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It was in late June 1782 that Governor Harrison received word that the French army in the area would be withdrawn immediately except for "the convalescents and a few others." This created some consternation about the safety of the post and the country. Plans were laid to bring in some Virginia Regulars and to strengthen this force with militia. "William Robertson was named Commissary of this State for the purpose of supplying the Troops that will be in Garrison at Yorktown." [1] On June 25 Harrison wrote to General Edward Stevens:

The removal of the French Troops from this State renders it necessary that a body of troops should be sent immediately to Garrison the Town of York, and as the Post is of great consequence an Officer of distinction & merit must be fixed on to command. I have to request of you Sir to take on this important trust. [2]

Actually, it should be mentioned, little would come of this planning.

In a letter on June 26, Harrison brought Rochambeau up to date on the situation. Colonel Charles Dabney was to cross his Legion (except one company) over to Hampton and to march them all but a small party of Horse to York Town, orders are also gone for four hundred Militia to march into the same place immediately. The whole will compose a body of about six hundred men which are as many as we can possibly feed for the present." Plans had been laid as well for backup militia forces from the counties of the local area (some 600 men) to be held in readiness. [3]

Rochambeau had initially intimated that he believed that a force of"1000 men" was needed "to garrison York & Gloucester." Harrison wrote Washington that the force he had "join'd to the French that are left," plus general precautions, were sufficient to defend these points in question "till relief can be sent." [4]

On July 12, the governor also wrote Chevalier de la Valette and outlined the plans that were being effected. [5] Valette was in command of the French detachment that had been left to garrison Yorktown until the takeover by Virginia troops could be carried out. The departure of the French Army itself began "On July 1" with the "march towards the North in Four Divisions each a day apart from the other." This was by regiment — the Bourbonnois, the Deux-Ponts, the Soissonnois, and then the Saintonge. In addition to the troops at Yorktown, only the siege artillery at West Point with 150 of the corps of royal artillery to attend them, were left behind. Baron Von Closen described the Yorktown unit and its function:

The York garrison, which combines the detachment the army is leaving behind and the hospital corps, until they can be evacuated, will be composed of 100 men per regiment, or a total of 400 men. The militia of the surrounding area are to join this detachment and occupy several points vital to the security of the country, such as Hampton, York, and an area on Cape Henry. All will be commanded by M. de la Valette, Lieutenant-Colonel of Saintonge and Brigadier of the armies. [6]

Dabney's orders had been confirmed on July 12 to "repair Yourself with the foot to York Town and take command of the Militia that shall be assembled there till the arrival of General Stevens." The governor suggested that it might be well for the present "to encamp the Militia without the Town." Also it was Harrison's "earnest desire and request" that Dabney "harmonize with and consult the Chevalier Lavallette on all occasions." [7]

But despite plans, the garrison at Yorktown would remain small and the French would soon depart (before the end of August) leaving Dabney's unit and some militia. For this reason Harrison now wrote again to General Stevens. "Our force will be so reduced by the removal of all the French troops out of the State, and the works will be so contracted by the demolition of those round the Town, that I shall have no occasion for an Officer of your rank to command." He closed his letter to Stevens with thanks for his expressed willingness to serve. [8]

Also on August 3 Harrison wrote to Dabney [9] indicating that he could "discharge the Militia if it is not disagreeable" to the French commander. With the reduction of forces: "There will now be no occasion to increase the size of the Barracks, tho; it will be necessary to rebuild them as they were." The plan was to utilize the still-standing barracks chimneys. [10] Simcoe had burned the buildings, "a range of rebel barracks," when he had raided Yorktown on April 19. [11] Dabney was to request David Jameson and William Reynolds locally "to look out for Timber" and then to report to the governor "on what Terms it could be got." But nothing would come of this and no barracks would be built or rebuilt.

It was the lack of housing and accommodations that led to the dismissal of the limited militia that had responded to the call in November to move to Yorktown to level the siege earthworks. Concerning this matter, Harrison wrote to the local county-lieutenants on January 6: [12] "The inclement Season of the year & the want of barracks rendering the Situation of the militia at York very unhappy I have with the advice of Council directed the command Officer at that Post to dismiss them; should your militia not have reached there you will please to countermand their marching til further orders." [13]

This left only Dabney's Legion at Yorktown and this unit apparently remained on post here until the summer of 1783. [14] Thus it was that Yorktown continued to be garrisoned for almost two years after Cornwallis had surrendered, with each occupying force leaving its mark in terms of physical damage to housing and other property. It was a gloomy picture, one of accumulated destruction, that David Jameson described in a letter of July 16, 1783:

Nearly half the number of Houses in the Town were entirely destroyed by the British, and many of those they left standing were much injured by them, by the shels [sic] & Balls, by the French Army, or by our own Soldiers, so that it is with difficulty the inhabitants who remained in Town, and who have since the Siege & the departure of the French Army returned there; can be tolerably accomodated. [15]

Jameson felt that the works at Yorktown could best be leveled by negro labor, if funds could be made available. In no case did he believe that soldiers still in Continental pay should be sent to Yorktown for that purpose.

There is not room to Barrack or Billet the Soldiers. As soon as it was known that preliminaries of Peace were agreed on [November 30, 1782] the Soldiers then stationed at York became very licentious, and no vigilence or exertions of the officers could keep them within bounds, very few nights passed without Robbery or gross insult being committed by them. Some of the Men still in pay have already shewn that they will not obey Command what hope can the inhabitants of York have, that the little remains of their property will be safe from the spoils of a set of abandoned Men who observe no law but their brutish Will? [16]

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2010