Yorktown, Battle of

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In 1778 the British shifted their military emphasis to the American South. Lieutenant General Charles Lord Cornwallis had waged an aggressive campaign there. Defeating Continental Army forces in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina in March 1781, he then moved north into Virginia. Continental Army commander General George Washington was preoccupied with New York and had positioned at White Plains his main force of four infantry regiments, a battalion of artillery, and the four-thousand-man French Legion commanded by Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau.

In May 1781 French admiral the count de Barras arrived with a small squadron at Newport, Rhode Island, with news that Admiral the count de Grasse was on his way from France with a powerful fleet. At sea the British and French were each chiefly interested in the West Indies, with each seeking to deprive the other of the valuable sugar trade. Barras told Washington, however, that the French fleet would come north during the hurricane season.

Meanwhile, raids by turncoat British brigadier general Benedict Arnold in the Chesapeake Bay and along the James River west to Richmond led Washington

to send Major General the Marquis de Lafayette south with twelve hundred men to capture Arnold. Cornwallis then arrived. His seven thousand men represented a quarter of the British armed strength in North America. Cornwallis failed to take Lafayette's much smaller force, however. He then withdrew to the small tobacco port of Yorktown on the York River, just off the Chesapeake Bay. Lafayette followed.

On 14 August Washington learned that de Grasse would be sailing not to New York but to the Chesapeake. He would arrive in a few weeks and remain there until the end of October. Washington immediately saw that if de Grasse could hold the bay while he came up from the land side, he might be able to trap the entire British force at Yorktown.

Washington ordered Lafayette to contain Cornwallis, and on 21 August he sent two thousand American and four thousand French soldiers south. He left only two thousand Continental Army troops to watch Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton's British force at New York. Not until early September did Clinton realize what had happened, but he did little to help Cornwallis.

On 30 August, meanwhile, de Grasse arrived in the Chesapeake with twenty-eight ships of the line and three thousand land troops. He put ashore the troops, commanded by the Marquis de Saint Simon, and sent his transports up the bay to ferry Washington's force down the Chesapeake. The allies then concentrated near Williamsburg.

Barras, meanwhile, sailed south from Newport with eight ships of the line convoying eighteen transports carrying siege guns. On 32 August British rear admiral Thomas Graves with nineteen ships of the line set sail south to intercept Barras. On 5 September the British ships reached the Chesapeake Bay and de Grasse, although shorthanded, stood out to meet them. The French had twenty-eight ships of the line to only nineteen for the British. The resulting naval battle of the Chesapeake was a tactical draw, with damage and casualties but no ships lost on either side. Strategically it was one of the most important battles in world history, for at its end the French still controlled the bay. Also, during the battle Barras's ships arrived. Now outnumbered by thirty-six to nineteen Graves returned to New York to gather more ships, leaving Cornwallis to his fate.

Washington's army arrived at Yorktown on 28 September. He had nine thousand American troops (three thousand of them militia who played no significant role in the battle), and seven thousand French regulars. French engineers now directed a siege of Yorktown, digging zigzag trenches toward the British defenses and laying parallels. Time was of the essence, and the Americans and French soon began a bombardment.

Cornwallis was outnumbered 2 to 1. Gloucester Point across the York River was his only means of escape. It was only thinly held by the Continentals, but Cornwallis did not move to take it until too late. On the night of 14 October the Allies stormed the British Nos. 9 and 10 redoubts, sealing Cornwallis's fate. The most important charge was led by Alexander Hamilton, whose victory was secured by the mostly African American First Rhode Island regiment.

On the morning of 17 October Cornwallis asked for terms, seeking parole for his men. Washington insisted the British surrender as prisoners of war, and Cornwallis agreed. On 19 October 8,077 British surrendered: 7,157 soldiers, 840 seamen, and 80 camp followers. During the siege the British lost 156 killed and 326 wounded; the allies lost only 75 killed and 199 wounded (two-thirds of them Frenchmen).

Too late, Clinton arrived on 24 October with a powerful fleet and seven thousand land troops. De Grasse had already departed for the West Indies. The British had lost control of the American seaboard for one brief period, and it cost them the war. Yorktown brought down the British government headed by the hard-liner Lord North and ushered in a new British policy of cutting losses immediately and seeking peace.


Davis, Burke. The Campaign that Won America: The Story of Yorktown. New York: Dial Press, 1970.

Lumpkin, Henry. From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981.

Morrissey, Brendan. Yorktown 1781: The World Turned Upside Down. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2004.

Spencer C. Tucker