On October 6, 1781, the British, French, and American armies converged around Yorktown, Virginia, for what would be the final and decisive battle of the American War of Independence. After months of campaigning in the western frontiers of the Carolinas, British general Lord Charles Cornwallis returned to Virginia with his war-weary men in late spring of 1781 to recuperate, resupply, and receive orders. In Virginia, Cornwallis met up with General Benedict Arnold (who had betrayed the Americans and defected to the British) and his much-needed 5,000 troops. By this point in the war, the British military high command was in disarray, and Cornwallis received discrepant orders in Virginia from the commander-in-chief, General Henry Clinton. Among the confusing orders, Clinton had ordered the construction of a naval base in Virginia, to which Cornwallis attended, but he ignored the contradicting orders regarding the transferal of his troops northward. Taking matters into his own hands in August, while his superior waffled over troop placement, Cornwallis kept his 8,000 troops and fortified Yorktown.
On the other hand, the Americans and their French allies, led by General Washington and his French subordinate, General Rochambeau, epitomized efficient military coordination. Upon hearing of a powerful French fleet under Admiral de Grasse sailing to the Chesapeake and of Cornwallis’s movements there, Washington and Rochambeau masterfully moved their armies south without revealing their destination to British commander-in-chief Clinton in New York. Thanks in part to British admiral Rodney’s blunders in the Caribbean, which contributed to a French naval victory at the Virginia Capes, de Grasse secured naval superiority in the Chesapeake Bay. After that, the 16,000-man combined Franco-American army was ready to lay siege to Yorktown and to Cornwallis’s isolated troops.
The siege of Yorktown began on October 6. Already running out of rations and forced to slaughter horses because of the lack of forage, Cornwallis could not hold out for long. On October 16, Cornwallis attempted a daring escape by ferrying his troops across the James River to Gloucester Point, but even the weather conspired against him, as a brewing storm prevented the escape. Still under siege and bombardment, and with no means of reinforcement or aid, Cornwallis asked for terms on October 17—the fourth anniversary of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga—and officially surrendered two days later.
Facing increasing domestic turmoil, riots, and war weariness at home, as well as rising national debt, neither the British government nor its people had the heart to continue the war effort to quash American independence. The devastating surrender at Yorktown shattered the little remaining support, and the British actively sought peace with the United States, efforts that culminated in the Treaty of Paris of 1783. For the Americans, Yorktown marked the final battle; but the war was not over for the British, who still faced a grave struggle against France and Spain to salvage their empire in the Caribbean.
Brandywine, Battle of the; Bunker Hill, Battle of; Charleston, Battle of; Continental Army; Cowpens, Battle of; Eutaw Springs, Battle of; Lexington and Concord, Battles of; Paris, Treaty of (1783); Saratoga, Battles of; Trenton, Battle of; War of Independence, US
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