Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Kevin Pawlak
On October 15, 1781, British General Charles Cornwallis penned a note to his superior officer General Sir Henry Clinton. Cornwallis told Clinton that American and French forces seized two redoubts, 9 and 10, along the York River the previous night. “My Situation now becomes very critical,” he glumly said. Before his army, entrenched outside of Yorktown, “shall soon be exposed to an Assault in ruined Works,” Cornwallis desperately sought to break the Allied stranglehold slowly bleeding his army. The general turned to Lt. Col. Robert Abercrombie to break the Allied lines anyway he could.
The next morning, October 16, Abercrombie’s force silently departed the Hornwork fortification in the British lines. Abercrombie, a French and Indian War veteran and survivor of prior battles in the Revolutionary War, oversaw the advance of his 350 men. The force moved southeast from the Hornwork, stealthily making their way through the ground between the British and Allied lines. Unfinished American and French batteries at the junction of the two Allied armies were the objective of Abercrombie’s sortie from friendly lines.
Before sunup, Abercrombie’s advance reached the pickets defending the earthworks, Frenchmen from the Regiment Agenois. The British made short work of the French outposts before they poured into the entrenchments and scattered the Regiment Soissonnais that held the line here.
Abercrombie’s men bayoneted any Frenchmen they encountered and soon had possession of the French battery at the junction of the Allied forces. The Brits drove their bayonets into the vent holes of the four French guns and broke them off to spike them.
The other half of Abercrombie’s force attacked the American battery to their left, which was guarded by 100 men under the command of Capt. Joseph Savage. One British officer broke the silence and yelled, “What troops?” to the soldiers on the other side of earthworks. “French!” said a voice from within. “Push on, boys, and skin the bastards!” the British officer responded before ordering his men to storm the battery and the surprised Americans contained within.
As in the French battery, hand-to-hand melees ensued in the American battery. Likewise, the shock of the British attack won the moment and soon, the British occupied both batteries. They spiked three more guns.
Once the melee began and men shouted as they struggled with one another, the effect of Abercrombie’s surprise wore off. Viscount de Noailles, second in command of the Regiment Soissonnais and brother-in-law of Marquis de Lafayette, heard the noise and led the regiment’s reserve into the recently captured works. The French soldiers’ shouts of “Vive le Roi”–”Long live the King”–as they charged pierced the otherwise quiet night. De Noailles’ men drove Abercrombie’s force back at the point of the bayonet. The defeated British sullenly made their way back from where they began the sortie, minus the seven men killed and six they lost as prisoners.
Abercrombie’s sortie made a brief dent in the Allied lines but nothing more. Even the British efforts to spike the guns were only temporary, as George Washington noted that “the spikes were easily extracted.” The only immediate benefit gained by Abercrombie’s pre dawn attack was the approximately 50 French casualties and six American losses. Eager to show their fighting spirit was still intact, the crews of the three temporarily spiked American guns opened on the British works within an hour of the end of the attack.
Cornwallis could not deny the bravery of the attackers but he had to acknowledge the futility of the effort. “This action, though extremely honorable to the officers and soldiers who executed it, proved of little public advantage,” he wrote. By the end of October 16, the second Allied parallel was complete within a few hundred yards of the British works.