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Battle of Yorktown (1781)

The Battle of Yorktown (1781) was the final decisive battle of the American Revolutionary War fought between George Washington leading the American forces, General Rochambeau with an allied French force, and Charles Cornwallis commanding the largest British force in the colonies.

Table of contents
1 Background
2 The Battle
3 Aftermath


When General Rochambeau met General Washington in 1781 to determine their next move against the British, Washington wanted to attack New York. Rochambeau convinced him that the wiser move was to move South.

Word had come from General Lafayette in Virginia that Cornwallis had taken up a defensive position at Yorktown, Virginia, next to the York River. Cornwallis had been campaigning in the southern colonies and had cut a wide swath, but his 7,000 troops were now tired and in need of supplies. They moved the army to Yorktown in anticipation of supplies being delivered by the Royal Navy up the York River.

If they could surround the city by land and cut off Cornwallis' access to the river, Washington and Rochambeau would strike an enormous blow to the British forces. French Admiral de Grasse, stationed in the West Indies, would sail with his fleet to the Chesapeake Bay and secure the mouth of the York River. Meanwhile, Washington and Rochambeau would march south to Yorktown and form a semicircle around the city.

The Battle

Washington started to march towards New York with his force of 9,000. They stationed approximately 2,500 men at the American forts near the city under Major General Heath to fool the British into believing that Washington's entire force was still there.

Rear Admiral de Grasse sailed his French battle fleet of twenty-eight ships north toward Virginia. Simultaneously, on August 21, 1781, Washington began moving his army south. As they marched south, Admiral de Grasse's fleet arrived at the Chesapeake Bay, causing the normally reserved Washington to leap into the air and toss his hat. De Grasse's ships defeated Admiral Thomas Graves' fleet in the Battle of the Chesapeake and won control of the river. Cornwallis' expected supplies were now lost.

On September 28, 1781, Washington and Rochambeau, along with Lafayette's troops and 3,000 of de Grasse's men, arrived at Yorktown. In all, there were approximately 17,000 men converging on Cornwallis' camp. The city was soon surrounded and under heavy fire.

On October 14, the Franco-American forces (including Royal-Gatenais/Auvergne and Royal-Saintonge troops) captured two major British redoubts at bayonet-point. Cornwallis had few options, at one point sending blacks infected with smallpox over the lines in an attempt to infect the American and French troops. After a futile counterattack, Cornwallis offered to surrender on October 17. On the 19th of October, the papers were signed and he officially surrendered. 8000 British troops became prisoners.


Immediately after this battle, the British Prime Minister, Lord North, resigned. With no prospect of a continued campaign in any short time, his successors decided that it was no longer in Britain's best interest to continue the war. The British signed the Treaty of Paris (1783), recognizing the United States and promising to remove all its troops from the country.