"I have the honor to inform Congress, that the reduction of the British Army under the Command of Lord Cornwallis, is most happily affected."
-- George Washington (October 19, 1781)
"I have the mortification to inform your Excellency that I have been forced to give up the posts of York and Gloucester, and to surrender the troops under my command, by capitulation on the 19th instant, as prisoners of war to the combined forces of America and France."
-- Lord Charles Cornwallis to General Henry Clinton, Commander of British forces in North America (October 20, 1781)
In the waning days of June of 1781 a small detachment of British cavalry arrived atop a series of low hills and looked down upon a small riverside town in eastern Virginia. This community, named Yorktown, sat along the shore of the York River just upstream from where said river empties into the Chesapeake Bay. The town itself was small, perhaps home to around 1,000 people at this point in the Revolution, but its location was what had drawn the attention of the British. The importance of Yorktown, you see, lay in its harbor. The waters here could accommodate the largest ships of the era, including the war and supply ships of the British Navy. For any army in need of reinforcements, resupply, or evacuation this was therefore a place of supreme strategic importance.
The British Army cast its gaze upon Yorktown in the summer of 1781 then for two of the three reasons listed above...evacuation wasn't a reality they had yet to concede to. As of June the British, under the command of Lieutenant General George Cornwallis, had been on campaign in the southeastern colonies since the capture of Charleston in South Carolina in May of the previous year. Their initial strategy of pacifying the back country of the south and thus drawing in the manpower of local Loyalists had been a dismal failure. Their greatest success, the pyrrhic victory won at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina in March, had cost the British Army a quarter of their strength. This was a loss not easily recovered from and Cornwallis prudently ordered his army to the port of Wilmington, North Carolina where he could plan his next move. He soon decided on a course of action which would take him into Virginia, by far the wealthiest and most prosperous of the American Colonies, the loss of which would geographically and economically divide the rebellion. He began his march north on April 25th and crossed into Virginia with 7,000 men in mid-May. Standing in Cornwallis' way was a 3,000-man force under the command of Major General Maquis de Lafayette. From the 24th of May until the end of June Lafayette led Cornwallis on a grand tour of central Virginia; from Petersburg to Richmond to Spotsylvania to Charlottesville the two army's sparred though rarely came to face each other in full-on battle. Lafayette was wise in this as he was severely outnumbered. That, and he had learned well from his commander, General Washington, that it wasn't as important to beat the British as it was not to lose to them.
Even though Cornwallis first scouted Yorktown in late June it wasn't until the end of August however that he, under increasing pressure from his commander and in response to the need of his army to recuperate and resupply, moved his men to the small port on the York River. They immediately set about constructing massive protective earthworks to guard this new base of operations. Four hundred miles away the Continental Army under General George Washington camped, as it had for a number of years now, near New York City. It had long been Washington's dream to liberate the city but a suitable opportunity had yet to present itself. Washington hoped that assistance by the French Navy might finally allow him to move on New York but in August he found out that the French had no intentions of sailing any farther north than Chesapeake Bay that winter. This forced Washington's hand. Not wanting to waste another season at New York he quickly realized the opportunity now presented him to move on and capture or destroy Cornwallis in Virginia. Washington's army began its march south on August 19. The movement of the Continental's to Virginia was a wonder of logistics. Marching south from New York Washington's force of 7,000 men reached the head of the Chesapeake on September 8. While the Americans began boarding ships bound for the Virginia Peninsula Washington and French General Rochambeau, along with a force of French cavalry, began the march overland to Yorktown via his home at Mount Vernon as well as Fredericksburg and Richmond. On September 26, the entire French and American force once again reassembled at Williamsburg...with Lafayette's men already in place the allied force numbered nearly 19,000 men all told.
During all this maneuvering and positioning on the continent there was however a war-changing battle taking place at sea that, perhaps more than anything, sealed the fate of Cornwallis' forces that autumn. This event was the long-anticipated naval encounter between the British and French Fleets. The French, commanded by Lieutenant-General de Grasse-Tilly had arrived in the Chesapeake Bay from Haiti in August and had played a major role in transporting the Allied troops south to Yorktown. Concerned that the French presence in the bay could have disastrous effects on Cornwallis army, the British sent a fleet south from New York, under command of Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, during the first days of September. On the 5th of September the British Fleet arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake to find de Grasse's French Fleet waiting. The battle was fairly evenly matched with the French presenting 24 ships to the British count of 19. At 3:45 in the afternoon, after opening maneuvers, the two fleets opened up on one another. For the better part of two hours the ships blasted away at one another. It was a fairly even fight but despite their best efforts the British could not force the French from the Chesapeake. When dawn broke the next day Graves saw de Grasse's fleet still standing defiant at the entrance to the bay. Over the next few days even more French ships arrived. Rear Admiral Graves saw the futility of another attack and ordered his fleet back to New York on September 12. General Cornwallis and his army were now utterly alone.
On September 29 the American and French forces moved into a crescent shaped line surrounding Yorktown, the French occupying the left half of the lines with the Americans on the right. The next day Cornwallis responded by pulling his troops back to an inner defensive line which would be more effectively defended with the troops he had. At this point Washington's army outnumbered the British by a margin of over 2 to 1. The allies immediately moved to occupy the now-abandoned outer British lines. At this point the siege began to get serious. The Allies quickly began to better fortify their lines all the while under heavy fire from British cannon. On the night of October 6th work began on the Allies first advance parallel, which when finished would surround the British at a distance of between 600-800 yards. For the next couple days troops moved into these newly constructed lines. The noose needed to be tighter yet, however. On the 11th of October another parallel began to be constructed, this one surrounding the British at a distance of only 350 yards. Intense fire rained down constantly on the workers completing the trenches. It took two full days to complete the second parallel but there was still a major problem to be overcome before the siege could enter its final act. The problem was a pair of powerful British redoubts located on the British left (the Allied right). Named Redoubts #9 and #10, these positions would have to be taken by the Allied forces were they to complete the noose around Cornwallis. The attack on the redoubts would take place the evening of the 14/15th. Four hundred French troops would attack #9 and another 400 Americans would attack #10. Even though these were risky night attacks both went off pretty much as planned. Less than an hour of fighting was all it took to take the British positions and the two redoubts were quickly incorporated into the second parallel.
When Cornwallis awoke on the morning of October 15 he found himself in dire straits indeed. With the American and French lines now only a few hundred yards off Yorktown itself found itself under a furious and continual bombardment. On the 16th the British attempted an overnight evacuation across the river to Gloucester Point but nature intervened and a storm literally blew their plans to pieces. The following day, October 17, a single British officer holding a flag of truce appeared atop one of the British parapets. Cornwallis was asking for a cease-fire of 24 hours. Washington would give him two. There was nothing for Cornwallis to do but agree to discuss terms, which he did. The next day, at the home of one Augustine Moore, representatives from both sides ironed out the details of the surrender documents. On the morning of October 19 General Cornwallis signed his name to the documents and, for the Allies, Washington, Rochambeau, and de Barras did as well. The siege was over. At 2:00pm on the afternoon of the 19th the British Army proudly walked out from their entrenchments and into captivity, 7,247 men all told. According to legend they marched to the tune 'The World Turned Upside Down.' For the British Empire it certainly had.
Though the loss of Corwallis' army at Yorktown was a serious blow to British plans in North America, the war wasn't over. In fact, it would be nearly two years before final victory could be realized. As it was some 30,000 redcoats still remained on the continent, not the least of which was the large garrison still occupying New York. It was New York to which Washington and his forces returned following their victory at Yorktown, not to attack but rather to wait and watch. When news of Cornwallis' defeat reached Great Britain the reaction was immediate and devastating. Lord North exclaimed, "Oh God! It is all over!" These words spoke undeniable truth. The British will to continue the war after Yorktown all but evaporated. During the summer of 1782 peace negotiations between the British and Americans got underway in Paris. By the end of fall that same year all British troops were withdrawn from their stations in the American south. In April 1783 Congress declared an end to hostilities and finally, on September 3, 1783, the final peace treaty between Great Britain and the United States was signed. After nearly a decade of bloody warfare, the United States of America finally had its independence.
After the battle the Virginia Peninsula once again returned to peace, at least for a while. The trenches and other fortifications began to succumb to the environment and the encroachments of man. During the Civil War, some 80-years following the siege, violence once again visited the old field of battle and some of the original entrenchments were utilized and enlarged by Confederate forces. In 1930 much of the original battlefield came under the protection of the National Park Service as a part of Colonial National Historical Park. Today, many of the original works can still be seen though many have also been reconstructed. The community of Yorktown also contains many buildings dating back to the siege which are still standing.
In this album I make a quick tour of the old battlefield. In general, the photos have been arranged in chronological order. As the siege didn't take place in as linear a fashion as some other battles, however, that was hard to do at times. So come on along with me and discover the penultimate battlefield of the Revolutionary War. Its an incredible place for a history buff like me but, as the events here directly effect every American which has lived since, its a place that should hold at least some interest for everyone.
Commanding Officer: General George Washington
Commanding Officer: Lieutenant-General Comte de Rochambeau
Total Allied Casualties: 389 or 2.0% (88 killed, 301 wounded)
Commanding Officer: Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis
Casualties: 8,151 or 90.6% (309 killed, 595 wounded, 7,247 captured)