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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Washington Arrives At Yorktown, September 28, 1781

Today in 1781, Colonial General George Washington and French General Rochambeau arrived at Yorktown, Virginia with a combined force of 17,000 French and Colonial soldiers and militia from all thirteen colonies. They faced a force of more than 8,000 British soldiers, part of the finest army the world had ever seen. When the siege of Yorktown was over three weeks later, a new nation was all but guaranteed her freedom.

When General Rochambeau and General Washington met in May to plan their offensive against the British, their first choice of targets was New York. The city was occupied by 10,000 redcoats and its capture would be an important strategic as well as moral victory for the Colonial Army. The Americans took up position in several forts near the city to wait for the start of the offensive. The order never came.

French General Lafayette delivered a message to Washington in which has said that a large British force had dug in around Yorktown, Virginia. It was Lord General Cornwallis’s force, recently returned from battles in the southern colonies. His troops were in need of re-supply and were waiting in Yorktown to link up with the Royal Navy. Washington and Rochambeau quickly abandoned their plans for New York and headed south, leaving 2,500 soldiers in the forts near New York to make the British think that the entire force was still there.

As the French and American forces moved towards Yorktown, French Admiral de Grasse was sailing towards the Chesapeake Bay. He intended to cut off Yorktown from the sea. De Grasse’s fleet of 28 ships beat back the British fleet under Admiral Thomas Graves. With the French in control of the Bay and the allied army moving overland, Cornwallis had nowhere to go.

Washington quickly had Yorktown surrounded and began what would become three weeks of intense shelling against the British positions inside the city. One of the Americans present was Thomas Nelson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a resident of Yorktown. In a selfless act of sacrifice, he urged General Washington to shell his own home because Cornwallis was using it as his headquarters.

Cornwallis signaled his intent to surrender on October 17, but the actual surrender ceremony did not take place until the 19th. Cornwallis sent his second-in-command to surrender to the French, who promptly sent him to General Washington. Seeing that Cornwallis was not present, Washington sent the man to his second-in-command to accept the surrender. As the ceremony took place, the British band played a popular tune entitled, “The World Turned Upside Down”.

Although the Revolutionary War would continue for almost two years, Yorktown was its final, decisive battle. The surrender of 8,000 soldiers (25% of all the British troops in the colonies) made the government in London realize that a continued war would be much too costly.

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