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Near midsummer in 1782, with the prospect of military activity diminishing in Yorktown, some concern developed about the considerable number of standing earthworks around the town. This was just prior to the departure of the French Army which got underway on July 1.

If the situation had not become confused later in the month, the British works, or most of them, may have been leveled at that time. Governor Harrison, however, intervened to save some of them, pointing out that "The forts and platforms to the Water were all built by the State, and are necessary for the defence of the river and Its Trade." [1] He wrote to Chevalier de la Valette, then in command of the Yorktown garrison, on July 29 that:

It appears extremely hasty in General [Benjamin] Lincoln to order all the fortifications at York Town to be destroy'd, those that have been thrown up round the Town either by the Enemy or your Army will be useless to us, but the Fort and the platforms were built by the State and ought to be preserved for it and you have my thanks for offering to deliver them up when you mean to evacuate them — you'l [sic] please to send Notice to Colo Dabney who has orders to take possession and they will be enclosed by such Works or pallisades [sic] as will be sufficient to defend them against a small force. [2]

Harrison was a little bitter about Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln bypassing him in regard to the fortifications. It became a matter of principle with him. La Valette, however, was quite agreeable to leaving the works. [3] In the meanwhile, Dabney was given further instruction:

You'l [sic] please to march the Infantry of your Legion to York Town immediately and take possession of it as soon as the French quit it, the Horse you'l [sic] station as you think most convenient to cover the Country below you, and to give Intelligence of the approach of an Enemy; as soon as you get to York I would have you discharge the Militia if it is not disagreeable to Colo Lavelette [sic] if he should wish to retain them till he sails you'l [sic] please to employ them and your own Troops in levelling such of the out works as are to be destroy'd which I suppose will be the whole of those around the Town, we shall not have men to man them and their standing will only invite the Enemy to take possession of them when they shall be in a Condition to do it. [4]

But things were happening swiftly now and evidently the French left later in August without more attention to the leveling of the works. The remaining American garrison under Dabney was either too small to accomplish the job, not inclined to the task, or had to direct attention to more compelling duties. The matter, however, came to fore again in the fall when the Council of State considered the matter on November 11:

The Governor having suggested to the board the propriety of levelling the works around York from an apprehension that the enemy may be induced again to take possession of them if left standing. — It is advised that the Commissioner of War be desired to order five hundred men from the Counties of Elizabeth City, York, Warwick, Gloster, James City and New Kent, to be proportioned according to the number of Militia in each of the said Counties to be put under the command of Colo Dabney and with his Legion to be employed in the said work. Permission to be granted to any Militia Man ordered out for the purpose aforesaid to send an able bodied Negro Man in his stead. [5]

But nothing of substance came of this insofar as leveling the works was concerned. When the Governor laid before the Council, on January 6, 1783, "a Letter from the commanding officer at York stating the difficulty of procuring barracks of those of the Militia Ordered out by the Executive there to level the works, and one from the Magistrates refusing to give their countenance and aid for the purpose," the Council advised "that Orders be issued for discharging those of the Militia who have arrived and countermanding the march of the remainder." [6] Harrison executed the necessary order to Col. Charles Dabney, still in command at Yorktown, the same day. "Having taken into consideration the situation of the Militia at York destitute of barracks at this inclement season of the year, you are desired to dismiss those now on duty as well as such as may arrive under the orders of the 13th of November last." [7] And so the works remained.

The local inhabitants who resided and worked in Yorktown came to find these rather massive French-altered British entrenchments surrounding the town a serious disturbance to business operations and a nuisance to living in general. And thus the matter surfaced from time to time and even reached the central government. [8]

In mid-1783 an appeal was made to the Continental Congress by the Virginia Assembly which, by resolution, requested funds "to level the works at York." [9] The situation was reviewed in a letter of July 16 from David Jameson, a prominent citizen of Yorktown and the state and a long-time merchant of Yorktown. He related that:

The people of that place were much distressed by the British, and really not able to do so great a work themselves. Nor do I imagine any person will think that after all their suffering, the burthen of leveling those works (kept up & much enlarged for the defence of the French Army) should fall upon them — Or that they ought to bear at their very doors Mounds of Earth which prevent a free circulation of the Air, and Ditches of stagnant putred [sic] water. [10]

Jameson cautioned against the suggestion that "the Soldiers for three years still in the pay of the Continent might with propriety be sent to York to level the works." He cited the lack of housing and accommodations in Yorktown due to the successive occupations of the town as well as the unreliability of the troops and the inability of officers to control them.

Jameson proposed that Congress discharge the soldiers rather than send them to Yorktown. In consequence, a considerable saving would be effected. "And with much less money than their pay and rations would amount to the work may be done by hiring Negroes who will obey Command, will require fewer conveniences And an equal number of them will finish it in less than half the time." [11] But in any case, this all came to naught, as Congress refused the money. On September 3, 1787, when the committee reported the matter out, it noted that other states had leveled works within their borders where necessary without help from the central government. Besides, even if Virginia's claim were fully justified, "the state of the public finances" was such that Congress could not provide the money. Thus it was that the British works at Yorktown, as modified by the French, continued to remain with little change. [12]

Six years later the old works were still a problem, one sufficient enough for the "court of hustings" for the "Borough of York" to make record of it in noting that it:

Considers the obstructions of the streets as thrown up by the British as a Nusence [sic] and presents the same as such. [13]

There seems to be no record of this producing any real action, certainly from the public sector. Travelers to Yorktown document their continued existence until they were obliterated from view by the Civil War entrenchments in 1861 and 1862.

It should be noted that even while there were local complaints about the inconveniences caused by the entrenchments, they were already becoming points of interest for travelers in the area. This was true for Robert Hunter, Jr., a young merchant from London who visited Yorktown on February 25, 1786. [14] On arrival, having crossed the York River by ferry ("in a scow"), he and his companion, another London merchant, immediately sought out Dr. Corbin Griffin to whom they had a letter of reference. After breakfast "they walked about the town," "which consists of a few scattered houses; some of them have been elegant, but a good deal battered during the Siege."

The Doctor introduced us to General Nelson [Thomas Nelson, Jr.], with whom we had some conversation about the war. He afterwards showed us the different works that were raised by the British and Americans and where the Continental Army, the French, and the militia were drawn up under General Washington.

They also visited and made special reference to Cornwallis's Cave [15] and the Secretary Nelson House. [16]

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2010