Today in History - October 19th
October 19, 1781 - Cornwallis surrenders to Washington at Yorktown
In the summer of 1781, after six years of war, the American Army was struggling. The British occupied New York City. A second British army lead by General Lord Cornwallis ravaged the South - capturing Charleston, Richmond, and apparently was heading for the Chesapeake Bay. Mutiny plagued the American army in New York and New Jersey.
There was a glimmer of hope, however. The French, allied with the Americans since 1778, had landed six thousand troops in Rhode Island while the French fleet gathered in the Caribbean preparing to do battle with the British. General George Washington and the French commander, Comte de Rochambeau, met in May 1781 to plan their strategy. Washington wanted to attack the British in New York City. Rochambeau, fearful of attacking such a well fortified position and lacking confidence in the Continental Army's abilities, recommended marching south to battle Cornwallis in Virginia.
Washington finally acquiesced to the French position and on August 22, the two armies began their march from White Plains, New York to Virginia arriving in early September. As the combined American and French armies marched south, a battle between the French and British fleets in the Chesapeake Bay sealed the fate of General Cornwallis and his British troops at Yorktown. In the period from September 5 - 9, the French surprised the British fleet at the mouth of the Chesapeake forcing the British navy to retreat to New York, leaving General Cornwallis stranded.
After a five-day bombardment, the combined American and French forces attacked and overwhelmed Cornwallis's fortified position on the night of October 14. The British commander was left with no choice but to surrender, which he did on October 19. News of the surrender reached England on November 25 sending shock waves through the British government. Although King George III wanted to continue the battle, the surrender forced Prime Minister Lord North to resign in March 1782. His replacement began the peace process that culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783 granting independence to the American colonies.
Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown
October 19, 1864 The Battle of Cedar Creek, Virgiinia
Early deployed his men in three columns in an audacious night march, lighted only by the moon. Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon's division started at 8:00 p.m. and followed a "pig's path" along the base of Massanutten Mountain and across the river. Just before sunrise, operating under a cover of dense fog, Gordon struck. The surprise was complete, and the first Union corps (Maj. Gen. George Crook's VIII) fought momentarily, then broke. Hundreds of prisoners were taken, many of them still in their bedclothes.
The XIX Corps under Maj. Gen. William Emory was next to be hit, by Gordon and the division of Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw, who joined the attack from the west, and Emory's soldiers broke, too. The Confederate assault moved so swiftly that they had little time to prepare. Retreating soldiers from Emory's corps caused confusion and damaged the morale of the defenders. And since their hasty battle line faced south rather than west, Confederate guns across the creek were able to shell the open Union flank.
Wright's VI Corps, last in the line, fought a strong defensive battle, withdrawing slowly under heavy pressure. He attempted to advance his lines southward to meet Early's initial assault, but the attack moved too quickly for him to get them moving. Early did not keep up his pressure, however, so pleased was he with his victory, including the capture of over a thousand prisoners and eighteen guns. He mistakenly assumed that Wright would retreat from the battlefield. He told Gordon, "This is glory enough for one day." The Union troops had withdrawn past Middletown. His failure to pursue them is considered his fatal mistake in the battle and caused lasting enmity between him and Gordon.
Sheridan was away at Winchester, Virginia, at the time the battle started. Hearing the distant sounds of artillery, he rode aggressively to his command. (A famous poem, Sheridan's Ride, was written by Thomas Buchanan Read to commemorate this event.) He reached the battlefield about 10:30 a.m. and began to rally his men. Fortunately for Sheridan, Early's men were too occupied to take notice; they were hungry and exhausted and fell out of their ranks to pillage the Union camps.
General Sheridan wrote in his official report an account of the famous ride:
[I] was unconscious of the true condition of affairs until about 9 o'clock, when having ridden through the town of Winchester, the sound of the artillery made a battle unmistakable, and on reaching Mill Creek, half a mile south of Winchester, the head of the fugitives appeared in sight, trains and men coming to the rear with appalling rapidity. I immediately gave directions to halt and park the trains at Mill Creek, and ordered the brigade at Winchester to stretch across the country and stop all stragglers. Taking twenty men from my escort, I pushed on to the front, leaving the balance under General Forsyth and Colonels Thom and Alexander to do what they could in stemming the torrent of fugitives. I am happy to say that hundreds of the men, when of reflection found they had not done themselves justice, came back with cheers. ... still none behaved more gallantly or exhibited greater courage than those who returned from the rear determined to reoccupy their lost camp. ...
– Philip H. Sheridan, Report of Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, U.S. Army, commanding Middle Military Division, including operations August 4, 1864 – February 27, 1865: The War of the Rebellion, Vol. 43, Part I, pages 52–54.
At 3:00 p.m. Early resumed his offensive with a minor attack that might have succeeded in the morning, but was easily repulsed. At 4:00 p.m., Emory's corps counterattacked. Early's three divisions were stretched out on a line about three miles long, with the flanks unprotected. Emory was reinforced by George A. Custer's cavalry division, which exploited the open left flank and broke the Confederate line. Other cavalry units destroyed a bridge in the Confederate rear, cutting off their escape route. Many of the veteran Southern troops surrendered, certain they could not fight their way out of the debacle. The Union took hundreds of prisoners, 43 guns (18 of which were their own guns from the morning), and supplies that the Confederacy could not replace.
The battle resulted in a crushing defeat for the Confederacy. They were never again able to threaten Washington, D.C., through the Shenandoah Valley, nor protect the economic base in the Valley. The reelection of Abraham Lincoln was materially aided by this victory and Phil Sheridan received lasting fame. Jubal Early's command was effectively ended and his surviving units returned to assist Robert E. Lee in Petersburg that December.
Sheridan at Cedar Creek, Oct. 19, 1864