Sunday, January 24, 2016

Thomas Nelson -- Victory at Yorktown
 
Both before and after Washington’s and Rochambeau’s arrival in Virginia, Governor Nelson sought vigorously to obtain from the citizens of his state essential food and supplies: more beef, flour, corn and vehicles of transportation specifically from the Richmond area, from the Williamsburg area, ammunition.  He still needed digging equipment, but the arrival of Admiral Barras’s Rhode Island fleet provided “many implements for siege.”
 
On September 26, one of Nelson’s agents, David Jameson, wrote of the problems that he and Nelson’s other agents were encountering.
 
“We are very sorry to inform you, that in those parts of the Country where Agents are employed to purchase provisions for the French fleet and Army, our commissaries … can procure no supplies.  The people withhold their wheat, in hope of receiving a present payment in specie.  It is absolutely necessary something should be done, or our army will be starved” (Nelson Letters 41).
 
Nelson answered that he had long foreseen the consequences of such proceedings.  He believed this was due “partially from the machinations of their [Virginia’s] agents,” receiving inadequate prices for their property and services in the past, “and partly from the desire of handling gold …” (Nelson Letters 44-45, 47).  “He conceded that part of the trouble was due to the French [who had sent their own agents out to purchase food with gold], but he attributed it also to the ‘unwillingness of the people to assist [a] government from which former treatment gives them perhaps too little reason to expect Justice’” (Evans 116).  To solve this problem Nelson authorized agents like Colonel Thomas Newton on October 3 to procure small meats and vegetables by impress if necessary, “granting certificates for what you get in this way” (Nelson Letters 50)
 
In addition to attempting to overcome the immense difficulty of providing food and military supplies, Nelson had to deal with hostile Loyalists.  In Prince Anne County, where Norfolk was located, “there was neither civil nor military law in operation and ‘murder is committed and no notice is taken of it ….’  Nelson could not do much about the Norfolk area, but he did take vigorous action in other sections of the country” (Evans 116).  On September 16, he ordered the arrest of eleven prominent Tories, including his wife’s brother, Philip Grimes, for conduct “‘which manifests Disaffection to this Government and the Interests of the United States.’”  They were taken to Richmond for trial.  Loyalists on the Eastern Shore were arrested.  “Some of the disaffected people were released prior to Yorktown on showing the proper contriteness and giving security to furnish a soldier for the war.  Even so, the Richmond jail was still crowded with Tories in December” (Evans 117).
 
Nelson’s militia also presented him problems. “Colonel James Barbour of Culpepper seized twenty-nine boxes of arms being transported from the north to the American army and distributed them to the militia of his county.”  Nelson wrote: “‘If we were to consider the Consequences of such Conduct, nothing could appear more criminal, or meriting more severe notice.’  If every county lieutenant, he continued, acted as Barbour had, there would be no arms for the army on ‘which the immediate salvation of the state depends’” (Evans 117).  In mid-September a body of Henrico County militia was ordered to patrol a section of the James River.  After one trip they quit.  “With the battle of Yorktown only days away one militia leader wrote asking that his men be discharged since they expected to serve only a fortnight ‘and some have urgent business in Richmond’” (Evans 118).  
 
While Nelson labored, Washington and Rochambeau moved their soldiers in semi-circular fashion closer to Cornwallis’s fortifications at Yorktown.  This involved digging trenches to establish parallel lines to the British fortifications.  “The first parallel was dug six hundred yards from the besieged works, beyond the range of grape, canister, and small arms.  Dirt from the excavation was thrown onto fascines [bundles of brush bound together, cut off straight at each end] in front of the parallels, forming parapets [defensive walls or elevation, as of earth or stone, raised above the main wall or rampart of a permanent fortification] while battery locations were dug out and connected to the parallels by other trenches.  Saps, or smaller trenches, were dug in zigzag paths toward the fortress, while gabions [sticks in the ground in a circle, about two feet or more in diameter, interwoven with small brush in the form of baskets set down in three or more rows with dirt thrown into them to form a breastwork] were filled and covered on the side facing the enemy.  … At three hundred yards a second parallel was dug … close enough so that the attackers could breach the fortress walls for an assault by infantry” (Ketchum 222-223).  All of the digging was done at night, out of sight of the British, after which the artillery pieces were carried or dragged to their assigned positions.
“Preparation of the parallels was no simple matter.  Twelve hundred Pennsylvania and Maryland militia were detailed to collect wicker material in the woods for making six hundred gabions.  Stakes were cut—six thousand of them—and two thousand round bundles of sticks were bound together for fascines …” (Ketchum 223).
Beginning October 1 the British artillery fired steadily every day -- on one day 351 rounds between sunup and sundown -- and continued into the night.  On October 4 two deserters reported that “Cornwallis’s army was very sickly—two thousand men were in the hospital, they estimated—while the other troops had scarcely enough ground to live on, the horses were desperately short of forage, and their shipping was ‘in a very naked state’” (Ketchum 224).   Nearly four hundred dead horses were seen floating in the river or lying on the shore near Yorktown.  Lacking forage to feed them, the British had had them shot. 
Before October 9, British soldiers had been questioning why the American and French batteries had not returned artillery fire.  The answer was simple.  They “were holding back until all their guns were in place; if they fired from each battery once it was completed, the enemy would concentrate on that one and destroy it” (Ketchum 227).  At about three o’clock in the afternoon of October 9 all of the allied artillery commenced firing.  General Washington put the match to the gun that fired the first shot. 
“The defenders could find no refuge in or out of the town.  Residents fled to the waterfront and hid in hastily built shelters on the sand cliffs, but some eighty of them were killed and others wounded—many with arms or legs severed—while their houses were destroyed.”  The following day “some thirty-six hundred shots were fired by the cannon, inflicting heavy damage on ships in the harbor, killing a great many sailors as well as soldiers, after which a number of others deserted” (Ketchum 228). 
After the October 9 firing started, “down on the American right General Nelson was asked to point out a good target toward which the artillerists could direct their fire.  Nelson indicated a large house, which he suggested was probably Cornwallis’s headquarters.  The house was his own” (Evans 119).  “Two pieces were accordingly pointed against it” (Page 151).  The first shot killed two officers, “indulging in the pleasures of the table” (Sanderson 67).  Other balls dislodged the other tenants.
Actually, Cornwallis had established his headquarters in the house of Nelson’s uncle, Secretary Nelson, the most prominent house in Yorktown.  The October 9 cannonade continued through the night and into the next day.  “At noon a flag of truce appeared on the British lines.  At first the allies hoped that Cornwallis was going to ask for terms, but they soon learned that the flag was raised to allow Secretary Nelson to leave the beleaguered village.  The old gentleman, suffering from an attack of gout, could not walk, and his two sons in the American army, Colonel William Nelson and Major John Nelson, went across and brought their father back to General Washington’s headquarters.  There the secretary recounted that the bombardment was producing great damage and had forced Cornwallis to seek refuge in a ‘grotto’ at the foot of his garden” (Evans 119).
“By October 11 the parallel directed at Cornwallis’s works was within 360 yards.  … On Sunday the 14th all the American batteries concentrated on the British strongholds—notably the Number 9 and Number 10 redoubts” (Ketchum 229, 230).  On October 16 the two redoubts were attacked (Number 10 by American soldiers commanded by Alexander Hamilton) and taken.  “Later that night the skies clouded over and it began to rain, a steady downpour that turned the trenches into a morass of mud, making the digging miserable for the fatigue parties, whose job it was to connect the captured redoubts to the second parallel and bring up howitzers to within three hundred years of the enemy’s works” (Ketchum 234).
Aware that defeat and surrender were only two or three days from transpiring, that night Cornwallis instructed Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to “concentrate his troops at Gloucester [across the York River], prepare the artillery to accompany the British troops in an attack against Brigadier Choisy before daybreak, and have horses and wagons ready to retreat north through the countryside,” Tarleton agreed that a retreat “‘was the only expedient that now presented itself to avert the mortification of a surrender.’  … Before eleven o’clock the light infantry, most of the Guards brigade, and the 23rd Regiment, constituting the first wave of evacuees, shoved off for Gloucester.   … Cornwallis planned to accompany the second group himself, but before doing so he had to finish writing a letter to General Washington, ‘calculated to excite the humanity of that officer towards the sick, the wounded, and the detachment that would be left to capitulate.’  The first division arrived in Gloucester before midnight, and part of the second had embarked when a rain squall came up” (Ketchum 237).  The squall became a violent storm, which drove the boats down the river.  It became evident that the river could not be successfully crossed.  At 2 a.m. Cornwallis ordered all of his soldiers that had reached Gloucester to return to Yorktown. 
The allied cannonade that began at daybreak was devastating.  After observing the enemy and his works, Cornwallis sent to Washington a flag of truce.  He wrote to General Clinton of his decision emphasizing that it would be “wanton and inhuman to the last degree to sacrifice the lives of this small body of gallant soldiers, who had ever behaved with such fidelity and courage” (Ketchum 239).  Ironically, that same day General Clinton and six thousand troops set sail from New York to attempt a rescue.  Discovering that the French fleet controlled the Chesapeake, he ordered his ships and army back to New York. 
The negotiations for surrender took place in the home of Thomas Nelson’s former business partner, Augustine Moore.  On October 20 Nelson wrote the following to the Virginia delegates in the Continental Congress.
On the 17th at the Request of Lord Cornwallis Hostilities ceased, and yesterday the Garrison of York amounting to upwards of two thousand nine hundred Effectives, rank and file, marched out and grounded their arms.  Their sick are about seventeen hundred.  The Garrison of Gloucester and the men killed during the siege are computed at near two thousand, so that the whole loss sustained by the Enemy on this occasion must be between 6 and 7000 Men.  This blow, I think, must be a decisive one, it being out of the Power of G. B. to replace such a number of good troops (Evans 120).
 
 
Works cited:
 
Evans, Emory G.  Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian.  Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1975.  Print.
 
Ketchum, Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution.  New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2004.  Print.
 
Page, R. C. M.  Genealogy of the Page Family in Virginia.  New York: Jenkins & Thomas, 1883.  Print.
 
Publications of the Virginia Historical Society.  “Letters of Thomas Nelson.”  New Series, No. 1, 1874.  Print.
 
Sanderson, John.  Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence.  Second Edition.  Philadelphia: William Brown and Charles Peters, 1828.  V.  Print.