Lafayette’s Account of the Battle of York, September 29 - October 19, 1781
    (Reel 23, Folder 200F)

    The Battle of Yorktown was the climax of the Revolutionary War. The combined forces of General Washington, General Rochambeau, Admiral de Grasse, and General Lafayette all took part. Lafayette chronicles the siege, which took place from September 29 to October 19, 1781.

    Literal transcription of Lafayette’s notes of the Battle of Yorktown. Translation of an excerpt of the journal. George Gauthier, translator.

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Journal of the siege of York in Virginia in the month of October 1781 by the American and French armies under the orders of Generals Washington and Rochambeau.

The Generals Washington and Rochambeau having arrived at the camp of Williamsburg found there the army of Major general Marquis de la Fayette and the division of the Marquis de St-Simon camping on the side of that town. Their armies were approaching; they went on board the ship Ville de Paris, leaving camp on Sept. 17th, to plan their operations together with Monsieur de Grasse, whence they returned on the 22nd.

(There follows a list of the various components of the armies and their encampments.)

On the 29th Sept. we began to reconnoiter the place; a wide deep ravine cut by a swampy stream surrounded half of it for a distance of more than 800 yards. Covered by a solidly built "abbatis" (arrangement of felled trees), the enemy had cluttered the terrain with felled trees as far as the stream just mentioned which flows into the York River.

Two other palisaded redoubts surrounded by an abbatis stretched toward their center, leaving between them the road from York to Williamsburg; they occupied the crest of the height... ...One can see by this description how difficult was the reconnaissance of the place. We could discover only the forward works, and if from a few points we managed to catch a glimpse of the works, it was only very imperfect.... They had camped a part of their troops between the redoubts and the batteries.... We would have been obliged to attack them by storm, which would only have been done with many losses. But the enemy abandoned the redoubts and batteries on the night of 29 to 30 Sept. We became aware of that on the morning of the 30th; our troops took possession of the area immediately; 100 men went into the redoubt of Pigeon Quarter and 50 into the one on Penny Hill. One of the neighboring batteries was changed into a redoubt, and we constructed an intermediate one at the head of the big ravine -- this work was very much harassed by enemy fire.

Then we reconnoitered the place with greater ease, and we kept busy with that till the 5th, while the artillery was disembarking, and the troops prepared the provisions for siege works, and the munitions were brought to the artillery park. During the interval from 30 September to the first of October, M de (?) attacked the forward abbatis from the redoubt on the left, and forced the enemy to withdraw within his defenses.

The whole area is closed off with earthworks, palisades, and enveloped or covered with abbatis that Lord Cornwallis had had built since the arrival of the army of M. le C(?)... It seems that he had expected the attack only of the (auxiliary? ancillary?) troops of Major General Marquis de la Fayette and those of the Marquis de Saint-Simon. After the arrival of the armies of Generals Washington and Rochambeau, he constructed detached works that he linked while awaiting the siege. He also had work done on interior retrenchments... During this period of reconnoitering from 30 Sept. to 5 Oct., we could see each day new works done during the night, and which he continued until the moment when the batteries opened fire. ...

On Oct. 5th it seemed proper to strengthen our left by the redoubts of Pigeon Quarter and Penny Hill, and the advanced batteries which we had put at the head of the ravine on our left to York on our right. Likewise it was necessary to formulate an attack to the left at the redoubt, to occupy the enemy in this area, and to attack the frigate and the little warships that were anchored there and the larger war vessels moored fore and aft in the river, against our vessels that could have come upstream to help our attack by a diversion, to prevent the enemy from heading to Gloucester and force us to a second attack that would have prolonged the expedition and the stay of the Squadron until the bad season. Having decided on these attacks, we opened a trench in the night of the 6th to the 7th on both the right and the left; we hid the opening from the enemy on the right. Such was not the case on the left; a forward sentinel having deserted to the enemy an hour earlier, and informed them of the trench, we drew an intense fire. We set up there a battery of four cannons and six howitzers protected by a trench 150 yards from that redoubt. ...

We improved the trench from the 7th to the 8th and worked on setting up the batteries. A few were placed behind the trench, the garrison numbering about 6000 troops ordered independently from the sailors and their ships. It was necessary to secure the trenches against vigorous sorties; consequently we set up on the first parallel four redoubts with palisades in their ditches. The battery on the left was ready on the 8th, but we put off firing.

...On the afternoon of the 9th, some batteries, both French and American, were ready to operate, and they opened fire. General Washington had proposed to M. le Marquis de St- Simon to take command on the left, which he did. Immediately the frigate and other warships withdrew precipitously. All the batteries opened fire and silenced the cannon of the enemy. On the same day, the shells on the left set fire to the moored vessel Caron (?); it was sunk along with two other enemy ships. Most of the others stationed themselves on the opposite shore, next to Gloucester, to avoid the same fate.

From the 10th to the 11th, we finished up what needed to be done in the fortifications, and then opened up with great firing upon the enemy. ... From the 11th to the 12th, Major General Baron de Steuben and the Chevalier de Chatelun(?) command the trench. ...A second parallel is established, which necessitated the displacement of our batteries, which were interfering with our workers. ... From the 12th to the 13th, Major General Lincoln and the Marquis de St-Simon are in charge of the trench. ... From the 13th to the 14th Major General Marquis de la Fayette and the Count of Vismenil (?) command the trench. ...

From the 14th to the 15th, Major General Marquis de la Fayette goes the length of the trench and back, commands the attack of the redoubt on the left, and the Baron de Vismenil (?) the one on the right. ... We attacked two redoubts; the one on the right was taken by the American light infantry, and the other by the grenadiers of Gatinois supported by (?).

From the 15th to the 16th Major General Baron von Steuben et M le Chevalier de Chatelun (?) command the trench. ... During the night the enemy appeared at a French battery and an American battery. They worked their way in by posing as Americans and thus deceived the neighboring posts, while some of them spiked four cannons and two of the American cannon. As soon as we became aware of this, they were vigorously repulsed and retreated in a hurry within their fortifications. That incident did not prevent the batteries from firing two hours later onto the battlefield.

From the 16th to the 17th, Major General Lincoln and M.le Marquis de St-Simon command the trench. ... We worked on the redoubts, which were improved, and on new communications to the American batteries. ... We palisaded the ditch of all the batteries, while they were preparing to unleash their fire at daybreak. ... Finally, on the morning of the 17th, all the new batteries opened fire. The enemy received fire from all sides -- cannons, mortars, howitzers.... they must have lost many ( ? ). The parapets were crumbling under the effect of the bombs, the palisades were breaking down; we were blazing a secure route to march in by storm.

Fom the 17th to the 18th Major General Marquis de la Fayette and M le Comte de Vismenil (?) command the trench. The morning of the 17th, Lord Cornwallis asked for 24 hours to enter into negotiations; he was refused; on the same day in the afternoon he sent a (?) to propose terms. Firing ceased on both sides. On the 19th, at one o'clock in the afternoon the capitulation was signed. The garrison became prisoners of war (see details in the account of the capitulation). That afternoon they paraded before the combined army, deposited their arms at the head of the American camp, which were required for the militias, and went to spend the night in York, of which some troops had just taken possession. On the 20th, they evacuated the place entirely.

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