Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The entire British field army surrendered to combined American and French forces, marking the military end to the Revolutionary War and confirming once and for all American independence.

Summary of Event

The surrender of the second earl of Cornwallis at Yorktown made immortal the name of that sleepy village at the tip of a Virginia peninsula. The roots of the Yorktown debacle are to be found in a train of events that followed from the British decision in 1778 to shift the focus of the war to the region below the Potomac. French intervention and failure to win in the North led the British to campaign in the South. Although their southern campaign would see royal military forces dispersed from Manhattan to the West Indies, the policymakers in London based their decision on two crucial assumptions: first, that the southern Loyalists were exceedingly numerous, and second, that Great Britain could maintain its naval superiority against the combined Bourbon forces of France and Spain. Although the Loyalists were not so numerous as anticipated and a British garrison at Savannah almost fell to French admiral Jean-Baptiste-Charles-Henri-Hector d’Estaing in October, 1779, when he caught the British fleet napping, those two basic assumptions of the British government were never altered. [kw]Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown (Oct. 19, 1781) [kw]Yorktown, Cornwallis Surrenders at (Oct. 19, 1781) [kw]Surrenders at Yorktown, Cornwallis (Oct. 19, 1781) Yorktown, Virginia, surrender (1781) American Revolution (1775-1783);end of [g]United States;Oct. 19, 1781: Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown[2460] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 19, 1781: Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown[2460] Cornwallis, first marquess Rochambeau, comte de Greene, Nathanael Washington, George Washington, George;First Marquess Cornwallis Clinton, Sir Henry

The war in the South went extremely well for the British up until 1781. Georgia fell in 1779 and South Carolina in 1780. In major actions in the latter state—at Charleston on May 12, 1780, and at Camden on August 16, 1780—the Continental Congress entrusted to Major General Nathanael Greene, a former Quaker from Rhode Island, the task of rallying the scattered and dispirited American forces. His antagonist was Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis, who headed the British field army when Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton returned to New York.

Cornwallis displayed none of the caution or timidity that many of the British senior officers had shown during the American Revolutionary War. Determined to overrun North Carolina and, he hoped, Virginia as well, he refused to allow the annihilation of two of his detached units—at King’s Mountain on October 7, 1780, and at Cowpens on January 17, 1781—to dampen his ambitions. Nor did the failure of the Loyalists, whose numbers he exaggerated, alter his thinking. Greene, a master of harassment tactics, severely mauled still more of Cornwallis’s irreplaceable redcoats at Guilford Court House, North Carolina, on March 15, 1781. In April, Greene and Cornwallis went opposite ways—Greene south to pick off British outposts in South Carolina, Cornwallis north to invade Virginia.

Greene’s brilliant campaign eventually cleared the enemy from all points except Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, while Cornwallis, far from his supply depots, took the road to disaster. Although Clinton had favored the establishment of a naval base on the Chesapeake and had sent the turncoat Brigadier General Benedict Arnold to Virginia on a raiding expedition, he had been more concerned about the welfare of British interests in the lower South. Consequently, he had instructed his restless subordinate to undertake nothing that might endanger “the tranquility of South Carolina.” After limping to Wilmington, North Carolina, to rest his troops, Cornwallis wrote to Clinton, who previously had been in the dark as to Cornwallis’s whereabouts, that “a serious attempt upon Virginia . . . would tend to the security of South Carolina and ultimately to the submission of North Carolina.”

On May 20, Cornwallis joined Arnold at Petersburg, Virginia, and assumed direction of the combined force of seventy-two hundred men. Apprehensive about the possible arrival of a French fleet in Chesapeake Bay, Clinton disapproved of Cornwallis’s abandonment of South Carolina and voiced his reluctance to turn Virginia into a prime military theater. Clinton, an able strategist but an insecure commander in chief, failed to deal decisively with Cornwallis, a personal rival who, he feared, might be appointed to succeed him at any moment. Cornwallis, meanwhile, idled away vital weeks skirmishing in the Old Dominion before retiring to Yorktown in the late summer to erect fortifications.

British general Charles Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown to American and French troops, marking the end of British control of the colonies and the end of the Revolutionary War.

(C.A. Nichols & Company)

In New York, Clinton fretted and George Washington, the American commander in chief, awaited a large French fleet. Approximately five thousand French troops under Brigadier General the comte de Rochambeau were already at Newport, Rhode Island, but the comte de Barras’s escorting ships had been quickly blockaded inside the harbor by a superior British squadron. Finally, word came that Admiral Grasse, Françoise-Joseph-Paul de Françoise-Joseph-Paul de Grasse had sailed from France to the West Indies with plans to detach part of his fleet later to assist a mainland campaign. Although Washington preferred to attack New York City, after hearing on August 14 that Grasse was bound for the Chesapeake, he recognized that his better prospect would be to trap Cornwallis. Accordingly, Washington and Rochambeau hurried southward with seven thousand men, while Barras, loaded with siege guns for the allied armies, slipped out of Newport.

It was scarcely the British navy’s finest hour: Not only had the navy permitted Barras to elude the Newport blockade, but also the West Indian squadron had been equally lax, because Admiral Sir [p]Rodney, George George Rodney had assumed erroneously that Grasse would not sail to Virginia with his entire fleet of twenty-eight ships. Rodney consequently sent only fourteen vessels northward under Admiral Sir Hood, Samuel Samuel Hood, who united with the seven ships of Admiral Sir Graves, Thomas Thomas Graves at New York. Unaware of Grasse’s strength, Graves hastened down the coast and met the French admiral at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on September 5. The ensuing contest was indecisive, but Graves felt compelled to return to New York, leaving the French in control of the ocean approaches to the Middle Colonies. The fate of Cornwallis at Yorktown was then all but sealed.

Franco-American Franco-American Treaties (1778)[Franco American Treaties] land operations began on September 7, when soldiers carried by Grasse and Lafayette’s Americans took up positions on the land side of Yorktown. By September 28, after the arrival of Washington and Rochambeau, the entire allied force was in siege position. The force numbered more than sixteen thousand men, about half French and half American. Once the first parallel was opened and allied siege guns were emplaced, the firing was incessant, forcing the British to withdraw to their inner fortifications.

At this point, the British were closely invested by land and completely isolated by sea. With their supplies and morale dangerously low, the British recognized the hopelessness of their position. On October 17, when Cornwallis asked for terms, the allies demanded complete surrender. Two days later, his seven thousand scarlet-uniformed veterans marched out between rows of white-coated Frenchmen and ill-clad Americans and stacked their arms, while the British bands played “The World Turned Upside Down.” News of Yorktown convinced responsible leaders on both sides of the Atlantic that Great Britain’s American empire had been permanently rent asunder.

Significance

The defeat of Cornwallis and the surrender of his army by no means automatically resulted in an American victory in the Revolutionary War. In fact, had the British Empire chosen to do so, it could have mounted renewed thrusts against the rebellious colonies, either from forces in New York or with reinforcements from the British Isles. However, the effect of a major military setback in the Americas, in conjunction with Great Britain’s precarious position in a worldwide struggle against Spain, France, and Holland, as well as the newly formed United States, combined to force George III and his ministers to accept American independence as the best possible solution left to them under the circumstances. Peace was formally established in the Treaty of Paris (1783), and the new republic was officially recognized by its former mother country.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Don. The Long Fuse: England and America, 1760-1785. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995. Because it covers the entire period of the American Revolution, including the gradual but persistent growth of opinion in favor of independence among the colonies, this work is especially helpful in explaining why Cornwallis’s surrender proved such a devastating blow to the British will to continue the contest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hallahan, William H. The Day the Revolution Ended: 19 October, 1781. John Wiley & Sons, 2004. Popular, accessible history recounting events during the final year of the Revolutionary War. Includes information on the siege at Yorktown and Cornwallis’s surrender.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hibbert, Christopher. Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. Presents a subtler and more complicated story than is often told. Places Cornwallis’s surrender, and its impact, in a fresh light.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ketchum, Richard M. Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution. New York: Henry Holt, 2004. A military history covering the final period of the Revolutionary War, from the autumn of 1780 to the American victory at Yorktown. The book uses numerous anecdotes to provide a detailed re-creation of colonial life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lumpkin, Henry. From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981. Persuasively advances the thesis that the American Revolution was actually won during the Southern phase of the struggle, and that Greene’s campaigns against Cornwallis—along with the efforts of partisans such as Francis Marion—were the decisive factor in gaining American independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mackesy, Piers. The War for America, 1775-1783. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. For the British, the struggle in America was part of a worldwide war that ranged from the colonies to the West Indies to Europe and India. For example, troops under Clinton in New York were also expected to defend British possessions in the Caribbean. Reveals the larger pattern of which Cornwallis’s surrender was but a part.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tebbel, John. Turning the World Upside Down: Inside the American Revolution. New York: Orion Books, 1993. An excellent introduction that underscores how the decision at Yorktown was a final blow to Great Britain’s efforts to subdue the rebellious colonies while simultaneously maintaining a global conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tuchman, Barbara. The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. An excellent historian presents a survey of the entire struggle, placing Yorktown and its impact into its contemporaneous setting and significance. Invaluable in helping the reader understand the causes as well as the events of the American Revolution.

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