Thursday, June 13, 2013

Siege of Yorktown: A Low Point for Slaves in the American Revolution

In the autumn of 1781, General Lord Charles Cornwallis found himself, along with 6,000 British soldiers and 4,000 African Americans, trapped in Yorktown. Surrounded by American and French soldiers and hemmed in by the French navy, Cornwallis faced a grim situation that, a few years prior, was considered unthinkable by either side. The British were on the verge of a catastrophic defeat. This siege at Yorktown set the stage not only for American independence, but for a shocking event that remains neglected by most history books, yet is one of the lowest points in U.S. history, especially for African Americans. 

Most Americans today look at Yorktown as the place where American independence was realized. Yes, the Treaty of Paris, which formally recognized American independence, would not be signed until 1783, but the Siege of Yorktown in 1781 is what broke the back of the British and made recognition of American independence inevitable. Understandably, it's been seen accordingly as a high point in American history. Sadly, it was not a high point for the slaves in the American Revolution era.

Black auxiliaries started following the Southern British Army after the siege of Charleston. Most did camp work or quartermaster task, but many African Americans would also serve in the British Army. With good rations and decent pay by the time of Yorktown, thousands of freed blacks were assisting Cornwallis's Army. 

On October 9th 1781, Allied cannons began to bombard the British positions at Yorktown. For over a week, listening to the whistles and the screams of cannonballs would be the norm for the fortified British.  The dead started to pile, and General Clinton's promised relief force was nowhere in site. With the British Army low on food and provisions, they would send their loyal African workers at gun point into the Continental lines. They did this in the slave state of Virginia.

Later, when the situation became hopeless, Cornwallis ordered the full surrender of his army. On a clear, sunny October day in 1781, the British bands played a tune “The World Turned Upside Down” for on this dreadful day their world was indeed upside down. As they marched in fife and drum and the music played, they laid down their arms in surrender. Over six thousand chosen British troops were now prisoners of the Americans. “If summer were spring and the other way round, then all the world would be upside down.” The Southern British Army had been defeated, most of the prisoners would be paroled or sent to work on farms, but what about the African Americans who assisted the British during this campaign? What became of them?

The aftermath of Yorktown for African Americans was not a pleasant one. Historians estimate that between 1,000 and 2,000 African Americans died during the siege of Yorktown, many due to malnutrition, disease (small pox is said to have been the cause of most of the deaths), exhaustion, or from battle wounds. A few of the African workers boarded the overly crowded British ship Bonetta, which sailed to New York City.  Most of those who were sent out of the British camp before the surrender would be returned to slavery. An accurate number of survivors is difficult for historians to find, but estimates of around 3,000 African American workers returned to slavery. 

This was indeed yet another example of the most tragic paradox of the American Revolution and the newly formed United States of America. Just five years before Yorktown, Thomas Jefferson had written into the Declaration of Independence the beautiful claim that "all men are created equal." The American Revolution would put America on the course to ultimately living out that ideal, but for African Americans, that course would be longer than the course for their white counterparts. This was especially the case for those African Americans betrayed by the British army at Yorktown. 

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