Receiving orders from Sir Henry Clinton, British commander in chief in North America, Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis led his troops to a position between Virginia’s York and James Rivers. On August 1, 1781 his army started building earthworks with both ends anchored on the York River. American Maj. Gen. Marquis de Lafayette, possibly alerted by James Armistead, wrote to Chevalier de La Luzerne, French minister to the United States, suggesting that “If the French army could all of a sudden arrive in Virginia and be supported by a squadron, we would do some very good things.” When French and American forces did arrive, the British had made additional defenses, including Redoubts 9 and 10, four hundred yards in advance of the British inner defense line.
Ebenezer Denny, lieutenant in the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment, a “blue-eyed, red-headed boy,” was in Yorktown on September 14, 1781 when “General Washington Arrived. Our brigade was paraded to receive him. Officers all pay their respects. He stands in the door, takes every man by the hand. The officers all pass in, receiving his salute, and shake hands. This is the first time I have seen the General.”
Cornwallis wrote to Clinton, grumpily predicting, “By examining the transports with care and turning out useless mouths my provisions will last at least six weeks from this day if we can preserve them from accidents. This place is in no state of defence. If you cannot relieve me very soon you must be prepared to hear the worst.”
In Williamsburg, Washington wrote in his diary on September 28,
Having debarked all the Troops and their Baggage—Marched and Encamped them in Front of the City and having with some difficulty obtained horses & Waggons sufficient to move our field Artillery—Intrenching Tools & such other articles as were indispensably necessary—we commenced our March for the Investiture of the Enemy at York . . . The line being formed, all the Troops—Officers & Men—lay upon their arms during the night.
Sarah Osborne, wife of a New York soldier with Washington’s army, offered a woman’s perspective:
Deponent took her stand just back of the American tents . . . about a mile from the town, and busied herself washing, mending, and cooking for the soldiers, in which she was assisted by the other females . . . She heard the roar of the artillery for a number of days, and the last night the Americans threw up entrenchments, it was a misty, foggy night, rather wet but not rainy. Every soldier threw up for himself, as she understood, and she afterwards saw and went into the entrenchments. Deponent’s said husband was there throwing up entrenchments, and deponent cooked and carried in beef and bread, and coffee (in a gallon pot) to the soldiers in the entrenchment.
On one occasion when deponent was thus employed carrying in provisions, she met General Washington, who asked her if she “was not afraid of the cannonballs?” She replied, “It would not do for the men to fight and starve too.”
On October 14th the action began. Surgeon James Thatcher of the 16th Massachusetts Regiment wrote:
During the assault, the British kept up an incessant firing of cannon and musketry from their whole line. His Excellency General Washington, Generals Lincoln and Knox, with their aides, having dismounted, were standing in an exposed situation waiting the result. Colonel Cobb, one of General Washington’s aids, solicitous for his safety, said to his Excellency, “Sir, you are too much exposed here, had you not better step a little back?” “Colonel Cobb,” replied his Excellency, “if you are afraid, you have liberty to step back.”
On the night of October 14th, the Gâtinais and les Deux-Ponts Regiments were ordered to capture English redoubt 9 and the American troops to capture Redoubt 10. French cavalry officer Guillaume, vicomte de Deux-Ponts explained:
Before starting, I had ordered that no one should fire before reaching the crest of the parapet of the redoubt; and when established upon the parapet, that no one should jump into the works before receiving the orders to do so.
Our fire was increasing, and making terrible havoc among the enemy, who had placed themselves behind a kind of intrenchment of barrels, where they were well massed, and where all our shots told. We succeeded at the moment when I wished to give the order to leap into the redoubt and charge upon the enemy with the bayonet. Then they laid down their arms, and we leaped in with more tranquillity and less risk. I shouted immediately the cry of “Vive le Roi” which was repeated by all the grenadiers and chasseurs who were in good condition, by all the troops in the trenches, and to which the enemy replied by a general discharge of artillery and musketry. I never saw a sight more beautiful or more majestic.
Private Georg Daniel Flohr of the Royal Deux-Ponts wrote:
Anyone can imagine what happened once we were inside the redoubt. People of four nations were thrown together: Frenchmen, English, Scots, and Germans . . . the soldiers . . . were so furious that our people were killing one another . . . The French were striking down everyone in a blue coat. Since the Deux-Ponts wore blue, many of us were stabbed to death . . . One screamed here, the other there, that for the grace of God we should kill him off completely. The whole redoubt was so full of dead and wounded that one had to walk on top of them.
Baron de L’Estrade was one person in this position:
“As much respected for his merit as for his age . . . he marched at the head of his grenadiers amidst the abatis and the palisades as if he had been only twenty years of age . . . A soldier, not recognizing him, seized him by his coat to help himself up, which caused l’ Estrade to fall into the ditch, where nearly two hundred men walked over him. He rose nevertheless, entered the redoubt, and the next day, although bruised all over, did his turn of duty in the trenches.”
Wilhelm Graf Von-Schwerin, a German soldier serving with the Royal Deux-Ponts, wrote home to his uncle:
In order to approach closer one had to take two redoubts which the enemies had on our right and left. On 14 October our company of grenadiers, where I have the honor of still serving, received orders to march into our redoubts. Our chasseurs, the grenadiers of the Gâtinais Regiment and their chasseurs joined us at nightfall. . .
At 8 o’clock at night we approached the redoubts, always hidden behind our entrenchments. At 8 1/4 we were ordered to march in attack step up to the enemy redoubt and ascend it in an assault, our colonel-en-second at the head. There was a very lively fire from all sides for about 1/4 of an hour, after which the enemy offered to surrender. The garrison of the fort consisted of 160 men, of which we took no more than 40 prisoners without counting the dead. The others saved themselves as best they could . . . .
The enemy maintained a continuous fire from his forts on our redoubts which we had taken, they also had the skill to throw during the night five or six bombs in our redoubt which exploded, and which killed a few grenadiers and chasseurs.
I assure you, my very dear uncle, that one had to crouch on the ground all night to avoid the cannons and the bombs. During the night 600 of our workers dug a new line behind us. At daybreak the enemy was very surprised to see himself surrounded by our batteries, which did not leave him in a position to resume firing.”
Johann von Ewald, an officer of the German jäger corps fighting for the British, told a similar tale:
“Toward evening . . . About eight o’clock General Baron Vioménil attacked the detached redoubt on the left with French troops, and the Marquis de Lafayette attacked the adjacent one with the Americans. Both redoubts were taken with the bayonet after a fight of an hour. The Hessian Lieutenant Anderson of the Erb Prinz Regiment and the English Captain Tailor were seized with swords in hand by the enemy. Both officers were wounded by bayonets or swords and won the praise of the enemy. Most of the garrison is said to have saved itself too soon.”
The attack on Redoubt 10 was undertaken by a detachment of 400 light infantrymen drawn from Lafayette’s Light Infantry Division. Alexander Hamilton was assisted by Lt. Col. Jean-Joseph Sourbader de Gimat, Lt. Col. John Laurens, and Maj. Nicholas Fish. They refused to wait for sappers to remove the abatis but moved forward through the darkness to the earthwork overlooking the river, Mostly New Englanders, the Americans swarmed across the ditch and over the parapet, attacking with fixed bayonets and unloaded muskets. After vicious hand-to-hand fighting, the British were overwhelmed. New England soldier Joseph Plumb Martin remembered:
At dark the detachment was formed and advanced beyond the trenches and lay down on the ground to await the signal for advancing to the attack, which was to be three shells from a certain battery near where we were lying. All the batteries in our line were silent, and we lay anxiously waiting for the signal. The two brilliant planets, Jupiter and Venus, were in close contact in the western hemisphere, the same direction that the signal was to be made in. When I happened to cast my eyes to that quarter, which was often, and I caught a glance of them, I was ready to spring on my feet, thinking they were the signal for starting.
Our watchword was “Rochambeau,” the commander of the French forces’ name, a good watchword, for being pronounced Ro-sham-bow, it sounded, when pronounced quick, like rush-on-boys.
We had not lain here long before the expected signal was given, for us and the French, who were to storm the other redoubt, by the three shells with their fiery trains mounting the air in quick succession. The word up, up, was then reiterated through the detachment. We immediately moved silently on toward the redoubt we were to attack, with unloaded muskets. Just as we arrived at the abatis, the enemy discovered us and directly opened a sharp fire upon us. We were now at a place where many of our large shells had burst in the ground, making holes sufficient to bury an ox in. The men, having their eyes fixed upon what was transacting before them, were every now and then falling into these holes.
As soon as the firing began, our people began to cry, “The fort’s our own!” and it was “Rush on boys.” The Sappers and Miners soon cleared a passage for the infantry, who entered it rapidly. Our Miners were ordered not to enter the fort, but there was no stopping them. “We will go,” said they.
“Then go to the d ——— ,” said the commanding officer of our corps, “if you will.” I could not pass at the entrance we had made as it was so crowded. I therefore forced a passage at a place where I saw our shot had cut away some of the abatis. Several others entered at the same place.
While passing, a man at my side received a ball in his head and fell under my feet, crying out bitterly. While crossing the trench, the enemy threw hand grenades into it. They were so thick that I at first thought them cartridge papers on fire but was soon undeceived by their cracking.
As I mounted the breastwork, I met an old associate hitching himself down into the trench. I knew him by the light of the enemy’s musketry, it was so vivid. The fort was taken and all quiet in a very short time.
Capt. Stephen Olney of Rhode Island described his experiences:
Our regiment of light infantry, commanded by Colonel Gimat, a bold Frenchman, was selected for the assault, and was paraded just after daylight, in front of our works. General Washington made a short address or harangue, admonishing us to act the part of firm and brave soldiers, showing the necessity of accomplishing the object, as the attack on both redoubts depended on our success. I thought then that his Excellency’s knees rather shook, but I have since doubted whether it was not mine.
The column marched in silence, with guns unloaded, and in good order. Many, no doubt, thinking, that less than one quarter of a mile would finish the journey of life with them.
When we came near the front of the abatis, the enemy fired a full body of musketry. At this, our men broke silence and huzzaed; and as the order for silence seemed broken by everyone, I huzzaed with all my power, saying, see how frightened they are, they fire right into the air.
The pioneers began to cut off the abatis, which were the trunks of trees with the trunk part fixed in the ground, the limbs made sharp, and pointed towards us.
This seemed tedious work, in the dark, within three rods of the enemy, and I ran to the right to look for a place to crawl through, but returned in a hurry, without success, fearing the men would get through first. As it happened, I made out to get through about the first, and entered the ditch. When I found my men to the number of ten or twelve had arrived, I stepped through between two palisades, (one having been shot off to make room,) on to the parapet, and called out in a tone as if there was no danger, Captain Olney’s company, “form here!”
On this I had not less than six or eight bayonets pushed at me. I parried as well as I could with my espontoon, but they broke off the blade part, and their bayonets slid along the handle of my espontoon and scaled my fingers; one bayonet pierced my thigh, another stabbed me in the abdomen just above the hip-bone.
One fellow fired at me, and I thought the ball took effect in my arm. By the light of his gun I made a thrust with the remains of my espontoon, in order to injure the sight of his eyes, but as it happened, I only made a hard stroke in his forehead At this instant two of my men, John Strange and Benjamin Bennett, who had loaded their guns while they were in the ditch, came up and fired upon the enemy, who part ran away and some surrendered; so that we entered the redoubt without further opposition.
When my wounds came to be examined, next day, that on my left arm, which gave me most pain when inflicted, was turned black all round, three or four inches in length; neither skin nor coat broken. The stab in my thigh, was slight, that in front, near my hip, was judged to be mortal, by the surgeons, as a little part of the caul protruded. I was carried to the hospital at Williamsburgh, twelve miles, and in about three weeks my wounds healed, and I joined the regiment. 
Joseph Plumb Martin picks up the tale:
In the morning . . . I was sitting on the side of the trench, when some of the New York troops coming in, one of the sergeants stepped up to the breastwork to look about him . . . The enemy threw a small shell which fell upon the outside of the works. The man turned his face to look at it. At that instant a shot from the enemy which doubtless was aimed for him in particular, as no others were in sight of them, passed just by his face without touching him at all. He fell dead into the trench. I put my hand on his forehead and found his skull was shattered all in pieces and the blood flowing from his nose and mouth, but not a particle of skin was broken . . . I never saw an instance like this among all the men I saw killed during the whole war.”
Virginia militia officer St George Tucker recalled:
Not a single Gun was fired either by the French or Americans during the Attack—Major [either Patrick or James] Campbell of the seventy first, 5 other commissioned officers & sixty four 64 [sic] privates were made Prisoners—many of the British in these Redoubts made their Escape, some sliding down the steep, or rather perpendicular Bank to the river shore.
Washington’s diary entry for October 14, 1781 noted:
In the left redoubt (assaulted by the Americans) there were abt. 45 men under the command of a Major Campbell. 2 of which the Major a Captn. & Ensign, with 17 Men were made Prisoners—But few were killed on the part of the Enemy & the remainder of the Garrison escaped. The right Redoubt attacked by the French, consisted of abt. 120 Men, commanded by a Lieutenant Colo.—of these 18 were killed, & 42 taken Prisoners—among the Prisoners were a Captain and two Lieutenants.
The bravery exhibited by the attacking Troops was emulous and praiseworthy—few cases have exhibited stronger proofs of Intripidity coolness and firmness than were shown upon this occasion.
On the 15th, Cornwallis wrote (in cipher) to Clinton:
Last evening the enemy carried two advanced redoubts on the left by storm, and during the night have included them in their second parallel, which they are at present busy in perfecting.
My situation now becomes very critical; we dare not shew a gun to their old batteries, and I expect that their new ones will open to-morrow morning. Experience has shewn that our fresh earthen works do not resist their powerful artillery so that we shall soon be exposed to an assault in ruined works, in a bad position, and with weakened numbers. The safety of the place is, therefore, so precarious, that I cannot recommend that the fleet and army should run great risk in endeavoring to save us.
The post-surrender environment was savage, with no compassion on offer. Within the battered garrison the wounded and sick “died like flies,” Ewald reported, because they were left without medicine or food. “Amputated arms and legs lying on the bloodied ground were eaten by the dogs. “All hearts had turned to stone,” Ewald sorrowfully recalled. “There was neither consolation nor money to be found and everyone was left to his own fate.”
Ken Daigler, “James Lafayette (James Armistead), American Spy,” Journal of the American Revolution, September 26, 2017, allthingsliberty.com/2017/09/james-lafayette-james-armistead-american-spy/.
“Lafayette and the Virginia Campaign 1781,” Yorktown Battlefield, National Park Service, www.nps.gov/york/learn/historyculture/lafayette-and-the-virginia-campaign-1781.htm.
Ebenezer Denney, “Military journal of Major Ebenezer Denny, an officer in the revolutionary and Indian wars,” Memoirs of the Historical society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1859), 242.
The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 3, 1 January 1771–5 November 1781, ed. Donald Jackson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 417–424, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-03-02-0007-0005.
Sarah Osborn’s application for Revolutionary War pension, Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; in John C. Dann, ed., The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 242-50.
Climax of the Revolution 8, Yorktown Battlefield, National Park Service, www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/source/sb1/sb1i.htm.
Robert Selig, “Private Flohr’s Other Life: The young German fought for American Independence, went home, and returned as a man of peace,” American Heritage 45#6 (October 1994): 94-95, www.americanheritage.com/content/private-flohr%E2%80%99s-other-life?page=show.
Robert A. Selig, “Letters from Wilhelm Graf von Schwerin: Eyewitness to Siege of Yorktown,” www.historynet.com/letters-from-wilhelm-graf-von-schwerin-eyewitness-to-siege-of-yorktown.htm.
Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, archive.org/details/EwaldsDIARYOFTHEAMERICANWAR/page/n67.
Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle: Being a Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, George F. Scheer, ed. (New York: Eastern Acorn Press, 1962), www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/joseph-plumb-martin.
 Daniel M. Popek, “The Men of Capt. Stephen Olney’s Light Infantry Company, 2nd R.I. Regiment, 1781 (Rhode Island Regiment, consolidated),” freepages.rootsweb.com/~smithandyoung/genealogy/CaptOlneysCo.htm.
St. George Tucker, “Journal of Siege of Yorktown,” Edward M. Riley, ed., The William and Mary Quarterly Third Series 5#3 (July 1948), 377–395, www.encyclopediavirginia.org/_Journal_of_the_Siege_of_Yorktown_by_St_George_Tucker_1781.
George Washington, diary entry for October 14, 1781, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-03-02-0007-0006-0008.
“Cornwallis and the Siege of Yorktown,” University of Sydney, www.blackloyalist.info/cornwallis-and-the-siege-of-yorktown.