Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, Seigneur de Vauban, and finally Marquis de Vauban, as one of his biographies begins, is probably not a household name to many enthusiasts of American history. Especially since he died on March 30, 1707 and never set foot in the Western Hemisphere. However, he did have a nephew, Jacques Anne Joseph Le Prestre de Vauban who served as General Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau’s aide-de-camp during the war. So, there is a family connection.
Yet, he left his mark on places like Yorktown, Virginia, fought 74 years after his death and half-a-world away. French engineers, critical to eventual American victory in the American Revolutionary War, plied de Vauban’s craft and studied his text and learned from his exploits.
de Vauban was considered the preeminent expert on siege warfare and the ensuing craft of developing siege tactics. His innovations ranged from developing combat engineer units and the use of accompanying artillery during sieges. He had an amazing intellect, authoring tracts on engineering, design, strategy, tactics, and even a publication on economy that was actually destroyed by French royal decree because of its radical premises and ideas.
During his 74 years of life, he participated in over 40 sieges, being on the victorious side in each of those conflicts. During the Siege of Maastricht (from June 15-30, 1673), de Vauban introduced the siege parallel to the battlefield. In this mode of siege-craft, three parallel trenches are dug in front of the walls, with the excavated earth used to shield the workers and soon-to-be attackers from the defenders. This brought the attacking force closer to the target and also allowed the use of artillery closer to the front. Furthermore, the defenders could not depress the angle of their artillery from the ramparts to fire into the trenches.
Fast-forward to the beginnings of the Siege of Yorktown, French engineers and Baron Frederich von Steuben both recommended the practices of the late Vauban to George Washington on September 28, 1781. They unanimously advocated the traditional and now classic European-style siege warfare. Eight days later, soldiers of the Continental and French armies began digging the parallel trenches, approximately 500 to 600 yards from the British entrenchments. Within three days, siege guns were able to open up on the enemy’s fortifications. Thirteen days later, on October 19, Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered the British posts at Yorktown and Gloucester Point.
Although Vauban was not there, his preached tactics on siege warfare paved the way for the defining victory in the American Revolution.