Yorktown

Growing up I didn’t enjoy history lessons at school. It was this dry pedantic subject filled with dates and facts that were perhaps imbued by historians with greater precision than they meritted. I could “mug” – the word used in the Hyderabad Public School for memorize. So I could easily fill four sheets of single ruled foolscap paper in neat cursive writing in Parker Washable Royal Blue ink about the details of the battle between Alexander and Porus in 326 BC. Or how Muhammad bin Tughlaq hastened the downfall of the Delhi Sultanate during his disastrous reign in the 1300’s though he was a genius. I got top grades but history had no fascination for me. Besides, it is burdened by one huge unredeemable fact. It’s in the past. When you are 13, life is about the present. And perhaps the future.

Understandably I wasn’t jumping with excitement when Jo planned a visit to the site of the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia with Aaron as our guide. I went along and hoped that the kids would find it interesting.

Sometime during the last few decades historians have recreated the earthen lines of the allied forces from historical data. The French and Washington’s troops attacked Cornwallis and his English troops holed up in Yorktown in October 1781. The French provided a naval blockade along the York river to prevent the British from resupplying from the water. Aaron explained all this as we walked along the trenches and earthworks, imagining cannon balls and mortar shells raining down on both sides that were separated by less than half a mile. Then we walked up to Redoubt Number 10. Redoubt is a new word in my vocabulary. We learned from Aaron that it is an enclosed defensive fortification that is usually separate from the main fort and is a often a raised earthen structure. In the case of Yorktown the redoubts had steep earthen walls and sharpened timber palisades and trenches under them that made scaling the redoubt difficult, especially when someone from above was shooting musket balls at you.

Here’s what happened according to the Army College website (https://ahec.armywarcollege.edu/trail/Redoubt10/index.cfm).

With their stores dwindling, the British tried to defend the town as the Americans began construction of another, closer trench line. The second trench line was directly under the fire of the last two redoubts the British forces held, allowing Cornwallis’ men to pour artillery onto the troops digging furiously. Washington and his French counterpart, Lieutenant General Comte de Rochambeau, realized the only way they could complete the second line of trenches, and thus get their troops and artillery close enough to storm the town, was to take the two last redoubts.

On the evening of October 14th, two assault parties formed to attack the two redoubts, designated “Redoubts 10 and 9.” A French band under Major General Baron De Viomenil began their attack on Redoubt 9, while LTC Alexander Hamilton commanded the Americans attacking Redoubt 10. Both forces numbered 400 men, and neither had loaded weapons. Instead, the troops fixed their bayonets and followed teams of sappers to the bases of the redoubts. Each redoubt was surrounded by an abatis, or sharpened tree branches tangled together similar to modern day barbed wire, which required the sappers to tear down. The Soldiers, now under heavy musket fire from the British, dropped fascines (bundles of sticks tied with yarn) into the ditch surrounding the redoubt, and placed ladders to climb the sides of the fortification.

The fighting within the redoubts digressed into violent hand-to-hand combat. Washington reported on the assault, simply stating the allies “advanced under the fire of the Enemy without returning a shot and effected the business with bayonet only.” The French captured one hundred and twenty British and Hessian soldiers in thirty minutes, while the Americans captured seventy in Redout 10.

The next morning, the second line of trenches included the two redoubts, allowing the Americans and French to bombard the British incessantly. The British commanders realized there were no reinforcements coming and supplies were running dangerously low. Finally, on the October 17th, Cornwallis sent a drummer boy and an officer to discuss the terms of his surrender.

Vivian and Evan had of course learned about Hamilton’s role not from history books at school but thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, so they sang it from the walls of the redoubt.

Cornwallis’ surrender marked the end of the last major battle in the American war of independence. Having lost here, the British next sent him to the Raj as the Governor General of India. Aaron pointed out that this one man was responsible for trying to subjugate people on both sides of our family. History is a lot more fun when you learn about it standing on what was once a blood stained battlefield. And when you have a personal dislike for the enemy commander. Asshole.

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