1500-1799 | United States

Lord Cornwallis expels his black troops from Yorktown

Despite sacrificing the lives of his black auxiliaries, Cornwallis agreed to surrender just five days later.
J Trumbull – The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown – Yale University Art Gallery – via Wikimedia Commons.

14 October 1781

In October 1781, the British army at Yorktown in Virginia was besieged by American rebels and French troops and rapidly running out of supplies. Lord Cornwallis, commanding the garrison, was concerned that his white British soldiers and Hessian mercenaries should have enough to eat, so on Sunday 14 October he gave orders for his black auxiliary troops, labourers and laundresses to be driven out of the city into the deadly killing zone of no-man’s land.

Those who somehow avoided being gunned down by the besieging American-French forces, were either reclaimed by their former slave masters, or, in the case of the weakest and sickest, they were simply left to die. One rebel officer witnessed many ‘in that condition starving and helpless, begging us as we passed them for God’s sake to kill them, as they were in great pain and misery.’1 An American infantryman similarly recalled that he ‘saw in the woods herds of Negroes, which Lord Cornwallis… had turned adrift, with no recompense for their confidence in his humanity than the smallpox for their bounty and starvation and death for their wages.’2Another felt certain that, ‘an immense number of Negroes’ perished ‘in a miserable manner,’ while a Hessian soldier noted in his diary how ‘we drove back to the enemy all of our black friends… We had used them to good advantage and set them free and now, with fear and trembling they had to face the reward of their cruel masters.’3 It is estimated that over half the four to five thousand black auxiliaries at Yorktown died, either from their injuries, starvation or diseases such as typhus and smallpox.4

A number of American soldiers believed that Cornwallis had expelled the black soldiers and labourers, many of whom were infected with smallpox, in order to spread the infection among the ranks of the rebels, and though there is no written evidence to support such a cold blooded action,  the ruthless reputation of the redcoats allowed such rumours to serve as valuable propaganda against the British. There is also circumstantial evidence to suggest such suspicions were well-founded. The idea of using smallpox infected black men and women as biological weapons had been suggested to Cornwallis by General Alexander Leslie just three months earlier [ see 13 July 1781 ].5

FOOTNOTES

  1. A rebel officer cited in Holger Hoock, Scars of Independnece: America’s Violent Birth, Crown, New York, 2017, p. 325.
  2. An American infantryman cited in Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, Hill and Wang, New York, 2002
  3. A Hessian soldier cited in David Olusuga, Black and British: A Forgotten History, Macmillan,  London, 2016, p. 152
  4. Holger Hoock, op. cit., p. 317.
  5. Harold B. Gill Jr., ‘Colonial Germ Warfare,’ Magazine of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, accessed online at https://www.history.org/foundation/journal/spring04/warfare.cfm

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