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Correspondence Leading to Surrender (1781)


George Washington, commander in chief of the American Continental Army, had taken a rocky road to the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. The British army and navy were the greatest powers in the world, whereas the Continental army could scarcely supply itself with adequate clothing and weapons. The British soldiers, the regulars, were the best fighters in the world, highly disciplined killers. The American soldier was typically a farmer who was serving a six-month enlistment, yearning the whole time to get back to hearth and home. Washington's great accomplishment was not the winning of battles, rather merely keeping an army together to oppose the British. But by will and perseverance it was Washington who was preparing to accept the surrender of Cornwallis, and not the other way around.

Lord Charles Cornwallis was in command of five thousand troops. He had enjoyed success in the British southern campaign against the rebellious colonies. But he had not expected the arrival of such a large force of American and French troops. He hunkered down at Yorktown, Va., hoping to be supported and rescued by the British navy, only to discover the French navy sailing off the coast of Virginia. Resistance was futile. Lord Cornwallis accepted Washington's terms of surrender.

Although the Americans were known to use guerrilla tactics in fighting the British, the Battle of Yorktown was a more traditional battle befitting eighteenth-century conceptions of the logic and honor of, and proper behavior during, war. Washington continued to refer to Cornwallis as "your Lordship," respecting his opponent's aristocratic standing even in defeat. Both men ended their letters with traditional salutations that were generally meaningless yet required in formal society. Neither man hinted that the surrender of Cornwallis to Washington was the beginning of the end of British attempts to prevent American independence.

Bacone College

See also Revolution, American: Military History ; Yorktown Campaign .


I propose a cessation of hostilities for twenty-four hours, and that two officers may be appointed by each side, to meet at Mr. Moore's house, to settle terms for the surrender of the posts of York and Gloucester.

I have the honor to be, &c


My Lord,

I have had the honor of receiving your Lordship's letter of this date. An ardent desire to spare the further effusion of blood will readily incline me to listen to such terms for the surrender of your posts of York and Gloucester, as are admissible.

I wish, previously to the meeting of commissioners, that your Lordship's proposals in writing may be sent to the American lines, for which purpose a suspension of hostilities, during two hours from the delivery of this letter, will be granted.

I have the honor to be, &c.

George Washington

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