Cornwallis and the Siege of Yorktown

At the end of spring 1781, General Cornwallis  and his army entered Virginia. Despite the sorry state of his soldiers — many reduced to wearing cowhide tied on their feet for shoes — Cornwallis immediately determined to attack the army of the Marquis de Lafayette then encamped near Richmond. Having dislodged Lafayette’s forces, Cornwallis continued to pursue them up the James River valley, without managing to engage in full battle. Johann Ewald, a senior Hessian officer with the army, was appalled at the size of the army entourage, with thousands of black “followers of the flag”. He claimed that every soldier “had his Negro, who carried his provisions,” while the officers had “three or four Negroes, as well as one or two Negresses for cook and maid.” Instead of a disciplined military force, Ewald thought Cornwallis’s army and its motley entourage resembled “a wandering Arabian or Tartar horde.” Every place this variegated horde passed “was eaten clean, like an acre invaded by a swarm of locusts.” 1

This ravaging caravanserai was essential to Cornwallis in order to supply his army. His black recruits proved indispensable, foraging for the hungry forces, driving off livestock, and stripping the fields and storage cellars. They also procured much-needed horses, which they rode bareback in the army’s train. In the James River valley alone they took some 800 horses, much to the despair of General Lafayette. “Nothing but a treaty of alliance with the Negroes can find us dragoon horses,” he moaned to Washington, “and it is by this means the enemy have so formidable a cavalry.” 2

Health problems bedeviled Cornwallis’s troops and in Virginia smallpox was added to the deadly cauldron of infection. Yet even well-publicized epidemics did nothing to halt the slave exodus to Cornwallis’s army. Word was out that the British fed their laborers good rations and paid them wages — not the kind of treatment that most enslaved people had ever experienced. Little wonder the enslaved continued to take their chances in the disease-ridden British camps.  By August 1781, Cornwallis was employing several thousand black runaways to assist in fortifying Yorktown and Gloucester. All able-bodied men, white and black, were required to construct a series of redoubts, but even with all hands, Cornwallis was short of labor.

Nor could the general obtain more black recruits from Portsmouth where the British commander, Charles O’Hara, argued that despite “above 700 Negroes" that had "come down the river" they had all arrived with "the small pox.” As such he could only spare fifty healthy workers, as he continued “hundreds of wretched Negroes [are] dying by scores every day.” Forced to concentrate his resources in one place, Cornwallis ordered the evacuation of Portsmouth, which created a terrible dilemma about what to do with the many sick and dying. “[It] is shocking to think about the state of those Negroes,” Cornwallis wrote to O’Hara, “but we cannot bring a number of sick and useless ones to this place; some flour must be left for them and some person of the country appointed to take charge of them to prevent their perishing.” Faced with about 1000 sick runaways, O’Hara was greatly distressed by this directive. To abandon “these unfortunate beings, to disease, to famine, and what is worse than either, to the resentment of their enraged masters … ought not be done, if it is possibly avoided, or in as small a degree as the case will admit,” he begged his commander. Cornwallis remained adamant: those with smallpox must not come to Yorktown to use up rapidly diminishing food supplies and spread infection among the healthy. When Portsmouth was evacuated, O’Hara took about 400 runaways to Yorktown, leaving many more contaminated with smallpox with provisions for fifteen days, which, he judged, was the time it would take to “either kill or cure the greatest number of them.”  3

The influx of people from Portsmouth put a terrible strain on the scant supplies available at Yorktown, where the troops had become weakened by the hard labor of building fortifications and an inadequate diet of “putrid ships meat and wormy biscuits.” In early September, bloodletting by the surgeons revealed everyone’s blood was pink, a sure sign of anemia. Before long almost a quarter of the troops were ill with typhoid fever. There was no possibility of getting any fresh food supplies. To compound the health problems, the horror Cornwallis had sought to avoid at Yorktown erupted in a smallpox epidemic among the white Loyalist refugees and black recruits, by which time, the British were hemmed in by a powerful French and American force, blockaded by the French fleet and facing a combined army of nearly 16,000, with only 3500 men fit for duty.

Once the forty-one siege cannons opened fire on October 9, the night sky above Yorktown became a brilliant spectacle, with the fiery tails of dozens of cannon balls streaking through the darkness. Behind the battered defenses terrified civilians huddled under the cliff face at the edge of the river, seeking shelter from the rain of cannon balls, while Cornwallis was forced to move his headquarters into a cave. The place was a scene of carnage, with ships sunk in the river, houses on fire, piles of mutilated bodies and scattered body parts. Hundreds were dead. There was no food. A forage party had only been able to locate burnt corn. Although General Clinton had promised to send an army and the navy to relieve him, Cornwallis despaired of any assistance from his unreliable commander-in-chief. Even a partial retreat was unlikely to succeed. St George Tucker, an officer in the French-American camp, found a British journal washed ashore which read “our provisions are now almost exhausted and our ammunition totally.”

On October 14, 1781 Cornwallis ordered the horses to be slaughtered and dragged into the river, where their bloated carcasses drifted back with the tide, bumping against the shattered hulks of British ships. Having already sent out of Yorktown those sick with smallpox, he now expelled a large group of runaways from the hospital on the opposite shore at Gloucester, with what pitiful rations could be found.  The booming of cannon, the roar of fire, the screams of pain, the stench of death and the sight of terrified runaways disfigured by smallpox being expelled from the garrison must have made an indelible impression on the black guides who somehow managed to survive the horror.

Early on the morning of October 15, Cornwallis sent a message in cipher to General Clinton: “My situation now becomes very critical … the safety of the place is therefore so precarious I cannot recommend that the fleet and army should run great risque in endeavouring to save us.” When a desperate attempt to retreat across the river to Gloucester on the night of October 16 was ruined by a freak storm, Cornwallis could no longer delay the inevitable capitulation. 4

At dawn on October 17 a frightful cannon assault blasted Yorktown. There was no answering fire; the British ammunition was exhausted. At ten o’clock that morning, a drummer boy appeared on the ramparts of Yorktown, beating a tattoo that could barely be heard over the pounding cannon and accompanied by an officer holding aloft a white handkerchief. He was blindfolded and escorted to the Patriot headquarters, where he presented Washington with Cornwallis’s request for twenty-four hours’ cessation of hostilities, so the commanders might agree upon terms of surrender. That night an uncanny silence fell on Yorktown as the siege cannons shut down. The only reminder of the horror of the siege was a trail of fireworks from two meteors that shot across the starlit sky. At dawn, pipers from the British camp signaled the surrender. After an eerie few minutes the band of a French regiment struck up to send a reply from Washington’s camp. When the sun rose and the cannon smoke cleared, the besieging army could see for the first time the full disaster at Yorktown. “How vain the hope of such a place,” the shocked St George Tucker wrote in his journal. 5

No one will ever know just how many runaways fled out of Yorktown before the fateful day on October 19 when the humiliated British army marched out to a solemn drumbeat, dressed in smart new uniforms but with their colors furled and the drums covered with black handkerchiefs. In asking for time to discuss terms, Cornwallis fully expected to negotiate with Washington to take his army back to England. In the face of Washington’s stern intransigence, all he could hope for was “good treatment during their captivity.” He could ask nothing for thousands of fugitive slaves who had joined him; they would have to look out for themselves as best they could. Reports from the French-American camp spoke of seeing “herds of Negroes” in the woods, and on entering Yorktown the victors found the place littered with the “sick and dying in every stage of small pox.” After such a long and brutal war, Cornwallis’s hope of decent treatment was in vain. The post-surrender environment was savage, with no compassion on offer. Within the battered garrison the wounded and sick “died like flies,” Ewald reported, because they were left without medicine or food. Amputated arms and legs lying on the bloodied ground were eaten by the dogs. “All hearts had turned to stone,” Ewald sorrowfully recalled. “ There was neither consolation nor money to be found and everyone was left to his own fate.”  6

Cornwallis was known to have 4000 or 5000 black recruits at Yorktown and Portsmouth. Smallpox killed about sixty percent of those that caught the disease, but in this case some were inoculated against it, so perhaps half the runaways were spared, though wounds and typhus also took a huge toll. Maybe 2000 survived. It is impossible to establish what happened to them. A proportion of the survivors, perhaps half, must have been forced back into slavery. From the moment the surrender was complete, guards were placed along the shore to stop runaways getting out to the warship HMS Bonetta that had been  allowed to sail immediately for New York with Cornwallis’s dispatches and any officers he chose to send. The Governor of Virginia wrote to Cornwallis that “Negroes are attempting to make their escape by getting aboard the Bonetta … [where] they will endeavour to lie concealed from your Lordship till the vessel sails.” Whatever answer Cornwallis gave the governor, he was perfectly well aware of the many runaways hidden on board the ship, as they were there at his direction. During the subsequent transfer of officers on parole, more runaways were taken to New York as servants. According to eyewitness accounts of their arrival there, all of the ships were incredibly crowded, “packed together with two servants for each officer.” 7


1. Quote from Ewald, Diary of the American War, 305.  R. Arthur Bowler, Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in America 1775-1783, (Princeton, 1975), 72-3.

2.Lafayette to Washington, July 20, 1781, Lafayette in the Age of Revolution, 258.

3.Leslie to Cornwallis, July 31, 1781, PRO 30/11/6; Cornwallis to O’Hara, August 7, 1781, PRO 30/11/89; O’Hara to Cornwallis, August 9, 1781, PRO 30/11/70; Cornwallis to O’Hara, August 10, 1781, PRO 30/11/89; O’Hara to Cornwallis, August 17, 1781,; PRO 30/11/70. National Archives of the UK.

4. Cornwallis to Clinton, August 22, 1781; Cornwallis to Clinton, September 16,17,  1781, PRO 30/11/6, CO 5/103/182. PRO 30/11/6, N.A.

5.St George Tucker, “Journal of the Siege of Yorktown and Surrender of Cornwallis”, October 17, 1781, College of William and Mary.

6. Ewald, Diary of the American War, 342.

7. Nelson to Cornwallis, October 26, 1781, PRO 30/11/90, NA.  Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776-1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces (New Brunswick, 1957), 480. Ewald reported that the ship that carried the German officers also carried “143 officers’ servants and camp followers among whom twenty-four had their wives and children.” To these were added another fifty people of both sexes whose faces were hidden.