On 17 October 1781 British General Lord Cornwallis’ army officially surrendered to a Franco-American army at Yorktown. After years of war and changing fortunes the capitulation of the British marked a decisive turning point, and Yorktown was to be the last major battle of the American War of Independence.
The fate of the war hangs in the balance
The war had started in 1776, yet at the start of 1781 there was still no sign of a clear winner. In fact, earlier in the year the British had won two crushing victories at Charleston and Camden, capturing thousands of revolutionary troops in the process. In the north opposing generals George Washington and Sir Henry Clinton watched each other uneasily around the British-held city of New York.
Though the French and Spanish were on the American side, their conflicting war aims made co-operation difficult and so far joint Franco-American operations had been decidedly unsuccessful. After five years of war, public support for it in the Thirteen Colonies was beginning to wane. A decisive victory was badly needed if the rebels were going to end the war in their favour.
While Clinton presided over the British forces in the north, Charles, Lord Cornwallis, commanded in the south, and in December 1780 and March 1781 troops under Benedict Arnold and William Phillips were sent to reinforce him. After raiding Virginia for a time, this second force then retired to Petersburg after the arrival of a strong French army.
There they were joined by Cornwallis in May, after the latter had won a costly victory at Guildford Courthouse and needed to resupply. Together these British forces numbered around 7,200 men. Cornwallis, who took sole command after the unexpected death of Phillips, then gathered these forces and pursued Lafayette’s nearby French Army, until receiving orders from his superior Clinton to occupy and defend the port of Yorktown.
Marching on Yorktown
Meanwhile in the north the armies of George Washington and experienced French General Rochambeau met at White Plains and began to plan their next move. Washington was eager to launch an attack on New York, which was still heavily defended by the British. Rochambeau, however, believed that easier victories were to be found elsewhere in the south, where Lafayette’s French army was keeping an eye on Cornwallis’ men.
In August, they received word from another French commander, Admiral De Grasse, who had left France months earlier with the intention of supporting the American cause. De Grasse’s 29 ships and 3,200 soldiers were headed towards Virginia, where they would help tip the balance in any attack on Cornwallis’ forces. With this news, Washington abandoned his dreams of New York and brought his armies south.
De Grasse disembarked his troops to join Lafayette and then brought the fleet north to pick up Washington and Rochambeau’s men. Not realising the size of the French fleet, the British tried to attack it but were beaten off at the battle of Chesapeake. By the time he reached Yorktown Washington had command of 8,000 Frenchmen, 8,000 men of his own Continental Army and 3,000 militiamen.
A desperate defence
Badly outnumbered, the British were forced to abandon the outer defences of the town, which were then used by the Franco-American forces as batteries for their bombarding cannon. As Washington’s army prepared for an assault minor skirmishes were fought between foraging parties around the town. On 6 October the siege began in earnest as a first trench in which to place the heavy guns of the besiegers.
By 9 October all these guns were in place and Washington himself fired the first shot. According to legend, it smashed the dinner table at which the British commanders were eating. Soon the British were suffering from a withering bombardment, and many of their troops began to desert, particularly after the Americans secretly dug another trench closer to the British lines. Faced with these developments, Cornwallis sent word to Clinton that he could not hold out much longer without reinforcement.
By 14 October the guns were close enough to the British positions to smash specific redoubts in preparation for assaults on them. With these weakened, Washington planned a surprise attack that night. The French carried out a diversionary attack as his men stormed the British positions.
Told to fire no shots in order to maintain surprise, the American soldiers hacked at the wooden defences with axes, but lost the element of surprise as a British sentry challenged them. From then on, they were subject to heavy British fire, but overwhelmed the defence. At one key moment, a soldier saw the stretched and outnumbered defence wavering, and called to his comrades;
“come on boys, the fort’s ours!”
A final bayonet fight cleared out the British redoubt, and many of the remaining garrison surrendered. The French met with equal success on the other side against the Cornwallis’ allied German troops. Now much of Yorktown’s defences were in Allied hands.
“Oh God, it’s all over”
After a British counterattack was unsuccessful on 16 October Cornwallis realised that the situation was untenable. He desperately attempted to evacuate his men over the nearby York river but the weather conditions made this impossible and a humiliating surrender became the only option.
On the morning of 17, an officer emerged bearing a white handkerchief. Declared prisoners of war, Cornwallis’ men marched out of the city on 19 and gave themselves over to the Allied forces in an elaborate ceremony. Cornwallis did not attend, claiming illness.
Clinton’s army arrived five days too late, and received word that Cornwallis had surrendered. Upon hearing of this defeat, British Prime Minister Lord North exclaimed “Oh God, it’s all over.” Faced with an increasingly unpalatable situation, and with their wide range of enemies now emboldened, the British had no more appetite for fighting, and Washington’s army did not see action again until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, officially ending the war.
The rebels, generously backed by the French and Spanish, had won an improbable victory. After Yorktown the only question left was when the war would end, and thus it deserves its prominent place in the history of the United States of America.