The siege of Yorktown started with hordes of American and French soldiers wielding picks and shovels.
But not until three days later -- on Oct. 9, 1781 – did those same soldiers begin to dismantle nearly 200 years of British rule through the first of thousands of rounds fired by battery after battery of cannon.
Popular lore says that George Washington presided over the first shot -- just as he'd delivered the first swing of a pick during the construction of the Allies' initial 2,000-yard-long artillery entrenchment on the night of Oct. 6.
But in truth he deferred to the Grand French Battery that commanded the left side of the first siege line, listening with the rest of the American army as the opening barrage boomed out over the battlefield at about 3 p.m., slamming into the British defenses and driving one of their frigates across the York River.
Not until two hours later did the American guns begin to roar, with Washington commanding the first shot and -- at least according to tradition -- finding his mark in a British officers' dining table.
Exactly how many pieces of artillery took part in the historic siege is unknown. According to some estimates the number of guns from all sides combined may have approached 400.
By far the biggest and possibly best wielded were the weapons manned by the French army, which in the initial stages of the siege trained 12 24-pound and eight 16-pound field guns on the British lines from their grand battery alone.
On the American side of the line, the largest pieces included three 24-pounders, three 18-pounders, two eight-inch howitzers and six mortars.
Supplemented with additional guns from the French fleet, the combined artillery of the Allies are believed to have pummeled the British works with as many as 1,700 shells, bombs and solid shot per day.
Washington compounded the impact of this relentless pounding by ordering the guns to fire throughout the night.
"The superiority of the fire of these different batteries over those of the enemy, silenced the firing from the town," a French officer noted.
As the siege wore on -- and the Allies dug a second, much closer trench paralleling the British defenses -- the number of guns that joined the bombardment grew still larger, writes historian Jerome A. Green in "The Guns of Independence: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781."
In his diary, Washington noted the opening of a French battery boasting four 24-pounders and two 16s, plus an additional battery of 10 mortars and two howitzers.
On the American side, the general described a new Grand Battery that opened up with a dozen 24s and 18s, plus four mortars and two howitzers.
"The whole of our works are now mounted with cannon and mortars, not less than 100 pieces of heavy ordnance have been in continual operation during the last 24 hours," an American surgeon wrote in his journal, describing the increasingly fierce barrage.
"The whole peninsula trembles under the incessant thunderings of our infernal machines; we have leveled some of their works in ruins."
Exactly what that bombardment felt like among the harried defenders on the receiving end can be imagined from an entry in a Hessian soldier’s diary:
"The cannonade from the enemy this morning is completely astounding," he wrote.
No wonder that after more than a week of pounding, a drummer appeared on the top of the British earthworks on the morning of October 17, followed shortly thereafter by an officer waving a white handkerchief.
Minutes later, the boom of big Allied guns stopped, their silence signaling the end of the siege and the beginning of American independence.
-- Mark St. John Erickson
Just a note:
Several folks in the Williamsburg area are hoping to organize an American Revolution Round Table group. Their goal is to begin meeting in February 2014 somewhere in the Williamsburg area, site to be determined.