Skip to main content
Select Source:

Yorktown Campaign


YORKTOWN CAMPAIGN (August–October 1781). On 19 October 1781, American and French troops forced the surrender of a sizeable British army at Yorktown, a decisive victory that reversed the war's momentum, and proved to be the last major engagement of the Revolutionary War.

By late 1780, the patriot cause arguably reached its low point: British victories at Charleston and Camden virtually destroyed the southern wing of the Continental Army; the American military supply system collapsed and

rampant inflation eroded the army's purchasing power; a weak Continental Congress provided ineffective political leadership; scarce resources led General George Washington to cancel military operations against New York City; and the alliance with France had yet to produce significant results. By contrast, British optimism remained high. Their "southern strategy"—securing one by one the southern colonies from Georgia northward—seemed to bear fruit.

By early 1781, the tide was turning. Lord Charles Cornwallis, who commanded British troops in the South, failed to eliminate resistance by pesky Continentals and militia under Major General Nathanael Greene. Unable to pacify South Carolina, Cornwallis moved his army into North Carolina. Failing to secure North Carolina, he proceeded into Virginia contrary to official orders. The British ministry was not displeased, however, for they hoped to secure this tobacco-rich region, prevent French incursions into the Chesapeake, and draw support from its supposedly large loyalist population. Moreover, Cornwallis's superior, Sir Henry Clinton, recognized that British occupation of Virginia could disrupt the flow of patriot supplies from the north to forces in the Carolinas if the British could obtain adequate naval support. But when Clinton learned that Admiral de Grasse's squadron had left France for North America, he developed reservations about a Virginia campaign. Initially, the British commander instructed Cornwallis to abandon operations and reinforce New York; however, when the French fleet appeared to sail for the Chesapeake, Clinton directed Cornwallis to assume a defensive position there. The offensive-minded Cornwallis reluctantly followed orders to establish a fortified harbor along Virginia's coast. He selected Yorktown, a prosperous tobacco port of approximately 2,000 residents. His troops occupied the town on 1 August 1781.

The arrival of de Grasse's French squadron in the Chesapeake on 29 August proved key to the unfolding campaign. Washington had planned to besiege the main British army in New York, and had hoped that joint operations with the Comte de Rochambeau's French army and de Grasse's squadron would make that possible. But when he learned that the French fleet would make a brief foray into the Chesapeake, Washington shifted his attention southward. There, the Marquis de Lafayette, whose small American force opposed Cornwallis, informed Washington that the British position was vulnerable. Washington recognized the opportunity, and implementing diversionary measures to keep an unsuspecting Clinton in New York, he and Rochambeau secretly marched their armies to Virginia in mid-August.

By late August, Cornwallis detected de Grasse's arrival. On 5 September 1781, French and British naval forces collided in the Battle of the Capes, with de Grasse's larger squadron battering the ships of Admiral Thomas Graves. De Grasse extended his blockade of the lower Chesapeake Bay and the York River, while Graves's damaged ships returned to New York. Britain's military fortunes had rested upon naval superiority, and now France controlled Yorktown's waters. The allied armies' arrival in mid-September meant that Cornwallis's 8,300 men were completely surrounded by more than twice that number. At that point, he was faced with two choices: he could either attempt to break through allied lines into the hostile Virginia interior, or he could await a relief expedition. He chose the latter.

Washington and Rochambeau began their siege of Cornwallis's army, while Clinton prepared for its rescue. By 9 October, allied forces completed their first line of trenches, hauled up heavy artillery, and unleashed a devastating cannonade upon British defenses and nearby warships. Two days later, they began a second line only 300 yards from the enemy. When two British redoubts, numbers 9 and 10, blocked allied progress, Lafayette and the Baron de Vioménil each directed 400 American and French forces against the fortifications. On the night of the 14th, Colonel Alexander Hamilton's assault on number 10 and Vioménil's on number 9 quickly overcame resistance and captured the redoubts. With his defenses pummeled by enemy artillery, a desperate Cornwallis attempted a breakout. Late on the 16th, he began ferrying troops north across the York River to Gloucester, where

they planned to surprise allied forces and escape the Yorktown trap. Luck was not with the British. A violent storm scattered the boats, and forced the redcoats' return. Cornwallis saw little choice but to negotiate his surrender, and on 19 October 1781, approximately 7,000 of the King's troops laid down their arms—the very same day that Clinton's expedition sailed to relieve Yorktown.

The battle's outcome was significant. For the United States and France, it reflected extraordinary coordination and cooperation in an age of poor communication. For Britain, it undermined Parliament's resolve to continue the war. Thereafter, both sides sought acceptable terms to conclude the fighting.


Fleming, Thomas J. Beat the Last Drum: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1963.

Pancake, John S. This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780–1782. University: University of Alabama Press, 1985.

Sands, John O. Yorktown's Captive Fleet. Charlottesville: Published for the Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Va., by the University Press of Virginia, 1983.

Wickwire, Franklin and Mary. Cornwallis: The American Adventure. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.


See alsoRevolution, American: Political History ; Revolution, American: Military History andvol. 9:Correspondence Leading to Surrender .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Yorktown Campaign." Dictionary of American History. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Yorktown Campaign." Dictionary of American History. . (December 18, 2017).

"Yorktown Campaign." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from

Yorktown, Battle of

Yorktown, Battle of (1781).The entry of France into the Revolutionary War in May 1778 gave Americans hope that they might achieve victory rather than just stave off defeat, for French naval power could impede the flow of British resources across the Atlantic and help to trap British forces in the seaports from which they operated. Yet it was not until the autumn of 1781 that four factors combined to produce a decisive victory.

First, Gen. George Washington kept the Continental army in the field despite shortages of money, clothing, food, and ammunition. Second, the leaders of the French army ( Rochambeau) and fleet ( de Grasse) were competent commanders, willing to cooperate with one another and with Washington. Third, the British had concentrated their resources in home waters to forestall invasion. Ships sent across the Atlantic were responsible for protecting both the West Indies and British coastal enclaves in North America. Fourth, Britain's efforts to use loyalists to reestablish royal control in the South failed to eliminate rebel activity in South Carolina. Charles Lord Cornwallis, commander of the last British mobile force in America, invaded North Carolina and then Virginia, to eliminate support for the rebels further south.

Cornwallis's operations in Virginia during the summer of 1781 put his 10,000‐man army within range of Franco‐American forces based in southern New England and New York. Washington saw the opportunity Cornwallis had presented, and Rochambeau and de Grasse agreed to attempt a joint operation. Leaving half the American army to pin Sir Henry Clinton's forces at New York City, Washington with 2,300 Continentals and Rochambeau with 4,000 Frenchmen began moving south on 20 August. They reached Williamsburg on the 26th, having traveled down Chesapeake Bay by ship. There they joined 3,400 Continentals and 3,200 Virginia state and militia troops already operating against Cornwallis, who had withdrawn to Yorktown, on the York River, to await resupply.

The plan's key element was de Grasse's fleet, which arrived on 26 August from the West Indies, established control of the coastal waters inside the Capes of Virginia, and contributed 4,800 more men to the besieging force. Ten days later, de Grasse fought a strategically decisive engagement with a British squadron sent by Clinton to evacuate Cornwallis's force. The British failure to penetrate past de Grasse, plus Cornwallis's inertia, allowed Washington and Rochambeau to spring their trap.

The allies closed in on Yorktown on 28 September, and on 6 October began formal siege operations, which would have been impossible without French heavy artillery. By 14 October, the cannonade had weakened British positions sufficiently to allow the allies to capture key outposts: 400 American light infantry, led by Alexander Hamilton, took the smaller Redoubt No. 10 sooner and with fewer casualties than the French at Redoubt No. 9. Cornwallis and 8,000 men surrendered on 17 October.

Yorktown's most decisive effect was on political opinion in Britain. The British still had substantial forces in North America, but all were tied down defending coastal enclaves; Cornwallis's army was the last force surplus to garrison requirements they had been able to scrape together. Britain could have continued the war, but its political leaders had lost the will to fight.
[See also Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


Henry P. Johnston , The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis, 1781, 1881; repr. 1979.
Douglas S. Freeman , George Washington: Victory with the Help of France, 1955.
William B. Willcox , Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, 1964.

Harold E. Selesky

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Yorktown, Battle of." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Yorktown, Battle of." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . (December 18, 2017).

"Yorktown, Battle of." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from

Yorktown campaign

Yorktown campaign, 1781, the closing military operations of the American Revolution. After his unsuccessful Carolina campaign General Cornwallis moved into Virginia to join British forces there. His lieutenant, Banastre Tarleton, engaged American forces under the marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, and Gen. Anthony Wayne in several minor actions as the British retreated down the York peninsula. Cornwallis fortified Yorktown and waited for reinforcements to come from Sir Henry Clinton in New York. While he was there, late in August, a French fleet under Admiral de Grasse arrived from the West Indies, blockaded Chesapeake Bay, and defeated (September) the British naval forces under Admiral Graves. Leaving a force to harry Clinton in New York, Gen. George Washington and General Rochambeau rushed south, with many French troops. Cornwallis, unaware of Washington's advance, remained more or less idle, and malaria became an increasing problem among his forces. Lafayette and Steuben distinguished themselves as commanders of the holding troops and did so even more after the reinforcements arrived. By mid-September an overwhelming Franco-American force had gathered. Cornwallis tried to escape, but his attempts failed. On Oct. 17, 1781, he asked for surrender terms, which he accepted Oct. 19, 1781.

See H. P. Johnston, The Yorktown Campaign (1881, repr. 1971); T. J. Fleming, Beat the Last Drum (1963); B. Davis, The Campaign That Won America (1970).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Yorktown campaign." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Yorktown campaign." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 18, 2017).

"Yorktown campaign." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from

Yorktown, Siege of

Yorktown, Siege of (1781) Last major military campaign of the American Revolution. Trapped on the peninsula of Yorktown, Virginia, 7000 British troops under Lord Cornwallis surrendered to superior US and French forces, after attempts to relieve them failed.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Yorktown, Siege of." World Encyclopedia. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Yorktown, Siege of." World Encyclopedia. . (December 18, 2017).

"Yorktown, Siege of." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from