History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution/Chapter XXI
The additional weight of maritime force that appeared in the American seas in the year 1781 was serious and eventful. In the view of every sagacious eye, this appearance portended events of magnitude that might hasten to a decision the long disputed point between Great Britain and the United States. The European nations considered the present period a crisis of expectation and that the exertions of this year would either extinguish American hopes, or establish their claims as an independent nation.
Before the arrival of Admiral Barras, the naval power of Britain in the American waters was much superior to anything that had yet arrived from abroad that could give assistance to the United States. The acquisition of strength by the arrival of a squadron under the command of Sir Samuel Hood might have given an irresistible preponderance to the British flag, had not the Count de Grasse fortunately reached the Chesapeake a few days before him.
There was now just reason to expect the most violent naval concussions would take place between the Bourbon fleets and the still more powerful squadrons of Britain. They were soon to meet near the American shores, where they were destined to dispute the decision of an object that, from the emulation of power, the long existing jealousies between two potent sovereigns, and the prospect of a new face of affairs from the resistance of America, equally interested the Kings of England and France.
On the part of Britain, their armies were bold, their troops well appointed, and the pride of conquest urged to prompt execution to insure success. The Americans, inured to fatigue, become disciplined from necessity. Naturally sanguine and brave, conscious of the justice of their cause, and persuaded of the favor of Heaven, they were ready to engage in defense of their country and their lives, which they were sure would be the certain forfeit if defeated. Both, determined and valorous, and perhaps both equally weary of the contest, they might equally wish for some capital stroke of military prowess, some honorable action, which might lead to equitable and amicable decision.
In this attitude of expectation, hope, and uncertainty, of the two original parties, now combined with the strangers and aliens of different nations, who had adopted the ardor of conquest equal to their employers, nothing less could be anticipated than new scenes of carnage. The auxiliaries on the part of Britain were the feudal vassals of despotic lords, the mere automatons of German princes, who held them as their hereditary property. The allies of America were Frenchmen, who had long felt the weight of the chains of Le Grand Monarque. They were commanded by polite and erudite officers who just beheld the dawn of freedom rising on their native land.
Thus the two armies finally met in the Virginian fields, the germ of the New World, the first British plantation in America; a state dignified for its uniform adherence to and its early firm defense of the natural rights of mankind. Here they were to decide the last stake for the freedom of nations, a game which had been beheld with interest and expectation by many of the officers before they left Europe, and which might eventually have an extensive influence, to enlighten and free the more enthralled parts of the world.
Previous to the junction of the French and the American armies, General Washington, the Count of Rochambeau, and several other distinguished officers had met and held a conference at Weathersfield, in Connecticut. In consequence of this interview, it was reported and believed for a time that the combined armies would immediately attempt the reduction of New York. This was a favorite object with the Americans, who generally viewed the dislodgment of the British forces from that island as a measure that would expedite relief to every other quarter invested or oppressed by their fleets and armies. Accordingly, great preparations were made, and high expectations indulged through most of the summer that the army under the immediate command of Sir Henry Clinton, weakened by detachments for the southern service, and no reinforcements yet arriving from England, would soon be driven from the important post of New York.
General Washington had neglected no argument to impress the necessity of immediate and vigorous exertions in all the states to enable him to act with decision. He urged the expectation of the allied army, commanded by officers of the first abilities, of the highest military character, some of them of the prime nobility of France, and all ambitious of glory and eager for action. The disappointment they would feel if any languor appeared in the United States was obvious; and every consideration was urged and enforced that might induce the whole body of the people to aid in facilitating the measures adopted by the military commanders, which could not be executed without union and prompt decision in all the legislatures.
Preparations were accordingly made, and on July 6, the junction of the French American armies took place at White Plains. They soon after took a nearer position, with every preparation for, and all the appearance of, a formidable attack on the city. But notwithstanding the sanguine hopes of the Americans on this occasion, and well founded apprehensions of the British commander in chief, a combination of circumstances prevented an enterprise, which both the army and the people thought was not only designed, but had calculated that it would be effected without much difficulty.
Nor was this less respected by Sir Henry Clinton, who had no idea that nay system had been formed for the combined armies to move toward Virginia. He had taken every measure to obtain the most correct information. In this he succeeded. The letters of General Washington were intercepted. His dispatches taken by the agents employed for the purpose were conveyed to New York, by which the British commander obtained intelligence which alarmed his apprehensions for the safety of New York, and led him to forget all danger in any other quarter.
While the mind of the British commander remained in this situation, a sudden reverse took place on the part of America. Their measures were disconcerted, their operations slow; and for a time they appeared as indecisive in their determinations, though not so divided in their councils, as the commanders of the British troops. The energies of a few leading characters were not sufficient to control the many in the several states who in their present disconnected police must all be consulted.
In spite of the exertions and the zeal of individuals, the requisitions from the respective states came in for some time, but slowly. Many of those which were sent on to complete the battalions, were very far from being strong, effective men. Some companies appeared to be a rabble of boys; others very unfit for immediate service; and the numbers far short of the calculations in the British camp, where imagination had multiplied them almost to a Russian. army.
In short, it was found that it was impossible to establish an army at a call, fit for duty at the moment of their entrance in the field. Nor was it less difficult, in the existing circumstances of the infant republic, to provide at once for the exigencies which the magnitude of military enterprise at this time required. The design, if it ever was really intended, of assaulting that post and reducing New York, was a second time relinquished. The apprehensions of Sir Henry Clinton that a similar enterprise would have been attempted the preceding winder had not continued long, before other objects intervened, which opened new views to both the British and American commanders.
A different system was adopted from that expected by both sides on the opening of the summer campaign. This might probably have been owing in part to the information recently given by Colonel Laurens, who had lately arrived from France. He had immediately repaired to the southward and reached the headquarters of the combined army in the month of August. The most interested part of this intelligence was that an alliance had been renewed between the Emperor of Germany and the King of Great Britain; that the Emperor had sent out a considerable reinforcement to the aid of the British commanders in America, and that additional troops were to follow; that this had greatly encouraged the Court of Britain, and was not a pleasing circumstance to France.
It yet remains doubtful whether it was a stroke of generalship or the necessity of taking new ground that induced the Count de Rochambeau and General Washington secretly to draw off most of the continental and French troops at a period when they momently expected orders for an attack on the city of New York. It is success oftener than judgment that crowns the military character; and as fortune followed their footsteps, few, if any, doubted the superiority of genius that dictated the measure. The movement was sudden, and the march rapid. The combined army crossed the North River on August 24. They moved on hastily to Philadelphia; and by a difficult and fatiguing route, reached Williamsburg in Virginia on September 14.
Sir Henry Clinton, apprehensive only for New York, had not the smallest suspicion of this maneuver. By the address of a few Americans left behind for that purpose, every appearance of an attack on New York was for a time kept up. The deception was so complete and the maneuvers of the American commander so judicious that the British themselves acknowledged their won was fairly out-generaled. The illusion was so well calculated for the purpose that its effects were fully adequate to the design. The British commander continued his diligence in preparing for the reception of the combined armies.
The intelligence, at this time, of an alliance between his Britannic Majesty and the Emperor of Germany, and the arrival of 2000 or 3000 German troops gave an exhilaration of spirits to the city, to the soldiers, and to the general, who, from the protraction of the illusion without, had the highest reason to expect the assault of their works would not much longer be delayed by the Americans. Though General Clinton had received intelligence that the French squadron had left Rhode Island, he did not yet dream that they were destined to the Chesapeake, or that Washington and Rochambeau had adopted a new system. It was long before he could be persuaded to believe that they were concentrating their forces and moving southward, with design effectually to defeat all farther attempts on Virginia, and stop the progress of the British arms in the Carolinas.
It was indeed too long for the interest of the Crown of Great Britain before Sir Henry Clinton could prevail with himself to look beyond the defense of New York. But when he found the allied armies had in reality marched toward Virginia, he did not neglect his duty. He countermanded the orders to Lord Cornwallis of sending a part of his troops to New York, and made all possible preparations to support him. He sent on a fresh detachment of troops, and made arrangements to follow them himself with a hope of being timely enough for the relief of His Lordship.
In the mean time, the fortunate arrival of the Count de Grasse in the Chesapeake hastened the decision of important events. A short passage from the West Indies transported the French fleet under his command safely to the Capes of Virginia, where they arrived on August 30. No intelligence of his near approach had reached the British quarters; nor could anything have been more unexpected to the British naval commander, Sir Samuel Hood, who arrived soon after in the Chesapeake, than to find a Gallic squadron of 28 sail lying there in perfect security.
Commodore Hood, who arrived from the West Indies soon after the middle of August, with near 20 sail of the line, joined the squadron under Admiral Graves before New York. He was solicitous to have sailed immediately to the Chesapeake with all the naval strength that was not necessary to be left for the defense of New York. But an unaccountable delay took place which in his opinion could not be justified; and however it counteracted his inclination, it was too late before he sailed. He did not reach the Chesapeake until September 5 -- six days after the arrival there of the Count de Grasse. The French fleet had not been discovered by the British commander, nor had he gained any intelligence that de Grasse was on the American coast until the morning of September 5, when the English observed them in full view within Cape Henry.
Nothing could have been more mortifying to a man of the spirit and enterprise of Sir Samuel Hood than to find so respectable a French fleet had arrived in the Chesapeake before him. The national rivalry, prejudices, and hatred of the British commanders, and the gallant English seamen could not be suppressed on such an occasion. These were a strong stimulus to immediate action, which had their full effect. The pride and valor of a renowned British commander could not admit of the smallest delay; and the boldness of English seamen urged all with the utmost alacrity to prepare for an engagement.
The British maritime force that had now arrived was nearly equal to the French squadron under Count de Grasse. Both fleets immediately moved, and a spirited action ensured. Equal gallantry was exhibited, but neither side could boast of victory. The ships on both sides were considerably injured, and one British 74 rendered totally unfit for service; to this they set fire themselves. The loss of men was on the usual average of naval action. The English, indeed, were not beaten, but the French gained a double advantage. For while the Count de Grasse remained at a distance, watched by the British navy, he secured the passage of the Count de Barras from Rhode Island, and gained to himself the advantage of first blocking up the Chesapeake. The Count de Barras brought with him the French troops from Rhode Island, amounting to about 3000 men. These joined the Marquis de la Fayette, whose numbers had been greatly reduced. This reinforcement enabled him to support himself by defensive operations until, in a short time, they were all happily united under the command of the valiant Rochambeau.
The British fleet continued a few days in the Chesapeake. Their ships were much injured; and in a council of war it was determined to be necessary for the whole fleet to return to New York, to refit and prepare for a second expedition. This they had reason to flatter themselves would be more successful, as they were sure of a great acquisition of strength on the arrival of Lord Digby, who was hourly expected with a with a reinforcement from England.
While Sir Henry Clinton remained in suspense with regard to the operations in the Chesapeake, his anxiety prompted him to endeavor to obtain immediate intelligence. He had no suspicion that he should receive this by the return of Admiral Graves and the respectable squadron under his command; and before the untoward circumstances which occasioned this had reached New York, his impatience had urged him to send on a gallant officer with letters to Lord Cornwallis. Major Cochran executed this business at no small hazard. The British fleet had left the Capes of Virginia before his arrival; but at every risk, he ran through the whole French fleet in an open boat. He landed safely, delivered his dispatches, and immediately had his head shot off by a cannonball. Thus this unfortunate officer had not a moment to rejoice in the success of his bravery.
After the return of the fleet to New York, it might reasonably have been expected that Sir Henry Clinton would have acted with more decision and energy. Previous to this unfortunate transaction, it had been determined in a council of war to send 5000 men to the aid of Lord Cornwallis. But the spirit of delay still pervaded the mind of the British commander. He thought proper yet further to postpone this wise measure, from a motive which he doubtless considered justifiable. This was to wait a little longer of the arrival of Admiral Digby; whose junction with the forces already in New York he judged would insure victory over the combination of France and America, both by sea and land. Flattering letters were again sent on to Lord Cornwallis; but promises and distant expectations were far from being adequate to the relief of a mind borne down by disappointment and the failure of the means of supporting his own military character. He was also sensible that the dignity of command and the royal cause were suffering by delay, indecision, and, as he thought, from less justifiable motives. He was exhorted to hold out until about October 12, when Sir Henry Clinton thought it probable he might receive assistance, if no unavoidable accident should take place; or at farthest by the middle of November. At the same time, he intimated that if His Lordship should be reduced to the utmost extremity, before the arrival of reinforcements, he himself would endeavor to make a diversion by an attack on Philadelphia, in order to draw off a part of Washington's army. [See Sir Henry Clinton's letter to Lord Cornwallis, dated September 30, 1781.] These all appeared to Lord Cornwallis very undigested, absurd, and inconsistent ideas. He immediately informed Sir Henry Clinton that he saw no means of forming a junction with him but by York River, and that no meditated diversion toward Philadelphia or anywhere else could be of any use.
Lord Digby, however, arrived at New York on September 29. One of the princes [This was Prince Henry, the Duke of Clarence] of the blood had taken this opportunity to visit America, probably with a view of sovereignty over a part, or the whole of the conquered colonies. This was still anticipated at the Court of St. James; and perhaps, in the opinion of the royal parents, an American establishment might be very convenient for one of their numerous progeny.
Lord Digby was several days detained at New York before arrangements were made for the embarkation of the troops to reinforce Lord Cornwallis, and for the sailing of the might naval armament for the Chesapeake. In the mean time, Sir Henry Clinton busied himself in writing letters full of specious promises, as if artfully designed to buoy up the hopes of Lord Cornwallis by strong assurances that no time should be lost in sending forward a force sufficient for his relief. He informed him that a fleet under the commander of Lord Digby, who had recently arrived at New York, would sail for the Chesapeake by October 5; that himself was nearly ready to embark with a large body of troops; and, in the most sanguine terms, exhorted His Lordship to endeavor to keep his opponents in play, and to hold out against every discouragement until he should receive the needful assistance, which another British fleet and the addition of a body of troops headed by himself, would secure.
These flattering assurances and pressing entreaties from the commander in chief induced Lord Cornwallis to evade a general action. It was his opinion that when the combined troops arrived, he could only attempt the defense of Yorktown. He was posted there by General Clinton's express orders, contrary to his own judgment. He had always (as has been before observed) thought this an ineligible situation and far from being long defensible, without much larger reinforcements both by land and sea, than he had reason to expect would arrive seasonably.
His situation had been for some time truly distressing. Embarrassed between his own opinion and the orders of his superior in command, flattered by the promise of timely relief, and that in such force as to enable him to cope with the untied armies of France and America, he thought it his duty to wait the result, and not suffer himself to be impelled by contingent circumstances to risk his army beyond the probability of success. This prevented any advance to action, at the same time that it forbid his endeavoring to retreat from Virginia, until too late, when he had only to wait suspended between hope and fear, the uncertain chances of war. He acknowledged afterwards that, had he seasonably retired toward Carolina, though the attempt would have been difficult, he might have saved his army from their impending fate.
Though the courage and the inclination of Lord Cornwallis might prompt him, in his present circumstances, to lead out his troops and hazard an engagement in the open field, yet his judgment or his prudence could not justify the risk, while he had the smallest hopes that a few days might place him in a situation to combat on more equal terms. His destiny often marked by disappointment, he had at the same time much reason to despair of a successful termination of the campaign, even if the forces from New York should arrive in season. Yet, he observed to Sir Henry Clinton that "if he had no hopes of relief he should rather risk a general action than attempt to defend his half-finished works. But, as you say Digby is hourly expected, and promise every exertion to assist me, I do not think myself justified in putting the fate of the war on so desperate an attempt."
The British commander was fully apprised of the difficulties that would attend his armament under existing circumstances, even if the troops from New York should arrive before his fate was decided. The mouth of the river was blocked up by a very large French fleet. The American army in high health and spirits, strengthened by daily recruits led by Washington, in whom they had the highest confidence, in conjunction with a fine army of Gallicans, headed by the Count de Rochambeau, an officer of courage, experience, and ability, were making rapid advances. On September 28, they had left Williamsburg, and on October 6, they opened their trenches before Yorktown.
His Lordship determined, however, notwithstanding the choice of difficulties that pressed upon him, to make the best possible defense. His army was worn down by sickness and fatigue, but there was no want of resolution or valor. His officers were intrepid, and his men brave. They acquitted themselves with spirit; and kept either ground from October 6 to 16, when they became convinced that the abilities and the experience of the Count of Rochambeau, the cool equanimity of General Washington, and the vigor and valor of their officers and troops rendered the united army irresistible in the present situation of their opponents.
Lord Cornwallis had now only to choose between an immediate surrender or an effort to escape and save a part of his army by flight. He contemplated either a retreat southward or an endeavor to force his way through the states between Virginia and New York, to join General Clinton. But, equally hazardous, he determined on the last expedient. For this purpose, he, with the utmost secrecy, passed in the night of the 16th the greatest part of his army from Yorktown to Gloucester leaving only a detachment behind to capitulate for the town's people, the sick, and the wounded.
But fortune did not favor the enterprise. It is true the boats had an easy passage, but at the critical moment of landing his men, His Lordship observed that "the weather suddenly changed from moderate and calm to a violent storm of rain and wind, that carried the boats down the river with many of the troops who had not time to disembark. 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 in the morning." [Lord Cornwallis to General Clinton.] Here the serious mind will naturally reflect how often the providential interference of the elements defeat what appears to be the most judicious design of the short-sighted creature, man.
The state of Lord Cornwallis's mind at this time, the insurmountable difficulties of his situation previous to his surrender, and the subsequent consequences may be seen at large in his letter to Sir Henry Clinton, dated October 21, 1781. [see Note 1 at the end of this chapter.]
In this letter, he details the circumstances of his disappointment, in the last mode adopted for the safety of his army. It has been observed that his troops were dispersed by the storm, by which the boats were driven down the river, though some of them returned to Yorktown the ensuing day. Desperate as was the situation of the British troops, a feint of resistance was still made by an order to Lieutenant Colonel Abercrombie, to sally out with 400 men, to advance, attack, and spike the cannon of two batteries which were nearly finished. This excursion was executed with spirit and success, but attended with no very important consequences. [Several reconnoitering parties on both sides met and skirmished during the siege. In one of these, Colonel Scammel, a brave American officer who was respected and beloved for the excellence of his private character, was captured by some British partisans. He surrendered and delivered his sword, the usual signal of submission, after which he was mortally wounded by one of the British. He expired after languishing a day or two.]
The combined armies of France and America had continued their vigorous operations without the smallest intermission, until prepared for the last assault on the town, which they began at the dawn of the morning after the circumstances above related had taken place. In this hopeless condition, his own works in ruins, most of his troops sick, wounded, or fatigued, and without rational expectation of relief from any quarter, the British commander found it necessary, in order to escape the inevitable consequence of further resistance, to propose terms of submission.
Lord Cornwallis, confident of the humanity and politeness of his antagonists, made proposals on the 17th to the commanders of the combined army, for a cessation of hostilities for 24 hours. This was granted; but toward the expiration of the term, General Washington, in a letter to the British commander, acquainted him that desirous to spare the farther effusion of blood, he was ready to listen to such terms of surrender as might be admissible; and that he wished, previous to the meeting of any commissioners for that purpose, to have His Lordship's proposals in writing. At the same time, he informed Lord Cornwallis that after the delivery of this letter only two hours of suspension of hostilities would be granted for consideration.
The time limited being thus short, the British commander, without a detail of many particulars, proposed terms of capitulation in a very concise manner.
General Washington, equally perspicuous and decisive, in a few words intimated to His Lordship the only terms that would be accepted; that if his proposals were rejected, hostilities would be recommenced within two hours of delivery of these terms.
In consequence of these negotiations between the commanders, commissioners were immediately appointed to prepare and digest the articles of capitulation. It is not easy to conceive or to relate the mortification His Lordship must have felt at seeing his troops conquered by superior prowess and good fortune, and laying down their arms at the feet of the victorious Washington. This chagrin was undoubtedly much heightened by the necessity of submitting to terms imposed in conjunction with the servants of a rival power, whom the Kings of Great Britain, and the nation they govern, had viewed for many centuries with hatred and detestation.
The gentlemen appointed on the part of America to draw up the articles of capitulation were the Count de Noailles, a French nobleman who had served as an officer in the defense of the United States for a considerable time, and Colon John Laurens, a distinguished character, a son of the unfortunate ambassador who had been deputed to negotiate in behalf of America at the Hague, but at this time was confined in the Tower of London, and very severely treated.
The singularity of some circumstance relative to this gentleman cannot be passed over unnoticed in this place. He was suffering a rigorous imprisonment in England. He had presented a petition for some amelioration of the severities exercised against him. This was rejected; his veracity disputed by the minister; and his detention justified by Lord Mansfield as legal, politic, and necessary to prevent the accomplishing of his pernicious projects. [See Parliamentary Debates.]
By a strange concurrence of events, the Earl Cornwallis, constable of the Tower of London, was now on the point of becoming a prisoner and submitting to articles of surrender for himself and his army, under the dictation of the son of Mr. Laurens, the same gentleman heretofore alluded to, when an attempt was made by the British administration to corrupt the integrity of both father and son. By the capitulation, His Lordship was reduced to the humiliating condition of a prisoner to the American Congress, while the father of Colonel Laurens remained shut up in the Tower, a prisoner to the captured Earl.
However, as soon as circumstances permitted, an interchange of prisoners took place. The noble Lord, who with his army fell into the hands of the American commander, was restored to liberty by an exchange for Mr. Laurens, who had long languished in the Tower of London. The Court of Britain had before rejected the proposal that Mr. Laurens should be exchanged for General Burgoyne; but they were soon after this glad to receive an officer of equal rank to almost any in the nation in exchanged for the American minister.
A detail of the particular articles of capitulation may not be necessary; for them the reader is referred to Note 2 at the end of this chapter. It is enough to observe at present that the British army as permitted only the same honors of war that Lord Cornwallis had granted the Americans on the surrender of Charleston the preceding year. The officers were allowed their side-arms, but the troops marched with their colors cased and made their submission to General Lincoln, precisely in the same manner his army had done to the British commander, a few months before.
Here we cannot but pause a moment to reflect on the vicissitudes of human life, the accidents of war, or rather the designations of Providence, that one day lift the pinnacle of human triumph, and another smite the laurel from the brow of the conqueror and humble the proud victor at the feet of his former prisoner.
As General Lincoln had recently felt the mortification of yielding himself and his troops into the hands of the royal army, he was selected to conduct the military parade, and receive the submission of the British veterans. His might be thought by some to wear rather too much the air of triumph; but it was judged a kind of compensation for his own military misfortunes, while it might call into exercise the feelings of benevolence. These ever operate more strongly on the human character from the experience of sufferings, except in such ferocious minds as are actuated only by the principles of revenge.
This was far from being the spirit of Americans. Their victories were generally accompanied with so much moderation that even their enemies acknowledged their generosity. General Burgoyne and others had often done this; and Lord Cornwallis now expressed both pleasure and surprise at the civility, kindness, and attention shown by the victor to the vanquished foe. In a letter to Sir Henry Clinton, after mentioning the Americans in very handsome terms, His Lordship observed that "he could not describe the delicate sensibility of the French officers on this occasion;" and that "he hoped their conduct would make an impression in the breast of every British officer, when the fortune of war might again put any prisoners, either American or French, in the power of that nation."
Thus terminated the efforts of administration to reduce the United States by first conquering the southern colonies. On October 19, 1781, a second British army yielded themselves prisoners to the Confederated States of America. The humiliation of the present captured army, as above observed, was enhanced by the circumstances that made it necessary for the British battalions to bow beneath the banners of their hereditary enemies of France, in conjunction with the stars of America. [The American standard at this time was ornamented with only thirteen stars.] One of these armies, before its capture, had ostentatiously anticipated the conquest of the north; the other had enjoyed the cruel triumph of devastation and spoil, through the warmer latitudes of the south.
With incredible fatigue and fortitude and no less zeal and havoc had the British army and the royal partisans belonging to the American states who had joined them, harassed and spread terror and desolation for many months, from the borders of Georgia to the extremities of Virginia.
Within five days after the surrender of all the posts that had been held by Lord Cornwallis, a British fleet from New York under the command of Lord Digby, with Sir Henry Clinton and 7000 troops on board, entered the Bay of Chesapeake in full confidence of success; but to their inexpressible mortification, they had only to appear and retreat.
By the capitulation, all the shipping in the harbor was left to the disposal of the Count de Grasse, with the exception only of the Bonetta sloop of war. This was granted to Lord Cornwallis to carry his dispatches to New York. It included the liberty of conveying as many of his troops as was convenient to be exchanged for an equal number of American prisoners. His humanity prompted him to avoid himself of this liberty, to ship off, instead of soldiers, the most obnoxious of the loyalists, terrified beyond description at the idea of falling into the hands of their countrymen, against whom they had made every exertion, both by their influence and their arms. After the return of the Bonetta, as stipulated, she also was to be delivered at the order of the French Admiral.
The delay of reinforcements both by sea and land, until Lord Cornwallis and his army were irretrievably lost, was a misfortune and a neglect that could not easily be excused or forgiven, either by the ministry, the nation, or the numerous friends of this unfortunate nobleman. Much altercation took place afterwards between Sir Henry Clinton and Lord Cornwallis, with little satisfaction to the wounded feelings of the last and as little advantage to the sinking character of the first.
The surrender of Lord Cornwallis's army was an event that produced more conviction in the minds of men that the American colonies could not be conquered by the arms of Great Britain, than any circumstance that had previously taken place. It was asserted by some British writers at the time that "this was an event which carried a kind of irresistible conviction with it, even to those who were the least inclined to the admission of so humiliating a truth. When it was seen that the most distinguished and successful general that had engaged in the royal cause was obliged to surrender himself and his whole army prisoners of war, the generality even of those who had been the most earnest for the subjugation of America, began now to be convinced that it was totally impracticable. But those who had a sincere regard for the honor and interests of Great Britain could not reflect but with the utmost regret that nearly 100 millions of money should have been expended, and so many thousand valuable lives lost in this unhappy contest; in a contest which had produced nothing but the loss of our American colonies, an accumulation of the public debt, an enormous load of taxes, and a great degree of national dishonor; and which had afforded too much ground for the triumph and exultation of our most inveterate enemies." [British Annual Register for 1781.]
The defense of Yorktown and Gloucester had always appeared chimerical to the British commander in Virginia. Yet from the printed correspondence afterwards in every hand, he appeared perfectly right in his adherence to the orders of General Clinton, and justifiable in his endeavors to support himself there, until the promised reinforcements should arrive.
No man ever appeared more embarrassed when dangers approached or more indecisive in many instances of his conduct through the course of his American command than Sir Henry Clinton. Yet he was not deemed deficient in point of courage. Though he never discovered, either in design or execution, those traits of genius or capacity that mark the great man or the hero.
He had often been mistaken in his calculations, as had most of the British commanders, with regard to the ability, vigor, and valor of American troops. But combined with a European army, commanded by officers of the first military knowledge and experience, and the number that flocked with alacrity to the American standard, as they moved southward, in the fullest confidence in the judgment and abilities of General Washington, were circumstances sufficient to have eradicated those opinions, and to have quickened the movements of the commander at New York, in the same ratio that it awakened the apprehensions of an officer of more judgment in Virginia.
But whatever impression a combination of French and American troops might at that time make on the mind, yet the hereditary hatred of the one, and the affected contempt of the other, had always led the commanders of Albion armies to hold the haughty language characteristic of the national pride of Britain. After this period, the defeat of their armies and their most renowned officers taught them a more humble deportment, and more just and modest accents were dictated from the lip of captured generals.
The comparative military merits of the distinguished British characters that figured and fell in America may be left to the master of tactics to decide. But it may not be improper to observe that the tribute of applause, both for generalship and abilities, may be more justly attributed to Lord Cornwallis than to Sir Henry Clinton. Notwithstanding the unfortunate conclusion of His Lordship's southern campaign, he was doubtless a man of understanding, discernment, and military talents, better qualified to act from his own judgment than as subordinate to General Clinton.
Nothing of the kind could exceed the exhilaration of spirits that appeared throughout America on the defeat at Yorktown and the capture of the British army. The thanks of Congress were given and recorded on their journals to the Count de Rochambeau, General Washington, and the Count de Grasse; expressive of the sense they had of their merits and the high esteem they felt for the services they had rendered to the United States. Public rejoicings were everywhere displayed by the usual popular exhibitions. Thanksgivings were offered at the sacred altars; and the truly religious daily poured out of their orisons of praise for the interposition of Divine Providence in favor of the American states.
By other descriptions of persons, little less gratitude and devotion was expressed toward Washington, Rochambeau, and the Count de Grasse. They were the subjects of their eulogies and their anthems; the admiration of the brave, and the idols of other multitude; and in the complimentary addresses of all, they were designated the instruments of their salvation, the deliverers from impending ruin, and the protectors from the concomitant evils of protracted war. [The Americans did not soon forget the merits or the services of the Count de Grasse. Their gratitude and respect for his memory was exhibited by Congress, who generously pensioned four of his hapless daughters, who arrived in the Massachusetts in extreme poverty, after the ruin of their family in the general wreck of nobility and the destruction of monarchy in France.]
Among the horrors that attend the operations of hostile armies, the situation of those unfortunate men captured by their enemies is none of the least. There has yet been no attempt in these annals at a particular description of the sufferings of those victims of misery. The compassionate heart would rather draw a veil over those principles in human nature, which too often prompt to aggravate, rather than to relieve, the afflictions of the wretched, who are thrown into the hands of their enemies by the uncertain chances of war.
In consequence of the capture of Lord Cornwallis and his army, and some other decided strokes of success in the southern states, a general exchange of prisoners soon after took place between the hostile parties. There were doubtless many instances of individual cruelty and unjustifiable rigor exercised toward prisoners who fell into American hands. Impartiality forbids any extenuation of such conduct on either side. It has been alleged by some that, instigated by the shocking inhumanity inflicted on their countrymen, retaliation and summary punishment was in some instances necessary; but this will not excuse a deviation from the laws of benevolence, and is far from being a sufficient plea for the victor to enhance the sufferings of the vanquished.
Yet it must be allowed that the general treatment of this unhappy class of man by the contending powers will not bear a comparative survey. Many of the captured Americans were sent to Great Britain, where they were for a time treated with almost every severity short of death. Some of them were transported to the East Indies; others put to menial services on board their ships; but after some time had elapse, those in general who were conveyed to England might be deemed happy when their sufferings were contrasted with those of their countrymen who perished on board the prison ships in America, under the eye of British commanders of renown and who in many respects were civilized and polite.
No time will wipe off the stigma that is left on the names of Clinton and Howe, when posterity look over the calculations, and find the during six years of their command in New York, 11,000 Americans died on board the Jersey, a single prison ship, stationed before that city for the reception of those victims of despair. Nor was the proportion smaller of those who perished in their other jails, dungeons, and prison hulks.
It is true that in England, the language of government held up all the American prisoners as rebels, traitors, insurgents, and pirates. Yet this did not prevent the compassionate heart from the exercise of the benign virtues of charity and brotherly kindness. The lenient hand of many individuals as stretched out for their relief. Subscriptions were repeatedly set on foot and very liberal donations were made by several characters of high rank; and many well disposed persons exhibited the most generous proofs of compassion to the languid prisoner.
This charitable department was not confined within the circle of those who had either secretly or openly avowed themselves the friends, or had advocated the principles of the American opposition. For some time before peace took place, more lenient measures were observed by government toward those who were captured and carried to England. They were considered and treated as prisoners of war; compassion as everywhere extended to the unfortunate strangers; and the liberal contributions of various classes ameliorated their sufferings in a distant land, where no tender connections could extend the hand of pity. While their sorrows were being softened, their brethren in America, in the neighborhood of parents, children, and the most affectionate partners, not permitted to receive from them the necessary relief, were dying by thousands, amid famine, filth, an disease.
Great efforts had been made for earlier relief to many of the sufferers of every condition, but without effect. Not even General Burgoyne had yet been exchanged; from the many difficulties that arose with regard to the Convention at Saratoga he was still held on parole as a prisoner. The various delays and equivocations relative to the detention of this gentleman and the refusal of the minister to exchange him for Mr. Laurens had induced Congress to summon him to return to America, agreeable to his parole. The ill state of health to which this unfortunate officer was reduced, from his fatigue of body in long military services, and his vexation of mind in consequence of the ill treatment of his employers, prevented his compliance with this requisition. General Clinton endeavored, as far as in his power, to procure his exchange; but as no officer of equal rank as then in the hands of the Americans, it had been stipulated that 1040 men should be given for his ransom. This was humorously said by a member of Parliament [Mr. Burke], to be a fair equivalent -- "a quantity of silver for a piece of gold."
General Burgoyne very justly thought himself highly injured by the treatment of the ministry; but he observed himself in the House of Commons, in the beginning of the session of the ensuring winter that he had not complained though every officer in the army, down to the sergeants, had been exchanged. He said, however, that he acceded to the propriety of this, because he had resigned his commission, and thereby put himself into a situation, which rendered it impossible for him to be of any service to his country in a military capacity. He also observed that he thought it more proper that those should be first exchanged, from whose exertions in the field the nation might receive advantage. But, with the spirit of a man of honor and an officer of resolution, he declared that "sooner than condescend either to seek or to receive the smallest favor, from the hands of men who had heaped the grossest injuries on his head, he would even return to America, be locked up in the gloomiest dungeon which the Congress might assign him, and devote himself as that sacrifice, which his enemies had long endeavored to offer up to their resentment." [Parliamentary Debates.]
General Burgoyne observed that the circumstances of the Cedars men, which had been the subject of so much altercation, was well known to the ministry; and he thought all who knew the resolution of Congress on that subject as well as himself, must be convinced that the conduct of the ministry in this matter was very singular and extraordinary. The determined spirit of that body was so well known that a second proposition to exchange the Cedars men for him could be calculated only to delay or prevent his release. He added "that it was surely singularly hard that he should be the only one of all the army that had surrendered at Saratoga, who had not been included in the exchange of prisoners and restored to liberty. It was an injustice beyond all example that every officer and every man in the army should have received the valuable privilege of freedom, and that he alone, who was commander in chief on that occasion, should still be continued a prisoner."
The dispute in point was concisely this: The British government insisted that a party of Americans, who some time before the Convention at Saratoga had been taken at a place called the Cedars and had made their escape, should still be considered as their prisoners; and offered them as part of the number stipulated for the exchange of General Burgoyne. This Congress peremptorily refused; and demanded the whole number agreed on, exclusive of the Cedars men, for the release of the British commander from his parole. They did not consider the party at the Cedars, who had been surprised, but not held in duress, as the description of men to be exchanged for a British general.
The mutual charges of breaches of the articles, between Congress and the British commander, occasioned a long and grievous captivity to the convention troops. As each side justified their own conduct and no compromise could be made in the state of things which had long existed, these unfortunate men had been removed by order of Congress from Cambridge, and conducted to the interior parts of one of the southern states. There they remained until the auspicious events above related returned them to the bosom of their country and friend, in lieu of an equal number of Americans, who had many of them languished for as long a period in the dreary apartments assigned the prisoners in New York, Charleston, and wherever else British headquarters were established in any part of the United States.
The American Congress, in a few weeks after the termination of the campaign in Virginia, resolved that as a preliminary to the discharge of the convention troops, all accounts of expenditures for their support should be immediately settled and discharged. At the same time, they authorized General Washington to set Lord Cornwallis at liberty, on condition of the complete liberation of Mr. Laurens. These several proposals and demands were made and received in England in the beginning of the winder, 1782.
On the offer of the Congress of the United States, immediately to release Lord Cornwallis on fair and honorable terms, Mr. Burke, with his usual dexterity of combining and bringing into view objects the most striking and impressive on the passions of men, observed that the British ministry had been brought to some sense of justice in a moment; "warned by a star that had arisen, not in the east, but in the west, which had convinced them of the danger of longer persevering in their unmanly, revengeful, and rigid treatment of Mr. Laurens. This was no other than the news arriving that the son of Mr. Laurens, a brave, worthy, and accomplished officer in the American service, had Earl Cornwallis in his custody; and that his treatment of his noble prisoner was directly the reverse of that experienced by Mr. Laurens's father, who was then locked up in that Tower, of which Lord Cornwallis was the constable."
Mr. Burke, in a very pathetic style, detailed the variety of sufferings, hardships, and injustice which had been inflicted on Mr. Laurens during his long imprisonment. This, with other instances of severe or injudicious treatment of prisoners, he made the groundwork of a proposed bill to obviate the difficulties arising from the present mode of exchanging American prisoners; a mode which, he remarked, was at once disgraceful and inconvenient to the government of the kingdom. He urged that "motives of humanity, of sound policy, and of common sense called loudly for a new law, establishing a regulation totally different from the present, which was fundamentally erroneous." However, Mr. Laurens obtained his release from the circumstances above mentioned, before any new regulation of the British code of laws relative to prisoners or any other object took place.
Earl Cornwallis to Sir Henry Clinton, K. B., dated Yorktown, Virginia, October 21, 1781
"I have the mortification to inform Your Excellency that I have been forced to give up the posts of York and Gloucester and to surrender the troops under my command by capitulation on the 19th instant, as prisoners of war, to the combined forces of America and France.
"I never saw this post in a very 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 defense; for I would either have endeavored to go to New York, by rapid marches from 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 upon either of those desperate attempts. Therefore, after remaining for two days in a strong position in front of the 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 September 24, informing that the relief would sail about October 5, I withdrew within the works on the night of September 29, hoping by the labor and firmness of the soldiers to protract the defense until you could arrive. Everything was to be expected from the spirit of the troops, but every disadvantage attended their labor, as the works were to be continued under the enemy's fire, and our stock of entrenching tools, which did not much exceed 400, when we began to work in the latter end of August, was now much diminished.
"The enemy broke ground on the night of the 30th and constructed on that night and on 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 October 6, they made their first parallel, extending from its right on the river to a deep ravine on the left, nearly opposite to the center of this place, and embracing our whole left, at the distance of 600 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 he creek on our right, and defended by about 120 men of the 23rd 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 8 to 16 inches, until all our guns on the left were silenced, our work much damaged, and our loss of men considerable. On the night of the 11th, they began their second parallel, about 300 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 proceeded 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 everything in my power to interrupt this work, by opening new embrasures for guns, and keeping up 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 300 yards, for the purpose of delaying their approaches and covering our left flank, and during their approaches and covering our left flank, and during the night enclosed them in their second parallel, on which they continued to work with the utmost exertion. Being perfectly sensible that our work 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 on it, but a little before daybreak, on the morning of the 16th, I ordered a sortie of about 350 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 8th 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 11 guns, and killing or wounding about 100 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 on which we could show a single gun, and our shells were nearly expended. I, therefore, had 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 immediate object, it might at least delay the enemy in the prosecution of farther enterprises. 16 large boats were prepared, and on other pretexts were ordered to be in readiness to receive troops precisely at 10 o'clock. With these, I hoped to pass the infantry during the night, abandoning our baggage, and leaving a detachment to capitulate for the town's people and 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, greatest part of the Guards, and part of the 23rd Regiment, landed at Gloucester. But at this 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 2 in the morning. In this situation, with my little force divided, the enemies' 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 were in the mean time going to ruin; and not having been able to strengthen them by abbatis, nor in any other manner but by a slight fraizing, which the enemy's artillery were demolishing wherever they fired, my opinion entirely coincided with that of the engineer and principal officers of the army, that they were in many places 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 attempt to maintain them. We at that time could not fire a single gun, only one eighth inch, and little more than a hundred cohorn shells remained. A diversion by the French ships of war that lay at the mouth of the York River was to be expected. Our number 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 that 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; and I have the honor to enclose to Your Excellency the copy of the correspondence between General Washington and me on that subject, and the terms of capitulation agreed upon. I sincerely lament that better could not be obtained, but I have neglected nothing in my power to alleviate the misfortunes and distresses 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...."
Copy of articles of capitulation settled between His Excellency General Washington, commander in chief of the combined forces of America and France; His Excellency the Count de Rochambeau, Lieutenant General of the armies of the King of France, great cross of the Royal and Military Order of St. Louis, commanding the auxiliary troops of His Most Christian Majesty in America; and His Excellency the Count de Grasse, Lieutenant General of the naval armies of His Most Christian Majesty, commander of the Order of St. Louis, commander in chief of the naval army of France in the Chesapeake, on the one part; and the Right Honorable Earl Cornwallis, Lieutenant General of His Britannic Majesty's forces, commanding the garrisons of York and Gloucester; and Thomas Symmonds, Esquire, commanding His Britannic Majesty's naval forces in York River in Virginia, on the other part.
Article 1 The garrisons of York and Gloucester, including the offers and seamen of His Britannic Majesty's ships, as well as other mariners, to surrender themselves prisoners of war to the combined forces of America and France; the land troops to remain prisoners to the United States; the navy to the naval army of His Most Christian Majesty.
Article 2 The artillery, arms, accouterments, military chest, and public stores of every denomination shall be delivered unimpaired to the heads of departments appointed to receive them.
Article 3 At 12 o'clock this day the two redoubts on the left flank of York to be delivered, the one to a detachment of American infantry, the other to a detachment of French grenadiers.
Granted. The garrison of York will march out to a place to be appointed, in front of the posts, at 2 o'clock precisely, with shouldered arms, colors cased, and drums beating a British or German march. They are then to ground their arms and return to their encampments, where they will remain until they are dispatched to the places of their destination. Two works on the Gloucester side will be delivered at 1 o'clock to a detachment of French and American troops appointed to posses them. The garrison will march out at 3 o'clock in the afternoon; the cavalry, with their swords drawn, trumpets sounding, and the infantry in the manner prescribed or the garrison of York. They are likewise to return to their encampments until they can be finally marched off.
Article 4 Officers are to retain their side arms. Both officers and soldiers to keep their private property of every kind; and no part of their baggage or papers to be at any time subject to search or inspection. The baggage and papers of officers and soldiers taken during the siege to be likewise preserved for them.
Granted. It is understood that any property obviously belonging to the inhabitants of these states in the possession of the garrison shall be subject to be reclaimed.
Article 5 The soldiers to be kept in Virginia, Maryland, or Pennsylvania, and as much by regiments as possible, and supplied with the same rations of provisions as are allowed to soldiers in the service of America. A field officer from each nation, to wit, British, Anspach, and Hessian, and other officers on parole, in the proportion of 1 to 50 men to be allowed to reside near their respective regiments, to visit them frequently, and be witnesses of their treatment, and that their officers may receive and deliver clothing and other necessaries for them, for which passports are to be granted when applied for.
Article 6 The general, staff, and other officers not employed as mentioned in the above articles and who choose it, to be permitted to go on their parole to Europe, to New York, or to any other American maritime posts at present in the possession of the British forces, at their own option, and proper vessels to be granted by the Count de Grasse to carry them under flags of truce to New York, within 10 days from this date, if possible, and they to reside in a district to be agreed upon hereafter, until they embark. The officers of the civil department of other army and navy to be included in this article. Passports to go by land to be granted to those to whom vessels cannot be furnished.
Article 7 Officers to be allowed to keep soldiers as servants, according to the common practice of the service. Servants not soldiers are not to be considered as prisoners, and are to be allowed to attend their masters.
Article 8 The Bonetta slop of war to be equipped and navigated by its present captain and crew, and left entirely at the disposal of Lord Cornwallis, from the hour that the capitulation is signed, to receive an aid du camp to carry dispatches to Sir Henry Clinton; and such soldiers as he may think proper to send to New York, to be permitted to sail without examination. When his dispatches are ready, His Lordship engages on this part that the ship shall be delivered to the order of the Count de Grasse, if she escapes the danger of the sea; that she shall not carry off any public stores. Any part of the crew that may be deficient on her return and the soldiers passengers to be accounted for on her delivery.
Article 9 The traders are to preserve their property, and to be allowed three months to dispose of or remove them; and those traders are not to be considered as prisoners of war. The traders will be allowed to dispose of their effects, the allied army having the right of redemption. The traders to be considered as prisoners of war upon parole.
Article 10 Natives of inhabitants of different parts of this country at present in York or Gloucester are not to be punished on account of having joined the British army. This article cannot be assented to, being altogether of civil resort.
Article 11 Proper hospitals to be furnished for the sick and wounded. They are to be attended by their own surgeons on parole; and they are to be furnished with medicines and stores from the American hospitals. The hospital stores now in York and Gloucester shall be delivered for the use of the British sick and wounded. Passports will be granted, for procuring them further supplies from New York, as occasion may require; and proper hospitals will be furnished for the reception of the sick and wounded of the two garrisons.
Article 12 Wagons to be furnished to carry the baggage of the officers attending the soldiers and to surgeons when traveling on account of the sick, attending the hospitals at public expense. They are to be furnished is possible.
Article 13 The shipping and boats in the two harbors, with all their stores, guns, tackling, an apparel, shall be delivered up in their present state to an officer of the navy appointed to take possession of them, previously unloading the private property, part of which had been put on board for security during the siege.
Article 14 No article of capitulation to be infringed on pretense of reprisals; and if there be any doubtful expressions in it, they are to be interpreted according to the common meaning and acceptation of the words.