The Final Act at Yorktown
This is the Yorktown Victory Monument in Yorktown, Virginia. It was here in a siege that lasted from September 28, 1781, to October 19, 1781, that final act of the American Revolution started.
Wait a second. You do know that when the British surrendered at Yorktown, that was not the end of the war right?
The war did not officially end until the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783. That means the war lasted for almost two years after Yorktown. Then why is it called the end of the war?
The Battle Was Over, But Not The War
After Yorktown, the British ended offensive operations in North America. They were fighting France and Spain for control of the Caribbean (and other places). These were far more valuable to them than the American Colonies.
Fighting still occurred as both sides took every chance to raid and smack around the other guys. Besides, Britain still controlled Charleston, Savannah, and New York which were no small potatoes. That wasn’t the worst news. The United States was broke, so even though the major fighting was over other issues, just as deadly started to take root. With no money Congress could not pay the troops, without pay, many troops wondering why they even stay in the army. Some thought that they should simply turn on Congress and there was a very, very real chance that the army would turn on Congress and put a dictatorship in place. Luckily General Washington himself put the kibosh on this.
During this time also, behind the scenes of the treaty negotiations was a bunch of backbiting double-dealing that threatened to prolong the war. In the end, the treaty was signed and the war was officially over. The adventure for the new country was just about to begin.
Don’t Forget the French
From the years 1778 to 1783 the American Revolution was a world war.
In 1777 after capturing an entire British army at Saratoga, NY the Americans were finally able to convince the rest of the world that they had a chance of winning. Up until that point France had been willing to provide a trickle of support to the Americans, unofficially of course., but they sought to avoid a war with the British. After Saratoga, however, they felt that they were ready to join the fight.
At first, their main support was money and supplies. With the American economy failing and the Congress inept both of these contributions were desperately needed. What was need more, however, was the French navy for the Americans would never be able to match the British on the oceans themselves. After several false starts and aborted expeditions, France provided ships and men to the Revolution culminating in the Siege of Yorktown and an American victory in the war.
The detail of their support is a fascinating story itself, and one that deserves more than just a few hundred words here. The plaque in the photo is located in the siege works of Yorktown and serves as a reminder that whatever we have today, we owe to the Frenchmen that gave their lives for our cause. Over 2,000 French sailors and soldiers paid the ultimate price for our freedom while fighting in direct support of America. Counting all French casualties during the period of an alliance, that number soars to almost fifteen thousand. This fantastic website details those losses, French Sacrifice.
How did repay them?
We refused to pay back much of the money they loaned us. Instead, Congress claimed that it was a gift and not a loan. (Thank Arthur Lee for that.)
We refused to help support their own revolution. A revolution that was caused in part due to the financial impact of loaning us the money they did.
From 1798 to 1800 we actually fought our “allies” in an undeclared Quasi-War on the ocean.
Now of course none of those things as clear-cut as they sound, but those will be stories for another time.
Up and Over at Yorktown
This picture is from the Yorktown Battlefield park and was taken from the American and French lines on the right side of the battlefield, not far from Redoubts 9 and 10.
A couple of things to point out in this photo.
First thing. Notice the path and how it seemingly goes between two huge mounds of dirt off into the distance? That is the result of digging the siege lines. The dirt that was moved was used to create the large berms. So digging down not only made it safer, but provided the material needed to make the fortifications. The American forces during the Revolution were very good at digging these fortifications and many times amazing works like this would be created over night, leaving the British dumbfounded.
Second thing. The cannons closest to us are mortars. During a siege the enemy usually were behind some kind of fortifications. Sometimes stronger than any artillery you may have on hand. Mortars are designed to lob shells over the fortifications and into the enemy or the civilians behind the lines. They can be very effective but were not used in regular field battles.
The cannons in the background would be used for direct fire, aimed at a target and fired at it. During a siege, they would batter the fortifications hoping to break them down so the infantry could take a run at it. In normal field battles these would be used to great effect. We will see many more of these on the site and get into their uses. It was just neat to see bot types of artillery in one picture.
Nothing like a monument to victory.
This one stands at Yorktown were the last major battle of the American Revolution was fought. The French fleet paved the way by running of the British Navy from the Chesapeake Capes and preventing them from either supplying, reinforcing or evacuating the British forces under General Cornwallis that were cornered in Yorktown.
With the British Navy unable to render assistance the combined forces of the French and American armies surrounded the British army and placed them under siege. After several weeks, on October 19, 1781 General Cornwallis had no choice but to surrender. With the loss of another army to the rebels and facing continued conflict with the French and Spanish as well as declining public sentiment at home, peach negotiations were started in earnest. The war would continue for several more years, but for the most part the major fighting would be elsewhere.
The monument above commemorates not only that victory but also the alliance with the French. The monument was designed by Richard Morris Hunt, a New York architect, and was installed in 1884. On the top perched a sculpture of Victory, designed and sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward.
In 1942 the monument was struck by lightning, destroying the figure of Victory. In 1957 the figure was replaced by a sculpture of Liberty designed by Oskar J. W. Hansen.
The day that this picture was taken was overcast, rain and wind made for a long day, but the walk from the visitor center to the monument was worth it once you crested the ridge and saw the monument standing guard over the battlefield and the memories of that day in October in 1781 when all fear and wonder of doubt of whether or not we could win the war was removed for good.