Virginia: Yorktown

This town had a population of twenty-five hundred in 1750 and was larger than Williamsburg. Three hundred years after its founding, it had become a backwater village of five hundred. Today, the earthworks for the 1781 siege of Yorktown have been reconstructed, and several eighteenth century buildings have been restored in the town.

Site Office

Colonial National Historical Park

P.O. Box 210

Yorktown, VA 23690-0210

ph.: (757) 898-2410

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Yorktown, on a bluff above the York River, is the site of the most decisive military operation of the American Revolution. British and Hessian forces under the command of Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis captured the town in August, 1781, to secure the York River as a harbor on the Chesapeake Bay for British warships and as a base for regaining British control of Virginia. The American commander in chief, George Washington, had learned in May that the French, allies for the past three years, were sending another fleet across the Atlantic. Later that month he met in Connecticut with the commander of the French army in America, the Comte de Rochambeau, to plan where to strike a crippling blow at the British war effort. The two armies marched overland from New England in late August and surrounded Yorktown a month later.

British warships were turned back before the siege by French ships, which blockaded the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. The French fleet then sealed the entrance to the York River, preventing reinforcements from the main British army from reaching Yorktown. Cornwallis surrendered October 19, 1781. The British public and a majority of the members of Parliament wanted the war to end, and in 1782, after the humiliating defeat at Yorktown, peace negotiations began. The Treaty of Paris that formally ended the war was signed September 3, 1783, but not ratified by both Britain and the United States until May 12, 1784.

Modern Restoration Work

The earthworks of the Yorktown Battlefield have been reconstructed. Immediately after the siege, Washington had the allied French and Continental forces destroy its earthen siege lines so they could not be used against the French troops that occupied the town that winter. The official battlefield tour includes the British inner defense line, which was modified and strengthened eighty years later by Confederate forces during the Civil War; the grand French battery; the second Allied siege line; redoubts nine and ten, where there was fierce hand-to-hand fighting between the Allies and the British on October 14, 1781; and the surrender field. Visitors can tour the Moore House, where the Articles of Capitulation were completed on October 18.

Several eighteenth century buildings have been restored in the town. The Georgian home of Thomas Nelson, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was built around 1711, and there are still cannon balls in the wall facing Nelson Street from the siege of 1781. This building is not to be confused with the Nelson House that Cornwallis made his headquarters; that was the home of Nelson’s uncle and was razed in the nineteenth century. A marker was placed on the site of the Nelson House in 1927 by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

In the more than two centuries since the siege of Yorktown, “in fully chronicling the moves of the various pieces in this martial chess game, historians have exhausted reams of paper without giving a very clear picture,” said Clyde Trudell, who for several years served as restoration architect for the National Park Service at Yorktown. Was it by chance that Yorktown was the site of such a historic event? Why did Cornwallis move into a location so easy to surround? Did the British simply want to bring the six-year war to an end–even if it meant defeat?

Early History

Yorktown was laid out in 1691 after the Virginia House of Burgesses passed the Act for Ports. The act established fifteen ports to ensure collection of the customs due from the tobacco trade. Yorktown had “the best harbor in the State for vessels of the largest size,” the recently retired governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in fall of 1781. “The river there narrows to the width of a mile, and is contained within very high banks, close under which vessels may ride.”

In August, 1781, a Hessian soldier serving with Cornwallis described his initial impression of Yorktown:

This Yorktown, or Little-York, is a small city of approximately 300 houses; it has, moreover, considerable circumference. It is located on the bank of the York River, somewhat high on a sandy but level ground.…There was a garrison of 300 militia men here, but upon our arrival they marched away without firing a shot back to Williamsburg, which is 16 English miles from here. We found few inhabitants here, as they had mostly gone with bag and baggage into the country beyond.

The American Revolution was fought a long way from tidewater Virginia until the spring of 1781. In the early years of the war the important battles took place in the northern colonies. Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief starting in 1778, moved the British military headquarters from Philadelphia to New York, and General Washington used most of the revolutionary army to keep watch around New York. Fighting in that part of the country developed into a stalemate that continued to the end of the war.

General Cornwallis and the Revolutionary War

In July, 1779, Cornwallis, returning from his wife’s funeral in England and six months of mourning, sailed into New York Harbor to assume the post of second in command of the British forces in America. A military professional for a quarter of a century, Cornwallis had played a key role in defeating the Continental Army at Long Island, New York, in August, 1776, and led the column of 7,500 British troops that crushed Washington at Brandywine, Pennsylvania, in September, 1777. Clinton, disappointed that Cornwallis was not accompanied by promised reinforcements, sent his resignation to London. He himself could not return to London, of course, until he knew whether the ministry accepted the resignation.

Cornwallis wanted action. The British had taken Savannah, Georgia, in December, 1778, and a combined Continental and French effort to retake that coastal city failed in October, 1779. That winter, the time seemed opportune for moving the theater of operations to the south. Clinton and Cornwallis made two assumptions: first, that control of the sea would make it possible to move British troops up and down the coast with ease while revolutionary forces faced the difficulties of overland travel; and second, that many southern colonists were still loyal to the king and would join with their British liberators to end the war.

The southern campaign at first lived up to British expectations. The British captured Charleston, South Carolina, in May, 1780. After Clinton learned that the ministry did not accept his resignation, he returned to New York. Cornwallis moved into the interior of South Carolina and crushed General Horatio Gates at Camden in August, 1780. It was an especially sweet victory because Gates had been the general who gave the British their first major defeat at Saratoga, New York, in October, 1777. More loyalists were casting their lot with the British, but it soon became apparent that a Tory column was not going to give Cornwallis the support he needed to subdue the Carolinas. In October, 1780, at Kings Mountain, near the North Carolina border, a band of revolutionary riflemen from the backwoods killed, wounded, or captured an entire force of 1,100 Tories.

Cornwallis’s Southern Strategy

After a costly March, 1781, victory by British forces at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, Cornwallis decided it was time to devise his own southern strategy, with Virginia as its key. Cornwallis was already in Virginia when he received Clinton’s May 29 letter that said. “In the disordered state of Carolina and Georgia, I shall dread what may be the consequences of your Lordship’s move.”

That summer, while letters crossed back and forth between Virginia and New York with ever changing instructions from his commanding officer, Cornwallis skirmished around Williamsburg with the Marquis de Lafayette, the young Frenchman commanding the small revolutionary force sent to harrass the British. The only significant engagement occurred in July at Green Spring, near Jamestown, where Lafayette escaped a trap that would have decimated his troops.

At that point no one knew that the decisive battle would be at Yorktown. Clinton and Cornwallis had been debating the merits of several options when a packet of eleven letters arrived from London addressed to Clinton. The letters, dated January 31 to May 2, 1781, were from Lord George Germain, the secretary for the American colonies and the man in charge of prosecuting the British side of the war. Germain’s May 2 letter approved Cornwallis’s plan to execute his part of the war from Virginia. Clinton ordered him to position his forces where they could protect British battleships, frigates, and smaller vessels in Chesapeake Bay.

On July 27, Cornwallis wrote to Clinton, “I shall, in obedience to the spirit of Your Excellency’s orders, take measures with as much despatch as possible to seize and fortify York and Gloucester, being the only harbor in which we can hope to give effective protection to line of battle ships.” On July 30, Cornwallis sailed for Yorktown from Portsmouth Harbor on the Elizabeth River, Virginia’s largest harbor with room for three hundred or more ships. From Portsmouth, Cornwallis had been able to keep an eye on Lafayette’s forces in Williamsburg, just to the north on the James River, while waiting to see how serious Clinton was about a proposed military mission to solidify the British position in Pennsylvania.

Cornwallis had gone to Portsmouth after receiving scathing criticism from Clinton, who had usually been tactful in his letters because of the higher position Cornwallis occupied in English society. (Cornwallis had served in the House of Lords since 1762, when he assumed his late father’s title as sixth earl of Eyre). Clinton wrote,

Experience ought to convince us that there is no possibility of re-establishing order in any rebellious province on this continent without the hearty assistance of numerous friends. These, my Lord, are not, I think to be found in Virginia…but I believe there is a greater probability of finding them in Pennsylvania than in any, except the southern provinces. In these your Lordship has already made the experiment; it has there failed–they are gone from us, and I fear not to be recovered. . . .

Cornwallis Lands at Yorktown

On August 2, Cornwallis landed at Yorktown and selected as his headquarters a house with a view of the harbor and the rest of the town. The owner was Thomas Nelson, secretary to the former colony, who was still in residence. Then in his seventies, Nelson had remained neutral in the conflict and was allowed to remain in his home by Cornwallis, who is reported to have treated his host with courtesy.

Yorktown, which had never been of such strategic importance before, was not strongly fortified. Ten transport ships were sunk to form a barrier on the east that would discourage an attack from the river. A ravine to the north of Yorktown and a swamp to the south were natural barriers. Ten redoubts (earthen barriers with stakes pointed outward discouraging an assault) completed the protective ring. Three of these redoubts were constructed on the most vulnerable half-mile throat of land, where the road from Williamsburg to the northwest and Hampton to the south came into Yorktown. Many of the sixty-five guns installed in the fourteen batteries were cannibalized from the frigate Charon tied up in the river.

While the British built up the Yorktown fortifications, Lafayette kept a watchful eye and sent word to Washington that Cornwallis seemed to be planning to stay there awhile. Also in mid-August, Washington learned from the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French army in New England, that the French fleet commanded by Admiral de Grasse had left the West Indies headed for the Chesapeake Bay and could stay there only until October 15. Washington and Rochambeau had previously been considering an attack on Clinton in New York, but Washington had managed to round up only six thousand of the ten thousand troops needed for that action; Rochambeau had only five thousand men. That would be enough, however, to take on Cornwallis in Virginia. When the Continental and French armies left New England in late August and passed by New York, Clinton thought they were practicing an elaborate deception to lure him from his stronghold.

The French Fleet

British admiral Samuel Hood tailed Admiral de Grasse’s French fleet as it headed north from the West Indies. Then he lost sight of the French and reached the Virginia capes ahead of them. Assuming that de Grasse had continued north, possibly as far north as Newport, where de Grasse’s compatriot Admiral de Barras had been locked in for three years by the British navy, Hood headed for New York. There Hood conferred with Clinton and Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, who knew by then that de Grasse’s destination had been Virginia. Hood and Graves led a fleet of nineteen British ships from New York Harbor headed for the Chesapeake August 31. That same day de Grasse’s fleet sailed into the Chesapeake. The next day forty French ships went up the James River with three thousand reinforcements for Lafayette in Williamsburg. Four French ships anchored at the entrance to the York River.

The British fleet intercepted de Grasse’s French fleet September 5 just outside the Virginia capes. The British lost the advantage of surprise by waiting to attack until late afternoon when both sides were lined up in battle formation. When the twenty-four French ships and nineteen British vessels stopped firing at each other at dusk, the British fleet had suffered the most damage, but the battle was a draw. The French had the strategic position they wanted, however, and did not risk any more damage to their fleet. They were between the British navy and Yorktown; Cornwallis would have to stay there. Four days later the British ships headed back to New York. While they were en route, Commodore Edmund Affleck, still in New York, wrote to the Board of Admiralty in London,

I am making every preparation possible for the supply of the fleet in masts, yards & rigging as well as provisions for their return, but the deficiency of all these articles are not to be described and without the arrival of supplies from England and a mast ship from Halifax which the Warwick is gone for, the demands of the fleet cannot be complied with.

On September 23, Clinton learned that the French had thirty-six ships blockading the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, ten more than he had been told in earlier intelligence reports. With the smaller number he had thought it would be possible for a few British ships to run past the French and get into the bay. He would now have to wait until the British fleet in New York Harbor, waiting for supplies from England, could at least match the strength of the French fleet in Virginia. That day he wrote down his thoughts on the situation. He realized that if the army under Cornwallis was lost, “there will be little hope of British dominion in America–except by an exertion of which I fear our country is not capable.” Later he sent a message to Cornwallis that the British fleet might be able to sail from New York October 5 to come to his rescue.

While the French fleet continued to control access to Chesapeake Bay, the allied armies began closing in on Cornwallis. Washington reached Williamsburg, Lafayette’s headquarters located fifteen miles northwest of Yorktown, on September 14. When Rochambeau arrived a few days later, the allies had more than fifteen thousand troops for the siege. On September 28, they marched on Yorktown.

Inside the Yorktown fortifications were most of the seventy-five hundred British and Hessian troops commanded by Cornwallis. A smaller contingent was defending Gloucester Point, a mile across the York River on the east bank. Cornwallis began withdrawing from his outer defenses at Yorktown on September 29 when he received the message from Clinton that the British fleet would soon be returning to break the siege. The Continental and French forces moved forward to occupy the vacated British outer defenses and strengthened them for their assault.

Battle of Yorktown Begins

The first shots were fired at the British on October 9. The first siege line–begun the night of October 6–was established about eight hundred yards from the British defenses. Two nights later a second, closer siege line was begun. The allied forces then set their sights on the two British redoubts that blocked them from establishing a second parallel. On October 14, four hundred French soldiers attacked redoubt nine, which was manned by about one hundred twenty British and Hessian troops. The fortification fell in less than thirty minutes. Redoubt ten, held by about seventy defenders, was overpowered in ten minutes by four hundred Continentals led by Alexander Hamilton.

On October 15, Cornwallis wrote to Clinton:

Last evening the enemy carried my two advanced redoubts on the left by storm, and during the night have included them in the second parallel, which they are at present busy perfecting.…The safety of the place is therefore so precarious that I cannot recommend that the fleet and army should run great risk in endeavoring to save us.

At a midnight conference on October 15, Cornwallis and his officers decided to send 350 men on a surprise mission to disable some of the allied cannon in the second parallel batteries. They chose as their point of attack the junction of the French and Continental sections of the trenches. When challenged by sentries, they would pretend to be Continental reinforcements to the French and French reinforcements to the Continentals. The first part of the plan worked, as they rushed onto the redoubts, bayoneting the defenders but not pursuing them. Their mission was to spike the cannons’ touchholes with their bayonet points, rendering the cannon useless. While they were thus engaged, they were surprised by French grenadiers under Lafayette’s brother-in-law, the Vicomte de Noailles, who had been aroused by the commotion. A fierce bayonet fight continued until dawn. By noon on October 16, every cannon had been cleared. The renewed bombardment of Yorktown was even more vigorous than before.

On the night of October 16, Cornwallis decided to escape from the siege by crossing the York River to Gloucester. It would take three trips to get all of his men across. The first contingent made it across to Gloucester, but it took two hours before the boats returned for the second group to embark. Ten minutes after the boats had pushed off again, rain began to fall. It soon developed into a torrential storm, and the boats were forced to return to the Yorktown shore.

Cornwallis Surrenders

About 7:00 a.m., October 17, Cornwallis called a council of war. After all the other setbacks, the report on the ammunition supply–only a hundred mortar shells left–made the decision unanimous: surrender. It was a coincidence that October 17 was the anniversary of General John Burgoyne’s 1777 surrender to the revolutionary forces at Saratoga, which had led directly to the alliance with France.

Fourteen Articles of Capitulation for the surrender were drafted at the Augustine Moore House on October 18. Article Three called for the British York garrison to march out at two o’clock, October 19, “with shouldered arms, colours cased and drums beating a British or German march.” The surrendering army chose an old English air, “Down Derry Down,” with several sets of lyrics ranging from “When the King Enjoys His Own Again” to “The World Turned Upside Down.”

When the surrender ceremony was ready to take place, Cornwallis was not there. According to historian Thomas Fleming, Cornwallis “had found, at the last moment, he could not endure the mortification of surrender and [gave] the task to his deputy,” General Charles O’Hara. When O’Hara explained to Washington “that Lord Cornwallis was indisposed,…Washington coolly directed O’Hara to receive his orders from General Benjamin Lincoln, the American second in command.”

The same day the British surrendered at Yorktown, the British fleet that could have broken the siege left New York. They did not find out they were too late until October 24, when they reached Chesapeake Bay.

For Further Information

  • Fleming, Thomas J. Beat the Last Drum: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1963. Gives a clear and detailed explanation of why Yorktown became the site of the last battle of the American Revolution. There are extensive direct quotes from both the British and American military leaders.
  • Manceron, Claude. The Winds from America, 1778-1781. Translated by Nancy Amphoux. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978. Gives a fascinating account of the French view of events at Yorktown.
  • Sands, John O. Yorktown’s Captive Fleet. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983. Discusses the significance of sea power in the American Revolution and explains why the British, who had controlled the seas, did not break through the French blockade in time.
  • Stevens, Benjamin Franklin, ed. The Campaign in Virginia, 1781: An Exact Reprint of Six Rare Pamphlets on the Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy. 2 vols. London, 1888. Contains the full text of letters to and from Sir Henry Clinton, commander in chief of the British forces in America, including Clinton’s notes. Clinton, who seldom left New York during the forty-one months between taking the top command and the siege of Yorktown, spent much of his time explaining his inaction.
  • Wheat, Thomas Adrian. A Guide to Civil War Yorktown. Knoxville, Tenn.: Bohemian Brigade Bookshop, 1997. Discusses the experience of Yorktown residents from 1861 to 1865.