When 28 September to 19 October 1781
Strength British – 9,000
Americans & French – 16,600
Following his costly victory at Guildford Courthouse, Cornwallis decided to abandon the Carolinas which had not come close to being subdued. He determined that the answer to ending the rebellion in the South was to cut off the flow of supplies to the Patriots from the North. This meant conquering Virginia. He then decided to join up with a small army that had been sent there to plunder and destroy Patriot stores. By late Summer, Cornwallis established a base at Yorktown, a natural deep-water harbor on the York River. There he waited for orders from, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton who dithered and sent three separate orders before deciding that Cornwallis should fortify his position so that he could be resupplied. Clinton then sent a small naval fleet led by Admiral Sir Thomas Graves to support Cornwallis.
In the Summer 1781, a French army led by the Comte de Rochambeau joined up with the Continental army led by General George Washington near New York City. Initially, Washington wanted to liberate the city but his officers and the French preferred to march south and attack the British in Virginia. Washington agreed to this plan after learning that a French naval fleet led by Rear Admiral Comte de Grasse was sailing from the Caribbean to Chesapeake Bay. Sensing an opportunity to trap Cornwallis and finally end the war Washington and his combined army rushed south to Yorktown.
Washington sent a small force of Continentals led by General Lafayette ahead of his own force to keep Cornwallis on the Yorktown peninsula. Cornwallis could have easily defeated Lafatette and marched south for the Carolinas or north to New York, but he believed Clinton was going to send him reinforcements to bolster his army, so he waited. However, the British position became desperate when the naval squadron sent to help them was defeated by the French at the Battle of Chesapeake Capes.
Washington’s army arrived in Yorktown in late September and immediately surrounded the British in a semi-circle, putting them under siege. Americans covered the British on the east of Yorktown while the French covered them from the west. The British had a chain of seven redoubts linked by earthworks which Cornwallis inexplicably abandoned except for one in the west and two in the east. The Americans and French immediately occupied the abandoned redoubts and their engineers then began building batteries. By 9 October the guns began firing. Day after day, nearly a hundred guns rained down a thunderous barrage of approximately 3,600 rounds upon Yorktown. The British hunkered down but casualties mounted. Cornwallis continued to hang on hoping that relief would arrive from New York.
After further engineering work to bring the guns closer, all that remained to end the siege was to capture the remaining British redoubts. The French planned to capture the redoubt in their sector and the Americans would capture redoubt Number 10. Alexander Hamilton commanding a New York light infantry battalion was given the responsibility of leading the American attack. The fight that followed resulted in desperate hand-to-hand combat but ultimately Hamilton won.
The guns pounded away for two more days before Cornwallis raised a flag of truce. He offered to talk but was instead stalling for time, hoping reinforcements would finally arrive. Washington refused to wait. He demanded Cornwallis surrender the next day or else the guns would open-up again. Cornwallis was left with no choice and surrendered.
The Battle of Yorktown was the last major battle of the war, when news of the British defeat at Yorktown arrived in London, Parliament voted to end the war. The government under Lord North collapsed and a new government led by the Earl of Sherlburne opened negotiations for peace but still the war rumbled on elsewhere until November 1782.
British – 309 killed / 595 wounded / 7685 captured
Americans/French – 88 killed / 301 wounded
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull, c.1820.
"The World Turned Upside Down" was allegedly played by the British as Cornwallis' army marched out to surrender to the Americans and French. According to tradition the band should have played a French tune but since Washington refused the British the Honors of War, as they had done to the Americans at Charles Town, the band played the tune which accompanied the lyric, "When the king enjoys his own again.