At about ten o’clock in the bright morning of 17 October 1781, a lone drummer boy dressed in shabby bearskin and red coat scrambled on to the ruined earthworks outside Yorktown and beat for a parley. From their trenches, which encircled the little tobacco port like a noose, George Washington’s forces could see him through the smoke of battle. But they could not hear him because of the thunder of their hundred guns.
Firing incessantly were 24-pound siege pieces which smashed the fortifications, 8-inch howitzers which dismembered their defenders, lighter cannon whose balls splintered the clapboard houses along the bluff overlooking Chesapeake Bay and sometimes skipped over the water like flat stones, and heavy French mortars whose 200-pound projectiles—black bombshells clearly visible in daylight, blazing meteors after dark—made the whole peninsula shake.
Then, behind the boy, a British officer appeared, waving a white handkerchief. He bore a message from Lord Cornwallis, whose battered army had no means of escape, proposing to end the bloodshed. The barrage ceased, the emissary was blindfolded and the terms of the British surrender were negotiated.
‘The Old World regarded the New World’s victory as an ominous inversion of the established order. It was an unbeaten revolt of children against parental authority.’
Washington, unbending in his role as the noblest republican of them all, administered a severe blow to imperial pride. Cornwallis’s 7,200 troops were to become prisoners of war. They were to march, flags furled, between the ranks of their foes drawn up along the road from Yorktown, which passed through fields white with ripe cotton bolls, and lay down their arms.
It was a “humiliating scene,” watched in dead silence by the Americans, clad in ragged homespun, some “almost barefoot,” and their French allies, plumed and often mustachioed, immaculate in white uniforms and black gaiters, their pastel silk banners decorated with silver fleurs-de-lis.
King George III’s German mercenaries marched past steadily but the British “lobsters” (as the Americans called them) were less dignified. Some were the worse for rum—the largest single item of expenditure borne by the British Army during the war. Others were disdainful, others defiant. A few flung down their heavy, smooth-bored Brown Bess muskets as though to smash them.
Lieutenant-Colonel Abercromby, who had led the only serious sortie from Yorktown, chewed his sword in impotent rage. According to an American witness, the British officers behaved like whipped schoolboys. “Some bit their lips, some pouted, others cried,” hiding such emotions beneath their round, broad-brimmed hats.
Cornwallis himself remained in Yorktown, pleading indisposition but perhaps unable to face the triumph of revolution. Meanwhile, the bandsmen of his captive army played a “melancholy” tune on drums and fifes. It was the dirge of the British Empire in America, “The World Turned Upside Down.”
The Old World did regard the New World’s victory as an ominous inversion of the established order. It was an unbeaten revolt of children against parental authority—the first successful rebellion of colonial subjects against sovereign power in modern history.
How could a rabble of farmers in thirteen poor appendages, with a population of only 2.5 million, defeat the trained might of the mother country? Americans were divided among themselves and thinly spread along an underdeveloped eastern seaboard which shaded gradually into isolated pioneer settlements and virgin wilderness.
They were opposed not only by white loyalists but by black slaves and “Red Indians.” Washington’s recruits, in a spirit of democratic “licentiousness” (his word), were disinclined to take orders without discussion: as one senior officer complained, “The privates are all generals.” Their auxiliaries, until the advent of the French, were wholly undisciplined.
The militia consisted of summer foot soldiers on furlough from the plough and, wrote one witness, a cavalry of round-wigged tailors and apothecaries mounted on “bad nags” who looked “like a flock of ducks in cross-belts.” These were supported at times by tattooed and buckskinned frontiersmen with tomahawks in their belts, bear grease in their hair and coonskin hats on their heads.
Yet this motley array often proved effective, particularly in guerrilla fighting. After the “shot heard round the world” which had opened hostilities at Lexington in 1775, the redcoats made such a “vigorous retreat,” quipped Benjamin Franklin, that the “feeble Americans could scarce keep up with them.”
On other occasions British generals proved dauntlessly incompetent. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne distinguished himself less as a professional soldier than an amateur dramatist—when his play The Bloodbath of Boston was performed, the audience at first thought that American shelling was part of the show—and in 1777 his histrionic recklessness led to the British capitulation at Saratoga.
By contrast, George Washington, though by no means a military genius, was a great leader. Tall and stately in his familiar buff and blue uniform, with a long pallid face dominated by a jutting nose, a broad mouth and steely grey-blue eyes, he looked the part. And he played it with courage and canniness. Formidably self-possessed, ruthlessly single-minded, incomparably tenacious, he made small gains and avoided large losses, staving off defeat until he could achieve victory.
Excerpted from The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997 by Piers Brendon Copyright © 2008 by Piers Brendon. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.