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Monday, October 16, 2006

British Surrender At Yorktown, October 17, 1781

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Today in 1781, British General Lord Charles Cornwallis offered to surrender to an allied force of American and French soldiers surrounding his troops at Yorktown, Virginia. Although no one realized it at the time, this battle marked the beginning of the end of the American War for Independence.

When General Washington met French General Rochambeau in Connecticut in May, 1781, they agreed that their next move should be against the British Army at New York City, a force of 10,000 men. But while Washington and his Continental Army were encamped at Dobbs Ferry in New York state, news arrived that changed the plan: General Cornwallis had set up defenses at Yorktown, Virginia. His force of 7,000 men had been fighting in the southern colonies for nearly two years and while they had experienced some success, they were low on supplies and in need of reinforcement. This was mainly due to the fact that they had been harassed by General Nathaniel Greene during most of their travels. Greene was a proponent of small unit engagements and sneak attacks, methods that were not unknown to European armies but were certainly not as well-embraced as the large set battles that were so common at the time. Cornwallis planned to set up a defensive perimeter at Yorktown and wait for the Royal Navy to deliver the men and supplies he so desperately needed.

What Cornwallis had no way of knowing was that a French naval force under the command of Admiral de Grasse was heading towards Chesapeake Bay from the West Indies with orders to stop the Royal Navy from re-supplying the forces at Yorktown. Washington received this welcome news on August 14 and began to move his army south a week later. Also on the move was French General Lafayette, who had first told Washington of Cornwallis' plan. While these two forces converged on Yorktown, de Grasse's battle group arrived and defeated Admiral Thomas Graves' fleet in what would become known as the Battle of the Chesapeake. The French Navy now controlled the sea approaches to Yorktown.

On September 28, Generals Washington, Rochambeau and Lafayette arrived at Yorktown and were met by 3,000 of de Grasse's men. All told, 17,000 troops surrounded the British force. With no route of escape and dwindling supplies, it was only a matter of time. The city was soon under heavy fire and on October 14 American and French forces captured two important British defensive positions. A counterattack was organized, but to no avail.

Knowing that the situation was hopeless, Cornwallis offered his surrender on October 17, 1781. A formal surrender ceremony took place soon thereafter, but Cornwallis claimed illness and did not attend. His deputy tried to surrender to General Rochambeau as a slight against the Americans, but the Frenchman said, "Sir, you are mistaken; the general of our army is to the right" and pointed him towards General Washington. Washington would not accept the surrender himself because Cornwallis was not present. Instead, he had the deputy surrender to General Benjamin Lincoln. Casualties on both sides were surprisingly light compared to other battles of the war; both armies lost fewer than 200 men.

The British prisoners, 7,000 in all, were almost 25% of all the crown's forces in the colonies. Still, it was assumed that the fighting would continue. But when news of the surrender reached London, a vote of no confidence was levied against Prime Minister Lord North, the first in that nation's history. His successor wanted no part of the ever more expensive war, and negotiations for a peace treaty were begun. Some small battles took place over the next two years, but Yorktown assured the American colonies their freedom as an independent nation.

Many generations of Americans have been taught that the British played an old tune, "The World Turned Upside Down" during the surrender. While such a tune does exist (it was probably written in the middle of the 17th century, or more than 100 years before Yorktown), there is absolutely no evidence that it was performed that day. In fact, the first mention of such a performance was in 1828, 47 years after the surrender.

1 comment:


Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.