The Final Victory

About the middle of March, 1781, Lord Cornwallis defeated Greene in a

stubborn battle at Guilford, North Carolina. Although victorious, the

British general was in desperate straits. He had lost a fourth of his

whole army, and was over two hundred miles from his base of supplies.

He could not afford to risk another battle.

There was now really only one thing for Cornwallis to do, and that

was to make a bee
line for Wilmington, the nearest point on the

coast, and look for help from the fleet.

General Greene must have guessed that the British general would march

northwards, to unite forces with Arnold, who was already in Virginia.

At all events, the sagacious American general made a bold move. He

followed Cornwallis for about fifty miles from Guilford, and then,

facing about, marched with all speed to Camden, a hundred and sixty

miles away.

His lordship was not a little vexed. He was simply ignored by his

wily foe, and left to do as he pleased. So he made his way into

Virginia, and on May 20 arrived at Petersburg.

{124} Benedict Arnold, who was now fighting under the British flag,

had been sent to Virginia to burn and to pillage. Washington

dispatched Lafayette to check the traitor's dastardly work. When Lord

Cornwallis reached Virginia, Arnold had been recalled, and the young

Frenchman was at Richmond.

Cornwallis thought he might now regain his reputation by some grand

stroke. The first thing to do was to crush the young Lafayette.

"The boy cannot escape me," he said.

But Lafayette was so skillful at retreating and avoiding a decisive

action that his lordship could get no chance to deal him a blow.

"I am not strong enough even to be beaten," wrote the French general

to the commander in chief.

Away to the west rode our friend Colonel Tarleton, still smarting

from the sound thrashing he had received from old Dan Morgan at

Cowpens. He was trying to break up the State Assembly, and capture

Thomas Jefferson, governor of Virginia.

It was a narrow escape for the man who wrote the Declaration of

Independence. The story is told that Jefferson had only five minutes

in which to take flight into the woods, before Tarleton's hard riders

surrounded his house at Monticello.

About this time, Mad Anthony Wayne, with a thousand Pennsylvania

regulars, appeared upon the scene and joined Lafayette.

{125} Now Cornwallis, finding that he could not catch "the boy," and

having a wholesome respect for Wayne, stopped his marching and

countermarching, and retreated to Williamsburg by way of Richmond and

the York peninsula.

During the first week in August, the British commander continued his

retreat to the coast, and occupied Yorktown, with about seven

thousand men. Lafayette was encamped on Malvern Hill, in the York

peninsula, where he was waiting for the next act in the drama.

Far away in the North, at West Point, Washington was keeping a sharp

lookout over the whole field. The main part of the patriot army was

encamped along the Hudson.

At Newport, there was a French force under General Rochambeau. Late

in May, Washington rode over to a little town in Connecticut, to

consult with him. It was decided that the French army should march to

the Hudson as speedily as possible, and unite with the patriot forces

encamped there.

The plan at this time was to capture New York. This could not be done

without the aid of a large fleet.

Early in the spring of this year, 1781, the French government had

sent a powerful fleet to the West Indies, under the command of Count

de Grasse. De Grasse now had orders to act in concert with Washington

and Rochambeau, against the common enemy. This was joyful news.

{126} News traveled very slowly in those times. It took ten days for

Washington to hear from Lafayette that Cornwallis had retreated to

Yorktown, and thirty days to learn that Greene was marching southward

against Lord Rawdon in South Carolina. And as for De Grasse, it was

uncertain just when and where he would arrive on the coast.

Washington had some hard thinking to do. The storm center of the

whole war might suddenly shift to Virginia.

Now came the test for his military genius. Hitherto, the British

fleet had been in control of our coast. Now, however, nobody but a

Nelson would ever hope to defeat the French men-of-war that were

nearing our shores. Cornwallis was safe enough on the York peninsula

so long as the British fleet had control of the Virginia coast. But

suppose De Grasse should take up a position on the three sides of

Yorktown, would it not be an easy matter, with the aid of a large

land force, to entrap Cornwallis?

The supreme moment for the patriot cause was now at hand. In the

middle of August, word came from De Grasse that he was headed with

his whole fleet for Chesapeake Bay.

As might be expected, Washington was equal to the occasion. The

capture of New York must wait. He made up his mind that he would

swoop down with his army upon Yorktown, four hundred miles away, and

crush Cornwallis.

{127} Yes, but what about Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in

chief in New York? If Sir Henry should happen to get an inkling of

what Washington intended to do, what would prevent his sending an

army by sea to the relief of Yorktown?

Nothing, of course, and so the all-important point was to hoodwink

the British commander. It was cleverly done, as we shall see.

Clinton knew that the French fleet was expected; but everything

pointed to an attack on New York.

If we glance at the map of this section, we shall see that, from his

headquarters at West Point, Washington could march half way to

Yorktown, by way of New Jersey, without arousing suspicions of his

real design.

Nobody but Rochambeau had the least knowledge of what he intended to

do. Bodies of troops were moved toward Long Island. Ovens were built

as if to bake bread for a large army. The patriots seemed merely to

be waiting for the French fleet before beginning in earnest the siege

of New York.

Washington wrote a letter to Lafayette which was purposely sent in

such a way as to be captured by Clinton. In this letter, the American

general said he should be {128} happy if Cornwallis fortified

Yorktown or Old Point Comfort, because in that case he would remain

under the protection of the British fleet.

Washington wrote similar letters to throw Clinton off his guard. For

instance, to one of his generals he wrote in detail just how he had

planned to lay siege to New York. He selected a young minister, by

the name of Montaigne, to carry the dispatch to Morristown, through

what was called the Clove.

"If I go through the Clove," said Montaigne, "the cowboys will

capture me."

"Your duty, young man, is to obey," sternly replied Washington.

The hope of the ever-alert commander in chief was fulfilled, for the

young clergyman soon found himself a prisoner in the famous Sugar

House, in New York. The next day, the dispatch was printed with great

show in Rivington's Tory paper.

On August 19, or just five days after receiving the dispatch from De

Grasse, Washington crossed the Hudson at King's Ferry, and set out on

his long march, with two thousand Continental and four thousand

French troops.

They had nearly reached Philadelphia before their real destination

was suspected.

The good people of the Quaker city had just heard of Greene's

successes in the South. The popular feeling showed itself in the

rousing welcome they gave to the {129} "ragged Continentals" and to

the finely dressed French troops, as the combined forces marched

hurriedly through the streets. The drums and fifes played "The White

Cockade and the Peacock's Feather"; everywhere the stars and stripes

were flung to the breeze; and ladies threw flowers from the windows.

"Long live Washington!" shouted the people, as the dusty soldiers

marched by in a column nearly two miles long.

"He has gone to catch Cornwallis in his mouse trap!" shouted the

crowd, in great glee.

Even the self-possessed Washington was a trifle nervous. Galloping

ahead to Chester on his favorite charger, Nelson, he sent back word

that De Grasse had arrived in Chesapeake Bay.

By rapid marches, the combined armies reached the head of the Bay on

September 6. From this point, most of the men were carried in

transports to the scene of action. In another week, an army of more

than sixteen thousand men was closing round Cornwallis.

Soon after his arrival, Washington, accompanied by Rochambeau, Knox,

Hamilton, and others, made a formal call on Admiral De Grasse on

board his flagship, the famous ship of the line, Ville de Paris, then

at anchor in Hampton Roads.

When Washington reached the quarter-deck, the little French admiral

ran to embrace his guest, and kissed him on each cheek, after the

French fashion.

{130} "My dear little general!" he exclaimed, hugging him.

Now when the excited admiral stood on tiptoe to embrace the majestic

Washington, and began to call him "petit," or "little," the scene was

ludicrous. The French officers politely turned aside; but it was too

much for General Knox, who was a big, jolly man. He simply forgot his

politeness, and laughed aloud until his sides shook.

Where was the British fleet all this time?

Its commander, Admiral Hood, had followed sharply after De Grasse,

and had outsailed him. Not finding the enemy's fleet in the

Chesapeake, he sailed on to New York and reported to Admiral Graves.

Then Sir Henry began to open his eyes to the real state of affairs.

All was bustle and hurry. Crowding on all sail, the British fleet

headed for the Chesapeake, and there found De Grasse blockading the


It would be all up with Washington's plans if the British fleet

should now defeat the French. The French fleet, however, was much the

stronger, and Graves was no Nelson. There was a sharp fight for two

hours. On the two fleets, the killed and the wounded amounted to

seven hundred. The British admiral was then forced to withdraw; and

after a few days he sailed back to New York. De Grasse was now in

complete control of the Chesapeake.

Cornwallis did not as yet know that Washington was marching at full

speed straight for Yorktown. Still, his {131} lordship began to

realize that he was fast getting himself into a tight place.

Why not cross the James River and retreat to a safe place in North


It was too late. Three thousand French troops had already landed on

the neck of the peninsula, and were united with the patriot forces.

The "boy" had now more than eight thousand men, with which he could

easily cut off every chance for his lordship's retreat.

In the American camp, the combined armies were working with a hearty

good will to hasten the siege. There could be no delay. The British

fleet was sure to return, and another fleet was hourly expected from

England. Again, Sir Henry might at any moment come by sea to the

rescue. Day and night the men toiled. Nobody was permitted to speak

aloud, for they were close to the British pickets. Intrenchments were

made, and cannon were rapidly dragged up and placed in position. By

October 10, all was ready.

{132} The siege begins in earnest. Shot and shell are hurled into the

British lines. All day and all night long, are heard the roaring of

cannon and the bursting of shells. Bang! bang! The French fire

red-hot shot across the water and set fire to the British transports.

New lines of redoubts are thrown up during the night, and guns are

mounted, which pound away at the doomed army. Two of the British

redoubts are troublesome. These are gallantly captured.

On the next night, Cornwallis makes a vigorous effort to break

through the American lines, but is driven back into the town. With

seventy cannon pounding away, the British earthworks are fast

crumbling. The British commander grows desperate. He thinks that, by

leaving his baggage and his sick behind, he can cross the river to

Gloucester in boats, by night, cut through the French, and by forced

marches make his way to New York.

On the night of the 16th, a few of the redcoats actually succeeded in

reaching the opposite shore, when a storm of wind and rain suddenly

arose and continued till morning. This last ray of hope was gone.

Cornwallis had his headquarters in a large brick mansion owned by a

Tory. It was a fine target for the artillery, and was soon riddled.

His lordship stayed in the house until a cannon ball killed his

steward, as he was carrying a tureen of soup to his master's table.

The British general now moved his headquarters into Governor Nelson's

fine stone mansion. Its owner was {133} in command of the Virginia

troops in the besieging army. He was the "war governor" who had left

his crops to their fate, and his plows in the furrows, while his

horses and his oxen were harnessed to the cannon that were being

hurried to the siege. When Nelson learned, through a deserter, where

Cornwallis and his staff were, regardless of his personal loss, he

ordered the bombarding of the house.

In Trumbull's famous painting, "The Surrender of Cornwallis,"

Governor Nelson's mansion is plainly seen.

By this time, the only safe place in Yorktown was a cave, which had

been dug under the bank of the river. To this spot, as the story

goes, Cornwallis moved his headquarters. Here he received a British

colonel who had made his way in the night through the French fleet,

to bring orders from Sir Henry Clinton. Cornwallis was to hold out to

the last. Seven thousand troops had sailed to his relief.

His lordship served a lunch for his guest, and while they were

drinking their wine, the colonel declared his intention of going up

on the ramparts for a moment, to take a look at the Yankees. As he

left, he gayly said that on his return he would give Washington's

health in a bumper. It was useless to urge him to remain under

shelter. He had scarcely climbed to the top of the redoubt when his

head was shot off by a cannon ball.

On October 17, the thirteenth day of the siege and the fourth

anniversary of Burgoyne's surrender, a red-coated {134} drummer boy

stands on the rampart and beats a parley. A white flag is raised on

the British works. The roar of the cannon ceases. Cornwallis sends an

officer to ask that fighting be stopped for twenty-four hours.

Twenty-four hours! No! "No more fighting for two hours," says


Held in an iron grasp both by land and by sea, the British commander

knows that all is lost. He can do nothing but surrender.

At two o'clock on the afternoon of October 19, in a field not far

from Washington's headquarters, the formal surrender takes place.

This ceremony, so joyful to the one side, so painful to the other, is

carried out in stately form. The officers on both sides wear their

best uniforms and military equipments. Washington rides his favorite

charger, Nelson. The stars and stripes of America, and the white flag

and lilies of France, wave in triumph. While the band plays a quaint

old English melody, "The World Turned Upside Down," the British

troops, over seven thousand in number, slowly march between the

columns of the combined armies and lay down their arms.

Cornwallis was not there. Saying that he was sick, he sent O'Hara,

one of his generals, to deliver up his sword, while Washington, with

his usual high regard for official dignity, sent General Lincoln.

As perhaps you may remember, when General Lincoln was forced to

surrender to Cornwallis, at Charleston {135} in 1780, the haughty

British general turned him over to an inferior officer, as if to

treat his surrender with contempt.

Lafayette said, in after years, that the captive redcoats, while they

gazed at the French soldiers with their showy trappings, "did not as

much as look at my darling light infantry, the apple of my eye and

the pride of my heart." Whereupon the lively young French general

ordered his fife and drum corps to strike up "Yankee Doodle." "Then,"

he said, "they did look at us, but were not very well pleased."

After the surrender, both the Americans and the British hastened

away. Scores of brave men, whom thus far the bullets had spared, were

the victims of camp fever and smallpox. Fourteen days afterwards,

Yorktown became again a sleepy little hamlet of sixty houses.

On the same day that Cornwallis found "the world turned upside down,"

Clinton sailed from New York, with thirty-five ships and over seven

thousand of his best troops. Had this great force reached the scene

ten days earlier, the story of Yorktown might have been different.

{136} "Cornwallis is taken!" How quickly the news spread! Men, women,

and children pour in from the country, and wait along the road

leading to Philadelphia, for the long-expected news.

At length a horseman is seen riding at headlong speed.

He waves his hat and shouts to the eager people, "Cornwallis is


It is Colonel Tilghman, whom Washington sent posthaste to

Philadelphia to inform Congress of the surrender.

It is after midnight when he arrives. The drowsy night watchman is

slowly pacing the streets. Suddenly is heard the joyful cry, "Past

three o'clock, and Cornwallis is taken!"

Up go the windows. Men and women rush into the streets, all eager to

hear the news. An hour before daylight, old Independence bell rings

out its loudest peals, and sunrise is greeted with the boom of


Congress meets during the forenoon, to read Washington's dispatches.

In the afternoon, the members go in solemn procession to the Lutheran

church, "and return thanks to Almighty God for crowning the allied

armies of the United States and France with success."

At noon on Sunday, November 25, the news reached London. Somebody

asked a member of the cabinet how Lord North, the prime minister,

received the "communication."

"As he would have taken a cannon ball in his chest," was the reply;

"for he opened his arms, exclaimed {137} wildly, as he walked up and

down the room during a few minutes, 'O God! it is all over! it is all


The news was sent to King George, who replied the same evening. It

was noted that His Majesty being a trifle stupid, wrote very calmly,

but forgot to mark the exact hour and minute of his writing. This

circumstance, the like of which had never happened before, seemed to

indicate to his cabinet some unusual disturbance. Shortly afterwards,

however, the old king took some comfort in declaring that the Yankees

were a wretched set of knaves, whom he was glad to get rid of at any


* * * * * *

On a gentle slope at Yorktown stands a monument, erected a century

later by Congress, in commemoration of the surrender of Lord

Cornwallis. There it stands, a tall, white shaft, solitary, glorious,

and impressive, a landmark for many miles along that sleepy shore.