An eyewitness account of the Battle of Yorktown (1781)

The following eyewitness account of the Battle of Yorktown was recorded by Joseph Plumb Martin, a foot soldier in the Continental Army:

“The siege was carried on warmly for several days, when most of the guns in the enemy’s works were silenced. We now began our second parallel, about halfway between our works and theirs… We arrived at the trenches a little before sunset. I saw several officers fixing bayonets on long staves. I then concluded we were about to make a general assault upon the enemy’s works…

At dark the detachment was formed and advanced beyond the trenches and lay down on the ground to await the signal for advancing to the attack, which was to be three shells from a certain battery near where we were lying… Our watchword was “Rochambeau,” the commander of the French forces’ name, a good watchword, for being pronounced Ro-sham-bow, it sounded, when pronounced quick, like rush-on-boys.

We had not lain here long before the expected signal was given… We immediately moved silently on toward the redoubt we were to attack, with unloaded muskets. Just as we arrived, the enemy discovered us and directly opened a sharp fire upon us. We were now at a place where many of our large shells had burst in the ground, making holes sufficient to bury an ox in… I thought the British were killing us off at a great rate…

As soon as the firing began, our people began to cry, “The fort’s our own!” and it was “Rush on boys”… The fort was taken and all quiet in a very short time. Immediately after the firing ceased, I went out to see what had become of my wounded friend and the other that fell in the passage. They were both dead. In the heat of the action I saw a British soldier jump over the walls of the fort next the river and go down the bank, which was almost perpendicular and twenty or thirty feet high. When he came to the beach he made off for the town, and if he did not make good use of his legs I never saw a man that did.

All that were in the action… were exempted from further duty that night. We laid down upon the ground and rested the remainder of the night as well as a constant discharge of grape and canister shot would permit us to do… We returned to camp early in the morning, all safe and sound, except one of our lieutenants, who had received a slight wound on the top of the shoulder by a musket shot. Seven or eight men belonging to the infantry were killed, and a number wounded….

We were on duty in the trenches 24 hours, and 48 hours in camp… The greatest inconvenience we felt was the want of good water, there being none near our camp but nasty frog ponds where all the horses in the neighbourhood were watered, and we were forced to wade through the water in the skirts of the ponds, thick with mud and filth, to get at water in any wise fit for use, and that full of frogs…

In the morning… I was sitting on the side of the trench, when some of the New York troops coming in, one of the sergeants stepped up to the breastwork to look about him. The enemy threw a small shell which fell upon the outside of the works; the man turned his face to look at it. At that instant a shot from the enemy, which doubtless was aimed for him in particular, as none others were in sight of them, passed just by his face without touching him at all. He fell dead into the trench. I put my hand on his forehead and found his skull was shattered all in pieces and the blood flowing from his nose and mouth, but not a particle of skin was broken. I never saw an instance like this among all the men I saw killed during the whole war.

Before night we were informed that the British had surrendered and that the siege was ended… The English felt their honor wounded, the Germans did not greatly care whose hands they were in. The British paid the Americans little attention as they passed them, but they eyed the French with considerable malice depicted in their countenances. They marched to the place appointed and stacked their arms; they then returned to the town in the same manner they had marched out, except being divested of their arms. After the prisoners were marched off into the country, our army separated, the French remaining where they then were and the Americans marching for the Hudson.

During the siege, we saw in the woods herds of Negroes which Lord Cornwallis… in love and pity to them, had turned adrift, with no other recompense for their confidence in his humanity than the smallpox for their bounty and starvation and death for their wages… I saw several of those miserable wretches delivered to their master; they came before him under a very powerful fit of the ague [fever]. He told them that he gave them the free choice either to go with him or remain where they were, that he would not injure a hair of their heads if they returned with him to their duty. Had the poor souls received a reprieve at the gallows they could not have been more overjoyed than they appeared to be at what he promised them…”