29TH ZANE GREY CONVENTION, Part 3 EXPLORING YORKTOWN

29TH ZANE GREY CONVENTION

If there is a third-fiddle in the historic triangle of Virginia, it has to be heretofore little-noticed Yorktown. It is exceedingly unlikely that today, one in 10,000 Americans knows the significance of Yorktown. I know I personally had only a vague understanding of its historical significance prior to the Wednesday of the convention. Here, in brief, is a summation of its significance:

On July 4, 1776, American patriots signed the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. War was declared. For five long years, George Washington led his ragtag army in battle with the well-trained British forces. More often than not, Washington was defeated in these clashes, but each time managed to escape. It was a battle-weary people, with little in the way of good news to cheer them up, that faced the definite possibility—even probability—that they would lose to the world’s greatest superpower that September of 1781. But there was a wild card in the deck: France, Great Britain’s fiercest enemy. It was a global war the two nations fought, thus Britain was not at liberty to further weaken the global war by allocating more warships and troops to the American rebellion than it already had. France took advantage of this golden opportunity to embarrass its enemy by sending a fleet to the rescue of the American rebels.

Yorktown Ramparts

The French Admiral Comte de Grasse proceeded with his entire fleet of 24 ships from the West Indies to the Chesapeake Bay. Meanwhile, sailing from New York, Admiral Thomas Graves with 19 British ships left New York. On September 5, at Virginia Capes, the two forces collided. Because of being becalmed (no wind to propel them), their fighting was indecisive. Then, reinforced by additional vessels and siege guns from Newport, R.I., the French sailed back into the Chesapeake to take final control of the Yorktown Harbor.

Yorktown Ramparts

During late summer of 1781, the Marquis de Lafayette (serving under Washington) had so harassed Cornwallis’s troops that he’d been forced to retreat from Wilmington, N.C. to Richmond, VA, then Williamsburg, and finally, near the end of July, to Yorktown, which he proceeded to fortify. Lafayette’s forces, now totaling 8,000 troops blocked Cornwallis from escaping anywhere by land. Cornwallis’s army of 7,000 kept waiting in vain for the British reinforcements to arrive. Under the naval umbrella of the French fleet, Washington dramatically moved 7,000 additional Franco-American troops from New York to Virginia. But Cornwallis’s last hope, Thomas Graves, felt he had no alternative but to return to New York after the stand-off at Virginia Capes. As a result of this, after strategizing with British General Sir Henry Clinton, a British rescue fleet, two-thirds the size of the French, set sail from New York on October 17 with 7,000 British troops. But it was too late: Bombarded by the French fleet on one side and 16,000 allied troops on land, Cornwallis surrendered his entire army on October 19, thus assuring victory to the allied forces. In short, without the French, quite possibly we’d still be part of the British Commonwealth today, like Canada.

David Leeson at Yorktown Battlefield

As our bus pulled into the Yorktown Museum, I felt I’d finally learn the entire story. Instead, I was disappointed: nowhere in all the displays and dioramas was the full story told, nor was it told in the film. Indeed, it was only on returning home and researching for this blog that I turned to the Britannica Encyclopedia and got the full story. Now, if I were to return to the Yorktown Battlefield, which our folk visited that Wednesday, I’d know what the significance was of the fortifications we rather blankly gazed at.

Yorktown Village

Next Wednesday, we’ll explore Old Jamestown

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. My ancestors from France fought in the Revolution. Thanks for the history lesson and for giving credit to the French, where credit is due!!!

  2. Dear Kathleen– Yes, the French deserve a lot more credit than we normally give them. . . . JLW


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