General Benjamin Lincoln accepted the British surrender at Yorktown as Washington looked on in this classic painting by John Trumbull.
Note: This entry is making its third annual appearance.
The British musicians had it right when they played The World Turned Upside Down on October 19, 1781. On that day British forces commanded by Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis marched out of their fortifications at Yorktown, Virginia between ranks of Continental Army and French troops. Cornwallis, feigning illness, dispatched Irish born Brigadier General Charles O'Hara to do the distasteful duty. O’Hara attempted to offer the sword of surrender to the senior French officer, the Comte de Rochambeau who declined pointing to General George Washington. Washington, irked at Cornwallis’s breach of decorum, likewise refused to accept the sword from an inferior officer. He chose his subordinate, General Benjamin Lincoln, who had been humiliated at the surrender of Savannah, Georgia, to accept the sword. 7,087 British and German mercenary officers and enlisted men and 840 sailors from the British fleet in the York River lay down their arms.
By the terms of the surrender worked out in delicate negotiations since the British advanced a white flag across the front on Oct. 17, rank and file troops became prisoners of war with a promise of humane treatment. Officers were allowed to swear parole and disembark for England. Washington had curtly refused a proposed article 10 of the surrender document that would have given protection to loyalists and Cornwallis knew that he could not contest the issue, leaving local Tories unprotected.
The surrender was not the end of the war, but was clearly a blow from which the British could not recover. Both sides avoided major clashes of their main armies for nearly two years as negotiations dragged on in Paris until a treaty was finally signed recognizing American independence on September 3, 1783.
Modern historians accurately emphasize that the victory at Yorktown would have been impossible except for the large French Army under Rochambeau and the presence of the French Fleet under the Comte de Grasse at sea. After the patriotic hagiography of Washington in the 19th Century, it has become fashionable to decry the Continental commander’s generalship, particularly in light of his long string of battlefield losses to the British—especially the disastrous Long Island campaign. But Washington was masterfully in command of the operation from the time the allies reached agreement on a plan in Newport, Rhode Island.
In July of 1780 a French fleet under Admiral Destouches had brought Rochambeau and 5,500 soldiers to join the Americans at Newport. Washington and the French General soon reached a rapport and encouraged the Admiral to sail south to support American troops under the Marquis de Lafayette in contesting a large British force under the traitor Benedict Arnold which had been dispatched to Virginia. The Admiral was reluctant to test his fleet against the British and sent only a small squadron of three ships in February 1781. When those proved ineffective he took a larger force of 11 ships in March 1781, and fought a tactically inconclusive battle with the British fleet of Marriot Arbuthnot at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Destouches withdrew due to the damage sustained to his fleet, leaving Arbuthnot and the British fleet in control of the bay's mouth.
Meanwhile Arnold’s raiding troops were reinforced by 2,300 troops under command of Major General William Phillips, who took command. Phillips easily defeated the Virginia Militia, and burned the tobacco warehouses at Petersburg on April 25. Just as Richmond laid exposed Lafayette’s 1,200 Continental troops of the Line arrived, and the British withdrew to Petersburg on May 10.
On May 20 Cornwallis arrived at Petersburg with the Southern army that had masterfully been driven out of Georgia and the Carolinas by an American campaign of attrition that succeeded even without winning a major battle. Despite technically winning a battle at Guilford Court House in Greensboro, North Carolina against the American army under General Nathaniel Green, Cornwallis had lost nearly a quarter of his men. He decided, against General Henry Clinton’s orders to hold the Deep South, to turn north an “invade” Virginia.
Cornwallis took command of the united troops at Petersburg since Phillips had died of “swamp fever.” He received further reinforcements from Clinton in New York bringing his total forces to 7,200 men. Lafayette fell back on Richmond, where he was reinforced by troops under Baron von Steuben and Anthony Wayne. Now with 4,200 men, Lafayette played cat-and-mouse with half of Cornwallis’s men as the other half raided to the south. Clinton issued contradictory orders but finally directed Cornwallis to Yorktown where he was to build strong fortifications, create a deep water port for the Navy and await further reinforcement from New York.
Meanwhile Washington and Rochambeau convinced de Grasse, a more aggressive officer than Destouches, to move with his powerful West Indies Fleet to the mouth of the Chesapeake to block reinforcement of Cornwallis. The French and Continental Armies assembled at White Plains north of New York to determine a course of action. At first Washington proposed an assault on the city and began probing British defenses with reconnaissance raids. But after de Grasse confirmed that he would be sailing to Virginia with a fleet of 29 ships and additional troops, the two commanders agreed to march their armies, in as much secrecy as possible, south to join Lafayette in trapping the British on the Yorktown peninsula.
Washington, a master at counter intelligence and misdirection, allowed dispatches to be “captured” by the British that indicated that the joint armies planned an assault on New York, made all the more believable by Washington’s probes.
On August 19 4,000 French and 3,000 American troops began the march in Newport while a large number were left in White Plains to continue pressure on Clinton in New York and defend the Hudson Valley. The Armies arrived at Philadelphia on September 2. Continental troops threatened not to cross into Virginia unless they were paid, and Congress hastily authorized immediate payment of one month’s wages.
On September 5 Washington got word that de Grasse had arrived off of Virginia and had disembarked troops to reinforce Lafayette and was sending his empty transports north to pick up his army. The same day de Grasse heavily damaged a British relief fleet under Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves at Battle of the Capes sending the British limping back to New York and preventing any interference with the movements of Continental and French forces.
Washington and Rochambeau made a hasty march to the Head of Elk on the northern tip of the Chesapeake Bay where most of the troops were picked up by de Grasse’s transports. Others were picked up in Baltimore on the way south. Washington arrived in Williamsburg on September 14. His artillery, baggage, and siege tools arrived with more French assault troops days later. Washington now commanded a combined force of 8,000 Continentals, 7,800 French, and 3,100 militia. In addition he had an impressive artillery train including heavy siege guns.
On September 28 Washington led his army out of Williamsburg and surrounded the British on the Yorktown peninsula. The French fleet prevented reinforcements or evacuation. Cornwallis was trapped. With the French under Rochambeau on the left and the Continentals in the “place of honor” on the right, Washington closed in. For the next two weeks he brilliantly conducted a classic siege campaign.
As Washington slowly tightened the noose, Cornwallis abandoned his outer defenses except for a Fusilier’s redoubt on the west side of the town and Redoubts 9 and 10 in the east on September 30. The allies occupied the abandoned defense line and set up guns to pound British emplacements. Cornwallis had his men occupy earthwork defenses just outside the city of Yorktown and awaited promised reinforcements from Clinton. Amid regular skirmishing and artillery exchanges, Washington advanced construction of a series of siege parallels—trenches ever closer to the British positions. On the 3rd, the foraging party, led by Tory Col. Banastre Tarleton, tried to make a break but were met by Lauzun's Legion, and John Mercer’ Virginia militia under the command of the Marquis de Choisy who sent the cavalry quickly reeling back behind their lines, with 50 men lost.
On the night of October 6, troops moved out in stormy weather to dig the first parallel. Washington ceremoniously struck several blows with his pick axe to begin the trench. The trench was to be 2,000 yards long, running from the head of Yorktown to the York River. By October 9, all of the considerable allied artillery was in place in the parallel. The French guns opened the barrage and drove the British frigate, HMS Guadeloupe across the York River, where she was scuttled to prevent capture. Then the Americans opened up with the first gun ceremonially fired by Washington himself. The British line was pounded unmercifully. Fire continued into the night so that the British could get not rest and so that miners and sappers could begin construction of a second parallel.
The British never discovered that a second line was being dug. They were surprised on the morning of October 12 when fire erupted from the second line. By the October 14 the trenches had reached within 150 yards of the British redoubts 9# and 10#. The allies prepared assaults to take these critical defenses. Both redoubts were heavily fortified with rows of abatis (sharpened log stakes) surrounding them, and muddy ditches that surrounded the redoubts at about 25 yards. A French diversionary attack on the Fusilier’s redoubt at 6:30 A.M. sent much of the British line into a panic.
At seven the 400 elite light infantry with Colonel Alexander Hamilton in the lead launched a bayonete assault on 10#. Hamilton sent Laurens around to the rear of the redoubt to prevent the British from escaping while his men hacked through the abatis, crossed a ditch and climbed the parapet into the redoubt, despite sustaining heavy fire, Hamilton took the fortress by storm. The French under German Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm von Zweibrücken bogged down in the abatis for a while but then crested the parapets and forced the defending Hessian troops to withdraw to an interior line behind some barrels before forcing them to surrender.
With these two positions now in his hands, Washington’s artillery was in complete command of British positions in the city and in the harbor. American and French gunners kept up relentless fire. In a desperate attempt to break out on October 15 British troops managed to take a small portion of the American line and spike six guns before retreating under heavy fire. By evening the six guns were repaired and pounding the enemy once again.
The next day Cornwallis attempted to evacuate his troops across the York River to Gloucester Point. One wave of boats made it across, but a squall hit, making further evacuation impossible.
Cornwallis convened a council of war and his officers agreed that their situation was now hopeless. On the morning of October 17 he dispatched a drummer followed by an officer waving a white handkerchief. The bombardment ceased, and the officer was blindfolded and led behind the Allied lines. After two days of negotiations, the formal surrender was conducted.
Washington seldom gets credit, but he had sole command of the entire operation, while consulting regularly with his French allies. His conduct of the siege was masterful.
Five days later the British fleet sent by Clinton to rescue the British army finally arrived off of Yorktown. They could do nothing but pick-up frightened Tories and sail back to New York before the French fleet over took them.