Dedication–This story is dedicated to the memory of Continental Army Drummer Alexander Milliner, who served in General George Washington’s Lifeguard Unit. He lived past the age of one-hundred four years, and stood as witness to the surrender of the British at Yorktown. Likewise, to the memory of Continental Army Private Lemuel Cook, a boy like Milliner, just a year older, in fact. He stood by Milliner and watched as the British soldiers stacked their arms on an open field. General Washington ordered the Continental Army to not laugh or jeer at the surrendering Redcoats. Washington said, “It is bad enough to surrender without being insulted.”
Vision of Yorktown
A Short Story
By Charles W. Henderson
For the soldier pitched to battle, glory does not exist. For him there is only survival, sacrifice and tribute. In truth, glory is a false ideal born in the minds of poets and politicians.
The sun had not yet broken over the treetops that stood distant across the broad clearing when the boy struggled to the top of the parapet. Tears filled his eyes and his throat choked with the pain of grief, knowing well what his orders meant.
A drum hung at the boy’s waist by a strap that looped over his shoulder and bore the royal crest of Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis’ army. When they had begun this fight, the strap had shown stark white across his uniform’s blue blouse; now it lay dark with black and brown stains that came from grease and soot of guns and cannons, and from tears and sweat and blood spilled in nine days of battle. Blood of soldiers who fell at the boy’s side. Good soldiers who tried to live; who the boy tried to help to live, but who died anyway. His tears, his sweat, their lives.
The drummer boy called Tom Scott, a good English name, from a family south of Kent, had accompanied Lord Cornwallis and his army of 8,300 Red Coats through much of this campaign that swept through the Carolinas, leaving a swath of destruction and death behind them, and settled in Virginia in May of 1781. By August, they had occupied the point of ground between the York and James rivers where Cornwallis hoped to establish a British naval base because of the York’s deep water and easy access to the Chesapeake Bay.
General George Washington and Lieutenant General Comte de Rochambeau, and their army of more than 17,600 French and American soldiers attacked Yorktown on October 9, after the French fleet had successfully turned away the British ships in the Chesapeake, leaving Cornwallis’ army cut off.
Washington’s Colonial Artillery bombarded Cornwallis’ forces for four days. Finally, on the night of October 14, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton led a small force of Continental soldiers on a surprise attack and began the land battle that turned the cleared farm fields below the parapet where drummer boy Tom Scott now stood into a crucible of flesh, bone and blood.
This morning of October 17, 1781, the crispness of fall in the wet air accented the sun which bled a sky filled with red that matched the crimson field below where young Tom stood. The crack of gunfire and the haunting cries of wounded and dying men stole any sense of peace that might have otherwise existed at that moment.
The lad’s uniform–a blue jacket and red trousers–which hung twisted and loose over his small, immature frame, had torn at most seams and bends, and across every panel of its woolen cloth carried dark stains from the battle. He had skinned his hide at most of his joints, and he ached as badly as any man twice his thirteen years of life. Yet as he began to rap two wooden sticks over the goat skin stretched across the head of his drum, beating out a signal that sent every British soldier’s heart sinking in final relief, he stood not as a boy but as a man. A soldier. A veteran of war. He felt what those who carried the muskets and fought the bayonet attacks and fell wounded under the exploding artillery shells felt: Beaten.
A dirty, bruised and scarred, battle-weary lad whose face had yet to show hair more coarse than a kitten’s stood at the top of the parapet, above his general and beside an officer who waived a white piece of cloth tied to his saber, and beat out the order to cease fire.
The fighting began to subside, and in the distance, as he continued to rap, rap, rap the loud but depressing signal from his drum, the boy could hear cheers shouted from the Colonial Army’s lines. For all of them knew that this battle, and this American Revolution had come to its end.
The boy stared straight out across the battlefield, his vision blurred by tears that tracked through the dirt that covered his face while the lieutenant at his side who waived the white cloth stepped down the front of the parapet and then stood at attention while two Colonial soldiers blindfolded the officer and led him away. The boy watched and continued to beat his drum as the men disappeared behind the distant trees to deliver Lord Cornwallis’ proposal to meet with Washington and discuss British surrender.
Yet despite the joy that this boy’s rap, rap, rapping on a goat-skin drum brought to the victors, and the significance that it meant, there still remains this mournful picture of a gaunt and dirty youngster, wearing a tattered uniform. He stands atop a parapet, beating his drum while below him, scattered across acres of tilled and cleared land lay the bodies of the dead and dying. Their blood filling the furrows. Their last gasps, moans and cries of pain, the music that accompanies the boy’s drum, reminds British, French and American alike that their’s is the price that has been paid for what has been gained and lost here.
As the sun turned from red to gold to yellow and the day grew bright, and the boy stepped from that parapet. As the last British soldier laid down his arms while his officers cried like school boys at the sight. As he sailed home, grew old and told of the war. And as generation after generation continued to tell of it, this vision of the last horrible moment of the last great battle of the American Revolution remains.
Copyright 1988 by Charles W. Henderson