The Sham Battle of Yorktown

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on September 15, 2016.

Lord Charles Cornwallis (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Lord Charles Cornwallis
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It was October 19, 1843. An overcast morning had given way to afternoon sunshine by the time the 500-plus reenactors assembled on the makeshift battlefield off the Sherburne road near the heart of sleepy Grantville (now Wellesley Hills).

On one side, you had the “British” — Brigadier General Charles Rice of Lower Falls playing the part of Lord Cornwallis, safely ensconced behind the artillery upon a hill. Opposite were troops of the “Continental Army” at the command of General George Washington (personated by Colonel Warren Dewing of what is now Needham Heights). And along the outskirts, hundreds of spectators from far and wide stood patiently waiting for the battle to begin. All this on the 62nd anniversary of the British surrender at Yorktown, an event that effectively ended the Revolutionary War.

You all remember the Battle of Yorktown from U.S. History class, right? 1781. A British military weakened and losing support from loyal colonists. Cornwallis, commander of the King’s army in the southern colonies, in full retreat-mode with 7500 soldiers at Yorktown, Virginia trying to maintain communication with the central British command in New York City. Forced then to defend against not just the Continental Army but also the French, who together had blocked his army’s escape while Washington’s forces (and even more French) marched south from New York. And to boot, a French naval blockade prevented the arrival of British reinforcements. With nowhere to go, Cornwallis surrendered on October 19th. Although the war wouldn’t officially end for two more years, the defeat at Yorktown signaled to those on both sides of the Atlantic that Great Britain’s fight to keep control of the American colonies would fail.

October 19th was officially known thereafter as Cornwallis Day. Across the nation, communities would come together on this date each year to celebrate the surrender at Yorktown. It doesn’t appear, however, that Wellesley (then a part of Needham) was one of these towns. The occurrence of the sham fight of 1843 — on the 62nd anniversary?! — was thus all the more peculiar.

Whosever idea it was to stage a reenactment of the Battle of Yorktown is not precisely known. But pulling off the event required a significant group effort. And although Needham was heavily represented on the battlefield — and not to mention the host of the affair — it’s probable that residents of other towns played key roles in making it happen. That included coordinating with local veteran groups and military companies from Dover, Natick, Dedham, Waltham, Walpole, Brighton, and West Roxbury, lest not being able to find enough soldiers for the fighting sequence.

The battle itself occurred on the “Colburn place,” an undulating field across from Seth Colburn’s homestead — the saltbox colonial at the corner of Washington and Oakland Streets — comprising much of what are now Elm, Croton, and Pine Streets.

Make no mistake: this reenactment didn’t visually resemble the more professional-looking reenactments we’re familiar with today where all soldiers dress in era-appropriate uniforms. As one observer noted: “In costume their aim seemed to have been to approximate to the uniform of the revolutionary soldiers: but they only succeeded in being indescribably grotesque. Some had three-cornered cocked hats, of pasteboard, with a turkey’s feather stuck in for a plume; matted oakum for hair, and ends of horsetails for whiskers; spectacles on nose — paper frills half a yard long — long waisted coats, with buttons like saucers, and knee-breeches of all colors.”

It was clear some people were having fun. This also came across during the roll call of the American soldiers and militiamen as they took their spots in the formation, answering to names such as Hypolite Fumblethumbs, Didimus Womblecrop, Nicodemus Paddlefoot, Jedediah Yellowlegs, Abel Snoodlefuncks, and Obediah Applesauce.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a seriousness to the affair. They were there, after all, to honor the heroic efforts of their forefathers 62 years earlier. The organizers even went so far as to arrange for the presence of a special guest of honor: Col. Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, Vice President during the recent Administration of Martin Van Buren from 1837 to 1841. (Also present were Nathaniel P. Banks of Waltham, who would serve as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1856 to 1857, and Natick’s Henry Wilson, future Vice President during the Ulysses S. Grant Administration.)

The actual battle sequence probably lasted no more than 10 or 15 minutes. The British made the first move, their right wing firing on the American’s left. A counterattack by the patriot force was then disrupted and driven back by a group of “American Indians” who had been hiding in a nearby grove. But confusion followed, as the native warriors turned against the British line, opening up an opportunity for the patriot left wing to push forward and force a British retreat.

In doing so, however, the colonial army became separated from the rest of their force. Sensing this, Cornwallis turned his entire artillery to this left wing. It was a fatal move. Unable to see through the smoke billowing from an abandoned British stockade set ablaze by the patriots, he didn’t notice the rest of the American line advancing forward. Once they made it past the original British line, it was clear the British had to retreat from the battlefield, forcing Cornwallis to send a flag of truce to General Washington.

Interestingly, even though it was a battle reenactment, there were casualties — but they weren’t reenactors. One spectator broke his arm in a scuffle. Another died on the way to the battlefield; a man named Hyde, inebriated and lacking coordination, slipped off the foot board of a railroad car as he attempted to board a moving train at the West Newton depot and fell onto the tracks, the train’s wheels crushing both of his legs. None of this seemed to have put a damper on the affair.

After the sham fight on Grantville’s sham battlefield concluded, and the dust settled and smoke cleared, everyone involved went their separate ways. The “generals” and their staff headed off to the Needham House [later known as the Elm Park Hotel] in the village center. The others probably went home, either on horseback, by foot, or by railroad.

Never again, it seems, did we celebrate Cornwallis Day, either with such enthusiasm or at all. One and done. Which makes October 19, 1843 such a singular and remarkable day in our town’s rich history.