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, but one that led immeasurably to that final outcome.
When General Cornwallis occupied Yorktown in September 1781 he dispatched a portion of his troops to occupy and fortify Gloucester Point, across the river from Yorktown. This force would be able to secure the British Army's flank, protect a possible escape route, and forage for food and supplies in the fertile farmland of Gloucester County. Among the British forces in Gloucester were Col. Banastre Tarleton and his Legion, along with detachments from several regular British regiments.
General Washington and his French allies recognized the importance of this area to the ensuing siege and sent a force to block the British in Gloucester. This Allied force included Virginia militia, made up in part by former Continental soldiers. The French forces included Marines, as well as Lauzun's Legion, under the command of the flamboyant Duc de Lauzun.
Early on the morning of 3 October, Captain Phil Taliaferro of the Gloucester militia sent the following dispatch, probably from the militia's observation post at Perrin's (Little England), to the Allied commanders in Gloucester who were by then moving south from the vicinity of the 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 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. 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 officer 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.
When they met the enemy a couple of miles down the road, at "the Hook" (where the Guinea Road now meets Route 17), Lauzun rode up and, spotting Tarleton, galloping toward him. Before they clashed, one of Tarleton's cavalrymen's horses was wounded, and it struck Tarleton's, felling him and his horse in the process. His dragoons rescued him, retreated, then mounted a counter attack. They were thrown back, and broke for the protection of a company of the 23rd, who stopped Lauzun's infantry, but not Mercer's Virginians.
The British withdrew to their lines with the loss of their infantry commander and 12 men, and a wounded Colonel Tarleton. 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 they stopped the British across the river from Yorktown for good: they remained in their positions at Gloucester Point until Cornwallis surrendered on that glorious day a fortnight and two days later.
No doubt the allies then retired to Seawell's Tavern for a celebratory drink, where General Choisy, Lauzun's commanding general, penned the following to General 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.
The Hook battlefield is now an empty field behind the Hardee's at Hayes, hallowed ground with nothing to note its significance except a small roadside marker and a small, deteriorating concrete monument.
Seawell's Ordinary, which became General George Weedon's headquarters (with the French camped nearby) until the British surrender, still stands as one of the fine restaurants and taverns in this county.