“Prelude to Victory” celebrates the anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown with three days of special programs that recall September 26, 27, and 28, 1781.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.
This time, I'm asking Ron Carnegie, who portrays George Washington at Colonial Williamsburg. Ron will be speaking to us in character as George Washington. Coming up October 11-14, a three-day program called "Prelude to Victory" will focus on the last three days of the period when George Washington and Le Compte de Rochambeau, commander of French land forces, were headquartered in Williamsburg prior to the siege at Yorktown.
When you were waiting in Williamsburg, by that time, with Continental forces and French forces, you actually outnumbered Cornwallis, correct?
George Washington: To the best of our intelligence, Cornwallis has some 6,050 men at his command. I have 7,000 under my command. General Rochambeau brings another 7,000. There are 2,000 brought up from the West Indies by the Admiral Compte de Grasse, not to mention 3,000 experienced Virginia militiamen.
Lloyd: Where was Lafayette in this deal? He was in Virginia at the time.
George: Lafayette is in command of my light infantry division. They are engaged in keeping Cornwallis trapped within Yorktown by land.
Lloyd: Was there ever a possibility that he could escape by land, once you and Rochambea got into position?
George: I would say no, not once we arrive. If he was to do so now, there may be some difficulty, which is why we've given that command to General Lafayette. Once we're in place, the only way he can remove himself is by water. That, as we control the rivers and the Chesapeake, by way of the victory of the Battle of the Capes, would be difficult for him.
Lloyd: I don't know if this is a land commander's question, or if you can answer it, but how many French fighting ships are there in Chesapeake Bay at this point, when you're getting ready to go? They've won the Battle of the Capes, another several have come down from the North, so you must have – or the French must have – just complete control of the water.
George: They certainly do. As to direct numbers, that I cannot give you. However, they are remaining on station. They are not to engage directly within our siege. They're staying at the mouth of the Chesapeake, thereby controlling the entire Chesapeake Bay and all of it is watershed, which of course includes the York River.
Lloyd: Question of strategy or tactics: would it have been easier, let us say, to conduct a siege if you could come in from the waterside, as well?
George: The possibility that I mentioned earlier of escaping by river could be diminished in such fashion, though we have forces besieging the opposite side of the river, as well, on Gloucester Point. They have men in Gloucester Point themselves. As far as an invasion by the water, we thought it more useful to leave Admiral Compte de Grasse where he is, so that there may not be any resupport, resupply, or removal of Cornwallis' troops by way of the Chesapeake.
Lloyd: When you think about it, it begins to make a great deal more sense not to engage the naval forces, just so no one else can get in, anyway.
George: I certainly think so.
Lloyd: I know that you and General Rochambeau have discussed it more than once. But, as you move in, do you have a plan on who will go left and who will go right, and who will go up the middle?
George: The matters on who will take what positions, and who shall march in the vanguard, are still being decided. That's one of the purposes of our staff meetings at my headquarters at Mr. Wythe's old house, here in the city. Once we do so, we will begin our march in an orderly fashion along those lines of where we envision our end. A great deal of our advice for the tactics of the siege -- as we have very little experience with it in the American Army—comes by way of General Rochambeau. He is himself a veteran of 24 sieges in Europe, very experienced in the matter. The French also bring with them a great number of engineers, which we are lacking in our Army.
Lloyd: I know that the admiral who came down from Rhode Island, or wherever it was, brought a fairly good number of French siege guns. I had not realized that Rochambeau was that experienced in sieges. My feeling is that you are not experienced at all in a siege, it's just not something you've done.
George: We did besiege the city of Boston when this war first begun, sir. Though it was not, in truth, a proper European style of siege. I have nowhere near the experience that General Rochambeau has. But do not mistake me, General Rochambeau has remained subservient to my command. He has shown himself -- though he is socially my superior and has greater military experience than myself -- he has been ordered by his king that he is to remain subservient to my command and that he has done, sir.
Lloyd: Still, it should make you feel somewhat better going into this knowing that the man has a wealth of experience. It should give you a certain amount of comfort.
George: It certainly does, sir. Again, mistake me not. Our spirits are as high as they can be. There is no doubt in any of our minds, save by the blessings of heaven, that we will enjoy a victory at Yorktown. We outnumber our enemy, he has put himself in a poor position. There can be little doubt in a matter of a siege where the enemy cannot be removed or resupplied, or resupported; he will be forced to capitulate.
Lloyd: This is an unfair question, because I'm asking you to go into the brain of another man who is your enemy and try to think as he did. Have you any idea, or any speculation, on why Cornwallis would have gotten himself into this position, where he has no place to go?
George: I cannot say, sir. General Cornwallis is, in my opinion, the best field officer the British have. How he has found himself trapped at the town of York, I cannot describe. Unless it was his intention – you'll remember several months ago, they sent 3,000 of their soldiers away from this place. In fact, they did it at the port of York. It's possible that that's what his intentions were, and that's what the British fleet under the command of Graves was arriving at when they were pushed away by the French. I cannot say. I do not know. It seems most unfortunate for his own command to have done so.
Lloyd: On the other hand, it seems quite fortunate for your command.
George: It certainly is.
Lloyd: The Continental forces have not enjoyed enormous victories over the last several years, and if I can say so without giving offense, nothing that seems to be the size of this. Would you think, if the siege is successful –as we think it will be – do you think this will be the biggest victory of this war? Or can you think of another?
George: It will be at least as big, sir, as the victory we enjoyed at Saratoga back in '77 when an army was captured. We have not captured an army since then, and we will at Yorktown, there can be no doubt of that.
Lloyd: From Saratoga to this, it's been small victories and small defeats.
George: We've had some victories, yes, sir. In New York, we have been stalemated on both sides. There's been little success, either to our enemy, or to ourselves in the North. That's one of the reasons why the British have brought the war here to the South.
Lloyd: In the South, to this point, Cornwallis had been quite successful.
George: He has done well. As I say, he is an able field commander.
Lloyd: On past Yorktown – you are all but certain that it will be a victory. What's next?
George: Oh, sir, there is no more than perhaps one-fourth of our enemy's army at Yorktown. This will not end this matter. The enemy still holds New York, they hold Savannah, they hold Charlestown. We will need to see relief of one of those places. I do not think it wise to give too much information of what my intentions for the future will be, but I can assure you, we will have to remove this army to one of those places.
Lloyd: Cornwallis is defeated, surrenders – how much pressure will that take off the Continental Army? His army will be taken prisoner, I suppose, the officers paroled, but even if it's a quarter of the force, that should relieve some of the pressure in other areas.
George: Certainly, certainly. It removes a threat from Virginia. There are still, as I mentioned, other cities held. We have an entire campaign engaged even further south than this, in the Carolinas. The greatest share of our enemy's army is in New York. Those matters must both be resolved. But I'll remind you also, that support of this cause has deteriorated in England. Any victory gives us strength, and brings the day that peace and liberty is restored to our shores closer.
Lloyd: I had not thought of that, but of course, you are right. As things have gone badly for the British and the Hessians, they have also deteriorated in the civilian population. I don't want to put you in a position of sounding like a cheerleader, but you must be in good spirits, having looked at the situation and seen what it is.
George: I am, sir. The entire Army's spirits are high. That is more remarkable when one remembers the fact that last winter, we were engaged in the most difficult winter we have faced since this war begun, and we have faced a number of difficult winters. At Moorestown, not only was food in short supply, the weather greatly cold, the supply of uniforms lacking, but the spirit of the men itself deteriorated to such a point that two separate regiments endeavored mutiny against the congress. That's never happened before in this war. This army was beginning to destroy itself. I only mention that to show that it is remarkable how greatly different the spirits are, only months after that fact. We are well supplied, we've been provided with several thousand livre of French monies, both in loans and in gifts – in some cases, private gifts. It is my understanding that General Rochambeau has given 3,000 livre of his own monies. We are in a stronger circumstance than we've ever been, and everyone in the Army is full aware of that.
Lloyd: "Prelude to Victory" runs October 12-14, you can find more information on our Web site. That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.