Yorktown - Encyclopedia

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YORKTOWN, a town and the county-seat of York (disambiguation)|York county, Virginia, U.S.A., on the York river 10 m. from its mouth, and about 60 m. E.S.E. of Richmond. Pop. (1900) 151. It is served by the Baltimore, Chesapeake & Richmond steamship line, and about 62 m. distant is Lee Hall, a station on the Chesapeake & Ohio railway. Large deposits of marl near the town are used for the manufacture of cement. In the main street is the oldest custom-house in the United States, and the house of Thomas Nelson (1738-1789), a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In commemoration of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis in October 1781, there is a monument of Maine granite (Ioo ft. 6 in. high) designed by R. M. Hunt and J. Q. A. Ward; its corner-stone was laid in 1881 during the centennial celebration of the surrender, and it was completed in 1883. Yorktown was founded in 1691, as a port of entry for York county. It became the county-seat in 1696, and although it never had more than about 200 houses its trade was considerable until it was ruined by the War of Independence. In that war the final victory of the Americans and their French allies took place at Yorktown.

Baffled by General Nathanael Greene in his campaign in the Carolinas, his diminished force (fewer than 1400) sadly in need of reinforcement, and persuaded that the more southern colonies could not be held until Virginia had been reduced, Lord Cornwallis marched out of Wilmington, N. Carolina, April 25th, 1781, arrived at Petersburg, Virginia, on May loth, and there with the troops which had been under William Phillips and Benedict Arnold and with further reinforcements from New York raised his army to more than 7000 men. Facing him in Richmond was Lafayette, whom Washington had sent earlier in the year with a small force of light infantry to check Arnold, and who had now been placed in command of all the American troops in Virginia. Cornwallis's first attempt was to prevent the union of Lafayette and General Anthony Wayne. Failing in this, he retired down the James in the hope, it is thought, of receiving further reinforcements from General Henry Clinton. Clinton, who had not approved Cornwallis's plan against Virginia, at first ordered him to send a portion of his troops to aid in the defence of New York; but as other reinforcements came to New York, and as the home government approved Cornwallis's plan, Clinton resolved to establish a permanent base in the Chesapeake and directed Cornwallis to fortify a post for the protection of the British navy. Cornwallis seized Yorktown and Gloucester early in August and immediately began to fortify them. While Cornwallis was marching from N. Carolina to Virginia, Washington learned that a large French fleet under Count de Grasse was to come up from the West Indies in the summer and for a brief period co-operate with the American and French armies. At a conference (May 21st) at Wethersfield, Connecticut, with the French commanders, Washington favoured a plan for a joint attack on New York when De Grasse should arrive. An attack on the British in Virginia was, however, considered, and the minutes of the conference with some suggestions from Rochambeau having been sent to De Grasse, he announced in a letter received the 14th of August that he should sail for the Chesapeake for united action against Cornwallis. About the same time Washington learned from Lafayette that Cornwallis was fortifying Yorktown. Sir Samuel Hood with 14 ships-of-the-line arrived at the Chesapeake from the West Indies three days ahead of De Grasse, and proceeding to New York warned Admiral Thomas Graves of the danger. Graves took command of the combined fleet, 19 ships-of-the-line, and on the 31st of August sailed for the Chesapeake in the hope of preventing the union of the French fleet from Newport, under Count de Barras, with that under De Grasse. He arrived at the Chesapeake ahead of De Barras, but after an encounter with De Grasse alone (September 5th), who had 24 ships-of-the-line, he was obliged to return to New York to refit, and the French were left in control of the coast. Leaving only about 4000 men to guard the forts on the Hudson, Washington set out for Virginia with the remainder of his army immediately after learning of De Grasse's plan, and the French land forces followed. The French fleet transported the allied army from the head of the Chesapeake to the vicinity of Williamsburg, and on the 28th of September it marched to Yorktown. Receiving, on the same day, a despatch from Clinton promising relief, and fearing the enemy might outflank him, Cornwallis abandoned his outposts during the following night and withdrew to his inner defences, consisting of seven redoubts and six batteries connected by intrenchments, besides batteries along the river bank. The allies, 16,000 strong, took possession of the abandoned posts and closed in on the town in a semicircle extending from Wormley Creek below it to about a mile above it, the Americans holding the right and the French the left. On the night of October 5th-6th the allies opened the first parallel about 600 yds. from the British works, and extending from a deep ravine on the N.W. to the river bank on the S.E., a distance of nearly 2 m. Six days later the second parallel was begun within 300 yds. of the British lines, and it was practically completed on the night of the 14th and 15th, when two British redoubts were carried by assault, one by the Americans led by Alexander Hamilton and one by the French led by Lieut.-Colonel G. de Deux-Ponts. In the morning of the 16th Cornwallis ordered Lieut.-Colonel Abercrombie to make an assault on two French batteries. He carried them and spiked eleven guns, but they were recovered and the guns were ready for service again twelve hours later. On the night of the 16th and 17th Cornwallis attempted to escape with his army to Gloucester on the opposite side of the river, but a storm ruined what little chance of success there was in this venture. In grave danger of an assault from the allies, Cornwallis offered to surrender on the 17th; two days later his whole army, consisting of 7073 officers and men, was surrendered, and American Independence was practically assured. The British loss during the siege was about 156 killed and 326 wounded; the American and French losses were 85 killed and 199 wounded.

In 1862 the Confederate defences about Yorktown were besieged for a month (April 4 - May 3) by the Army of the Potomac under General M'Clellan. There was no intention on the part of the Confederate commander-in-chief, Joseph Johnston, to do more than gain time by holding Yorktown and the line of the Warwick river as long as possible without serious fighting, and without imperilling the line of retreat on Richmond; and when after many delays M'Clellan was in a position to assault with full assistance from his heavy siege guns, the Confederates fell back on Williamsburg.

See T. N. Page, "Old Yorktown," in Scribner's Magazine (October, 1881); H. P. Johnston, The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis (New York, 1881); A. S. Webb, The Peninsular Campaign (New York, 1882); and J. C. Ropes, Story of the Civil War, vol. ii.

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