Yorktown, 235 years ago: Here cannons flash, bombs glance, and bullets fly

In honor of the 235th anniversary of the British surrender at Yorktown, here’s a poem mocking Cornwallis that was originally published in Philadelphia on October 11, 1781. At that point, the American and French allies had been besieging Yorktown for about two weeks. At the end of the text, I’ve identified the names and terms that are underlined – but you can get the gist without knowing them.

“An Epistle from Lord Cornwallis to Sir Henry Clinton”

From clouds of smoke, and flames that round me glow,
To you, dear Clinton, I disclose my woe;
Here cannons flash, bombs glance, and bullets fly;
Not Satan’s self endures such misery.
Was I fore-doomed, like Korah, to expire,
Hurl’d to perdition in a blaze of fire?
With these blue flames can mortal man contend?
What arms can aid me, or what walls defend?
Even to these gates last night a phantom strode,
And trailed me, trembling, to his dark abode;
Aghast I stood, struck motionless and dumb,
Seized with the horrors of the world to come.
Were but my power as might as my rage,
Far different battles would Cornwallis wage;
Beneath his sword yon threatening hosts should groan,
The earth should quake with thunders all his own;
O crocodile! had I thy flinty hide,
Swords to defy, and glance thy balls aside,
By my own powers would I rout the foe,
With my own javelin would I work their woe;
But fate’s averse, and heaven’s supreme decree
Hell’s serpent formed more excellent than me.
Has heaven in secret, for some crime, decreed,
That I should suffer and my soldiers bleed?
Or is it by the jealous skies concealed,
That I must bend, and they ignobly yield?
Ah! no, – the thought o’erwhelms my soul with grief, –
Come, bold Sir Harry, come to my relief;
Come thou, brave man, whom rebel’s tombstones call
But Briton’s graves, – come Digby, devil and all;
Come friendly William, with they potent aid,
Can George’s blood by Frenchmen be dismayed?
From a King’s brother once Scots rebels run,
And shall not these be routed by a son?
Come with your ships to this disastrous shore,
Come, or I sink, – and sink to rise no more;
By every motive that can sway the brave,
Haste, and my feeble, fainting army save;
Come, and lost empire o’er the deep regain,
Chastise these upstarts that usurp the main;
I see their first rates to the charge advance,
I see lost Iris wears the flags of France;
There a strict rule the wakeful Frenchman keeps;
There, undisturbed by dogs, Lord Rawdon sleeps!
Tir’d with long acting on this bloody stage,
Sick of the follies, of a wrangling age, –
Come with your fleet, and help me to retire
To Britain’s coast, the land of my desire, –
For me the foe their certain captive deem,
And every school-boy takes me for his theme, –
Long, much too long, has this hard service tryed,
Bespattered still, bedevil’d and bely’d,
With the first chance that favoring fortune sends
I’ll fly, converted, from this land of fiends;
Then, like Burgoyne, as fortunate at least,
Slip on the surplice, and be dubbed a priest.

Notes

Korah: rebelled against Moses; God smote him and 249 accomplices with fire, then caused the earth to swallow up their allies and plague to strike 14,700 others who objected to Korah’s fate. Numbers 16:1-41.

Sir Harry: Henry Clinton, commander-in-chief of the British in North America. Since September, he had been promising to sail to Virginia to relieve Cornwallis. The fleet set sail on October 19, and arrived five days after Cornwallis’s surrender.

Digby: Admiral Robert Digby, commander of the British fleet in North America

William: Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, King George III’s younger brother; he arrived in New York with Digby in September 1781. This anonymous author refers to him as George III’s son, as does the Comte de Rochambeau.

Iris: messenger of the Greek gods; associated with victory

Lord Rawdon: Francis Rawdon (later 1st Marquess of Hastings). After Cornwallis marched north to Virginia earlier in 1781, Rawdon was in charge of British forces in the Deep South. He resigned due to illness in July 1781, and was captured by De Grasse’s fleet on his way back to Britain. No clue what “undisturbed by dogs” refers to.

Burgoyne: General John Burgoyne. At Saratoga on October 17, 1777, he surrendered 5,800 British troops to the Americans under General Horatio Gates. It was the greatest American victory in the war to date. As far as I can tell, he did not become a priest.

More

  • This poem was originally published in The Philadelphia Freemason’s Journal, October 11, 1781. It was reprinted in Edwin Martin Stone. Our French allies: Rochambeau and his army, Lafayette and his devotion, D’Estaing, De Ternay, Barras, De Grasse, and their fleets, in the great war of the American Revolution, from 1778 to 1782, including military operations in Rhode Island, the surrender of Yorktown, sketches of French and American officers, and incidents of social life in Newport, Providence, and elsewhere ; with numerous illustrations. (Providence, 1884).
  • This is tangentially related to my posts on Hamilton: An American Musical
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About Dianne L. Durante

I’m an independent scholar and freelance writer /lecturer on art and art history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are *Innovators in Sculpture¸* a survey of 5,000 years of art in two hours, and *Monuments of Manhattan,* a videoguide app by Guides Who Know that’s based on my book *Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide.*

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