October, 1781: Surrender at Yorktown Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis in 1781 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 the decision of the Ministry in London 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 to the British campaign in the South. Although such a campaign would see royal military forces dispersed from Manhattan to the West Indies, the policymakers at Whitehall based their decision on two crucial assumptions: first, that the southern loyalists were exceedingly numerous; and second, that on the sea, Great Britain could maintain naval superiority against its combined Bourbon enemies of France and Spain.

The surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis in 1781 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 the decision of the Ministry in London 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 to the British campaign in the South. Although such a campaign would see royal military forces dispersed from Manhattan to the West Indies, the policymakers at Whitehall based their decision on two crucial assumptions: first, that the southern loyalists were exceedingly numerous; and second, that on the sea, Great Britain could maintain naval superiority against its combined Bourbon enemies 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, the basic assumptions in London never were altered. Indeed, the war in the South went extremely well for the home government 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

Cornwallis displayed none of the caution or timidity that many of the British senior officers had shown during the American Revolution. 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 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.”

Romanticized depiction of the surrender of General Cornwallis (left) at Yorktown. One of the most capable of the British generals in the war, the first marquis of Cornwallis had the misfortune of having to surrender to the revolutionaries at Yorktown; however, he is better remembered in British Empire history for his later service as governor-general of India and viceroy of Ireland. (F. R. Niglutsch)

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 the Chesapeake Bay, Clinton disapproved of Cornwallis’s abandoning South Carolina and voiced reluctance at turning 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.

Enter the French

In New York, Clinton fretted and Washington awaited a large French fleet. Approximately five thousand French troops under Brigadier General 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 of Admiral Françoise-Joseph-Paul de Grasse’s sailing 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 the 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 the West Indian squadron also had been equally lax, because Admiral Sir George Rodney had assumed erroneously that Grasse would not sail to the Virginia coast with his entire fleet of twenty-eight ships. Rodney consequently sent only fourteen vessels northward under Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, who united with the seven ships of Admiral Sir 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 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. It numbered more than sixteen thousand men, about half of it 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.

The Surrender

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.

The defeat of Cornwallis and the surrender of his army by no means ended the American Revolution in a single blow. 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 peace with American independence as the best possible solution left to them under the circumstances.

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