General Washington, by Bradley T. Johnson, Chapter 15

Washington and Lee University

General Washington

By General Bradley T. Johnson



THE army of Cornwallis consisted of seven thousand British regulars. That of the allies was composed of fifty-five hundred Continentals, good troops, seasoned by marches, battles, and campaigns; thirty-five hundred Virginia militia, who for the preceding year had been thwarting Cornwallis up and down the James, the Pamunkey, and the Rappahannock, under Lafayette, and were now under command of Thomas Nelson, Governor of Virginia; and seven thousand French, as fine troops as ever fought under the lilies. Washington began his investment in the regular way. He drove in Cornwallis’s outposts, forced the evacuation of his advanced works, and opened parallels against his heavy fortifications around his position on deep water. The first parallel was opened October 6th, at six hundred yards from the British works; the second, on the 11th, at three hundred yards. Two redoubts, advanced from the British line, seriously incommoded the working parties of the attacking force, and it became necessary to silence them.

Hamilton, on the general staff, was commanding a light battalion under Lafayette. The reduction of the left redoubt (the American right) was intrusted to Lafayette and the Americans; of the right, to the French. The regiment Gatinais was to lead the French storming party. It had been formed from that of D’Auvergne, of which De Rochambeau had been colonel, and was known as “D’Auvergne sans tache.” In the detail for the attack Lafayette gave the right to Major Gimat, of his staff, with the Rhode Islanders.

Hamilton promptly claimed the command of the storming party, as it was his tour of duty on the lines as officer of the day; and Lafayette declining to change the arrangement, Hamilton appealed to the commander in chief. It appearing that Hamilton was on duty at the time, he was within his right in his claim to lead the advance, and it was awarded him. Gimat’s regiment was given the right of the line, with Hamilton’s battalion of light infantry in support, Hamilton in command of the whole. The Baron de Vioménil was to lead the French column of assault against the enemy.

These preparations—the riding of staff officers hither and thither, the relieving of pickets and the calling off of sentries, and that tense excitement in bodies of men which is felt, not seen—had been going on all the afternoon of the 14th. De Rochambeau had ridden over to the grenadiers of D’Auvergne and had inspected them. Washington had ridden down to the Rhode Islanders and complimented their trig uniforms and the polish of their bayonets, and the general staff had collected itself toward the right of the American lines, on the earthworks of a battery, in plain view of the enemy. All these movements going on for hours, in sight, only meant one thing to old soldiers—an assault would be made that night somewhere, almost certainly on the two commanding and advanced redoubts. After sunset the American and French works became lined with soldiers without arms. The unusual spectacle brought out the British, and thus both armies were drawn to witness the stirring spectacle of an assault on fortifications. Washington dismounted, sent his horse to the rear, and took his place on a parapet with Knox and Lincoln and their staffs.

They could see Hamilton moving along his line as they lay flat on the ground, and could feel in his alert, vigorous air, that he was saying, “Look out, boys! this is an affair of cold steel. Not a gun is to be fired, and I want to see the man who will beat me into that work,” On the French side there was not so much life, De Vioménil was standing, in faultless uniform and perfect gloves, a little to the right of his regiment, formed in a column of companies, with a section of pioneers armed with axes on the right. Hamilton, never having seen an assault, supposed that axes were the proper thing, so he scraped together a dozen and gave them to some of his men, with instructions to rush ahead and cut those fallen trees out of the way, and so make room for him.

The sun set, and the shades of that October evening spread over the panorama until, about eight o’clock, one single rocket sprang into the air, and at the moment Hamilton could be seen with his sword flashing round his head as he gave the order, “Up, and forward!” Forward they went with a rush to the abattis, and the axemen started to cut their way through; but Hamilton, jumping from tree-trunk to tree-trunk, was ten yards ahead. The regiment broke forward and followed their leader. At the bastion the slope was too steep, and he slipped back; but one of the men stooped, so that he put his foot on his shoulder, and he was thus “boosted” into the work—the first man there; but Gimat and the Rhode Islanders and the light infantry came piling in, one over the other, and the thing was done in a breath. He did it with empty guns and by the bayonet alone. Not a shot was fired. Lieutenant-Colonel Laurens, another aid to the commander in chief, with eighty men, at the same time took the redoubt in reverse, so as to prevent the escape of any of the detachment defending it.

It was too dark to see all this from the point where the generals were standing. They could hear the British fire and see the flash of their guns, but could not tell on which side victory was until an ear-piercing yell went up from the inside of the work. “That’s Hamilton!” said one of the generals to the other. But the firing about the French party continued. They were halted, being regular soldiers and well drilled, until their pioneers had cut away the obstructions; and while the pioneers were cutting abattis the British were shooting Frenchmen.

The instant Hamilton was comfortably fixed and had his prisoners disarmed, he started a young lieutenant to the Baron de Vioménil: “Colonel Hamilton’s compliments to the Baron de Vioménil and begs to inform him that he is inside, and to inquire if he can be of any assistance to the baron.” To which the Frenchman sent back word in the same gay spirit: “The Baron de Vioménil’s compliments to Colonel Hamilton, and he begs to say that, though he is not in yet, he will be in two minutes, and will stay when he gets in. He thanks the colonel for his courtesy, but does not require help.” In a moment the French win the parapet; there are a few musket flashes in the gloom, and then there is silence that tells the story of the bayonet, and then a cheer. The thing was done. The last move of the last piece in the great game that had been begun at Newport, Hartford, and Dobb’s Ferry in the North, and at Charlotte and Camden in the South, more than a year before, was made, and the game was won.

Washington, impassible, grave, stem, with no sign of the tremendous pressure under which he was laboring, except a flash of the eye, turned to the attendant generals, and said: “Gentlemen, the work is done, and well done! Let us ride! William, bring me my horse!” and they all rode off into the black night, deeply impressed with the immense importance of the events that had just taken place.

As long as De Grasse held York River the result was mathematically certain. The only doubt resulted from the Gallic temperament, and the possibility of another attack on him by Rodney from the West Indies and Graves from the Atlantic station. Washington knew that in such a contingency it would be impossible to control the French appetite for glory, and he was reasonably anxious on that score. This doubt solved, the capture of the redoubts meant the speedy, prompt capitulation of Lord Cornwallis. The next day Cornwallis attempted to re-establish himself in the position from which he had been expelled, but was easily repulsed The redoubts were included on the second American parallel, and howitzers securely mounted on them.

Sir Henry Clinton made no sign. Cornwallis proposed to cross the river to Gloucester Point and force his way north to rejoin Clinton. It was an utterly impracticable, foolhardy scheme, and not even desperation could justify it. But a sudden storm frustrated even that; and on the 17th he hoisted a white flag, his drums beat a parley, and he sent out an officer with a proposition for an armistice of twenty-four hours, while commissioners from each army could settle the terms of the surrender of the posts of York and Gloucester. Not knowing what might happen on the bay in that time, Washington gave him but two hours’ time in which to send in his proposition.

Those sent by Lord Cornwallis were not satisfactory, so the Viscount de Noailles and Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens, commissioners for the allies, met Colonel Dundas and Major Ross, on the part of the British, to arrange terms. The whole of the 18th was spent in discussion, and on the 19th a draft of terms of capitulation was submitted to the British officers. “Are not those terms somewhat harsh, colonel?” said Dundas to Laurens. “They are copies of those granted to General Lincoln by the marquis at Charleston,” said Laurens. They were transmitted to Lord Cornwallis with a note from General Washington, informing him that he expected them to be signed by eleven o’clock that day, and that the garrison would march out and ground arms at 2 P.M. They were signed, and the posts of York and Gloucester, with their garrisons, arms, ordnance, and supplies, were surrendered to General Washington, and, the ships, transports, and naval supplies to the Count de Grasse, as commander of the French fleet

At two o’clock the British army marched out along a road on which the Americans were formed on the right and the French on the left, facing inward—Washington and staff on the right of his own line, De Rochambeau and staff on the right of his, facing Washington. They marched with shouldered arms, colors cased, and their drums beating a march. The terms of surrender required that they should beat a British march, so they selected as the one for the occasion one called “The world turned upside down.” Cornwallis, unworthy of his character and unfortunately for his fame, was unable to face the inevitable, and sent General O’Hara to represent him in the mortifying ceremony. Superbly mounted and perfectly equipped, O’Hara, when he reached the end of the line, turned his horse out to General Washington, to whom he tendered his sword, with “Lord Cornwallis’s excuses and regrets that indisposition compelled his absence on so interesting an occasion.” Cornwallis had received Lincoln’s sword at Charleston on precisely the same terms he was now being forced to comply with; and General Washington, bowing to General O’Hara, directed him to General Lincoln, to whom he was to deliver his sword and to surrender, and whose directions he was to obey. So Lincoln, marched the British column out into the open field, where they grounded their arms in sulks and temper.

The surrender was over by four o’clock, and the news must at once be sent to the Congress. Who should have that honor? On the brilliant staff of the commander in chief, besides Hamilton and Laurens, was Tench Tilghman, of Maryland. He was of that family which in England had made its mark by intellectual vigor, and in the provinces of Pennsylvania and Maryland filled the first place in the revolt against the mother country. He was from the eastern shore of Maryland, and from the County of Talbot, which for eight generations has been the center of a noble culture and a generous chivalry. His uncle had been President of the Revolutionary Convention of Maryland, and every man of the breed able to ride a horse was in arms for his country.

Hamilton and Laurens had had their chance in the assault on the redoubt and the negotiations for the surrender; so fairness required that Tilghman should have the honor of bearing the news of a victory to Congress. By six o’clock on the evening of the 19th, with his dispatches in his breast pocket, he had his horse on an open sailboat, flying down the York River. Out in the open bay he turned his bows north, but lost a whole night aground on Tangier shoals, on account of the ignorance of his boatmen. Reaching Annapolis, he found that a dispatch, dated the 18th, from De Grasse to Governor Thomas Sim Lee, had preceded him by a day, so he turned at once with his horse and boat across the bay toward Philadelphia. He lost a day in a calm between Annapolis and Rock Hall, in the County of Kent. From there to Philadelphia is about eighty miles as the crow flies. De Grasse’s courier had passed through the country the day before. The people were on tiptoe to hear the news from York. Their hearts stopped as they imagined they heard the great guns of the English and the French booming over the waters in the still night. Mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and sweethearts all looked with wistful eyes to the South for some sign of the issue of the weary struggle.

It was the supreme effort of American liberty. It was the very crisis of freedom. But the flower of Maryland was in that fight, and the lower counties on the Delaware had sent their bravest and best to back their brethren of the eastern shore. One of the miracles of history, attested time and again by indisputable evidence, is that when the minds and hearts of a whole people are at a white heat of excitement and expectation, knowledge comes to them independent of the senses. The Greeks believed that the great god Pan spread the knowledge of victory or defeat at the time of their occurrence, hundreds of miles away. The result of the battle of Platæa was known the day it was fought, and the news of Thermopylæ spread over Greece through the silent chambers of the air carried by the arrows of light. The victory of Pharsalia was known in Rome at the time it occurred, and the events of Waterloo were discussed on the London Stock Exchange before it adjourned on the afternoon of June 18th.

So when Tench Tilghman landed at Rock Hall, for his hundred miles’ ride through the country, he found the hearts and minds of men and women aglow with a divine frenzy. They felt what had occurred without knowing it, and were wild for confirmation by knowledge. Up through Kent, without drawing rein, this solitary horseman sped his way. When his horse began to fail, he turned to his nearest kinsman—for they were mostly of the same blood—and riding up to the lonely farmhouse would shout, “Cornwallis is taken!—a fresh horse for the Congress!” and in a minute he would be remounted and pushing on in a free gallop. All the night he rode up the peninsula, not a sound disturbing the silence of the darkness except the beat of his horse’s hoofs. Every three or four hours he would ride up to some homestead, still and quiet and dark in the first slumber of the night, and thunder on the door with his sword-hilt, “Cornwallis is taken!—a fresh horse for the Congress!” Like an electric shock the house would flash with an instant light and echo with the pattering feet of women, and before a dozen greetings could be exchanged, and but a word given of the fate of the loved ones at York, Tilghman would vanish in the gloom, leaving a trail of glory and of joy behind him. So he sped through Kent, across the head of Sassafras, through Christiana, by Wilmington, straight on to Philadelphia. The tocsin and the slogan of his news spread like the fire in the dry grass, and left behind him a broad blaze of delirium and of joy.

“Cornwallis is taken!” passed from mouth to mouth, flew through the air, was wafted on the autumn breeze, shone with the sunlight. “Cornwallis is taken! Liberty is won! Peace is come! Once more husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, lovers, shall return to the hearts that gave them to the cause! Once more shall joy sit on every hearth, and happiness shine over every rooftree.” When or where in all the tide of time has such a message been carried to such a people? Liberty with justice! Peace with honor! Victory with glory! Liberty, peace, justice, victory, honor, and glory now and forever, one and inseparable! These were the tidings that Tench Tilghman bore when he rode into Philadelphia at midnight of the 23d, four days from the army of York. The dispatch from De Grasse had been received, but the Congress and the people waited for Washington. Nothing was true but tidings from him. Rousing the President of the Congress—McKean—Tilghman delivered his dispatch to him, and the news was instantly made public. The watchmen, as they went their rounds, cried, “Twelve o’clock, all is well, and Comwallis is taken!” In a minute the whole city was wild; lights flashed in every window; men, women, and children poured into the streets. The State House bell rang out its peal, “Liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof!” And thirteen sovereign and independent States were proclaimed to all the world.

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