The Siege of Yorktown, Virginia, which marked a pivotal moment in America’s War of Independence against the British Empire, began on September 28, 1781, culminating in the surrender of the British garrison under Lord Charles Cornwallis three weeks later on October 19. This event ultimately signaled the end of British rule in the American colonies and the birth of the United States. After publicly declaring their bid for independence five years earlier, the Americans emerged victorious on the battlefield, with Britain formally recognizing American independence in 1783 through the signing of the Treaty of Paris.
The Americans, supported by French troops commanded by Comte de Rochambeau, devised a plan to trap the outnumbered Redcoats at Yorktown. Assisted by the exceptional leadership of the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington’s Continental Army and their French allies surrounded approximately 9,000 British soldiers on a narrow strip of land where the York River converges with Chesapeake Bay. The arrival of French warships in Chesapeake Bay a few weeks prior to the siege further bolstered the allied forces.
With no escape route available, Cornwallis eventually recognized the futility of his cause and surrendered with minimal loss of life. The American Battlefield Trust reports that approximately 800 soldiers on both sides were killed or wounded throughout the engagement. Nevertheless, the American victory was resounding and decisive, leading to the surrender of the entire British garrison and effectively concluding the American Revolution.
The success at Yorktown was thanks to the meticulous planning and strategic brilliance of both George Washington and Comte de Rochambeau. Initially, their intentions were directed towards defeating the British under General Henry Clinton in a decisive battle in New York City, where the Redcoats had maintained their occupation for most of the war. However, in the spring of 1781, Washington and Rochambeau met in Rhode Island and learned of the French fleet’s unexpected arrival in Chesapeake Bay instead of New York, which prompted a change in strategy.
Washington quickly adapted by devising a new plan that harnessed the long-awaited support of the French navy to launch a campaign against Cornwallis’s forces in Yorktown. To deceive Clinton, Washington ordered the construction of large army camps and prominent bread ovens visible from New York, creating the illusion of preparations for an extended stay in the area. Additionally, false documents were circulated, bearing Washington’s signature, discussing plans for an attack on Clinton’s forces.
The Siege of Yorktown serves as a testament to the skill and resourcefulness of the American and French commanders, as well as the determination of the soldiers involved. This historical event stands as a defining moment in the struggle for American independence and marks the birth of a new nation.