Friday, October 19, 2012

Surrender at Yorktown - 1781

Unlike Vietnam; where we won just about every battle, but lost the war; the American Revolution was the complete opposite. We managed to lose almost every battle, and still win the War for Independence. There is a lesson in that. When people fight; on their own soil; for their own freedom; it is virtually impossible to beat them.

John Trumbull’s painting “Surrender at Yorktown” epitomizes the strength inherent in a just cause. Had the Americans lost the war, England would have faced a hostile colony for centuries; much in the same way that Indo-China was a “thorn in the side” to the Koreans, French and eventually the Americans who tried to rule it. But that’s another discussion.
The subject of this post is the surrender of the British at Yorktown in 1781. In spite of a lack of adequate provisions, George Washington was able to lead the Continental Army to a decisive victory over the British forces for the simple reason that they were fighting on “home turf”, for their families as well as their own futures.

In September, Lord Cornwallis had been reinforced with about 7,000 new troops in a last ditch effort to stamp out the revolutionaries. He took these troops to Yorktown, where he established a fort, hoping for relief from the British Navy, which never arrived.  Washington deployed more troops and artillery, with the result that by October; with the help of the French fleet, under the command of Admiral Compte de Grasse; Cornwallis found himself caught between the land forces of the Continental Army, and the French Navy; which had come to our aid through the efforts of Benjamin Franklin in Paris. Those vessels repelled the British fleet, keeping them from rescuing Lord Cornwallis and his men. With all hope of escape gone, he had no choice but to surrender.
The British, and the Germans fighting with them, were eventually forced from their fort under threat of further bombardment, and instructed to bring their colors with them. The British military band played "The World Turned Upside Down"; a popular song of the era; as a way of displaying their disbelief in their loss to the colonies. Cornwallis elected to remain indoors, rather than face his adversary in defeat. Even his second in command, General O’Hara, tried to surrender to the French rather than to the Americans, but he was rebuffed in this effort, leaving him no choice but to surrender to the Continental Army, thus recognizing the new nation it represented. This was the reason which compelled General Washington in his decision to have General O’Hara surrender his sword to General Lincoln instead of himself. He was merely returning the snub by Cornwallis.

So, the painting of the surrender is not exactly what many Americans think of it as being. That is not General Washington mounted on his horse accepting the sword of surrender. It is, rather, General Benjamin Lincoln who is extending his right hand toward that sword, which is not carried by Lord Cornwallis, but is borne by General O’Hara instead.
Depicted in Trumball’s painting, the British troops are in a line which extends into the background. The troops on the left are the French officers, mustered under the banner of the Bourbon family. To the right are the American officers with the flag of their new republic. In that group are the Marquis de Lafayette and Colonel Jonathan Trumbull, who is the brother of the artist who captured it all on canvas. General Washington is in the background, astride a brown horse, keeping an ever watchful eye on the events, just as he had guided the colonies to victory over the course of the war.

But, in spite of these proceedings, the war did not come to a formal end until sometime later, when the British and Americans signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The painting itself was not completed until 1820 and hangs in the Rotunda of the capitol in Washington, D.C. today.

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