in taking a more momentous step than attempting his enemies in detail. The well-grounded probability of an irresisible co-operation in the Chesapeak would have fully vindicated his abandoning York town, in order to proceed to South Carolina, and [p370] the energy of such a resolution would have defeated the main design of the French and Americans, and have immortalized his lordship's military reputation. The first of these enterprizes might have been ventured upon any time between the 6th and 18th of September; and the latter, during the interval of De Grasse's return to the Chesapeak, and the arrival of the Baron de Viomenil with Count de Rochambeau's army: but, unfortunately, neither of them were tried; and England must lament the inactivity of the King's troops, whether it proceeded from the noble Earl's misconception, or from the suggestions of confidential attendants, who construed the commander in chief's letters into a definitive promise of relief.
In the mean time, the detachment of the royal navy, and the masters of transports and private vessels, blocked up in York river, contributed their assistance to the garrisons of York town and Gloucester: Besides supplying the troops with cannon, ammunition, provisions, cordage, and other stores necessary for a siege, they fitted out several fire vessels, with an intention either to burn or dislodge the French ships in the mouth of the river. Captain Palmer took the command of this little squadron, and proceeded at the head of it in his own fireship, the Vulcan. A dark night concealed the purpose; and the weather, the tide, and the current, favoured the descent to the enemy: But the impatience, or the want of resolution of the officers and sailors of the transports, soon rendered all advantages useless. These, by placing the match to the combustibles without orders, and at a great distance, awakened the attention of the French, exposed the whole design to their view, and brought a heavy cannonade upon Captain Palmer, who would otherwise have been able to grapple a line-of-battle ship. When his crew manned the boats, and threatened to forsake him, he reluctantly quitted the Vulcan, who, though kindled too [p371] soon, much disconcerted the whole, and in some degree endangered one of the French men of war.
Every day advanced the state of the British works, and forwarded the combination of the Americans and French. Before General Washington and Count Rochambeau, with a small train, arrived a[t] Williamsburgh, (a.) the defences of Gloucester were nearly completed. At York, the labour of the infantry made a considerable progress, both in the fortifications of the town, and in forming field works for an outward position. The parts of the country lying between York and the American outpost, and thence to Point Comfort, were foraged by the cavalry of the legion. The pickets of militia at the mill dam, on the Hampton road to Williamsburgh, were often insulted and drove in by the British dragoons, that Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton might confer with a spy, who resided beyond them. By this means, and by sending boats in the night up York river, constant intelligence was obtained. On the 26th, Earl Cornwallis was informed that a large body of troops had arrived in James river from the head of Elk and Baltimore, and that the forces of France and America were assembling at Williamsburgh. (b.)
At this period, the labour which had been bestowed on the outward position at York town, had improved its natural advantages, and rendered it in every respect convenient for the King's troops. The right rested on the swamp which covered the right of the town: A large redoubt was constructed beyond it, close to the river road from Williamsburgh, and completed with fraizing and abbatis. The Charon, Guadaloupe, and other armed vessels, were moored opposite to the swamp; [p372] and the town batteries commanded all the roads and causeways which approached it. On the right, at the head of the morass, two redoubts were placed, one on each side of the main Williamsburgh road. The center was protected by a thin wood, whose front was cut down, with the branches facing outwards. A field work, mounted with cannon, was erected on the left of the center, to command the Hampton road. A deep ravine, and a creek, which increased till it reached York river, covered the left. Trees were felled, fleches were thrown up, and batteries were constructed, at the points which were deemed most vulnerable. The distance between the heads of the swamp and creek, which embraced the flanks of the town, did not exceed half a mile. The face of the country, in front of this line, was cut near the center by a morass, and, excepting this break, the ground was plain and open for near two thousand yards. An excellent field artillery was placed to the greatest advantage by Captain Rochefort, who commanded in that department.
In this position Earl Cornwallis' infantry were encamped, with the legion in front of the left, when the combined army prepared to advance. A picket in front of a working party on the right, gave notice on the 28th, that the enemy were approaching. The French chausseurs and grenadiers made their appearance (c.) before noon. Lieutenant-colonel Abercrombie drew the light-infantry picket nearer to his corps. The French formed across the main Williamsburgh road with great circumspection. At four o'clock the same day, the videttes of the legion informed Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton, that a body of French and Americans had passed the swamp which divided the ground in front of [p373] the royal army, and that they were extending towards the left flank of the legion. The cavalry were immediately mounted, and formed into three squadrons in front of the British center. In this situation they watched for an opportunity of striking at any detachment who might pass the Hampton road: But the enemy were cautious, and cannonaded the legion dragoons across the morass, who retired at sunset to Moore's house, within the outward position.
The next morning the continental infantry marched in columns to the right of the combined forces, causeways being constructed in the night over the morass. A few cannon shot were fired from the British work on the Hampton road, and some riflemen skirmished with the pickets of the Anspach battalions on the left. The two armies observed each other with cautious attention, and nothing material occurred within or without the lines till evening, when an express boat reached York town, with a letter (O.) from Sir Henry Clinton to Earl Cornwallis. The commander in chief advised his lordship of the arrival of Admiral Digby with three ships from Europe, and communicated the determination of the general and flag officers at New York, to embark a considerable corps in the British fleet, which would probably sail from that place on the 5th of October towards the Chesapeak. To this letter is attributed the order for the British troops to quit (P.) the outward, and retire to the inner position, which was accomplished before daybreak.
The works erected for the protection of York town, consisted, on the right, of redoubts and batteries, with a line of stockade in the rear, which supported a high parapet of earth. The redoubts were [p374] furnished with fraizing and abbatis. A marshy ravine (2.) lay in front of the right, over which was placed a large redoubt, with a good ditch, fraizing, and abbatis: The morass extended along the center, which was defended by a line of stockade, and by batteries that looked upon all the avenues to the swamp: On the left of the center, was a horn work, with a ditch, a row of fraize, and an abbatis: Some embrazures for cannon were at present open in this work. The left was fortified by redoubts, communications of earth, and batteries, which were all furnished with fraizing, but without stockade or abbatis. Two redoubts were advanced before the left, which were small, and not so well finished as that in front of the right. The ground in front of the left was in some parts on a level with the works, in others cut by ravines, and altogether very convenient for the besiegers. The space within the works was exceedingly narrow, not large enough for retrenchments, and, except under the cliff, exposed to enfilade.
A view of the plan, as well as this description, must suggest, that the retreat to the fortifications of the town was a measure (Q.) prematurely adopted: That the ground and compass of the outward position rendered it strong, and well adapted to the nature and number of the King's troops: That an attack in it was a circumstance earnestly to be desired by the British; but would certainly not have been attempted by the allies before they received their heavy cannon, and advanced by regular approaches: That this latter assertion is verified by the cautious conduct of the French, whose design of saving men, brought with extreme difficulty from Europe, was manifested during the whole siege: That great time would have been gained by holding and disputing [p375] the ground inch by inch, both to finish the works of York town, and to retard the operations of the combined army: That no sudden danger could be apprehended by vigilant troops, with proper precautions, and the advantageous defences constructed on the outward position; and that the relinquishing it, to coop the troops up in the contracted and unfinished works of York town, unexpectedly hastened the surrender of the British army.
At dawn, Lieutenant Cameron of the legion was directed to make as many prisoners as he could with a small detachment of picked dragoons. He fell in with a reconnoitering party at daybreak: He charged them though superior in numbers without hesitation, and brought off Colonel Scammell, who was wounded in attempting to retreat. Immediately after sunrise, the American and French generals had notice that the British army had retired into York town. The combined forces appeared moving in several columns; and an assault was more to be apprehended before ten o'clock that morning than at any precedent or subsequent period, till the completion of the second parallel. The unfinished state of the works, the want of abbatis, the badness of the position, and the difficulty of arranging both the troops and the artillery, would have rendered the attempt not very hazardous, if General Washington had either been acquainted with these circumstances, or had reason to doubt the superiority of the French navy in the American seas. In the course of the forenoon the allies took possession of the ground abandoned by the British, and felt the redoubt in front of the right, whence they were repulsed by the 23d regiment stationed in that quarter. The works (a.) which had been constructed on the gorge, between the heads of the creeks, proved of considerable [p376] utility to the combined (d.) forces: The addition of one redoubt, and the closing the fleche on the Hampton road, served equally to invest the town, and to protect their own encampment.
On the 1st and 2d of October, advanced detachments of the allies, with general officers and engineers, reconnoitered the British lines. It was soon evident, the principal attack would be directed against the left. A few cannon shot were fired from the embrazures which looked upon the works the enemy were finishing on the gorge: Large parties of infantry were employed on the magazines in the town, and at the outward redoubts upon the left. In the evening, the legion cavalry and mounted infantry were passed over the river to Gloucester. At daybreak in the morning, Lieutenant-colonel Dundas, who commanded that post, led out detachments from all the corps in his garrison to forage the country in front. About three miles from Gloucester the waggons, and the bat horses were loaded with Indian corn, and at ten o'clock the infantry of the covering party began to return. The rear guard, composed of dragoons, formed an ambuscade for some militia horsemen who made their appearance, and who came near enough to give effect to the stratagem. The waggons and infantry had nearly reached York river before the cavalry began to retreat. When they had proceeded to the wood in front of Gloucester, Lieutenant Cameron, who had been sent with a patrole to the rear, reported, that the enemy were advancing in force. A column of dust, and afterwards some French hussars, became visible.
Part of the legion, of the 17th, and of Simcoe's dragoons, were ordered to face about in the wood, whilst Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton, [p377] with Lieutenant Cameron's party, reconnoitered the enemy. The superiority of their horses enabled this detachment to skirmish successfully with the hussars of Lauzun. At this point of time, Brigadier-general de Choisy was moving down the road with a corps of cavalry and infantry, to sustain his people in front, and the English rear guard was forming at the edge of a wood upwards of a mile distant, in sight of the skirmish upon the intermediate plain; when a dragoon's horse of the British legion, plunged, on being struck with a spear by one of the hulans, (3.) and overthrew Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton and his horse. This circumstance happening so much nearer to the body of the French than the British cavalry, excited an apprehension in the latter for the safety of their commanding officer. Impelled by this idea, the whole of the English rear guard set out full speed from its distant situation, and arrived in such disorder, that its charge was unable to make impression upon the Duke of Lauzun's hussars, who at this period were formed upon the plain. Meanwhile Tarleton escaped the enemy, and obtained another horse, when perceiving the broken state of his cavalry, occasioned by their anxiety for his safety, and which now precluded all vigorous efforts, he ordered a retreat, to afford them opportunity of recovering from their confusion. At three hundred yards from the French squadrons he dismounted forty infantry, just come up under Captain Champagne, and placed them in a thicket on his right: The fire of this party restrained the enemy's hussars, and the British were soon rallied. A disposition was instantly made to charge the front of the hussars with one hundred and fifty dragoons, whilst a detachment wheeled upon their flank: No shock, however, took place between the two bodies of cavalry; the French [p378] hussars retired behind their infantry and a numerous militia who had arrived at the edge of the plain. Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton, upon receiving part of their fire from behind a rail, again ordered the retreat to be sounded. Many attempts were made afterwards to detach the French hussars from their infantry, but they were all ineffectual. The troops between whom this skirmish happened consisted of the rear guard of an English (e.) foraging party, opposed to Brigadier de Choisy, at the head of great part of the corps sent to blockade Gloucester. The British troops had one officer and eleven men killed and wounded. The French (4.) had two officers and fourteen hussars killed and wounded. The next day, General de Choisy, being reinforced by a detachment of marines, proceeded to cut off all land communications between the country and Gloucester.
At York town the King's troops worked with great industry, and they were not interrupted before the enemy opened their batteries; the British artillery, however, was constantly employed in impeding the labour of the combined army. On the night of the 6th, a large detachment of American and French troops made considerable progress in the first (a.) parallel, which extended from the high ground above the river, along the left of the British lines, as far as the ravine that approached the hornwork, occupied by the light infantry. The length of the parallel was about one thousand yards, and its distance from the place, in general, six hundred. The Americans guarded the trenches, and conducted the attack upon the right of the combined forces; the French upon the left: The emulation of the officers communicated zeal to the soldiery. Works were also commenced by the French on [p379] the right of the British, immediately opposite to the redoubt garrisoned by the 23d regiment. The batteries of the allies opened on the afternoon of the 9th. Two days cannonade clearly demonstrated the badness of the position of the King's troops, and the weakness of the defences. The circle within the lines presented no place of security except under the cliff, and the fortifications were soon considerably damaged by the shot and shells of the enemy.
About this period, Major (S.) Cochrane arrived with a dispatch from the commander in chief; whereby Earl Cornwallis was acquainted with the state of the British navy at New York, and the uncertainty of any move from that quarter towards the Chesapeak. Every line of Sir Henry Clinton's letter described the circumstances which might delay his progress, and expressed anxiety for the situation of Earl Cornwallis; and it concluded by requiring his lordship's opinion respecting any diversion that he could make to cover the retreat of the British forces from York town to Gloucester. The situation of the Virginia army becoming every day more critical, and all hopes of relief, which could at no time have been sanguine, having now totally vanished, there appeared no likely measure to rescue the flower of the King's troops from captivity except their own personal exertion. Soon after the arrival of Major Cochrane, it was offered as advice to Earl Cornwallis, to evacuate the miserable works of York town; where every hour both of day and night, was an hour of watching and danger to the officer and soldier; where every gun was dismounted as soon as shewn; and where a long defence, against superior numbers and superior artillery, was (T.) utterly hopeless. To abandon fortifications that were not tenable, and adopt a design, which, at this juncture, had every [p380] probability of success, was equally honourable and judicious. The destruction of the royal army, if it remained in York town, was inevitable: The fate of the best part of it, in attempting to pass through the country, was doubtful. The plan proposed pointed out the facility of transporting a large body of infantry in the night to Gloucester, the vulnerable situation of Brigadier-general de Choisy's corps, and the practicability of attaining one hundred miles distance by rapid marches; when a determination might be formed, from the circumstances which then presented themselves, whether a southward or a northward route would be most advantageous for the British forces.
The obstacles to this enterprize will be displayed, and in a great measure removed, by describing the relative situations of York town and Gloucester, the means of evacuating them, the nature of the country through which the King's forces were to pass, and the quality and number of the troops to be employed on the occasion. The bank of the river and the shape of the cliff, at York town, are concave: The points being possessed by the British, all operations on the shore were concealed from the enemy. The army had, exclusive of the navy, many boats and much small craft, which, properly manned, could transport twelve hundred infantry at a trip, and with the assistance of the navy, above two thousand. No difficulties occur, therefore, to impede great part of the troops withdrawing in the night, embarking, crossing the river, and destroying the boats after the passage. Gloucester was not besieged: Brigadier de Choisy only blockaded that post with the Duke de Lauzun's legion, (three hundred and fifty men) seven hundred marines, and twelve hundred militia; which corps he employed in the following manner: The main body were encamped upon the plain, three miles from Gloucester, behind a slight abbatis, and a large detachment was advanced to a narrow wood, about [p381] a mile and a half in their front; where, about this time, a work was commenced, which was not half finished when the capitulation was signed at York. The nature of Brigadier Choisy's position, and the mixed quality of his troops, could not threaten a very formidable resistance. The difficulty of his knowing a false from a real attack in the dark, would, in all probability, so divide his resolution and his corps, that he would be beat in detail. A supposition that the British forces selected for the movement through the country would be driven back into Gloucester, could not for a moment be entertained.
The country between the Rappahanock and York river, was as rich and plentiful as any part of America, and had not during the whole war been invaded or destroyed: It abounded with grain, cattle, and horses: The season of the year, too, was particularly favourable, on account of provisions and forage: The Indian corn, which supplies both bread and fodder, was just collected and stored. The distance of one hundred miles being obtained, it would then be optionable for the British general, either to point his course towards Philadelphia, (a.) upon which, previous to his departure from York town, he might request the commander in chief to make an attempt, in order to form a junction, and favour his retreat: Or, to direct his march to the southward, having reached a situation high enough in the country, to pass all the rivers at their fords, and by this means acquire once more a marked superiority in South Carolina.
Upwards of three thousand picked infantry, and four hundred cavalry and mounted infantry, could easily be withdrawn, and might with propriety be employed in forming the retreat. Part of the foot [p382] had been accustomed to long marches, bad provisions, and extreme hardships: They had traversed the southern provinces, and had surmounted almost incredible difficulties without murmuring or desertion: The other corps were equally capable and zealous, and only required a trial to gain equal glory: The light baggage of the officers might be placed upon horses, but no waggons allowed for it; all the officers would have patiently and chearfully acquiesced in this necessary command: The troops, both infantry and cavalry, should be supplied with three days provisions at Gloucester, to carry on their backs: Twenty waggons with good horses might be provided; in three of which, boats with cordarge and pioneers implements should be conveyed; a number of artificers and sailors would readily attend these useful appendages: The other waggons could be loaded with flour, salt, and ammunition. All the field artillery in Gloucester might be employed against the neighbouring post of the enemy; but after that event, the number should be limitted to four or six light pieces. The cavalry had already quitted York town, and were in good order: A body of infantry could be mounted on the spare horses of the quarter-master general and artillery departments, then in Gloucester. Detachments of dragoons and mounted infantry might act advantageously together, either to guard the front or the rear of the army, to seize provisions, to secure defiles, or to move rapidly and vigorously upon any emergency. Many horses would undoubtedly fall into the possession of the British in the affair with the Brigadier de Choisy, and many hundreds might be collected from the populous counties in the vicinity of the Rappahanock. The British dragoons, who were superior in number, and much better mounted, would press the hussars of Lauzun to extremity, being fully sensible of the necessity and utility of such an event; and would afterwards employ themselves assiduously to procure all the horses within their reach: It is, therefore, not incredible [p383] but that horses would be taken and found, to mount near half the British infantry, before they had proceeded fifty miles from Gloucester.
It is not unseasonable to form some reflections upon the measures the combined army would adopt, in consequence of this movement of the British. After taking possession of York town, the generals would naturally send to the French fleet for boats: This circumstance, together with councils of war, and correspondence with the admiral, would certainly consume a period of three days before any important design could be determined on for execution. A division of troops would then probably be sent to the head of the Chesapeak; another up James river, and a third would perhaps be ordered to follow the route of the British army. But notwithstanding all these preventive measures, the efforts of the enemy to harass, to stop, or to encompass the King's troops, without a superior cavalry, must prove fruitless. Many incidents, which, viewed separately, might appear trifling, would, when united, produce essential consequences, and considerably favour the retreat of the British. The likelihood of destroying the French hussars at the commencement of the expedition; the hardships to be endured upon the march, which the followers would find proportionably augmented; the want of ovens for baking bread might impede the advance of the French, though it could not affect the progress of the British: By long and repeated use, the latter had acquired the habit of dispensing with all conveniencies; the want of which the former were as unacquainted with as with the language of the country. And to these circumstances might be added, the probable division of force which would arise from a certain opposition in the plans of the two French commanders. The Count de Rochambeau would indubitably wish to follow the success of York town, whilst the Count de Grasse would be [p384] equally solicitous to return to the West Indies, the great theatre of naval operations. This contention of opinion, if it did not weaken the French army by the remove of St. Simon's brigade, would, at least, produce perplexity, debate, and delay.
The line of conduct most likely and advisable for General Washington to adopt, on this emergency, would be to transport the greatest part of his continentals, by Baltimore, to Pennsylvania, in order to cover Philadelphia, which might not be an easy or safe business, if the French squadron quitted the Chesapeak, and to detach the Marquis de la Fayette up James river, to oppose the return of Earl Cornwallis to the southward. But allowing the best plans to be adopted, and the execution to be equally finished, there is the strongest reason to believe that the British general would escape with the flower of his army, by abandoning, in good time, a few frigates, a train of artillery, and a number of sick: Sacrifices highly justifiable in his desperate situation: The evil and good that would have resulted from the experiment may be contrasted in a few words: If the march failed, it would certainly confound and delay the designs of the French; and if the British did fall into the hands of their enemies, they would fall later, and with increased reputation, by having used the most judicious and vigorous efforts to avert the calamity; but the tried powers and superior qualities of the King's troops, with the calculation of the favourable circumstances of time and place, demonstrated the feasibility of accomplishing a retreat, which would have enhanced the military glory, and promoted the general welfare of their country.
Two strong reasons urged an evacuation immediately after Major Cochrane's arrival: The uncertainty of the climate during the autumn, recommended the present fine weather; and the distance of the Americans [p385] and French allowed a more convenient opportunity than when they had completed their second parallel: The retreat was, however, postponed, and other events present themselves to immediate attention. On the night of (b.) the 11th the enemy commenced their second parallel: The British howitzers and small mortars were employed to interrupt their progress; but the French and Americans were greatly covered and protected, whilst at work, by their batteries, which obliged the besieged to shut up the embrasures on the left of their lines. The second parallel was considerably advanced before the first: It approached the redoubts, which were placed on the left flank of York town: The places of arms and the communications were judiciously constructed. The King's troops now began to lose men very fast, both by sickness and by the enemy's fire: To reinforce the line, Lieutenant-colonel Dundas was ordered with great part of the 80th regiment from Gloucester, and the future command of that post was intrusted to Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton.
On the evening of the 14th, General Washington directed a detachment from each army to attack, after dark, the two outward redoubts upon the left of the British lines at York. The Marquis de la Fayette commanded the assault made from the American works, and the Baron de Viomenil that which proceeded from the French trenches. The Americans, headed by a number of officers and volunteers, performed their duty with vigour and courage: The British redoubt, which had been much damaged by the fire of the batteries, was soon carried, and the commanding officer, with many of his detachment, was made prisoner. Colonels Hamilton, Lawrence, and De Gimat, distinguished themselves on this occasion. The Baron de Viomenil was not less [p386] successful in his attempt. The French chausseurs and grenadiers met with more difficulties and greater loss; but they entered with fixed bayonets, and made themselves masters of the redoubt. The Count de Deux Ponts, the Count Charles de Damas, and several other French officers of distinction, were amongst the foremost of the assailants. No trial was made by the King's troops to re-possess the redoubts; and the working party of the combined army included them within their parallel before morning. The loss of men sustained by the British was not great, or nearly so important as the loss of the ground covered by the redoubts. The enemy's works were pushed forwards with skill as well as assiduity, and, by their nearer approach to the body of the place, the situation of the besieged became every hour more disadvantageous. The batteries of the first parallel had silenced the cannon of the town, and made considerable impression on the fortifications: Those of the second parallel were nearly finished on the 15th, and soon expected to open with redoubled devastation.
In this critical situation, Earl Cornwallis wrote (V.) to the commander in chief, and advised him not to run great risk with the British navy and army, in attempting to relieve him, as his condition was nearly desperate, and his defence of York town could not much longer be protracted. In order to delay the opening of the batteries upon the second parallel, his lordship planned a sortie, to be put in execution before daybreak on the 16th. The direction (c.) of the sally was given to Lieutenant-colonel Abercrombie, who divided a corps of three hundred and fifty men into two parties: He appointed Lieutenant-colonel Lake to the division, which consisted of grenadiers selected from the guards and the 80th regiment, and he placed Major Armstrong to [p387] the other, which was composed of light infantry. Before dawn, two batteries and the covering redoubts in the second parallel were gallantly attacked, and carried, without any considerable loss. A large body of French troops, under the Viscount de Noailles, soon moved forwards to retake the works in front, when the British retreated to their own lines, having killed and taken some officers and soldiers, and spiked eleven pieces of heavy cannon. Though this action was successful, and enhanced the reputation of the officers and troops that were engaged, the public service was not much benefited by it. The cannon, owing to the hurry of the British, or to the ingenuity of the French, were soon unspiked, and the batteries were nearly finished before evening.
A few hours cannonade from the new batteries upon York town, where the fraizings were already destroyed, the guns dismounted, many breaches effected, and the shells nearly expended, would be productive either of a capitulation, or an assault. A retreat by Gloucester was the only expedient that now presented itself to avert the mortification of a surrender, or the destruction of a storm. Though this plan appeared less practicable than when first proposed, and was adopted at this crisis, as the last resource, it yet afforded some hopes of success. In the evening, Earl Cornwallis sent Lord Chewton to Gloucester, with explicit directions for Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton to prepare some artillery and other requisites from his garrison to accompany the British troops with which his lordship designed to attack Brigadier de Choisy before daybreak, and afterwards retreat through the country. The guards of cavalry and infantry at Tarleton's post were immediately augmented, and many officers were advanced as sentries, to prevent any intelligence being conveyed to the enemy. All the commanding officers of regiments were afterwards acquainted with [p388] the intended project, that their corps might be completely assembled and equipped. The spare horses of the garrison were ordered to parade for the benefit of the infantry, and the necessary artillery and waggons were prepared. A number of sailors and soldiers were dispatched with boats from Gloucester, to assist the troops in passing the river. Earl Cornwallis sent off the first embarkation before eleven o'clock that night, consisting of the light infantry, great part of the brigade of guards, and the 23d regiment, and purposed himself to pass with the second, when he had finished a letter to General Washington, calculated to excite the humanity of that officer towards the sick, the wounded, and the detachment that would be left to capitulate. Much of the small craft had been damaged during the siege; yet it was computed, that three trips would be sufficient to convey over all the troops that were necessary for the expedition. The whole of the first division arrived before midnight, and part of the second had embarked, when a squall, attended with rain, scattered the boats, and impeded their return to Gloucester. About two o'clock in the morning the weather began to moderate, when orders were brought to the commanding officers of the corps that had passed, to re-cross the water. As the boats were all on the York side the river, in order to bring over the troops, it required some time to row them to Gloucester, to carry back the infantry of the first embarkation; but soon after daybreak they returned under the fire of the enemy's batteries to Earl Cornwallis, at York town. Thus expired the last hope of the British army.
In the forenoon, (d.) his lordship, by a flag, proposed a cessation of hostilities for twenty-four hours, in order to settle the terms for the [p389] surrender of York and Gloucester. (X.) General Washington, in answer, admitted a suspension of arms for two hours, that Earl Cornwallis might transmit in writing the offers which he intended, as the foundation of a treaty. His lordship replied, that the garrisons of York town and Gloucester should be prisoners of war, with customary honours; that the officers and soldiers, both British and German, should be sent to their respective countries, under engagement not to serve against France, America, or their allies, until released, or regularly exchanged; that all arms and public stores should be faithfully delivered; but that the usual indulgence of side arms to officers, and of retaining private property, should be granted to officers and soldiers. Earl Cornwallis likewise required some stipulations for the benefit of individuals in civil capacities, and the followers of the army. Hostilities were not renewed in the evening, or during the night; and General Washington answered the next day, that the garrisons of York and Gloucester should be received as prisoners of war; that the annexed condition of sending the British and German troops to the parts of Europe to which they respectively belonged was inadmissible; that the same honours would be granted to the surrendering army, as were granted to the garrison of Charles town; and that the shipping, boats, artillery, arms, accoutrements, and military chest, were to be delivered to the heads of departments, who would be instructed to receive them. Two hours were allowed to consider these and other proposals, and to appoint commissioners to digest the articles of capitulation; otherwise hostilities would be recommenced. Earl Cornwallis, after making some specifications, nominated Lieutenant-colonel Dundas and Major Ross, to meet the Viscount de Noailles and Colonel Lawrence, at Moore's house, in the neighbourhood of the lines.
[p390] The principal articles of (Y.) the capitulation were to the following effect. The troops to be prisoners of war to America and the naval force to France. The officers to retain their side arms and private property of every kind: Any property obviously belonging to the inhabitants of the United States, in the possession of the garrison, to be liable to claim. The soldiers to be kept in Virginia, Maryland, or Pennsylvania, and as much by regiments as possible, and to be supplied with the same rations of provisions as are allowed to soldiers in the service of America. A proportion of the officers to march into the country with the prisoners; the rest to be allowed to proceed, on parole, to any American maritime port in possession of the British, or to Europe. The Bonetta sloop of war to be permitted to sail to New York without examination, on condition that she was returned to the Count de Grasse, and the soldiers and sailors passengers accounted for on her delivery.
The regular troops of France and America who obtained this important conquest, consisted of about seven thousand of the former, and five thousand five hundred of the latter, and they were assisted by about four thousand militia. The skill of the engineers corresponded well with the force of the artillery, amounting to upwards of one hundred pieces of ordnance. On the part of the combined army, from the first to the last period of the siege, somewhat above three hundred were killed and wounded, exclusive of officers. The only British officer of note that fell, was the honourable Major Charles Cochrane, (BB.) of the legion. The killed and wounded, officers inclusive, amounted to four hundred and seventy-seven, and seventy were taken in the redoubts on the 14th. By (CC.) the return transmitted to Congress, one lieutenant general, one brigadier general, two colonels, fourteen [p391] lieutenant colonels, sixteen majors, ninety-seven captains, one hundred and eighty lieutenants, fifty-five ensigns, four chaplains, six adjutants, eighteen quarter masters, eighteen surgeons, fifteen mates, three hundred and eighty-five serjeants, one hundred and seventy-nine drums and trumpets, six thousand and thirty-nine rank and file, several men belonging to departments, eighty followers of the army, many sea officers, eight hundred and forty sailors, other transport seamen, with the Guadaloupe and Fowey frigates, the Bonetta sloop, several gallies and armed vessels, seventy-five pieces of brass ordnance, sixty-nine iron ditto, the military chest, containing two thousand one hundred and sixteen pounds sterling, twenty-four regimental colours, a number of horses and waggons, and a quantity of small arms, stores, &c &c were surrendered by the capitulation, signed on the one part by Earl Cornwallis and Commodore Symmonds, and on the other, by General Washington, Count de Rochambeau, and Count de Barras, in his own and the name of the Count de Grasse.
It may not be improper to recapitulate the causes which were productive of this important event; and as the arms of America and France were crowned with success, they demand a primary attention. General Washington and Count de Rochambeau, early in the summer, intreated the French admiral (AA.) to embrace the first convenient opportunity of quitting the West Indies with the fleet and some land forces, to participate in their designs against the common enemy in America. The sending the Marquis de la Fayette to command in Virginia, was certainly a step well calculated to communicate to that and the neighbouring provinces a strong persuasion of French co-operation; and the movement of the combined army in June towards New [p392] York, contributed greatly to conceal the point of attack. The early arrival of the French fleet in the Chesapeak, the speedy disembarkation of St. Simon's brigade, the rapid movement of the French and American troops from the northward, to form the investment of York town, exhibit strong and admirable proofs of political foresight and military arrangement. The conduct of the French and American engineers and artillery, in planning the approaches, and pointing the ordnance, during the siege, demands the highest applause: And the behaviour of the Count de Grasse, in leaving the bay, during the absence of some ships and of a number of seamen, to engage Admiral Graves, and by that means protect the Count de Barras's squadron, is no less worthy of admiration. In short, great glory necessarily proceeded from projects that were conceived with profound wisdom, combined together with singular propriety, and crowned with unvaried success.
A retrospective view of British operations plainly discovers, that the march from Wilmington to Petersburg was formed and executed by Earl Cornwallis without the knowledge or consent of Sir Henry Clinton: That York town and Gloucester were voluntarily occupied by his lordship, in preference to Old-point Comfort, when a post for the protection of the navy was required: That as soon as Sir Henry Clinton was apprized of the minister's wish to make a serious attempt upon Virginia, he committed as large a corps to Earl Cornwallis in that province as was compatible with the safety of New York and its dependencies, during the vicinity of the French and American army: That every intelligence which could be obtained of the enemy's movements was transmitted by the commander in chief, who made all the efforts in his power to assist and relieve his lordship, from the period that the French fleet entered the Chesapeak to the hour of the capitulation at York town: And that Earl Cornwallis may be said [p393] to incur the imputation of misconceiving his own danger, in not destroying La Fayette's detachment after the affair near James island; in not striking at the corps at Williamsburgh previous to the junction of Washington and Rochambeau; in quitting so early the outward for the inner position, where he was obliged to make proposals to surrender eight days after the enemy opened their batteries; and in not adopting sooner and more decidedly the measure of passing through the country. Some instances of oversight may, therefore, be attributed to his lordship, which precipitated, perhaps, the fate of his own army; but the genuine cause of the great national calamity, which put a period to the continental war, must by all ranks and descriptions of men be principally ascribed to the minister in England, or the admiral in the West Indies. The arrival of De Grasse in the Chesapeak equally animated the confidence of the allies, and destroyed all the British hopes of conquest or of reconciliation in that quarter. The safety of Earl Cornwallis' army, in all human probability, would only have procrastinated the evil day; for the past success of the campaign, and the future prospects of the King's troops, were counteracted by the formidable appearance of the French fleet. The superiority at sea proved the strength of the enemies of Great Britain, deranged the plans of her generals, disheartened the courage of her friends, and finally confirmed the independency of America.
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(1.) Late Webster's. [ back ]
(2.) Which is described in the outward position, with the Charon and Guadaloupe lying opposite to it. [ back ]
(3.) A part of duke de Lauzun's regiment, who were armed with spears. -- The author begs leave to apologize to the reader for detailing, at this critical period of the siege, a skirmish unimportant in itself, had it not been variously related. [ back ]
(4.) See journal of Count de Rochambeau's operations. [ back ]
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