- THE ART OF DON TROIANI
- The Art of Don Troiani - Artillery of Independence, Siege of Yorktown, Virginia, October 9, 1781
The Art of Don Troiani - Artillery of Independence, Siege of Yorktown, Virginia, October 9, 1781
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George Washington Firing the First American Artillery Round at Yorktown
The annus mirabilis, the year of miracles, was about to reach its grand finale when his aides informed George Washington in the early afternoon of 9 October 1781, that the time had come to open the American artillery on Lord Cornwallis. On 14 September, four weeks after he had left Phillipsburg on 18 August, Washington had entered Williamsburg to the acclaim of some 2,000 Continental Army forces and an equal number of Virginia militia under the marquis de Lafayette and that of about 3,000 French forces under the marquis de St. Simon, arrived from the West Indies on the fleet of Admiral de Grasse on 29 August.
An allied force of around 9,000 American and 8,500 French troops had assembled in Williamsburg by 26 September, and though they were still waiting for the siege artillery to be debarked - most of the American gun carriages sat marooned on the sloop Nancy on a sandbank in the James River – set out for Yorktown on 28 September. Until "the 6th. of October”, Washington recorded on 30 September, “nothing occurred of Importance -- much diligence was used in debarking, & transporting the Stores--Cannon &ca. from Trebells Landing.” It was 2 October already before the first of the 60 pieces of Colonel John Lamb’s 2d Continental Artillery arrived outsideYorktown. On 6 October, the oxen of the recently arrived American wagon train began to pull the first guns of the siege artillery into their emplacements. Finally, in late afternoon of 9 October, a windy day with overcast skies and temperatures in the mid-50s and with French guns on the left of the siege line already firing, the Continental standard was hoisted over the Grand American Battery on the far right of the trenches closest to the York River. In his usual terse language, Washington told of the momentous event which would soon force the surrender of Lord Cornwallis. At “5 o'clock an American battery of Six 18s & 24s […] began to play from the extremity of our right.” An anonymous soldier from Pennsylvania recorded that “American & French flags twisted on our batteries” as “his Excellency General Washington,” in the words of James Thacher of the Light Infantry, "put the match to the first gun.”
Under the watchful eyes of Generals Henry Knox, the marquis de Lafayette and Baron Steuben and accompanied by the cheers of his military family and of Continental troops, Washington had put the wick to the touch-hole of an 18- pounder whose discharge gave the signal for “a furious discharge of cannon and mortars” as Thacher reported gleefully. “Earl Cornwallis has received his first salutation.” With “good effect” as Washington commented as well since it “compelled the Enemy to withdraw from their embrasures the Pieces which had previously kept up a constant firing.” Not even 24 hours later, most of Cornwallis’ 244 pieces had been silenced but the allied artillery barrage from 155 pieces, incl. 18 howitzers and 30 mortars continued almost unabated for the next eleven days.
Private John Hudson, a 13-year-old serving in Capt. Thomas Machin’s artillery company, remembered in old age that “between the flashes from the guns and from the fuses of the shells, it was rendered light enough for us to attend to all necessary work during any portion of night.” Thacher recollected mortar shells crossing the lines “like fiery meteors with blazing tails, most beautifully brilliant”. Private Georg Daniel Flohr of the Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment recalled that “The firing did not cease anymore, neither day nor night” and like “everyone thought Judgment Day was here”. With allied artillery pounding his defenses, it was about to arrive for Lord Cornwallis.
During the roughly 195 hours of artillery fire between 3:00 p.m. on 9 October and late afternoon of 17 October when Cornwallis agreed to a cease-fire on Washington’s terms, allied batteries fired almost 15,500 shells of all calibers into Yorktown, some 80 rounds per hour. Two days later defeated Crown forces laid down their arms. The artillery had won its work. The miracle no-one had dared to hope for during the dark January days atMorristown had been achieved.
Robert A. Selig is an independent historian, consultant and writer with a Ph.D. in history from the Universität Würzburg in Germany.