American Revolution: Battle of Yorktown

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

The Battle of Yorktown was the last major engagement of the American Revolution (1775-1783) and was fought September 28 to October 19, 1781.

Armies & Commanders

American & French

  • General George Washington
  • Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau
  • 8,800 Americans, 7,800 French

British

Background

During the summer of 1781, General George Washington's army was encamped in the Hudson Highlands where it could monitor the activities of Lieutenant General Henry Clinton's British army in New York City.

On July 6, Washington's men were joined by French troops led by Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau.  These men had landed at Newport, RI before proceeding overland to New York. While Washington had initially intended to utilize the French forces in an attempt to liberate New York City, Rochambeau began to advocate for a strike against exposed British forces to the south.

The following month, word arrived from Virginia that Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis' army was encamped near Yorktown, VA. Having won a bloody victory at Guilford Court House, NC that spring, Cornwallis had moved north into Virginia where he had received reinforcements and had commenced raiding into the interior. To curb these activities, Washington dispatched the Marquis de Lafayette south to oversee resistance to the British. As the summer progressed Clinton ordered Cornwallis to move towards the coast and fortify a deep water port.

Marching to Yorktown, Cornwallis' men commenced building defenses while Lafayette's command observed from a safe distance. 

Marching South

Recognizing that Cornwallis' army was isolated, Washington and Rochambeau began discussing options for moving south. The decision to attempt a strike against Yorktown was made possible by the fact that Rear Admiral Comte de Grasse intended to bring his French fleet north to support the operation and prevent Cornwallis from escaping by sea.

Leaving a force to contain Clinton in New York City, Washington and Rochambeau began moving 4,000 French and 3,000 American troops south on August 19 (Map). Eager to maintain secrecy, Washington ordered a series of feints and sent false dispatches suggesting that an attack against New York City was imminent.

Reaching Philadelphia in early September, Washington endured a brief crisis when some of his men refused to continue the march unless they were paid one month's back wages in coin. This situation was remedied when Rochambeau loaned the American commander the needed gold coins. Pressing south, Washington and Rochambeau learned that de Grasse had arrived in the Chesapeake and landed troops to reinforce Lafayette. This done, French transports were sent north to ferry the combined Franco-American army down the bay. 

Battle of the Chesapeake

Having arrived in the Chesapeake, de Grasse's ships assumed a blockading position. On September 5, a British fleet led by Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves arrived and engaged the French. In the resulting Battle of the Chesapeake, de Grasse succeeded in defeating the British and leading them away from the bay. Disengaging, the French returned to the Chesapeake and resumed blockading Cornwallis' army.

Arriving at Williamsburg, Washington met with de Grasse aboard his flagship Ville de Paris on September 17. After securing the admiral's promise to remain in the bay, Washington focused on concentrating his forces.

Joining Forces With the Lafayette

As troops from New York reached Williamsburg, VA, they joined with the forces of the Lafayette who had continued to shadow Cornwallis' movements. With the army assembled, Washington and Rochambeau began the march to Yorktown on September 28. Arriving outside the town later that day, the two commanders deployed their forces with the Americans on the right and the French on the left. A mixed Franco-American force, led by the Comte de Choissey, was dispatched across the York River to oppose the British position on Gloucester Point.

Working Towards Victory

In Yorktown, Cornwallis held out hope that a promised relief force of 5,000 men would arrive from New York.

Outnumbered more than 2-to-1, he ordered his men to abandon the outer works around the town and fall back to the main line of fortifications. This was later criticized as it would have taken the allies several weeks to reduce these positions by regular siege methods. On the night of October 5/6, the French and Americans began construction of the first siege line. By dawn, a 2,000-yard long trench opposed the southeast side of the British works. Two days later, Washington personally fired the first gun.

For the next three days, French and American guns pounded the British lines around the clock. Feeling his position collapsing, Cornwallis wrote to Clinton on October 10 calling for aid. The British situation was made worse by a smallpox outbreak within the town. On the night of October 11, Washington's men began work on a second parallel, just 250 yards from the British lines. Progress on this work was impeded by two British fortifications, Redoubts #9 and #10, which prevented the line from reaching the river.

Attack in the Night

The capture of these positions was assigned to General Count William Deux-Ponts and Lafayette. Extensively planning the operation, Washington directed the French to mount a diversionary strike against the Fusiliers' Redoubt at the opposite end of the British works.  This would be followed by Deux-Ponts' and Lafayette's assaults thirty minutes later.  To help increase the odds of success, Washington selected a moonless night and ordered that the effort be made using bayonets only.

  No soldier was permitted to load their musket until the assaults had begun. Tasking 400 French regulars with the mission of taking Redoubt #9, Deux-Ponts gave command of the assault to Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm von Zweibrücken.  Lafayette gave leadership of the 400-man force for Redoubt #10 to Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton.

On October 14, Washington directed all of the artillery in the area to concentrate their fire on the two redoubts.  Around 6:30 PM, the French commenced the diversionary effort against the Fusiliers' Redoubt.  Moving forward as planned, Zweibrücken's men had difficulty clearing the abatis at Redoubt #9. Finally hacking through it, they reached the parapet and pushed back the Hessian defenders with a volley of musket fire. As the French surged into the redoubt, the defenders surrendered after a brief fight.  Approaching Redoubt #10, Hamilton directed a force under Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens to circle to the rear of the enemy to cut off the line of retreat to Yorktown. Cutting through the abatis, Hamilton's men climbed through a ditch in front of the redoubt and forced their way over the wall.  Encountering heavy resistance, they ultimately overwhelmed and captured the garrison. Immediately after the redoubts were captured, American sappers began extending the siege lines.

The Noose Tightens:

With the enemy growing nearer, Cornwallis again wrote to Clinton for help and described his situation as "very critical." As the bombardment continued, now from three sides, Cornwallis was pressured into launching an attack against the allied lines on October 15.

Led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercrombie, the attack succeeded in taking some prisoners and spiking six guns, but was unable to breakthrough. Forced back by French troops, the British withdrew. Though the raid had been moderately successful, the damage inflicted was quickly repaired and the bombardment of Yorktown continued.

On October 16, Cornwallis shifted 1,000 men and his wounded to Gloucester Point with the goal of transferring his army across the river and breaking out to the north. As the boats returned to Yorktown, they were scattered by a storm. Out of ammunition for his guns and unable to shift his army, Cornwallis decided to open negotiations with Washington. At 9:00 AM on October 17, a single drummer mounted the British works as a lieutenant waved a white flag. At this signal, the French and American guns halted the bombardment and the British officer was blindfolded and taken into the allied lines to commence surrender negotiations.

Aftermath

Talks commenced at the nearby Moore House, with Laurens representing the Americans, the Marquis de Noailles the French, and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas and Major Alexander Ross representing Cornwallis. Through the course of the negotiations, Cornwallis attempted to obtain the same favorable terms of surrender that Major General John Burgoyne had received at Saratoga. This was refused by Washington who imposed the same harsh conditions that the British had demanded of Major General Benjamin Lincoln the year before at Charleston.

With no other choice, Cornwallis complied and the final surrender documents were signed on October 19. At noon the French and American armies lined up to await the British surrender. Two hours later the British marched out with flags furled and their bands playing "The World Turned Upside Down." Claiming he was ill, Cornwallis sent Brigadier General Charles O'Hara in his stead. Nearing the allied leadership, O'Hara attempted to surrender to Rochambeau but was instructed by the Frenchman to approach the Americans. As Cornwallis was not present, Washington directed O'Hara to surrender to Lincoln, who was now serving as his second-in-command.

With the surrender complete, Cornwallis' army was taken into custody rather than paroled. Shortly thereafter, Cornwallis was exchanged for Henry Laurens, the former President of the Continental Congress. The fighting at Yorktown cost the allies 88 killed and 301 wounded. British losses were higher and included 156 killed, 326 wounded. In addition, Cornwallis' remaining 7,018 men were taken prisoner. The victory at Yorktown was the last major engagement of the American Revolution and effectively ended the conflict in the American's favor.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Yorktown." ThoughtCo, Jul. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/battle-of-yorktown-2360626. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, July 8). American Revolution: Battle of Yorktown. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-yorktown-2360626 Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Yorktown." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-yorktown-2360626 (accessed November 24, 2017).