In the early afternoon of Oct. 19, 1781, thousands of soldiers
gathered in a double line on either side of a road in Yorktown,
In the early afternoon of Oct. 19, 1781, thousands of soldiers gathered in a double line on either side of a road in Yorktown, Va.
On the left side of the road, resplendent in their uniforms, were French soldiers. From time to time, some nodded to those on the other side of the road.
Those were the Americans and they presented a memorable sight. Many wore uniforms that showed great wear, many more had no uniforms at all, and some of those had no shoes. But everyone was exultant.
An officer on horseback near General George Washington looked at his watch again and said, “They should be on their way, Sir.” Several minutes later, a few scouts at the far end of the line waved their hats, “They’re coming! They’re coming!”
Both lines drew to attention and within minutes a red-coated formation marched into view. The British officers ordered the soldiers to ground arms, then to surrender them to the Americans.
Line after line of soldiers passed by, sullenly throwing their muskets onto the ground. An English band marched along playing a song that doubtless reflected their dismay at the mightiest army in the world being bested by a group of colonial yokels, “The World Turned Upside Down.”
It was to be nearly two years before the final peace terms were hammered out between the English representatives with John Jay, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams representing the new nation, the United States, and the English. The English only grudgingly surrendered their vast holdings in the new world. Except for a few minor battles, the war was over and independence won.
But on that day in Yorktown, Washington must have reviewed in his mind the struggle that had begun six and a half years earlier with colonial Englishmen facing soldiers in far away Lexington and Concord. Places like Bunker Hill, Trenton, Valley Forge, Saratoga and other sites where American and British soldiers had killed each other, and names like Israel Putnam, Nathaniel Greene, Nathan Hale, Charles Lee, Anthony Wayne, Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold certainly had a place in his thoughts.
Memories of betrayal, greed, incompetence and envy on the part of many officers and politicians who had placed their own welfare above the struggle for independence stayed with him but he also had those of great valor and extreme sacrifice that negated the others.
His steadfast wish was to return to his faithful wife at his farm in Virginia where he wanted nothing more than to live out his days.
Washington did not foresee that he would be called from there again to lead the new nation as its first president, and perhaps it was well that he did not. His love of his farm was overshadowed only by his sense of duty.
Without Washington, the attempt at independence would have failed. He was the glue that held it all together. Trained as a colonial British officer, Washington had a gift for strategy, of hitting hard and suddenly when all conventional military wisdom dictated that he should employ caution.
Again and again, very often at the most crucial times, he threw the dice on an all-or-nothing gamble and won. He was raised as a gentleman and was unapproachable when he wished to be but he also had deep respect and compassion for the common soldier that was reflected by the near reverence in which the vast majority had for him. And then, after years of slowly eroding England’s might and desire to wage war, it was over. Peace was restored and the former colonies were now states in a new republic. No one could have foreseen the future of the new nation, but Washington would have been the first to agree that the world had turned upside down.