When you picture the Continental Army — as commanded by General George Washington — you see scrappy colonials in ragtag uniforms, made as much of buckskin as breaches, lining up to trade musket volleys with orderly squadrons of Redcoats. You picture young, frostbitten officers fending off ice blocks in the Delaware River.
You picture this:
What you probably don’t picture is this:
You don’t really picture Minutemen grunts grovelling in groundhog holes or Washington commanding from behind a berm. But, at the climactic battle of the War of Independence, that’s exactly how it went down.
The engagement that ended the Revolutionary War —- the 1781 Siege of Yorktown — hinged on the disciplined execution of an early version of trench warfare. It’s a surprising historical tidbit.
We tend to associate trench warfare with World War I and the terrible mechanisms of death dealing shunted into that conflict by the Industrial Revolution. But as early as the Renaissance, siege tactics for breaching fortifications with artillery were designed around the clever engineering of trenches to great martial, as well as psychological, effect.
Before gunpowder and artillery, besieging a fortress was an arduous proposition. If you were really in a hurry, you’d bust out the siege towers and battering rams, doing your best to dodge hailstorms of rocks, arrows and boiling oil.
If that seemed unsavory, and you were happier killing time than your own soldiers, you’d simply blockade the fort and starve out its defenders. No muss, no fuss, but slow.
The explodey stuff changed all that. Cannons (once the diabolical death mongers had managed to dial them up to 11) made mincemeat of castle walls the world over: witness the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. The defensive architects responded with burlier walls, but given enough time, nothing made of stone could keep out a cannon ball. Trenches became essential for buying your bombardiers time to operate.
At Yorktown, British Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis and 7,000 Redcoats were dug in behind a series of redoubts and batteries, waiting for reinforcement. Washington, joined (and thoroughly out-monikered) by the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau, had Cornwallis surrounded by land and sea.
Showing the tactical facility that made him America’s only six-star general, Washington initiated an artillery-enabled siege protocol by digging a first parallel, or bombardment trench, just out of range of British musket fire. From that position, he was able to blast the relentless crap out of the British encampment.
Under this continuous fusillade, American engineers dug a zigzagging trench forward to within 150 yards of the British earthworks fortifications and then dug a second parallel. From this position, their artillery would make rubble of the two redoubts that stood between Washington and victory.
But even before they began their next barrage, the psychological impact of the American advance impelled British soldiers to begin deserting in large numbers. Washington’s disciplined encroachment through his trench system bore with it the air of inevitability.
By Oct. 15, 1781, both redoubts had been captured and Yorktown was in check. Cornwallis capitulated on Oct. 19, effectively ending hostilities and signalling the beginning of autonomous nationhood for the United States. And all because of Washington’s willingness to get his hands dirty.
From groundhog marauder to Founding Father, the man was put on this Earth to shake it.