The events leading up to the Yorktown Campaign and the subsequent victory of the Allies that insured the independence of the United States are well known. Less well known is the battle that took place across the York River from Yorktown sixteen days before the British capitulation — one that led immeasurably to that final outcome. Although rather brief, it included the largest cavalry engagement of the war; with 500 or more horsemen involved, compared to about 130 involved in the more famous battle at the Cowpens.
When General Cornwallis occupied Yorktown in August 1781, he dispatched a portion of his troops — initially Ewald's Jaegers and the 80th Regiment — to occupy and fortify Gloucester Town (now Gloucester Point), across the river from Yorktown. These forces would, he hoped, be able to secure the British Army's flank, protect a possible escape route, and forage for food, livestock and supplies in the fertile farmland of Gloucester County. They were later joined by the Queen's Rangers, the Light Company of the Royal Welsh Fusileers, and most significantly, by Banastre Tarleton's famed British Legion. Taleton's cavalry was sent across the river in early October, as the allies' siege made the use of cavalry largely impossible in Yorktown.
General Washington and his French allies recognized the importance of this area to the ensuing siege and sent a force to join the Virginia militia to block the British in Gloucester. The French forces included the hussars, lancers and infantry of Lauzun's Legion, under the command of the flamboyant Duc de Lauzun. They were joined by 800 French infantrymen who came by boat from DeGrasse's fleet — detachments from ten French regiments who had been serving as DeGrasse's naval infantry.
General George Weedon, commanding the Virginia militia, directed 22 year old Lt. Col. John Francis Mercer, a former Continental officer, to select a battalion of grenadiers from more than a thousand militiamen camped around Gloucester Court House. Mercer selected former Continentals and young volunteers who were adequately armed and equipped. His Select Battalion of Grenadiers, as they were designated, numbered about two hundred men. Meanwhile, because Lauzun refused to subordinate himself to Brigadier General Weedon, Rochambeau sent Brigadier General Claude Gabriel de Choisy to command the Allies in Gloucester.
Early on the morning of October 3rd, 1781, Captain Phil Taliaferro of the Gloucester militia sent the following dispatch, probably from the militia's observation post at Perrin's, at the mouth of Sarah's Creek (now Little England), to the Allied commanders who were by then moving south from the vicinity of Gloucester Court House toward the enemy positions at Gloucester Point.
A party of the Enemy are now At Mrs Whitings & have sent out to collect the Cattle & Sheep adjacent, there being no one to oppose them. I thought proper to send this information to you & am with respect
Your Most Obd't. Serv't.
Octr. 3. 1781
Lauzun linked up with Mercer's troops at Seawell's Tavern, about five miles from the British positions, and they continued on toward the enemy. As they did so, Lauzun encountered Mrs. Elizabeth Seawell Whiting, an attractive local widow, at a farm house beside the road, and inquired if she had seen anything of the dreaded Tarleton. She informed the French commander that the British officer had indeed just left there, and had mentioned that he was "most anxious to shake hands with the French duke." Lauzun replied that he had "come to give him that satisfaction," and they continued on. Soon after, Lauzun heard firing from his advanced guard, and galloped forward, with Mercer's infantry moving up behind them on foot.
When they met the enemy a couple of miles down the road, at "the Hook," Lauzun rode up and, spotting Tarleton, galloped toward him. Before they clashed, one of Tarleton's cavalrymen's horses was wounded, and struck Tarleton, felling him and his horse in the process. Dragoons of the Queen's Rangers rescued him, and retreated behind their infantry, then reformed to mount a counterattack while Lauzun formed into two lines of some 300 horsemen. The British attacked with 150 Dragoons charging Lauzun's front, while another detachment wheeled around on an attack against the flank. Lauzun's forces fell back in the face of the attack, but young Lt. Col. Mercer dismounted and led his select militiamen forward into the battle at a run. They deployed, as Mercer later wrote:
" with great celerity and good order, & commenced firing, one half on the cavalry on the right, and the other half on the infantry advancing rapidly thro' the wood... No regular troops cou'd behave with more zeal and alacrity than this corps of Militia... they discovered as much gallantry and order as any regular corps that I ever saw in action. Fortunately Tarleton did not like the reception prepared for him & at a critical moment sounded a retreat..."
Thus repulsed by Mercer's militia, Tarleton retreated behind a company of the 23rd Regiment (Royal Welsh Fusileers). Firing from the woods on the flank of the Allies' pursuing cavalry and infantry, the Welshmen were able to check the enemy's pursuit, thus enabling the Crown forces to retreat to the safety of their fortifications.
The British withdrew to their lines with the loss of 50 men, including their infantry commander and 12 of Tarleton's men. Colonel Tarleton was among the wounded. The Americans lost 2 killed and 11 wounded, and the French suffered 3 killed and 16 wounded, including Lauzun's second-in-command, an Irish brawler and duelist named Robert Dillon. But the Allies had stopped the British across the river from Yorktown for good.
After Choisy brought up the remainder of his forces, including the 800 naval infantry, his artillery, and the remainder of the Virginia militia and cavalry, he blockaded the positions at Gloucester Point and the Crown forces remained in their positions until Cornwallis surrendered 16 days later.
No doubt the Allied officers, after their victory over Tarleton, retired to Seawell's Tavern for a celebratory drink, where General Choisy penned the following to Generals Weedon and Washington (his own spelling is used):
Obre 3th after noon at 2 o Clock
I have the hounor to inform you that by our arrival at Saoul's Tavern we have met with the ennemi who was in number about 500 men Cavalry and Infantry, that the Cavalry of the Duc of Lauzun has attaqued them, pierced throug and that we have had a great advantage on them We can esteem they have 30 men killed or wounded The 200 men grenadier Americans who were the only Infantry advanced enough to have part in the affair and who have behaved excedingly well have killed one officer who was at the head of the Infantry of the ennemi. T'is a general report that Tarleton has been wounded. The ennemi have retired to Gloucester and we are quickly in our Camp where I expect you will join to morrow as we have al. agreed
I have the hounor to be your
Most humble servant,
General Washington's general orders of the next day included the following:
"... the General Congratulates the Army upon the brilliant success of the Allied Troops near Gloucester. He requests the Duke de Lauzern to accept his particular thanks for the Judicious disposition and the decisive Vigour with which he charged the Enemy, and to communicate his Warmest Acknowledgements to the Gallant Officers and men by whom he was so admirably seconded. He feels peculiar satisfaction at the inconsiderable loss on our part, that no ill effects are to be apprehended from the Honorable Wounds which have been received in this affair, and that at so small an Expence, the Enemy amounting to six hundred Horse and foot were compleatly repulsed and Reconducted to their very lines."
On October 19th, 1781, the last surrender of British forces in America occurred — not at Yorktown, as is widely believed, but an hour later, outside the works at Gloucester, where some 1,100 Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welshmen, Germans and American loyalists, and 300 horses, were surrendered to 100 of Lauzun's men and 200 American militiamen. American independence was assured, thanks largely to the victory in Gloucester.
The Hook battlefield is now an empty field behind a drugstore at Hayes, hallowed ground with nothing to note its significance except a small roadside marker and a small, deteriorating concrete monument. Historic Seawell's Ordinary, which became General George Weedon's headquarters, with the French camped nearby, still stands, but has unfortunately been relegated to use as a used car lot.