29 September – 19 October 1781

The surrender of a British garrison at the small Virginia port of Yorktown on 19 October 1781 proved to be the key moment of the American War of Independence. When the British prime minister, Lord North, was told of the disaster he famously exclaimed, ‘Oh God! It’s all over.’ Yet it was a battle that might never have taken place but for a key deception perpetrated by the American Continental Army’s French ally. George Washington, the American commander-in-chief, wanted to besiege and, if possible, capture the British-held area of New York. The French commander, Lieutenant General Comte de Rochambeau, thought New York too well defended and instructed an approaching French fleet to sail for Chesapeake Bay, off the Virginia coast, not to New York. Washington’s hand was forced. He ordered a move south, with the British headquarters at Yorktown as his destination.

The Yorktown monument in the Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia, commemorates the decisive victory over a British force in October 1781. The battle opened the way to the independence of the United States.

The campaigns prior to 1781 left the balance poised between the British with their royalist American allies on the one hand, and the American Continental Army with its French allies and local irregular militia on the other. The British army in the south, commanded by Lieutenant General the Earl Cornwallis, having failed to take control of North Carolina, set out for Virginia in April 1781. Here Cornwallis was reinforced by troops sent from New York and the local British garrison. Instructed to find a port on the Virginia coast that he could fortify, he chose Yorktown near the mouth of the Chesapeake. On a high promontory, he calculated that it would be difficult to take as long as the Royal Navy could supply him. Control of the sea was essential to British strategy in the American war. On 29 July, he moved 7,000 British and Hessian mercenary troops into the town. Across the estuary was the small town of Gloucester, which Cornwallis saw as a possible site to which his forces could retreat if Yorktown were threatened.

That summer the initiative lay with Washington. He asked Rochambeau to bring his 5,500 soldiers to join him at White Plains, New York, with a view to investing the city. The French accepted Washington as their commander, too, but when news came that the French Rear Admiral François de Grasse had escaped the British blockade of France and was heading to the West Indies, Rochambeau used the opportunity to undermine his ally’s strategy. He wrote in secret to de Grasse that his substantial fleet of twenty-six ships should sail for Chesapeake Bay, not for New York.

This would make a move south, under the protection of French guns, more sensible. When Washington discovered that de Grasse was intent on sailing to Virginia he accepted that New York would now indeed be difficult to capture. A move south, however, required a second deception. The British commander-in-chief in America, General Sir Henry Clinton, was based at New York, uncertain of Washington’s plans but anxious to strengthen his position.

He assumed New York would be the principal battlefield in 1781, and even ordered Cornwallis to send 3,000 men north to assist him. Very few were in fact sent, but Washington fuelled Clinton’s anxiety by keeping up the pretence that New York was his goal. Dummy camps were set up and filled with regular activity for the British to see, boats were built for possible river crossings and spies and rumour-mongers were sent into the British-held zone to confirm that a great siege of New York was in preparation.

On 19 August, Washington and Rochambeau set out for the 700-kilometre (450-mile) march to Yorktown. Extensive preparations had been made in advance to ensure supplies of cereal and animals along the way, while large siege guns were found for shipment by sea and river. A sizeable army of 4,000 was left in front of New York to sustain the deception.

The remaining 4,000 French and 3,000 American troops began the march as if going to New York, then swung south. By the time Clinton realized he had been duped, it was too late to organize a large rescue mission for Cornwallis, and reinforcements did not finally sail until the very day that Yorktown was surrendered, 19 October. On 14 September, after three arduous weeks of marching and sailing, the American and French force arrived in Virginia, where it rendezvoused with troops serving under Major General Marquis de Lafayette, the young French officer who had devoted his career to the cause of American independence.

This painting (c.1836) by the French artist Louis Charles-Auguste Couder (1790–1873) shows the black-coated George Washington and his commanders in their camp outside Yorktown. The French commander, the Marquis de Lafayette, can be seen behind Washington’s left shoulder. The central figure is the French commander, the Comte de Rochambeau.

Altogether Washington now commanded an army of 19,000 men, 12,000 of them regular soldiers. As Washington moved south, a battle being fought at sea was to give him a decisive advantage. The French fleet arrived at Chesapeake at the end of August and was challenged a few days later by the British squadron lying off New York, commanded by Rear Admiral Thomas Graves. Neither side won a clear victory, but on 13 September, Graves retreated north, allowing a small French squadron under Admiral Comte de Barras to come south with supplies and reinforcements under the protection of the larger French fleet. Yorktown was now cut off from help from the sea.

Cornwallis had used his two months in the port to build up its defences. Some sixty-five cannon were dispersed around the perimeter and at Gloucester. Eight redoubts were built outside the main fortifications as strongpoints to hold up the enemy. The town had reasonable supplies of food but ammunition was limited. On 29 September, the enemy arrived and surrounded the town, with three divisions commanded by Rochambeau on the left, and three divisions under Washington on the right. The French commander had experienced many sieges in Europe so his expertise was used to build the first parallel line opposite the British fortifications. The engineers and labourers worked only at night to avoid British cannon fire and by the end of the first week of October they had a system of trenches, bunkers and batteries in place. The siege guns were drawn along poor roads by teams of horses and oxen and were not all in place when Washington ordered the opening salvo at 3 p.m. on 9 October after more than a week of bombardment from British guns.

The unexpected arrival of the enemy army had alarmed Cornwallis, who ordered all but three of the redoubts to be abandoned without a fight. He posted some 1,500 men across the river in Gloucester to forage for supplies and food, but they were beaten back by a covering French force.

The blockade was complete. The town was shelled mercilessly while Washington ordered red-hot cannon balls to be aimed at ships in the harbour. Two vessels burned out completely. After two days of firing Washington was confident enough to order a second parallel line to be constructed. Under heavy cannon fire, the engineers dug a line of trenches and artillery sites only a few hundred yards from the British line.

Cornwallis sent a troop of 350 men to infiltrate the line and spike the cannon, and although under cover of darkness they succeeded in slaughtering the gunners and knocking out six guns, the cannon were back in action the following day. On the night of 14 October, Washington and Rochambeau ordered men forward to seize two redoubts that blocked the American line.

They were captured after a fierce fight, bayonet to bayonet. Cornwallis could see that the remorseless cannonade would sooner or later breach the defences while it wrought havoc in the town and port. On 16 October, he ordered his troops to board the small boats still left in the harbour to cross to Gloucester with the hope of breaking out through weaker French lines. As the evacuation began, the weather turned stormy and the plan had to be abandoned.

On 17 October, after conferring with his officers, Cornwallis decided to surrender. It took two days of negotiation, but on the morning of 19 October Cornwallis signed. It was a humiliating moment for British arms. The 8,087 British and Hessian soldiers and sailors were made to walk a mile through the lines of French and American troops to a field where they deposited all their weapons. All except the senior officers became prisoners-of-war. Losses for both sides had been low, given the importance of the victory. The French and Americans lost 75 dead, the British 156. For fewer than a hundred men, Washington sparked off the process that led to negotiations in Paris the following spring and, after protracted discussion, to the Treaty of Paris that secured the independence of the United States of America.