The Battle of Yorktown

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Podcast Transcript

In 1781, after six years of fighting, the American Revolution came to a dramatic conclusion. 

One of the two major British armies in the conflict found themselves trapped on a peninsula near Yorktown, Virginia. 

A combination of American and French forces laid siege to the British at Yorktown in what turned out to be the war’s final battle.

Learn more about the Battle of Yorktown and how cliched American independence on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

If you could have given odds at the start of the American Revolution, I would have given the Americans a less than ten percent chance of gaining independence.

The British had a better-trained and equipped army, they had more experienced officers, they had the world’s most powerful navy, and they had way more money. 

The Americans didn’t have a professional army. Their commander didn’t actually have much military experience. Most of all, they were basically broke. 

Their biggest assets were having home-field advantage and a large distance between themselves and Britain

Despite some initial success at the start of the war at the Siege of Boston, things didn’t go well for the Americans after that. The Battle of Long Island was an almost complete disaster that would have ended the entire revolution just a month after the Declaration of Independence. 

After the Battle of Long Island, Washington, at the behest of General Nathanael Greene, adopted a Fabian Strategy of playing defense and trying not to lose. Here I’ll refer you back to my episode on the Fabian Strategy. 

Washington, for the most part, avoided any large confrontations with the Britsh that he couldn’t win. This went on for several years. 

By the summer of 1781, the situation on the ground had changed considerably. 

For starters, the British army began campaigning in the south. For the most part, the fighting in the war up until this point had been in the north. The head of the British forces in the south, Lord Charles Cornwallis, had captured the cities and perhaps more importantly, the ports of Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina. 

He was now pursuing General Nathanael Greene, who always managed to stay one step ahead of Cornwallis. 

Further north, the Americans finally got some reinforcements from France. The Comte de Rochambeau landed with a force of 5,500 French soldiers in Newport, Rhode Island. 

The rest of the British forces were in New York City under the command of General Henry Clinton.

Washington was in the north with his army with Rochambeau and his plan was to team up with the French troops in an assult on New York City.

However, Washington met resistance from both his officers and the French regarding his plan. Rochambeau told Washington that the French fleet, under the leadership of the Comte de Grasse, was going to be sailing north from the Caribbean and the better plan would be to attack Conwallis’ forces in the south. 

Washington was convinced and planned a ruse. He would fool Henry Clinton in New York by creating a large camp which was easily in sight. He built large bread ovens which give off smoke, and he created fake documents indicating an intent to invade New York later in the year. 

What he really did was march most of his force south along with the French. 

The area which was shaping up to be the destination was Virginia. Earlier in 1781, Benedict Arnold led a small force that landed in Portsmouth and then went inland to raid Richmond. 

Cornwallis was coming north to Virginia with his army after a difficult victory at Guilford Court House, North Carolina. 

Washington had earlier sent the Count de Lafayette to deal with Arnold’s forces in Virginia. 

When Cornwallis arrived in Virginia, he took control over all the forces in the area. The order he received from General Clinton, who was his superior, was to go to Yorktown, which was a port that was used for exporting tobacco. 

Yorktown, it should be noted, is on a peninsula. 

Cornwallis began constructing a large defensive fortification. He built ten small forts known as redoubts. The redoubts were earthen structures with wooden palisades, and they were connected by trenches to allow units to move between the redoubts without getting shot. 

Cornwallis knew the position he was in was perilous. He had about 9,000 men, both British redcoats and German mercenaries, and needed reinforcements. He sent word to General Clinton who promised to send him 5,000 additional troops. 

Washington and Rochambeau, along with the American forces already in Virginia under the leadership of the Marquis de Lafayette, had arrived in Williamsburg on September 13, just 13 miles from Yorktown. 

The most important thing, however, weren’t actually the forces on the ground. The week before on September 5, the promised Comte de Grasse and the French Fleet had arrived in the Chessepake Bay. 

They encountered the British fleet which was sailing south to relieve Cornwallis under the leadership of the British Admiral Thomas Graves. 

They fought what became known as the Battle of the Chesapeake. 

The French fleet had a slight numerical advantage of 24 ships to the British’s 19. The resulting sea battle was by no means conclusive, but it was enough keep the British fleet and reinforcements away from Yorktown. 

Most people have never heard of the Battle of the Chesapeake, yet it was the critical naval battle which made the victory at Yorktown possible. If the British reinforcements and guns had arrived, it would probably have turned the tide of the battle. 

Back on land Washington’s forces began to dig a massive trench 2,000 yards long and about 800 yards in front of the British redoubts. 

Washington’s side consisted of American regulars, American militia, French regulars, some German’s of their own, and a smattering of Canadian volunteers. They had about 16-17,000 men under arms and had an almost 2-to-1 advantage. 

On October 9, they began a massive artillery bombardment of the fortified British position. 

For days they pounded the British positions, and by October 11, they had taken out most of the British guns. 

Washington ordered the construction of another trench 400 yards closer, but to complete the trench, it would require taking out the redoubt numbers 9 and 10. 

The attack on redoubt number 9 would be conducted by the French. The attack on redoubt number 10 would be led by one Alexander Hamilton. 

Hamilton had served as General Washingtons’ chief of staff during the war. It was a very important and prestigious position, but Hamilton, who sought a political career after the war, desperately wanted to be in a battle.

He needed to prove his valor in combat to buttress his reputation. 

Redoubt number 10 was his opportunity and quite literally his last chance. 

On October 14, Hamilton led a group of 400 men in a nighttime raid over the wall of the redoubt. They only used bayonets and didn’t even load their guns so they wouldn’t make a noise to alert the British. 

Hamilton managed to take the redoubt losing only nine men with 30 wounded.

The French likewise took rebout number 9 at a cost of 27 dead and 109 wounded.

With the redoubts taken, the Americans and French were able to complete the second trench, and the noose began to tighten around Cornwallis’ neck.

On October 15, Cornwallis launched a desperation attack at the American lines, but other than decommissioning a few cannon and taking a few prisoners, it achieved nothing. 

On the night of October 16, Cornwallis attempted to escape by ship, but his efforts were thwarted by a storm. 

At this point, having run out of options, with the morale of his troops incredibly low, and with teh enemy inching closer, Cornwallis was forced to surrender. 

On the morning of October 17 a drummer boy and a British officer came over the redbout waving a white handkerchief. Immediately upon seeing the white handkerchief, the guns on both sides fell silent. 

Negoiations began the next day between a representative of the British, Americans, and French. Washington kept the French involved in the negotiations because he didn’t want anything to fall apart between them at the last minute. 

Cornwallis demanded the traditional honors of war. He asked to be allowed to march out carry his colors flying, with bayonettes attached, while playing an American or French song to honor the victors. 

The Americans had given such honors to General John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga four years earlier. 

However, General Cornwallis refused to grant such honors to the Americans whe he took the city of Charlestown the year prior, so Washington refused it to him now. 

The British were forced to march out with their flags furled, their guns on their shoulder, and their band playing a British tune. 

This was actually a big deal at the time.

At the actual surrender ceremony, it was tradition for the ranking general on the losing side to surrender his sword to the victorious general. 

Cornwallis, however, refused to attend the ceremony and claimed an illness. In his place, his second in command, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, attended.

He tried to give his sword to General Rochambeau. Rochambeau, however, pointed to Washington as he was the senior officer. 

Washington, however, refused to accept the sword if Cornwallis wasn’t the one surrendering it, so it his second in command, General Benjamin Lincoln, who accepted it. 

The soldiers captured at Yorktown represented about a third of the British forces in America. The remained British troops were garrisoned in New York, Charleston, and Savannah. 

While the victory was a major battlefield win, the real impact of the Battle of Yorktown was in the British Parliament. 

News of the defeat took several months to cross the Atlantic, but when it did, it was like an explosion.  When Prime Minister Frederick North heard the news, he was reported to have shouted, “Oh God, it is all over!”

The war had been an expensive endeavor for the British, and it wasn’t the only conflict they had to worry about. They had concurrent conflicts in Ireland, the Caribbean, Gibraltar, and India they had to fight as well. 

The additional cost of having to replace Cornwallis’ army and continue the war for who knows how many years, and having to deal with the French in addition to that, was simply too much.

In March 1782, Parliament passed a resolution to end the war against the Americans. 

The Battle of Yorktown ended up being the last major military conflict of the American Revolution. 

It proved Washington’s strategy to be correct. He managed to avoid any major losses until he was albe to strike when the time was right. In the end, he looked a genius and it sealed Washington’s reputation.

The British and the now United States of America signed a formal peace treaty in Paris on September 3, 1783, and the last British troops left New York City on November 25, 1783. A day still celebrated at Evacuation Day. 

In the end, the Battle of Yorktown was an important battle, but it wasn’t a great battle. The Americans and French only had 88 killed and the British had around 200. 

Its importance lies in the fact that it was the first time in history that a colony in the new world managed to defeat and get independence from a European power. All it took was patience, opportunity…..and a lot of help from the French army and navy.