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Siege and Battle of Yorktown

September 28-October 19, 1781; the last major battle of the Revolutionary War

In 1781, the British Army in America was being commanded by General Henry Clinton and was headquartered in New York City, New York. By this time the ranks of the Continental Army had been supplemented by French troops and for the first time in the Revolutionary War the British Army was outnumbered. General George Washington wanted to take advantage of his situation and launch an attack on the British at New York City, but French Lieutenant General Comte de Rochambeau disagreed, arguing that an attack on Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis in Virginia would be more effective. Rochambeau's argument was made stronger when, on August 14, Washington received word that Admiral Comte de Grasse was heading to Virginia with 29 warships and 3,200 men, but would only remain there until October 14. De Grasse encouraged Washington to come south and mount a joint American-French operation against Cornwallis, who by then had encamped his army at Yorktown. Washington finally abandoned his plan to attack New York, and began preparing his men for the march south.

On August 21, a combined American and French force of about 16,600 troops marched out of White Plains, New York, toward Yorktown, while the French fleet sailed along the coast. On September 5, a British fleet commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves encounted de Grasse's fleet in Chesapeake Bay, and was quickly forced to turn back. The American-French army reached Williamsburg on September 17, and was joined by forces led by the Marquis de Lafayette. After meeting with de Grasse aboard the French flagship and receiving assurances that the French fleet would keep Cornwallis from being rescued by sea, Washington resumed the march to Yorktown.

general movements of the Allies
general movements of the Allies

The American-French army arrived outside Yorktown on September 28 and immediately established siege positions, with American forces deploying to the right and French forces to the left. Washington himself spent most of that day reconnoitering the British defenses, and ultimately decided they could be bombarded into submission. The next day, Washington moved the army closer to Yorktown, and British gunners opened fire on the infantry. Although British cannons fired on the Americans throughout the day, there were few casualties. Seeing that he was outnumbered almost two-to-one, Cornwallis chose to pull his men away from his forward redoubts and await promised reinforcements rather than launch an assault or attempt an escape. The Americans and French immediately occupied the abandoned redoubts and established batteries on them. De Grasse's fleet arrived at the mouth of the York River on the 30th, and Cornwallis was now trapped between the sea and a massive American-French army.

With the Siege of Yorktown now fully in place, the Americans began digging parallels, establishing artillery placements, and foiling British foraging parties. Meanwhile, the British kept up a steady stream of artillery fire in an effort to disrupt the allies, who suffered moderate casualties as a result. On October 7, the British saw a newly-completed allied trench just out of musket range. By the 9th the allies had completed all of their gun placements and had dragged all of their artillery into line. The French guns opened fire about 3:00 pm, and Washington himself fired the first American gun two hours later. The allied barrage continued throughout that day and into the next, resulting in massive damage to the British defenses and the sinking of several British ships. Meanwhile, Cornwallis received word from Clinton that the British fleet was to depart from New York on October 12, but Cornwallis responded with a message that he would not be able to hold out that long.

General Washington firing the first shot
General Washington firing the first shot

While the American and French artillery were busy bombarding the British, the rest of Washington's army was engaged in extending trenches. On the 14th, French and Americans stormed the last two British redoubts. Redoubt #9 was taken by French soldiers under General Count William Deux-Ponts; Redoubt #10 was taken by Americans under Colonel Alexander Hamilton. With these redoubts captured, Washington was able to have his artillery shell Yorktown from three directions. On the night of the 15th, Cornwallis sent out a sortie under Colonel Robert Abercrombie in which several guns were spiked; all of the guns were quickly repaired, however. On the morning of the 16th, Cornwallis tried to evacuate some of his troops across the York River to Gloucester Point, from where they would attempt to make their way to New York. One wave of boats made it across, but the rest of the evacuation was thwarted by a sudden storm.

By October 17 Cornwallis knew his situation was hopeless, and at 9 am he sent out a white flag and asked for Washington's terms. The formal surrender of Cornwallis's army came on October 19. Citing illness, Cornwallis sent his second-in-command, Brigadier General Charles O'Hara, to deliver his sword and acceptance of Washington's surrender terms. O'Hara initially tried to give the sword to the Marquis de Lafayette, but Lafayette instructed him to hand it to General Washington. Somewhat insulted that Cornwallis refused to appear, Washington in turn told O'Hara to surrender Cornwallis's sword to Major General Benjamin Lincoln, his second-in-command. With the formal exchange finally concluded, the Battle of Yorktown was over. The last major engagement of the Revolutionary War had left 156 British soldiers dead, 326 wounded, and another 6,000 taken prisoner; the allies suffered a total of 72 killed and 180 wounded.

the surrender of Cornwallis
the surrender of Cornwallis


British Battles

See Also

New York City
George Washington
Comte de Rochambeau
Admiral Comte de Grasse
Marquis de Lafayette
Alexander Hamilton

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The Robinson Library >> The Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Campaigns and Battles

This page was last updated on February 10, 2019.