Thursday, October 19, 2017

AMERICAN REVOLUTION | Oct. 19 – Washington Defeats Cornwallis

Redcoats Surrender to George Washington.
October 19, 2017 – At 2 a.m. on this day in 1781, 8,000 British troops and Hessian mercenaries under Charles (Lord) Cornwallis started filtering out of their Yorktown base to surrender to George Washington.

He had scored, with French allies, a decisive victory over the British, who two days before surrendered and sued for peace. Besides giving up troops and seamen, Cornwallis abandoned 144 cannons and nearly 50 naval vessels. 

It had not been going so well before that. Washington’s troops were wearing rags and food was short. Desertions were frequent. During the summer, only a few thousand troops were left at their camp at West Point, New York. 

The British had a large force in New York City under General Henry Clinton, well entrenched and prepared for an attack. But Washington learned that the British forces under the control of Lord Cornwallis were building a naval base at Yorktown in Virginia. He decided on a faking an attack on New York City, then marching his army past toward Virginia, to trap Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown. 

Washington’s 2,500 troops crossed the Hudson River on August 21, united with a French army of 4,000 men under Count de Rochambeau, and headed south to join up with the Marquis de Lafayette in Virginia, who was leading an American army of about 5,000 men. The combined force of 11,500 would attack Cornwallis. 

Washington's army and their French allies covered 200 miles in 15 days, marching every day from 2 a.m. until the troops were too exhausted by the heat to continue. They reached the head of Chesapeake Bay in early September. Few armies in history had ever moved with this speed so far.

Cornwallis got word of Washington's approach, but foolishly decided  that his troops could hold out till the British Navy arrived. To his dismay, he discovered that the large French fleet under Count de Grasse routed the British fleet under Admiral Thomas Graves at the Battle of Virginia Capes on September 5, denying Cornwallis his rescue and exit.

Meanwhile, de Grasse sailed many of Washington and Rochambeau’s men down the Chesapeake to Virginia. They joined Lafayette on September 28 and cut off Cornwallis. De Grasse landed another 3,000 French troops on his ships. During the first two weeks of October, the 14,000 French and American troops overcame the fortified British positions with the aid of de Grasse’s warships... a British fleet carrying 7,000 men was on its way but was too slow in getting there to be of any help.

In the early weeks of October, Washington's troops began their siege, bombarding Corwallis with gun and cannon fire. He sent word of his surrender. Washington required the British to march out of the city, giving up their arms. But Cornwallis didn't show up for the surrender ceremony, pleading illness. He gave his sword to his second-in-command, to be offered to the French general, letting everyone know that Cornwallis considered himself beaten not by the American rebels but by the French. There was truth to that, surely, since half the troops and all the naval force was French. 

Whatever the mix of credit for Washington's victory, England took the defeat of Cornwallis with despair and lost the taste for teaching the colonials a lesson. The government decided not to invest in another army and appealed to Washington for peace. The eight-year Revolutionary War was officially over two years later, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783.

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