The Battle of Yorktown was the final battle of the American Revolutionary War that resulted in the surrender of General Charles Cornwallis to General George Washington. Although it is often called the “Battle of Yorktown,” it was not a battle but rather a siege that was brought on by a series of battles that left Cornwallis pinned down and surrounded by the French and American allies on land and sea. Once pinned down, Cornwallis lasted just under six weeks and surrendered his sword. While the war continued for two more years, Yorktown effectively ended it.
The war in the South looked grim for the rebels after the debacle at Camden. The army was routed, morale was low, and Cornwallis began working towards landing the final blow. When Nathanael Greene arrived, he was strapped with the difficult task of keeping the army intact. To do this, he enlisted the help of another accomplished commander, Daniel Morgan, and split his army, and began a retreat that would allow him to feed his army and stretch the supply lines of Cornwallis.
In response, Cornwallis split his army and placed his aggressive cavalry commander, Banastre Tarleton, in command of one wing while Cornwallis continued to chase Greene. Tarleton met disaster when Morgan achieved total victory against him at Cowpens. In less than an hour, Cornwallis had lost almost half of his men, and to make matters worse, British commander Patrick Ferguson and his loyalist regiment had been destroyed at Kings Mountain. Still, always the aggressor, Cornwallis continued to chase Greene, looking for that decisive victory.
Finally, Greene and Cornwallis met at Guilford Courthouse, where Cornwallis took the field but also took heavy losses. The victory came at a cost and forced Cornwallis to retreat. During his retreat, he successfully defeated the rebels at Hobkirk’s Hill, Ninety-Six, and Eutaw Springs, but each victory came at the cost of men he could not replace while his enemy's numbers continued to swell. Soon, he was forced from South Carolina and bunkered down in Yorktown. Here, he awaited orders from General Henry Clinton. Should he retreat to New York or Philadelphia?
Battle of Chesapeake Bay
Washington’s Achilles heel throughout the American Revolutionary War was the lack of a navy. There was some success in small skirmishes with rebel privateers and the Royal Navy, but the rebels were considered more of a nuisance than a problem. This all changed when the French allied themselves with America. The French Navy now forced the British to use their Navy to protect their interests in the West Indies and in India. They could no longer focus all of their resources on putting down a rebellion but rather were forced into another world conflict.
The French fleet under Admiral Comte de Grasse left the West Indies for the Chesapeake and sent word to General Washington that they would be available until October 14. At the time, Washington and his subordinates were discussing a possible attack to drive Henry Clinton from New York, but many of his officers were against it. After much deliberation, Washington received de Grasse’s message and decided that moving his army south would be the best option.
Comte de Grasse arrived at the Chesapeake Bay just before British Admiral Samuel Graves. Graves, surprised at the number of French ships, was forced to retreat. The French guns severely damaged the British ships and blocked access to the Chesapeake. Graves was left with no alternative but to retreat. Cornwallis’s plans were thwarted, and he was now surrounded. He had already established a solid defense of Yorktown, and now he was forced to bunker down and hope for the best. If he could inflict heavy casualties on the Continental Army, then perhaps that would give him an opportunity to retreat to New York.
The Battle Begins
Once learning that Cornwallis was trapped, Washington seized the opportunity to coördinate a siege with the French. He, along with Rochambeau, met with de Grasse aboard his flagship, La Ville de Paris. De Grasse assured Washington that the French Fleet would stay in place until at least October 31. The siege began on September 28.
The Allied Army was organized into three divisions:
Left Wing – Rochambeau commanded a French contingent of 7,800 men and was deployed on the left wing of the northwest sector of the siege line. Rochambeau’s army was made up of three infantry brigades, a heavy cavalry corps, and a large artillery corps.
Right Wing – Totaled 8,845 American troops and was divided into three divisions commanded by Major Generals Lincoln, Lafayette, and Von Steuben. Colonel Henry Knox commanded the artillery.
Far Right Wing – The Far Right Wing was made up of 3,200 Virginia militiamen commanded by Brigadier General Thomas Nelson Jr.
Additionally, General Washington deployed 1,500 Virginia militiamen under General George Weedon and 1,400 French troops under Duke de Lauzun across the York River to place the British under Banastre Tarleton under siege.
The fighting began with small skirmishes as troops began establishing patrols. The fighting intensified when British troops under Tarleton met an advancing Allied force under Duke de Lauzun. Lauzun and his cavalry attacked Tarleton’s dragoons, driving them back and almost killing/capturing Tarleton. The Green Dragoons reorganized and charged the American militia. The militia stood firm and forced Tarleton to retreat. It was the last battle that the villain of Waxhaws would fight in the American Revolutionary War.
Construction of the 1st Parallel
The Allies began to aggressively construct gabions to bolster trenches, fanciness, fraises, and saucissons to improve their lines. The British continued to lob volley after volley of artillery shells at the Allied troops, but were ineffective. On October 6, a French diversion at Fusiliers Redoubt turned the British attention away from the 1st parallel. The Allies quickly moved heavy artillery in place and began opening devastating fire on the British. The British began to suffer many casualties. With the 1st parallel in place, the Allies moved to dig a second siege line to strangle Cornwallis further and force him to surrender or face annihilation.
Construction of the 2nd Parallel
Washington began constructing a second siege line on October 11 and was spotted by Cornwallis the following morning. This parallel was in the musket and easy artillery distance from the British. Cornwallis ordered his men to fire on the workers, which forced the workers to stop their work. To make things more difficult for the Allies, the parallel ran into two strong British forts: the 9th and 10th Redoubts.
Washington decided to capture the redoubts and organized a masterful attack. He ordered the French to conduct a feint to the West of the main British line at Fusiliers Redoubt while simultaneously attacking the British at Gloucester’s Point. While forcing the British to extend themselves, he ordered Colonel Alexander Hamilton and Colonel William Deux Ponts to assault the redoubts under the cover of night. The plan was executed well and worked. Within ten minutes, Hamilton and Deux Ponts captured the redoubts.
Once captured, the Allies moved their artillery to the second parallel. Cornwallis was not completely exposed. He mustered a final attempt to break the siege and send a small detachment under General Abercrombie. Abercrombie was successful in driving the Americans from their positions but could not hold the line and was forced back to the main line. Under constant barrage of artillery fire, Cornwallis had one more plan. He ordered his men to cross the York River to Gloucester Point. Here, he would try to break the siege and somehow make his way back to Clinton. Bad Weather forced him to abort the plan. The end was near.
Surrender at YorktownOn October 17, 1781, General Cornwallis opened surrender negotiations. Soon, his entire army was captured, and he was placed on a sloop heading back to New York to tell General Clinton of the news. The victory was decisive, and the war would come to a close over the next couple of years. There were a few small skirmishes, but Yorktown ensured the end of the Revolution.
It was at the Battle of Yorktown that General George Washington displayed his brilliance as a field commander. His brilliance, along with French aid, allowed for its victory. De Grasse set sail from Yorktown to the West Indies to protect French interests there.
Later, Washington invited Cornwallis to dine with him. As was tradition of the day, the loser would give a toast to the victor. Cornwallis rose from the table and stretched out his glass. After a pause to get everyone’s attention, he said,
When the illustrious part your Excellency has borne in this long and arduous contest becomes a matter of history, fame will gather your brightest laurels rather from the banks of the Delaware than from those of the Chesapeake
Cornwallis was right.