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The breakup of the victorious allied French and American force that brought the capitulation of Cornwallis and his British army on October 19, 1781, came rather quickly after the formal surrender. After a few days rest, the captured British soldiers were assembled for removal to prison camps located, in the main, in the western parts of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. On October 24 the French units of Saint Simon, those who had come north with De Grasse from the West Indies, left their encampments to board the transports for return. The greater part of the stores and most of the American troops were on shipboard in transports and headed up the Chesapeake to the north by November 3. On November 5 Washington and his staff left their field headquarters also to head north after a short stopover in Williamsburg. De Grasse sailed out of the Chesapeake for the Islands on November 4. The army of Rochambeau stayed behind and would winter in the area. [1] Thus Yorktown and her neighbors would not yet be free of the military. Actually, garrisoning at Yorktown would continue for two more years, first by the French and then by American units, with consequent disruption and more damage to property and general discord and disgruntlement among the inhabitants and property owners. [2]

While all of the departures were taking place, the French troops of Rochambeau were looking into the matter of accommodations and locations for winter quarters. Activity began as early as October 24, [3] though it would be mid-November before things would be firm. It was Baron Von Closen who noted in his journal: "From the 15th to the 18th of November, the French army entered into its winter quarters" executing specific assignments. [4]

Those troops assigned to Yorktown were "The Soissonnois regiment, with the grenadiers and chasseurs of Saintonge," approximately 1,000 men. These plus the Saintonge regiment ("encamped between York and Hampton, at Halfway House and Back River") and a detachment of 50 men and an artillery company "at Gloucester" were under the command of Vicomte de Viomenil. The principal headquarters were in Williamsburg where Rochambeau and Chastellux had with them the Bourbonnais regiment, 7 companies of the Royal Deux-Ponts, and part of the artillery battalion of Auxonne. Others were at Hampton (Lanzun's Legion), Jamestown (3 companies of the Royal Deux-Ponts), and West Point (all of the siege artillery). [5]

Security for the French troops in Yorktown now became important. Since there were fewer troops, the extensive British works could not be adequately manned in case of sudden attack, which was still a possibility. Consequently it was decided to tighten the distance involved and to destroy allied and British works which were unneeded.

"On that day [November 1 according to Baron Von Closen] [6] we began to fill in the works in our parallels [7] and the redoubts on Pigeon Hill. It was decided that after the departure of the general and higher officers (English), the fortifications of York would be contracted." He reported five days later:

Now that all our works around York were filled in, and the exterior fortifications (that Cornwallis had had built) were razed, we worked in great haste to finish the new walls around York, which M. de Rochambeau very much decreased in circumference. We set up two batteries of 18 pieces on the further ravine, below the city, and one battery of 12 pieces of 18 at Gloucester protected by a closed redoubt. [8]

Abbé Robin also had a comment on the attention given the works at Yorktown:

The plan of the fortifications for the defence of York and Gloucester has been entirely changed; they are drawing them into a narrower compass than before, having destroyed the English works, and are busy at constructing new ones. [9]

The alterations to the British works and the new ones mentioned by Von Closen represented some simplification along the line about the town. The principal change, however, came on the southeast side of Yorktown. Here the British entrenchments south and east from their Redoubt No. 5 were abandoned and razed (at least to the point of rendering them useless to a possible attacking force approaching from this direction). This eliminated all that area, perhaps a third of the ground encompassed by the British inner (main) line, which lay beyond the deep ravine that was near the southeast limits of the town — the ravine down which "Tobacco Road" (a later designation) followed to the beach.

The new line was one extending from British Redoubt No. 5 (seemingly incorporating the redoubt into a new battery) and continuing along the northwest (town) side of the ravine on the bluff overlooking it, and on to the riverbank. Then it went along the riverbank to the ravine, or valley, which now serves Comte de Grasse Street. It incorporated the British gun positions that overlooked the river here into the second of the batteries mentioned by Von Closen. About midway of the new line the French added a redoubt, or strong point. The shell-scarred structure of the Secretary Nelson House, where Cornwallis initially had his headquarters, was just within the new line. [10] This line was detailed on a French siege plan drawn at the time. [11]

It was the British line as altered by the French that was to remain after all of the troops had gone. These works were to become the most visible historic landmarks of the siege until the time of the Civil War. Whether or not the old British line south and east of Redoubt No. 5 was completely obliterated when the French razed it seems doubtful. Some later references seem to indicate that it could be traced at least in part, as the discussion which follows tends to suggest. [12] Certainly that section which was in front (south) of No. 5 including the "Horn Work" complex was too strategically located to have been left standing. This would have blocked the turn of the new French line and the battery which was formed here. The archeological investigation in more recent times at various points in and across the Confederate line, particularly in the southeast sector, did fail to locate remains of any British works above the old grade. Below grade however, finds clearly fix the location of the British line as generally under the existing Civil War embankments. [13]

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2010