THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: OCTOBER 24, 1861

Transcontinental Telegraph Completed and The Pony
Express Ends

pony-express

On October 24, 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph system was completed by Western Union, making it possible to transmit messages rapidly (by mid-nineteenth-century standards) from coast to coast. This technologi-cal advance, pioneered by inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, heralded the end of the Pony Express. Only two days later, on October 26, the horseback mail service that had previously provided the fastest means of communication between the eastern and western United States officially closed.

The short-lived Pony Express had been established only one and one-half years earlier, in April 1860. Initially a private enterprise under the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, it operated –at its full-est extent–from terminuses at St. Joseph, Missouri, to San Francisco, California, using a continuous relay of the best riders and horses. The nearly 2,000-mile route—running through present-day Kansas, Nebraska, the north-east corner of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California—included vast stretches of rugged terrain once thought impassable in winter.

Pushing the physical limits of man and beast, the Pony Express ran nonstop. During a typical shift, a rider trav-eled 75 to 100 miles, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles at relief stations along the route. Station keepers and stock tenders ensured that changes between horses and riders were synchronized so that no time was wasted. For their dangerous and grueling work riders received between $100 and $125 per month. A few riders with un-usually treacherous routes were paid $150, more than twice the salary of the average station worker.

Summer deliveries averaged ten days, while winter deliveries required twelve to sixteen days, approximately half the time needed by stagecoach. The Express logged its fastest time delivering President Lincoln’s first inaugural address, seven days and seventeen hours.

Some 200 horsemen rode for the Pony Express. Most were in their late teens and early twenties and small in stat-ure. Famous riders included William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: OCTOBER 19, 1781

Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown

cornwallis-surrenders-yorktown

Hopelessly trapped at Yorktown, Virginia, British General Lord Cornwallis surrenders 8,000 British soldiers and sea-men to a larger Franco-American force, effectively bringing an end to the American Revolution.

Lord Cornwallis was one of the most capable British generals of the American Revolution. In 1776, he drove General George Washington’s Patriots forces out of New Jersey, and in 1780 he won a stunning victory over General Horatio Gates’ Patriot army at Camden, South Carolina. Cornwallis’ subsequent invasion of North Carolina was less successful, however, and in April 1781 he led his weary and battered troops toward the Virginia coast, where he could maintain seaborne lines of communication with the large British army of General Henry Clinton in New York City. After conducting a series of raids against towns and plantations in Virginia, Cornwallis settled in the tidewater town of Yorktown in August. The British immediately began fortifying the town and the adjacent promontory of Gloucester Point across the York River.

General George Washington instructed the Marquis de Lafayette, who was in Virginia with an American army of around 5,000 men, to block Cornwallis’ escape from Yorktown by land. In the meantime, Washington’s 2,500 troops in New York were joined by a French army of 4,000 men under the Count de Rochambeau. Washington and Rochambeau made plans to attack Cornwallis with the assistance of a large French fleet under the Count de Grasse, and on August 21 they crossed the Hudson River to march south to Yorktown. Covering 200 miles in 15 days, the allied force reached the head of Chesapeake Bay in early September.

Meanwhile, a British fleet under Admiral Thomas Graves failed to break French naval superiority at the Battle of Virginia Capes on September 5, denying Cornwallis his expected reinforcements. Beginning September 14, de Grasse transported Washington and Rochambeau’s men down the Chesapeake to Virginia, where they joined Lafayette and completed the encirclement of Yorktown on September 28. De Grasse landed another 3,000 French troops carried by his fleet. During the first two weeks of October, the 14,000 Franco-American troops gradually overcame the fortified British positions with the aid of de Grasse’s warships. A large British fleet carrying 7,000 men set out to rescue Cornwallis, but it was too late.

On October 19, General Cornwallis surrendered 7,087 officers and men, 900 seamen, 144 cannons, 15 galleys, a frigate, and 30 transport ships. Pleading illness, he did not attend the surrender ceremony, but his second-in-command, General Charles O’Hara, carried Cornwallis’ sword to the American and French commanders. As the British and Hessian troops marched out to surrender, the British bands played the song “The World Turned Upside Down.”

Although the war persisted on the high seas and in other theaters, the Patriot victory at Yorktown effectively ended fighting in the American colonies. Peace negotiations began in 1782, and on September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, formally recognizing the United States as a free and independent nation after eight years of war.


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