A feint—the beginning of the end – Washington Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin
Today, the Washington Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin takes us back 234 years when the General convinced the British that he planned to attack them in New York.
Instead he began the Siege of Yorktown which resulted in the surrender by Cornwallis and removed the “soul of the war.”
The Diary of the Revolution by Frank Moore published in 1876 provided one man’s observations of the beginning of the end of the war:
A gentleman who left the American army in Virginia, on the afternoon of the 30th of September, gives the following account of transactions in that quarter:
“On Friday, September 28th, the whole army marched from Williamsburg to within one mile of the enemy’s works at York, and formed the first line of circumvallation without any loss.
“On the 29th the Americans had a few skirmishes with the enemy, but little damage done on either side.
“In the night the British evacuated Pigeon Quarter, and three other redoubts, which are so high as to be able to command the town.
“These were taken possession of on Sunday morning at sunrise, under a heavy cannonade from Yorktown. The enemy next fled from a stockade, when the French grenadiers had advanced within fifteen yards of it, and retreated under cover of their shipping with the loss of ten taken prisoners.
“It was expected our troops would break ground on the 1st instant. Cornwallis’s forces in York are supposed to be six thousand troops, including refugees, besides one thousand armed negroes.
“He has possession of the river and Gloucester, strongly fortified and garrisoned by about one thousand men. These are hemmed in by General Weedon with fifteen hundred men, the Duke de Lauzun with his legion, and two thousand mariners from the fleet to prevent any escape that way.
“One ship of forty-four guns, two frigates, and a twenty-gun packet lie at Burwell’s Landing, in James River; one of fifty, one of forty, two frigates and a storeship in the mouth of that river; five ships of the line off Cape Henry; thirty-two ships of the line and several frigates are drawn up across the mouth of York River, and three ships of considerable force are in that river below the town, which were to proceed onward with the first fair wind.
“General Washington sent in a flag to Lord Cornwallis, directing him not to destroy his shipping or war like stores, as he would answer it at his peril. The easy capture of the outposts will greatly accelerate the future operations of our army. ”
The Van Cortlandt Family Papers published in 1976 included more notes about the Siege of Yorktown:
Some 8,845 Americans and 7,800 Frenchmen converged on Cornwallis’ army of six thousand men at Yorktown on September 28, 1781.
One day later, Cornwallis withdrew his troops from the outlying redoubts, with the exception of the so-called Fusiliers’ Redoubt, and regrouped them within Yorktown.
In the effort to take the Fusiliers’ Redoubt on September 30, Colonel Scammell was captured and killed.
The siege of Yorktown lasted until October 16, by which time Cornwallis realized that his situation was hopeless.
Washington asked for and received an unconditional surrender and the formalities of its acceptance occurred on the 19th.
The Americans captured 7,247 soldiers and eight hundred and forty sailors, resulting in the close of the war in the South.
In Swinton’s Condensed United States, published in 1881, William Swinton provided background leading up to the siege and the capitulation of Cornwallis:
The early months of 1781 saw a number of military movements that resulted in placing the opposing armies in a position in which the Americans were able to win a victory that ended the war.
In January, 1781, General Clinton sent the traitor Arnold, with sixteen hundred men, into Virginia. He advanced on Richmond, where he committed much havoc.
He then fortified himself at Portsmouth. Here he received a reinforcement of two thousand troops. To oppose Arnold, Washington sent Lafayette into Virginia, with twelve hundred men.
At this same time, Cornwallis, whom we saw going to Wilmington after the Carolina campaign, marched northward to Petersburg, Virginia. Cornwallis now took command of all the British forces in Virginia. Lafayette, with his small army, now raised to three thousand men, could only watch the enemy.
In June, 1781, Cornwallis received a message from Clinton, telling him to take up a position on the sea-coast of Virginia. Cornwallis chose Yorktown, on the south side of the York River. Here he fortified himself.
The reason why Clinton told Cornwallis to get near the sea coast was because he wished the Virginia force to be handy in case Washington should attack New York.
Now, Washington, in the summer of 1781, really had formed a design of attacking the British in New York. But he now gave it up, as he thought he could accomplish more by striking a blow at Cornwallis in Virginia.
Washington, however, continued so to act as to make Clinton think he was really going to attack New York.
In September, when everything was ready, he suddenly drew off, and, with the allied forces, made forced marches for Yorktown.
Washington appeared before Yorktown, September 28, 1781.
The French fleet of Count de Grasse had previously entered the Chesapeake, and blocked up James and York rivers. This prevented escape by water; Washington prevented escape by land.
It was now simply a question of time as to the surrender of the British army. It numbered about eight thousand men. Washington had sixteen thousand.
Washington, with the French and American forces, began a regular siege of Yorktown. One hundred pieces of artillery were brought to bear on the British works, and did terrible execution. During the bombardment the British lost over five hundred men.
Cornwallis stood the siege for three weeks. Finding his situation hopeless, he offered to capitulate. On the 19th of October the British commander surrendered his army of over seven thousand men.
The news of this great victory awoke exultation from one end of the United States to the other. Patriotic demonstrations of all kinds were made. Congress appointed the 13th of December as a day of public thanksgiving.
Although the war had not formally closed, yet it was practically over.
The British still continued to hold New York and Charleston. But the soul of the war was gone.
The Washington Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows against an artist’s view of the fighting soldiers in 1781.