When General Rochambeau met General Washington in Wethersfield, Connecticut on 22 May 1781 to determine their strategy against the British, they made plans to move against New York City, which was occupied by about 10,000 men under General Sir Henry Clinton, the commander-in-chief in North America.
Meanwhile, word had come through to Washington that the British under command of John Campbell had been totally defeated in West Florida at the Battle of Pensacola on May 10, 1781. General La Fayette in Virginia also informed Washington that Cornwallis had taken up a defensive position at Yorktown, Virginia, next to the York River. Cornwallis had been campaigning in the southern states. He had cut a wide swath, but his army of 7,000 were forced to give up their dominion of the South and retreat to Yorktown for supplies and reinforcement after an intense two-year campaign led by General Nathanael Greene, who winnowed down their numbers through application of the Fabian strategy. Under instructions from Clinton, Cornwallis moved the army to Yorktown in order to be extracted by the Royal Navy.
On 19 July 1781, while encamped at Dobbs Ferry, New York, Washington learned of the Virginia campaign of Cornwallis and wrote that “I am of Opinion, that under these Circumstances, we ought to throw a sufficient Garrison into West Point; leave some Continental Troops and Militia to cover the Country contiguous to New York, and transport the Remainder (both French and American) to Virginia, should the Enemy still keep a Force there.”
On August 14, Washington received confirmation that French Admiral François de Grasse, stationed in the West Indies, was sailing with his fleet to the Chesapeake Bay.
British intelligence was poor, but there is some evidence that the British realized the Americans and the French were marching south to attack Cornwallis at Yorktown. A letter, known as the “Wethersfield Intercept,” was captured by the British on its way to the Comte de Rochambeau from the French ambassador to Congress. However, this letter was in a French military cipher, and by the time the British were able to understand its meaning, Washington and Rochambeau had already marched, and so its value was limited. Despite this, Sir Henry Clinton was to claim after the war that he had deciphered the letter earlier than had previously been claimed, and had been acting on the basis of its content.
On September 5, Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis still had a chance to retreat to Richmond and then south back into the Carolinas, but he did little more than probe Maj. Gen. Marquis de Lafayette's blocking forces. He was still expecting Lt. Gen. Henry Clinton to send his reinforcements from New York, so he was content to continue to fortify his positions at Yorktown and Gloucester. After the British loss in the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes (Second) , he French naval fleet blocked England's access to the Chesapeake Bay and the American-French land forces blocked a move inland. The British were now being trapped in the Yorktown area. With little or no access to the sea, Cornwallis could not be reinforced, resupplied, or withdrawn.
Yorktown rests on the northern border of a large peninsula formed by the James River on the south and the York River on the north. The town is on the southern shore of the York River, and Gloucester Point is on the opposite bank. Both positions are 35 miles inland, northwest of Cape Henry, and 15 miles east of Williamsburg. It was an important transshipment hub for Virginia. Between Yorktown and Gloucester Point, the York River was about 3/4 mile wide.
Cornwallis established a strong inner line of entrenchments around Yorktown supported by detached redoubts and other fortifications in an outer ring of defenses. The outer line encircled the main line from Yorktown Creek in the
west and southeast all the way around to the south and back to Wormeley's Creek and Pond in the east and southeast. Four redoubts were placed along the outer line in the south, but they were to primarily guard the roads leading into town and were not connected to the inner line of trenches. To the northwest, there was a strong star-shaped redoubt that blocked access to town along the main road.
The inner line was much stronger and contained interconnecting trenches, redoubts, and artillery batteries. Also, Cornwallis had 65 field pieces, including several 18-lb. guns removed from the British ships anchored off Yorktown's coast.
North of Yorktown on the other side of the York River was the small town of Gloucester on a spit of land called Gloucester Point. A fortified line to defend the area from a northerly assault was established. It consisted a single trench line with 4 redoubts and 3 batteries, and ran from east to west across the narrow base of the peninsula. Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton and 700 men from his British Legion manned this line. In addition to the army, Cornwallis also had 800 sailors and 12 ships that had been trapped in the York River by the Frech navy.
On September 28, the combined Continental and French forces left Williamsburg at around 5:00 A.M. They moved to within a mile of Cornwallis' Yorktown defenses by dark. The seige of Yorktown had officially began. On the British right, Lt. Col. Robert Abercromby withdrew as the French Wing adavnced there, while Tarleton withdrew as the American Wing moved to the southeast of Yorktown.
Washington had the American-French army organized into 3 divisions for the siege:
The siege line was initially established 2 miles below Yorktown in a giant arc, with the French on the west/right and the Americans on the south/center and east/right. Additionally, Washington dispatched 4 regiments, commanded by Compte Claude G. de Choisy to the northern side of the York River to lay siege to the British troops operating on Gloucester Point. There, Weedon's 1,500 Virginia militiamen, aided by 1,400 French troops under Duke de Lauzun, joined forces to bottle up the British.
On September 29, Washington inspected the British position while the army continued to surround Yorktown. Artillery and siege equipment and stores were also brought to the front. The Americans in the eastern sector began reconnoitering the area and a minor skirmish broke out at Wormeley Creek. The British fell back to their trenches and the Americans broke contact.
On September 30, Cornwallis received a message from Lt. Gen. Henry Clinton promising some reinforcements and the return of the British fleet to assist him.
These reinforcements would be leaving New York on October 5. Convinced that he could hold out until then, Cornwallis abandoned 3 outposts on the outer line that had covered the southwest approach to Yorktown. He would concentrate his troops within the inner fortifications, maximizing the defenses with his limited forces. Washington then learned of this information shortly after it happened and
had his men occupy the abandoned works.
Across the York River at Gloucester, Brig. Gen. George Weedon and his 1,500 Virginia militia had been opposing the British garrison commanded by Lt. Col. Thomas Dundas. A heavy skirmish occured west of the Fusilier's Redoubt between the British and French forces.
On October 1, de Choisy assumed allied command of these operations while 800 marines were detached to Gloucester as well.
On October 2, Tarleton's Legion arrived to support Dundas, bringing the British garrison's strength to nearly 1,000 men.
On October 3, Dundas was returning to camp after leading a foraging expedition when de Choisy pushed forward. Cavalry from Lauzon's Legion formed an advance for de Choisy, while Tarleton's cavarly formed a rear screen for the British. Tarleton was nearly captured when he was pinned under his horse, but some of his men rode in and saved him. He reassembled his men, but some American militia, commanded by John Mercer, held the allied line and Tarleton withdrew his men back into their defensive lines. He would not see any more action on the American continent. For the remainder of the campaign, de Choisy kept the British garrison at Gloucester pinned.
On October 6, the allied force commanded by Washington and de Rochambeau was ready to begin formal siege operations. While Comte de Saint-Simon's troops began a diversion on the left toward the Fusiliers Redoubt on the north side of Yorktown in the evening, engineers staked out the main operations. This diversion helped focus attention on that distant flank and away from the digging of the first parallel.
After dark, work parties began building trenches and redoubts. While Saint-Simon was shelled during the evening,
On October 9, after the completions of the first parallel, the bombardment of Yorktown began with Saint-Simon firing the first shots at 3:00 P.M. This fire also managed to drive off many of the British ships anchored off Yorktown.
On October 10, 46 guns were in place and inflicted so much damage that Cornwallis was only able to return about 6 rounds an hour. A flag of truce appeared at noon. That evening, 3 or 4 ships were destroyed by the allied fire.
On October 11, a second siege line was begun. This line was about 750 yards long and was within musket and easy artillery range of the British main line. At dusk, digging was begun in preparation for an assault on Redoubts No. 9 and No. 10 on the southeast side of Yorktown, which was necessary to complete the second tighter parallel.
On October 12, at dawn, Cornwallis spotted the second siege line. He sent some of his force to engage the workers on the line. The British managed to drive the workers to the ground and temporarily brought the work to a halt.
On October 14, Lafayette was given responsibility for the capture of Redoubt No. 10 and he selected Jean-Joseph de Gimat to lead the assault, but Brig. Gen. Alexander Hamilton protested. Washington ruled in Hamilton's favor and Hamilton was to lead 400 men against Redoubt No. 10. Col. William Deux-Ponts led the assault on Redoubt No. 9 with 400 French grenadiers and chasseurs.
Saint-Simon and de Choisy began diversionary attacks on the Fuselier Redoubt and Gloucester at 6:30 P.M. Hamilton and Deux-Ponts moved forward at 8:00 P.M. After taking heavy losses, Deux-Ponts secured Redoubt No. 9 as the British and Hessian defenders surrendered. Meanwhile, Hamilton had quickly overrun Redoubt No. 10 with few casualties in only 10 minutes. The allies immediately consolidated their positions in anticipation of a British counterattack. However, Cornwallis did not counterattack, but massed all his artillery against the newly captured position. That night, the Allies began incorporating the two forts into the right wing of the second parallel. The batteries could now fire and hit any point within Yorktown.
On October 16, at about 4:00 A.M., Lt. Col. Robert Abercromby led 350 British troops on a sortie to spike allied guns now in position in the center of the second parallel. He was able to spike 4 guns after pretending to be an American detachment. Moving to another position along the parallel, the British were this time driven back to their lines by a French covering party. However, they had managed to spike 2 more guns, but the allies were able to get all the spiked guns back into action within 6 hours.
In the evening, Cornwallis ordered an evacuation of his troops to Gloucester Point. He decided to attempt a breakthrough and a march northward to New York. Bad weather, a lack of adequate transports, and being bombarded by the American-French force forced him to abort the effort. Cornwallis now knew that he was out of options.
On October 17, the Allies brought more than 100 guns into action for their heaviest bombardment yet. Cornwallis could no longer hold out for reinforcements from Clinton. Around 10:00 A.M., a parley was called for by the British. Washington gave Cornwallis 2 hours to submit his proposals, which were received by 4:30 P.M. that afternoon.
On October 18, during the morning, terms of surrender were negotiated with Dundas and Maj. Alexander Ross represented Cornwallis and Lt. Col. John Laurens and Noailles represented the allies.
On October 19 , the surrender document was delivered to Cornwallis. He was to sign and return it by 11:00 A.M. and the garrison was to march out at 2:00 P.M. to surrender. Sometime before noon, the document returned with Cornwallis' signature as well as Capt. Thomas Symonds, the highest ranking British naval officer present. Washington and Rochambeau as well as de Barras signed for the allies.
The terms of the surrender were honorable. The British were to march out with colors cased and drums playing a British or German march. The principal officers could return to Europe or go to a British-occupied American port city on parole. Officers were allowed to retain their side arms and all personnel kept their personal effects. Infantry at Gloucester could ground their arms there, while the cavalry including Simcoe and Tarleton were to proceed to the surrender field outside Yorktown. All troops would be marched to camps in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
At 12:00 P.M., two detachments of 100 men each, one American and one French, occupied 2 British redoubts to the southeast of Yorktown, while the rest of the victorious army formed along both sides of the Hampton Road where the British Army would march to the surrender field, which was located about 1.5 miles south of Yorktown.
At 2:00 P.M., the British and Hessian defenders of Yorktown officially surrendered. The defeated troops marched down the road, supposedly to the tune of "The World Turned Upside." About 2,000 of the surrendered troops were sick or wounded and unable to march. However, 7,157 soldiers, 840 sailors, and 80 camp followers walked out.
The formal surrender ceremony has become a legend unto itself. Cornwallis was not present, but had remained at Yorktown claiming illness. He was represented by his second-in-command, Brig. Gen. Charles O'Hara. He first attempted to surrender to de Rochambeau, but he refused and pointed him to Washington. Washington's only reaction was to ask him to surrender to his own second-in-command, Lincoln. The British and German troops grounded their arms with some of the British soldiers obviously drunk. Washington did not witness the surrender proceedings, but remained at his post along the road a few hundred yards away. The British soldiers and sailors were sentenced as prisoners of war and sent to prison camps in Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The victory cemented Washington's legend as the father of the country in America, while the defeat sorely damaged Cornwallis more so than Clinton.
On October 27, Clinton had finally arrived at the Chesapeake Bay but discovered that the battle was over. It is improbable that Adm. William Graves would have been able to fight through the French fleet to even land Clinton's 7,000 strong relief force. Clinton returned to New York City and remained there until he was recalled to England in 1782. The Battle of Yorktown was the last major engagement of the war.
ARTICLES of CAPITULATION
Settled between his Excellency General WASHINGTON, Commander in Chief of the combined Forces of America and France; his Excellency the Count de ROCHAMBEAU, Lieut. General of the armies of the King of France, Great Cross of the Royal and Military Order of St. Louis, commanding the auxiliary Troops of His Most Christian Majesty in America; and his Excellency the Count de GRASSE, Lieut. General of the naval Armies of His Most Christian Majesty, Commander of the Order of St. Louis, commanding in chief the naval Army of France in the Chesapeake, on the one Part
The Right Hon. Earl CORNWALLIS, Lieut. General of his Britannic Majesty Forces, commanding the Garrisons of York and Gloucester; and THOMAS SYMONDS, Esq; commanding his Britannic Majesty naval Forces in York river in Virginia, on the other part.
Done at York, in Virginia, this 19th day of October, 1781.