Revolutionary War Historical Article

Patriots Victorious Over British Forces at Yorktown

By Compatriot Charles R. Lampman, California Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (See Photo at End of Article)

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the Summer, 2006 Edition of the SAR Magazine

The Battle of Yorktown is as complicated as the Battle of Saratoga. Neither consists of a single event such as the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Kings Mountain, Cowpens or Bunker (Breed's) Hill. As at Saratoga, it became a series of moves and countermoves which set up not only the event, but also the ultimate outcome, much as one would find in a long chess game. To have a proper appreciation of the many facets of the last major battle of the American Revolution, one must have at least an awareness of the following:

. The Revolutionary War in the South.

. The intricate involvement of the French Army and Navy.

. The distances involved between Newport, Rhode Island; New York City, New York; and the West Indies to Yorktown, Virginia.

. Finally, the fact which is lost on the majority of our citizens, the American Revolution did not cease with the victory at Yorktown. It would take another two years until hostilities ceased and peace was declared.


The first solid British foothold in the South started with the capture of Savannah on December 29, 1778. In October 1779, the British successfully defended Savannah against a Franco-American force suffering a loss of 244 killed and 584 wounded in the attack compared to the British losses of 16 killed and only 39 wounded!

The worst defeat of the Continental Army during the entire war occurred on May 12, 1780, with the fall of Charleston (then Charlestown), South Carolina. The losses this time were not measured in killed and wounded, but in prisoners taken and military supplies destroyed or captured. For all practical purposes, the whole Continental Army of the Southern Department, plus most of the South Carolina Militia were now prisoners. This amounted to more than 5,000 men with all their equipment. Add to that, five Continental naval frigates, one South Carolina naval warship, along with two French ships of forty-two guns each!

In June as Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton, now Commander-in-Chief of British forces in North America, returned to his headquarters at New York City, he left Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis in charge of the South, headquartered in Charleston.

So what took Lieutenant General Cornwallis from Charleston to his defeat at Yorktown just sixteen months later? He lost the chess game that we know as the War in the South with Yorktown being the checkmate!

Cornwallis planned to secure South Carolina, then march on and secure North Carolina, then on to Virginia until he could join up with the British Army in New York City.

As the British moved out of Charleston into the countryside, the "Back Country" resistance from the locals stiffened. The next major battle to occur was on August 16, 1780.

The newly appointed Commander of the Southern Department was the Continental Congress hero, Major General Horatio Gates, the victor of Saratoga. He had taken command of what Continentals he could secure, along with various militias, and marched south to take Camden, South Carolina. Gates totally displayed his tactical ineptness and lost the battle. Within a very short time, he was relieved by Major General Nathanael Greene.

General Greene's strategy would lead to the first Patriot victory at Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780. This setback for the British forced Cornwallis to pull out of North Carolina and regroup in South Carolina.

On January 17, 1781, the British suffered another check at Cowpens.

Cornwallis then had had enough and stripped his army of all nonessentials and chased Generals Greene and Daniel Morgan and their troops across the Dan River into Virginia.

At this point the British desperately required supplies and rest. Cornwallis withdrew from the Dan to his nearest stronghold, Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina. As he executed his move, Greene and his troops recrossed the Dan River and attacked the British Rear Guard constantly, setting the final showdown with Cornwallis on March 15, 1781. The Patriots withdrew from the battlefield, but not before inflicting significant casualties on the British.

Cornwallis withdrew his crippled army to Wilmington, North Carolina, to refit, regroup and rethink the Carolina campaign.

His ultimate decision was to abandon the Carolinas and move north into Virginia to join forces with Major General William Phillips (who was second in command at Saratoga and had been exchanged) and Philip's second in command British Brigadier General Benedict Arnold.

Cornwallis turned the Carolinas command over to Lord Rawdon, who was at the time in command of Camden. Thus, within weeks of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and with complete disregard of Clinton's direct order, Cornwallis proceeded to Virginia. He arrived at Petersburg, Virginia, on May 20, 1781 and assumed command of all British forces in Virginia.


Upon assuming command, Cornwallis discovered Major General Phillips had died of a fever just a few days previous. Also, Brigadier General Arnold was incapacitated with severe gout in both his hands and feet and had been evacuated to New York City.

Previously, General Washington had dispatched Major General the Marquis de LaFayette, with a small detachment of Continental soldiers, to Virginia to keep an eye on the British. About the time Cornwallis appeared, Brigadier General Anthony "Mad Anthony" Wayne was preparing to take another force of Continental soldiers south to join LaFayette.

Raiding operations commenced throughout the countryside during the first week of June. Shortly after that, Cornwallis started getting conflicting orders from Clinton at New York City. He was instructed to detach between 2,000-3,000 troops to Hampton Roads, where they could be transported to New York City, because Clinton was expecting a major Franco-American attack. Cornwallis disrupted his operations and headed toward Hampton Roads. It was during this withdrawal that he almost trapped LaFayette and Wayne at Green Springs on June 6.

After moving his forces, he received a letter from Clinton stating he no longer needed the troops. Another letter told him to take up a defensive position at Hampton Roads, Point Comfort or Portsmouth, where he could watch for the anticipated arrival of the French fleet. Then still another letter arrived recommending he consider Williamsburg or Yorktown, but stay close to a deep-water port.

By this time Cornwallis thought Clinton should abandon New York City and move his forces south to Virginia. All possibilities were considered. Finally, Cornwallis chose Yorktown as his best option.

By August 22, Cornwallis had moved his entire force, ships included, to Yorktown. Here he ordered his engineers to start erecting defenses for not only Yorktown, but also at Gloucester Point, directly across the York River. He considered if he needed to evacuate his troops and the British Navy couldn't get to him, he could just ferry his force across the York River and march north. Yorktown at that time was the major port for Williamsburg, the capital of the Virginia colony. It also was important as a tobacco export center. It contained between 200 and 250 buildings. It was a very active port with a population of approximately 1,800. By the end of the Revolution, there were only 70 buildings left and the population was down to less than 700 people. To this day, Yorktown has not regained the importance it had prior to 1781.


Meanwhile, on May 20 just two days after Cornwallis arrived at Petersburg, General Washington was meeting with French General Rochambeau at Wethersfield, Connecticut. The purpose of the conference was to make plans to attack Clinton and the British in New York City. General Washington was not informed at that time that Admiral de Grasse was enroute from France to the West Indies with his naval force. Also, neither leader had any knowledge Lord Cornwallis was in Virginia. Plans were made accordingly for a joint probe against New York City.

In letters received from LaFayette on the 4th and 7th of June, there was little doubt concerning the whereabouts of Cornwallis. A letter from the French on June 13 informed Washington that Admiral de Grasse would bring his West Indies Fleet north in mid-summer.

This was the first time Washington was made aware there was a French fleet in the western hemisphere other than Admiral de Barras, who had arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, in early May with a small squadron of French warships.

Probes of Clinton's outer defenses occurred constantly throughout July while General Washington continued to receive reports from the South.

On August 14, a letter was received from Admiral de Grasse stating he would depart the West Indies in August with his 28 warships, 3,000 troops and 100 cavalry and would head for the Chesapeake.

Washington was disappointed, for he considered Clinton and New York City were at their weakest since their arrival in 1776. Plans now began to be made pertaining to the capture of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

Not only were the logistics of moving thousands of troops hundreds of miles south difficult, but also how to do it without alerting Clinton as to what the true objectives would be. There were numerous ploys utilized - all to indicate to the British that Washington and Rochambeau were preparing for a long siege of New York City.

General Washington would leave Major General William Heath with about 2,500 troops to keep up the impression that the whole army was still around New York. August 20th through 25th saw all of the American and French forces cross the Hudson River by Kings Ferry to Stony Point and head south toward Yorktown.

The transit south was mostly by land, but at the Head of the Elk, some of the allied forces boarded light transports and finished the trip to Williamsburg via water. The Head of the Elk is the same place where Lieutenant General Howe and Cornwallis landed their British forces in 1777 during the successful Philadelphia Campaign.

Washington and Rochambeau joined LaFayette at Williamsburg on September 14. A few days later the Commanders met with de Grasse aboard the ship of the line, Ville de Paris. De Grasse and his force had arrived off Cape Henry on September 10, entered the Chesapeake Bay and joined de Barras' squadron of about eight warships and twelve supply ships and transports. De Grasse then commanded 35 ships of the line. After receiving the latest intelligence, immediate plans were made on how to conduct he campaign against Cornwallis and his forces at Yorktown. By September 26, there were some 16,000 troops camped around Williamsburg awaiting orders.

Where was the Royal Navy? Admiral George Rodney was advised that Admiral de Grasse was enroute to the Chesapeake. He ordered Admiral Thomas Graves to join him. The Royal Navy sailed to intercept the French fleet, and effect the rescue of Lord Cornwallis, and his trapped army. The two fleets met on September 5th. The outcome of this naval battle would decide the fate of Cornwallis. After a fierce battle, de Grasse was unable to win a clean victory, but he inflicted severe damage on the British and forced them to return to New York City with their battered ships. Cornwallis was now alone.


Orders for the advance on Yorktown were issued late on September 27. The next morning the movement of American and French forces commenced. By nightfall, most of the forces were encamped within a mile of the outermost posts of the British lines. The encampment formed an approximate six-mile semicircle around Yorktown. The French occupied the left, while the Americans occupied the right. The dividing line between the two armies was roughly Wormley Creek.

Yorktown was not a good place for defense. It contained no high ground or other opposing features that would be to any advantage in protecting the town from land attacks. The only way out was across the York River or to the Chesapeake Bay.

Around the town, Cornwallis had constructed ten redoubts. There were approximately 6,500 troops at Yorktown with another 700 over at Gloucester Point, with Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton -"Bloody Tarleton." Also anchored in the York River were the frigates, HMS Guadalupe and HMS Charon, each with 44 guns, plus three transports. For armament, the British had approximately 65 cannons of various sizes, the largest being only 18 pounders. Some of the cannon were from ships. Once a naval cannon was in place, it lacked the mobility of the land cannon because of a completely different type of carriage.

The forces available to General Washington were approximately 16,000 troops: 9,000 American and 7,000 French (not counting de Grasses' 35 warships anchored in the Chesapeake Bay). A rough breakdown of the opposing forces follows.


The American force consisted of three divisions: (1) 5,500 Continentals and 3,500 militia under Generals LaFayette, Lincoln and von Stueben; (2) artillery under Brigadier General Henry Knox; and (3) a Cavalry unit (Dragoons) under Colonel Stephen Moylan.


Seven regiments (three from the West Indies), a 600 man Artillery detachment, 600 Marines plus a legion of horse and foot.

During the night of September 29, the British made a surprise move which was not discovered until the next morning. They had abandoned their outermost redoubts. This move made no sense for if they had maintained them, it could have been possible to hold up any advances for weeks, along with blocking Gloosley Road. Whatever the reason, Washington soon ordered these outposts manned by his own troops. Even Clinton was shocked when he learned of it after the fact. In reality, Clinton may have been the cause of it.

Cornwallis received a communication from Clinton on September 29, which basically stated that within a "few days" about 5,000 troops and the Royal Navy would leave New York to relieve him. In fact, the relief expedition did not leave New York until October 17.

On October 6, Washington started his men digging the first of the siege lines, just 600 yards from Yorktown. This was a typical parallel, as siege operations refer to them. Work was always accomplished under the cover of darkness. During October 6 and 7 artillery batteries were moved into place on both the French and American lines.

Somewhere about that time, the British made a move that had been utilized throughout the war to a limited extent. They released, in this case, blacks, who were infected with smallpox hoping to infect the troops and cause an epidemic among Washington and Rochambeau's troops. Instead and before any harm could be done, Washington ordered their immediate isolation.

On October 9, the first parallel was completed and, now, close enough to bring in the big guns. Washington had a total of 52, including several 24 pounders.


About 3:00 p.m. on October 10, the French battery on the left commenced firing on the British. Shortly thereafter, the American battery on the right opened up. The first shot was fired by Washington personally. The effect of the first shots was that the Frigate HMS Guadalupe was forced to seek safety over by Gloucester.

The Frigate HMS Charon became one of the first casualties of the French guns. Before she could move to a safer location, she was hit by a French "hot shot" amidships and set afire. The three British transports suffered a similar fate. The British in Yorktown were forced to keep their heads down for the firing was continuous. Within a few hours, the British return fire had slowed to about six rounds an hour.

During the night of October 10 and 11, the second siege parallel was started. Meanwhile, the bombardment of Yorktown continued 24 hours a day.

On October 14, General Washington was briefed on the siege situation. To move the lines closer to the British fortifications on the right, redoubts numbers 9 and 10 must be captured. Washington quickly developed plans to do just that after dark.

Redoubt number 9 was assigned to the French. They would use a force made up of Chasseurs and Grenadiers from the Gatenois and Royal Deux-Ponts Regiments, numbering 400 men. Colonel Alexander Hamilton would command a 400 man American force to take redoubt number 10. His force would be made up of men from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Hampshire.

Both forces started toward their objectives at 8:00 p.m. with unloaded muskets and fixed bayonets. Inside redoubt number 9, the larger one, was Lieutenant Colonel McPherson commanding 120 British and Hessian troops. Redoubt number 10 was commanded by Major Campbell with about 70 men.

As the French quietly approached the redoubt with their facings to help them to fill the ditch and ladders to scale the redoubt, all went well until about 120 paces from their objective. At that point, they were heard by a sentry. He challenged them in German; and when he received no answer, opened fire. The fight commenced. Many of the French casualties were inflicted as they cut through the strong abatis (logs cut to a sharp point imbedded in the sides of the redoubt, facing outward - the 18th century equivalent of barbed wire). When it was discovered the French actually reached the front of the redoubt, a countercharge was ordered. The French met the charge with terrific musket fire. Those still in the redoubt laid down their arms. The entire action lasted about 30 minutes.

The French suffered 15 killed, 77 wounded, while the British had 18 killed and 50 captured. The rest escaped back to the British main defensive lines.


Meanwhile, at redoubt number 10, things were going a little more smoothly. The signal to commence the attack was the firing of six cannons. While most of the force approached head on, Colonel John Laurens led a group around the redoubt to attack it from the rear and also pre­vent any of the British troops from escaping. He was too late to be as effective as he would have liked to have been. The difference between the attacks was that the Americans did not wait for the sappers to clear the abatis away. Most just climbed over them. The column was led by Lieutenant John Mansfield of the Fourth Connecticut. The redoubt fell within ten minutes. American casualties were only 9 killed and 25 wounded.

The British could have, but for some reason did not, mount any counterattack. Work commenced almost immediately in extending the second parallel closer and closer toward the British main line. Washington was elated with the success of the night.

Lord Cornwallis could see that he had to take action to prevent the completion of the Allied second parallel. His defense depended on it. On October 16, he ordered Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercrombie to lead about 350 light infantry and grenadiers to sortie out and capture the portion of the second parallel between the American and French sectors. The artillery being placed in the second parallel would have created havoc on Yorktown. They rushed the French battery first, ran the guards off and spiked six cannons with bayonet tips. They headed for the American battery, but the French counterattacked, killing eight and capturing twelve. The rest of the British retreated to their lines. Allied casualties were 21 killed or wounded, which included only one American. All the spiked cannons were repaired and firing within six hours.

No mention has been made as to what, if anything, was happening with the 700-man contingent on Gloucester Point. The reason was that they were bottled up. The original checking force consisted of about 1,500 militia commanded by General Weedon. Washington dispatched about 600 men, made up of light infantry and cavalry from the Duke de Laurun's force. Later, when 800 French Marines were to arrive, French Brigadier General M. de Choisy assumed overall command. That was an effective check.


By the time dawn rose on October 16, Cornwallis had lost any hope of the British fleet arriving to relieve him. The constant bombardment had taken its toll not only on his artillery and sunk most of his ships, but also the human casualties were mounting hourly. To save what troops he could, he decided on a bold move. Under cover of darkness, he would ferry his effectives to Gloucester Point and attempt an escape.

It appeared nothing was going to go right for the British. With some of his troops successfully ashore at Gloucester Point, a severe midnight storm struck suddenly and stopped all future operations. When the storm subsided, Cornwallis brought the men back from Gloucester Point and manned their old posts.

October 17, the very day Lieutenant General John Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga in 1777, was to see a second British Army in America start the proceedings to surrender in 1781.

At 10:00 a.m., a British drummer appeared atop a parapet in plain view and beat for a parley. Thus started the surrender process. Throughout the 18th, officers met in the Moore House (which still stands today) to hammer out the various provisions of the surrender. Lord Cornwallis desired to surrender with colors flying and with all honors. Because of the negative treatment given American Major General Benjamin Lincoln, who commanded the Southern Department at Charleston, South Carolina, when he surrendered, Washington refused the request. Lincoln was commanding one of Washington's divisions at Yorktown. He had been officially exchanged for British Major General William Phillips mentioned earlier.

At 2:00 p.m. on October 19, the surrender of the British forces commenced. The American and French forces lined opposite sides of the Hampton Road as the British led by a British officer in his finest dress uniform led the column. The officer was not Lord Cornwallis, who feigned sickness, but Brigadier General Charles O'Hara, the second in command. All British colors were cased and their musicians played the tune "The World Turned Upside Down." Thus ended the last major action of the American Revolution.

With the surrender, 7,242 soldiers were prisoners, along with 840 seamen. All the regimental colors of the units involved plus all artillery and thousands of muskets and other military equipment were in Washington's hands.

For the number of troops involved (approximately 24,000), the casualties were extremely light: 72 killed and 190 wounded on the Franco-American side and 156 killed and 326 wounded on the British side.

Whatever happened to the relief force that Sir Henry Clinton had promised Lord Cornwallis? They finally sailed from New York on October 17 and soon met the packet ship carrying the message of Lord Cornwallis' surrender and advising the game was long over. So they turned around and went back to New York.

The war would go on for another two years, until peace was approved on September 3, 1783. Yorktown broke not only the British Army, but also the British government's spirit to seriously continue military actions in America.


Boatner, Mark M.: Encyclopedia of the American Revolution.

Bobrick, Benson: Angel in the Whirlwind.

Buchanan, John: The Road to Guilford Courthouse.

Garrison, Webb: Great Stories of the American Revolution.

Greene, Jack P.: Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution.

Johnson, Henry: The Yorktown Campaign.

Miller, Nathan: Sea of Glory - A Naval History of the American Revolution

Morrison, Samuel E. & Commanger, H.S. The Growth of the American Republic.

Wood, W.J.: Battles of the American Revolution 1775-1781

Davis, Burke: The Campaign That Won America

Selby, John: The Road to Yorktown

Fleming, Thomas: Beat the Last Drum

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