|John Turnbull's famous 1820 painting of the surrender at Yorktown. General Benjamin Lincoln accepted the sword from Brigadier Charles O'Hara as Washington looked on. The French army was on the left and the Continental Army on the right. The band played The World Turned Upside Down.
The English 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 laid 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 October 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.
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 considering 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,
In July of 1780 a French fleet under Admiral Destouches had brought Rochambeau and 5,500 troops 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 under 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.
Arnold’s raiding troops were reinforced
by 2,300 troops under 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 to “invade”
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.
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.
a master of counterintelligence 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
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.
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.
Rochambeau and Washington giving their last orders before the battle in the Siège de Yorktown by Auguste Couder.
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’s 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 ceremonially struck
several blows with his pickaxe to
begin the trench. The trench was to be 2,000 yards long, running from the
head of Yorktown to the York River.
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.
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 bayonet 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 recieving 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.
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.
convened a council of
war and his officers agreed that their situation
was now hopeless. On the morning of October17 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.
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
later the British fleet sent by Clinton to rescue the British army finally
arrived off Yorktown. They could do
nothing but pick-up frightened Tories and sail back to New York before the
French fleet overtook them.