The Siege of Yorktown
September 28 – October 19, 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia
The Siege of Yorktown, aka Battle of Yorktown, aka Surrender at Yorktown, aka German Battle, aka Siege of Little York, was faought from September 28 to October 19, 1781, at Yorktown, Virginia.
It was a decisive victory by a combined force of Continental Army troops, led by General George Washington, and French army troops, led by Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau, over a British army commanded by Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis.
During the Yorktown campaign, the siege proved to be the last major land battle of the Revolutionary War in the North American theater, as the surrender by Cornwallis, and the capture of both him and his army, prompted the British government to negotiate an end to the conflict.
The battle boosted faltering American morale, revived French enthusiasm for the war, and undermined popular support for the conflict in Great Britain.
Facts about the Siege of Yorktown
- Armies – American Forces was commanded by Gen. George Washington and consisted of about 18,900 American and French Soldiers. British Forces was commanded by Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis and consisted of about 9,000 Soldiers.
- Casualties – American casualties were estimated to be 88 killed and 301 wounded. British casualties were about 142-309 killed, 326-595 wounded, and 7,416-7,685 captured.
- Outcome – The result of the Siege was an American victory. The Siege was part of the Yorktown Campaign 1781.
With the possibility of support from the French West Indies fleet of French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul (Comte) de Grasse, Washington and Rochambeau decided to ask him for assistance either in either besieging New York or in military operations against a British army operating in Virginia. De Grasse informed them of his intent to sail to the Chesapeake Bay, where Cornwallis had his army.
Cornwallis, at first given confusing orders by his superior, General Henry Clinton, was ordered to build a defensible deep-water port, which he began to do in Yorktown. Cornwallis’ movements in Virginia were shadowed by a Continental Army force led by the Major General Marquis de Lafayette.
During the summer of 1781, the French and American armies united north of New York City. When word of de Grasse’s decision arrived, both armies began moving south toward Virginia, engaging in tactics of deception to lead the British to believe a siege of New York was planned. De Grasse arrived at the Chesapeake Bay at the end of August, bringing additional troops and creating a naval blockade of Yorktown.
In the beginning of September, de Grasse defeated a British fleet, led by Vice-Admiral Thomas Graves, that came to relieve Cornwallis, at the Battle of the Chesapeake. As a result of this victory, de Grasse blocked any escape by sea for Cornwallis.
By late September, Washington and Rochambeau arrived, and the army and naval forces completely surrounded Cornwallis.
After their initial preparations, the Americans and French began the bombardment.
On October 14, with the British defense weakened, Washington attacked the last major remaining British outer defenses. With the American artillery closer and its bombardment more intense than ever, the British position began to deteriorate rapidly.
On October 17, Cornwallis asked Washington for terms of capitulation for the British forces.
On October 19, after two days of negotiation, the surrender ceremony occurred. Cornwallis was absent from the ceremony. With the capture of more than 7,000 British soldiers, negotiations between the United States and Great Britain began, resulting in the Treaty of Paris of 1783.
On December 20, 1780, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold sailed from New York with 1,500 troops to Portsmouth, Virginia. He first raided Richmond, defeating the defending militia, from January 5–7 before falling back to Portsmouth. Admiral Destouches, who arrived in Newport, Rhode Island in July 1780 with a fleet transporting 5,500 soldiers, was encouraged by Washington and Rochambeau to move his fleet south, and launch a joint land-naval attack on Arnold’s troops.
Lafayette was sent south with 1,200 men to help with the assault. However, Destouches was reluctant to dispatch many ships, and in February sent only three. After they proved ineffective, he took a larger force of 8 ships in March 1781, and fought a tactically inconclusive battle with the British fleet of Marriot Arbuthnot at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Destouches withdrew due to the damage sustained to his fleet, leaving Arbuthnot and the British fleet in control of the bay’s mouth.
On March 26, Arnold was joined by 2,300 troops under command of Major General William Phillips, who took command of the combined forces. Phillips resumed raiding, defeating the militia at Blandford, then burning the tobacco warehouses at Petersburg on April 25. Richmond was about to suffer the same fate, but Lafayette arrived. The British, not wanting to engage in a major battle, withdrew to Petersburg on May 10.
On May 20, Cornwallis arrived at Petersburg with 1,500 men after suffering heavy casualties at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. He immediately assumed command, as Phillips had recently died of a fever. Cornwallis had not received permission to abandon the Carolinas from his superior, General Henry Clinton, but he believed that Virginia would be easier to capture, feeling that it would approve of an invading British army. With the arrival of Cornwallis and more reinforcements from New York, the British army numbered 7,200 men. Cornwallis wanted to push Lafayette, whose force now numbered 3,000 men with the arrival of Virginia militia.
On May 24, he set out after Lafayette, who withdrew from Richmond, and linked forces with those under the command of Major General Baron von Steuben and Major General Anthony Wayne. Cornwallis did not pursue Lafayette. Instead, he sent raiders into central Virginia, where they attacked depots and supply convoys, before being recalled on June 20. Cornwallis then headed for Williamsburg, and Lafayette’s force of now 4,500 followed him. Clinton, in a confusing series of orders, ordered Cornwallis first to Portsmouth and then Yorktown, where he was instructed to build fortifications for a deep water port.
French and Americans Join Forces
On July 6, the French and American armies met at White Plains. Although Rochambeau had almost 40 years of warfare experience, he never challenged Washington’s authority, telling Washington he had come to serve, not to command.
Washington and Rochambeau discussed where to launch a joint attack. Washington believed an attack on New York was the best option, since the Americans and French now outnumbered the British defenders 3-to-1. Rochambeau disagreed, arguing the fleet in the West Indies under Admiral Comte de Grasse was going to sail to the American coast, where easier options than attacking New York could be attempted.
In early July, Washington suggested an attack be made at the northern part of Manhattan Island, but his officers and Rochambeau all disagreed. Washington continued to probe the New York area until August 14, when he received a letter from de Grasse stating he was headed for Virginia with 29 warships and 3,200 soldiers, but could only remain there until October 14. De Grasse encouraged Washington to move south so they could launch a joint operation. Washington abandoned his plan to take New York, and began to prepare his army for the march south to Virginia.
On August 19, the march to Yorktown led by Washington and Rochambeau began, which is known now as the “celebrated march.” About 4,000 French and 3,000 American soldiers began the march in Newport, Rhode Island, while the rest remained behind to protect the Hudson Valley. Washington wanted to maintain complete secrecy of their destination. To ensure this, he sent out fake dispatches that reached Clinton revealing that the Franco-American army was going to launch an attack on New York, and that Cornwallis was not in danger.
From September 2-4, the French and American armies marched through Philadelphia, where the American soldiers announced they would not leave Maryland until they received one month’s pay in coin, rather than in the worthless Continental paper currency. Rochambeau generously loaned Washington half of his supply of gold Spanish coins. It significantly strengthened French and American relations.
On September 5, Washington learned of the arrival of de Grasse’s fleet off the Virginia Capes. De Grasse debarked his French troops to join Lafayette, and then sent his empty transports to pick up the American troops. Washington made a visit to his home, Mount Vernon, on his way to Yorktown.
In August, Admiral Sir Thomas Graves led a fleet from New York to attack de Grasse’s fleet. Graves did not realize how large the French fleet was, and neither did Cornwallis. The British fleet was defeated by de Grasse’s fleet in the Battle of the Chesapeake and forced to fall back to New York.
On September 14, Washington arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia.
On September 26, transports with artillery, siege tools, and some French infantry and shock troops from Head of Elk, the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay, arrived, giving Washington command of an army of 7,800 Frenchmen, 3,100 militia, and 8,000 Continentals.
Early on September 28, Washington led the army out of Williamsburg to surround Yorktown. The French took the positions on the left while the Americans took the right. Cornwallis had a chain of seven redoubts and batteries linked by earthworks along with batteries that covered the narrows of the York River at Gloucester Point. Washington reconnoitered the British defenses and decided that they could be bombarded into submission.
On September 29, Washington moved the army closer to Yorktown and British gunners opened fire on the infantry. Throughout the day, British cannon fired on the Americans. Fire was also exchanged between American riflemen and Hessian Jägers. Cornwallis pulled back from all of his outer defenses, except for the Fusilier’s redoubt on the west side of the town and redoubts 9 and 10 in the east. Cornwallis had his forces occupy the earthworks immediately surrounding the town because he had received a letter from Clinton that promised relief force of 5,000 men within a week and he wished to tighten his lines.
The Americans and the French occupied the abandoned defenses and began to establish their own batteries there. With the British outer defenses in their hands, allied engineers began to lay out positions for the artillery. The men improved their works and deepened their trenches. The British also worked on improving their defenses.
On September 30, the French attacked the British Fusiliers redoubt. The skirmish lasted two hours, in which the French were repulsed.
On October 1, preparations for the parallel began. As the allies began to put their artillery into place, the British kept up a steady fire to disrupt them. British fire increased the next day.
On the night of October 2, the British opened a storm of fire to cover up the movement of the British cavalry to Gloucester where they were to escort infantrymen on a foraging party.
On October 3, the foraging party, led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, went out but collided with Lauzun’s Legion, and John Mercer’s Virginia militia, led by the Marquis de Choisy. The British cavalry quickly retreated back behind their defensive lines, losing 50 men.
On October 6, after nightfall, troops moved out in stormy weather to dig the first parallel: the heavily overcast sky negated the waning full moon and shielded the massive digging operation from the eyes of British sentries. Washington ceremoniously struck several blows with his pick axe to begin the trench. The trench was to be 2,000 yards long, running from the head of Yorktown to the York River. Half of the trench was to be commanded by the French, the other half by the Americans.
On the northernmost end of the French line, a support trench was dug so that they could bombard the British ships in the river. The French were ordered to distract the British with a false attack, but the British were told of the plan by a French deserter and the British artillery fire turned on the French from the Fusiliers redoubt.
On October 7, the British saw the new allied trench just out of musket-range. Over the next two days, the allies completed the gun placements and dragged the artillery into line. The British fire began to weaken when they saw the large number of guns the allies had.
By October 9, all of the French and American guns were in place. Among the American guns there were three 24-lb., three 18-lb., two 8-inch howitzers and six mortars, totaling 14 guns. At 3:00 PM, the French guns opened the barrage and drove the British frigate, HMS Guadeloupe across the York River, where she was scuttled to prevent capture. At 5:00 PM, the Americans opened fire.
Washington fired the first gun; legend has it that this shot smashed into a table where British officers were eating. The Franco-American guns began to tear apart the British defenses. Washington ordered that the guns fire all night so that the British could not make repairs. All of the British guns on the left were soon silenced. The British soldiers began to pitch their tents in their trenches and soldiers began to desert in large numbers. Some British ships were also damaged by cannonballs that flew across the town into the harbor.
On October 10, the Americans spotted a large house in Yorktown. Believing that Cornwallis might be stationed there, they aimed at it and quickly destroyed it. Cornwallis sank more than a dozen of his ships in the harbor. The French began to fire at the British ships and scored a hit on the British HMS Charon, which caught fire, and in turn set two or three other ships on fire. Cornwallis received word from Clinton that the British fleet was to depart on October 12, however Cornwallis responded by saying that he would not be able to hold out for long.
On the night of October 11, Washington ordered that the Americans dig a second parallel. It was 400 yards closer to the British lines, but could not be extended to the river because Redoubt 9 and Redoubt 10 were in the way.
During the night, the British fire continued to land in the old line; Cornwallis did not suspect that a new parallel was being dug. The next day, the allied troops were in position on the new line.
By October 14, the trenches were within 150 yards of Redoubt 9 and Redoubt 10. Washington ordered that all guns within range begin blasting the redoubts to weaken them for an assault that evening. Washington planned to use the cover of a moonless night to gain the element of surprise. To reinforce the darkness, he added silence, ordering that no soldier should load his musket until reaching the fortifications. The advance would be made with only “cold steel.”
Redoubt 10 was near the river and held only 70 men, while Redoubt 9 was a quarter of a mile inland, and was held by 120 British and Germans. Both redoubts were heavily fortified with rows of abatis surrounding them, along with muddy ditches that surrounded the redoubts at about 25 yards.
Washington devised a plan in which the French would launch a diversionary attack on the Fusiliers redoubt, and then a half an hour later, the French would assault Redoubt 9 and the Americans at Redoubt 10. Redoubt 9 would be assaulted by 400 French regular soldiers under the command of the German Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm von Zweibrücken and Redoubt 10 would be assaulted by 400 light infantry troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton.
Attacking the Redoubts
At 6:30 PM, gunfire announced the diversionary attack on the Fusiliers redoubt. At other places in the line, movements were made as if preparing for an assault on Yorktown itself, which caused the British to panic. With bayonets fixed, the Americans marched towards Redoubt No. 10. Hamilton sent Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens around to the rear of the redoubt to prevent the British from escaping. The Americans reached the redoubt and began chopping through the British wooden defenses with their axes. A British sentry called a challenge, and then fired at the Americans.
The Americans responded by charging with their bayonets towards the redoubt. They hacked through the abatis, crossed a ditch and climbed the parapet into the redoubt. The Americans forced their way into the redoubt falling into giant shell holes from the bombardment of the redoubts. The British fire was heavy, but the Americans overwhelmed them. Someone in the front shouted, “Rush on boys! The fort’s ours!“
The British threw hand grenades at the Americans with little effect. Men in the trench stood on the shoulders of their comrades to climb into the redoubt. The bayonet fight cleared the British out of the redoubt and almost the entire garrison was captured, including the commander of the redoubt, Major Campbell.
The French assault began at the same time, but they were halted by the abatis, which was undamaged by the artillery fire. The French began to hack at the abatis and a Hessian sentry came out and asked who was there. When there was no response, the sentry opened fire as did other Hessians on the parapet. The French soldiers fired back, and then charged the redoubt. The Germans charged the Frenchmen climbing over the walls but the French fired a volley, driving them back. The Hessians then took a defensive position behind some barrels but threw down their arms and surrendered when the French prepared a bayonet charge.
With the capture of Redoubts 9 and 10, Washington was able to have his artillery shell the town from three directions and the allies moved some of their artillery into the redoubts.
On October 15, Cornwallis turned all of his guns onto the nearest allied position. He then ordered a storming party of 350 British troops, under the command of Colonel Robert Abercromby, to attack the allied lines and spike the American and French cannon. The allies were sleeping and unprepared. As the British charged, Abercromby shouted “Push on my brave boys, and skin the bastards!” The British party spiked several cannon in the parallel and then spiked the guns on an unfinished redoubt. A French party came and drove them out of the allied lines and back to Yorktown. The British had been able to spike six guns, but by the morning, they were all repaired. The bombardment resumed with the American and French troops engaged in competition to see who could do the most damage to the enemy defenses.
On October 16, in the morning, more allied guns were in line and the fire intensified.In desperation, Cornwallis attempted to evacuate his troops across the York River to Gloucester Point. At Gloucester Point, the troops tried to break through the allied lines and escape into Virginia. One wave of boats made it across but a squall hit when they returned to take more soldiers across, making the evacuation impossible. The fire on Yorktown from the allies was heavier than ever as new artillery pieces joined the line. Cornwallis talked with his officers that day and they agreed that their situation was hopeless.
On October 17, in the morning, a drummer appeared followed by an officer waving a white handkerchief. The bombardment ceased, and the officer was blindfolded and led behind the French and American lines.
On October 18, negotiations began at the Moore House between Lt. Col. Thomas Dundas and Major Alexander Ross (who represented the British) and Lt. Col. Laurens (who represented the Americans) and the Marquis de Noailles (who represented the French). To make sure that nothing fell apart between the French and Americans at the last minute, Washington ordered that the French be given an equal share in every step of the surrender process.
On October 19, the articles of capitulation were signed. Signatories included Washington, Rochambeau, the Comte de Barras (on behalf of the French Navy), Cornwallis, and Captain Thomas Symonds (the senior Royal Navy officer present). Cornwallis’ British men were declared prisoners of war, promised good treatment in American camps, and officers were permitted to return home after taking their parole. At 2:00 PM, the allied army entered the British positions, with the French on the left and the Americans on the right.
The British had asked for the traditional honors of war, which would allow the army to march out with flags flying, bayonets fixed, and the band playing an American or French tune as a tribute to the victors. However, Washington firmly refused to grant the British the honors that they had denied the defeated American army the year before at the Siege of Charleston. Consequently, the British and Hessian troops marched with flags furled and muskets shouldered, while the band was forced to play “a British or German march.” American history books recount the legend that the British band played “The World Turn’d Upside Down“, but the story is apocryphal.
Cornwallis refused to attend the surrender ceremony, citing illness. Instead, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara led the British army onto the field. O’Hara first attempted to surrender to Rochambeau, who shook his head and pointed to Washington. O’Hara then offered his sword to Washington, who also refused and motioned to Major General Benjamin Lincoln. The surrender finally took place when Washington’s second-in-command accepted the sword of Cornwallis’ deputy.
The British soldiers marched out and laid down their arms in between the French and American armies, while many civilians watched. At this time, the troops on the other side of the river in Gloucester also surrendered. The British soldiers had been issued new uniforms hours before the surrender and until prevented by O’Hara some threw down their muskets with the apparent intention of smashing them. Others wept or appeared to be drunk. In all, 8,000 troops, 214 artillery pieces, thousands of muskets, 24 transport ships, wagons and horses were captured.
Five days after the battle ended, on October 24, the British fleet sent by Clinton to rescue the British army arrived. The fleet picked up several Loyalists who had escaped on October 18, and they informed Admiral Thomas Graves that they believed Cornwallis had surrendered.
Graves picked up several more Loyalists along the coast, and they confirmed this fact. Graves sighted the French Fleet, but chose to leave because he was outnumbered by nine ships, and thus he sent the fleet back to New York.
After the British surrender, Washington sent Tench Tilghman to report the victory to Congress. After a difficult journey, he arrived in Philadelphia, which celebrated for several days.
The British Prime Minister, Lord North, is reported to have exclaimed “Oh God, it’s all over” when told of the defeat. Washington moved his army to New Windsor, New York where they remained stationed until the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, formally ending the war.