The Loyalist and African American Escape from Yorktown
On the 19th of October 1781, Washington won his most famous victory following the capitulation of the Crown Forces garrisoning Yorktown, Virginia. For Earl Charles Cornwallis and his fellow officers, defeat meant bitter embarrassment and shame. For their British and Hessian soldiers it meant the same, coupled with the potential of spending the rest of the war in the miserable conditions of an American prison camp. For the Loyalists and African Americans, however, the defeat spelled the potential for death or enslavement.
Cornwallis was well aware of this, and sought immunity for Loyalists as part of the tenth article of capitulation. Washington refused this article, leaving Cornwallis with no choice other than to abandon formal attempts to negotiate his allies to safety. The British, however, did not give up on more clandestine means of escape. Washington permitted that a single British sloop, the Bonetta, be allowed to sail to British-held New York without being searched, for the purpose of carrying dispatches. Numerous African Americans and Loyalists were smuggled onboard. The ruse was almost discovered where a Patriot commander, General Nelson, demanded he be allowed to inspect the sloop for blacks and “enemies of the state.” Nelson’s French allies, however, insisted that he adhere to the articles of capitulation, and let the sloop go. It reached New York safely, though “guards were placed along the shore to prevent runaways from escaping to the ship, although it was feared many were already hidden onboard.” The Governor of Virginia also wrote angrily to Cornwallis, claiming ‘negroes are attempting to escape by getting onboard the Bonetta… [where] they will endeavour to lie concealed from your lordship until the vessel sails.’ It is not known if Cornwallis ever replied. Washington himself was only able to recover two of the slaves who had fled his plantation.
The British also hit upon another ingenious means of smuggling ex-slaves to freedom. Under the articles, officer’s servants were not to be separated from their masters, and were allowed to travel with them on parole, and subsequent freedom. An eyewitness recorded that the ships bearing the British officers were “packed together, with two servants to each officer.” Another commented on fifty men and women “whose faces were hidden” - Americans who had deserted the Revolutionary cause, and knew they faced the potential of execution if caught.
Cornwallis was known to have 4000 or 5000 black recruits at Yorktown and Portsmouth. Smallpox killed about sixty percent of those that caught the disease, but in this case some were inoculated against it, so perhaps half the runaways were spared, though wounds and typhus also took a huge toll. Maybe 2000 survived. It is impossible to establish what happened to them. A proportion of the survivors, perhaps half, must have been forced back into slavery.