Charles Cornwallis was so embarrassed that he called in sick to work.
As Lieutenant General of the British forces in the War for American Independence, Lord Cornwallis was charged with securing the Southern colonies in what was called the “Southern strategy,” which meant the British would secure Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. Conquering the South would apply pressure on George Washington’s forces further north with the result being the colonies would return to the British fold. To take the South, Cornwallis used an operational plan of “clear and hold”: He would take small pieces of territory one battle at a time, impose sovereignty over said territory, and then move on to the next. But even when Continental regulars were losing battles against British regulars, the Continentals were draining British resources and morale. Cornwallis also believed local Loyalists would rise up in the Southern colonies to match American militia, also called irregulars or partisans, but that loyalist support never materialized. And the American irregulars harried and skirmished British supply lines and scouting parties sufficiently to make Cornwallis’ life hell.
A keen tactician and capable operational commander, Cornwallis was a poor strategist, and he stuck to the “Southern strategy” even when it became apparent it wouldn’t work. He marched north to Virginia, where the Battle of Yorktown commenced on September 28, 1781. The British were forced to surrender on October 19 to combined American and French forces; it was the de facto end of the war. Cornwallis was so humiliated by losing to the Americans that he feigned illness and had his brigadier general surrender his sword on his behalf. In response, Washington had Major General Benjamin Lincoln accept the sword in Washington’s place.
But those actions on Surrender Field two hundred forty-one years ago today are but one of many and significant Virginian contributions to American liberty. Yes, Jamestown was the first American colony. Yes, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Yes, James Madison is the Father of the United States Constitution. Yes, Virginia is the Mother of Presidents. But these are but a few of Virginia’s liberty gifts to the United States.
For instance, in 1619, Virginia seated the first General Assembly, the first elected legislative body in the colonies, and the longest continuous legislative body in the United States. Returning to the War for American Independence, Virginian James Armistead Lafayette was a slave to the Armistead mercantile family, and he became a double agent for the colonies. Masquerading as an enslaved Loyalist taking advantage of British promises of emancipation, James moved easily around British camps and gave considerable material intelligence to the Americans. He served directly under the Marquis de Lafayette, and he was critical in uncovering the treason of Benedict Arnold. James Armistead Lafayette even gathered intelligence on Lord Cornwallis leading up to Yorktown, and the General Assembly gave him his freedom in reward for his service. We can fast forward to another global conflict, World War Two, where Merchant Marines conveyed supplies and matériel all over the world and became the frequent targets of Nazi “wolfpacks,” or groups of submarines. Mathews County, Virginia, is a Chesapeake town of generational mariners, and they gave the war effort many of her Merchant Marines, some of whom died horrible deaths at the hands of German U-boats, sharks, the elements, and more. The Hodges family, in particular, gave the father and five sons to the effort, with two sons losing their lives.
These are only three of such stories, as Virginia’s contributions to America are legion — and Yorktown Day is the perfect time to remember that America enjoys her freedom largely due to the dedication and sacrifice of Virginia. The Old Dominion is the Mother of Presidents, and in a very real sense, she is the Mother of Liberty, too.