By John F. Di Leo =
The prior week had begun with General Cornwallis finding himself – along with his 8000 British, Loyalist American, and Hessian troops – hemmed in at Yorktown. He had consciously settled in there that spring, erecting fortifications, seemingly declaring the site permanently “British-held ground.”
But gradually, things went against him. The American Commander in Chief, General George Washington, and French General Rochambeau moved in with their American and French troops… The great British Navy under Admiral Thomas Graves was unable to offer support, as French Admiral De Grasse defeated them at an unexpected encounter at the Battle of Virginia Capes.
So, the great General Cornwallis, one of Britain’s favorites, found himself stuck, in a position growing more inescapable every day. General Henry Knox’s artillery had been firing on them for weeks; they were taking quite a beating.
By mid-October, Cornwallis was watching Alexander Hamilton taunting him, by parading his troops in full view, just out of range of the British guns, so he couldn’t do a thing about it. Washington had sent the upstart wunderkind from St. Croix to command one force, and the French nobleman Lafayette to command the other, making the most of his best people on what was sure to be an overwhelming and long-awaited defeat of their persistant enemy.
The battle was over almost as soon as it was begun; Cornwallis was forced to admit defeat on the 17th. All that remained was for them to work out the details of the surrender… and for Cornwallis to present his sword to the dominant Gentleman from Mt. Vernon.
But it was not to be. Charles Cornwallis, who had been courageous on the battlefield throughout his career, was afraid of the ignominy he was to face on October 19. This was no Roman triumph, when the victorious general parades his defeated enemy through the city in a cage, closing with his ritual decapitation. It wasn’t even a televised event, with the defeated general having his shame captured on video for the ages. In those simpler times, it was just a somber meeting, in which General Cornwallis would ride up on his horse, his retinue behind him, sign the terms of surrender, and present his sword to General Washington. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. When the time came, he turned chicken.
And on the morning of October 19, 1781, little Charles Cornwallis called in sick.
No amount of encouragement or pleading from his staff would do. He refused to budge from his stateroom. The most powerful general in the British army handed his sword to his second-in-command, General Charles O’Hara, and sent him out in his place to bear the shame of England on his shoulders.
So it was that Charles O’Hara approached Washington’s staff on the 19th of October, proffered the implausible excuse that his superior was just feeling under the weather that day, and tried to present his commander’s sword to the supreme commander of the Continental Army. General Washington, ever the master of protocol, refused it, sending forward one of his own key aides, General Benjamin Lincoln, to accept the sword instead. So it was finally done.
There are famous paintings of Cornwallis presenting his sword to Washington, but they were just for the British press. Nevertheless, with the surrender of Cornwallis’ army, it was now time to negotiate a peace with London at last. It would be another two years until the peace would be concluded at the Hotel d’York in Paris, but this was the last huge battle of the quest for what the colonists called The Glorious Cause.
The Culmination of an Amazing Military Career
The Battle of Yorktown was a long time coming; George Washington had risen from being the young son of minor country gentry in an outpost of an empire, to becoming the greatest general on earth, and it didn’t happen overnight.
Those of us who read the history of the 18th century are often amazed at Washington’s vision, as he did the impossible, taking the ragtag citizen-soldiers of 1775 and molding them into the victorious army of 1781. It took discipline, talent, and determination; it took the organizational skills of Alexander Hamilton and the training brilliance of Baron von Steuben. It took political talent and an appreciation for public relations, as Washington continually built on the support of not only the Continental Congress, but the support of the several state governments, year after year.
And it also took something else: the hand of Divine Providence, ensuring that lived long enough to make it to that day.
By normal standards of 18th century wartime, George Washington really shouldn’t have made it. He was no superhuman; he got sick frequently, and of course died of a bacterial infection in the throat. But he was never wounded in battle, not once, despite being the tallest soldier on the tallest horse, often the most obvious target in any battle.
There was the time he served under General Braddock, in 1755, during the French and Indian War. In the Battle of the Monongahela, the Indians were firing from all sides, and the British regulars, easy targets in their neat lines and red uniforms, were dropping like flies. Braddock and the other regular officers were quickly hit, and soon young Washington was the only one left to command what was left of the force. He rode through the column, organizing a retreat from these worst possible of conditions, and survived without injury, despite having two horses shot from under him, four bulletholes in his coat, and even finding bullet fragments in his hair! But not a scratch on his person, in a battle that felled virtually every officer present.
There was the time he was serving along the Pennsylvania frontier, at Fort Ligonier near present-day Pittsburgh, on November 12, 1758. Two columns of Virginia militia, separated by different routes, mistook each other for the enemy. They fired on each other, and only Washington recognized the fact, rushing back and forth between them, shouting to alert the two forces that they were firing at their compatriots. Despite being in the center of the conflagration, he was never shot himself. He was able to stop his fellows from killing each other, and again emerged from the smoke and blood without a scratch.
Throughout the War of Independence, General Washington participated in battle after battle, leading his troops, in advance and retreat, in victory and defeat, and was never wounded. His “fortune” was legendary; it was said that he was invisible to bullet, arrow, tomahawk and cannonball.
Ever since the disaster at the Monongahela, the tale of Washington’s resiliency had spread throughout the Indian tribes. One of the chiefs present at the battle reported that he had personally directed all his warriors to fire directly at Washington; from point blank range they missed – except for one direct hit that took a medallion off his cloak, a medallion found on battlefield a century later along with the imbedded bullet that the medallion had prevented from killing or even wounding the young officer.
By the Revolution, Washington was the most famous, and most respected, of colonial officers. He was our greatest equestrian, our greatest commander, a leader of men and a political genius.
But his strategy – the overall strategy of slowly wearing down the British, year after year, until they finally decided it wasn’t worth fighting us anymore – this strategy could not be judged until the end.
And on October 19, 1781, the end finally came. With this masterful and decisive victory, Washington’s strategy was proven right. Divine Providence had kept the Gentleman from Mt Vernon alive throughout a long war, fit and healthy enough to retire to his home at the end of it, like Cincinnatus and his ancient farm.
And fortunate we are for that, because Washington’s service to his country was nowhere near its end. Unbeknownst to him, even after the victory at Yorktown, the Indispensible Man had two more key services to perform – a Constitutional Convention and a Presidency, in fact – to put the United States of America on a firm road to the success of a noble City on a Hill.
Copyright 2013 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance lecturer. He studied history and political science at Northwestern University, and writes regularly about current events and American history for Illinois Review.
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