American Revolution: Yorktown & Victory

Independence at Last

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown by John Trumbull. Photograph Courtesy of the US Government

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The War in the West

While large armies were doing battle in the East, small groups of men were fighting over large areas of territory in the West. While the commanders of British outposts, such as Forts Detroit and Niagara, were encouraging local Native Americans to attack colonial settlements, the frontiersmen began to band together to fight back. The most notable campaign west of the mountains was led by Colonel George Rogers Clark who embarked from Pittsburgh with 175 men in mid-1778. Moving down the Ohio River, they captured Fort Massac at the mouth of the Tennessee River before moving overland to take Kaskaskia (Illinois) on July 4. Cahokia was captured five days later as Clark moved back east and a detachment was sent to occupy Vincennes on the Wabash River.

Concerned by Clark's progress, the Lieutenant Governor of Canada, Henry Hamilton, departed Detroit with 500 men to defeat the Americans. Moving down the Wabash, he easily retook Vincennes which was renamed Fort Sackville. With winter approaching, Hamilton released many of his men and settled in with a garrison of 90. Feeling that urgent action was needed, Clark embarked on a winter campaign to retake the outpost. Marching with 127 men, they endured a tough march before attacking Fort Sackville on February 23, 1780. Hamilton was forced to surrender the next day.

To the east, Loyalist and Iroquois forces attacked American settlements in western New York and northeastern Pennsylvania, as well as won a victory over Colonels Zebulon Butler and Nathan Denison's militia at Wyoming Valley on July 3, 1778. To defeat this threat, General George Washington dispatched Major General John Sullivan to the region with a force of around 4,000 men. Moving up through the Wyoming Valley, he proceeded to systematically destroy the towns and villages of the Iroquois during the summer of 1779, and badly damaged their military potential.

Actions in the North

Following the Battle of Monmouth, Washington's army settled into positions near New York City to watch the forces of Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton. Operating from the Hudson Highlands, elements of Washington's army attacked British outposts in the region. On July 16, 1779, troops under Brigadier General Anthony Wayne captured Stony Point, and a month later Major Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee successfully attacked Paulus Hook. While these operations proved to be victories, American forces suffered an embarrassing defeat at Penobscot Bay in August 1779, when an expedition from Massachusetts was effectively destroyed. Another low point occurred in September 1780, when Major General Benedict Arnold, one of the heroes of Saratoga, defected to the British. The plot was revealed following the capture of Major John Andre who had been serving as a go-between for Arnold and Clinton.

Articles of Confederation

On March 1, 1781, the Continental Congress ratified the Articles of Confederation which officially established a new government for the former colonies. Originally drafted in mid-1777, Congress had been operating on the Articles since that time. Designed to increase cooperation between the states, the Articles empowered Congress to make war, mint coins, resolve issues with the western territories, and negotiate diplomatic agreements. The new system did not allow Congress to levy taxes or regulate commerce. This led to Congress having to issue requests for money to the states, which were often ignored. As a result, the Continental Army suffered from a lack of funds and supplies. The issues with the Articles became more pronounced after the war and resulted in the convening of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

The Yorktown Campaign

Having moved north from the Carolinas, Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis sought to reinvigorate his battered army and secure Virginia for Britain. Reinforced through the summer of 1781, Cornwallis raided around the colony and nearly captured Governor Thomas Jefferson. During this time, his army was watched by a small Continental force led by the Marquis de Lafayette. To the north, Washington linked up with the French army of Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste Ponton de Rochambeau. Believing he was about to be attacked by this combined force, Clinton ordered Cornwallis to move to a deep water port where his men could be embarked for New York. Complying, Cornwallis moved his army to Yorktown to await transport. Following the British, Lafayette, now with 5,000, men took up a position at Williamsburg.

Though Washington desperately wished to attack New York, he was dissuaded from this desire after receiving news that Rear Admiral Comte de Grasse planned to bring a French fleet to the Chesapeake. Seeing an opportunity, Washington and Rochambeau left a small blocking force near New York and embarked on a secret march with the bulk of the army. On September 5, Cornwallis' hope for a quick departure by sea was ended following the French naval victory at the Battle of the Chesapeake. This action allowed the French to blockade the mouth of the bay, preventing Cornwallis from escaping by ship.

Uniting at Williamsburg, the combined Franco-American army arrived outside Yorktown on September 28. Deploying around the town, they began building siege lines on October 5/6. A second, smaller force was dispatched to Gloucester Point, opposite Yorktown, to pen in a British garrison led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Outnumbered more than 2-to-1, Cornwallis held out in hope that Clinton would send aid. Pounding the British lines with artillery, the allies began building a second siege line closer to Cornwallis' position. This was completed following the capture of two key redoubts by allied troops. After again sending to Clinton for help, Cornwallis attempted to break out with no success on October 16. That night, the British began shifting men to Gloucester with the goal of escaping north, however a storm scattered their boats and the operation ended in failure. The next day, with no other choice, Cornwallis began surrender negotiations which were concluded two days later.

Previous: War in the South | American Revolution 101

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The Treaty of Paris

With the defeat at Yorktown, support of the war in Britain declined greatly and ultimately forced Prime Minister Lord North to resign in March 1782. That year, the British government entered into peace negotiations with the United States. The American commissioners included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Henry Laurens, and John Jay. While initial talks were inconclusive, a breakthrough was achieved in September and a preliminary treaty was finalized in late November. While Parliament expressed unhappiness with some of the terms, the final document, the Treaty of Paris, was signed on September 3, 1783. Britain also signed separate treaties with Spain, France, and the Netherlands.

By the terms of the treaty, Britain recognized the thirteen former colonies as free and independent states, as well as agreed to release all prisoners of war. In addition, border and fishery issues were addressed and both sides agreed to free access to the Mississippi River. In the United States, the last British troops departed from New York City on November 25, 1783, and the treaty was ratified by Congress on January 14, 1784. After nearly nine years of conflict, the American Revolution had come to an end and a new nation was born.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Yorktown & Victory." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Revolution: Yorktown & Victory. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Yorktown & Victory." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).