Guns of Independence:
The Siege of Yorktown, 1781
by Jerome A Greene
Q & A concerning Guns of Independence with author Jerome Greene
Interview reprinted with permission of Savas Beatie LLC: The Guns of Independence : The Siege of Yorktown, 1781, by Jerome Greene is the first major study of the remarkable American siege that successfully ended England 's effort to subdue her former colonies. Recently, author Jerome Greene explained the basis of his Yorktown research and why this siege is still so important today to Sarah Stephan of Savas Beatie LLC.
Q: You began research for The Guns of Independence more than three decades ago. How did your journey of studying the Siege of Yorktown begin?
A: Well, it all started because of the National Park Service's Bicentennial program. I researched Yorktown to provide park interpreters at the site with comprehensive information about the siege. I included as much in-depth historical information as I could so park employees could explain the siege to the visiting public. I wrote the study in 1974 and 1975, shortly before the Bicentennial, and it has been updated since then.
Q: I understand this involved quite a lot of research. Describe your experience researching and writing the study.
A: My goal was to determine the existence, location, and accessibility of source materials pertinent to the Siege of Yorktown. I ordered most of the data, particularly maps, by mail from museums and state and local archives. The William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan holds many of the manuscripts relevant to Yorktown . I have fond memories of working with the delightful staff there to gather information.
Q: What material does the library hold that was pertinent to your study?
A: They have an immense collection of Sir Henry Clinton papers, many of which related to the Clinton-Cornwallis controversy during the Siege of Yorktown. Beside documents, they also have books that Clinton owned, on the pages of which he wrote notes about the campaign and his disagreements with Cornwallis. My findings in this regard have been incorporated in The Guns of Independence .
Q: The archival research you conducted sounds fascinating. Where else did your research efforts take you?
A: I did a lot of research in the vast library at Colonial National Historical Park in Yorktown , Virginia . I also availed myself of materials in the National Archives, the Library of Congress , Boston , New York , Philadelphia , Ann Arbor , New Jersey , Virginia , and many other places. Finding Henry Knox's map of Yorktown at the Massachusetts Historical Society was a major discovery. I remember it also led to a lot of work . . . Knox's handwriting is horrendous! The worst I've ever seen! Deciphering it was definitely an obstacle.
Q: I can imagine. Did you face any other challenges while writing your study?
A: After two years of research, I had collected a tremendous amount of information. Pulling my manuscript together in a cohesive, meaningful way from all the diverse pieces of information was sometimes a struggle.
Q: In The Guns of Independence , you examine the siege itself in great detail and the men who fought it. Why was the Siege of Yorktown successful?
A: The siege resulted from pure happenstance on the part of the British army under General Cornwallis and opportunity on the part of the Americans and French under General Washington. A fast-moving allied French-American force from the north surrounded Cornwallis' army at Yorktown on the Virginia peninsula. Following a protracted siege, the British were forced to surrender in less than a month. The Guns of Independence details how this came about in terms of individual involvement, strategy, and tactics. The book explains the technologies of siege warfare from the period and their application by both sides, offensive and defensive.
Q: Yes, I found the descriptions of how sieges were conducted, trenches constructed, and so on quite fascinating. It was like a giant chess game-attack, block, move, parry . . .
A. Yes, I think a chess game is a good description of a siege.
Q. You mentioned that General Washington took advantage of an opportunity at Yorktown . How did Washington 's actions exemplify his abilities as a commander?
A: Washington showed his mettle and determination in the face of adversity. Working with the French, he demonstrated that perseverance in strategy and tactical advantage could yield significant results. Washington 's personal abilities and experience surmounted a lack of formal education in the military arts. His ability to cooperate with the French while exerting his own leadership was perhaps his greatest strength in the critical weeks leading to Yorktown . He was a man of great character and excellent social skills, qualities that show in the relatively few descriptions we have of him during the siege operations.
Q: After the war ended, the newly freed colonies continued to rely on Washington . I guess this doesn't come as a surprise . . .
A: It is no wonder that the founding fathers continued to turn to Washington in the years following the war, and that he became the first president. He had all the qualities needed, and almost universal respect from his countrymen.
Q: The Siege of Yorktown was obviously important because it brought the long war to a close, at least on the battlefield, and helped guarantee America 's independence from Great Britain . What other effects did this pivotal campaign have?
A: For one thing, Yorktown validated America 's effort in the War for Independence . If Cornwallis' army had not surrendered, America would not have gained independence at that point in 1781-if ever. Yorktown also affected the geopolitics of the world, for it changed the course of history. It gave the United States an edge on the world stage that promoted its national evolution into a world power. In the long view, it contributed to who we are as a free people today.
Q: How did your study come to be with Savas Beatie LLC?
A: About a year ago, Theodore Savas approached me to work on short histories of the Saratoga and Yorktown campaigns for a series the company was thinking about producing. We discussed my Yorktown study, and I forwarded him a copy. Ted liked what he saw, and we talked about producing it into a general trade book. I incorporated his suggestions into this revised edition.
Q: Now, more than thirty years since you first wrote the study, why do you think it remains the only detailed examination of the Siege of Yorktown ?
A: To tell you the truth, I think it is odd no other study has examined this fundamental chapter of American and British history closely. It was an epic event, yet it has largely been treated only in a composite sense as part of Revolutionary War. Many sources I consulted for the history of the siege were in repositories across the United States , as well as in Europe . The fact that much of the material was scattered throughout the world perhaps dissuaded earlier historians from taking it on in such detail.
Q: I guess you could say the Bicentennial was the perfect reason for you to accept the challenge.
A: Yes, as it turned out. The National Park Service needed detailed information, which many historians are not as interested in. The Bicentennial program enabled me to examine a wide variety of materials in a compressed amount of time regarding this specific site.
Q: Now, every reader so inclined will be fortunate enough to have ready access to your book. Who will this revised and updated version appeal to?
A: Thank you for saying so. I think the book will be welcomed by almost everyone with a love of history: professional and amateur historians, military history buffs, teachers, history students, and of course archeologists. Reenactors will also appreciate it, and I think war gamers will find the treatment of the forts, approaches, and general siege information deeply interesting. I also believe the story of the siege will attract lay readers as well. The book contains details about siege methodology and operations, but not in such overwhelming detail that it will turn away non-professionals. And of course, the foundation of the whole story is the human element on both sides.
Q: You quote from many soldier letters, diaries, and so forth, and that really helps flesh out who some of these men were, and what they were experiencing . . .
A: Thanks. I tried to infuse the pages with interesting data about human involvement and cost at Yorktown . I believe readers will appreciate these facets of what happened there. I hope they will see Yorktown for what it was: the hard work and effort involved, the human tragedies and sacrifices on both sides, and the entire horror of the event from which our nation flowered in the end. Yorktown didn't "just happen," and this book explains why and how.
Q: I am sure that readers will not be disappointed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me.
A: Thank you very much.
Sarah Stephan; Savas Beatie, LLC
Jerome Greene, Author of Guns of Independence: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781