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:
Rochembeau commanded the 7,800-man French contingent. They occupied the left wing, or northwestern sector, of the siege line. It consisted of 3 infantry brigades, a heavy cavalry corps, and a large artillery corps.
The American troops formed the base of the right, or southern sector, with two wings of 8,845 troops. These were divided into 3 divisions. They were commanded by Brig. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, and Maj. Gens. Marquis de Lafayette and Baron von Stueben. Col. Henry Knox was in command of the artillery, engineers, sappers and miners. Col. Stephen Moylan was in command of the cavalry.
The third division of 3,200 Virginia militiamen were commanded by Brig. Gens. George Weedon, Edward Stevens, and Robert Lawson. They occupied the southeastern sector, or far right wing of the siege line.
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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.
ARTICLE I. The garrisons of York and Gloucester, including the officers and seamen of his Britannic Majesty ships, as well as other mariners, to surrender themselves prisoners of war to the combined forces of America and France. The land troops to remain prisoners to the United States: The navy to the naval army of his Most Christian Majesty. Granted.
ARTICLE II. The artillery, arms, accoutrements, military chest, and public stores, of every denomination, shall be delivered unimpaired, to the heads of departments, appointed to receive them. Granted.
ARTICLE III. At 12 o’clock this day the two redoubts on the let flank of York to be delivered, the one to a detachment of American Infantry, the other to a detachment of French Grenadiers --- The garrison of York will match out to a place to be appointed, in front of the posts, at two precisely, with shouldered arms, colors cased and drums beating a British or German march --- they are then to ground their arms and return to their encampment, where they will remain until they are dispatched to the place of their destination --- Two works on the Gloucester side, will be delivered at one to detachments of French and American troops appointed to possess them --- The garrison will march out at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the cavalry with their swords drawn, trumpets sounding, and the infantry in the manner prescribed for the garrison of York --- They are likewise to return to their encampment until they can be finally marched off. Granted.
ARTICLE IV. Officers are to retain their side arms --- both officers and soldiers to keep their private property of every kind, and no part of their baggage or papers to be at any time subject to search or inspection --- The baggage and papers of officers and soldiers taken during the siege to be likewise preserved for them --- It is understood that any property obviously belonging to the inhabitants of these States, in the possession of the garrison, shall be subject to be reclaimed. Granted.
ARTICLE V. The soldiers to be kept in Virginia, Maryland or Pennsylvania, and as much by regiments as possible, and supplied with the same rations of provisions as are allowed to soldiers in the service of America: A field officer from each nation, viz. British, Anspach and Hessian, and other officers on parole, in proportion of one to fifty men, to be allowed to reside near their respective regiments, to visit them frequently and be witnesses of their treatment --- and that these officers may receive and deliver clothing and other necessaries for them, for which passports are to be granted when applied for. Granted.
ARTICLE VI. The General --- Staff and other officers, not employed as mentioned in the above article, and who chose it, to be permitted to go on parole to Europe, to New York, or to any other American maritime ports at present in the possession of the British forces, at their own option; and proper vessels to be granted by the Count de Grasse, to carry them, under flags of truce, to New York within ten days from this date, if possible, and they to reside in a district to be agreed upon hereafter, till they embark. The officers of the civil department of the army and navy to be included in this article. Passports to go by land to be granted to those to whom vessels cannot be furnished. Granted.
ARTICLE VII. Officers to be allowed to keep soldiers as servants, according to the common practice of the army --- Servants, not soldiers, are not t be considered as prisoners, and are to be allowed to attend their masters. --- Granted.
ART. VIII. The Bonetta sloop of war to be equipped and navigated by its present Captain and crew, and left entirely at the disposal of Lord Cornwallis, from the hour that the capitulation is signed, to receive an Aid de Camp to carry dispatches to Sir Henry Clinton, and such soldiers as he may think proper to send to New York, to be permitted to said without examination, when his dispatches are ready. --- His Lordship engaging on his part, that the ship shall be delivered to the order of the Count de Grasse, if she escapes the dangers of the seas --- that she shall not carry off any public stores --- any part of the crew that may be deficient on her return and the soldiers, passengers, to be accounted for on her delivery. Granted. ART. IX. The traders are to preserve their property, and to be allowed three months to dispose of or remove them --- and those traders are to be considered as prisoners of war.
ANSWER. The traders will be allowed to dispose of their effects --- the allied army having the right of pre-emption. The traders to be considered as prisoners of war on parole.
ARTICLE X. Natives or inhabitants of different parts of this country, at present in York and Gloucester, are not to be punished on account of having joined the British army.
ANSWER This article cannot be assented to, being altogether of civil resort.
ARTICLE XI. Proper hospitals to be furnished for the sick and wounded - they are to be attended by their own surgeons on parole, and they are to be furnished with medicines and stores from the American hospitals.
ANSWER The hospital stores now in York and Gloucester shall be delivered for the use of the British sick and wounded. Passports will be granted for procuring them further supplies from New York, as occasion may require, and proper hospitals will be furnished for the reception of the sick and wounded of the two garrisons.
ARTICLE XII. Wagons to be furnished to carry the baggage of the offices attending the soldiers, and the surgeons when traveling on account of the sick, attending the hospitals, at the public expense.
ANSWER They will be furnished if possible.
ARTICLE XIII. The shipping and boats in the two harbors, with all their stores, guns, tackling and apparel shall be delivered up in their present state to an officer of the navy appointed to take possession of them, previously unloading the private property, part of which had been on board for security during the siege. Granted.
ARTICLE XIV. No article of the capitulation to be infringed, on pretext of reprisal, and if there be any doubtful expressions in it, they are to be interpreted according to the common meaning and acceptation of the words. Granted.
Done at York, in Virginia, this 19th day of October, 1781.