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Yorktown Penninsula

Leading up to the 1781: The Southern Campaign

In the spring of 1780, General Clinton and his 2nd in Command, Lord Cornwallis had successfully captured Charleston, South Carolina after which, Clinton sailed back to New York leaving Cornwallis in charge of the British southern army. Feeling confident Cornwallis began a long pursuit of American General Greene north through the Carolinas. It would be a long hard chase for both sides. Eventually in February of 1781, Greene and his men reached the Dan River that snaked between the border of North Carolina and Virginia. Cornwallis' main force was just miles behind the Americans when they secured the only available ferries that could cross the the deep running Dan River leaving Cornwallis south of the river and forced to look for other means of crossing the river. Greene's army was safe.

Tory Support

During his pursuit of Greene, Cornwallis had expended or left behind, much of his supplies, all with nothing to show for his efforts. His army was exhausted. What he did gain was improved esteem in the eyes of southern Tory supporters. Cornwallis' pursuit of Greene was a good sign of things to come in their eyes. This enthusiasm increased the number of militia flocking to Cornwallis. However, the enthusiasm was short lived.

Cornwallis failing to engage Greene in a decisive conflict retreated from the Dan River and located his headquarters in Hillsboro. Although earlier he had promised the locals he would spare their storehouse of goods and livestock, Cornwallis' army was in desperate need of food. They scavenged the area taking everything they could find.

At the same time a group of 400 newly formed Tory militia encountered some American cavalry they mistook as being British since both cavalry wore green uniforms. It was an unfortunate mistake and almost the entire militia force, being poorly armed and trained, were either killed or wounded when they refused to surrender.

The goodwill Cornwallis had garnered from his pursuit of Green and the massacre of the Tory militia had dampened the enthusiasm. Cornwallis was no longer welcome in the area that he was seeking refuge.

Battle at Guilford Courthouse

Although this would not be the last battle before the Siege at Yorktown, it would play a decisive role in the outcome of the war. Cornwallis had been chasing the southern American military, trying to inflict a fatal blow. Not far from Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, the Americans decide this particular area was a good ground to make a stand and confront Cornwallis.

The trap was set: the mostly untrained militia would form the center of the main battle line. On either flank were cavalry, riflemen and Continental soldiers. To the rear was a large contingent of Continentals. When Cornwallis arrived on the field he immediately identified the unreliable militia occupying the center, which was the main thrust of the climatic battle scene in the movie "The Patriot".

In the movie, Gibson's character convinced the much maligned militia to stand against the well-trained British regulars and fire off 2 rounds before retreating. This did happen. What was not told is that the second line of American forces were ordered to shoot any of the militia that fled the field before firing their two rounds.

In the movie at the end of the battle it appears that the Americans had won, but in reality rather than risk what was at that time the entire southern forces, in continuing the battle and risk losing all, they withdrew from the battle when they could have soundly defeated Cornwallis on the field at that time. Cornwallis did take credit for the victory, but found himself in an indefensible position, without supplies and without hope of finding any relief without a 100 mile march. It would be a costly march that would take a heavy toll on his remaining forces.

It is difficult to project what might have happened if General Greene had pursued Cornwallis at this point instead of retreating. Cornwallis would most likely have been defeated in short order, but the results of that defeat would not have been so dramatic nor as important as what would happen six months later at Yorktown. By the fall of 1781 Cornwallis had been resupplied, re-armed, with fresh troops. No longer was he a defeated General with less than 2000 fighting men. He was in command of a major British force in the heart of the American colonies commanding a major shipping point.

The Virginia Campaign

British movement in Virginia under command of Cornwallis

  • May 14, 1781: Crosses into Virginia from North Carolina at Hicksville

  • May 20: Arrives in Petersburg

  • May 24 - 26: Westover

  • June 4: Charlottesville

  • June 7-15: Point of Fork

  • June 23: New Kent Courthouse

  • June 26 - July 4: Williamsburg (received orders from Clinton: go to Portsmouth and prepare for return to NY)

  • July 6: Jamestown crossing - Battle of Green Spring

  • July 10 - 17: Moved to Portsmouth Virginia

  • July 20: Received new orders from Clinton to establish a fortified naval station at a place of his choosing

  • July 30 - Aug. 1: Cornwallis forces (army and navy) arrive at Yorktown

  • September 28: Engaged combined American-French forces

  • October 19: Surrender of British forces to Washington


Mel Gibson in "The Patriot"

The Patriot starring Mel Gibson and Keith Ledger, was released in the summer of 2000 as an epic Revolutionary War film covering events from the beginning (1776) to Lord Cornwallis' surrender in 1781. The fictional character played by Mel Gibson is a compilation of several real persons that were active in the Revolution. Parts of Gibson's character were based on Francis Marion (idolized in the 1960s by Walt Disney in their TV adaptation called "The Swamp Fox"). Marion was a ruthless and cunning warrior capable of leading men. Another major portion of Gibson's character was loosely based on Daniel Morgan. Daniel Morgan was the citizen warrior that also had a farm and family life. The final epic battle in which Mel Gibson leads the militia against the British is based on Morgan's exploit at an earlier battle known as the Cow Pens. Real life Nathanael Greene also was used in creating Gibson's character as was Thomas Sumter, and Andrew Pickens. It is no wonder that Gibson's character had a larger than life quality. The battle at Guildord Courthouse was the climax of the movie, with the victory at Yorktown almost a forgone conclusion. The movie was mostly Hollywood theatrics based on real events and was authentically decorated. In the movie, Gibson's character took an active part in the battle and ultimately killed the main antagonist in the film, the British light cavalry officer based loosely on Banastre Tarleton. Tarleton was at the battle of Guilford Courthouse, but unlike his movie representation, Tarleton survived the battle and went on to lead a productive political life and didn't die until some 50 years after the battle. The atrocities depicted in the film were a compilation of events carried out by both sides with the exception of the church burning scene. This was complete fiction and it was regrettable that the filmmakers decided to include such a scene that had no basis in fact.