Guns of Independence:
The Siege of Yorktown, 1781
by Jerome A. Greene
Chapter 12: Hopes Bright and Dim
"Abercrombie's Pre-Dawn Sortie"
Excerpt reprinted with permission of Savas Beatie LLC: Cornwallis's artillery fell silent about 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday, October 16. Some 350 of his soldiers filed out of the Hornwork portion of the British lines and walked silently across the plain in front of the works. They moved stealthily in the growing twilight of dawn so as not to draw the attention of Allied troops guarding the second parallel. The attacking party was composed of a detachment of the Royal Foot Guards, the 80th Company of Grenadiers under Lieutenant Colonel Lake, and a light infantry unit headed by Major Thomas Armstrong. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercrombie, the officer in charge of the left side (southern and eastern defenses) of the main works at Yorktown , oversaw the sortie effort.
The attack was intended to cripple the unfinished French and American batteries (6B and 8B) set squarely opposite the left center of Cornwallis's line-batteries whose fire threatened to breach the British works preparatory to a general storm of Yorktown by the Allies.1 The bold effort was in response to news that French naval reinforcements had been sighted in Chesapeake Bay, and signaled a new echelon of desperation stirring within Lord Cornwallis. If well executed, substantial damage could be inflicted upon the enemy, and the siege perhaps lengthened. But the sortie had little hope of lasting success, and represented no more than a nod to tradition.2
The choice of Abercrombie to lead the assaulting column was a good one. The lieutenant colonel was a hardened veteran of the French and Indian War and had fought in many of the American Revolution's earlier battles. During the siege, he commanded his light infantry battalion as well as the left wing of Cornwallis's embattled army. Abercrombie divided his strike force into two columns. The first consisted of Grenadiers from the Royal Foot Guards and Colonel Lake 's 80th Company (with Lake in command of this half of the attack), while the other was comprised of Major Armstrong's "elite" light infantry. The British approached the new parallel. In advance were pickets from the Regiment Agenois. Behind them was the Regiment Soissonois, which was tasked with holding this portion of the line.
The advancing British met with more immediate success than Cornwallis likely anticipated. "They fell upon a picket of the Agenois Regiment whom they massacred, took the captain prisoner, and entered the trench where the Soissonnais put up only a halfhearted resistance, abandoning the place of army and the redoubt to the advancing enemy," recalled Jean- Baptiste-Antoine de Verger of the Regiment Deux-Ponts.
Abercrombie's sortie had perfectly targeted and pierced the joint in the Allied line between the target batteries at the juncture of the French and American sectors. Once inside, one column turned right and passed through an unobstructed communications trench and, without warning, broke upon unfinished Battery 6B, which was supposed to be guarded by a captain and 50 soldiers of the Regiment Agenois. Few, if any, were there because most of the French defenders were asleep in adjacent Redoubt 7B, or absent. Pretending to be an American relief unit, the British leaped over the parapet and began stabbing the sleeping Frenchmen with their bayonets. Shocked and bloodied, many of the Agenois men fled, leaving the attackers behind with a free hand to spike the four guns in the battery. This they did using their bayonets, which they hurriedly drove into the vent holes of 16-pounders yet un-mounted. Once deeply inserted, the soldiers snapped them off.
Meanwhile, the other British column moved left and encountered American Captain Joseph Savage's men in Battery 8B, which was occupied by 100 soldiers belonging to the 2nd New York, the 1st Continental Artillery, and Lieutenant Colonel Dabney's Virginia Militia. The British approached the battery in the lingering darkness and one of the officers shouted out,
"Push on, boys, and skin the bastards!"
With that command the British charged forward and engaged some of Savage's men in hand-to-hand combat, scattering the Americans and spiking three 18-pounders with their bayonets. The commotion drew the attention of Viscount de Noailles, who was behind the batteries with the trench guard of Soissonois. De Noailles immediately comprehended what was happening and led a charge of shouting Frenchmen into the fray to rout the British and send them scurrying back toward their own works. De Noailles's soldiers succeeded in bayoneting eight of the assailants and capturing six others. According to Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, a French aristocrat who wrote on life in America , many of the British dead were the spikers themselves.
The British, however, had inflicted significant casualties on the French, who had been caught utterly off guard by the sally. Accounts differ as to the numbers lost. De Crèvecoeur claims the French lost eleven killed and 37 wounded, while others put the loss at five officers and a dozen soldiers killed or wounded, with a captain taken prisoner. Cornwallis inflated the casualty toll when, on October 20, he wrote Clinton that the French loss about 100 men in the pre-dawn attack. On the American side, one man was taken prisoner, two were killed, and three were wounded (one mortally). Following the return of Abercrombie's assault force to its own lines, Cornwallis's artillery opened all along his fortifications.3
The entire episode seems to have been mismanaged on both sides. Apparently, Major General de Chastellux had been informed by a deserter that a sortie was going to occur, and the soldier even designated the point along the line where the assault might be expected.4 The British found the French battery deserted because its gunners had been sent to retrieve two artillery pieces that had overturned in the trench en route from the first parallel. The Agenois soldiers, left to guard Redoubt 7B, were permitted to sleep, and took every advantage of the order to do so. "The negligence of the Agenois regiment was the sole reason for the surprise of the redoubt and of the adjoining [French] battery," concluded Baron von Closen.5 Although the point of the attack seems to have been well chosen, Abercrombie can also be faulted for having launched the sortie without the careful planning it deserved. The reason the British spiked the Allied guns with their bayonet points was because they had taken along wheel nails, which were too large for the cannon vents, instead of the correct steel spikes made expressly for that purpose.6 The British left the decided impression among some of the French that "they were nearly all drunk," and for that reason they failed in their attempt. The French admitted they were notably unprepared for the assault, despite the obvious caution that should have been exercised. As one officer put it, "We must confess that we hardly dreamed of being attacked that night."7
Any advantage Cornwallis gained in the sally proved illusory. The strong counterattack by the French destroyed the British drive and sent it scurrying back to Yorktown with loss. The guns spiked by the enemy with bayonets were easily restored to working order by simply prying loose the bent metal. Soon after the British soldiers reached their lines the three American 18-pounders were able to operate again. They delivered a sharp fire in defiance of the failed enemy effort.8 "Within an hour," reported a German officer, "they battered our works so badly in the flank and rear that all our batteries were silenced within a few hours."9 It took the French a few hours longer to extricate the bayonet points and finish mounting their cannon, but by 9:00 a.m., all was ready and their guns opened a ricochet fire along Cornwallis's front line. British artillery did not respond.10
The early morning attack was a wasteful exercise and accomplished nothing other than to make the Allies acutely aware of the desperate straits of their enemy. "This action, though extremely honorable to the officers and soldiers who executed it, proved of little public advantage," Cornwallis concluded, "for the cannon having been spiked in a hurry, were soon rendered fit for service again, and before dark the whole parallel and batteries appeared to be nearly complete."11
Jerome Greene Guns of Independence: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781