Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, Volume Two
Henry Lee


PURSUING in appearance, with unrelaxed effort, those measures which indicated an attempt upon Staten Island, and continuing to point the march of his troops towards that place to the last moment, Washington suddenly turned his back upon New York, directing his course for the Delaware,—having under him a detachment from the American army, consisting of Scammel’s light infantry of the New England line, Anget’s regiment of Rhode Island, Hazen’s regiment, two regiments from the line of New York, the residue of the Jersey line, and Lamb’s regiment of artillery, amounting altogether to two thousand effectives, with the French army under count Rochambeau.

Sir Henry Clinton seems to have been so thoroughly persuaded that New York was the sole object of his foe, as to have adhered to such conviction until he was assured that the van division of the allied army had actually passed the Delaware. Then he discovered that the army in Virginia was the intended victim; but, instead of instantly taking measures for its relief, he fell with fury upon Connecticut,[note 70] vainly presuming that he would thereby recal Washington from the South.

Never was a military commander more completely deceived, whether we regard sir Henry Clinton’s conception of his enemy’s design, or the measures adopted with the view of frustrating that design when discovered.

It did not require any great cast of mind to have known that New York or Virginia must be the destined object; inasmuch as the only force which could effectually co-operate with the navy of our ally was the army of Washington and the army of count Rochambeau; one of which was encamped on the Hudson and the other at Rhode Island. The meaning of naval aid was to bring into effectual action our land force.

That eftectual co-operation could not take place in the South: for there our force was not adequate of itself, and could not be reinforced in time by the march of troops from the Hudson. The army in Virginia, though nearest to South Carolina, could not be moved without giving up the state. This simple and concise view manifests that New York or Virginia only could be comprehended in the concerted plan; and it could not be doubted, from our insufficient force, that one of the two, and not both, would employ our entire strength.

This being clearly settled, as it ought to have been, in the mind of the British general, what ought he to have suspected? and what ought he to have done? Certainly to have prepared in both points to baffle the attempt.

Instead of being over anxious for his own security, he ought to have been less attentive to himself, and more regardful of Cornwallis. The post of New York was by nature strong, and had been annually strengthened, since its possession for six years, as experience directed or leisure permitted.

Lord Cornwallis had no fortifications but those which he could contrive in a few weeks with a diminished force; obliged at the same time to attend to an enemy near to him, now almost equal in number, and to procure food and forage. He ought, therefore, to have commanded the primary attention of Clinton, at least so far as to have placed him as safe as it was practicable, with due regard to those operations intended to be pursued as soon as the limited suspension should cease.

Instead of ordering Cornwallis to take post at Old Point Comfort, or some other suitable position on the bay of Chesapeak, he ought to have directed him to have selected a situation on one of its rivers convenient to the resumption of offensive war upon the departure of the French fleet, and safe as to himself in case the naval ascendency of his enemy upon our coast should render retreat necessary. If necessary, it was only practicable by returning to North Carolina; and, therefore, the southern margin of James instead of that of York river was the ground to which earl Cornwallis ought to have repaired, and very probably would have selected had his instructions permitted him a choice. City Point was sufficiently convenient to the resumption of offence, and was convenient to North Carolina whenever retreat became unavoidable. The force to be dreaded was that under Washington; and as soon as Cornwallis learnt that the combined army was passing the Delaware, he had only to fall back upon the Roanoke, and the mighty effort would have been baffled. La Fayette and the marquis St. Simon never could have effected a junction—(Cornwallis at City Point)—but on the north side of James river; and that junction was not very readily to be accomplished in the peninsula made by James and York rivers, his lordship having, as he would have, an easy and adequate boat conveyance across the James river.

The safe route of junction was circuitous. St. Simon landing at West Point on York river, from thence might, without chance of being struck, have united with La Fayette in the vicinity of Richmond; or passing the river there, proceeded to Petersburg, had the American general taken that position for the purpose of arresting Cornwallis’s retreat. The progress of St. Simon could not have been concealed from the British general, nor could that of the commander in chief, as well as the disposition made by La Fayette. In his camp at City Point he would with ease have outstripped the two first, and, forcing La Fayette from his front, made good his passage of the Roanoke, before, strengthened by St. Simon, he could have approached him. Even had they closed upon him, he was nearly equal to them both, and at the head of troops veterans in war, inured to hard service, and familiar with battle.

Washington, finding the enemy out of reach,[note 71] would have necessarily retraced his steps; and the French admiral, foiled in his expectations, would have returned as soon as St. Simon could have reached the fleet.

Had a Turrenne or a Marlborough, a Condè or

a Wolfe[note 72] commanded at New York, City Point or Flowery Hundred, and not Little York, would have been the position of the hostile army in Virginia.

The allied army pressed its march with all possible despatch; and the van division reaching Elkton, embarked in transports collected for its conveyance. The centre division continued its march to Baltimore, where it also embarked; and the remainder of the troops and some of the baggage proceeded by land through Alexandria and Fredericksburg.

Washington, having finished his arrangements for the movement to Virginia, hastened to the theatre of action, accompanied by the count Rochambeau.

He arrived at Williamsburg, now the headquarters of La Fayette, on the 14th; and proceeding to Hampton, attended by the generals Rochambeau, Knox, Chatelleaux, and Du Portail, went on board the Ville de Paris, when the plan of siege was concerted with the count de Grasse. Some difficulty occurred in preventing the count from quitting the Chesapeak to block up the enemy’s fleet in the harbor of New York, a measure which seems to have fastened itself upon the admiral’s mind.

This decision was founded upon information he had just received of the arrival of admiral Digby with six ships of the line, which induced him to conclude that he should be soon visited a second time by his enemy; and, therefore, he determined to quit the Chesapeak, preferring to hold the hostile fleet in its own port rather than to be shut up himself.

There seems to be a palpable contradiction in the conduct of the admiral when late close to his enemy off the capes of Virginia and his present decision. He held the wind, as has been mentioned, for four days after the action; which, though not a decisive circumstance, was certainly favorable to him, and yet he would not renew the battle; but wisely determining to avoid hazarding the great object in view, drew off from his crippled adversary and regained the Chesapeak. Now when the preparations for the execution of the concerted enterprise were concluding, and the commander in chief had reached the ground ready to begin his work, the count adopts the very measure he had before renounced, and goes in quest of his reinforced enemy—vainly presuming that he would shut him up in port, putting to hazard the sure and splendid prospect before him, and converting eventually certain triumph into disgrace if the British admiral, by his superior seamanship, by the shift of wind or any other of the incidents common to war, should cut him off from the Chesapeak; an event much to be apprehended had the contemplated movement been attempted.

Washington received with surprise and regret the annunciation of the count’s intention; and, discerning in it every possible ill, with no probable good, resisted the project with his whole weight. He prevailed: and the count, relinquishing imaginary naval triumph off Sandy-Hook, took a permanent station with his fleet in the bay; resolved not to hazard with the hope of success off New York a victory within his grasp, as splendid and as powerful in its effects. To strengthen his station the admiral, having disembarked a body of marines, commenced the erection of a battery for heavy ordnance on Old Point Comfort, which is the northern promontory of James river.

The weight of Washington’s character, as well as the soundness of his judgment, are both illustrated by this circumstance. The count, from what followed, seems to have been peculiarly attached to the line of conduct then contemplated, and which he renounced in obedience to the judgment of Washington. Soon after his return to the West Indies, he invested (in conjunction with the marquis de Bouille, commanding the army of France) the island of St. Christopher.

Having landed the marquis and his army, he anchored his fleet, consisting of thirty-two ships of the line, in Basseterre road. Admiral Hood, who had fought him under Graves, hearing of the descent upon St. Christopher, sailed at the head of twenty-two ships of the line with a determination to relieve the island if practicable. As soon as Hood appeared off Basseterre road, de Grasse left his anchorage ground, standing out for sea to avail himself of his superior force. Hood, delighted with the movement of his adversary, continued in line of battle, as if ready to engage; drawing further and further from the shore until he had decoyed the French admiral to the desired distance, when with press of sail he passed him with his whole fleet unhurt, and seized the anchorage ground which de Grasse had left.

Thus actually happened what Washington’s penetrating mind suggested as possible, and which taking place in the Chesapeak would have given safety to the falling army.

The last division of the allied army arrived on the 25th, four weeks from the day our rear passed the Hudson river, and debarking at Burrell’s ferry upon James river joined in the neighborhood of Williamsburgh.

Our whole force being now collected, the allied army moved on the 28th, in four columns, and sat down in front of the enemy, two miles from him; the Americans forming its right and the French its left.

Lord Cornwallis, adhering to his instructions, had directed his whole attention and labor to the completion of his fortifications in his position at York and Gloucester. These were by no means perfected, and consequently still engaged his unwearied exertions.

On the side of York, which is a small town on the southern banks of the river whose name it bears, more remarkable for its spacious and convenient harbor than for its strength of ground in a military point of view, batteries had been erected to co-operate with the naval force in the protection of the harbor, and a line of circumvallation had been cut in front of the town, beginning on a small gut which falls into the river on its upper side, and terminating in a deep ravine below the town. This line was defended by redoubts and batteries, united by communications and strengthened by fosses and abbatis; and the heights on the opposite side of the gut or creek were fortified, commanding thoroughly the gorge of land made by the river and the creek.

In front of the intrenchments surrounding the town, the last resort of the British general, was another line of redoubts and field works, judiciously arranged to co-operate with the army in battle, should the allies determine to force it to withdraw from the field.

Gloucester Point, opposite to York Town, was also fortified; not only as a necessary appendage to York, and contributing to the protection of the harbor, but as it was convenient to a fertile country where forage for the cavalry might be abundantly procured, and afforded the most likely point of junction for the promised relief. Here the works were finished, and the post was committed to lieutenant colonel Dundas with a few infantry and all the cavalry.

Under cover of the outer range of protection Cornwallis was encamped, flattering himself in the presumption that his enemy, trusting to his superior numbers and solicitous to hasten his submission, would attempt by storm to dislodge him. He entertained the hope that, supported as he was by his redoubts and flêches, he should be able to withstand the assault; and might, by the intervention of some of those lucky incidents which often happen in battle, strike his enemy so seriously as to retard considerably if not defer for ever his approaches. No opportunity was allowed for the indulgence of this expectation; and the character of Washington forbad much reliance in such hope, as he was never known to commit to the caprice of fortune what was attainable by obedience to the mandate of reason.

In the course of the evening a messenger arrived from sir Henry Clinton with despatches to his lordship, dated the twenty-fourth, communicating the result of a council of war, held on that day, consisting of the general and flag officers, wherein “it was agreed that upwards of five thousand troops should be embarked on board the king’s ships; that every exertion should be made both by the army and navy to relieve him; and that the fleet, consisting of twenty-three sail of the line, might be expected to start on the 5th of October.” Strong as was this assurance, it derived additional strength from the postscript, announcing the arrival of admiral Digby; inasmuch as having determined to hazard the fleet and army, such determination became fortified by the accession of strength where it was most wanted.

Cornwallis yielding to assurances too solemn to be slighted, as well as conforming to the spirit of his orders, renounced his intention of disputing the advance of his adversary; and, giving up his fortified camp, retired in the night to his town position,—never doubting that the promised relief would “start”[note 73] on the appointed day, and well assured that if it did, he should be able to sustain himself until it appeared; when presuming that a general battle would ensue, he considered it to be his duty in the mean time to preserve rather than cripple his force.

His lordship’s conclusion was certainly correct, disastrous as was the consequence of his mistaken confidence.

This nocturnal movement did not pass unperceived by our guards; and lieutenant colonel Scammel, officer of the day, put himself at the head of a reconnoitring party with the dawn of light, to ascertain its character and extent. Advancing close to the enemy’s position, he fell in with a detachment of the legion dragoons, who instantly charged our party.

In the rencontre Scammel was mortally wounded and taken. He soon expired. This was the severest blow experienced by the allied army throughout the siege: not an officer in our army surpassed in personal worth and professional ability this experienced soldier.

He had served from the commencement of the war in the line of his native state (Massachusetts); and when colonel Pickering, adjutant general of the army, succeeded general Greene as quartermaster general, lieutenant colonel Scammel was selected by the commander in chief to fill that important and confidential station,—from which post he had lately retired, for the purpose of taking an active part, at the head of a battalion of light troops, in the meditated operation.

When the allies moved from Williamsburgh, general Choisè (of the army of count Rochambeau) attended by the infantry of the duke de Lauzun’s legion, which had disembarked on the 23d, was detached across York river to take command of the corps of investiture in front of Gloucester Point, with orders to stop effectually the supplies still partially collected from the country by the enemy.

General Choisè reached on the next day the camp of Weedon, and took the command of the combined troops.

The duke de Lauzun, with his cavalry, had reinforced general Weedon some days before. Joined now by his infantry, and strengthened by a select battalion under lieutenant colonel Mercer, this corps composed (under the orders of the duke) the van of Choisè, who prepared forthwith to establish himself close to Gloucester. He was again reinforced by one thousand of the French marines; which, added to the legion of Lauzun (about seven hundred, horse and foot,) and to the militia of Weedon, gave a total of three thousand five hundred effectives. On the evening of the 2d of October, the post of Gloucester was strengthened by lieutenant colonel Tarleton, with his legion and mounted infantry. Lieutenant colonel Dundas moved with the dawn on the morning of the 3d, at the head of a great portion of his garrison, to make a grand forage. The wagons and bat horses were loaded three miles from Gloucester before ten o’clock, when the infantry covering them commenced their return. On the same morning, and at an early hour, the corps of Choisè was put in motion, for the execution of his plan of close investiture. Count Dillon, with a squadron of Lauzun’s dragoons and Mercer’s infantry, took the York river road; while general Choisè, with the main body of his infantry, seconded by brigadier Weedon, and preceded by the duke de Lauzun with the remainder of his cavalry, moved on the Severn road. These two roads unite in a long lane, nearly four miles from Gloucester, with inclosed fields on each side. Passing through the lane, you arrive at an open field on your right and a copse of wood on your left, lining the road for half a mile, where it terminated at a small redoubt facing the road.

Choisè, in his advance, was informed that the enemy’s cavalry were in front; and being desirous of striking them, he pressed forward with his horse, ordering Dillon and lieutenant colonel Mercer to hasten their junction with him. The rapid push of the cavalry left the main body of our infantry far in the rear; Mercer’s corps only was in supporting distance.

Dillon, with his cavalry, met the general, with the duke de Lauzun. at the mouth of the lane. The united body of dragoons advanced down the lane, through which the British cavalry had just passed, proceeding leisurely towards camp, to give convenient time for the foraging party’s return to Gloucester, when lieutenant Cameron, commanding the rear guard, communicated the appearance of the French dragoons. This was soon confirmed by the approach of our van; upon which the main body of the enemy’s horse halted and formed in the wood. Lieutenant colonel Tarleton advanced with a part of his horse upon us, and was instantly charged by the French cavalry, when one of the enemy’s horses was wounded by a spear,[note 74] and plunging overthrew Tarleton’s horse.

The main body of the British horse pressed forward to support their commandant, but could not force the French dragoons. Falling back they were pursued by our cavalry, and took shelter under cover of their infantry, arrayed in the wood on one side, and along a post and rail fence on the other side of the road.

This line of infantry opened their fire, and Choisè in his turn receded, but slowly, and in good order. The infantry pressing forward under cover of the wood, and incessantly delivering their fire, galled us considerable; when the French general discovering the corps of Mercer just emerging out of the lane, threw himself by a rapid move into its rear, and faced about to renew the conflict.

Tarleton having rallied his cavalry, hastened up to the infantry, still advancing in the woods, and resting his right flank upon its left, came forward in point of time just as Mercer entered through the lane into the field. Mercer instantly deployed, stretching his left into the woods, and opened his fire upon the horse opposite to his right, and upon the infantry in front of his left.

No regular corps could have maintained its ground more firmly than did this battalion of our infantry. It brought the enemy to pause, which was soon followed by his retreat. When Tarleton drew off, the corps of Mercer had expended nearly all its cartridges. Choisè established himself on the contested ground, and commenced a rigid blockade of the post of Gloucester, which continued to the end of the siege.

Lieutenant Moir, of the infantry, was killed within a few paces of our line; besides whom the enemy lost eleven rank and file, as stated by lieutenant colonel Tarleton, who puts down our loss at two officers and fourteen privates.

Choisè’s infantry not having yet got up, he did not think proper to renew the attack without them, inasmuch as the enemy’s whole force might be readily brought to sustain the retreating corps.

General Washington, in his orders of the 4th, speaks in handsome terms of the behaviour of this portion of the allied troops, and returns his thanks to the cavalry of the duke de Lauzun, and to the grenadiers of Mercer, which constituted the whole of our force engaged. Lieutenant colonel Tarleton is extremely mistaken when he supposed that the main body of the investing corps was up. The infantry of Lauzun were the first which approached; they joined in thirty or forty minutes after the enemy retreated, followed by the marines and the militia under Weedon.

As soon as the retirement of Cornwallis from his outer position was discovered on the subsequent morning, Washington occupied by a forward movement the abandoned ground, ready to open trenches whenever the ordnance and other requisite implements arrived at camp. Indefatigable as were his exertions to hasten their conveyance from the transports lying in James river, only six miles from him, it never was accomplished until the 6th of October, the day after that assigned by sir Henry Clinton for the departure of the armament from Sandy Hook destined to relieve the besieged army.

The course of our first parallel being ascertained, the working detachment took its post with the fall of night, covered by the requisite guards. Commanded to preserve profound silence, (which order, applying so forcibly to every man’s safety, was implicitly obeyed,) no discovery of our beginning labors took place until the light of day showed them, when by the zeal of the troops they had nearly covered themselves. Cornwallis now opened his batteries, but so well improved had been the night as to render his fire unavailing. Our soldiers sinking themselves lower and lower, we completed our first parallel with a loss short of thirty killed and wounded, which fell chiefly upon our left. Before the 10th our batteries and redoubts appeared along the fosse, many of them mounted, which opening in succession, soon began to manifest the superiority sure to accrue to the besieger possessing adequate means, and conducting those means with sagacity and diligence. The slender defences opposed to us began to tumble under the demolishing fire. The loss of time sustained in bringing our cannon six miles, was amply compensated by the effects of the wise determination to put the issue of the siege on heavy metal. Cornwallis still looked with undiminished confidence for the promised relief, and wisely adhered to his plan, saving his troops for the battle to be fought as soon as sir Henry Clinton should reach him. Yet he exerted himself to counteract our approach, by repairing in the night the dilapidations of the day, and by opening new embrasures throughout his line in support of his defences. All our batteries on the first parallel being completed, and mounted in the true style, (weight and not number the standard,) the fire on the 11th and 12th tore to pieces most of the enemy’s batteries, dismounting their ordnance in every direction.

So powerful was the effect of our first parallel, that our shells and red hot balls in this range of destruction reached even the small navy in the harbor, setting fire to and destroying the Charon, the largest ship, (a forty-four gun frigate,) with three transports.

Cornwallis saw his fate from this first display of our skill and strength, and if left to his own means, would have resorted to his own mind for safety; but not doubting that the promised relief must soon arrive, he determined, as was his duty, to await the timely interposition of his commander.

Washington discovering the effect of his first parallel, could he have depended on the French superiority at sea, would probably have spared the labor which afterwards ensued: for Cornwallis was now destroyed, unless relieved, or unless his own genius could effect his deliverance. The American general therefore continued to urge his operations, and in the night of the 11th opened his second parallel. The same order was given, commanding silence; and its observance being more cogent from the increased proximity to the enemy, (now within three hundred instead of six hundred yards,) our trench was nearly completed before the dawn of day; manifesting to the British general how far we surpassed, in this second effort, that zeal displayed in our first attempt, great as it was. Surprised at the unexpected condition in which he found himself, he urged with redoubled vigor the repairs whereever requisite, and strengthened his advanced works. This was the morning of the seventh day since sir Henry Clinton was to “start” with his relief “navy and army.” Cornwallis continued to believe in the assurance, and with unappalled courage determined to, maintain his lines. His battery and his two front redoubts opened, and during this day his fire most injured us. Many of our soldiers were killed and wounded. Nevertheless our parallel advanced, and our batteries began to show themselves, yet his two redoubts continued their fire with severe effect.

Washington determined to silence them with the bayonet, and accordingly on the 14th directed two detachments to be held ready; the right from the corps of La Fayette, and the left as the count de Rochambeau should designate. La Fayette conducted in person the assault on our right, and the baron de Viomenil that of our left. Major Campbell, with sixty men, (as was afterwards ascertained,) defended the first, and lieutenant colonel Johnson, with one hundred and twenty men, defended the second redoubt. Lieutenant colonel Hamilton, (who had been aid-de-camp to the commander in chief from 1776 until lately,)[note 75] conducted the van of La Fayette, as did —— that of Viomenil. Having removed to their respective posts as soon as it was dark, they advanced to the attack by signal at an early hour in the night.

Hamilton, with his own and Gimat’s corps of light infantry, rushed forward with impetuosity. Pulling up the abbatis and knocking down the palisades, he forced his way into the redoubt; having detached lieutenant colonel Laurens, (aid-de-camp to the commander in chief,) with two companies of light infantry, to gain the rear, and enter in that quarter. The resistance of the enemy was instantly overpowered: the major, with every man of his guard, except six or seven, were killed or taken, and experienced that marked humanity from the conqueror so uniformly displayed by the Americans in victory. This too when the horrid and barbarous outrage committed at fort Griswold in Connecticut, (in the late operations of sir Henry Clinton in that state,) was fresh in our memory. Only eight of the enemy were killed, while our own loss was nine killed and thirty-two wounded: among the latter was captain Stephen Olney, of the Rhode Island regiment, whose zeal and intrepidity upon this, as upon every other occasion, had placed him high in the esteem of the general and army. La Fayette instantly despatched major Barbour, one of his aids, to the baron de Viomenil, communicating his success. The baron, ready for the assault, was waiting to give time to the ax and fascine men to cut down the palisades and fill up the fosse; when, astonished at the intelligence received, he announced it in a loud voice to his troops, ordering them to advance. This was done with the ardor of Frenchmen; and although here the resistance was much more formidable,—the enemy being double in number, and apprized of our approach,—still the intrepidity of the assailants was irresistible. The commandant escaped, leaving half his force (about sixty) in our possession; of these eighteen were killed. Our loss was severe, being one hundred killed and wounded. Thus did Viomenil honor the bill drawn upon him by La Fayette.[note 76]

Washington was highly gratified with the splendid termination of this double assault, and was very liberal in his compliments to the troops engaged; nor did he omit to avail himself of the opportunity which it presented of cherishing that spirit of concord, good will and mutual confidence between the allied troops, so essential to the common cause. He thus concludes his order of thanks: “The general reflects with the highest degree of pleasure on the confidence which the troops of the two nations must hereafter have in each other. Assured of mutual support, he is convinced there is no danger which they will not cheerfully encounter,—no difficulty which they will not bravely overcome.”

Nothing could exceed the vigor with which our operations were pushed, so completely had Washington infused into the mass of the troops his own solicitude to bring the siege to a conclusion. Before daylight the two redoubts were included in our second parallel, which was now in great forwardness.

Cornwallis saw with amazement the fruit of our night’s labor, and was sensible of his condition. Ten days had elapsed since the promised armament was to have sailed, and as yet it had not appeared off the Capes, nor had his lordship been informed of the cause of the unexpected and torturing delay. Persuaded that his relief could not be remote, he determined for once to depart from the cautious system enjoined by his expectation of succor, and to resort to his habit of bold enterprise; hoping that by retarding our advance he should still give time for the arrival of succor. On the 15th of October he ordered lieutenant colonel Abercrombie to hold himself in readiness with a detachment of three hundred and fifty men from the guards and light infantry, for the purpose of possessing himself of two of our redoubts nearly finished.

At four in the succeeding morning Abercrombie advanced upon our lines, detaching lieutenant colonel Lake with the guards against one, and major Armstrong with the light infantry against the other redoubt.

The British rushed upon us with determined courage, and both officers completely succeeded; driving out the French, who occupied the redoubts, with the loss of one hundred men killed and wounded.

This success was of short duration; for the support moving up from the trenches soon gained the lost ground, the enemy relinquishing the redoubts and hastening to his lines. We found our cannon spiked, but being done in much hurry the spikes were readily drawn, and before the evening the redoubts were finished and opened upon the enemy. Deriving no solid good from this his only sortie for the purpose of retarding our approach, and still ignorant of the cause of Clinton’s delay, Cornwallis was brought to the alternative of surrendering or of attempting his escape. Incapable of submitting, so long as such an event might possibly be avoided, he prepared with profound secrecy to pass his army in the night to Gloucester, garnishing the works with his convalescents, leaving behind his baggage of every sort, his sick, wounded, shipping and stores.

To lieutenant colonel Johnson, the officer selected still to hold York, a letter was delivered addressed to general Washington, commending to his humanity his abandoned comrades.

As soon as he passed the river, the British general determined to envelope Choisè with his whole force, and seizing all the horses in his enemy’s possession, to mount his army and to press forward by forced marches, preceded by his numerous cavalry, the corps of Simcoe and the legion of Tarleton, about four hundred. Horses were to be taken every where as he passed, until his whole force was mounted. He intended to keep a direct course to the upper country, with the view of leaving it doubtful whether his ultimate object was New Jersey or North Carolina; hoping thus to distract the motions of his adversary, if not to draw him to one point of interception, when he might take his decision as circumstances should warrant.

This bold conception bespoke the hero, and was worthy of its author. Nor can it justly be deemed so desperate as was generally conceived. Washington could not possibly in time seize the northern and southern route; and without availing himself of horses, he never could overtake his foe. This aid could not have been instantly procured; and when procured must have been limited to a portion of his force. It is probable he might, with all the horses in the camp and in the neighborhood, have mounted four thousand men in four days;[note 77] more could not have been collected in time. He could readily, by the aid of water conveyance at his command, with prosperous gales, have transported his major force to the head of the Chesapeak, so as to have brought it in contact with the retreating foe on the confines of the Delaware, should Cornwallis have taken the northern route; but he must and would have calculated on the interposition of sir Henry Clinton, who certainly would have moved through New Jersey to Easton, on the Delaware, ready to support the retreating army.

The American army under Heath would have followed Clinton, but in this condition of things our prospect could not be considered cheering. Clinton and Cornwallis marching in a straight line to each other, Heath upon their upper flank, and the army from the Chesapeak on the lower flank, placed our whole force in hazard. Washington would not have risked such a game.

No hope could be indulged that troops would assemble from the country through which the enemy passed, capable of serious opposition; so that Washington might calculate upon his march being interrupted and delayed. We had seen Arnold the year before with nine hundred men seize the metropolis of Virginia, and return to his shipping, twenty-five miles below, uninjured. We had afterwards seen Simcoe possess himself of the Point of Fork, high up James river, unhurt; and Tarleton in Charlotteville, not far from the Blue Ridge, almost capturing the governor and legislature of the state. What chance then could exist of stopping Cornwallis by any intermediate force from the country? Passing the Potomac, this expectation, faint always, considerably diminished. In the part of Maryland through which his course lay, a considerable portion of the people had been ever considered affected with an ardent attachment to the British government; and Pennsylvania, the next state in his progress, whose union with Maryland might have yielded a force destructive to the enemy, held a population averse to war. A great body of its citizens, from religious principles, resist not at all; another portion was certainly inclined rather to aid than oppose the British general; the remainder, not more than one half, solid, sincere and resolute in our cause, were scattered over that extensive state, and consequently could not have been embodied in season. It is therefore probable that the enemy could not have been stopped by the militia; for in addition to the above causes there was a want of arms and ammunition in all the lower country; and the riflemen west of the mountains were too remote to be brought to act in time.

Should the British general find his enemy’s chief efforts directed to occlude him from the north, he would turn to the south; and what here stood in his way? In a very few days he would reach North Carolina, and in a few more he would encamp on the Cape Fear in the midst of his friends.[note 78]

From this view of the country it is evident that Cornwallis would have made good his retreat, unless overtaken by Washington. Every exertion would have been essayed by the commander in chief, and our willing countrymen would have contributed with alacrity to support the man of their heart. Yet difficulties stubborn and constant must be surmounted. But we will presume that these were overcome, and that Washington, detaching Rochambeau with the army of France up the Chesapeak, should be enabled to mount in time a superior force, and follow upon the heels of the British general.

This is the most flattering situation we could expect. He would not, could not, overtake him south of the Potomac, if shaping his course northwardly; nor could he overtake him north of the Dan, if proeeeding
to the south. Whenever he did approach him action would ensue; and thus Cornwallis would be brought to a field battle, with a force rather inferior to his enemy. How much more to be desired was such change to him than his present condition. Victory gave him safety, and victory was not impossible. He fought and destroyed Gates; he fought and forced Greene out of the field with a greater disparity of force against him. The issue of the action would decide his fate. If adverse he was destroyed; if successful he was safe. Who then, comparing his lordship’s present condition with the worst that could befal him in the execution of his heroic decision, can withhold his admiration of a determination so bold and wise.

Early in the night the first division of the army passed unperceived to Gloucester, the other division ready to embark for the same shore as soon as the boats returned. This done, the arduous attempt would have commenced by falling upon De Choisè. But Providence had decreed otherwise: a furious storm suddenly arose, and forced the returning boats down the river considerably below the town. Day appeared before the boats reached their destination; and the forenoon was occupied in bringing back the division which had passed. Disconcerted as was his lordship by this uncontrollable difficulty, he nevertheless continued to make head against his enemy with his divided force; cutting new embrasures to remount his dismounted guns, and expending his last shells in maintaining the unequal contest.

Our second parallel was now completed; and its numerous batteries, stored with heavy ordnance, opened with the day. Shattered as had been the enemy’s defences, they could not afford for many hours even shelter to the troops, much less annoyance to the assailant. In every direction they were tumbling under our destructive fire; and it was evident, even to the common soldier, that the town was no longer tenable. Washington had only to order his troops to advance to bring his foe to unconditional submission; nor would this measure have been postponed longer than the next day had any event occurred, rendering it advisable. No intelligence was as yet received of the progress of sir Henry Clinton; and it appeared from subsequent information that he was still in New York.

Without the hope of timely succor, and foiled in the bold attempt to cut his way to safety, the British general had no alternative left, but to surrender upon the best terms he could obtain. Taking this mortifying decision, he beat a parley, and proposed by letter addressed to the commander in chief, a cessation of hostilities for twenty-four hours, that commissioners, mutually appointed, might meet and arrange the terms of surrender. Washington lost no time in reply; declaring his “ardent desire to spare the further effusion of blood, and his readiness to listen to such terms as were admissible;” but he added, that as he could not permit the waste of time in fruitless discussion, he required, that previous to the appointment of the commissioners, his lordship would submit m writing the basis of his proposed surrender; to give time for which, hostilities should continue suspended for two hours. Cornwallis acceded to the requisition of Washington, and without delay proposed the basis of his surrender of the two posts of York and Gloucester, with the naval force appertaining to them. This produced a correspondence,[note 79] which was concluded on the following day in accordance with the principles fixed by Washington. Commissioners were immediately appointed: the viscount de Noailles, of the army of Rochambeau, and lieutenant colonel Laurens, aid-de-camp to the commander in chief, on the part of the allies; lieutenant colonel Dundas, with major Ross, aid-de-camp to lord Cornwallis, on the part of the enemy. The commissioners met; but not agreeing definitively, a rough draft of the terms prepared were submitted to the respective generals in chief. Washington, always indisposed to risk the accidents of fortune, adhered to his decision already announced of preventing the waste of time; and therefore transmitted the next morning a fair copy of the terms to lord Cornwallis, declaring his expectation, that they would be ratified on the part of his lordship before the hour of eleven; and that his troops would lay down their arms at two in the afternoon.

Perceiving that it was in vain longer to contend, the British general assented to the terms presented.[note 80] Two points had been strenuously insisted on by lord Cornwallis: the first, that his army should be sent to Europe, upon the condition of not serving against the United States or France until exchanged; and the second, security for our citizens who had joined the British army. Both were peremptorily refused; but the last was in effect yielded by permitting his lordship to send a sloop of war with his despatches to sir Henry Clinton free from search. Availing himself of this asylum for the individuals with him, obnoxious to our government, they were safely conveyed to New York.

At two o’clock in the evening the British army, led by general O’Hara, marched out of its lines with colors cased, and drums beating a British march.

The author was present at this ceremony; and certainly no spectacle could be more impressive than the one now exhibited. Valiant troops yielding up their arms after fighting in defence of a cause dear to them, (because the cause of their country) under a leader who, throughout the war, in every grade and in every situation to which he had been called, appeared the hector of his host. Battle after battle had he fought; climate after chmate had he endured; towns had yielded to his mandate, posts were abandoned at his approach; armies were conquered by his prowess; one nearly exterminated, another chased from the confines of South Carolina beyond the Dan into Virginia, and a third severely chastised in that state on the shores of James river. But here even he, in the midst of his splendid career, found his conqueror.

The road through which they marched was lined with spectators, French and American. On one side the commander in chief, surrounded by his suit and the American staff, took his station; on the other side, opposite to him, was the count de Rochambeau in like manner attended. The captive army approached, moving slowly in column with grace and precision. Universal silence was observed amidst the vast concourse, and the utmost decency prevailed: exhibiting in demeanor an awful sense of the vicissitudes of human life, mingled with commiseration for the unhappy. The head of the column approached the commander in chief;—O’Hara, mistaking the circle, turned to that on his left for the purpose of paying his respects to the commander in chief, and requesting further orders; when quickly discovering his error, with much embarrassment in his countenance, he flew across the road, and advancing up to Washington, asked pardon for his mistake, apologized for the absence of lord Cornwallis, and begged to know his further pleasure. The general feeling his embarrassment, relieved it by referring him with much politeness to general Lincoln for his government. Returning to the head of the column, it again moved under the guidance of Lincoln to the field selected for the conclusion of the ceremony.

Every eye was turned, searching for the British commander in chief, anxious to look at that man, heretofore so much the object of their dread. All were disappointed. Cornwallis held himself back from the humiliating scene; obeying sensations which his great character ought to have stifled. He had been unfortunate, not from any false step or deficiency of exertion on his part, but from the infatuated policy of his superior, and the united power of his enemy, brought to bear upon him alone. There was nothing with which he could reproach himself; there was nothing with which he could reproach his brave and faithful army: why not then appear at its head in the day of misfortune, as he had always done in the day of triumph? The British general in this instance deviated from his usual line of conduct, dimning the splendor of his long and brilliant career.

The post of Gloucester, falling with that of York, was delivered up on the same day by lieutenant colonel Tarleton, who had succeeded to the command on the transfer of lieutenant colonel Dundas to the more important duties assigned to him in the defence of York. Previous to the surrender, Tarleton waited upon general Choisè and communicated to that officer his apprehensions for his personal safety if put at the disposal of the American militia. This conference was sought for the purpose of inducing an arrangement, which should shield him from the vengeance of the inhabitants. General Choisè did not hesitate a moment in gratifying the wishes of Tarleton. The legion of Lauzun and the corps of Mercer were selected by the general to receive the submitting enemy, while the residue of the allied detachment was held back in camp. As soon as the ceremony of surrender was performed, lieutenant colonel Hugo, of the legion of Mercer, with his militia and grenadiers took possession of the redoubts, and protected the hostile garrison from those outrages so seriously, though unwarrantably, anticipated by the British commandant. It would have been very satisfactory to have been enabled to give the reasons which induced this communication from lieutenant, colonel Tarleton, but Choisè did not go into the inquiry, and they remain unascertained.

Indubitably they did not grow out of the American character or habit. Rarely in the course of the war were the rights of humanity violated, or the feelings of sympathy and commiseration for the unfortunate suppressed by the Americans; and a deviation from our general system ought not now to have been expected, as the commander in chief was present, and the solemnity of a capitulation had interposed. We look in vain to this quarter for the cause of this procedure; and therefore conclude that it must have arisen from events known to the lieutenant colonel himself, and applying to the corps under his command.

By the official returns it appears that the besieging army, at the termination of the siege, amounted to sixteen thousand men,—five thousand five hundred continentals, three thousand five hundred militia, and seven thousand French. The British force in toto is put down at seven thousand one hundred and seven; of which only four thousand and seventeen, rank and file, are stated to have been fit for duty.

The army, with every thing belonging to it, fell to the United States; while the shipping and all its appurtenances were allotted to our ally. The British loss, including officers, amounted to five hundred and fifty-eight; while ours did not exceed three hundred.

We obtained an excellent park of field artillery, all of brass. At any other period of the war no acquisition could have been more acceptable.

The commander in chief, in his orders of congratulation on the happy event, made his cordial acknowledgments to the whole army, which was well desered; as in every stage of the service it had exemplified unvarying zeal, vigor and intrepidity. On the count de Rochambeau, the generals Chatelleux and Viomenil, high applause was bestowed for the distinguished support derived from them throughout the siege; and governor Nelson of Virginia received the tribute of thanks so justly due to his great and useful exertions. The generals Lincoln, la Fayette, and Steuben, are named with much respect. General Knox, commanding the artillery, and general du Portail, chief of engineers in the American army, are particularly honored for their able and unremitting assistance.

On the very day in which lord Cornwallis surrendered, sir Henry Clinton left Sandy Hook, with the promised relief; originally put down at four thousand, afterwards at more than five thousand, now seven thousand; made up of his best corps, escorted by admiral Digby, who had succeeded Graves, with twenty-five sail of the line, two ships of fifty guns, and eight frigates. Such want of precision must always blast military enterprise. Why it happened, remains unexplained; but there seems to have been, in all expeditions of the same sort, either from English ports or from those of the colonies, the same unaccountable dilatoriness, uniformly producing deep and lasting injury to the nation.

After a fine passage the fleet appeared on the 24th off the capes of Virginia, where sir Henry Clinton received intelligence of the fall of his army. Continuing some days longer off the mouth of the Chesapeak to ascertain the truth, his information became confirmed; when further delay being uselebb he returned to New York.

In the mean time de Grasse continued on his anchorage ground with thirty-six sail of the line, and the usual proportion of frigates, hastening preparations for his departure.

Why sir Henry Clinton should have ever encouraged his general in Virginia to expect relief seems unaccountable. The project adopted, too late, by Cornwallis of escaping north or south, was much more feasible than the plan of relief so confidently relied upon by the British general in chief. How were twenty-five ships of the line to force their way into the bay of Chesapeak, occupied by a superior hostile fleet? But admitting the improbable event; what then would ensue? Sir Henry, with his seven thousand men, would disembark up the bay so as to approach Gloucester point, or he would land in the vicinity of Hampton; from whence the road to York is direct, and the distance not more than one day’s march. To land at the former place would be absurd, unless the French fleet was annihilated,—an indecisive action, though unfavorable to France, could not produce the desired end. It was scarcely possible for such inferiority of naval force to have struck so decisive a blow.

The route to Gloucester was therefore not eligible; as the York river intervening, sure to be occupied by the French fleet, would sever the two armies. That by the way of Hampton, or from James river, was occluded by only one obstacle, and that obstacle was insurmountable. Sixteen thousand bayonets interposed; twelve thousand five hundred of which were in the hands of regulars, all chosen troops.

Cornwallis, with his small force, could not leave his lines; if he did, Washington, moving towards Clinton, would have only to turn upon his lordship as soon as he ventured from his intrenched camp, and in one hour he must have destroyed him. Clinton next in order must infallibly fall. Acting upon the opposite principle, Cornwallis would continue in his position, and Washington would attack Clinton on his advance, midway between Hampton and York, or between his point of debarkation on James river and our lines; the issue would be the same, though the order would be reversed: Clinton would be first destroyed, and Cornwallis would then surrender.

The further the inquiry is pursued the more conspicuous will the want of due foresight and wise action in the British commander in chief appear. The moment he was informed by his government that he might expect a French fleet upon our coast in the course of the autumn, he ought to have taken his measures as if he had been assured of the maritime superiority which happened. Thus acting, should the presumed event happily fail, he was safe; should it unhappily be realized, he would have been prepared to meet it.

Relying upon the superiority of the British navy, he seems never to have reflected that the force of controllable accidents might give that superiority to his enemy. Had he for a moment believed that the care of the spoils of Saint Eustatius could have benumbed the zeal of sir G. B. Rodney, commanding in chief the naval force of Great Britain in our hemisphere, he might have pursued a safer course. Or if he had conceived it possible that a storm might have torn to pieces one fleet, injuring but little the other, (an occurrence which sometimes happens) he would have discerned the wisdom of relying upon himself for safety; and consequently would have ordered Cornwallis to have taken post on the south of James river, ready to regain North Carolina should it become necessary. But never presuming upon the interposition of any incident giving to France a naval ascendency upon our coast, he took his measures upon common-place principles, following the beaten tract, and fell an easy prey to his sagacious adversary; who, to prevent the interference of any occurrence impeding the progress of his views, made ready in time to take his part as circumstances might invite, and to press forward to his end with unslackening vigor. Sir Henry Clinton was—like most of the generals who appeared in this war—good, but not great. He was an active, zealous, honorable, well bred soldier; but Heaven had not touched his mind with its cctherial spark. He could not soar above the ordinary level; and though calculated to shine in a secondary sphere, was sure to twinkle in the highest station: When presidents, kings, or emperors confide armies to soldiers of common minds, they ought not to be surprised at the disasters which follow. The war found general Gage in chief command in America; confessedly better fitted for peace. He was changed for sir William Howe; who, after two campaigns, was withdrawn, or withdrew. Sir Henry Clinton succeeded; and when peace became assured, sir Guy Carleton, afterwards lord Dorchester, took his place. By a strange fatality the soldier best qualified for the arduous duties of war, was reserved to conduct the scenes of returning peace. This general was and had been for many years governor of Canada. He defended Quebec against Montgomery; where he gave strong indications of a superior mind by his use of victory. Instead of detaining his enemy (fellow subjects, as he called them) in prison ships; committing them to the discretion of mercenary commissaries for food and fuel, and to military bailiffs for safe keeping, Carleton paroled the officers, expressing his regret that they should have been induced to maintain a cause wrong in principle, and fatal to its abettors in issue; and sent home the privates, giving to all every requisite aid for their comfortable return, enjoining them never to take up arms a second time against their sovereign; as thereby they would forfeit the security and comfort which he had presented, as well as violate their own peace of mind, by cancelling a contract founded in the confidence of their truth.

Commiserating the delusion under which they had acted, he encouraged their abandonment of the new doctrines; anathematizing with bitterness the arts, intrigues, and wickedness of their rebellious leaders, against whom, and whom only, the thunderbolt of power ought, in his judgment, to be hurled.

The effect of such policy was powerful. General Greene, from whom the information is derived, expressed his conviction that the kindness of Carleton was more to be dreaded than the bayonet of Howe; and mentioned as an undeniable fact, that in the various districts to which our captured troops returned, not excepting the faithful state of Connecticut, the impressions made by the relation of the treatment experienced from him produced a lasting and unpropitious effect.

Here is exhibited deep knowledge of the human heart,—the ground work of greatness in the art of war. When we add the honorable display of patriotism evinced by the same officer, in his support of the expedition under lieutenant general Burgoyne, intruded by the minister into an important command which the governor of Canada had a right to expect, and subjoin that when a colonel at the head of a regiment in the army under Wolfe, before Quebec, he was the only officer of that grade entrusted by that great captain with a separate command, America may justly rejoice in the misapplication of such talents, and Great Britain as truly lament the infatuation of her rulers, who overlooked a leader of such high promise.

Cornwallis, in his official letter, representing his fall, gave serious umbrage to sir Henry Clinton; so difficult is it to relate the truth without offence, when communicating disaster resulting from the improvidence, or incapacity of a superior. That the reader may judge of this last act of the most distinguished general opposed to us in the course of the war, his lordship’s letter has been annexed.[note 81]

General Greene, as has been mentioned, hoping that as soon as the army of Virginia was brought to submission the French admiral might be induced to extend his co-operation further south, had sent to the commander in chief lieutenant colonel Lee with a full and minute description of the situation and force of the enemy in the Carolinas and Georgia.

This officer arrived a few days before the surrender; and having executed his mission, was detained by the commander in chief to accompany the expedition, which he anxiously desired to forward conformably to the plan of general Greene.

The moment he finished the great work before him he addressed himself to the count de Grasse, urging his further aid if compatible with his ulterior objects. The French admiral was well disposed to subserve the views of Washington; but the interest of his king and his own engagements forbad longer delay on our coasts. Failing in the chief object of his address, Washington informed the admiral of his intention to reinforce the army in the South, dilating upon the benefits inseparable from its speedy junction with general Greene, and his hope that the conveyance of the reinforcements to Cape Fear river would not be inconvenient. This proposition was cheerfully adopted, and the corps destined for the South, were put under the direction of the marquis la Fayette, with orders to possess himself of Wilmington, situated fifteen miles up the Cape Fear, still held by major Craig, and from thence to march to the southern headquarters. It so happened, that the count found it necessary to recede from his promise; so that general Greene, much as he pressed naval cooperation, which could not fail in restoring the three southern states completely, was not only disappointed in this his fond expectation, but was also deprived of the advantage to be derived from the facile and expeditious conveyance of his reinforcement as at first arranged.

The army of Rochambeau was cantoned for the winter in Virginia: the brigades of Wayne and Gist were detached to the south under major general St. Clair: the remainder of the American army was transported by water to the head of the Chesapeak, under major general Lincoln, who was ordered to regain the Hudson river; and the detachment with lieutenant Simon re-embarked, while the French admiral returned to the West Indies.

Thus concluded the important co-operation of the allied forces; concerted at the court of Versailles, executed with precision on the part of count de Grasse, and conducted with judgment by the commander in chief. Great was the joy diffused throughout our infant empire. Bon fires, illuminations, feasts, and balls, proclaimed the universal delight; congratulatory addresses, warm from the heart, poured m from every quarter, hailing in fervid terms the patriot hero; the reverend ministers of our holy religion, the learned dignitaries of science, the grave rulers and governors of the land, all tendered their homage; and the fair, whose smiles best reward the brave, added, too, their tender gratitude and sweet applause.

This wide acclaim of joy and of confidence, as rare as sincere, sprung not only from the conviction that our signal success would bring in its train the blessings of peace, so wanted by our wasted country, and from the splendor with which it encircled our national name, but from the endearing reflection that the mighty exploit had been achieved by our faithful, beloved Washington. We had seen him struggling throughout the war with inferior force against the best troops of England, assisted by her powerful navy; surrounded with difficulties; oppressed by want; never dismayed, never appalled, never despairing of the commonwealth. We have seen him renouncing his own fame as a soldier, his safety as a man; in his unalloyed love of country, weakening his own immediate force to strengthen that of his lieutenants; submitting with equanimity to his own consequent inability to act, and rejoicing in their triumphs because best calculated to uphold the great cause entrusted to his care; at length by one great and final exploit under the benign influence of Providence, lifted to the pinnacle of glory, the merited reward of his toils, his sufferings, his patience, his heroism, and his virtue. Wonderful man! rendering it difficult by his conduct throughout life to decide whether he most excelled in goodness or in greatness.

Congress testified unanimously their sense of the great achievement.[note 82] To Washington, de Grasse, Rochambeau, and to their armies, they presented the thanks of the nation, the most grateful reward which freemen can bestow, or freemen receive; and passed a resolution to erect a monument of marble on the ground of victory, as well to commemorate the alliance between the two nations as this the proud triumph of their united arms. Nor did they stop here. Desirous that the chiefs of the allied forces should carry with them into retirement some of the trophies of their prowess, they presented to the commander in chief two of the standards taken from the enemy, to the admiral two field pieces, and a like number to the general of the French troops. They concluded, by dedicating the 30th of December for national supplication and thanksgiving to Almighty God in commemoration of his gracious protection, manifested by the late happy issue of their councils and efforts, themselves attending in a body divine worship on that day.

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