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Siege of Yorktown

FIRST ALLIED SIEGE LINE. By the evening of October 6 all was in readiness for the opening of the First Allied Siege Line—a series of positions which, together with terrain advantages, completely encircled the British works and brought men and artillery within firing range of the enemy. The first line was based on the York River southeast of Yorktown and extended westward just above the headwaters of Wormley Creek, across the York-Hampton Road, to Yorktown Creek, which in a real sense functioned as a continuation of the line. The first line was about 2,000 yards long and was supported by four redoubts and five batteries. Its average distance from the main British works was about 800 yards, although, on the right, this was somewhat greater because of two detached British Redoubts, Nos. 9 and 10. About half of this line, the right or York River end, was assigned to American units; the left was built and manned by the French.

At dusk on October 6, more than 4,000 allied troops paraded and marched to their assigned stations. The entrenching party, 1,500 strong, carrying knapsacks, guns, and bayonets, as well as shovels, found a line of split pine strips already on the ground. They had been placed by the engineers to mark the line where the digging was to begin. Twenty-eight hundred soldiers lay under arms close at hand to repel attack should it come. Evidently the British were caught unawares, for their guns were not particularly active. The night was dark and cloudy, with a gentle rain falling—a factor which may have aided the troops who were being directed by General Lincoln and the Baron de Viomenil. By morning, the work was well advanced, enough to give those in the trenches protection from British gunners.

During the next few days, with precision and dispatch, unit followed unit on fatigue duty as the trenches, redoubts, and batteries were brought to perfection. Major General von Steuben, one of the few veterans of siege warfare in the American wing, had a leading role in planning and constructing the siege works. Brigadier General Knox, with the American artillery, played a significant part, too, since effective gunnery was a prime prerequisite to success in the operation.

While the main line was taking form south of Yorktown, the French constructed a trench and battery between the York River and one of the branches of Yorktown Creek west of town. This closed a possible point of break-through for the enemy, partly encircled the Fusiliers Redoubt, and permitted the installation of ordnance at a point where it could, and did, sweep the British ships anchored in the river. This French battery on the left, with its four 12-pounders and six mortars and howitzers, was the first to go into action, firing about 3 o'clock on October 9. Two hours later, an American battery southeast of Yorktown added its six 18- and 24-pounders, four mortars, and two howitzers to the bombardment. Washington, seemingly, fired the first round from this battery with telling accuracy. On October 10, other batteries, including the Grand French athwart the York-Hampton Road, were completed and began firing. For the next 2 days there was no let-up in the concentrated and methodical bombardment of Yorktown, with Gen. Thomas Nelson, reportedly, even directing fire against his own home.

The effect was terrible as charge after charge was sent pounding into the British works or went ricocheting or skipping along the ground. Enemy batteries were knocked out or were slowly silenced. Cornwallis' headquarters were all but demolished and he himself narrowly escaped with his life at one point. All the while, the tempo of the cannonade mounted. Johann Conrad Doehla, a soldier in the British Army, wrote:

Tonight [October 9] about tattoo the enemy began to salute our left wing and shortly afterward our entire line with bombs, cannons, and howitzers. . . . Early this morning [October 10] we had to change our camp and pitch our tents in the earth works, on account of the heavy fire of the enemy. . . . One could . . . not avoid the horribly many cannon balls either inside or outside the city . . . many were badly injured and mortally wounded by the fragments of bombs which exploded partly in the air and partly on the ground, their arms and legs severed or themselves struck dead. . . . [October 11] One saw men lying nearly everywhere who were mortally wounded. . . . I saw bombs fall into the water and lie there for 5, 6—8 and more minutes and then still explode . . . fragments and pieces of these bombs flew back again and fell on the houses and buildings of the city and in our camp, where they still did much damage and robbed many a brave soldier of his life or struck off his arm and leg.

Such was the bombardment of Yorktown as described by one participant and testified to by others who witnessed it. The fire had been devastating. Its effect was reported first-hand to the allied leaders by Secretary Thomas Nelson, who, "under a flag of truce," was permitted by the British to leave Yorktown and seek the allied lines.

The bombardment was directed, too, against the British ships in the harbor with equal effect. Here "red hot shot" were used to ignite the heavily tarred rigging and ship timbers. On the night of October 10, artillery "set fire to two transport vessels and to the ship of war Charon . . . [44 guns], which burned completely. The other ships anchored under York set sail in the night and went over to anchor at Gloucester, to put themselves under shelter and out of range of our fire." Other boats, large and small, including the Guadaloupe (28 guns), were hit and burned. On the night of the 11th, a British "fire ship," designed for setting fires to enemy vessels, was struck and burned with a brilliant blaze. Against such heavy artillery fire, Cornwallis found it difficult to keep his own batteries in operation, and even the sailors and marines from the English vessels added little strength.

SECOND ALLIED SIEGE LINE. The destruction caused by the superior French and American artillery, firing at ranges from 800 to 1,200 yards, was so great and the enemy batteries were so completely overpowered that Washington was soon ready to open the Second Allied Siege Line, which would bring his troops within storming distance of the enemy works. An "over the top" charge by the infantry would be the final stage of the siege should Cornwallis continue to hold out.

Work on the second line began on the night of October 11-12, about midway between the first siege line and the left front of the British works. By morning, the troops had wielded their shovels, spades, and "grubbing hoes" so effectively that the work was well advanced and casualties were few. For the next 3 days the construction continued and artillery was moved from the first line into the new positions where it could be even more deadly. The British gunners did all they could with "musketry, cannon, cannister, grapeshot, and especially, a multitude of large and small bombs and shells" to delay the work, but, although they exacted some casualties, they were not particularly successful.

At this time, however, only half of the second siege line could be undertaken. British Redoubt No. 10 near the river, a square position manned by about 70 soldiers, and Redoubt No. 9, a 5-sided strong point held by approximately 125 troops, near the road from Yorktown to the Moore House, blocked the extension of the second line on the allied right. Before work could proceed, these would have to be reduced.


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