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Cornwallis’ Report of the Siege of Yorktown

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol II.  Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

October 20.—This morning, Cornwallis, in a letter to Sir Henry Clinton, gives the following account of the siege, which terminated yesterday in his surrender to the allied forces of France and America:—”I never saw Yorktown in any favorable light, but when I found I was to be attacked in it in so unprepared a state, by so powerful an army and artillery, nothing but the hopes of relief would have induced me to attempt its defence, for I would either have endeavored to escape to New York, by rapid marches from the Gloucester side, immediately on the arrival of General Washington’s troops at Williamsburg, or I would, notwithstanding the disparity of numbers, have attacked them in the open field, where it might have been just possible that fortune would have favored the gallantry of the handful of troops under my command. But being assured by your Excellency’s letters, that every possible means would be tried by the navy and army to relieve us, I could not think myself at liberty to venture on either of those desperate attempts. Therefore, after remaining two days in a strong position in front of this place, in hopes of being attacked, upon observing that the enemy were taking measures which could not fail of turning my left flank in a short time, and receiving on the second evening your letter of the 24th of September, informing me that the relief would sail about the 5th of October, I withdrew within the works on the night of the 29th of September, hoping, by the labor and firmness of the soldiers, to protract the defence until you could arrive. Every thing was to be expected from the spirit of the troops, but every disadvantage attended their labors, as the works were to be continued under the enemy’s fire, and our stock of intrenching tools, which did not much exceed four hundred when we began to work in the latter end of August, was now much diminished.

“The enemy broke ground on the 30th, and constructed on that night, and the two following days and nights, two redoubts, which, with some works that had belonged to our outward position, occupied a gorge between two creeks or ravines, which come from the river on each side of the town. On the night of the 6th of October they made their first parallel, extending from its right on the river to a deep ravine on the left, nearly opposite to the centre of this place, and embracing our whole left, at the distance of six hundred yards. Having perfected this parallel, their batteries opened on the evening of the 9th against our left, and other batteries fired at the same time against a redoubt advanced over the creek upon our left, and defended by about one hundred and twenty men of the 23d regiment, and marines, who maintained that post with uncommon gallantry. The fire continued incessant from heavy cannon, and from mortars and howitzers, throwing shells from eight to sixteen inches, until our guns on the left were silenced, our works much damaged, and our loss of men considerable. On the night of the 11th they began their second parallel, about three hundred yards nearer to us. The troops being much weakened by sickness, as well as by the fire of the besiegers, and observing that the enemy had not only secured their flanks, but were proceeding in every respect with the utmost regularity and caution, I could not venture so large sorties as to hope from them any considerable effect, but otherwise I did every thing in my power to interrupt their work, by opening new embrazures for guns, and keeping a constant fire with all the howitzers and small mortars that we could man.

“On the evening of the 14th they assaulted and carried two redoubts, that had been advanced about three hundred yards, for the purpose of delaying their approaches, and covering our left flank, and during the night included them in their second parallel, on which they continued to work with the utmost exertion. Being perfectly sensible that out works could not stand many hours after the opening of the batteries of that parallel, we not only continued a constant fire with all our mortars, and every gun that could be brought to bear upon it, but a little before daybreak in the morning of the 16th, I ordered a sortie of about three hundred and fifty men, under the direction of Lieutenant-Colonel Abercrombie, to attack two batteries which appeared to be in the greatest forwardness, and to spike the guns; a detachment of guards, with the 80th company of grenadiers, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Lake, attacked the one, and one of light infantry under the command of Major Armstrong attacked the other, and both succeeded in forcing the redoubts that covered them, spiking eleven guns, and killing or wounding about one hundred of the French troops, who had the guard of that part of the trenches, and with little loss on our side.

“This action, though extremely honorable to the officers and soldiers who executed it, proved of little public advantage, for the cannon having been spiked in a hurry, were soon rendered fit for service again, and before dark the whole parallel and batteries appeared to be nearly complete.

“At this time we knew that there was no part of the whole front attacked in which we could show a single gun, and our shells were nearly expended; I had therefore only to choose between preparing to surrender next day, or endeavoring to get off with the greatest part of the troops, and I determined to attempt the latter, reflecting that though it should prove unsuccessful in its object, it might at least delay the enemy in the prosecution of further enterprises. Sixteen large boats were prepared, and upon other pretexts were ordered to be in readiness to receive troops precisely at ten o’clock; with those I hoped to pass the infantry during the night, abandoning our baggage, and leaving a detachment to capitulate for the town’s people, and for the sick and wounded, on which subject a letter was ready to be delivered to General Washington. After making my arrangements with the utmost secrecy, the light infantry, the greatest part of the guards, and part of the 23d regiment, embarked at the hour appointed, and most of them landed at Gloucester, but at the critical moment, the weather from being moderate and calm, changed to a most violent storm of wind and rain, and drove all the boats, some of which had troops on board, down the river.

“It was soon evident that the intended passage was impracticable, and the absence of the boats rendered it equally impossible to bring back the troops that had passed, which I had ordered about two o’clock in the morning. In this situation, with my little force divided, the enemy’s batteries opened at daybreak. The passage between this place and Gloucester was much exposed, but the boats having now returned, they were ordered to bring back the troops that had passed during the night, and they joined us in the forenoon without much loss. Our works in the mean time were going to ruin, and not having been able to strengthen them by abbatis, nor in any other manner than by a slight friezing,. which the enemy’s artillery were demolishing whenever they fired, my opinion entirely coincided with that of the engineer and the principal officers of the army, that they were in many places very assailable in the forenoon, and that by the continuance of the same fire for a few hours longer, they would be in such a state as to render it desperate with our numbers to maintain them. We at that time could not fire a single gun, only one eight-inch, and little more than one hundred cohorn-shells remained; a diversion by the French ships of war that lay at the mouth of York River was to be expected, our numbers had been diminished by the enemy’s fire, but particularly by sickness, and the strength and spirits of those in the works were much exhausted by the fatigue of constant watching and unremitting duty.

“Under all these circumstances I thought it would have been wanton and inhuman to the last degree, to sacrifice the lives of this small body of gallant soldiers who had ever behaved with so much fidelity and courage, by exposing them to an assault, which, from the numbers and precautions of the enemy, could not fail to succeed. I therefore proposed to capitulate.

“I sincerely lament that better terms of capitulation could not be obtained, but I have neglected nothing to alleviate the misfortunes and distress of both officers and soldiers. The men are well clothed, and provided with necessaries, and I trust will be regularly supplied by the means of the officers that are permitted to remain with them. The treatment in general that we have received from the enemy since our surrender, has been perfectly good and proper, but the kindness and attention that has been shown to us by the French officers in particular, their delicate sensibility of our situation, their generous and pressing offers of money both public and private to any amount, has really gone beyond what I can possibly describe, and will, I hope, make an impression on the breast of every British officer whenever the fortune of war should put any of them into our power.

“Although the event has been so unfortunate, the patience of the soldiers in bearing the greatest fatigues, and their firmness and intrepidity under a persevering fire of shot and sheik, that I believe has not often been exceeded, deserves the highest commendation and praise; a successful defence, however, in our situation, was perhaps impossible, for the place could only be reckoned an intrenched camp, subject in many places to enfilades, and the ground in general so disadvantageous, that nothing but the necessity of fortifying it as a post to protect the navy, could have induced any person to erect works upon it. Our force diminished daily by sickness and other losses, and was reduced, when offered to capitulate, on this side to little more than three thousand two hundred rank and file, fit for duty, including officers, servants, and artificers, and at Gloucester, about six hundred, including cavalry. The enemy’s army consisted of upwards of eight thousand French, nearly as many Continentals, and five thousand militia. They brought an immense train of heavy artillery, most amply furnished with ammunition, and perfectly well-manned.

“The constant and universal cheerfulness and spirit of the officers in all hardship and danger, deserve my warmest acknowledgments, and I have been particularly indebted to Brigadier-General O’Hara, and to Lieutenant-Colonel Abercrombie, the former commanding on the right, and the latter on the left, for their attention and exertion on every occasion. The detachment of the 23d regiment and marines in the redoubt on the right, commanded by Captain Apthorpe, and the subsequent detachments commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Johnston, deserve particular commendation; Captain Rockport who commanded the artillery, and indeed every officer and soldier of that distinguished corps, and Lieutenant Sutherland the commanding engineer, have merited in every respect my highest approbation, and I cannot sufficiently acknowledge my obligations to Captain Symmonds, who commanded his Majesty’s ships, and the other officers and seamen of the navy, for their zealous and active co-operation.”1


1 Rivington’s Gazette, November 24, 1781.