Surrender at Yorktown: An Infant Nation Born

On this day in 1781, The Siege of Yorktown, also known as the Battle of Yorktown, the Surrender at Yorktown, German Battle or the Siege of Little York, marks the decisive victory by a combined force of American Continental and French Army troops over an entire British Army commanded by British peer and Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis. The land war with Britain was largely over.

Setting the stage, by the summer of 1781, the fledgling United States had been at war with England for over six years. The first shots had been fired in April 1775 on the village green in Lexington and at North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. Merely sustaining the army had been a major accomplishment for the Americans, who did not have much money, food or clothing. The winters of 1777-78 at Valley Forge and 1779-80 at Morristown were particularly devastating, with many soldiers freezing and starving to death, and some giving up and returning home. A deep belief in the cause and an enduring faith in their leader, George Washington, kept this army together.

In the summer of 1780, the Americans received a major boost to their cause when 5,500 French troops, commanded by Comte de Rochambeau, arrived at Newport, Rhode Island. France had been sending supplies to the United States from the onset; after yet another shooting war between France and England broke out in 1778, French King Louis XVI sent troops and naval assistance to the United States to engage the enemy. This Franco-American alliance, respect and mutual assistance continued for nearly a quarter-millennium, including stunning victories against both the Kaiser and Hitler, up to plus or minus January 20, 2017.

When Rochambeau’s forces arrived, the British were operating on two fronts. General Clinton, supreme commander of all British forces in North America, was occupying New York City after a largely unsuccessful attempt to control the northern and middle colonies. General Lord Cornwallis was leading through the southern colonies an army that had already captured the critical ports of Savannah and Charleston. Washington’s largest force remained stationed along the Hudson River above New York City.

In a meeting between Washington (the general) and Rochambeau, strategy was originally drawn based on a French fleet expected to arrive in New York later that summer. As they had planned, Rochambeau’s army marched in July and joined with Washington’s troops outside New York City, only to learn that the French fleet was sailing far further south, to the lower Chesapeake Bay.

Washington then elected to construct an elaborate feint, inducing Clinton believe he was planning an attack on NYC, while instead stealing away to the south to trap Cornwallis. Washington had his men build large army camps and huge brick bread ovens visible from New York to give the appearance of preparations for a long stay. Washington also created false papers under his signature reinforcing the feint, permitting these papers fall into British hands.

Leaving a small screening force behind, Washington and Rochambeau set out for Yorktown in mid-August. By early September they were parading before the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and they arrived in Williamsburg, 13 miles west of Yorktown, in mid-September.

Cornwallis placed his force on the tiny Yorktown peninsula to provide a protected harbor for the expected British fleet in the lower Chesapeake Bay. Cornwallis chose Yorktown because of its deep-water harbor on the York River, and his army spent the latter part of the summer fortifying Yorktown and Gloucester Point across the York River.

Meanwhile, the French fleet, as part of the overall plan, entered the lower Chesapeake Bay in the end of August and disembarked 3,000 French troops to wait for Washington and Rochambeau in Williamsburg. On September 5, they encountered the British fleet in a naval engagement known as the Battle of the Capes. Suffering significant damage to their ships, the British withdrew back to New York, while the French, commanded by Admiral de Grasse, remained in the lower Chesapeake and established a formidable blockade.

By the end of September, approximately 17,600 American and French soldiers were gathered in Williamsburg, while 8,300 British soldiers were occupying Yorktown. Clearly out-manned and outgunned, Cornwallis sent a desperate plea to New York for reinforcements and naval protection, and the British fleet prepared to re-embark.

The Franco-American forces arrived at Yorktown on September 28; by October 9, American and French cannon pounded the Brits from fortified positions a mere 800 yards away. Tightening the noose to 400 yards, as men and munitions were brought ever closer, the panicked Limeys and hapless Hessians attempted a futile attack at the Allies’ center, and a ridiculous escape by skiffs and dories; both failed miserably.

Essentially outwitted and hopelessly surrounded, the effete Cornwallis was compelled to terms under a white hankie. He surrendered 7,087 officers and enlisted men in Yorktown and another 840 sailors from the British fleet in the York River; the Americans also took 214 artillery pieces, thousands of muskets,15 galleys, a frigate, 30 transport ships and countless wagons and horses.

Pleading illness, Cornwallis did not attend the surrender ceremony, but his second-in-command, General Charles O’Hara, carried Cornwallis’ sword to the American and French commanders. As British and Hessian troops marched out to surrender between two enormously long lines of Americans on one side, and French on the other, the British band reportedly played the tune “The World Turned Upside Down.”

Though the British still had 26,000 troops in North America after Yorktown, their resolve to win the war was largely sapped. The “little” skirmish with their rag-tag cousins had been lengthy and costly, and replacing Cornwallis’ captured army was a questionable proposition, as the British were also engaged with armed struggles in India, Gibraltar, the West Indies and Ireland. Thus, Parliament in March 1782 passed a resolution declaring the British should discontinue the war against the United States. Later that year, commissioners of the United States and Great Britain signed provisional articles of peace, and in September 1783, the final treaty was signed which ended the war and acknowledged American independence.

And here the lengthy but storied lesson endeth.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.