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An unexpected and glorious victory

May 24, 2003 5:35 am



Part 11 of a series

(Adapted from "Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family," Chapter 41: "A Glorious Victory")

IN FREDERICKSBURG, the month of June con- tinued to be a time of heavy demands on Gen. George Weedon and the district quartermaster, Richard Young, even though the confrontation had moved southwest.

Dr. Charles Mortimer, who had been rendering voluntary service to the sick and wounded since the previous August, was indisposed and no longer able to carry on the responsibility. He also advised Weedon that there was urgent need for medicine and for a house and a surgeon. Weedon appointed John Julian to be director of the public hospital and instructed him to find a house to remove the sick with "pestilential disorders."

The orders to Quartermaster Young for service began from the time of the Marquis de Lafayette's arrival from Alexandria in April with 1,500 men--"as many wagons as possible"--and never ceased during his jousting with Lord Cornwallis, the British commander: "a good riding horse"; "two dozen pistol cartridges"; a hat ("I am almost without"); sealing wax and wafers; camp kettles, canteens and axes.

Young collected tens of thousands of pounds of hay and fodder and thousands of bushels of corn and oats from the district residents. Stables and pasturage facilities in the town were heavily used. On June 17, Weedon ordered 10 wagons impressed, loaded, and sent to Lafayette.

Lafayette with 4,000 men was following Cornwallis, the British commander, who had returned to Richmond and then moved on to Williamsburg. Cornwallis' month of damaging raids had been a delaying tactic while he awaited orders from Gen. Henry Clinton in New York. It had proved devastatingly successful.

Clinton had disapproved of Cornwallis' improvised strategy, and there were poor relations between the two. Now, Cornwallis received a series of orders from Clinton, each countermanding the last.

Clinton had not intended the southern campaign to be the principal focus of the war in America. He advised Cornwallis to send 3,000 troops back to New York and to find an easily defensible site from which to keep the Virginians off balance.

Clinton ordered Cornwallis to either Hampton or Yorktown. Cornwallis and his men arrived at Gloucester Point opposite Yorktown on Aug. 1.

Lafayette followed Cornwallis' movements with puzzlement. But as it developed, neither the British nor the Virginians had any clue regarding the major allied strategy now being developed by George Washington and Comte de Rochambeau in New England.

In late May, Washington and Rochambeau had conferred in Connecticut, and Washington learned, with elation, that the French fleet was to be put to the aid of the American cause. His months of stalemate in New York were about to end.

The French admiral, Comte de Grasse, after completing a mission to the West Indies, was to sail with troops to America in July. Wisely, Washington and Rochambeau allowed him to choose between the options--New York or the Chesapeake. While they awaited his decision, Rochambeau brought his troops from Newport. De Grasse acted swiftly--in fact, he was under way before the intelligence reached Gen. George Washington.

This was the opportunity Washington had for so long waited. On the third week of July, he and Rochambeau ferried 6,000 men across the Hudson River, leaving 4,000 behind to mislead Clinton. (Meanwhile, the British fleet, which should have sailed to confront de Grasse, received delayed intelligence and was late departing from New York.)

The allied armies marched quickly south. Washington and Rochambeau stopped at Mount Vernon for two nights and spent the night of Sept. 13 in Fredericksburg. (Col. Lewis and his family had already departed for his son's home in Frederick County, and Washington's brothers, Charles and Samuel, had moved westward, so there was no immediate family to greet him.)

Still on a rapid march, the army reached Williamsburg on the evening of Sept. 14. Adm. de Grasse had already arrived at Hampton Roads on Aug. 30 and had debarked 3,000 men at Jamestown.

The naval resources of the British were being stretched thin, defending not only against the French but also the Dutch and the Spanish. In the war in America, they were not up to the crisis now looming. By the time the British fleet belatedly arrived from New York, de Grasse had received reinforcements and heavy equipment from Newport.

By Sept. 26, the combined allied forces were assembled at Williamsburg; they began their march on Yorktown on Sept. 28. Too late, Cornwallis deduced Washington's plan. Still, he delayed an attack on Williamsburg, for he had been given some hope that Clinton might appear.

The only possible escape route was by land, but even if he was successful, Cornwallis would have to sacrifice ships and equipment. He developed a risky plan to slip 3,000 men into the York River on the high tide on Oct. 5, but the implementation was not ready and the maneuver had to be postponed.

Having been assured by Clinton that help was on the way, Cornwallis gave up valuable ground to the allies when they established their position on Sept. 29.

Now the siege began, with George Weedon and his 1,500 Virginia militia assigned to Gloucester Neck.

Cornwallis established 700 men on Gloucester Point to keep access to forage. Weedon's militiamen were no match for the British, but the French commander sent 1,400 men to hold the point. Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton counterattacked with 230 men, but this time, the Virginia militia held.

The French were shelling both from their entrenchments and from their ships. The Americans moved their artillery into position and began shelling on Oct. 9. There was mayhem and carnage in the town of York.

On Oct. 11, Washington dug a second line of trenches without opposition. With the successful capture of the British Redoubts (fortifications) 9 and 10, the allied supremacy was insurmountable.

On Oct. 16, after a futile sortie by the British against a section of the American line, Cornwallis began a ferrying operation to Gloucester using the 16 boats at his command--it would require three trips for each boat. But a squall interrupted the operation and reduced his supply of boats. He retrieved his men from the Gloucester side to avoid leaving them vulnerable to Washington.

On the morning of Oct. 17, the British offered a flag of truce. The British fleet, with its promised reinforcements, had only set sail from New York that day.

At 2 o'clock in the afternoon of Oct. 19, the surrender took place, with 3,273 men marching out of Yorktown down a road lined with American and French soldiers to lay down their arms, then marching back into the town. "The sight was too pleasing to an American to admit of description," wrote St. George Tucker.

An unidentified British officer recalled, "It is a sorry reminiscence this; yet the scene made a deep impression: The mortification and unfeigned sorrow of the soldiers will never fade from my memory. Some went so far as to shed tears . Nevertheless, to do them justice, the Americans behaved with great delicacy and forbearance."

In all, 5,800 British surrendered from Yorktown and another 1,000 on the Gloucester side. (This did not include the naval prisoners taken by the French.) Plans were set in motion immediately to disperse the prisoners.

On Oct. 21, a fair and warm Sunday, the Yorktown prisoners began their march--the British in scarlet uniforms, the two Highland regiments in their tartans, and the following Hessian regiments in green and blue.

The prison column took several hours to march out of town and made camp just outside Williamsburg.

On the same day, Gen. Weedon set off with 1,000 prisoners of war from the Gloucester side. At least another 1,300 sick and wounded were left behind at Gloucester until transportation could be arranged, about half of them too ill to be moved.

The two columns, with about three days' provisions, were to rendezvous at Fredericksburg, a full week's march away. Gov. Thomas Nelson Jr. wrote to the commissary at Fredericksburg that he should be prepared for about 6,000 men in all: "They will draw some hay and provisions which you will therefore have ready."

The militia escort, wearing tattered uniforms and buckskins, was mostly from the Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley. According to the surrender agreement, British officers were permitted to monitor the treatment of the prisoners, but only a few dozen--less than the allowed number--accompanied them. (The rest of the officers were paroled to New York.)

The column from Yorktown reached the Rappahannock River on the evening of Oct. 29, encamping in a glade 11/2 miles south of the town, where they received provisions and money. Some visited nearby farms to purchase poultry and vegetables.

On the following day, they were joined by the 1,000 prisoners from Gloucester, and the combined troops moved through Fredericksburg to a new campsite two miles beyond the town on the bank of the river. On Nov. 1, according to the recollection of a Hessian prisoner, "we broke camp and waded the river. We came to a small place called Fallmouth (sic). We marched through it."

The column marched to Fairfax Courthouse, where it divided for its two destinations. About 2,500 men proceeded on to Winchester; the rest were met by the Maryland militia and escorted to Frederick.

The militia guarding the division destined for Winchester "proved particularly kind," according to the British diarist who accompanied them. The column of men crossed at Ashby's Gap on Sunday morning, Nov. 4. The following day, marching westward on the Millwood Pike, it passed within a few miles of the Lewis family residence. There was ample time for Fielding Lewis to be informed; and if his health permitted, he was surely driven to view the spectacle.

At Winchester in the bitter winter cold, the quarters proved both wretched and inadequate. (The prisoners were moved to a barrack on the Susquehanna River and were finally dismissed in 1783.)

Meanwhile, orders had been given to move the sick and wounded who were ambulatory from Yorktown to Fredericksburg. Gen. Weedon was instructed to have "suitable Houses provided in that place for their reception."

The "convalescents," numbering almost 500, immediately began their journey, which did not go smoothly. In Fredericksburg, a camp was established for them at the Alum Springs, and they were tended by Dr. John Julian as well as their own doctor.

Information is scanty on the experiences of the sick prisoners at Fredericksburg. According to a deposition of Edward Herndon, who worked in the issuing department of the quartermaster's operation, Dr. Julian "attended upon the sick in the Hospital to the end of the war, or as long as rations were called for, and until all the stores both of the Commissary and Quarter Master in Fredsburg. were ordered to be sold."

Virginia was no longer a battleground, but the war effort continued to the south, where the Continental Army operated under Gen. Nathanael Greene. Charles Dick's burdensome responsibilities as the sole manager of the gun factory did not ease.

The French troops passed a pleasant winter in the Yorktown area before marching to Boston in July. Eventually, the prisoners at Charleston were exchanged, the worthless currency was replaced (at a still devalued 1,000-to-1 ratio); and the state's government slowly began to function.

In 1838, Congress passed an act providing benefits to men who had served in the Continental Army during the Revolution. The following enlisted men, now in their 70s and 80s, listed duty at Yorktown in their applications:

Enoch Breeden

Edward Cason

Samuel Faulconer

Robert Layton

Alexander Moore

Ptolemy Powell

John Sorrell

Richard Steers

John Stewart

George Trible

Francis Turnley

Abraham Wilson

Source: Virginia County Records, edited by William Armstrong Crozier: Revolutionary Pensioners, pp. 525-534. (For officers' commissions, see pp. 522-524.) Virginiana Room, Central Rappahannock Regional Library. For more information on Spotsylvania soldiers, see also "Spotsylvania County Patriots: 1774-1786" by Robert K. Krick, J. Roger Mansfield and Merle C. Strickler, also in the Virginiana Room.

Next week: A new start for Fredericksburg: the 1780s

PAULA S. FELDER of Fredericksburg is a historian and author specializing in the area's 18th-century past. She will accept questions about the series or specific neighborhoods. Contact her by mail in care of Gwen Woolf, The Free Lance-Star, 616 Amelia St., Fredericksburg, Va. 22401, or by e-mail to "Fredericksburg's Origins" also can be followed on The Free Lance-Star's Web site at

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