The Southern Revolution:
The Battle of Yorktown

by J. M. Pressley
First published: July 25, 2014

Although it would take two years for Britain to formally recognize American independence, the allied victory at Yorktown marked the end of British rule in the colonies.

Background

In the aftermath of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, British commander Lord Cornwallis limped away to Wilmington to regroup and resupply. His American counterpart, Nathanael Greene, slipped back into South Carolina in an attempt to lure Cornwallis back further south. In Wilmington, however, Cornwallis began to turn his thoughts toward Virginia, seeking the decisive southern victory that could reverse British fortunes in the region.

In April, Cornwallis decided to march for Virginia to join with British forces already in the region under British generals William Phillips and Benedict Arnold. By June, Cornwallis was in Petersburg with a combined force of about 7,000 troops. For the next two months, Cornwallis skirmished with American forces led by the Marquis de Lafayette, drifting eastward toward the Chesapeake Bay. Then, based on orders from his superior, General Henry Clinton, Cornwallis sought to establish a base in the region. He ultimately settled on the James River Peninsula at Yorktown.

Back in the northern colonies, General Washington held council with the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the newly arrived French army in America. They had planned to coordinate an assault on New York City. When they learned that Cornwallis was in Yorktown, however, the two generals agreed that a joint effort from the American and French armies supported by the French naval fleet could end the British threat in Virginia. The allies marched south in August, and the stage was set for a climactic showdown.

The Battle

The first stage of the battle was a naval clash between the French and British fleets. Toward the end of August, Admiral Comte de Grasse set up a French blockade of the Chesapeake Bay. This would prevent Cornwallis from reinforcement, resupply, or escape. His counterpart, British Admiral Thomas Graves, arrived at the mouth of the bay on September 5. The ships on both sides formed battle lines and began the Battle of the Chesapeake. The French outmanuevered and defeated the British, then returned to their blockade.

On September 14, Washington arrived at Williamsburg, Virginia. In a meeting between the American commander and de Grasse, the admiral pledged to keep his fleet in the Chesapeake. Lafeyette rejoined his commander in Williamsburg, and additional French reinforcements swelled Washington's army to nearly 19,000. On September 28, the allies marched on Yorktown.

When faced with the superior numbers, Cornwallis withdrew his troops from the outer ring of defenses around the town. Cornwallis needed to consolidate his troops, and he expected a relief force from General Clinton's army to arrive within the week. While Cornwallis waited, the allies began to construct their first seige line. On October 10, Washington fired the first cannon in a sustained bombardment of Yorktown. Over the course of the next few days, American cannons continued to pound the British positions day and night.

While this was going on, American and French troops continued work on a second parallel line to bring them closer to the British defenses. Two British fortifications stood in their way to the east: Redoubts #9 and #10. French troops were assigned Redoubt #9, and young Colonel Alexander Hamilton led an American assault against Redoubt #10. In daring bayonet charges during the night, the allies overwhelmed both defenses, tightening the noose around Yorktown.

For Cornwallis, desperation had set in. Clinton's promised reinforcements were nowhere to be found, and his army was under seige. On the night of October 15, he ordered a raiding party to storm the enemy lines and spike their cannons. The raiders were only able to disable six enemy cannons before being driven off. Under intensifying fire, Cornwallis then attempted an evacuation across the York river. A storm arose that night, scattering his boats and dashing his hopes. Cornwallis was out of ammunition, out of time, and out of options.

On the morning of October 17, the British ran up the white flag of surrender. The cannons went silent and negotiations began. The two sides signed articles of capitulation on October 19. Washington, recalling the humiliation that the British had imposed on the Americans at the surrender of Charleston, denied them the traditional Honors of War in return. Then Cornwallis refused to meet with Washington for the formal surrender, claiming illness. Instead, he sent his second in command, General Charles O'Hara, who promptly attempted to surrender to the French rather than the Americans. When O'Hara finally approached Washington, the American commander made him surrender to his own second in command, General Benjamin Lincoln, the defeated commander at Charleston.

The Battle of Yorktown was over—and so was the hope for Britain to divide and conquer the colonies.

Impact

With the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, the war was all but won for the American rebels. The British, already at a stalemate in the northern colonies, had lost the south and with it, nearly a quarter of their total army in America. British Prime Minister Lord North, when he learned of the surrender, said, "Oh God, it's all over!" By March of 1782, North had resigned his office; by April, the British House of Commons had voted to end the war.

Within 18 months of the capture of Charleston, Cornwallis had steadily lost a war of attrition against an American army savvy enough to give ground rather than fight to keep it. Cornwallis returned to England on parole, and Clinton soon followed. It would take nearly another two years for the Treaty of Paris to formally end hostilities and recognize the United States of America. The nation, however, effectively achieved its independence with the decisive final victory at Yorktown.

Bibliography

Lancaster, Bruce. The American Revolution (American Heritage Library). New York, NY: American Heritage Pub. Co., 1971.

Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Savas, Theodore P. and J. David Dameron. Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution. New York, NY: Savas Beatie LLC, 2006.