How independence was won in 1781 (1906)

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.


Yorktown, 14 October 1781

How independence was won

by Ben Winslow

Did a lie and nine blank cartridges win independence for America? Everyone knows how our little difficulty with King George terminated, but some of the details have been forgotten. The war ended at Yorktown. It was there, on October 19, 1781, that Cornwallis surrendered to Washington.

After ravaging Virginia to the extent of about ten million dollars, he had fortified himself at Yorktown. Lafayette’s little army of three thousand was useless against Cornwallis’ seven thousand, but when the enemy invaded Yorktown and a French fleet sailed into Chesapeake Bay, the French general was quick to perceive that the British general had trapped himself. This information was quickly dispatched to General Washington. He brought his army into Virginia, and the American army of sixteen thousand began the siege that finally resulted in the surrender of Cornwallis.

These are the facts known to every school child; but in presenting the affirmative side of the question it is necessary to produce a few circumstances that are more or less obscure.

Why he surrendered

Two things, in addition to the presence of the American army before Yorktown, brought about the surrender of Cornwallis. One was a lie; not a spoken lie, but a lie enacted for the purpose of deceiving General Clinton. The other was nine blank cartridges fired at Port Orange, St. Eustatius, Dutch West Indies.

The lie enters in this manner: While General Washington and General Lafayette were holding Cornwallis in Yorktown, General Clinton, with eighteen thousand British soldiers, was holding an imaginary army out of New York. George Washington created that imaginary army out of New York. George Washington created that imaginary army by pretending to be gathering a force for an attack on New York.

CornwallisHe carried the deception to such an extent that ovens, for the purpose of baking bread for the American force, were erected under Clinton’s nose. Clinton, deceived by Washington into the belief that New York was to be attacked, stayed to meet it, instead of going to Cornwallis’ assistance. With his eighteen thousand men pecking at their backs and Cornwallis’ seven thousand in front, Washington and Lafayette must have been defeated. Thus a well enacted lie fooled Clinton, and thereby contributed to the American victory at Yorktown.

But for the presence of Admiral de Grasse’s French fleet in the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, Cornwallis could have escaped by sea. The presence of the French fleet was the result of the nine blank cartridges fired at St. Eustatius.

If you will take your atlas and look among the many little islands scattered over the Atlantic Ocean to the southeast of Puerto Rico, you will find the island of St Christopher. Measure twelve miles in a northwesterly direction from St Christopher, using the scale in the corner of the map, and you may find a little speck of an island. It is so small and insignificant that it does not appear on all maps, and it is just probable that you will not find it. This little speck is the island of St. Eustatius.

Over the ramparts of its little fort, from which tiny cannon of ancient type point seaward, there floats the tricolor of Holland, fluttering lazily in the breeze. Beneath the muzzles of these toy engines of war lies a beach speckled with the dismantled remains of many stone houses, and a harbor from which trade has long since vanished. Forgotten and ignored, little St Eustatius sleeps, peacefully dreaming of its eventful past when it played an important part in the world’s history.

Only memories are left

Today, only the memories surrounding the ruined estates nestling lonely among the volcanic hills are left; but it was not thus a century and a quarter ago. Then the little fort was alive with the soldiers of the tiny Dutch colony. The guns that pointed seaward were not toys but modern pieces of ordinance, and they looked out upon a roadstead crowded with shipping.

Holland was a neutral nation, and St Eustatius was the trading point between America and that country. American vessels made frequent trips to the little island, taking on cargoes of powder and bullets brought from Holland in Dutch merchantmen. These war munitions went to supply Washington’s army, and in exchange good old Virginia tobacco went to Holland in the same Dutch bottoms. Great Britain could not interfere, because the cargoes were consigned to a Dutch colony, and the tobacco for bullet trade went merrily on.

One day in November a great crisis arose. The Andrea Doria sailed into the roadstead of Port Orange. Eleven puffs of white smoke spurted from its guns, and eleven peals of gun thunder rumbled in from the sea. The flag of Holland had been saluted by a cruiser commissioned by the Continental Congress.

All eyes turned toward the fort. Would Governor de Graaff answer the salute? To do so meant that Holland recognized the United Colonies as an independent nation. Not to do so meant to offend their best customer. If ever a Dutchman was in a predicament, Governor de Graaff was.

The expectant populace became impatient as the moments dragged. Finally a puff of smoke burst over the ramparts of Fort Orange, and then another and another — four, five, six. The little battery was hidden behind the dense pall of smoke and only the flash of powder was seen. Seven, eight, nine — and then silence. The salute had been answered, but not gun for gun.

For four long, bloody years that salute rankled in British hearts. Trade between the Americans and Dutch continued to flourish and grow, until England could stand it no longer. War was declared on Holland.

Importance of St Eustatius

The British fleet under Admiral Rodney was then at the island of Barbados keeping an eye on Admiral de Grasse’s French fleet, which was forming at the island of Martinique for the purpose of assisting the struggling Colonists. Orders were immediately sent to Admiral Rodney to capture St. Eustatius, whose Governor had rubbed the Lion’s fur the wrong way. He sailed to an easy victory, but tarried too long at St. Eustatius to superintend the disposal of the booty. While he tarried Admiral de Grasse slipped away and appeared in Chesapeake Bay in time to cut off Cornwallis’ retreat and prevent reenforcements reaching him. That is the part the nine blank cartridges played in the struggle for American independence.

The argument is this: If Washington had not deceived Clinton, the Colonial army would have been caught in its own trap, and if de Grasse had not blocked the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, Cornwallis could have escaped. To reason from effect to cause; de Grasse did block the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, because Rodney was at St. Eustatius, and Rodney was at St. Eustatius because the little Dutch colony had answered the salute of an American cruiser.

As for the lie, that is a question of ethics; but the nine blank cartridges – the people of St. Eustatius firmly believe they caused Great Britain to lose an empire. What you will believe depends entirely upon the way you look at the facts.

PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest, plus see exclusive retro-inspired products in our shop. Thanks for visiting!


More stories you might like

Because the fun never ends!

Comments on this story

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

See some of our books!