Yorktown's Main Street
Historic Resource Study
NPS Logo



The British defenses about Yorktown were designed by Lt. Alexander Sutherland and approved by Cornwallis. These plans called for redoubts and batteries connected by trenches and parapets in a line encircling the town. They also called for sufficient water batteries on the heights overlooking the waterfront to cover the anchorage where the British shipping was moored. In advance of this main line, which was buttressed by the Fusilier's Redoubt across Yorktown Creek and Redoubts Nos. 9 and 10 in the plain on the southeast side of Yorktown, there was an outer line designed to delay the allied advance.

In describing the outer line about Yorktown, Banastre Tarleton wrote: [1]

The right rested on a swamp [Yorktown Creek] which covered the right of the town: A large redoubt [Fusiliers Redoubt] was constructed beyond it, close to the river road from Williamsburg, and completed with fraizing and abbatis. The Charon, Guadaloupe, and other armed vessels, were moved opposite to the swamp; and the town batteries commanded all the roads and causeways which approached it. On the right, at the head of a morass, two redoubts [outerworks] were placed, one on each side of the Williamsburg road. The center was protected by a thin wood, whose front was cut down, with the branches facing outwards. A field work, mounted with cannon, was erected on the left of the center, to command the Hampton road. A deep ravine, and a Creek [Wormley], which increased till it reached the York river, covered the left. Trees were felled, fleches were thrown up, and batteries were constructed, at the points which were deemed most vulnerable. The distance between the heads of the swamp and creek, which embraced the flanks of the town, did not exceed half a mile. The face of the country, in front of this line, was cut near the center by a morass, and, excepting this break, the ground was plain and open for near two thousand yards. An excellent field artillery was placed to the greatest advantage by Captain Rocheford, who commanded in that department. [2]

Tarleton also deals with the British principal line about the town and offers some significant details:

The works erected for the protection of Yorktown, consisted, on the right of redoubts and batteries with a line of stockade in the rear, which supported a high parapet of earth. The redoubts were furnished with fraizing and abbatis. A marshy ravine [Yorktown Creek] lay in front of the right, over which was placed a large redoubt [Fusiliers], with a good ditch, fraizing, and abbatis: The morass extended along the center, which was defended by a line of stockade, and by batteries that looked upon all the avenues to the swamp: On the left of the center, was a horn work, with a ditch, a row of fraise, and an abbatis: Some embrazures for cannon were at present open in this work. The left was fortified by redoubts, communications of earth, and batteries, which were all furnished with fraizing, but without stockade or abbatis. Two redoubts [No. 9 and No. 10] were advanced before the left, which were small, and not so well finished as that in front of the right. The ground in front of the left was in some parts on a level with the works, in others cut by ravines, and altogether very convenient for the besiegers. The space within the works was exceedingly narrow, not large enough for retrenchments, and, except under the cliff, exposed to enfilade. [3]

It was the inner line that directly involved the immediate town. It is rather carefully detailed on the various siege plans and particularly on two British plans, that by Lieutenant John Hills of the 23rd Regiment, an assistant engineer, [4] and that by Captain Fage of the Royal Artillery. [5] These, it should be mentioned, like most plans detailing the works were done to actually cover the situation that existed at the end of the siege and included any changes made in the fortifications as the fighting progressed in the three weeks operation. There had been much activity to strengthen and improve the works as well as to repair them as the siege unfolded.

In the line immediately about Yorktown the British had eight redoubts plus the "Horn Work."


No. 1

This was just in advance of the line from which it was detached and pointed to the northwest. It seems to have involved town Lots 1 and 4 and possibly 2 and 5 as well.

No. 2

This, another five-sided redoubt like No. 1, was some distance in front of the line and to the south of Main Street. It probably did not directly involve the town proper, although the line behind it seems to have been across Lots 9, 8, and 15.

No. 3

This was at the peak of the line as it bulged southward at a point outward from Church Street and had a V-shaped front. It was beyond the original town limits, but it and the works on either side occupied strategic ground in what had become the Gwyn Read development, an addition made to the town after 1738. The supporting line, behind this Redoubt and its bulging flanks, could well have touched Lots 21, 27, 33, 39, 45, 50-51, 54-55, 58-59 and 62-63.

No. 4

This redoubt, like No. 3, was an integral part of the continuing line opposite the area between present-day Read and Nelson streets. Also like No. 3, it was beyond the original town limits but in the area of the Gwyn Read development.

Between Redoubts Nos. 4 and 5 the main line bent inward toward the river following the topography and crossing present Smith and Bacon streets. In this area, in addition to Gwyn Read lots, the line likely crossed Nos. 66-67. Also, as it curved back away from the river to become involved in the complex constructed around the British headquarters, it surely seems to have had effect on Lots 70-71 and 74-75.

No. 5

Placed just beyond the south corner of the town limits, this was an irregular shaped position, a part of the earthworks immediately adjacent to and around British Headquarters (the Secretary Nelson House) and near the base of the Hornwork which projected out along the York-Hampton Road to the south.

No. 6

Redoubt No. 6 occupied a prominent position to the east of the Hornwork. A larger five-sided position it, at least at one stage, had several mounted cannon. As were Redoubts No. 7 and No. 8, No. 6 was beyond the town limits and in the relatively even topography to the southeast across "Tobacco Road" ravine.

Behind the main line from a point about midway between the Hornwork and No. 8, and curving behind No. 7 almost to No. 8, was a supplementary entrenchment to give additional cover to supporting troops.

No. 7

This with its two-pronged front was farther east along the curve toward the river and pointed toward detached Redoubts No. 9 and No. 10 to the southeast.

No. 8

A square-shaped redoubt, this terminated the main line on the southeast at the high bluff overlooking the sandy beach and the river.

In the circle between Redoubts No. 1 and No. 8 the British established some nine batteries. Four other batteries covered the waterside from the vantage point of the Yorktown cliffs, and there were a number of redan positions placed as outposts along the ravines.

The Hills delineation, as did some others, gave some data on fire power by recording lines of fire. There is also data on the number of artillery pieces in the plan drawn by John Hayman. [6] All figures found do not agree on the number and location of these pieces of military equipment, but this need not be disturbing since the number fluctuated as the siege progressed.

Thor Borresen, in discussing the siege works and artillery when he was studying them a quarter century ago, had a cogent comment on the ever-changing aspect of the siege:

No accurate account of the guns mounted in any one battery, nor their dimensions, can be given due to the constant change which took place during the siege. In Tarleton and in Cornwallis's General Orders many statements are made of certain embrasures, being closed and others cut through. This was necessary. Cornwallis's first choice of positions for batteries was theoretical; not until the French and Americans opened fire from their batteries could he discover how his own could be most effective. Therefore both sides often made changes to outwit the enemy. Another convincing proof of this is the many maps of the siege. Scarcely two agree on the number and type of guns placed in a particular battery. [7]


No. 1

The first battery above Yorktown (unless the first one was located on Windmill Point as discussed later) was a V-shaped position in front of the line about midway between Redoubt No. 2 and Main Street. It covered the area over Yorktown Creek toward the shipping area and the Fusilier's Redoubt. Hills shows this work with three lines of fire emanating from it, although John Hayman shows it as built to hold four pieces of artillery.

No. 2

This battery was a part of the line north of Redoubt No. 3 and was situated about where Ballard Street would cross if extended inland in a straight line. Hills again shows three lines of fire; the Hayman and French plan list three pieces.

No. 3

This unit was just to the east of Redoubt No. 3 about opposite the area between Read and Church streets. Again Hills delineates three lines of fire over Yorktown Creek toward the outer line redoubts, whereas Hayman attributes six positions to this battery.

No. 4

This was close to, and just north of, the well-trenched British Headquarters area. It is drawn with four lines of fire, again facing westward over Yorktown Creek. The number of pieces shown by Hayman is 10, whereas Fage noted a "Battery of five 18 prs." This was near, but just a little beyond, the southwest limits of town.

No. 5

The four faces in the two shallow Vs forming the front of the "Hornwork" were mounted with artillery from which Hills showed seven lines of fire. This covered the area of the French operations along the first and second siege lines. Hayman omitted reference to cannon here.

Nos. 6, 7

This battery was adjacent to Redoubt No. 6 on its west side and carried three lines of fire, while another four lines came from the redoubt itself. The two together had a good range along the allied siege lines. Hayman lists six for this, or these, positions (battery and redoubt).

No. 8

This position was just to the east and close to Redoubt No. 7. Four lines of fire (six pieces according to Hayman) were aimed against the American sector of the allied lines and two were along the riverbank and over the water.

No. 9

Though neither Hills nor Fage seemingly show a battery on Windmill Point [8] above the town, there are other plans that do show a work here. One is the map drawn by Jean Baptiste Obrey de Gouvian, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Engineers, who was serving in the American Army and who is generally reliable in his delineation of the British works. He would seem to indicate three gun positions on the brow of the point. [9]

Water Batteries:

Along the bluff within the encircling main line the British erected four batteries to protect the waterside. Evidently much of the naval ordnance brought ashore from the ships in the harbor went into these positions which were manned by "seamen" from these same vessels. [10]

No. 1w

The largest of these was along the edge of the bluffs on either side of the area crossing Church Street in front of (and likely involving) town Lots 22, 28, 34, and 40. On the Hills map it carried 13 lines of fire; Hayman rated it at 26 pieces, iron 12-pounders.

No. 2w

Another water battery was on the eminence on which the present Yorktown Monument was later erected. This was the area between the present Comte de Grasse Street ravine and that down which "Tobacco Road" (shown on maps but not named at this time) had come to run. Four lines of fire are shown on the Hill map, but Hayman notes 12 iron pieces, all 12-pounders.

No. 3w

This battery, also with four lines of fire (Hayman noted four iron 12-pounders) was on the high point on the southeast side of the mouth of the "Tobacco Road" ravine.

No. 4w

This position in one sense was but a continuation of the British main line curving along the edge of the cliff just beyond, actually adjacent to, Redoubt No. 8. It carried four lines of fire over the stockade that ran from the base of the cliff across the flat beach area to the line of sunken vessels that followed an arc-shaped course around to the other end of town to block any allied approach by water. Hill gave it four lines of fire whereas Hayman listed seven pieces here.

Evidence would seem to show that no water batteries occupied the prominent bluffs between Read Street and the Great Valley and between the Great Valley and the ravine (valley) down which Comte de Grasse now runs. Nor does it seem that the French, when they shortened the British line and strengthened the inner works as they went into winter quarters, placed any works here. [11] However, in the Civil War both spaces became water battery sites.

As for other artillery, none was shown by Hills in the redan [12] in front of Redoubt No. 3, nor did Hayman show any in the four such little works which he delineated between British Redoubt No. 3 and Main Street at the Yorktown Creek end of little fingers of raised land. Hayman did show two cannon on the beach just behind the stockade here on the downriver end of the waterfront. Altogether Hills would seem to show 75, or less, gun positions in Yorktown whereas the Hayman total would show deployment of almost 100 pieces including the 10 at Gloucester and the "several pieces to use as occasion required." Both of these totals fall way short of the British cannon surrendered, which according to Tarleton numbered "seventy-five pieces of brass ordnance, sixty-nine iron ditto." [13]

Though the major military action in 1781 came on the southeast side of Yorktown where physical damages to the town were heavy, the British made significant changes all around the town, actually reducing its size as they built their inner line of trenches, batteries, and redoubts. A part of this required the destruction (elimination) of obstructions in front of their line, whether the obstructions were houses, trees, or other objects with vertical dimension. [14] This was necessary to give the infantry, and more particularly the artillery men, an open clear field of fire.

Conrad Doehla, one of the German mercenaries in the British force, noted in his journal under the date September 19 that "many houses were torn down in the little city of Yorktown because they were a hindrance outside of our lines." He had noted earlier, on the 14th, that "All the trees in front of our line have been cut down; and all the roads guarded and fortified with a strong abattis." [15] Another German, Stephan Popp, wrote in a similar vein: "Many houses torn down to strengthen our lines. Palisades and deep trenches put in front." [16]

This physical loss and damage on the periphery of Yorktown proved to be highly significant. There is no better example of this than in the clearing of developments on Lots 1-6 on the northwest side of the port town, since they were just beyond the British line, which in this quarter followed along the route of Buckner Street. The parcel here (three acres in contiguous lots plus at least a part of the beach area between the lots and the river) came to be one of the more highly developed and earliest establishments under single ownership in Yorktown and was held together through most of the 18th century though there were transfers in ownership.

In 1781 this property was owned by Capt. Thomas Lilly, a sea captain of local note. He lost through demolition here a new dwelling, a kitchen, a stable for six horses with a "Chair House," as well as another dwelling with a shed. There was also damage to his lots and all of "the enclosure" (fences) were "destroy'd and the well fill'd up." These items represented — £635 of the total account (£725) for "damages done by the British to Captain Lilly." [17]

There were substantial losses to Lawrence Smith who had holdings in the town and to the southeast of it. [18] His structural losses included: (1) a "9 panel door taken from a Dwelling House with locks & hinges"; (2) "5 windows with 18 lights 8 pr shuters"; (3) "the Wether Bords & Gable ends of Dweling House 44 by 20 feete"; (4) "the casing of all the Windows"; (5) "greatest part of the plastering Brokedown"; (6) "6 planks of the Floor taken up"; (7) "Ten Steps of the Stairs & Stair Case"; (8) "2 Porches 8 feet by 6"; (9) "one Clabord House with 3 Roomes 24 x 16"; (10) one barn 24 by 20 and "6000 Fence Rales"; (11) "1/3 of a Griss Mill (stone's saved)"; (12) "Framing for a Dwellg House (ready fram'd) 32 by 18 and a 9 foot Shed" (this also involved "Featherage Plank," "Flooring Plank" and "2500 Bricks," and "Damage done the [other] Houses"). [19] There was, too, this notation, "Damages done the Land near the Town in Making Intrenchmts."

William Stevenson was another case in point. [20] He lost a large dwelling with "4 Rooms below 2 upstairs & 4 brick chimneys" as well as "a Kitchen with two fireplaces" and a dairy 10 feet square, a "Smoak House" which was "doubled studded," a 20 by 16 foot stable, a "Large Hen House 10 feet square," and "2 Lotts render'd allmost useless by the works & 100 panls pales." Included also in the losses, Abraham Archer's "Lot of Ground on the Hill [21] about 1/3 of it very much Cut there being a Battery erected on it." [22]

William Cary was another heavy loser in the physical development area. [23] His losses included (1) a 32 by 16 foot stable "double sheded," 10 feet each, which served as stable, "Chair House" and "Grainery" with "a Room for Harness Saddles & Bridles, & a Loft for Hay"; (2) A "Kitchen 24 by 20 with Brick Chemney & Oven, the flor laid with Brick & Tile Sash windows, lathed & plaistered, Drepers & lodging rooms upstairs"; (3) "A Stone House 24 by 16 Poplar frame"; (4) a smokehouse and a dairy; (5) "A Larder 8 feet Square brick floor all new"; (6) "Damage done the Dwelling House by Shot Shells & Breaking all the Glass in the Windows"; (7) "Damage done the Lott by throwing up intrenchments & Breast Works"; and also (8) the disruption of his "Garden" including some "70. Panels, Posts, Pales, & Rails."

Thomas Gibbs's losses included six smaller buildings as well as "21 pannels new paleings." [24] David Jameson had substantial losses in the town and just outside. His heaviest loss was "a dwelling House 5 rooms & a passage below stairs & 3 rooms and a passage above, with a brick Cellar halfway the length of the house." [25] Also destroyed was "a Stable 24 by 16 with a ten feet shed on each side, fitted with 7 stalls, Racks &c a Corn room, Carriage House, and Cow Shelter." There was also the "Smoak House 10 feet, double shedded & underpin'd 4 feet deep with Brick" and some 155 panels of sturdy fencing.

There were public building damages and losses of some note in addition to the heavy private losses. The courthouse and the church in town suffered extensive damage and "The Hospital, a Kitchen, dairy, & other necessary Houses, a garden well paled in, and a large Stable all pulled down & destroyed by Ld Cornwallis . . . valued at . . . £500." [26] These latter developments seemingly were outside of the British main line and between it and Yorktown Creek. They had to be destroyed in order to clear the line of fire.

William Reynolds, writing to James Eyma from Williamsburg on October 27, 1781, tells in a thumbnail sketch of some of the trials and tribulations as well as personal losses of the private citizen in this war time. [27] In this case the problems concerned him and his family, residents of Yorktown:

Our State has been invaded by the British ever since 29th Decemr [1780] untill 19th of this Month, when the great and glorious capture of Cornwallis Army was compleated by the allied Army's, an event which I flatter myself will bring about Peace. You have no conception my friend the losses & uneasiness I have suffer'd for this nine months past, obliged to leave my house repeatedly, and at length was so unfortunate as to have Mrs Reynolds & the Children prisoners with them near six weeks. I have lost many of my papers & your letter Book, the large trunk you left with me I have here safe, altho the Enemy have been twice where it was, I at present reside at Mr Beall's house in this Town, but I hope shortly to be settled at York once more, the British pull'd down many of the Houses in York &c those they left have been much injured by the Bombardment yours & mine have not suffer'd so much as many others. [28]

None of the British plans of the investment of Yorktown give cross sections of the works or details of the construction. Of some help are two plans done by French cartographers which show profiles of the English parapets and redoubts, but not of the batteries. [29] As Thor Borresen earlier concluded:

Presumably the method of constructing batteries was so universally known and used that no details of their construction were thought necessary. We are certain that there were no sunken batteries erected by the British: all were cavalier, or raised, batteries, which type often called for a ditch both in front and to the rear of the battery.

There were two types of parapets constructed in the English line surrounding Yorktown, according to these French maps. One line of parapets commenced at the river, on the right, facing York Creek, and went to Smith Street. This parapet was made by placing logs vertically in the ground close together. The writer says vertically, but they really had a slight slant toward the earth part of the parapet, similar to the slope of an ordinary parapet, which is usually about 3 feet horizontal to 6 feet 3 inches in height of palisade. The earth behind the palisades was 4 feet 4 inches high, with a width across the top of about 9 or 10 feet. As a rule, with this type of work, there was no front ditch; the earth for the parapet was taken from a ditch excavated to the rear of the firing step. Ordinarily this type of construction was used only where the soil was sandy and where the line of defense was protected against a heavy assault by the enemy as a result of deep ravines or any natural obstructions which would prevent an enemy from forming in a solid formation before an attack. The width of 9 or 10 feet across the top of the parapet was to prevent the enemy, if they should reach the line of defense, from having one man engage the defender with bayonets while another climbed over the palisade.

The line of parapets erected from Smith Street to York River, on the left, was of cavalier construction; it had a ditch in front and one to the rear. This was done in order to gain height; and this type was usually constructed where mass assaults could be made. This section of parapet was also protected by fraises placed on the berm, facing outward to an angle of 45 degrees.

Besides this main line of defense, the British had an inner line of defense to protect their encampment area. This line was made of trenches, parapets and palisades, with logs placed vertically — probably six to eight inches apart — and was manned by reserves.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 22-Jan-2010