For the American Civil War battle, see Battle of Yorktown (1862).
Siege of Yorktown
Part of the American Revolutionary War
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis
Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown
by John Trumbull, depicting the British surrendering to French (left) and American (right) troops. Oil on canvas, 1820.
Date September 28 – October 19, 1781
Location Yorktown, Virginia
Result Decisive Franco-American victory
US flag 13 stars – Betsy Ross United States
Pavillon royal de France France
Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors) Great Britain

Flag of Hesse Hessians

US flag 13 stars – Betsy Ross George Washington,
Pavillon royal de France Comte de Rochambeau,
Pavillon royal de France Comte de Grasse
Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors) Charles Cornwallis #

Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors) Charles O'Hara #

8,000 regulars
3,100 Militia[1]
10,800 regulars
29 war ships[1]
9,000 soldiers[1]
Casualties and losses
72 killed
180 wounded[2]
309 killed,
326 wounded,
8,087 captured[3]

The Siege of Yorktown or Battle of Yorktown in 1781 was a decisive victory by combined assault of American forces led by General George Washington and French forces led by General Comte de Rochambeau over a British Army commanded by General Lord Cornwallis. It proved to be the last major land battle of the American Revolutionary War, as the surrender of Cornwallis’s army (the second major surrender of the war, the other being Burgoyne's surrender at the Battle of Saratoga) prompted the British government to eventually negotiate an end to the conflict.

In 1780, 5,500 French soldiers landed in Rhode Island to help their American allies in assaulting British-occupied New York City. The two armies met North of New York City in 1781. The French Commander, the Comte de Rochambeau, convinced the American Commander, George Washington, that an attack on New York City would be hard pressed to succeed and it would be easier for the French Fleet under the command of the Comte de Grasse to assist in the attack further south, because he was to bring the French Fleet into the Caribbean in October. Thus, they agreed to attack Lord Cornwallis and his smaller army of 9,000 men which was stationed in the port town of Yorktown, Virginia. In the beginning of September, de Grasse defeated a British Fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake which had come to relieve Cornwallis. As a result of this victory, de Grasse blocked any escape by sea for Cornwallis. Washington had dispatched the French general Marquis de Lafayette to contain Cornwallis in Yorktown until he arrived, and Lafayette did so. By late September the Allies surrounded Cornwallis by land.

After initial preparations, the Allies built their first parallel and began the bombardment. With the British defense weakened, Washington, on October 14, sent two columns to attack the last major remaining British defenses; redoubts #9 and #10. A French column took #9 and an American column #10. With these defenses gone, the allies were able to finish their 2nd parallel. With the Allied artillery closer and more intense than ever, the British situation began to deteriorate rapidly and Cornwallis asked for capitulation terms on the 17th. After two days of negotiation, the surrender ceremony took place on the 19th, with Cornwallis being absent since he claimed to be ill. With the capture of over 8,000 British soldiers, negotiations between the United States and Great Britain began, resulting in the Treaty of Paris in 1783.


Franco-American CooperationEdit

Plan of the Battle of Yorktown 1875

A plan of the Battle of Yorktown drawn in 1875.

On December 20, 1780, Benedict Arnold sailed from New York with 1,500 troops to Portsmouth, Virginia. On his way, he raided Richmond, defeating the militia, from January 5th-7th before falling back to Portsmouth.[4] Admiral Destouches, who had arrived in Newport, Rhode Island in July of 1780 with a fleet with 5,500 soldiers, was encouraged by Washington and French Lieutenant General Rochambeau to bring his fleet south, and launch a joint land-naval attack on Arnold's troops.[4] Marquis de Lafayette was sent south with 1,200 men to help with the assault.[5] However, Destouches was reluctant to dispatch many ships, and only sent a few to start with. After they proved to be ineffective, he sent a larger force of 11 ships in March 1781, but they were defeated by a British fleet at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.[5]

On March 26th, Arnold was reinforced with 2,600 troops under command of Major General William Phillips.[5] After Phillips's arrival, Arnold resumed his raiding, defeating militia, and then burning warehouses of tobacco at Petersburg on April 25th. Richmond was about to suffer the same fate, but Lafayette arrived, and the British, not wanting to engage in a major battle, withdrew to Petersburg.[5]

In mid May, Charles Cornwallis arrived in Virginia with 1,500 men after suffering heavy casualties at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.[5] Cornwallis had not received permission to abandon the Carolinas from his superior, Henry Clinton, but he believed that Virginia would be easier to conquer, feeling that it favored an invading army.[5]

With the arrival of Cornwallis and more reinforcements from New York, the British Army numbered 7,200 men.[6] Cornwallis wanted to push Lafayette, whose force now numbered 3,000 men with the arrival of militia, before falling back to Yorktown to resupply.[6] On May 24th, he set out after Lafayette, but Lafayette withdrew from Richmond, and linked up with forces under the command of Baron von Steuben and Anthony Wayne.[6] Cornwallis did not pursue Lafayette; instead, he sent raiders into central Virginia, attacking depots and wrecking supply convoys, before recalling them on June 20th. Cornwallis headed for Yorktown, while Lafayette's force of now 4,500 men followed, skirmishing several times with Cornwallis before he reached Yorktown and began to build fortifications there.[7]

On July 6, north of New York City, the French and American armies met at White Plains, New York.[8] Although Rochambeau had almost 40 years of warfare experience, he never challenged Washington's authority, telling Washington that he had come to serve, not to command.[9]

Washington and Rochambeau discussed where they should launch a joint attack.[10] Washington believed that an attack on New York was the best option, as the Americans and French outnumbered the British 3 to 1. Rochambeau disagreed, arguing that the fleet under Admiral de Grasse, which was headed to the West Indies, was going to head to the American coast afterwards where easier operations other than attacking New York could be done.[10] In early July, Washington suggested that an attack be made at the northern part of Manhattan Island, but both his officers and Rochambeau disagreed.[11] Washington continued to probe the New York area, until August 14th when he received a letter from de Grasse that he was headed to Virginia with 29 warships and 3,200 men, but could not remain there past mid-October.[11] de Grasse encouraged Washington to come south where they could launch a joint operation. Upon receiving this news, Washington abandoned his plan to take New York, and began to prepare his army for the march south to Virginia.[12]

March to Virginia Edit

The march to Yorktown began on August 19th and has become known as the celebrated march, [12] 4,000 French and 3,000 American soldiers began the march, while the rest remained behind to protect the Hudson Valley. Washington wanted to keep absolute secrecy as to where they were headed.[13] Washington sent out fake dispatches that reached Clinton, and convinced him that the Franco-American army was going to launch an attack on New York, and that Cornwallis was not in any danger.[14]

The French and American armies paraded through Philadelphia from September 2 to 4, where the soldiers proclaimed that they would not leave Maryland until they received one month's pay, and the Continental Congress complied, giving them the money.[12] On September 5, Washington learned of the arrival of de Grasse's fleet off the Virginia Capes. His French troops departed and joined Lafayette, and de Grasse sent his empty transports to pick up the American troops.[12] Washington made a visit to his home, Mount Vernon, on his way to Yorktown.[15]

In August, Clinton sent a fleet from New York to attack de Grasse's fleet. Clinton did not realize how large the French fleet was, and neither did Cornwallis.[15]The British fleet, under command of Thomas Graves, was defeated by de Grasse's fleet in the Battle of the Chesapeake, and forced to fall back to New York.[15] On September 14th, Washington arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia.[15]

The SiegeEdit

Initial MovementsEdit

On September 26th, transports with artillery, siege tools, and some French infantry and shock troops from the 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.[16] Early on the 28th, Washington led the army out of Williamsburg to surround Yorktown.[17] The French took the positions on the left while the Americans took the position of honor on the right.[16] 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.[16] That day, Washington reconnoitered the British defenses and decided that they could be bombarded into submission.[18] The Americans and the French spent the night of the 28th sleeping out in the open, while working parties built bridges over the marsh. Some of the American soldiers hunted down wild hogs to eat.[19]

On the 29th, Washington moved the army closer to Yorktown and British gunners opened up on the infantry.[20] Throughout the day several British cannon fired on the Americans but there were few casualties. Fire from American riflemen and the Hessian Jaegers was exchanged.[20]

On the night of September 29th, 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.[16] Cornwallis had his forces occupy the earthworks immediately surrounding the town because he had received a letter from Clinton which promised relief force of 5,000 men within a week and he wished to tighten his lines.[21][16] The Americans and the French occupied the abandoned defenses and began to establish their own batteries there.[16] 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.[22] The British also worked on improving their defenses.[22]

On the 30th, the French attacked the British Fusiliers redoubt.[23] The skirmish lasted two hours, in which the French were repulsed suffering several casualties. On October 1, the allies learned from British deserters that, in order to preserve their food, the British had had hundreds of horses slaughtered and thrown on the beach.[23] In the American camp, thousands of trees were cut down so that the wood could be used for their earthworks. Preparations for the parallel also began.[24]

As the allies began to put their artillery into place, the British kept up a steady fire to disrupt them.[25] British fire increased on the 2nd and the allies suffered moderate casualties. General Washington continued to make visits to the front, despite concern shown by several of his officers over the increasing enemy fire.[26] On the night of the 2nd, 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.[26] On the 3rd, the foraging party, led by 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.[27]

By October 5, Washington was almost ready to open the first parallel.[28] That night the sappers and miners worked, putting strips of pine on the wet sand to mark the path of the trenches.[28]


After nightfall on October 6, troops moved out in stormy weather to dig the first parallel.[29] Washington ceremoniously struck several blows with his pick axe to begin the trench. The trench was to be Template:Convert/yd long, running from the head of Yorktown to the York River.[30] 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.[30] 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.[31]

On the 7th, the British saw the new allied trench just out of musket-range.[31] Over the next two days the allies completed the gun placements and dragging the artillery into line. The British fire began to weaken when they saw the amount of guns the allies had.[32]


By October 9, all of the French and American guns were in place.[32] Among the American guns there were three twenty-four pounders, three eighteen pounders, two eight-inch (203 mm) howitzers and six mortars. 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.[32] Washington fired the first gun and legend has it that it landed on a table where British officers were eating. The allied guns began to tear apart the British defenses.[33] Washington ordered that the guns fire all night so that the British could not make repairs.[33] 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.[34] British ships in the harbor were also damaged because some of the cannon balls flew across the town into the harbor.[34]

On October 10, the Americans spotted a large house in Yorktown.[35] 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 on fire and in turn set two or three other ships on fire.[36] On the 10th, Cornwallis received word from Clinton that the British fleet was to depart on the 12th, however Cornwallis responded by saying that he would not be able to hold out for long.[37]

On the night of October 11, Washington ordered that the Americans dig a second parallel.[37] It was Template:Convert/yd closer to the British lines, but could not be extended to the river because there were two British redoubts in the way; redoubts # 9 and # 10. During the night, the British fire continued to land in the old line; Cornwallis did not suspect that a new parallel was being dug.[37] By morning of the 12th, the allied troops were in position on the new line.[37]



By October 14, the trenches were within Template:Convert/yd of redoubts 9 and 10.[38] Washington ordered on the 14th that all guns within range begin blasting the redoubts in order to weaken them for the coming assault.[39] 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.[39] Both redoubts were heavily fortified with rows of abatis surrounding them along with muddy ditches which surrounded the redoubts at a distance of about 25 yards.[38] 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 redoubt 10.[39][40] Redoubt 9 would be assaulted by 400 French Regular soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Count William Deux-Ponts and redoubt 10 would be assaulted by 400 troops under the command of Alexander Hamilton.[40] There was briefly a dispute as to who should lead the attack on redoubt #10, Lafayette named his aide, the Chevalier de Gimat, to lead the attack, but Hamilton protested, saying that he was the senior officer. Washington concurred with Hamilton and gave him command of the attack.[39]


At 6:30 pm on October 14, gunfire announced the diversionary attack on the Fusiliers redoubt.[41] At other places in the line, movements were made as if preparing for an assault on Yorktown itself, which caused the British to panic.[41] With bayonets fixed, the Americans marched towards redoubt #10. Hamilton sent John Laurens around to the rear of the redoubt prevent the British from escaping.[42] 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.[42] 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.[43] 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.[43] Someone in the front shouted "Rush on boys! The fort's ours!" The British threw hand grenades at the Americans with little effect.[43] 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.[44] In the assault, the Americans lost 9 dead and 25 wounded.[44]

The French assault began at the same time, but they were halted by the abatis which was undamaged by the artillery fire.[44] 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.[45] 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.[45] The Germans then took a defensive position behind some barrels, but when the French prepared a bayonet charge, the Hessians threw down their arms and surrendered.[45]


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.[46][47] On the 15th, 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 in order to spike the American and French cannon.[48] The allies were sleeping and unprepared. As the British charged, Abercromby shouted "Push on my brave boys, and skin the bastards!"[47] The British party spiked several cannon in the parallel and then spiked the guns on an unfinished redoubt.[49] However, 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.[49] The bombardment resumed, with the American and French troops engaged in friendly competition to see who could do the most damage to the enemy defenses.[47]

On the morning of the 16th, more allied guns were in line and the fire intensified.[49] In desperation, on the night of October 16th, Cornwallis attempted to evacuate his troops across the York River to Gloucester Point.[47] At Gloucester point the troops could break through the allied lines and escape into Virginia and then march to New York.[50] One wave of boats made it across, but when they returned to take more soldiers across, a squall hit, making the evacuation impossible.[51]


By the 17th, the fire on Yorktown from the allies was heavier than ever as new artillery pieces joined the line.[52] Cornwallis talked with his officers that day and they agreed that their situation was hopeless.[53]

On the morning of October 17, a drummer appeared followed by an officer waving a white handkerchief.[54] The bombardment ceased, and the officer was blindfolded and led behind the Allied lines. Negotiations began on October 18, between two British officers, lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas and Major Alexander Ross and Colonel John Laurens, who represented the Americans, and the Marquis de Noailles, who represented the French.[54] In order to make sure that nothing fell apart between the allies at the last minute, Washington ordered that the French be given an equal share in every step of the surrender process.[54]

The Articles of Capitulation were signed on October 19, 1781.[54] All of Cornwallis' 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.[54] The British and Hessian troops marched between them, while according to legend the British drummers and fifers played to the tune of "The World Turn'd Upside Down". The British soldiers had been issued with new uniforms hours before the surrender and until prevented by General O'Hara some threw down their muskets with the apparent intention of smashing them. Others wept or appeared to be drunk.[55] 8,000 troops, 214 artillery pieces, thousands of muskets, 24 transport ships, wagons and horses were captured.[56]

Cornwallis refused to meet formally with Washington, and also refused to come to the ceremony of surrender, claiming illness.[56] Instead, Brigadier General Charles O'Hara presented the sword of surrender to Rochambeau. Rochambeau shook his head and pointed to Washington.[57] O'Hara offered it to Washington, but he refused to accept it, and motioned to his second in command, Benjamin Lincoln, who had been humiliated by the British at Charleston, to accept it.[56] The British soldiers marched out and laid down their arms in between the French and American armies, while many civilians watched.[58] At this time, the troops on the other side of the river in Gloucester also surrendered.[59]


Five days later, 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.[60] 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.[61]

After the British surrender, Washington sent Tench Tilghman to report the victory to Congress.[62] After a difficult journey, he arrived in Philadelphia, which celebrated for several days. Washington moved his army to New Windsor, New York[63] where they remained stationed until the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, ending the war officially.[64]


On October 19, 1881, an elaborate ceremony took place to honor the battle's centennial. U.S. naval vessels floated on Chesapeake Bay, and special markers highlighted where Washington and Lafayette's siege guns were placed. Chester Arthur, sworn in only thirty days before, made his first public speech as president. Also present were some descendants of Lafayette, Rochambeau, de Grasse and Steuben. To close the ceremony, Arthur gave an order to salute the British flag.[65]

General Cornwallis' sword, surrendered to Washington by Charles O'Hara after the battle, is to this day on display at the White House.

See also Edit

Notes Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Lengel p.337
  2. French: 52 killed, 134 wounded. Americans: 20 killed, 56 wounded.
  3. Davis p.275
  4. 4.0 4.1 Lengel p.328
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Lengel p.329
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Lengel p.330
  7. Lengel p.331
  8. Davis p.3
  9. Davis p.14
  10. 10.0 10.1 Lengel p.332
  11. 11.0 11.1 Lengel p.333
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Lengel p.335
  13. Davis p.21
  14. Davis p.36
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Lengel p.336
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 16.5 Lengel p.337
  17. Davis p.189
  18. Davis p.193
  19. Davis p.194
  20. 20.0 20.1 Davis p. 195
  21. Davis p.197
  22. 22.0 22.1 Davis p.199
  23. 23.0 23.1 Davis p.202
  24. Davis p.203
  25. Davis p.204
  26. 26.0 26.1 Davis p.205
  27. Davis p.207
  28. 28.0 28.1 Davis p.208
  29. Davis p.214
  30. 30.0 30.1 Davis p.215
  31. 31.0 31.1 Davis p.216
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 Davis p.217
  33. 33.0 33.1 Davis p.218
  34. 34.0 34.1 Davis p.219
  35. Davis p.221
  36. Davis p.222
  37. 37.0 37.1 37.2 37.3 Davis p.224
  38. 38.0 38.1 Lengel p.338
  39. 39.0 39.1 39.2 39.3 Davis p.225
  40. 40.0 40.1 Lengel p. 339
  41. 41.0 41.1 Lengel p.340
  42. 42.0 42.1 Davis p.227
  43. 43.0 43.1 43.2 Davis p.228
  44. 44.0 44.1 44.2 Davis p.229
  45. 45.0 45.1 45.2 Davis p.230
  46. Davis p.232
  47. 47.0 47.1 47.2 47.3 Lengel p.341
  48. Davis p.234
  49. 49.0 49.1 49.2 Davis p.235
  50. Davis p.236
  51. Davis p.237
  52. Davis p.255
  53. Fleming p.16
  54. 54.0 54.1 54.2 54.3 54.4 Lengel p.342
  55. Hibbert p.330
  56. 56.0 56.1 56.2 Lengel p.343
  57. Davis p.265
  58. Davis p.267
  59. Davis p.268
  60. Fleming p.34
  61. Fleming p.35
  62. Fleming p.21
  63. Fleming p.194
  64. Fleming p.312
  65. Reeves p.253


  • Alden, John (1969). A History of the American Revolution. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0306803666. 
  • Anderson, Dale (2004). The Battle of Yorktown. Gareth Stevens Publishing. 
  • Davis, Burke (2007). The Campaign that Won America. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0836853933. 
  • Fleming, Thomas (1970). The Perils of Peace. New York: The Dial Press. ISBN 978-0061139116. 
  • Hibbert, Christopher (2002). Redcoats and Rebels. W. W. Norton & Company Paperbacks. 
  • Lengel, Edward (2005). General George Washington. New York: Random House Paperbacks. ISBN 0812969502. 
  • Reeves, Thomas C (1975). Gentleman Boss. American Political Biography Press. ISBN 978-0945707035. 

External links Edit

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