Victory at Yorktown won on the water

Old map

By Amanda Kerr

In September 1781 a naval battle between the British and French at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay set up the eventual victory for the Siege of Yorktown.

British ships were coming down from New York to anchor for the winter. Gen. George Washington, who had arrived at Yorktown with his troops, feared being trapped by the British by land and sea. He pleaded with the French to send help.

Rear Adm. Francois Joseph Paul Comte de Grasse brought his fleet from the Caribbean and succeeded in blocking the British. Adm. Thomas Graves’ fleet was so badly damaged that it had to sail back to New York for repairs, leaving Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis to fend for himself in Yorktown.

“That’s what set the stage for the Siege at Yorktown,” archaeologist John Broadwater said in an interview in advance of Yorktown Day next week. “That made it possible for the land siege.”

A month after the Battle of the Capes, other ships figured prominently along the coast of Yorktown.

Broadwater, who has studied, surveyed and excavated the Cornwallis ships in the York River, will discuss the maritime significance during a presentation this weekend at the Yorktown Victory Center. This summer Broadwater surveyed a newly discovered ship along the town shoreline, near the Betsy.

The presentation coincides with the 229th anniversary of the siege, celebrated annually on Oct. 19.

Cornwallis had an interior fleet of more than 50 ships to support his troops in town.

Broadwater explained that in the days before the siege, Cornwallis tried to break the French blockade in the Chesapeake Bay by using fire ships, rigged to burn and shoot out flames in an effort to damage other boats.

But the French were able to cut their anchors loose before any of their boats were damaged by the flaming ships.

Broadwater said that once Cornwallis realized he was vulnerable to an amphibious assault, he scuttled 10-12 ships to block the shoreline at Yorktown.

In some ships crews bored a hole near the bow. In the Betsy, a merchant ship Broadwater excavated in the 1980s, a piece of planking below the water line had been chopped out.

“I guess whatever they could do to sink the ship in a hurry,” Broadwater surmised.