Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown
by John Trumball (1797)
On September 28, 1781 an allied army made up of American and French soldiers began the siege of British forces under the command of Lt. General Cornwallis in Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis' command of some 6,000 soldiers were divided between the towns of Yorktown and Gloucester on opposite sides of the banks of the York River.
Prior to his advance into Virginia, Cornwallis had been campaigning in the Carolina's. Without authorization from his superior in New York, Gen. Clinton, Cornwallis decided to invade Virginia in the hope of having greater success in that state. Gen. Lafayette, commanding militia, followed Cornwallis and his small army into Virginia and sent word to Gen. Washington in New York of Cornwallis' location.
Gen. Washington and his French counterpart, Gen. Comte de Rochambeau, together devised a plan to trap Cornwallis. Taking advantage of (temporary) French naval superiority, a French fleet under Admiral de Grasse was dispatched to the Chesapeake to prevent British reinforcement or escape by sea. Washington and Rochambeau, along with some 7,000 soldiers, quickly marched south to Virginia. Upon arrival the army quickly surrounded Yorktown and began conducting siege operations. With the addition of some 3,000 from Admiral de Grasse's fleet, Lafayette's militia and other allied forces, the British were now outnumbered by more than two-to-one.
Trenches were built closer and closer to the British lines. As soon as they were able the allied force began a heavy artillery bombardment of Yorktown and the British positions. The British attempts to break through the enemy lines failed and with the loss of two important redoubts, #9 and #10, the situation was rapidly becoming untenable. Finally with supplies running low and receiving word of the delay of the arrival of a relief force from New York, on October 17 Gen. Cornwallis sent word that he would surrender his forces unconditionally.
The surrender documents were signed on October 19. Marching out in regimental formation, British and Hessian soldiers surrendered their colors and laid down their arms in front of the massed columns of American and French soldiers. Claiming illness, Gen. Cornwallis sent his second in command to formally surrender his sword to the victors. Gen. Washington sent his senior commander, Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, to accept the surrender. According to tradition, British musicians played "The World Turned Upside Down" during the ceremonies.
News of the loss of yet another major British command (Gen. Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga brought the French openly into the war) was devastating to the British government. Once a new government was formed (in 1782) serious peace negotiations were begun. Although it would be two years before the Treaty of Paris was signed, the victory at Yorktown effectively ended the major fighting in America's War for Independence.