One of the most important battles in the American Revolution was the 1781 Battle of Yorktown. The battle proved to be a decisive blow towards the British war effort and was the last major engagement in the American war for independence.
By 1781 both the Americans and British were war-weary after having fought for the past five years. The Continental Army was constantly on the brink of revolt due to lack of food, provisions, and pay.
The British fared no better as the war in America was extremely unpopular on the British Isles. After five years of fighting, the British only managed to hold a few cities along the coast, and now were engulfed in yet another European conflict with France and Spain.
Both sides were looking for a major engagement to deal a decisive blow and accelerate the war’s end.
As the year progressed, Commander George Washington spotted an opportunity to entrap a British army at the port city of Yorktown, Virginia.
The subsequent battle and siege of Yorktown would prove to be one of the most important of the entire war. Washington and the Americans succeeded with the aid of their French allies.1
Upon hearing news of the surrender of the British army at Yorktown, British Prime Minister Lord North reportedly proclaimed, “Oh God. It is all over.”
The Battle of Yorktown would be the last major engagement of the American Revolution, though an official peace would not be signed until the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
Background on the American Revolution
The early years of the American Revolution saw the American rebels as a longshot to win their war for independence. Most believed the British juggernaut was simply too powerful to defeat head on.
American fortunes changed following the significant 1777 Battle of Saratoga. The defeat of a major British force convinced the French the Americans had a chance to win and the two became formal allies in 1778.
Following the 1778 Battle of Monmouth where the newly-trained and strengthened Continental Army held its own against British forces, British focus shifted towards the southern colonies.
The British believed that the southern colonies held more loyalists, or those who wished to remain British colonists. Should they prove victorious in the south, they could essentially surround the northern colonies and force them to come to terms.
The Southern theatre featured British troops commanded by Lord Charles Cornwallis. The British strategy seemed to be working after the early victories of the capture of the major ports of Savannah, Georgia and Charleson, South Carolina in 1778 and 1780.
But as Cornwallis moved northward into North Carolina he faced fierce American resistance. A loyalist militia force was almost completely wiped out at the important Battle of Cowpens.
Meanwhile, Cornwallis won a pyrrhic victory over General Nathanael Greene at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Though a tactical victory, the British losses were too severe to continue the campaign in the Carolinas.
Thus, Cornwallis moved north to link with another British army raiding Richmond, Virginia. While present, Cornwallis was instructed to defend a deep water port at Yorktown, Virginia. Here the army could be resupplied and/or reinforced by sea if necessary.2
Cornwallis’ maneuver to the sea would prove fatal to British ambitions in the Americas.
What was the Battle of Yorktown?
While Cornwallis was moving through the south, Washington had his eyes on a decisive battle with the British forces in New York City. In early 1781 French forces under the Comte de Rochambeau linked with the Continental Army just outside New York City.
While deliberating an attack, Washington received the news of Cornwallis’ entrenchment at Yorktown. It was also discovered that a large French fleet was making its way north from the West Indies and could assist in any operations outside Virginia.
Washington sensed an opportunity to entrap Cornwallis at Yorktown and quickly abandoned his battle plans for New York City. Roughly 8,000 French and American soldiers made haste to the south after leaving behind a sizable force to defend the Hudson Valley.
After nearly a month of transport, the combined forces arrived outside Yorktown. Cornwallis was surrounded with American and French forces cutting off land routes and the French fleet blockading him by sea.
On September 28th the battle, or siege of Yorktown, formally commenced. Little did the men know it, but the Battle of Yorktown would prove to be the decisive victory the Americans were looking for.
After digging trenches to move men and artillery closer to British positions, the barrage of armaments began on October 9th. Legend has it that Washington touched off the first cannon to begin the shelling.3
The British situation quickly became untenable. After a last ditch British counterattack and then escape attempt failed, on the morning of October 17th a British officer was spotted waving a white flag. The Americans had won the 1781 Battle of Yorktown.
The Battle of Yorktown Generals
The Battle of Yorktown featured several prominent generals and commanders from all forces involved. On the American side George Washington led and coordinated all American and French forces.
Brigadier General Henry Knox was also present as the Chief Artillery Officer of the Continental Army. His “Noble Train of Artillery” transporting the guns from Fort Ticonderoga earlier in the war was a legendary accomplishment.
Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton also featured in this battle. After threatening to resign his post as Washington’s Chief Staff aide over the lack of a field commander position, Washington relented and gave him command of a battalion of light infantry.
In the battle Hamilton and fellow lieutenant colonel John Laurens successfully assaulted a key British position at redoubt no. 10.
On the French side the overall leader of French forces was Jean Baptiste Comte de Rochambeau. A military veteran of nearly 40 years, his experience and advice was vital to the American cause.
Also present was the Marquis de Lafayette. Though just 24 years old, Lafayette had proven himself in battle throughout the revolution and earned the title of Major General. His forces were a primary reason Cornwallis was trapped at Yorktown in the first place.
On the British side the overall commander was Lord Charles Cornwallis. He was a proud man and refused to directly surrender to George Washington once they agreed upon terms of surrender.
He sent his second in command Charles O’Hara to deliver his sword, feigning illness. Washington famously ordered his own second in command, Benjamin Lincoln, to accept Cornwallis’ sword from O’Hara.
Despite his failure at Yorktown, British leaders did not blame Cornwallis for Britain’s defeat and he suffered no loss of prestige in the British military.
Why Was the 1781 Battle of Yorktown Important?
The 1781 Battle of Yorktown was extremely important in bringing about an end to the American Revolution. It would go on to be the last major battle of the American Revolution and its favorable result led directly to the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
British support for the war was already waning prior to the battle. The British had mere footholds on the eastern seaboard in a few cities, with little territory further inland.
British Prime Minister Lord North summed up the general British reaction best upon hearing the news of the surrender at Yorktown: “Oh God. It is all over. It is all over.” Lord North would go on to resign just weeks later.
By April of 1782 the Americans had sent a slew of diplomats to negotiate a peace with the British. The delegation included such legendary men as Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, John Adams, and Henry Laurens.
After a series of long negotiations, diplomats signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783 which officially recognized American independence from Britain. More than seven years after signing the Declaration of Independence, the Americans had triumphed in their battle for independence.
Following the surrender of Cornwallis’ men, nearly 7,000 British troops were captured. Though its authenticity is in doubt, legend has it that the British marched out of Yorktown to the tune of the popular song at the time “The World’s Turned Upside Down.”
It is hard to imagine that the citizens of the new American nation could have felt any differently.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Idzerda, Stanley J. “Indispensable Allies: The French at Yorktown.” The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), vol. 5, no. 4, 1981, pp. 166–77. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40256531.
2) Gay, Sydney Howard. “Why Cornwallis Was at Yorktown.” The North American Review, vol. 133, no. 299, 1881, pp. 368–78. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25101004.
3) Wright, John W. “Notes on the Siege of Yorktown in 1781 with Special Reference to the Conduct of a Siege in the Eighteenth Century.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 4, 1932, pp. 230–50. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1923261.