Colonial National Historical Park | TOUR STOP B: GRAND FRENCH BATTERY

Grand French Battery

Grand French Battery

YORKTOWN BATTLEFIELD TOUR


See the Yorktown Battlefield Tour home page for a tour map.


Stop B on the Yorktown Battlefield Tour marks the location of the Grand French Battery on the Allied First Siege Line. A siege line is similar to a defensive earthwork, except that it is temporary and does not include any wooden fortifications. A trench is dug and the dirt is used to build a large, protective wall. To give the wall a firmer shape, the dirt is first piled into baskets called gabions—gabions are still used today to build retaining walls—which are then placed at the top of the trench and covered in additional dirt to complete the wall. Notches called embrasures are cut from the hill to create a slot out of which cannon can fire.

A siege line runs parallel to the enemy’s defensive earthworks and forts, allowing soldiers and artillery to be safely positioned a certain distance away from the enemy. The first siege line is dug just out of reach of the enemy artillery, which at the time of the American Revolution was about 1,500 yards. Once the line is completed, another trench or set of trenches is dug towards the enemy position, but in a zigzag pattern, for a predetermined number of feet, at which point another parallel siege line is dug. Men and equipment can then transfer from the back to the new forward line. This process is repeated until artillery is positioned point black to the enemy defenses. If the enemy is in range of artillery, a bombardment of its position is commenced so to provide covering fire for those digging the trenches. Of course the enemy can also fire back, so the trick is to bombard them to the extent that they can’t come out of hiding to shoot back.

The Grand French Battery was where the largest concentration of French artillery was located. The French manned the left flank of the siege line and the Americans the right side. The trench was dug from here all the way to the York River in the east in one night, October 6, 1781. Digging under the cover of darkness, the British never knew what was going on. That’s a lot of men (1,500) doing a lot of digging. The reason the trenches spanned such a wide area is so the British could not sneak around one side if they decided to break out and go on the offensive—that never happened. The line was not dug too much farther west because the forest and a water boundary prevented the British from advancing men and equipment on that side, and of course the east side of the line was anchored by the river.

Map of the first siege line (click to enlarge)

Map of the first siege line (click to enlarge)

Once the siege line was dug, wooden batteries (platforms) that could support the artillery were constructed. All of this work was completed by the afternoon of October 9th. At that time, 30 French cannon opened fire on the British a half mile away, with the Americans firing from their end of the siege line as well. The British were pounded so heavily that they could only rarely fire back. This allowed work on the second siege line to begin the next day.

What you see today is a reconstruction of the earthworks. The originals were either leveled or had eroded away, but the National Park Service built the current fortifications on the exact location of the originals.

When you turn into Stop B you immediately come to a parking area. The road continues farther, but this just leads to a loop that allows large vehicles to easily turn around. All exhibits and information panels are at the parking lot. There is a panel about the First Siege Line, and from here you can see a Howitzer and mortar exhibit. However, take a look to your left because hidden from view in the forest is a footbridge and another information panel that tells about the range of the different artillery pieces. Cross the bridge to get to the exhibits.

Footbridge leads to the artillery exhibits

Footbridge leads to the artillery exhibits

There is a 24-pounder cannon exhibit on the other side of the road, but keep in mind that Cook Street is a four-lane highway and the cars pass by at 55+ MPH. Unless you simply must see the cannon, just stick to the parking lot side of the tour stop. (Pounder refers to the weight of the cannonball that can be fired).

24-pounder artillery exhibit

24-pounder artillery exhibit

Once done, if you continue down the road you can get a good look at the siege line fortifications from a different angle. There are no exhibits. As mentioned, a loop at the end allows large vehicles to turn around.

View of the earthworks from the end of the road at Stop B

View of the earthworks from the end of the road at Stop B


Next Stop: Second Allied Siege Line | Previous Stop: British Inner Defense Line


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Last updated on April 6, 2020
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