By Colin Woodward
A couple weeks ago, I visited Yorktown for the first time. As a military historian, the site offers a two for one. Yorktown was the site of the last major battle of the American Revolution. It was also the scene of major operations during the Civil War. The site also has major connections to the Lees.
Light Horse Harry at Yorktown
The most obvious connection to the Lees was the presence at Yorktown of Henry Lee, III, better known as Light Horse Harry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee. Light Horse Harry, a cavalryman, didn’t see much action at Yorktown, but then again, it was a siege, not a battle on the scale of other struggles. At Yorktown, the Americans—helped by a large number of French infantry and a decisive naval presence—forced the surrender of Lord Cornwallis’s army.
To oversimplify the campaign, by October of 1781, Cornwallis was trapped with his back to the York River. When the French navy cut off any chance he had of evacuating his forces by ship, he surrendered to Washington and the thousands of French troops also there. The Revolution didn’t officially end until 1783 (and fighting certainly didn’t stop after the Americans took Yorktown), but the English never recovered after Cornwallis’s defeat.
Victory and Memory
While he was in debtor’s prions in Westmoreland County in the early 1800s, Henry Lee wrote his memoirs. In it, he recounted feelings in the wake of the American victory at Yorktown. He said:
Thus concluded the important co-operation of the allied forces; concerted at the Court of Versailles, executed with precision on the part of the Count de Grasse, and conducted with judgment by the commander-in-chief. Great was the joy diffused through our infant empire. Bonfires, illuminations, feasts, and balls, proclaimed the universal delight; congratulatory addresses, warm from the heart, poured in from every quarter, hailing in fervid terms the patriot hero; the reverend ministers of our holy religion, the learned dignitaries of science, the grave rulers and governors of the land, all tendered their homage; and the fair whose smiles best reward the brave, added, too, their tender gratitude and sweet applause.
Then, Lee turned his attention to General Washington, for whom he had great admiration:
This wide acclaim of joy and of confidence, as rare as sincere, sprung not only from the conviction that our signal success would bring in its train the blessings of peace, so wanted by our wasted country, and from the splendor with which it encircled our national name, but from the endearing reflection that the mighty exploit had been achieved by our faithful, beloved Washington. We had seen him struggling throughout the war with inferior force against the best troops of England, assisted by her powerful navy; surrounded with difficulties; oppressed by want; never dismayed, never appalled, never despairing of the commonwealth. We had seen him renouncing his own fame as a soldier, his safety as a man; in his unalloyed love of country, weakening his own immediate force to strengthen that of his lieutenants; submitting with equanimity to his own consequent inability to act, and rejoicing in their triumphs, because best calculated to uphold the great cause intrusted to his care; at length by one great and final exploit under the benign influence of Providence, lifted to the pinnacle of glory, the merited reward of his toils, his sufferings, his patience, his heroism, and his virtue. Wonderful man! Rendering it difficult by his conduct throughout life to decide whether he most excelled in goodness or in greatness.
In 1799, following the death of Washington, Lee eulogized him as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
John Parke Custis
Yorktown has other connections to the Lees. At the memorial to the Yorktown campaign there’s a marker that lists the American dead, state by state. Among the Virginians is John Parke Custis.
Born in 1754, he was the son of Daniel Parke Custis and Martha Dandridge Washington (who married George Washington following the death of her first husband, Daniel). After his mother married Washington, he moved to Mount Vernon.
John was father of George Washington Parke Custis, who built Arlington plantation. George was the father of Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, who became Robert E. Lee’s wife in 1831. George Washington Parke Custis was born in 1781, just a few months before the death of his father.
Was John killed in battle? No. As was true of most of the soldiers in the pre-20th century wars, he died from disease. John Parke Custis succumbed to “camp fever” in November of 1781, just a few weeks after the American victory at Yorktown. He was only 26. He is buried at Mount Vernon.
Life’s a Beach
For the visitor to Yorktown interested in military history, the entrenchments are still visible.
As I drove in, the first part of the battlefield I saw were the recreated American/French fortifications.
Confederates in 1862, trying to hold back the advance of George McClellan and his Yankee troops, reused the old earthworks at Yorktown. The Rebels were no more successful than the British had been. Yorktown fell to Federal forces, who occupied the town for the rest of the war. Yorktown now is a small, adorable place with restaurants, bookstores, and a nice looking beach. I would love to go back soon.
Robert E. Lee wasn’t at Yorktown. At the time of the Federal capture, he was in Richmond, advising the president on military strategy. But on 1862 June 1, he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
The cemetery at Yorktown contains the graves of hundreds of Union soldiers, most of them unknown. One includes the grave of the “Sleeping Soldier,” who was given the death sentence for falling asleep at his post in 1861. President Lincoln commuted his sentence, and the man returned to the army. He was later killed in action.
I was at Yorktown the day after Memorial Day. And it seemed a fitting way to honor the soldiers who died fighting in Virginia so long ago.