The World Turned Upside Down

It is fairly certain where John Jones could be found at 2:30pm on October 19, 1781. He would have been standing in one of three rows of soldiers on the west side of Hampton Road, just outside of Yorktown, Virginia. Across the road were similar lines of French soldiers dressed in fancy uniforms distinguished by colorful lapels, collars, and buttons that indicated their regiments. By contrast, the American soldiers of the Continental Army similarly stood at attention but wearing well-worn blue uniforms that had not recently been laundered. As for John Jones’s Virginia militia compatriots, they wore more-or-less what they always wore: leather hunting shirts and breeches, perhaps with an old uniform piece or two, quite the contrast to the French professionals.

A French military band played to entertain the the soldiers. The British were late.

The surrender of Yorktown and the British army had been scheduled for 2:00pm, but it was not until three o’clock that the defeated soldiers marched down the road, playing their own choice of music as described in the terms of surrender. Later accounts claimed the British played a drinking song called “The World Turned Upside Down.” Although that story is likely a legend, the world was indeed turning upside down, its mightiest imperial power losing an entire army to an upstart colonial rebellion in what turned out to be the last major engagement of the Revolutionary War. John Jones was there, perhaps close enough to the head of the line to see the British second-in-command Charles O’Hara attempt to surrender his sword to the French general Rochambeau who demurred, pointing at George Washington. Washington in turn motioned for O’Hara to give the weapon to his second-in-command General Benjamin Lincoln. The leading British General Charles Cornwallis – who should have surrendered to Washington – did not appear, claiming illness.

Jones would then have watched as the entire British army – thousands of men – marched between the American and French lines to a field where they stacked all of their weapons and military goods and became prisoners of war.

1920px-Surrender_of_Lord_Cornwallis

Although entitled The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, the painting by John Trumbull depicts a scene where Cornwallis was not present as Washington’s second-in-command Benjamin Lincoln leads the surrendering British troops between the French and American lines.

Jones was a part of the Virginia militia for much of the Revolution, but his unit had little to do for most of it. He enlisted in 1777 for 3 months and then in 1778 for 3 years in his home county of Albemarle — the county which surrounds Charlottesville and includes Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello. During this part of the war, there were no major combat activities happening in Virginia and particularly not in the backcountry around the Blue Ridge Mountains. When his second enlistment expired, he immediately re-upped, just in time for militia duty to become exciting. The British were coming. After expending much of his army’s strength unsuccessfully attempting to snuff out all the revolutionary spirit in the Carolinas, in 1781 Cornwallis moved to roll up the rebellion through Virginia.

Lafayette Statue

Statue of Lafayette in Lafayette Square, Washington D.C., courtesy Wikimedia Commons

George Washington dispatched the Marquis de Lafayette with a small force to shadow and harass the British. Jones’s militia unit was ordered to beef up Lafayette’s manpower, and Jones thus found himself under the direction of one of the most famed personalities from the Revolution. Even with additional troops, Lafayette did not have enough men to engage Cornwallis, but eventually Washington and his French allies decided to trap Cornwallis at Yorktown, and more forces moved south. As the siege was engaged, the Virginia Militia were assigned to General Thomas Nelson whose home was actually in Yorktown and was shelled by the American and French forces; an action he endorsed (the house survived and still stands in Yorktown today). The militia played a supporting role digging and guarding trenches in the three-week siege while the professional French and Continental Army soldiers did the cannon-firing and redoubt-storming.

Daniel Morgan

Colonel – then General – Daniel Morgan

John Jones was not the only family member standing along Hampton Road watching the surrender that day – David McNeely of the Nelson family was there too. McNeely’s road to Yorktown was considerably different than Jones’s although he started in a similar place just west of Albemarle in Augusta County, Virginia. In 1777 he enlisted in a Virginia regiment of the the Continental Army that was eventually assigned to another legendary American commander, Colonel Daniel Morgan. He fought in the Battle of the Brandywine after which he fell ill and spent months in a hospital before being honorably discharged. However, when Cornwallis moved north through North Carolina, McNeely decided to rejoin the fight and signed on to the Virginia militia which marched south to aid American General Nathaniel Greene in resisting the British advance.

McNeely’s company was known as the Botetourt Riflemen. Rifles were not commonly used in the Revolutionary period, but backcountry militiamen accustomed to fighting Native American warriors could employ them effectively. The rifles were slower to load than muskets – it took a full minute to reload one – and could not mount bayonets, but they were more accurate at a distance, better for irregular fighting in the wilderness than in conventional warfare against disciplined troops. The riflemen were assigned to Lt. Colonel Harry Lee, or Light Horse Harry Lee as he is better known to history. At this point, General Greene was pulling back to the Virginia border in a strategic retreat with a three-fold purpose: 1) to avoid engaging Cornwallis directly while he rebuilt the southern Continental Army; 2) to draw Cornwallis away from his supply lines; and 3) most immediately, to keep a determined Cornwallis from freeing most of Banastre Tarleton’s troops which McNeely’s former commander Daniel Morgan had captured during the significant American victory at the Battle of Cowpens.

Lee’s cavalry and Riflemen were assigned a role of ambushing British pursuers during two skirmishes, one at Clapp’s Mill in Alamance County and another at Wetzel’s Mill in Guilford County. The nature of the rear-guard actions left the riflemen vulnerable to British attacks, and particularly at Wetzel’s Mill the only American casualties were among the Botetourts. At this point, most of the militiamen suddenly realized they needed to plant crops back home and left, apparently feeling that plowing fields was preferable to being sacrificed for the benefit of the rest of the army. Commanders patched together a corps of rifle-carrying soldiers that they continued to call the Botetourt Riflemen even though most of them weren’t part of the original unit. But at least one was: David McNeely stayed on and was at the major battle of Guilford Courthouse where Nathaniel Greene finally stood his ground against Cornwallis. While the Americans technically lost the battle, everyone recognized that it was Cornwallis who was near-fatally weakened, in hostile territory far from sources of supplies and fresh soldiers.

Clapp's Mill

Monument to the Battle of Clapp’s Mill in Burlington, NC. Photo by Rusty Long via Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina website.

After Cornwallis headed into Virginia, Greene took his army south to liberate the Carolinas and Georgia, and left the British commander to Lafayette and Washington. But somehow McNeely didn’t go with Greene, instead heading to Richmond and Jamestown before winding up in Yorktown standing somewhere in the long line of American militiamen on Hampton Road in the mid-afternoon of October 19, 1781, participating in one of the most consequential events in American history.

After the surrender, David McNeely’s militia were assigned to escort the captured British army to Winchester, Virginia, where the soldiers were to be detained. Once finished with this last duty, he was discharged. Sometime between 1785 and 1789 he moved west to Madison County, Virginia, which became Madison County, Kentucky in 1792. Here he married Rebecca Dickey and raised a family. His daughter Nancy married Hugh Barnett, the Man of Many Madisons from a prior post. David traveled with the Barnetts to Madison County, Alabama, where he filed for his pension and later died. Nancy and Hugh were great-great-grandparents of John Joseph Nelson.

As for John Jones, after the British surrender he headed back to Albemarle County where he was discharged from the militia. Later, he also developed the compulsion to seek better fortune in the west, moving first to Franklin County, Virginia in 1790, then Smith County, Tennessee in 1796, and then Maury County, Tennessee in 1832. His daughter Bersheba married John Paysinger of Lincoln County, Tennessee, and together they became the parents of Thomas Alexander Paysinger, and the great-great-grandparents of Frances Louise Paysinger.

John Jones signature

Signature of John Jones on his pension application


Notes:

Much of the information about these two veterans comes from their pension applications, both filed in 1832 many years after the end of the war when some memories were getting fuzzy. The Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements and Rosters has done a remarkable job of transcribing and making available online these pension filings for hundreds of soldiers. For convenience, the complete PDF files for John Jones and David McNeely are posted here, but genealogists should follow the link above to the complete site to check on other relatives.

John Johns Revolutionary War Pension Application

David McNeely Revolutionary War Pension Application

Information on the Botetourt Riflemen is from the newsletter The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution. Follow the link below, and scroll to page 60.

The Botetourt Riflemen of 1781: Brief but Bellweather

General information about the battle at Yorktown is from retired National Park Service historian Jerome Greene in his book The Guns of Independence: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781.

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