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Battle of Yorktown

Battle of Yorktown

For the Americans, the final victory of the Revolutionary War, and for the British, the final humiliation. Though there will be some skirmishes after this battle, as the news of England's surrender and the negotiations over the Treaty of Paris begin, the Battle of Yorktown is considered the last major conflict between the American and British forces.

The Battle of Yorktown Context

Since the opening shots and volleys at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the American and British troops moved around the American continent, engaging in battle, for more than six years. Both armies were near the point of exhaustion. The Americans were experiencing issues with funding and paying soldiers' wages, enlistments were ending, and their troops were split. A force resided in the north outside of New York City, and a depleted force in the south had been victorious but taken heavy casualties. The British were fighting on foreign soil, their supply lines stretched across the Atlantic Ocean, and they were also at war with France and Spain, incurring heavy debt and growing weary of their fight with the Americans.

Since the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga, the northern campaigns had become a defensive engagement. The British were happy to hold the city of New York, and the Americans, under the command of General George Washington, were happy to keep them in the town. The British held New York and embarked on a new strategy to invade the south. Initially, the British successfully took Savannah and Charleston and moved inland. However, by 1780, the British found themselves backed up to the coast after several devastating American attacks, such as the Battle of Cowpens and Camden. The British retreated to the city of Wilmington, North Carolina, under the command of Charles Lord Cornwallis. He desperately needed more men and supplies and, anticipating a resupply, moved his 9,000 troops north to a peninsula in Virginia to occupy the town of Yorktown.

Did you know? By the spring of 1781, Washington had to decide whether to engage the British garrison in New York City or move his army south to join the Southern Continental Army and engage the forces at Yorktown. Washington and his French counterpart, General Comte de Rochambeau, decided to move south, as the French fleet would sail out of the Caribbean and would have the ability to meet them in Virginia at an early date than if they were to sail to New York.

The Battle of Yorktown Summary

The Battle of Yorktown is not typical. It lasted almost a month; it was a siege.

Battle of Yorktown Date

By the fall of 1781, the British forces under Cornwallis were embattled and dug into defensive positions in Yorktown, awaiting much-needed reinforcements. Washington received word that the French navy could move out of the Caribbean and rendezvous near Virginia. Washington anticipated using the naval guns and the army artillery to lay siege to Cornwallis’s troops.

Did you know? Washington moved his 8,000 men south to join General Nathanael Greene’s Southern Army of 12,000 men and other militia. Their allied force with the French outnumbered the British force in Yorktown almost two to one.

September 5, 1781: French and British Naval Engagement

On September 5, as Washington and Rochambeau were en route south, the French fleet, under the command of Admiral Comte de Grasse, intercepted the British fleet sailing south to re-enforce Cornwallis near the Chesapeake Bay. The Battle of the Capes began in a quick but violent engagement off the coast that saw the British defeated and forced to return to New York, abandoning Cornwallis. The French fleet took up an embargoed position around the cape near Yorktown and prepared to lay siege with cannons.

Embargoed position

A physical blockade of naval ships surrounding an enemy position to cut off food supplies and munitions and block any means of retreat.

September 28, 1781: Washington’s Army Arrived outside of Yorktown

After an intense 400-mile march from New York City, Washington’s Northern Continental Army and Rochambeau’s French units' combined forces arrived at Yorktown on September 28, 1781. Washington prepared for an immediate siege of the town and attacked the British defenses around the city.

Battle of Yorktown General Lord Cornwallis StudySmarterFig. 1 - A portrait of General Lord Charles Cornwallis by John Singleton Copley

The Allied forces began a plan of offensive trench warfare. The armies dug parallel trenches up to the British redoubts to cover the advancing troops from the entrenched British artillery. Though the British attempted to stop the advancing trenches, their efforts fell short, and Cornwallis was wary of using up his minimal supply of artillery shells.

Redoubts

A temporary defensive fortification often consisting of mounds of dirt and timber, usually in geometric shapes emphasizing defenses forward and not to the flanks.

October 9, 1781: The Allied Barrage Began

The trenches were completed by the morning of October 9. Before Washington gave the order to advance on the British defenses, he engaged the artillery in a massive barrage of the town and the British defensive redoubts. “Three 24-pounders, three 18-pounders, two 8-inch (203 mm) howitzers, and six mortars, totaling 14 guns”1 began to fire upon and pound the British position constantly.

Did you know? They continued this unrelenting fire for a week, creating gaps in the British line and devastating British morale.

October 11, 1781: Allied Troops Advanced

Under cover of the continuous barrage of land and naval cannon, the armies dug an additional parallel trench closer to the British positions in the gaps created by the artillery attacks. Though the British successfully stopped the American forces from extending the trenches to their desired locations near the river, by the morning of October 12, all channels leading to the British were complete.

October 14, 1781: The Attack Began

The attack began with a diversionary assault at 6:30pm to make the British believe the Allied forces were attempting to attack the town. While that attack began, the actual American forces, under the command of Alexander Hamilton, moved under cover of darkness with stealth to attack the British redoubts defending the city.

Having not loaded their muskets and fixed bayonets, the American forces moved down the trenches with 400 men. The Americans arrived at the fortifications and began to dismantle them with hatchets. The hacking alerted the British, who opened fire. However, the British were too close and too outnumbered to be effective. After intense hand-to-hand combat, the Americans overwhelmed the British defenses, inflicting heavy casualties on the British while taking very few.

Battle of Yorktown The Storming of Redoubt 10 StudySmarterFig. 2 - "The Storming of Redoubt #10 during the Siege of Yorktown" by Eugene Lami, 1840

At the same time, the French sent troops to attack other redoubts and pushed the British back into the town. After the built-up defenses fell, Cornwallis found himself surrounded by artillery on three sides: the French navy surrounding the peninsula and more Allied artillery positioning themselves in the former British positions.

Did you know? To save face, Cornwallis ordered a counterattack on October 15, which was unsuccessful.

October 17, 1781: The British Began to Capitulate

On the morning of October 17, Lord Cornwallis sent an officer and drummer boy to the front of the British lines with a white flag tied to a sword. The blindfolded officer was brought to General Washington to secure the terms of surrender of the British forces.

October 19, 1781: Cornwallis Surrendered his Forces at Yorktown

In a nearby field, Cornwallis officially surrendered his British and Hessian troops to George Washington.

Battle of Yorktown The Surrender of Cornwallis StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull

Battle of Yorktown Map

The following maps show the positions and maneuvers of the significant engagements during the Battle of Yorktown.

The map below shows the approximate troop movements of General Washington's forces, General Cornwallis's British forces, and the location of the French fleet engagement, as described in September 5, 1781, and September 18, 1781 sections above.

Battle of Yorktown Map of the Moving Forces before battle StudySmarterFig. 4 - This map shows Washington's march from New York to Yorktown and the approximate Battle of the Capes location

The map below shows the approximate positions of the American, British, and French forces during the two-week-long siege of the British army in Yorktown from September 6, 1781 through to October 20, 1781.

Battle of Yorktown Map of the American Siege StudySmarterFig. 5 - This map shows the American and French forces' locations, positions, and movements during the two-week siege of Yorktown

Battle of Yorktown Facts

The following table shows the casualty numbers for the Americans and British at the Battle of Yorktown.

StatisticAmericanBritish
Forces Engaged19,0009,000
Killed88142
Wounded301326
Missing or Captured07,416
Total Casualties3898,589

Figures are taken from the American Battlefield Trust.1

Battle of Yorktown Significance

The surrender of Lord Cornwallis’s force marked the end of the British war effort, and besides some outlier battles with indigenous allies of the British and pockets of Loyalist resistance, ended the military conflict between the Americans and the British in the Revolutionary War.

The reports of the surrender in London on November 25, 1781 solidified the war's end for many worn-down Britons, who saw the war as too costly and incurring too many casualties. Parliament ordered peace negotiations to begin on March 5, 1782. The American delegation, led by John Adams and the British representatives, took two years to negotiate the peace and independence of the American colonies, now states under the Articles of Confederation. Though the process took a couple of years, the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783. The victory at Yorktown had won the war for the Americans.

Battle of Yorktown - Key takeaways

  • By the fall of 1781, the British forces under Cornwallis were embattled and dug into defensive positions in Yorktown, awaiting much-needed reinforcements.

  • Washington received word that the French navy could move out of the Caribbean and rendezvous near Virginia. Washington anticipated using the naval guns and the army artillery to lay siege to Cornwallis’s troops.

  • Washington’s Northern Continental Army and Rochambeau’s French units' combined forces arrived at Yorktown on September 28, 1781. The Allied forces began a plan of offensive trench warfare. The trenches were completed by the morning of October 9, 1781.

  • Washington engaged the artillery in a massive barrage of the town and the British defensive redoubts. They continued unrelenting fire for a week.

  • The attack began with a diversionary assault whilst the actual American forces, under the command of Alexander Hamilton, engaged in intense hand-to-hand combat. The Americans overwhelmed the British defenses and inflicted heavy casualties on the British while taking very few.

  • On the morning of October 17, Lord Cornwallis sent an officer and drummer boy to the front of the British lines with a white flag tied to a sword. The blindfolded officer was brought to General Washington to secure the terms of surrender of the British forces.

  • The surrender of Lord Cornwallis’s force marked the end of the British war effort and the victory at Yorktown won the war for the Americans. Though the process took a couple of years, the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783.


References

  1. 'Yorktown: Siege of Yorktown', American Battlefield Trust, no date.

Frequently Asked Questions about Battle of Yorktown

The American Continental Army won the Battle of Yorktown over the British forces commanded by General Lord Cornwallis. 

The Battle of Yorktown lasted from September 6th, 1781, to October 19, 1781. 

The Battle of Yorktown was the last significant engagement between the Americans and the British during the American Revolutionary War, effectively ending the war with an American victory. 

The Battle of Yorktown was important because it effectively ended the American Revolution. The last main British force in the American colonies was defeated, and the British parliament moved to end the war and grant the American colonies full independence. 

The Battle of Yorktown was a two week long battle and siege by American forces on the last major British force in the American colonies during the American Revolution. The American victory forced the British to surrender and end the American Revolutionary War, leading to the Treaty of Paris in 1783. 

Final Battle of Yorktown Quiz

Question

When did the land forces of the Americans and British first encounter each other during the Battle of Yorktown? 

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Answer

September 28, 1781.

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Question

Which naval encounter preceded the Battle of Yorktown, and allowed the French to embargo the city? 

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Answer

The Battle of the Capes.

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Question

________________ was the commander of the French forces allied with the Americans. 

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Answer

General Rochambeau.

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Question

Who was the commander of the British forces at Yorktown? 

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Answer

General Charles Lord Cornwallis. 

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Question

What defensive fortification did the Americans utilize as an offensive tactic to get close to the British defenses? 

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Answer

Trench Warfare. 

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Question

How long did the American and French artillery bombard the British defenses and the city of Yorktown? 

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Answer

One week, October 9 to 14, 1781. 

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Question

___________ led the American night assault on the British redoubts on October 14, 1781. 

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Answer

Alexander Hamilton. 

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Question

What city were George Washington's forces in a defensive position around before their march to Yorktown, Virginia? 

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Answer

New York City. 

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Question

On October 19, 1781, General Cornwallis surrendered approximately how many troops to the Americans, ending the battle? 

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Answer

7,500 soldiers. 

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Question

What is the effect of the British loss at the Battle of Yorktown? 

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Answer

The surrender of Lord Cornwallis’s force marks the end of the British war effort. 

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Question

What is the name of the peace agreement between the United States and England signed on September 3, 1783? 

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Answer

The Treaty of Paris.

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