The day the world turned upside down: Yorktown

Due to the temporary partial government shutdown of October 2013, the Yorktown Battlefield Victory Center administered by the National Parks Service was closed. This was a bummer for me because I was going back to Virginia that weekend for a wedding. With several days of vacation, I decided to drive down to Virginia Beach before the wedding and head back up to northern Virginia. Well, somehow, the government got its act together again and reopened fully. That meant Yorktown was open again.

To my surprise, there are two Yorktown Battlefield Centers. One was a private museum that had reenactors and “living history”. The other is the federally administered center. I had gone to the latter in 2002 and decided to go ahead since last time, I didn’t have a camera. This time, I did and unfortunately a lot less time to spend there. On the plus side, I got in for free. Why? Because I came on the anniversary of the day that the British Army under General Cornwallis surrendered. Much like the day I was at the Brandenburg Gate on the anniversary of the day President Reagan made his historic speech – “Tear down this wall!”, the historic moment was not lost on me.

To give some background, during the American Revolutionary War, General Cornwallis had defeated the American southern army under Horatio Gates at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina. Demoralized, the southern army was in dire straits. Then Washington sent Nathaniel Greene to take command. Greene breathed new life in the southern army and the revolutionary cause in the south. Greene knew that the southern army could not take on Cornwallis on a regular battlefield like Gates tried. (See the movie The Patriot for a visualization. Notice that I didn’t say accurate visualization). Greene does the smart thing: he withdraws northwards and offers battle on his terms. Every battle that Cornwallis wins would do two things: draw him north away from his supply centers and fritter away at his strength.  A tactical victory for the British would set them up for the strategic defeat. Cornwallis was also smart too; he had to engage the sole remaining locus of resistance and destroy it. If Greene were to stir up resistance all around him and draw militia and regular forces, the southern states would never be truly pacified. Cornwallis takes up the challenge but Greene was always one step ahead. Eventually, Cornwallis chases Greene out of the south… but he’s stuck too. To speed up the chase, Cornwallis burnt his supply train and needs reinforcements. He asks his superiors in New York for reinforcements. Cornwallis chose Yorktown as the site where his army would wait.

Yorktown was next to the river, upstream on the James River. It was a sheltered place where the British Royal Navy could come. Unfortunately for Cornwallis, the British Royal Navy was driven away by the French Navy. The French Navy set up a blockade. When Washington heard of the situation, he acted immediately. Leaving behind a phantom army, he marched south with French troops.  The allied army arrived and takes up siege positions around Yorktown.  Cornwallis is trapped. For eight days, the allied army shelled the British troops relentlessly. The allied army had larger caliber cannons and very well trained American artillerymen. The sheer weight of metal and the hopelessness of the situation caused Cornwallis to ask for surrender terms. On October 19, 1781, the British army at Yorktown surrendered. To signify the loss of dignity by the British army, the British army band played the tune: “The World Turned Upside Down.” The Revolutionary War would continue for two more years, but Yorktown was the last action in the new United States.

Now, the site has been preserved as a site. There are demonstrations of how artillery pieces are fired. People can walk around the site.

When a visitor arrives, he arrives on the British lines.

Union Jack
British lines

At Yorktown, the British had only 6 pound cannons. These were great for support at the battalion attack level. But in a siege, they were at a great disadvantage. Below are some reenactors. These are from the Royal Artillery.

Royal Artillerymen
Royal Artillerymen

Below are American artillerymen lounging at their 18 pounder. This monstrous gun fired almost a shot almost four times larger than the British counterpart at the battle with a greater range and force.

Continental Army Artillerymen
These are Continental Army artillerymen lounging

How are the earthworks created? How are mounds and redoubts made? Well, they are not made by men digging a ditch and elevating the dirt. Instead, they first build these wooden contraptions then fill them with dirt.

earthwork prep
Wooden contraptions that are hollowed and filled with dirt

Below are two mounds known as Redoubts 9 and 10. British troops occupied them. They were the last line of defenses before reaching the main line of resistance further back. As long as they were held by the British, the defenders could keep the enemy far enough. These two forts were captured by the Americans led by then Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, better known as the co-author of the Federalist Papers, the first Secretary of the Treasury, and the loser of the Hamilton-Burr duel.


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