History: October 19, 1781: British Finally Surrender at Siege of Yorktown

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A Brief History

On October 19, 1781, British and German forces outnumbered 2 to 1 by American and French forces finally surrendered after a 3 week siege of Yorktown, Virginia.  Also known as The Battle of Yorktown or The German Battle, this was the decisive battle of the American Revolutionary War, even through the official end of hostilities would take another 2 years.  The defeat and capture of Cornwallis and all his forces was a defeat on a scale unacceptable to the British government, who would begin negotiations for a peace settlement soon after word of the disaster arrived in England.

Digging Deeper

About 8000 American regular troops assisted by another 3100 militiamen combined under the command of General George Washington, assisted by the Marquis de Lafayette, were joined by allied French forces numbering another 8,000 men led by the Comte de Rochambeau.  This 19,000 (numbers are approximate) allied troops faced about 9000 British and German troops under the command of Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis.

The tableau for British defeat was set when French naval forces under the Comte de Grasse prevented British reinforcements from arriving to rescue Cornwallis and his army.  This action also prevented an escape of the British forces by sea, as the advancing Americans and French hemmed in the hapless Cornwallis.  Encircling the British and digging in for a siege on September 28, 1781, the allies began their siege as the British prepared defenses.  Measured assaults by French and American troops gradually took some of the outer defensive redoubts and the writing was on the wall for the British and Germans.  On October 9 the allied siege guns were in place, and a heavy bombardment of British positions began.  By October 14, Washington sent attacking units to take the outer ring of redoubts, allowing Washington to bring his guns closer and target deeper into the British lines.

By October 19, with the situation hopeless, Cornwallis surrendered his British and German troops after an attempt to have some of his men escape by boats failed.  George Washington wisely insisted the French be given equal status in surrender negotiations, and refused to allow the British “honors,” that is, allowing them to march off the field with flags flying and playing either American or French anthems.  Washington refused this courtesy because Cornwallis had refused such an honor to a defeated American army a year previous at Charleston.  Forced to play British marching music, the British musicians played “The World Turned Upside Down” as their defeated army marched off the field.  In addition to the captured armies, the Americans took 214 cannon, 24 transport ships and untold numbers of muskets, horses and supply wagons.

The battles leading to such a massive American victory cost only 88 allied lives and another 301 wounded, while British and German losses numbered   156 killed, 326 wounded and 70 missing. Over 7000 soldiers were taken prisoner, as were an additional 840 British sailors.

One factor contributing to the British defeat that is easily overlooked is the high incidence of illness among British forces, probably due to the malaria common to the area.  As many as half of Cornwallis’ troops were unfit for battle due the illness, as estimated by Cornwallis.  The effect on the Americans and French that arrived in the area much later than the British meant the effects of malaria on allied troops did not manifest until after the battle was over.

When Congress received word of the great victory, celebrations were the order of the day.  In England, Prime Minister Lord North declared, “Oh God, it’s all over!” when told of the American victory.  (He was in this case, correct.)

The German contribution to the battle was not all on the side of the British, as about 3000 German-Americans fought on the side of Washington’s army.  In all, about a third of all the soldiers involved were German.

Five US Navy vessels have borne the name Yorktown in honor of this battle, and numerous other American streets and place names share this honor.  (Even 2 “Star Ships” in the Star Trek science fiction space franchise have been named Yorktown!  Obviously this battle ranks high on the list of important American military victories and remains in the hearts of American patriots.

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Historical Evidence

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.