Killing Horses, Freeing Slaves at Yorktown, 1781

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1999-2026:

While Washington believed that a joint American-French assault on New York was the best option, Rochambeau was less than convinced. Their tenuous strategy sessions changed, however, in August when the French commander received a message from the French Admiral Comte de Grasse. In his letter de Grasse claimed that he was en route to Virginia with twenty-nine warships and over three thousand troops, but with hurricane season at hand and other pressing matters in the Caribbean, he could only remain until October. Time was now of the essence, and Washington and Rochambeau believed that if the Admiral de Grasse could blockade Chesapeake Bay with his fleet, Cornwallis could be trapped at his new operational headquarters of Yorktown. On August 19, 1781, Washington and Rochambeau began their march to Virginia; it would be the first time that the American commander had been home in over six years.

By October 14, the scene that was playing out at Yorktown was the stuff of legend. The Admiral de Grasse had successfully blockaded the Chesapeake Bay, and the city itself was surrounded by almost nineteen thousand American and French soldiers. Like a great wall they fanned around Cornwallis’s forces, trapping them on all sides, and with de Grasse’s fleet in place the British were completely cut off from the outside world. For more than three weeks this had been the setting for General George Washington and the American rebels’ finest hour. It was also a welcome opportunity for the French to deliver a crushing blow courtesy of their world-famous brand of siege warfare.

Inside his headquarters in the besieged city, Cornwallis was growing desperate. His ramparts were being descended on at a rapid rate, and his food supply was running low. Clinton had sent reinforcements southward, but they would be unable to break the French blockade over the Chesapeake. To save vital stores for his men, Cornwallis had taken to extreme measures in a futile attempt to hold out for support. With supplies running low, the general ordered that all of the army’s horses be slaughtered at once and thrown into the York River. [Hessian Captain Johann] Ewald wrote that within days the tide brought the bloated carcasses back to shore, and his Germans were haunted by the somber and chilling sight. In the waning hours of what would be his last battle in North America, the British general took his desperate attempt to hold out a step further. After killing the camp’s livestock to save grain for his men, Cornwallis looked to further eliminate any usage of food that he considered unnecessary. His next demand though would trouble Ewald more than nearly any other experienced yet in America.

On October 15 the general ordered that all slaves, with no discrimination between men, women, or children, be expelled from the camp. In a wave of frenzy these people were thrust from behind British lines and abandoned in the no-man’s-land between Cornwallis and his besiegers. As the enslaved families scattered in the confused melee, Ewald could not sit back and watch. On his own initiative, the captain and his party of Jägers leapt from behind their defensive lines to drive the abandoned people to safety. Ewald recalled the event with great vigor and explained that he led a party of his men into the teeth of the firefight at their own risk. He continued by stating that in hindsight the order was far too dangerous to justify at the time, but he and his Germans could only think of the young families in harm’s way. They were overcome with the desire to usher them to safety.

ON OCTOBER 17, 1781, THE WHITE FLAG OF TRUCE FLEW OVER THE British position at Yorktown and Cornwallis had surrendered.

Today is the second anniversary of the sudden death of my closest brother, just one day short of his 64th birthday. He was a history professor who never got to finish his book on mercenaries (broadly defined) in Colonial America, including Capt. John Smith and Cmdr. John Paul Jones (who later fought for Russia against the Turks). My brother had many stories of mercenaries who proved more rational and humane than the citizen soldiers whose causes they were supporting. John Paul Jones, for instance, was horrified at Russian tactics against Turkish troops and civilians, and the Hessian captain Ewald in the passage above was as deeply disturbed by the barbaric tactics of the Iroquoian allies of the British as he was by Cornwallis’s decision to expel slaves from his besieged forces in Yorktown.

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Filed under Britain, food, military, slavery, U.S., war

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