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October 19, 1781: British Surrender at Yorktown

 

After the battle of Monmouth in 1778, the time of large scale battles in the north during the American Revolution came to an end.  The subsequent years were frustrating for Washington as he struggled against a collapsing American economy to keep his army from starving, unable to build up the military power necessary to put New York under siege.  The situation altered in 1781. The French navy achieved temporary control of the waters off Virginia, and Washington secretly marched with 8,000 Continentals and 5,000 French from New York to attack the army of General Cornwallis in Virginia.  Besieged at Yorktown, Cornwallis surrendered his 7,000 men on October 19, 1781.  The War would drag on another two years until the British withdrew from New York under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, but after Yorktown everyone on both sides knew that American independence, against the odds, had been achieved.  Here is the text of Washington’s letter to Congress announcing the victory:

 

Sir:

I have the Honor to inform Congress, that a Reduction of the British Army under the Command of Lord Cornwallis, is most happily effected. The unremitting Ardor which actuated every Officer and Soldier in the combined Army on this Occasion, has principally led to this Important Event, at an earlier period than my most sanguine Hopes had induced me to expect.

The singular Spirit of Emulation, which animated the whole Army from the first Commencement of our Operations, has filled my Mind with the highest pleasure and Satisfaction, and had given me the happiest presages of Success.

On the 17th instant, a Letter was received from Lord Cornwallis, proposing a Meeting of Commissioners, to consult on Terms for the Surrender of the Posts of York and Gloucester. This Letter (the first which had passed between us) opened a Correspondence, a Copy of which I do myself the Honor to inclose; that Correspondence was followed by the Definitive Capitulation, which was agreed to, and Signed on the 19th. Copy of which is also herewith transmitted, and which I hope, will meet the Approbation of Congress.

I should be wanting in the feelings of Gratitude, did I not mention on this Occasion, with the warmest Sense of Acknowledgements, the very chearfull and able Assistance, which I have received in the Course of our Operations, from, his Excellency the Count de Rochambeau, and all his Officers of every Rank, in their respective Capacities. Nothing could equal this Zeal of our Allies, but the emulating Spirit of the American Officers, whose Ardor would not suffer their Exertions to be exceeded.

The very uncommon Degree of Duty and Fatigue which the Nature of the Service required from the Officers of Engineers and Artillery of both Armies, obliges me particularly to mention the Obligations I am under to the Commanding and other Officers of those Corps.

I wish it was in my Power to express to Congress, how much I feel myself indebted to The Count de Grasse and the Officers of the Fleet under his Command for the distinguished Aid and Support which have been afforded by them; between whom, and the Army, the most happy Concurrence of Sentiments and Views have subsisted, and from whom, every possible Cooperation has been experienced, which the most harmonious Intercourse could afford.

Returns of the Prisoners, Military Stores, Ordnance Shipping and other Matters, I shall do myself the Honor to transmit to Congress as soon as they can be collected by the Heads of Departments, to which they belong.

Colo. Laurens and the Viscount de Noiailles, on the Part of the combined Army, were the Gentlemen who acted as Commissioners for formg and settg the Terms of Capitulation and Surrender herewith transmitted, to whom I am particularly obliged for their Readiness and Attention exhibited on the Occasion. . . .

Your Excellency and Congress will be pleased to accept my Congratulations on this happy Event, and believe me to be With the highest Respect etc.

 

 

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

5 Comments

  1. I recently re-read David McCullough’s “1776:”

    Say a prayer of thanksgiving for George Washington, the French and Spanish, and the courageous, long-suffering Continental soldier.

  2. For it will not be believed that such a force as Great Britain has employed for eight years in this Country could be baffled in their plan of Subjugating it by numbers infinitely less—composed of Men often times half starved—always in Rags—without pay—& experiencing, at times, every Species of distress which human nature is capable of undergoing.

    George Washington, 1783

  3. Yorktown is an amazingly well preserved battlefield, and one can get a real feeling for the siege visiting there; the area of action is compact and can be walked in a few hours. The site also was militarily significant in the Civil War, and the Confederates occupied some of the same entrenchments used by their forbears.
    I imagine the Brits stacked arms orderly, and didn’t just toss them on the ground as depicted in the “Turn” vid.

  4. “I imagine the Brits stacked arms orderly, and didn’t just toss them on the ground as depicted in the “Turn” vid.”

    No, according to eyewitness accounts that is precisely what some British troops did. Some of the British troops appeared angry and others appeared angry and drunk.

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