This Day in History 10/19 – The battle of Yorktown 1781



Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, by John Trumbull  (Wikipedia)

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, by John Trumbull (Wikipedia)

We all have plenty of days when nothing goes right.  Today, however, we celebrate one of the few days when things went according to plan.


Today is the anniversary of the historic Battle of Yorktown, which resulted in the surrender of Lord Cornwallis and his British army on October 19, 1781.  It ended the major fighting of the war, and forced the British government to the bargaining table, resulting in the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War.

That was the easy part.

George Washington’s army met the French forces under the Comte de Rochambeau at White Plains on July 6, 1781.  This was the help the Americans needed so desperately, yet many feared the French would be bossing around the Continental Army.  Rochambeau was an aristocrat, after all, with 40 years experience–Washington was a rank amateur in comparison.  Yet despite their differences, Rochambeau made it clear he was there to help, not to lead. 

Washington was in no mood to mince words.   He wanted New York.  Rochambeau, being more level headed, talked him out of it, saying the necessary naval support would not be there.  Instead, he suggested an attack south toward Lord Cornwallis’ southern army in Virginia.  The French fleet in the Caribbean under the Admiral de Grasse was on its way north and could cut Cornwallis off from any escape.

The march south began on August 19.  A small American force was left behind to fool the British that an attack on New York was imminent.  On the way the Continentals decided to get paid.  The army basically hijacked the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and decided they wouldn’t leave until they received a month’s pay.  Congress wisely agreed–and the money issue would not end there, but that’s a later story. 

The attack began on September 29.  For the next ten days, the French and Americans would close a vice on the British forces pinned on the peninsula facing Chesepeake Bay, as the French fleet arrived–just in time.  Any change in the wind, any bad entanglement with British ships could have derailed these plans.  It worked like clockwork, and the bombardment upon the British positions was relentless.

By the morning of October 17, the British situation was hopeless.  A lone drummer appeared above the British defenses, along with an officer waving a white hankerchief.  The French, Americans and British worked out the terms for two days, and the British finally signed the articles of capitulation on October 19, 1781.  According to legend, the British band played a tune called “The World Turn’d Upside Down.”  8,000 troops, 214 cannon, thousands of muskets and supplies were suddenly the property of the Americans.

Within two years of the battle’s aftermath, the Treaty of Paris would officially end the Revolutionary War.

The effects of Yorktown go far beyond the battlefield.  The interplay between France, Britain and the United States would be a major factor in world politics up through the 20th century.  The incident with the Army hijacking Congress would also reverberate: in 1782, the Continental Army threatened a military coup due to back pay.  Washington bravely stopped this from happening, seeing full well the dangers of military dictatorship. 

Yorktown enjoys an endless wealth of scholarship, due to its complexity and its positive outcome, at least from the American perspective.  Here are some resources for the classroom:

The text of the Articles of Capitulation at Yorktown.

An insight into the battle from a British perspective.  Great pictures to use.

Information about the Yorktown Victory Center, a museum located near the battlefield.

Yorktown Battlefield, administered by the National Parks Service.


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