The Revolution Draws to a Close (1781–1783)

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The Revolution Draws to a Close (1781–1783)

Former American General Benedict Arnold (1741–1801)—now fighting for the British—easily took Richmond, Virginia, on January 5, 1781. George Washington (1732–1799), commander in chief of American forces, responded by sending soldiers to Virginia under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette of France (1757–1834). (The French officially joined the war on the side of the Americans in 1778.) By the spring of 1781, British General Charles Cornwallis (1738–1805) had reached Richmond. Washington and his ally, French commander Jean Baptiste Rochambeau (1725–1807), decided to join Lafayette and trap Cornwallis in Virginia.

While he was still in New York, Washington devised a scheme to conceal his plan of heading to Virginia—he wanted to keep the British from sending more troops there. Washington arranged to leak false information to confuse General Henry Clinton (1738–1795), the commander in chief of British forces in America; it was a complete success. Thinking that the next battle would take place in New York, Clinton ordered Cornwallis to send every soldier he could spare to the Northeast. Over the next two months, Clinton changed his orders several times, confusing

Cornwallis and his troops. Finally, in the intense heat of August 1781, a weary and disgusted Cornwallis settled in at Yorktown, Virginia, and began to fortify it against a possible attack. But by moving his 7,000 soldiers to Yorktown, the British general "put his back to the water [of the Chesapeake Bay] and made escape difficult—if not impossible," noted Edward F. Dolan in The American Revolution: How We Fought the War of Independence.

On August 21, 1781, Washington and Rochambeau began their march southward. Washington commanded about 8,800 men and Rochambeau had about 7,800. On September 5, a messenger brought word to Washington that a large and powerful French naval fleet had landed off the Virginia coast with reinforcements for Lafayette. Washington would have plenty of manpower in Yorktown.

French ships engaged British ships in a battle off the

coast of Virginia. The French inflicted severe damage on the British navy and insured there would be no help for Cornwallis from naval sources.

Surrender at Yorktown

On September 9, Washington reached his beloved home, Mount Vernon, in Virginia. He spent two nights there, then continued on to Yorktown. About two weeks later, the combined French and American armies surrounded Cornwallis's men (perhaps 7,000 to 8,000) at Yorktown. Cornwallis was unable to hold out against them. When General Clinton finally arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay with reinforcements for Cornwallis on October 24, he heard the news: General Cornwallis had surrendered the week before, on October 18, 1781.

Army surgeon James Thacher described the surrender scene in his journal entry dated October 19, 1781:

This is to us a most glorious day, but to the English, one of bitter… disappointment… At about twelve o'clock, the combined army wasarranged and drawn up in two lines extending more than a mile in length. The Americans were drawn up in a line on the right side of the road, and the French occupied the left. At the head of the former, the great American commander [George Washington], mounted on his noble courser [swift horse], took his station… At the head of the latter was posted the excellent Count Rochambeau… The French troops, in complete uniform, displayed a… noble appearance… The Americans, though not all in uniform, nor their dress so neat, yet exhibited an erect, soldierly air, and every countenance beamed with satisfaction and joy…

It was about two o'clock when the captive [British] army advanced through the line formed for their reception. Every eye was prepared to gaze on Lord Cornwallis, the object of peculiar interest… but he disappointed our anxious expectations; pretending [to be sick], he made General [Charles] O'Hara his substitute as the leader of his army.

In this ceremony of surrender, the differences between the disciplined armies of the Old World and the undisciplined

army of the New World were obvious. The soldiers of the British, German, and French armies looked magnificent in their colorful uniforms; some of the Frenchmen wore plumed hats and the chests of the officers glowed with stars and jewels. The Continental soldiers wore ragged hunting jackets of rough white cloth. The militiamen wore the clothing they had brought with them; many were barefoot.

As the defeated British and German soldiers moved between the two lines, their band played a slow, sad song. Legend says the song was "The World Turned Upside Down."

The news reaches London

News of the British defeat at Yorktown came as a complete surprise in London. King George III would not admit defeat and vowed to fight on. Yorktown was only one town, after all. The British still held New York and Charleston. What was to stop the king from sending more troops to America?

What stopped him were Parliament and British public opinion. Both had turned against the war. The House of Commons debated and passed the motion that "all further attempts to reduce the revolted colonies to obedience are contrary to [go against] the true interests of this Kingdom."

Treaty of peace is negotiated; Washington dismisses his army

British soldiers remained in New York for eighteen more months until the Treaty of Paris was worked out. In what is considered a triumph of skillful negotiating, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), John Jay (1745–1829), and John Adams (1735–1826) obtained for the new United States generous settlement terms—most importantly, independence, land, and the right to fish in international waters (the French had opposed granting America certain fishing rights). Benjamin Franklin tried but could not convince the British to give up Canada. The treaty was finally signed in Paris, France, on September 3, 1783.

Congress had ordered the Continental army to stay together until the treaty was signed. America's soldiers grew bored and restless and were enormously relieved to be disbanded in the fall of 1783. On November 3, Washington said farewell to his men. Although he had often been frustrated by their lack of discipline and respect, he had won a war with this hardy group of men. "The [disadvantages]… under which the war was undertaken," Washington stated with pride, "can never be forgotten… The unparalleled perseverance [determination]of the Armies of the United States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing miracle." He further noted

that the events that led up to an American victory "have seldom if ever before taken place on the stage of human action, nor can they probably ever happen again," and concluded: "May the choicest of heaven's favours… attend those who… have secured unnumerable blessings for others; with these wishes, and this [blessing], the Commander in Chief is about to retire from Service. The… military scene to him will be closed for ever."

How many served and died in the Revolutionary War?

There are varying estimates of the number of soldiers who served on the American side in the Revolutionary War. According to many historians, any such figures are unreliable, in part because leaders on both sides lied about the size of their forces to fool enemy spies. Author Paul Johnson estimated in A History of the American People that "at no point did [Washington's] total forces number more than 60,000." Many tried to get out of the service—either by sending substitutes or running away—but a large percentage of Revolutionary-era males performed at least some duty in the American military.

Military historian T. Harry Williams theorizes that a total of between 377,000 and 396,000 white Americans served at some point (but not all at once) in the Continental army, plus 5,000 black troops. He noted that these figures probably include militiamen who were counted more than once because they were called up to serve for short periods. Williams's figures also include men who signed up to get a bonus, deserted, and then signed up again. Perhaps 150,000 men served for a period of three years or longer.

The entire British army boasted 50,000 officers and troops at the outbreak of the war, but not all of them took part in the American Revolution. Great Britain had to keep part of her army at home for protection in case of attack by European nations. In addition, troops had to be stationed throughout Britain's far-flung empire, which included parts of India, the West Indies, and Canada. To add to her difficulties during the Revolutionary War, Britain's troops and supplies had to cross 3,000 miles of ocean, and the trip could take from two to four months.

King George III is said to have been dismayed (completely stunned) by news that his generals would need at least 50,000 troops to put down the rebellion in the colonies—that was the entire British force! The British government tried to meet this quota by the usual methods: taking volunteers and forcing the homeless to enlist. But the public was less than enthusiastic about serving in a faraway country. Ultimately, the king had to buy the services of 30,000 mercenaries (pronounced MER-suh-neh-reez; it means soldiers-for-hire), mostly from Germany (they were called Hessians; see Chapter 7: Assembling an Army [1775–1776]). He agreed to pay all the expenses of the German soldiers; he also agreed to pay a small sum for each soldier killed or wounded. This meant that after the first payment had been made, the soldiers were worth more dead than alive to their German princes.

By these means, then, Great Britain was able to sustain a force of about 35,000 men in America. Johnson calculates that they were aided by about 13,200 navy men and 13,000 Native Americans.

It is impossible to know for sure how many American soldiers died in the Revolution. According to military historian T. Harry Williams, the commonly accepted figures were 4,000 battle deaths and 10,000 deaths from all causes combined (such as smallpox). But historians were still debating the matter 200 years after the event. Williams noted that historian Howard H. Peckham estimated that 6,824 men were killed in battle, 10,000 died in camps, and 8,500 died as prisoners of war, for a total of 25,324 deaths. "If this estimate is correct," wrote Williams, "it makes the Revolution one of the deadliest wars in American history."

For More Information


Boatner, Mark M. III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994.

Catton, Bruce, and William B. Catton. The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America's Founding Years, 1492–1815. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978.

Ferrie, Richard. The World Turned Upside Down: George Washington and the Battle of Yorktown. New York: Holiday House, 1999.

Kent, Zachary. The Story of the Surrender at Yorktown. Chicago: Childrens Press, 1989.

Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Web Sites

Hamill, John. "Revolutionary War Virtual Battlefield Tours." [Online] Available (accessed on February 14, 2000).



Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.

Dolan, Edward F. The American Revolution: How We Fought the War of Independence. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1995.

Flexner, James Thomas. George Washington in the American Revolution (1775–1783). Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.

Hawke, David. The Colonial Experience. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.

Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.

Thacher, James. Military Journal of the American Revolution (one of several titles under which the book was published). Hartford, CT: Hurlbut, Williams & Co., 1862. Reprinted. New York: New York Times & Arno Press, 1969.

Williams, T. Harry. The History of American Wars from Colonial Times to 1918. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Web Sites

"American Revolution Timeline: An Unlikely Victory, 1777–1783." The History Place. [Online] Available (accessed on January 20,2000).


The Revolution Draws to a Close (1781–1783)