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A Revolutionary Look at the American Revolution

The American Revolution. What exactly comes to your mind when you think of this important time in American history? Probably what comes to your mind, is what comes to most peoples' minds: the Americans fought the British in an attempt to break away from the King of England. They didn't want the King to tax them or limit their right to freedom. All this is certainly true.

Below, is the story of one of the most important battles that took place during the American Revolution, the Siege of Yorktown. It was one of the biggest and one of the longest battles of the war, as it was the last official battle of the Revolution. There were still uprisings afterwards, but none that could have changed the course that was set by the Treaty of Paris. This battle shows us evidence of what we all think of when thinking about the Revolution… and it also shows us some of the things many of us have never known before.

The year was 1781. The Americans were tired, hungry and sick, as the United States had already been at war with England for six years. It was long ago when the first shots were fired in April 1775 both on the village green in Lexington and at North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. At this point, that seemed just a faint memory in the back of soliders' minds. Some had given up and gone home. Many died in battle, but even more were dead because of sickness. The long winters certainly took their toll on the American army, and now it might have been almost time to give up. It seems the only thing that kept the troops together was the faith they had in their leader, the great George Washington.

Washington realized that the American army was indeed growing weaker and weaker and that something needed to be done. He decided that he had better meet with the Comte de Rochambeau, the leader of the French army who had joined the Americans in their battle against England just one year earlier. Why would the French want to help out the Americans, you ask? Well, their main motivation was that in 1778, France and England had also declared war against each other. The French king at the time, Louis XVI, thought it would be a good strategy to send troops and naval assistance to the United States in order to engage the enemy. He figured that if he sent more troops over there, this would be a more effective way to defeat the British once and for all. So Washington - the heart and soul of the American army - met with Rochambeau and his army, and together, they came up with an amazing plan to defeat the British. Washington completely changed the strategy that he had been using up until then. He made British Commander Sir Henry Clinton, think that he was going to attack him by putting up camps and making large fires. Meanwhile, he was also stalking British General Cornwallis and putting him into a situation that would soon decide the entire fate of the Revolution. And thus, the stage was set for the Siege of Yorktown.

Nick shooting a cannon the battle of the capes
Washington and Rochambeau's armies joined forces and started their march down to Yorktown. In the meantime, the French naval ships headed down to the lower Chesapeake Bay, where they let off 3,000 soldiers to wait for Washington and Rochambeau. Later on September 5th, the French navy ran into the British. There, they bombarded each other and a fight took place that is known today as the Battle of the Capes. In the end, it was the British who took the most damage and who had to retreat to New York. Cornwallis realized that he was greatly outnumbered: he was about 8,300 strong, while the army of Washington and Rochambeau was 17,600 in total, a combination of both French and American troops. Cornwallis and his British army dug earthworks and redoubts (small enclosed forts) day and night for several nights. He was prepared for siege warfare but was largely outnumbered and there wasn't much he could do about it. On October 9th Cornwallis was done digging the trenches. But, wait a minute… who dug these trenches? In truth, it wasn't Cornwallis or his army at all. It was a group of 2,000 slaves that Cornwallis had promised to set free, if they did the work he wanted them to do. He did indeed keep his promise, but by the time they were done, there was nowhere for them to go, and he didn't provide them with any food or other things they needed. He just let them go. Since they had no essential items for living though, the newly-freed slaves didn't make it very far. Some were caught in the crossfire of the Battle and the others starved in the swampy area just south of the battlefield.

George Washington thinking about the surrender agreements.
So, on October 9th, the fighting began, and it was clear that the American and French soldiers dominated over their enemy. Runs were fired. Cannons were shot. Slaves were killed in the crossfire. By October 17th, Cornwallis had had enough. He sent the drummer out on top of the earthworks, who was followed by a British officer with a white flag. Notes were passed back and forth that day in order to make arrangements for the surrender. It was quiet, as there was no shooting. Then, on October 18th, four officers (one American, one French and two British) settled the surrender terms. And the very next day, all of the British put their weapons on the field and went back to break up camp. The British had been defeated. This word of defeat spread quickly throughout the Colonies, and even though the British still had 26,000 troops in North America after Yorktown, they had no aspirations to win, and knew that there was nothing else they could do except wait for the treaty. So they did. The treaty came in March of 1782 and was finally signed in September of 1783, ending the war and acknowledging American independence.

The Yorktown battlefield today nice graceful piece of grass, nothing like it looked in 1781
But, who really got the short end of the stick as a result of the war and this battle? The slaves who didn't have any weapons and who were released into the fields and swamps all died from either being shot in the crossfire or starving to death in the swamps. And the French! After all, there is no possible way that we could have won the war without their aid, and they actually lost more men and ammunition than the American patriots did. One of the main reasons for the French even being in the Revolution, was to retaliate against the British for "stealing" Canada. It's not as if they really liked the Americans… they simply wanted to fight the British to seek revenge. And so they fought and died for the United States to receive their independence.

So when you think about the revolution from now on, I urge you to remember the French and the African Americans who, along with all of the white soldiers that most of us picture when thinking about the Revolutionary War, also fought and died for the independence of the United States of America.


Please email me at: nick@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

MAD - 30,000 shot dead each year - what YOU can do!
Nick - Shave, grease up, and put on a skirt, there's a war on!
Daphne - Letters from the trenches of the revolution.
Kevin - Slaves fighting for American freedom? What's up with that?
Teddy - Blowing the British confidence to smithereens
Stephanie - War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Huh!
Rebecca - One man rises above to prove all men ARE created equal
Teddy - Just an old fashioned 'Green Mountain Boys' whupping