Siege of Yorktown

Infobox Military Conflict
|conflict=Siege of Yorktown
|partof=the American Revolutionary War

|caption= "Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown"
by John Trumbull. Oil on canvas, 1820.
|date=September 28 - October 19 1781
|place=Yorktown, Virginia
|result=Decisive Franco-American victory
|combatant2=flagicon|UK|1606 Great Britain flagicon|Hesse Hessian
|combatant1=flag|United States|1777
flagicon|France|royal Kingdom of France
|commander2= flagicon|UK|1606 Charles CornwallisPOW
|commander1=flagicon|USA|1777 George Washington
flagicon|France|royal Jean-Baptiste Ponton de Rochambeau
flagicon|France|royal François de Grasse

|strength2=9,000 soldiersLengel p.337]
|strength1=American 8,000 soldiers 3,100 militia
7,800 soldiers
29 war shipsLengel p.337]
|casualties2=156 killed, 326 wounded, 7,018 captured [Tarleton’s Campaigns gives casualties as: 159 killed, 328 wounded, 70 missing and 7,247 captured. A note on a General Return by Adjutant estimated that 309 were killed during siege and 44 deserters killed as well but does not break these estimates down by units.]
|casualties1=72 killed
180 wounded [French: 52 killed, 134 wounded. Americans: 20 killed, 56 wounded.] |

The Siege of Yorktown or Battle of Yorktown in 1781 was a decisive victory by a combined assault of American forces led by General George Washington and French forces led by General Comte de Rochambeau over a British Army commanded by General Lord Cornwallis. It proved to be the last major land battle of the American Revolutionary War, as the surrender of Cornwallis’s army (the second major surrender of the war) prompted the British government to eventually negotiate an end to the conflict.


Franco-American Cooperation

On December 20, 1780, Benedict Arnold sailed from New York with 1,500 troops to Portsmouth, Virginia. On his way, he raided Richmond, defeating the militia, from January 5th-7th before falling back to Portsmouth.Lengel p.328] Admiral Destouches, who had arrived in Newport, Rhode Island in July of 1780 with a fleet with 5,500 soldiers, was encouraged by Washington and French Lieutenant General Rochambeau, to bring his fleet south, and launch a joint land-naval attack onto Arnold's troops.Lengel p.328] The Marquis de Lafayette was sent south with 1,200 men to help with the assault.Lengel p.329] However, Detouches was reluctant to dispatch many ships, and only sent a few to start with. After they proved to be ineffective, he sent a larger force of 11 ships in March 1781, but they were defeated by British Fleet at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.Lengel p.329]

On March 26th, Arnold was reinforced with 2,600 troops under command of Major General William Phillips.Lengel p.329] After Phillips's arrival, Arnold resumed his raiding, defeating militia, and then burning warehouses of tobacco at Petersburg on April 25th. Richmond was about to suffer the same fate, but then Lafayette arrived, and the British not wanting to engage in a major battle, withdrew to Petersburg.Lengel p.329]

In mid May, Charles Cornwallis arrived with 1,500 men after suffering heavy casualties at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.Lengel p.329] Cornwallis had not received permission to abandon the Carolinas from his superior, Henry Clinton, but he believed that Virginia would be easier to conquer, feeling that it favored an invading army.Lengel p.329]

With the arrival of Cornwallis and more reinforcements from New York, the British Army numbered 7,200 men.Lengel p.330] Cornwallis wanted to push Lafayette, whose force now numbered 3,000 men with the arrival of militia, before falling back to Yorktown to resupply.Lengel p.330] On May 24th, he set out after Lafayette, but Lafayette withdrew from Richmond, and linked up with forces under the command of Baron Von Steuben and Anthony Wayne.Lengel p.330] Cornwallis did not pursue Lafayette; instead, he sent raiders into central Virginia, attacking depots and wrecking supply convoys, before recalling them on June 20th. Cornwallis headed for Yorktown, while Lafayette's force of now 4,500 men followed skirmishing several times with Cornwallis before Cornwallis reached Yorktown, and began to build fortifications. [Lengel p.331]

Meanwhile outside of New York, Washington and Rochambeau discussed where they should launch a joint attack.Lengel p.332] Washington believed that an attack on New York was the best option, as the Americans and French outnumbered them 3 to 1. Rochambeau disagreed, arguing that the fleet under Admiral de Grasse, which was headed to the West Indies, was going to head to the American coast afterwards where easier operations other than attacking New York could be done.Lengel p.332] The French and American armies met up at White Plains, New York on July 6th. In early July, Washington suggested that an attack be made at the northern part of Manhattan Island, but both his officers and Rochambeau disagreed.Lengel p.333] Washington continued to probe the New York area, until August 14th when he received a letter from de Grasse that he was headed to Virginia with 29 warships and 3,200 men, but could not remain there past mid-October.Lengel p.333] de Grasse encouraged Washington to come south where they could launch a joint operation. Upon receiving this news, Washington abandoned his plan to take New York, and began to prepare his army for the march south to Virginia.Lengel p.335]

March to Virginia

The march to Yorktown began on August 19th.Lengel p.335] 4,000 French and 3,000 American soldiers began the march, while the rest remained behined to protect the Hudson Valley. The armies paraded through Philadelphia from September 2 to 4, where the soldiers proclaimed that they would not leave Maryland until they received one months pay, and the Continental Congress complied, giving them the money.Lengel p.335] On September 5, Washington learned of the arrival of de Grasse's fleet off the Virginia Capes. His French troops departed and joined Lafayette, and de Grasse sent his empty transports to pick up the American troops.Lengel p.335] Washington made a visit to his home, Mount Vernon, on his way to Yorktown.Lengel p.336]

In August, Clinton sent a fleet from New York to attack de Grasse's fleet. Clinton did not realize how large the French Fleet was, and neither did Cornwallis.Lengel p.336] The British fleet, under command of Thomas Graves, was defeated by de Grasse's fleet, and forced to fall back to New York.Lengel p.336] On September 14th, Washington arrived in Williamsburg.Lengel p.336]

The Battle

On September 28, 1781, Washington and Rochambeau, along with Lafayette’s troops and 3,000 of de Grasse’s men, arrived at Yorktown. With them was the 2nd Canadian Regiment lead by Brigadier General Moses Hazen. In all, nearly 20,000 men converged on the camp established by Cornwallis. With the arrival of these troops, the stranded British forces in Yorktown were outnumbered by a two-to-one margin and were then subjected to heavy fire as work began on a siege line.

When Cornwallis pulled his troops back, the allies began to dig their trenches. The trenches were built parallel to the British fortifications so that artillery could be moved in to fire at the defenders. Anderson p.32] By October 6th, the trenches were finished. Over the next couple of days redoubts and secondary trenches were built for extra protection. During this time, the British fired artillery shells onto the allies, but no major losses were suffered.Anderson p.33] On October 9th, George Washington took the honor of firing the first gun. The allies continued to bombard the British, at first working on artillery. The fire proved so heavy, the British were only able to shoot back during the night. Anderson p.33]

Offshore, the French fleet effectively blocked aid for Cornwallis, while Washington made life unbearable for the British troops with three weeks of shelling. The Allies placed up to 375 guns, mortars and siege weaponry along their lines to bombard Yorktown. The siege guns fired an average 1.2 shells or bombs every minute, or 1,728 per day. By the time the Siege ended, some 36,288 shots were fired into Yorktown. Although the British had 240 pieces of artillery - consisting mainly of light guns and mortars - they had no horses to drag their guns into position, so they were of very little use. Cornwallis, realizing the scope of his predicament, managed to send a message to Major-General Henry Clinton in New York. Clinton promised that a relief expedition carrying 5,000 men would leave by October 5. Meanwhile, the British and Franco-American forces continued to dig in and improve their respective earthworks.

During the bombardment, the allies also attacked the town. The main attacks were on the better houses, believing that British officers were staying there. Twice, Cornwallis was forced to move his headquarters due to the shelling.Anderson p.34] The remaining civilians began to flee to the riverbank.

On October 11, the allies started a second siege line only convert|400|yd|m|1|lk=on away from the British forces. Three days later, the French and Americans captured two major British redoubts: the French, under the command of Wilhelm de Forbach, took redoubt 9, while the Americans, under the command of Alexander Hamilton, took redoubt 10. This completed the second siege line and the close investment of the British garrison.

While the allies surrounded his position, Cornwallis learned that Clinton's relief force from New York was going to be late. On October 16, a British attack, intended to silence a French battery, failed. The allied batteries, from their closer second siege line, were now firing directly into the British defensive works. That night, Cornwallis attempted to pass part of his force north across the York River, to Banastre Tarleton's position on Gloucester Point. The maneuver was thwarted by a thunderstorm.

Faced with a dwindling supply of food and ammunition, and still awaiting relief from Clinton, Cornwallis offered to surrender unconditionally on October 17. Cornwallis declined to appear at the surrender ceremony or to surrender his sword (a custom at the time) to General Washington, claiming illness and sending his second in command Brigadier Charles O'Hara instead. Washington refused to accept the surrender from O'Hara, and so the deputy surrendered to Washington's subordinate, General Benjamin Lincoln. When the British forces came out, their drummers played the march, "The World Turned Upside Down."Alden p.474]


On 19 October, the papers were signed by Cornwallis and Thomas Symonds (the most senior naval officer present), and the pair officially surrendered. Over 7,000 British troops became prisoners of the American forces. Five days after the surrender, Clinton's relief arrived.


*cite book|last=Alden|first=John|authorid=|title=A History of the british,an Revolution |location=New York|publisher=Da Capo Press |year=1969|isbn=
*cite book|last=Anderson|first=Dale|authorid=|title=The Battle of Yorktown |location=|publisher=Gareth Stevens Publishing |year=2004|isbn=
*cite book|last=Lengel|first=Edward|authorid=Edward G. Lengel|title=General George Washington|location=New York|publisher=Random House Paperbacks|year=2005|isbn=0812969502|


See also

* Yorktown order of battle
* Battle of Yorktown (1862), the American Civil War battle
* USS "Yorktown", for a list of U.S. Navy ships named after the battle

External links

* [ Order of battle] at Yorktown
* [ The Role of the Spanish and Latin Americans in the Battle of Yorktown ]
* 1931 Army War College [ history] of the siege
* [ Siege of Yorktown website]
* [ Articles of Capitulation at Yorktown.]

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