Lafayette for Young Americans - Rupert Holland

"Cornwallis has Surrendered!"

Cornwallis, toward the end of May, 1781, set out to conquer Virginia. The only American force to oppose him was that of Lafayette, for General Greene had sent the Marquis a letter directing him to take command in that State. All that Lafayette could do was to follow the tactics of General von Steuben; retreat slowly, carrying his stores, whenever possible, to places of safety.

But that retreat kept him constantly busy. When he had been in the North he had longed for more to do. Now, he wrote to Alexander Hamilton, "my complaint is quite of the opposite nature." The British, he thought, had between four thousand and five thousand men. "We have nine hundred Continentals," he continued in his letter. "Their infantry is near five to one, their cavalry ten to one. Our militia is not numerous, some without arms, and are not used to war." He urged Hamilton to come South and take command of the artillery; he wanted one real fight, "to receive one blow," he said, "that, being beat, I may at least be beat with some decency. . . . But, if the Pennsylvanians come, Lord Cornwallis shall pay something for his victory." As things stood he felt that he was "not strong enough even to be beaten."

But the Pennsylvanians under Wayne were slow in arriving. Lafayette wrote to Washington, "Were I to fight a battle I should be cut to pieces, the militia dispersed and the arms lost. . . . I am therefore determined to skirmish, but not to engage too far; and particularly to take care against their immense and excellent body of horse, whom the militia fear as they would so many wild beasts."

The Virginia militia grew impatient and began to show signs of deserting as the harvest-time approached and they felt the urge of home duties. There was also the danger of disease. "By the utmost care to avoid infected ground," Lafayette wrote in another letter, "we have hitherto got rid of the smallpox. I wish the harvest-time might be as easily got over."

Cornwallis, on his part, was as satisfied with the situation as Lafayette was troubled by it. He sent word to General Clinton, "I shall now proceed to dislodge Lafayette from Richmond, and with my light troops to destroy magazines or stores in the neighborhood. . . . From thence I propose to move to the neck at Williamsburg, which is represented as healthy . . . . and keep myself unengaged from operations which might interfere with your plan for the campaign until I have the satisfaction of hearing from you."

Lafayette left Richmond, as Cornwallis planned. The Marquis was forced to retreat before the superior army, or, as he put it, made to engage in "a runaway kind of war that I most heartily detest." If he should be caught, his army would be crushed, and Virginia, the key to the South, thrown open to the enemy. Speedily he marched to the Forks of the Chickahominy, thence to the South Anna, to the North Anna, to the Rapidan. He was looking for the troops of Wayne. And after him came Cornwallis. The British had raided the plantation stables, and Tarleton's dragoons were mounted on Virginia race-horses. The dragoons and the rangers overran the country, descended upon Charlottesville, captured seven members of the Legislature, and almost took the Governor, Thomas Jefferson, himself.

By early June the retreating Marquis had reached northern Virginia, and then one day his eyes were gladdened by the sight of waving plumes. The troops were "Mad Anthony "Wayne's men, and though their clothes might be in tatters their General saw to it that their plumes were of the best. There were less than a thousand soldiers, but they, and their commander, were full of fight; and from the moment of their arrival Lafayette abandoned his policy of retreating.

Cornwallis, having heard of Anthony Wayne, began to grow cautious. He decided that he had done about all the damage he could in Virginia. The tobacco had been burned, and all the horses stolen. The homes of the planters had been emptied of silver, and the negroes were hiding in the swamps. Moreover he had allowed himself to be drawn farther than was wise from his base of supplies. Then came an order from General Clinton, directing him to send three thousand troops to New York and to seek a safe defensive position. So Cornwallis now began to retreat down the James River.

Lafayette immediately followed, and a zigzag game commenced. One army was continually seeking to outwit the other. Once Lafayette's flank was in danger. He marched his men by night, however, over a forgotten wood road and reached safety. Six hundred mounted men came to join him from neighboring counties, and were warmly welcomed, for he was in great need of horses. At one time, to get his troops forward faster, he had each horse carry double. When General von Steuben joined him on June nineteenth the Americans and the British each had about four thousand men, though in the American army there were only fifteen hundred regulars and fifty dragoons.

Swords for the cavalry were even scarcer than horses, but Lafayette wanted mounted troops, and so he planned to provide some of his riders with spears, "which," he said, "in the hands of a gentleman must be a formidable weapon." In one way and another he kept his men mounted and armed and continued along the James, pressing hard on the enemy's heels.

Cornwallis, on his side, was planning to send a large number of his men north to reinforce Clinton, as he had been directed, and to combine the rest with the British garrison at Portsmouth, near Norfolk. To do that he would have to cross to the south side of the James River, and he felt very certain that Lafayette would seize that opportunity to attack him. Accordingly he arranged an ambush, intending to lure the Americans on with the belief that all except the rear-guard of the British had reached the opposite bank.

General Wayne was leading the American advance, and on July sixth he heard that Cornwallis was crossing the James River at Green Springs. Immediately he hastened forward, to catch the enemy out of position, which was what Cornwallis expected. Meantime, however, Lafayette, who was alert as a fox when it came to snares and traps, observed that the British were clinging tenaciously to their base on the northern bank and were replacing the wounded officers whom American riflemen picked off. He rode out on a point of land, and seeing that the British troops were waiting under protection of their artillery, immediately perceived the ambush. At once he spurred back to give General Wayne warning. By that time, however, Wayne's men had already opened fire.

Wayne had gone forward some distance when, to his great surprise, at the other end of a dirt and corduroy road that led across a marsh he found Cornwallis waiting for him with five thousand veteran troops. It was a tight place, but Anthony Wayne's policy always was "among a choice of difficulties, to advance and charge." This he immediately did. His riflemen opened fire, and then charged with the bayonet, eight hundred against five thousand. Audacity won the day. Cornwallis thought that Lafayette was about to attack him with all his army, which he knew now numbered six thousand men. He drew his troops back, and Wayne, taking advantage of this, retreated safely out of the ambush.

Lafayette, who had joined Wayne, greatly admired the latter's daring tactics, and wrote to Washington in praise of him. Apparently the Marquis had also been daring that day, for Wayne, when he made his report that no officers had been killed, though many of them had had horses wounded under them, added, "I will not condole with the Marquis for the loss of two of his, as he was frequently requested to keep at a greater distance. His native bravery rendered him deaf to the admonition."

Cornwallis now crossed the James and continued his march to the seaboard. Putting his army aboard transports, he sailed up the Chesapeake and into the next river north of the James, the York. In the meantime Clinton wrote to him, rebuking him for leaving so much of Virginia in the hands of the Americans, and directing him to fortify a place between the James and York Rivers that would secure a harbor for ships of the line. Cornwallis picked out a village on the high bluffs, called Yorktown, and fortified it, and also Gloucester Point, on the opposite bank.

While the British were building defenses in the early part of August, Lafayette led his troops to Williamsburg and gave them the rest they needed after so many weeks of constant marching. He sent out scouting parties; but there were no British to be seen. Except for those at Yorktown and Gloucester Point, the whole countryside was occupied by Americans.

This inactivity soon began to make the Marquis fret. He wrote to Washington that he knew nothing of what was going on in the world outside Virginia, that he was homesick for headquarters, and that if he could not help in the defense of New York, he would at least like to know what was happening there. Washington replied that he expected soon to send him important news.

While Lafayette and Cornwallis had been playing a game of tag in the South the commander-in-chief had not been idle in the North. Washington had held a conference with Rochambeau on May twenty-first at Wethersfield, in Connecticut. The Count de Banas, who had succeeded Admiral de Terney in command of the French squadron at Newport, was not able to attend the meeting, at which plans were discussed for bringing about joint action by the French army and navy and the American troops. Rochambeau favored a campaign in the South. Washington, disliking the waste of soldiers and time required by a long march to Virginia, preferred an attack on Clinton in the North, provided he could count on the assistance of the French West Indian fleet, under command of the Count de Grasse.

At that time the campaign was not going well in Virginia, and Washington thought that nothing would help the American cause so much as an attack in force on the British in New York. So Rochambeau sent the frigate La Concorde to the West Indies with a letter to De Grasse explaining Washington's plans and urging the Admiral to sail north and bring with him the five or six thousand French troops who were stationed at Santo Domingo. . Rochambeau wrote, "General Washington has but a handful of men. This country has been driven to bay. The Continental army has been annihilated." In addition to men, Rochambeau urged De Grasse to bring with him money, much needed to finance the campaign.

De Grasse had meantime written to Rochambeau, "It will be toward the fifteenth of July at the earliest that I shall be able to reach the coast of North America." Rochambeau wrote an even more urgent letter to the Admiral. And soon the man-of-war Saggittaire, with troops in convoy, brought money and other supplies, and Rochambeau joined his forces to those of Washington at Dobbs' Ferry on the sixth of July.

Shortly afterwards even more promising news reached the commander-in-chief. De Grasse was coming with his whole fleet. He would bring troops, with field-pieces, siege-guns, mortars, everything that was needed to equip an army in the field. He would sail for the Capes of Chesapeake, "the point," he wrote Rochambeau, "which appears to me to have been indicated by you, Monsieur le Comte, and by MM. Washington, de la Luzerne and de Barras, as the one from which the advantage which you propose may be most certainly attained." And he added, "As I shall be able to remain upon the Continent with my troops only until the fifteenth of October, I shall be obliged to you, Monsieur le Comte, if you make use of me promptly and effectively."

Washington and Rochambeau thought that here was a chance to win the war at last. No time must be lost, however, if they were to use De Grasse's men. The commander-in-chief at once sent a courier to Lafayette, telling him of the arrival of the French fleet and the plan to capture Cornwallis. The Marquis was to see that Cornwallis did not escape toward the South; and if General Wayne had started for the Carolinas he was to return to Virginia to reinforce the Americans.

Placing some of his troops in such a way that Clinton would think he was planning to attack New York, Washington, in company with Rochambeau, started south on the twenty-third and twenty-fourth of August. Clinton did think that this march was part of a movement against his army, and it was not until the second of September that he discovered that he was not facing Washington, but General William Heath, who had been put in command of the American forces on the Hudson.

By that time Washington and Rochambeau, with two thousand Continentals and four thousand French, had made good progress southward. The commander-in-chief reached Philadelphia on the thirtieth of August. There Rochambeau gave the Continental soldiers a welcome surprise by paying them twenty thousand dollars in gold. At Chester, on September fifth, Washington heard that De Grasse had arrived in the Chesapeake. He waved his hat in the air as Rochambeau came up and told his French ally the good news. One of the French officers said, "I never saw a man so thoroughly and openly delighted," and Colonel Guillaume de Deux-Ponts declared that "instead of the reserved and exceedingly dignified manner of the Commander-in-Chief to which they had grown accustomed, they then saw his face beaming in delight, and 'a child where every wish had been gratified could not have expressed a keener joy.'"

Washington showed his ardent, human side frequently to such friends as Lafayette, and sometimes, as when he heard of the French fleet's arrival, to his officers and men.

Next he went to Head of Elk, where Rochambeau's troops arrived on the eighth of September and boarded boats. By a quick ride the commander-in-chief made a visit to Mount Vernon, the first in six years. On the fourteenth he met Lafayette at Williamsburg, and found that the French soldiers from the West Indies had already placed themselves under command of the Marquis.

The newly arrived French officers had a high opinion of Lafayette's military tactics. General du Portail had written concerning him, "Our young General's judgment is mature; with all the ardor of his temperament, I think he will be able to wait for the proper moment and not touch the fruit until it is ripe." And French officers much older in service now showed themselves glad to serve under his direction.

Some time earlier Lafayette had written a description of the military situation in Virginia to Washington, and had added, "Should a French fleet now come into Hampton Roads, the British army would, I think, be ours." The French fleet had now come, and it looked indeed as if Cornwallis were to be caught at Yorktown.

Washington stationed General Wayne at Westover to bar the road south against Cornwallis, and sent Colonel de Gimat to Cape Henry to watch for De Grasse. Colonel de Gimat boarded the flagship, Ville de Path, and gave the Admiral the messages from the commander and from Lafayette. Lafayette begged De Grasse "to sail up Chesapeake Bay immediately, to drive the enemy's frigates into the James River in order to keep the passage clear and to blockade the York River."

Meantime the British Admiral Rodney had been trying to attack De Grasse. He had sent Admiral Hood, with fourteen ships of the line, to reconnoitre. Hood had sailed into the Chesapeake in search of De Grasse before the Frenchman had got there, and not seeing the enemy, had withdrawn again. Then the British Admiral Graves, looking for the French Admiral de Barras, had encountered De Grasse, and the latter had gone outside and driven him back to New York, while the adroit De Barras had sailed into the bay to help transport the American and French troops that were arriving there.

Lafayette was ready to attack Yorktown before the other commanders, and some of his officers urged him to take the field at once. He knew, however, what Washington wanted him to do, for the commander-in-chief had written him that should the retreat of Cornwallis by water be cut off, "you will do all in your power to prevent his escape by land. May that great felicity be reserved for you."

The armies of Washington and Rochambeau had reached Lafayette's headquarters on September fourteenth. Salutes were fired and the armies paraded. Colonel Richard Butler says in his Journal that many "great personages and officers supped together in the utmost harmony and happiness." Lafayette had the ague, but the next day he was better, and gave a dinner in honor of the officers in camp. Washington was now in command, and it gave the young Frenchman great pleasure to think that his friend was to complete in triumph a campaign that had been beset with so many hardships and trials.

On the twenty-seventh of September Washington issued his orders for the investment of Yorktown. Next morning the two armies marched forward. Washington wrote, "Half a mile beyond the Halfway House the French and Americans separated. The former continued on the direct road to York, by the Brick House; the latter filed off to the right for Munford's Bridge, where a junction with the militia was to be made. About noon the head of each column arrived at its ground."

The American troops were on the right, the French on the left wing. Defenses were thrown up, and advantage taken of the woods and the marshy creeks. Tighter and tighter the allies brought their lines about Cornwallis. The armies held the mainland, the French fleet blocked the path to the sea; the British were caught in the trap.

The allied batteries opened fire, set enemy vessels ablaze in the York River and sunk many of them. On October tenth Cornwallis attempted to break through at Gloucester Point. He embarked troops on flat boats, crossed the York River, and tried to turn the right wing of the French. Watchful outposts drove him back. On the night of October fourteenth two British redoubts were taken, one by French troops, the other by Americans under Lafayette. Six shells fired in quick succession was the signal to advance, and Lafayette's four hundred men went forward under fire without returning a shot, and took the redoubt at the point of the bayonet in short order. Then on October seventeenth a British drummer appeared on Yorktown's ramparts, and Cornwallis sent a note to Washington asking for an armistice to arrange terms of surrender.

Through the ragged, but determined, army of the Republic, ran the triumphant tidings "Cornwallis has surrendered!"

An American and a French officer met two British officers at a farmhouse, and articles of surrender were drawn up and accepted. The French historian Jusserand writes, "On the 19th of October, after a loss of less than 300 men in each of the besieging armies, an act was signed as great in its consequences as any that ever followed the bloodiest battles, the capitulation of Yorktown. It was in a way a ratification of that other act, which had been proposed for signature five years before at Philadelphia by men whose fate had more than once in the interval seemed desperate, the Declaration of Independence."

In the afternoon of October 19, 1781, the army of Cornwallis marched out of Yorktown with their colors cased, their drums beating the tune "The World Turned Upside Down," between the long lines of French and Americans drawn up on the Hampton Road, to a field where a squadron of French soldiers had spread out to form a large circle. Cornwallis was ill, and sent General O'Hara to represent him. The sword of the British commander was received on Washington's behalf by General Lincoln, who at once returned it.

As it happened, the French officer who had prepared the articles of surrender at the farmhouse was Lafayette's brother-in-law, the Vicomte de Noailles, one of the two young men to whom Lafayette had taken the word that he meant to go "to America to fight for liberty!" Now the Vicomte saw that the ardent hopes of the young enthusiast had borne such glorious fruit!

There stands a monument on the heights above the York River, in Virginia, and on one side of it are these words: "At York, on October 19, 1781, after a siege of nineteen days, by 5,500 American and 7,000 French Troops of the Line, 3,500 Virginia Militia under command of General Thomas Nelson and 36 French ships of war, Earl Cornwallis, Commander of the British Forces at York and Gloucester, surrendered his army, 7,251 officers and men, 840 seamen, 244 cannons and 24 standards to His Excellency George Washington, Commander in Chief of the Colonial Forces of America and France, to His Excellency the Comte de Rochambeau, commanding the auxiliary Troops of His Most Christian Majesty in America, and to His Excellency the Comte de Grasse, commanding in chief the Naval Army of France in Chesapeake."

It was largely due to Lafayette that the French fleet and the army of Rochambeau had crossed the ocean and that the Americans in Virginia had succeeded in bottling up Cornwallis at Yorktown and so bringing an end to the Revolution.

A week after the surrender of Cornwallis British forces came down from New York, Clinton, Graves, Hood, with a big fleet and seven thousand fresh troops, but when they reached the Capes of the Chesapeake they learned what had happened at Yorktown and turned back again.

Lafayette went with Washington to visit Admiral de Grasse, and the plan of an expedition to the Carolinas, in which Lafayette was to command the land forces, was discussed, but since the French admiral was in haste to be off, the expedition was abandoned, and soon afterwards De Grasse's fleet sailed for the West Indies.

Lafayette then set out for the North. He stopped at Baltimore, where the citizens had loaned him money and where the women had sewed shirts for his needy soldiers, and said, in reply to an address, "My campaign began with a personal obligation to the people of Baltimore, at the end of which I find myself bound to them by a tie of everlasting gratitude."

Then he went on to pay his respects to Congress in Philadelphia.

And so, in success, ended Lafayette's campaign against Yorktown. "It was the grandest of causes," he said, "won by the skirmishes of sentinels and outposts."