While we were staying in the Hampton Roads area, we visited a few of the historical sites which make the area so notable. On Sunday, November 17, we went to one of the “historic triangle” sites (Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown). Our choice was Yorktown.
Our day consisted of meeting my mother and going to the Yorktown Battlefield together with the kids. We started at the visitor center and toured the museum and watched an orientation film which depicted the dramatic end of the Revolutionary War.
In May of 1781, British General Charles, Lord Cornwallis, moved his army into Virginia after a costly North Carolina campaign. He was under orders from his superior in New York (Sir Henry Clinton) to establish a naval base somewhere in the lower Chesapeake Bay area. He chose the port of Yorktown as the location. In early August he transferred his army there, even though they had been pursued by the French Marquis de Lafayette throughout the months. (Remember, the French were aiding the rebel Americans in their fight for independence – not so much out of love for Americans, but rather out of spite for Britain.)
However, the Allied army, numbering 17,000 men, gathered at nearby Williamsburg to prepare to engage Lord Cornwallis. On September 28, 1781, they marched to Yorktown to face Cornwallis’ 8300-man garrison.
Lord Cornwallis thought he’d be able to escape the port city of Yorktown by sea, if needed. However, he didn’t anticipate that the French naval fleet, under command of Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, would have established a blockade which would prevent him from escaping.
This proved to be the magic bullet. On October 17, once Lord Cornwallis realized that he was cornered, he sent word to General Washington requesting a meeting to discuss terms for the surrender of the British army. Two days later, on October 19, 1781, the surrender was official.
An interesting side note: we learned that Lord Cornwallis wanted to surrender “with honors”, as was the gentlemen’s tradition at the time. However, the main reason that the terms of surrender took two days to negotiate was that General Washington would not allow it regardless of Lord Cornwallis’ insistence. Why not? The reason he declined the request for surrender with honors was because months earlier, in Trenton, New Jersey, British Lord Tarleton would not allow the rebel American army to surrender with honors after the Battle of Trenton. It was a demoralizing embarrassment for the American forces. So General Washington was returning the favor, so to speak. (And if you have ever watched the movie “Amazing Grace” about the abolition of slavery in Britain - excellent movie, by the way - Lord Tarleton was the person in the movie who opposed abolition. Yes, Lord Tarleton went on to be a representative in Parliament following the Revolutionary War. Interesting how these things tie together, isn’t it?)
Back to the battle –
General Washington maintained a standing army for two more years, as it was suspected that more fighting would take place in the quest for independence. The American army didn’t stand down until the Treaty of Paris, which put an official end to the hostilities, was signed in 1783. (Incidentally, we saw the actual Treaty of Paris on traveling display when we visited Boston.)
While touring the Yorktown battlefield, we took the audio driving tour. We saw the earthworks on the battlefield for both the British and the Allied forces, merely 400 or so feet apart. We saw the Grand French Battery, which opened fire on the British on October 9th, marking the start of the battle. We also saw Redoubts 9 and 10 which the French and American forces captured in less than 30 minutes. Most impressively, we saw and went inside the Moore House, which is the location where the terms of surrender were negotiated. We were the only ones there, so we received a private tour and saw the actual room where General Washington and Lord Cornwallis hashed it out. And the last place that we saw was Surrender Field, which is the field onto which Cornwallis’ army marched and laid down arms. On display at this field are the cannons which were surrendered, each one engraved with the date on which it was surrendered.
After earning the Junior Ranger badge and shopping in the gift shop, we said our goodbyes to Grandma and headed back home. It was an enjoyable day.