(Photo credit: American cannons and mortars behind redoubt on 1st siege Line, Yorktown battlefield, courtesy DanRhett, Flickr Creative Commons)
Not so long ago I watched on PBS a documentary about founding father Alexander Hamilton, hosted by historian Richard Brookhiser. At one point in the documentary Brookhiser headed off to the battlefield site at Yorktown, Virginia, where in 1781 a French-American army had scored a huge victory by defeating and capturing the main British army in the South. That victory saw the beginning of the end of British military operations in the United States, and led King George’s government to sue for peace in 1783.
One bit I particularly liked in this documentary was a reenactment of one of the battle’s most dramatic moments, where an American force under Hamilton’s command stormed one of the key British defensive positions, Redoubt #10. This was no ordinary reenactment, though. Scores of local high school kids were drafted in to reenact the glorious scene. The “Brits” in this group wore red t-shirts while the “Continentals” were clad in blue. Armed with similarly color-coded long inflatable bats, the two armies of what looked like tenth graders faced off against each other, at one of the battle’s original redoubts. At the appointed moment, the kid playing Hamilton ordered his troops forward to storm the British barricades. The two “armies” clashed and suddenly all was a blur of yelling and shouting and inflatable bats/swords clashing, before the Americans claimed victory.
I loved this! It was great fun watching these kids whaling (safely) on each other. It made a nice change from the usual film of historic battle reeanctments. These are great, but we’ve seen that sort of thing a thousand times on TV (or on historic site interpretive films, or even live) and they all sort of blur into one big, undifferentiated clash of arms. This was different. Although the scene was more redolent of the medieval world than the 18th century, the raw energy these kids showed when they were having at it was amazing. They looked like they were having a blast.
I couldn’t help but think of that scene when I finally managed to visit Yorktown in the summer of 2013. It depicts one of the battle’s most legendary moments. Yet Hamilton’s storming of Redoubt #10 was only a small part of a battle that, over the course of nearly three weeks, had relatively little to do with storming barricades and lots to do with big guns blasting away at each other.
The Yorktown battlefield is part of Colonial NHP, a National Park Service unit that also incorporates the nearby Jamestowne Settlement site. Coming off the lovely Colonial Parkway, I arrived at the visitor center, which is one of those blocky, brick-sided ’70s-era buildings with no windows. It’s a little faded but still functioning. The theater was also a bit tired looking—I spotted at least one seat that was dysfunctional. The interpretive film, “A Time of Revolution,” was decent enough but nothing special.
The place to be at Yorktown, especially on a beautiful day, is outdoors, checking out the battlefield. As is usually the case at these places, rangers take groups of visitors on short tours on a small part of the battlefield and leave us to walk or drive around the larger site on our own. In this case the ranger tour focused on the British inner defenses and we didn’t venture too far from the visitor center, which was just as well. This tour group was very large, with up to 60 people. It took a long time to get things moving, especially as the ranger wanted to wait for the most recent showing of the interpretive film to conclude so he could add these folks to the group. Clearly he wanted to get his numbers up—the park service needs to show that its tours are well-attended in order to justify keeping them going. But tour groups can get too big, and this one was right on the edge. As is always the case with larger groups, it takes what seems like an age just to get people marshaled and then moving from one point to another—especially when the group has a number of people who are a little older and not too steady on their feet.
Having finally corralled everyone outside, the ranger got started, albeit 10 minutes late. There was a couple of big points that he wanted to get across in his talk as we stood near the spot of the British army’s last stand in the last great battle of the Revolutionary War. One is that Yorktown is hallowed ground for Americans, because it’s the place where the United States effectively won its freedom from Britain after six long years of war. But the site is also a great place to see how a proper 18th century siege works. Yorktown wasn’t a big open battle with ranks of soldiers marching toward each other. It was a siege—in fact, it was a textbook siege that worked. It was a story of digging trenches, blasting positions with cannons and storming barricades. And there’s enough of it left today that you can still roam around (preferably with a park service map and guide) and actually see how it worked.
Historians today still argue about exactly how and why British commanders could have allowed their southern army to be caught in a trap. The story is still a bit fuzzy, but basically, by September of 1781 the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, was in a bit of a fix. His forces had suffered a high rate of casualties over the spring and summer—especially at the bloody battle of Guilford Court House. Seeking to rest and replenish, he had moved his army back to the Yorktown Peninsula, on the Chesapeake Bay, expecting to be easily supplied by British naval forces. However, a French fleet under Come de Grasse had blocked access to that bay and defeated a British naval force sent to relieve Cornwallis. Cut off and awaiting another, more powerful relief attempt by forces based in New York, the British general ordered his troops to dig in. That relief never came.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the British, an allied force of French and American troops under George Washington had marched south from outside New York and by late September had surrounded Cornwallis’ forces, who were well dug in but who were now also trapped on the peninsula with a hostile French fleet behind them. With a major advantage in men and supplies, the allies laid siege to the British position.
Hamilton’s big moment came toward the end of the siege, when the last key British defenses—Redoubts 9 and 10—had to be taken to break British resistance. While the French attacked Redoubt 9 Hamilton with his small force of Continentals took Redoubt 10, and in so doing finally secured for himself the military glory he had so long sought. But to get to that point a lot of preparation had to be done to “soften up” the British defenses.
When it comes to softening up defensive positions, people who are into pre-modern siege tactics love to hear about parallels and cannons. The basic playbook goes all the way back to the medieval period, though it had been tweaked a bit by the 18th century to take account of improvements in artillery. The goal in any siege is to get your guns close enough to pound the enemy defenses while protecting them from enemy fire. Before tanks and helicopter gunships, parallels were the way to do this.
Parallels are fortified trenches that run parallel to an enemy’s defensive positions. In a siege, the besiegers will first dig a parallel trench just out of range of the enemy’s muskets (so the diggers can’t be easily picked off by snipers). From there they dig forward in a zig-zag pattern, to provide some protection to the diggers from enemy fire, before stopping at a certain point and digging out a second parallel closer to the defensive lines. Once completed and fortified, artillery will be brought forward to this new parallel to open fire the enemy positions. Once the besiegers are able to return heavy fire they can continue to zig-zag forward with new trenches to establish another parallel closer to the enemy. And so it goes on until the enemy—who presumably is running short of provisions—is outgunned and gives up in the face of superior forces. That’s the theory. (If anyone is interested in seeing this process depicted in a movie, 1993’s Last of the Mohicans is a good bet: it shows French forces besieging British Fort William Henry during the French and Indian War.)
The theory worked very well in the case of Yorktown, but that’s only because of the other key element in the besieger’s playbook: cannons (a blanket term I’ll use to cover mortars and howitzers as well). Oftentimes it’s the side with the bigger cannons that will win. This point was emphasized by the ranger during his tour when he took us over to look at some examples of original British and allied artillery. The Franco-American cannons were clearly bigger—much bigger. The British were short of cannons, especially of the heavier variety. The allies, on the other hand, had plenty of 12-pounders, 24-pounders, and even 36-pounders at their disposal. They also had lots more ammunition.
Toward the end, the few British heavy guns had been destroyed and allied heavy cannon balls were chewing up British positions while Cornwallis’ few remaining 6-pounders made barely a dent on the other side. At that point it’s pretty much game over. You either surrender or see your surviving men obliterated. Cornwallis knew this all too well and, with no relief on the horizon, he surrendered on October 17. And for the British campaign to retake their American colonies it really was game over.
If you’re looking for place to go that helps you understand 18th century siege warfare, you could do a lot worse than Yorktown.
Artillery at the Siege of Yorktown. Available at http://xenophongroup.com/mcjoynt/yrtnarty.htm
Burke Davis (2007). The Campaign that Won America: The Story of Yorktown. New York: HarperCollins.
Andrew Ferguson (2011). History’s Examplars. Humanities: The Magazine for the National Endowment of the Humanities. March/April. Available at http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2011/marchapril/feature/historys-exemplars
Brendan Morrissey (1997). Yorktown 1781: The World Turned Upside Down. Osprey.
Siege of Yorktown, 28 September – 19 October 1781. Xenophon Group. Available at http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_yorktown.html