- James Houser
October 17, 1781 - The Battle of Yorktown
Updated: Jun 15, 2021
October 17, 1781. It’s time for flashbacks to your high school history class. On this date, General Charles Cornwallis sends a flag of truce to the Continental and French forces that have trapped him at Yorktown. Cornwallis wants surrender terms. George Washington is only too happy to oblige. This might be a story you’ve heard before, but you’re getting the Houser Edit, and I’ve been told those are fun.
Even before the series of events that led to Yorktown, the British were just straight up losing the war. By 1778, they were out of ideas. They had failed to hold Boston, failed to split the Colonies down the middle when Burgoyne’s army was captured at Saratoga, and failed to hold Philadelphia as long as Washington’s Continental Army was hovering around like some sort of vulture. The new British commander, Henry Clinton, had to conduct a fighting retreat from Philly and make his way back to New York, where he settled in to await events. Because the British now had new, bigger problems.
As I’ve mentioned, as soon as the Colonies went into open rebellion against the King, the British government knew a ticking clock had started. Britain had beaten the French so badly in the Seven Years’ War that they were starved for revenge, and it was obvious that if it looked like the British were having trouble the French would happily jump in. The key was to defeat the rebellion fast enough that the French wouldn’t get the chance, but by 1778 that alarm clock was ringing. The countdown was over, and the French had declared war. The next year, they would be followed by Spain.
In retrospect, the British had already lost by this point. When France and then Spain entered the war, the Ministry basically wrote the Thirteen Colonies off. The new mission was now to salvage whatever they could before they lost the entire empire. It’s hard to overstate the level of pessimism that had been present in the Lord North government ever since the war began, with various old bewigged men moaning how hopeless the whole struggle was, how foolish the Americans were, what a pain this all had been. What often goes unmentioned in American accounts of the Revolutionary War was how damn UNPOPULAR the war was in Britain, with various MPs in the Commons straight up declaring their sympathy for the Americans. The British defeat at Saratoga had been so bad, and so demoralizing, that the government was aware a second defeat of this magnitude would kill public morale. With the European powers now joining the United States, it was only a matter of time before another disaster occurred.
The reason I’m going over all this is to drive home that Yorktown was more than a military victory: it was the last damn straw. Britain had been stretched to the limit, had basically given up on trying to retain the Thirteen Colonies, and was really just working for bargaining chips at this point. And as strange as it might seem to us Americans, Yorktown did not end the war – especially not the GLOBAL war.
Ever since he had arrived safe and sound back in New York in 1778, Sir Henry Clinton had made himself busy fortifying the city against the attack he was sure Washington would launch any day now. The next two years were full of skirmishes and small fights all around New York City, but no major efforts on either side. Washington hovered around New York just DARING Clinton to stick his nose out, while Clinton held on for dear life as the French and British fleets began to pound at each other over in Europe. If the French broke away, his entire army would be in serious danger.
Starting in 1780, though, Clinton decided to try a new strategy. In a British command system that was basically dry of new ideas, this was a breath of fresh air. Clinton invaded the southern colonies, striking at and taking Charleston in early 1780. Though Clinton returned to New York, he left a force under Charles Cornwallis to finish subduing the South. The British were pursuing their long-term strategy of finding and co-opting the huge Loyalist populations they were *sure* had to be somewhere in the rebel colonies. The British pursuit of this fantasy basically characterized their entire strategy in America; any day now, they had to find those huge mythical hordes of Loyalists. They never did.
Cornwallis had a rough time in the south. He was able to defeat Continental armies and occupy the countryside with assistance from Loyalists – at first. Pretty soon, heavy-handed British tactics and clumsy counterinsurgency efforts fostered a brutal guerrilla war in the Carolinas, as Patriot and Loyalist militias hacked away at each other in the Low Country swamps. The arrival of Nathanael Greene, a brilliant American general who was able to combine regular and irregular warfare, led Cornwallis on a wild goose chase deep into North Carolina. After several hard-fought engagements, even the victorious ones like Guilford Court House (near Greensboro) in March 1781, Cornwallis had lost half his army. The Loyalist turnout had been far below what he expected, his army was committed to holding isolated outposts across the Carolinas, and his men were short on food and supplies. With little alternative against a wily and aggressive foe, Cornwallis retreated back to Wilmington, North Carolina to recruit and resupply his command.
This retreat marked the British defeat in the Carolinas Campaign; as Cornwallis had predicted, Greene’s army began to snap up the British outposts one by one. Soon the Americans would reconquer all of the Carolinas. Desperate to salvage anything from the disastrous “Southern Strategy,” Cornwallis fixed his eyes north to Virginia. Maybe all the loyalists were hiding *there*, and Virginia had ports that could link him in to the Royal Navy. There was still a possibility, Cornwallis thought, that the war could be won if he could conquer and hold Virginia.
The war was going badly for the British everywhere by 1781. The Spanish under Bernardo de Galvez had reconquered much of Florida; the French had seized multiple islands in the Caribbean; the British holdings in the Mediterranean were under constant attack; worst of all, the French Navy was making a play for command of the seas and they were coming perilously close to succeeding. French ships had already tried – and failed – to retake Savannah, Georgia, and had landed a force of 5500 French troops under the Count of Rochambeau in Rhode Island to cooperate with Washington. The Royal Navy had been used to unchallenged control of the Atlantic in the Revolutionary War, but the French were testing that control. With the Royal Navy stretched thin across the world, it would be only a matter of time until something snapped. Already a French squadron in the West Indies, led by Admiral Francois Paul de Grasse, was preparing to sail for America and cooperate with the Continentals and French.
Cornwallis marched north into Virginia in the spring of 1781. British forces under the turncoat general Benedict Arnold had already been there since December 1780; Arnold had seized Portsmouth and raided Richmond, but with his small army could do little of note. Continental Army forces under the Marquis de Lafayette arrived in Virginia to contest Arnold’s raids, forcing Arnold to pull back to Petersburg. Here he was joined by Cornwallis on May 20, and their combined forces now numbered about 7,200 men.
With Cornwallis’s army now committed to Virginia, he was able to drive Lafayette out of Richmond and raid much of central Virginia, nearly capturing Governor Thomas Jefferson. But Cornwallis was now in the same position as in the Carolinas: no great surge of Loyalist support, far from his supplies, hostile armies circling. Lafayette was being reinforced by forces under Baron von Steuben and Anthony Wayne, and it was pointless to chase the Continentals into the wilds of America. Plus, Clinton’s orders to his southern subordinate kept changing, until he finally ordered Cornwallis to withdraw to Yorktown and construct a deep water port for the Royal Navy. This was to be their new base.
Yorktown, as it turned out, was a very bad place to go. At the end of the Virginia peninsula, southeast of Richmond, Cornwallis was basically placing himself into a bottle and just begging for someone to cork it up. Any force advancing down the Peninsula could easily block his escape by land, and if by some circumstance the French Navy outmaneuvered the British and blocked the entrance to Chesapeake Bay he would be cut off by sea as well. But orders were orders, and probably feeling pretty depressed and defeatist himself by this point, Cornwallis complied. I personally think Charles Cornwallis gets a bad rap, since he was a highly competent fighting general and would later prove himself in other situations, but there was just no winning in America.
In the meantime, Washington had convinced General Rochambeau to begin planning an assault on New York City. For the last three years, Clinton had just sat there like an ulcer on the rear end of America, and Washington had been unable to lance it. With the French Army’s engineers, and with the French Navy, Washington thought he could manage the task. Rochambeau informed Washington that De Grasse’s fleet had instructions to sail for the southern colonies, and wouldn’t be available for an attack on New York. Washington considered his options until he learned that a messenger carrying his plan for a New York assault had been captured by the British. What should have been bad news, though, caused a light bulb to go off in Washington’s head. Let Clinton THINK he planned to attack New York – but shift virtually the whole American/French army south to destroy Cornwallis once and for all.
Rochambeau, despite having vastly more military experience, graciously subordinated himself to the American. Washington’s strategic vision allowed him to see the possible benefits of Rochambeau’s idea, and his long service in America enabled him to complete one of the great strategic maneuvers of his age. He made a series of masterful feints at New York, with the French threatening to attack the city even as Washington’s Americans slipped south through Jersey and Pennsylvania. Clinton, fully willing to believe that the attack on New York was imminent, hunkered down and prepared for a fight instead of interfering with Washington’s move. By the time Clinton realized that he had been deceived, Washington and Rochambeau were on their way south at top speed.
The march was one of the great organizational achievements of the Revolution. For a Continental Army that had been hungry, tired, ill-equipped, poorly disciplined, and little more than an armed mob for most of its existence, keeping such a large force together for so long – and moving so quickly – was quite an accomplishment. 3,000 Americans and 4,000 French soldiers made the long, winding march from Newport, Rhode Island down to Yorktown, Virginia in little over a month. When Washington was unable to pay his soldiers, Rochambeau generously loaned Washington part of his own army’s pay. As the army passed through Philadelphia, Washington received word that the French Navy had come through.
De Grasse’s fleet had sailed north from the Caribbean with 3,200 soldiers and 24 warships on August 14, and arrived later that month at the mouth of the Chesapeake. When the French squadron’s presence was reported, Clinton panicked and sent the British fleet under Sir Thomas Graves down to confront De Grasse. Though Graves had 19 ships, he had to know that Cornwallis’s army depended on him breaking the French blockade. The two fleets collided in the Battle of the Virginia Capes on September 5. Though they fought for several hours, Graves did not press the assault, instead turning back after a sharp exchange of fire. Although Graves hovered around for a few more days, he soon left for New York to repair his ships – essentially dooming Cornwallis to his fate. Even if the Virginia Capes battle was only a slight French victory in tactical terms, it was a massive strategic victory that sealed the outcome of the campaign.
Washington and Rochambeau joined forces with Lafayette on September 26, giving the allies a total force of almost 16,000 – twice as many as Cornwallis. Two days later, Washington led the army out of Williamsburg to surround Yorktown, with the French on the left and the Americans on the right. Cornwallis had not been idle, constructing a defensive line with small redoubt fortresses and artillery batteries, the York River to his army’s rear. Washington and his staff rode along the lines, determining that an assault would be out of the question due to the strength of Cornwallis’s fortress. It would have to be a siege.
Cornwallis had designed his lines, though, for a larger army since Clinton had promised him reinforcements. With the approach of the French and American forces, the British were forced to abandon most of their outer defenses except for one fortress on the west side of town and Redoubts #9 and #10 on the east side. As the allies began to position their artillery for bombardment and dug a trench line of their own, Cornwallis began to look over his shoulder more and more. Where WERE his reinforcements?
The next few weeks continued with trench raids, artillery fire, small-scale assaults and increased digging. The American and French lines grew closer and closer as they dug trenches below the horizon, out of sight of the British guns. By October 7, they were just out of musket range, and had dragged their artillery close enough for an accurate fire. Washington himself fired the first shot, which smashed a table – and some British officers’ lunch. Even the few British gunboats were driven off by allied artillery fire. Clinton managed to get a message to Cornwallis saying that the second relief attempt would leave New York by October 12, but Cornwallis responded that he wouldn’t survive that long.
To increase the pressure on his cornered foe, Washington ordered the major assault of the Siege of Yorktown. The trenches had come with 150 yards of Redoubts 9 and 10, and Washington ordered artillery concentrated to pound them to pieces before a nighttime assault. On October 14, with unloaded muskets and a bit of liquid courage, the French Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment stormed Redoubt 9 and American light infantry under Lieutenant Colonels Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens stormed Redoubt 10. When these forts were conquered, Washington was able to place Yorktown in a three-way crossfire. By October 16, Cornwallis knew the game was up. Trapped, under constant shelling, and with the noose tightening, he had no other option.
On October 17, 1781 – the same day that his rescue fleet finally set sail from New York – Cornwallis asked for terms. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had held out longer, since the French fleet was still sitting in the mouth of the Chesapeake ready for battle. An officer waved a white handkerchief over the British lines, and on October 18 negotiations began behind American lines. The French and Americans negotiated the surrender equally, and at 2pm that day, the allied army marched peacefully into the British positions.
Cornwallis had asked for “honors of war,” a gentleman’s custom that allowed a defeated army to march out with flags flying and bands playing after a surrender. Washington pointed out that the British had allowed the Americans no such honors when they captured Charleston the previous year. As a result, Cornwallis’s nearly 8,000 men marched out of Yorktown with flags furled. The story that the band played “The World Turn’d Upside Down” is commonly reported, but may be a myth. Cornwallis, feeling too butthurt to actually surrender to Washington, sent his second-in-command instead; when this guy tried to surrender to Washington, Washington pointed him to HIS second. Facts don’t care about your feelings, redcoats.
Of course, that was basically it for the British war effort. Upon hearing of Cornwallis’s surrender, the British government’s morale sank to its final depths. Lord North, the Prime Minister, flung up his arms and walked around his office, muttering “Oh God, it is all over.” Ministers and government officials muttered darkly about how no one knew what to do next, how there was no hope now, and how it could not be worse. Parliament was full of long faces, and the British pro-war public walked around in shock.
On the surface, the despair is hard to fathom. Sure, a bunch of soldiers had been lost, but it wasn’t a huge fraction of the Army. Many points in America still remained in British hands, the rebel finances were a wreck, and the British could still muster up a new army to take advantage of the situation. But it was the timing that mattered. 1781 had been an all-around disaster, with the Spanish conquest of Florida and Caribbean Islands, defeats in India, heavy losses to merchant shipping, and the French and Spanish fleets once again riding high in the English Channel.
Add to that Britain’s own crippling debt and empty treasury, and the fact that they now stood to lose EVERYTHING, not just America? Yorktown was not just a decisive American-French victory, it was the capstone to one of Britain’s worst years in living memory. It finally broke the public will to continue the war, and the North government lost all support. The new Prime Minister, the Marquess of Rockingham, would ask for peace terms in Spring 1782.
The British would start negotiations for the Treaty of Paris next year, but the war would still continue for nearly another two years after Yorktown. The question was not whether Britain would keep America – after Yorktown, there was no hope whatsoever of that – but whether they would keep any overseas possessions at all, with the French and Spanish turned loose on the British Empire.
As it turned out, they would. The last great battle of the American Revolutionary War was, of all things, a British victory, when Lord Rodney’s fleet smashed Admiral De Grasse’s French squadron at the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782, capturing De Grasse himself and probably saving Jamaica and other British possessions from French conquest. Another British fleet managed to run the blockade of Gibraltar, bringing reinforcements and supplies to Britain’s toehold in Spain and saving it from imminent capture. As weird as it may seem, the British could breathe a sigh of relief when they signed the treaty granting American Independence in 1783. They had lost America, but they had basically known that for a long time. They were just happy it wasn’t much worse.
As for the Americans, they had won their independence. Thanks to Greene’s resistance in the Carolinas, Washington’s strategy for Yorktown, and the dogged resistance of American continentals the glorious cause had prevailed. We cannot forget, however, that the French army and navy ultimately played the decisive role in the Yorktown Campaign. Without French siege engineers and artillery, and the French Navy bottling up the Chesapeake, the victory at Yorktown would have been impossible.
Don’t ever forget our oldest ally, guys.