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Battle of Yorktown - Definition, Who Won and Importance

Battle of Yorktown - Definition, Who Won and Importance

When British General Lord Charles Cornwallis and his army surrendered to General George Washington’s American force and its French allies at the Battle of Yorktown on October 19, 1781, it was more than just military win. The outcome in Yorktown, Virginia marked the conclusion of the last major battle of the American Revolution and the start of a new nation's independence. It also cemented Washington’s reputation as a great leader and eventual election as first president of the United States.

“Washington’s fame grew to international proportions having wrested such an impossible victory,” according to the Washington Library, “interrupting his much desired Mount Vernon retirement with greater calls to public service.”

READ MORE: Explore George Washington's life in our interactive timeline

Timeline Leading Up to the Battle

In the summer of 1780, 5,500 French troops, with Comte de Rochambeau at the helm, landed in Newport, Rhode Island to aid the Americans. At the time, British forces were fighting on two fronts, with General Henry Clinton occupying New York City, and Cornwallis, who had already captured Charleston and Savannah, South Carolina, heading up operations in the south.

“It was obvious that the Americans needed a big victory if they were to convince the peace conference in Europe that they had a right to demand independence for all thirteen colonies,” writes Thomas Fleming in his book, Yorktown.

With the Continental Army positioned in New York, Washington and Rochambeau teamed to plan a timed attack on Clinton with the arrival of more French forces. When they found the French fleet was instead sailing to the Chesapeake Bay, Washington concocted a new plan.

“He would fool Clinton into thinking the Continentals were planning to attack New York while instead sneaking away to the south to attack Cornwallis,” according to the Army Heritage Center Foundation. “Washington ordered the construction of large camps with huge brick bread ovens where Clinton could see them to create the illusion that the Continental Army was preparing for a long stay. Washington also prepared false papers discussing attack plans on Clinton, and let these papers fall into British hands.”

Washington arrives in Yorktown

By mid-September 1781, Washington and Rochambeau arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia, 13 miles from the tobacco port of Yorktown, where Cornwallis’s men had built a defense of 10 small forts (a.k.a. redoubts) with artillery batteries and connecting trenches. In response, Cornwallis asked Clinton for aid, and the general promised him a fleet of 5,000 British soldiers would set sail from New York to Yorktown.

With a small force left in New York, about 2,500 Americans and 4,000 French soldiers—facing some 8,000 British troops—began digging their own trenches 800 yards from the Brits and started a nearly week-long artillery assault on the enemy on October 9.

“The heavy cannons pounded the British mercilessly, and by October 11 had knocked out most of the British guns,” the Army Heritage Center Foundation states. “Cornwallis received the unfortunate (for him) news that Clinton's departure from New York had been delayed.”

A new parallel trench, 400 yards closer to the British lines, was ordered by Washington on October 11, but completing it would entail taking out the British redoubts No. 9 and No. 10.

The Role of Alexander Hamilton

The attack on redoubt No. 9 would be undertaken by French troops, while the No. 10 siege would be led by Colonel Alexander Hamilton. The Founding Father wasn’t the top pick of Major General Marquis de Lafayette for the job, but Hamilton, who wanted to improve his reputation by proving himself on the battlefield, talked Washington into it.

To speed up the siege of the two redoubts—French troops were to take redoubt No. 9, while Hamilton’s men were assigned No. 10—Washington ordered the use of bayonets, rather than “pounding them slowly into submission with cannon,” writes Ron Chernow in Alexander Hamilton.

“After nightfall on October 14, the allies fired several consecutive shells in the air that brilliantly illuminated the sky,” Chernow writes. At that point, Hamilton and his men rallied from their trenches and sprinted across a quarter-mile of field with fixed bayonets. “For the sake of silence, surprise, and soldierly pride, they had unloaded their guns to take the position with bayonets alone. Dodging heavy fire, they let out war whoops that startled their enemies. ... The whole operation had consumed fewer than ten minutes.”

READ MORE: How Alexander Hamilton's Men Surprised the Enemy at the Battle of Yorktown

General Cornwallis Surrenders

Of his 400 infantrymen, Hamilton lost just nine in the attack, with some 30 wounded, while the 400 French-led troops lost 27 men, with 109 wounded, according to Fleming. Surrounded by enemy fire, and blocked from receiving aid by the French fleet that had arrived in Chesapeake Bay, Cornwallis was trapped.

The successful siege allowed the allies to complete the second parallel trench and “snuffed out the last remains of resistance among the British.” In a final effort on October 16, Cornwallis attempted a nighttime sea evacuation, but he was stopped by a storm.

On the morning of October 17, the British sent forward a red-coated drummer boy, followed by an officer waving a white handkerchief to the parapet. All guns fell silent—Cornwallis had surrendered.

The End of the Revolutionary War

Following the Battle at Yorktown and Cornwallis’s surrender—and the British down one-third of its force—the British Parliament, in March 1782, passed a resolution calling for the nation to end the war. "Oh God, it is all over!" Prime Minister Frederick North exclaimed upon hearing of the Yorktown surrender, writes Alan Taylor in American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804.

The British still had 30,000 men in North America, occupying the seaports of New York, Charles Town and Savannah,” according to Taylor. But the demoralizing loss at Yorktown diminished the British will to continue to fight the rebels. On September 3, 1783, the Revolutionary War came to an official end with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

End of the Battle and After-effects

After looking at the summary and timeline of the Battle of Yorktown, let us now look at its conclusion, aftermath, and its significance in the American Revolution.

The British Surrender

After Cornwallis asked for a truce, several messages were sent back and forth between the two sides to find agreeable terms of surrender. The British made many demands to George Washington, which were declined, due to the fact that similar conditions were declined by the British to defeated American soldiers in previous battles. When Washington finally threatened to resume the fighting, Cornwallis accepted the terms of surrender, set by the French and American forces. On the day of the surrender ceremony, he claimed he was ill and sent his second in command General Charles O’Hara to hand over his sword to the French and American leadership.

Paris Treaty

Over 8,000 British troops surrendered that day, dealing a severe blow to the British empire’s war plans in the colonies. Despite having more than 20,000 troops left in America, they decided to withdraw completely from their American colonies, due to their other military engagements in India, Gibraltar, etc., leading to the Treaty of Paris. The treaty was negotiated in Paris, France, and was presided over by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay from the American side, and David Hartley, a member of British Parliament. By the terms of the treaty, the British empire recognized that the thirteen colonies were independent, and released all American POWs. It also agreed on free access to the Mississippi river, relating to border and fishing issues. Another important point was that the Americans were now allowed to expand the boundaries of their new nation westwards, towards the Pacific.

Although the revolutionary war continued in the naval battles, and other areas, the war was definitively concluded in the American colonies, which gained their independence after eight years of grueling war.

Why Was the Battle of Yorktown Important?

The Battle of Yorktown was important because it triggered the point of final surrender for British forces. The battle was the last major conflict during the American Revolution, and its outcome in favor of the Americans effectively sealed the British loss. British casualties in this battle were nearly twice those of the Americans.

British forces continued to fight in places after the Battle of Yorktown, but back in Britain, the public began turning against the war. The following year saw a Parliament elected that was pro-American, and peace negotiations soon followed, leading to the Treaty of Paris.

The Battle of Yorktown was a significant victory for the Americans because it disabled a sizable force of 7,500 men led by Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis. General Washington chose to attack this force because it was isolated from reinforcements thanks to the French naval blockade. The combined French and American army marched on Yorktown on Sept. 28, 1781. On October 17 of this same year, Cornwallis surrendered his forces. Upon meeting with Washington after surrendering, Cornwallis attempted to gain favorable terms, but he was refused as Washington instead demanded the harsher terms previously imposed by British forces against an American general the previous year.

What Was the Significance of the Battle of Yorktown?

The Battle of Yorktown in 1781 was the last major land battle of the American Revolutionary War. A significant victory for George Washington's colonial army, it disheartened the British, encouraged the Americans and French, and prompted negotiations to end the war.

When General George Washington found out that British General Charles Cornwallis and his army were camped in Yorktown, Virginia, awaiting supplies, he marched south with an army of almost 9,000 Americans and 8,000 Frenchmen. At the same time, Rear Admiral Comte de Grasse sailed north from the Caribbean with a French fleet, blockading the British navy from resupplying Cornwallis. The American and French force besieged Yorktown, constantly bombarding the British with artillery fire and digging trenches closer and closer to the encircled army. The British held out for three weeks before surrendering to Washington. Cornwallis claimed illness and refused to attend the ceremony.

British losses were much higher in the battle than those of the Americans and French. Additionally, more than 7,000 British soldiers were captured. As a result of the defeat, popular support for the war in Great Britain eroded. Peace negotiations began the following year, and on Sept. 3, 1783, the signing of the Treaty of Paris formally brought an end to the Revolutionary War and established the United States as a free and independent country.

Generals at the Battle of Yorktown: General Washington commanded the American army. Lieutenant-General de Rochambeau commanded the French troops. Major-General Lord Cornwallis commanded the British and German troops.

Cornwallis had marched his army into the Virginia port town earlier that summer expecting to meet British ships sent from New York. Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown effectively ended the Revolutionary War. Lacking the financial resources to raise a new army, the British government appealed to the Americans for peace….

Battle of York

The Battle of York was a War of 1812 battle fought in York, Upper Canada (today's Toronto, Ontario, Canada) on April 27, 1813. An American force supported by a naval flotilla landed on the lakeshore to the west and advanced against the town, which was defended by an outnumbered force of regulars, militia, and Ojibway natives under the overall command of Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada.

Sheaffe's forces were defeated and Sheaffe retreated with his surviving regulars to Kingston, abandoning the militia and civilians. The Americans captured the fort, town, and dockyard. They themselves suffered heavy casualties, including force leader Brigadier General Zebulon Pike and others killed when the retreating British blew up the fort's magazine. [4] The American forces subsequently carried out several acts of arson and looting in the town before they withdrew several days later.

Although the Americans won a clear victory, the battle did not have decisive strategic results as York was a less important objective in military terms than Kingston, where the British armed vessels on Lake Ontario were based.


British General Lord Cornwallis had fought against the Americans in 1776 and 1777. [2] He was convinced the Americans could not defeat a British army in the field. In 1778 he returned to England to care for his wife who died in February of 1779. [2] After a few months he returned to America to continue the fight. While he was gone, there was a change in British strategy. Before, the British had concentrated on defeating and destroying Washington's army. Now, since the French had joined the Americans, it was no longer just a rebellion but a world war. [2] Earlier, the French had been helping the Americans with loans and war supplies. Now France and Spain were fighting against the British, who had to move troops from North America to defend other places. [2] The new strategy was to win back the Southern colonies beginning with Georgia. The British thought that as many as 50 percent of the population in the South was loyal to Britain. They would start with Georgia and move north through The Carolinas to the Virginia Colony. [2]

On his arrival in New York City, Cornwallis was made second-in-command to General Henry Clinton. The two generals did not trust each other. [2] Clinton was convinced Washington would attack him in New York. He was afraid of sending troops home and having to depend more on Loyalist militia. Cornwallis was ready to go ahead with what troops he had. [2] Clinton was suspicious Cornwallis' return from England was to get a command for himself. In fact, Cornwallis had secured a commission to replace Clinton if Clinton repeated his threats to resign. [2]

Clinton sent Cornwallis south to recapture Charleston, South Carolina following the new plan. Soon, Cornwallis began acting independently of Clinton, who stayed safe in New York City. [2] Cornwallis wasn't going to play it safe and advance by careful steps as he had been instructed. When he saw a chance to attack the new patriot army under Major General Horatio Gates, he did so without orders nearly wiping out the Americans. [2]

Cornwallis moved carelessly. He left American units, such as the one led by Francis Marion (called the "Swamp Fox"), in his rear. [2] The American general Nathanael Greene noticed this right away. He broke up his command into smaller units in order to plague Cornwallis. Finally the two armies met at the Battle of Guilford Court House, which neither army won. [2] During this time Cornwallis was not sending messages to Clinton telling him where he was. After Guilford Court House, Cornwallis moved to the coast of North Carolina to rest his men. Then, again without orders, he decided to march north to Virginia. [2] Frustrated by this, Clinton sent Cornwallis a number of contradictory messages. Most of them were worded as suggestions rather than orders. But he did order Cornwallis to find a defensible position. This was so he could be evacuated by the Royal Navy, possibly to Philadelphia. [2] Cornwallis decided on the community of Yorktown and his men started building defenses there in August of 1781 to wait for the Navy. [2]

In New York, Washington learned that the French Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse was sailing north from the West Indies. Rochambeau convinced Washington they could attack and defeat Cornwallis. The two commanders began marching south to meet de Grasse's 27 ships and 3,200 troops. [2] Clinton learned of this and sent a British naval fleet to the Chesapeake Bay to cut them off. But the French and Americans arrived first. In the Battle of the Chesapeake the French navy forced the British ships back to New York City. [2] Clinton warned Cornwallis in early September he would soon be facing American and French troops but promised him reinforcements by sea. Clinton had not yet learned of the French naval victory and did not know he could not rescue Cornwallis by sea. [2] By the end of September, Washington and Rochambeau had surrounded Yorktown. Cornwallis received another message in late September from Clinton telling him help was on the way. Cornwallis was misled again and thought he only had to hold out for a few days. [2]

Just after the clash between the French and British Fleets, a smaller French squadron carrying the French army's siege artillery slipped into the Chesapeake. Now the French and Americans had bigger guns than Cornwallis had behind his earthen fortifications. [3]

Marching out of Williamsburg, Virginia the Americans and French arrived on September 28, 1781 at Yorktown. [4] They surrounded the earthworks in a Semicircle with the York River completing the circle. Cornwallis made the first move, abandoning his outer works made up of four redoubts. Washington and Rochambeau thought this was a mistake. [4] They sent troops to occupy the outer earthworks. [4] The Americans and French began setting up their siege operations on September 30, first on the east side. By October 9, they were close enough to begin the bombardment. The Americans and French stormed two of the redoubts on October 14, forcing the British back even further. [4] By that time it became obvious the British could not hold out much longer. [4] On October 16, the British attacked two of the redoubts they had abandoned and spiked the guns. [4] At the same time Cornwallis attempted to slip past the guards to Gloucester (now Gloucester Point, Virginia) across the river but was turned back by a storm. [4] Finally, with no sign of relief as promised by Clinton, Cornwallis' army of 6,000 soldiers surrendered. [4]

The casualties were about 500 British, 200 French and 80 Americans. [4] Captured were 240 artillery pieces, a large supply of small arms and ammunition, plus equipment. [4] General Cornwallis did not attend the surrender. [5] Claiming to be sick, he sent General Charles O'Hara to surrender for him. [5] O'Hara first tried to surrender to Comte de Rochambeau. Rochambeau directed him to surrender to General Washington. [5] In turn, Washington directed him to surrender to General Benjamin Lincoln who accepted O'Hara's sword. [5] As the British stacked their guns marching out of the fortress, their band played "The World Turned Upside Down". [3] When Lord North, the British Prime Minister, received news of the surrender he cried out "Oh God, it is all over!" [3]

The battles of Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown in 1781 were two major turning points in the Revolutionary war. [6] Both were American victories over the British, but with very different results. [6] The British defeat at Saratoga prolonged the war, while the battle at Yorktown foretold its end. [6] Saratoga convinced the French to join the Americans against the British. [6] Yorktown was a joint victory by the French and the Americans over the British. [6] France and her allies continued to fight hard for two more years, but there was little fighting anymore on the American continent. The Treaty of Paris (1783) ended the war. [6]


During the early months of 1781, both pro-British and rebel separatist forces began concentrating in Virginia, a state that had previously not had action other than naval raids. The British forces were led at first by the turncoat Benedict Arnold, and then by William Phillips before General Charles, Earl Cornwallis, arrived in late May with his southern army to take command.

In June, Cornwallis marched to Williamsburg, where he received a confusing series of orders from General Sir Henry Clinton that culminated in a directive to establish a fortified deep-water port (which would allow resupply by sea). [7] In response to these orders, Cornwallis moved to Yorktown in late July, where his army began building fortifications. [8] The presence of these British troops, coupled with General Clinton's desire for a port there, made control of the Chesapeake Bay an essential naval objective for both sides. [9] [10]

On the 21st of May, Generals George Washington and Rochambeau, respectively the commanders of the Continental Army and the Expédition Particulière, met at the Vernon House in Newport, Rhode Island to discuss potential operations against the British and Loyalists. They considered either an assault or siege on the principal British base at New York City, or operations against the British forces in Virginia. Since either of these options would require the assistance of the French fleet, then in the West Indies, a ship was dispatched to meet with French Lieutenant général de Grasse who was expected at Cap-Français (now known as Cap-Haïtien, Haiti), outlining the possibilities and requesting his assistance. [11] Rochambeau, in a private note to de Grasse, indicated that his preference was for an operation against Virginia. The two generals then moved their forces to White Plains, New York, to study New York's defenses and await news from de Grasse. [12]

De Grasse arrived at Cap-Français on 15 August. He immediately dispatched his response to Rochambeau's note, which was that he would make for the Chesapeake. Taking on 3,200 troops, De Grasse sailed from Cap-Français with his entire fleet, 28 ships of the line. Sailing outside the normal shipping lanes to avoid notice, he arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on August 30, [12] and disembarked the troops to assist in the land blockade of Cornwallis. [13] Two British frigates that were supposed to be on patrol outside the bay were trapped inside the bay by De Grasse's arrival this prevented the British in New York from learning the full strength of de Grasse's fleet until it was too late. [14]

British Admiral George Brydges Rodney, who had been tracking De Grasse around the West Indies, was alerted to the latter's departure, but was uncertain of the French admiral's destination. Believing that de Grasse would return a portion of his fleet to Europe, Rodney detached Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood with 14 ships of the line and orders to find de Grasse's destination in North America. Rodney, who was ill, sailed for Europe with the rest of his fleet in order to recover, refit his fleet, and to avoid the Atlantic hurricane season. [3]

Sailing more directly than de Grasse, Hood's fleet arrived off the entrance to the Chesapeake on 25 August. Finding no French ships there, he then sailed for New York. [3] Meanwhile, his colleague and commander of the New York fleet, Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves, had spent several weeks trying to intercept a convoy organized by John Laurens to bring much-needed supplies and hard currency from France to Boston. [15] When Hood arrived at New York, he found that Graves was in port (having failed to intercept the convoy), but had only five ships of the line that were ready for battle. [3]

De Grasse had notified his counterpart in Newport, Barras, of his intentions and his planned arrival date. Barras sailed from Newport on 27 August with 8 ships of the line, 4 frigates, and 18 transports carrying French armaments and siege equipment. He deliberately sailed via a circuitous route in order to minimize the possibility of a battle with the British, should they sail from New York in pursuit. Washington and Rochambeau, in the meantime, had crossed the Hudson on 24 of August, leaving some troops behind as a ruse to delay any potential move on the part of General Clinton to mobilize assistance for Cornwallis. [3]

News of Barras' departure led the British to realize that the Chesapeake was the probable target of the French fleets. By 31 August, Graves had moved his five ships of the line out of New York harbor to meet with Hood's force. Taking command of the combined fleet, now 19 ships, Graves sailed south, and arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake on 5 September. [3] His progress was slow the poor condition of some of the West Indies ships (contrary to claims by Admiral Hood that his fleet was fit for a month of service) necessitated repairs en route. Graves was also concerned about some ships in his own fleet Europe in particular had difficulty manoeuvring. [16]

French and British patrol frigates each spotted the other's fleet around 9:30 am both at first underestimated the size of the other fleet, leading each commander to believe the other fleet was the smaller fleet of Admiral de Barras. When the true size of the fleets became apparent, Graves assumed that de Grasse and Barras had already joined forces, and prepared for battle he directed his line toward the bay's mouth, assisted by winds from the north-northeast. [2] [17]

De Grasse had detached a few of his ships to blockade the York and James Rivers farther up the bay, and many of the ships at anchor were missing officers, men, and boats when the British fleet was sighted. [2] He faced the difficult proposition of organizing a line of battle while sailing against an incoming tide, with winds and land features that would require him to do so on a tack opposite that of the British fleet. [18] At 11:30 am, 24 ships of the French fleet cut their anchor lines and began sailing out of the bay with the noon tide, leaving behind the shore contingents and ships' boats. [2] Some ships were so seriously undermanned, missing as many as 200 men, that not all of their guns could be manned. [19] De Grasse had ordered the ships to form into a line as they exited the bay, in order of speed and without regard to its normal sailing order. [20] Admiral Louis de Bougainville's Auguste was one of the first ships out. With a squadron of three other ships Bougainville ended up well ahead of the rest of the French line by 3:45 pm the gap was large enough that the British could have cut his squadron off from the rest of the French fleet. [21]

By 1:00 pm, the two fleets were roughly facing each other, but sailing on opposite tacks. [22] In order to engage, and to avoid some shoals (known as the Middle Ground) near the mouth of the bay, Graves around 2:00 pm ordered his whole fleet to wear, a manoeuvre that reversed his line of battle, but enabled it to line up with the French fleet as its ships exited the bay. [23] This placed the squadron of Hood, his most aggressive commander, at the rear of the line, and that of Admiral Francis Samuel Drake in the van. [22] [24]

At this point, both fleets were sailing generally east, away from the bay, with winds from the north-northeast. [2] The two lines were approaching at an angle so that the leading ships of the vans of both lines were within range of each other, while the ships at the rear were too far apart to engage. The French had a firing advantage, since the wind conditions meant they could open their lower gun ports, while the British had to leave theirs closed to avoid water washing onto the lower decks. The French fleet, which was in a better state of repair than the British fleet, outnumbered the British in the number of ships and total guns, and had heavier guns capable of throwing more weight. [22] In the British fleet, Ajax and Terrible, two ships of the West Indies squadron that were among the most heavily engaged, were in quite poor condition. [25] Graves at this point did not press the potential advantage of the separated French van as the French centre and rear closed the distance with the British line, they also closed the distance with their own van. One British observer wrote, "To the astonishment of the whole fleet, the French center were permitted without molestation to bear down to support their van." [26]

The need for the two lines to actually reach parallel lines so they might fully engage led Graves to give conflicting signals that were interpreted critically differently by Admiral Hood, directing the rear squadron, than Graves intended. None of the options for closing the angle between the lines presented a favourable option to the British commander: any manoeuvre to bring ships closer would limit their firing ability to their bow guns, and potentially expose their decks to raking or enfilading fire from the enemy ships. Graves hoisted two signals: one for "line ahead", under which the ships would slowly close the gap and then straighten the line when parallel to the enemy, and one for "close action", which normally indicated that ships should turn to directly approach the enemy line, turning when the appropriate distance was reached. This combination of signals resulted in the piecemeal arrival of his ships into the range of battle. [27] Admiral Hood interpreted the instruction to maintain line of battle to take precedence over the signal for close action, and as a consequence his squadron did not close rapidly and never became significantly engaged in the action. [28]

It was about 4:00 pm, over 6 hours since the two fleets had first sighted each other, when the British—who had the weather gage, and therefore the initiative—opened their attack. [22] The battle began with HMS Intrepid opening fire against the Marseillois, its counterpart near the head of the line. The action very quickly became general, with the van and center of each line fully engaged. [22] The French, in a practice they were known for, tended to aim at British masts and rigging, with the intent of crippling their opponent's mobility. The effects of this tactic were apparent in the engagement: Shrewsbury and HMS Intrepid, at the head of the British line, became virtually impossible to manage, and eventually fell out of the line. [29] The rest of Admiral Drake's squadron also suffered heavy damage, but the casualties were not as severe as those taken on the first two ships. The angle of approach of the British line also played a role in the damage they sustained ships in their van were exposed to raking fire when only their bow guns could be brought to bear on the French. [30]

The French van also took a beating, although it was less severe. Captain de Boades of the Réfléchi was killed in the opening broadside of Admiral Drake's Princessa, and the four ships of the French van were, according to a French observer, "engaged with seven or eight vessels at close quarters." [30] The Diadème, according to a French officer "was utterly unable to keep up the battle, having only four thirty-six-pounders and nine eighteen-pounders fit for use" and was badly shot up she was rescued by the timely intervention of the Saint-Esprit. [30]

The Princessa and Bougainville's Auguste at one point were close enough that the French admiral considered a boarding action Drake managed to pull away, but this gave Bougainville the chance to target the Terrible. Her foremast, already in bad shape before the battle, was struck by several French cannonballs, and her pumps, already overtaxed in an attempt to keep her afloat, were badly damaged by shots "between wind and water". [31]

Around 5:00 pm the wind began to shift, to British disadvantage. De Grasse gave signals for the van to move further ahead so that more of the French fleet might engage, but Bougainville, fully engaged with the British van at musket range, did not want to risk "severe handling had the French presented the stern." [32] When he did finally begin pulling away, British leaders interpreted it as a retreat: "the French van suffered most, because it was obliged to bear away." [33] Rather than follow, the British hung back, continuing to fire at long range this prompted one French officer to write that the British "only engaged from far off and simply in order to be able to say that they had fought." [33] Sunset brought an end to the firefight, with both fleets continuing on a roughly southeast tack, away from the bay. [34]

The center of both lines was engaged, but the level of damage and casualties suffered was noticeably less. Ships in the rear squadrons were almost entirely uninvolved Admiral Hood reported that three of his ships fired a few shots. [35] The ongoing conflicting signals left by Graves, and discrepancies between his and Hood's records of what signals had been given and when, led to immediate recriminations, written debate, and an eventual formal inquiry. [36]

That evening, Graves did a damage assessment. He noted that "the French had not the appearance of near so much damage as we had sustained", and that five of his fleet were either leaking or virtually crippled in their mobility. [34] De Grasse wrote that "we perceived by the sailing of the English that they had suffered greatly." [37] Nonetheless, Graves maintained a windward position through the night, so that he would have the choice of battle in the morning. [37] Ongoing repairs made it clear to Graves that he would be unable to attack the next day. On the night of 6 September he held council with Hood and Drake. During this meeting Hood and Graves supposedly exchanged words concerning the conflicting signals, and Hood proposed turning the fleet around to make for the Chesapeake. Graves rejected the plan, and the fleets continued to drift eastward, away from Cornwallis. [38] On 8 and 9 September the French fleet at times gained the advantage of the wind, and briefly threatened the British with renewed action. [39] French scouts spied Barras' fleet on 9 September, and de Grasse turned his fleet back toward the Chesapeake Bay that night. Arriving on 12 September, he found that Barras had arrived two days earlier. [40] Graves ordered the Terrible to be scuttled on 11 September due to her leaky condition, and was notified on 13 September that the French fleet was back in the Chesapeake he still did not learn that de Grasse's line had not included the fleet of Barras, because the frigate captain making the report had not counted the ships. [41] In a council held that day, the British admirals decided against attacking the French, due to "the truly lamentable state we have brought ourself." [42] Graves then turned his battered fleet toward New York, [43] [44] arriving off Sandy Hook on 20 September. [43]

The British fleet's arrival in New York set off a flurry of panic amongst the Loyalist population. [45] The news of the defeat was also not received well in London. King George III wrote (well before learning of Cornwallis's surrender) that "after the knowledge of the defeat of our fleet [. ] I nearly think the empire ruined." [46]

The French success left them firmly in control of the Chesapeake Bay, completing the encirclement of Cornwallis. [47] In addition to capturing a number of smaller British vessels, de Grasse and Barras assigned their smaller vessels to assist in the transport of Washington's and Rochambeau's forces from Head of Elk to Yorktown. [48]

It was not until 23 September that Graves and Clinton learned that the French fleet in the Chesapeake numbered 36 ships. This news came from a dispatch sneaked out by Cornwallis on the 17 September, accompanied by a plea for help: "If you cannot relieve me very soon, you must be prepared to hear the worst." [49] After effecting repairs in New York, Admiral Graves sailed from New York on 19 October with 25 ships of the line and transports carrying 7,000 troops to relieve Cornwallis. [50] It was two days after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. [51] General Washington acknowledged to de Grasse the importance of his role in the victory: "You will have observed that, whatever efforts are made by the land armies, the navy must have the casting vote in the present contest." [52] The eventual surrender of Cornwallis led to peace two years later and British recognition of a new, independent United States of America. [51]

Admiral de Grasse returned with his fleet to the West Indies. In a major engagement that ended Franco-Spanish plans for the capture of Jamaica in 1782, he was defeated and taken prisoner by Rodney in the Battle of the Saintes. [53] His flagship Ville de Paris was lost at sea in a storm while being conducted back to England as part of a fleet commanded by Admiral Graves. Graves, despite the controversy over his conduct in this battle, continued to serve, rising to full admiral and receiving an Irish peerage. [54]

Many aspects of the battle have been the subject of both contemporary and historical debate, beginning right after the battle. On 6 September, Admiral Graves issued a memorandum justifying his use of the conflicting signals, indicating that "[when] the signal for the line of battle ahead is out at the same time with the signal for battle, it is not to be understood that the latter signal shall be rendered ineffectual by a too strict adherence to the former." [55] Hood, in commentary written on the reverse of his copy, observed that this eliminated any possibility of engaging an enemy who was disordered, since it would require the British line to also be disordered. Instead, he maintained, "the British fleet should be as compact as possible, in order to take the critical moment of an advantage opening . " [55] Others criticise Hood because he "did not wholeheartedly aid his chief", and that a lesser officer "would have been court-martialled for not doing his utmost to engage the enemy." [56]

One contemporary writer critical of the scuttling of the Terrible wrote that "she made no more water than she did before [the battle]", and, more acidly, "If an able officer had been at the head of the fleet, the Terrible would not have been destroyed." [42] Admiral Rodney was critical of Graves' tactics, writing, "by contracting his own line he might have brought his nineteen against the enemy's fourteen or fifteen, [. ] disabled them before they could have received succor, [. and] gained a complete victory." [46] Defending his own behaviour in not sending his full fleet to North America, he also wrote that "[i]f the admiral in America had met Sir Samuel Hood near the Chesapeake", that Cornwallis's surrender might have been prevented. [57]

United States Navy historian Frank Chadwick believed that de Grasse could have thwarted the British fleet simply by staying put his fleet's size would have been sufficient to impede any attempt by Graves to force a passage through his position. Historian Harold Larrabee points out that this would have exposed Clinton in New York to blockade by the French if Graves had successfully entered the bay if Graves did not do so, Barras (carrying the siege equipment) would have been outnumbered by Graves if de Grasse did not sail out in support. [58]

According to scientist/historian Eric Jay Dolin, the dreaded hurricane season of 1780 in the Caribbean (a year earlier) may have also played a crucial role in the outcome of the 1781 naval battle. The hurricane in October 1780 was perhaps the deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record. An estimated 22,000 people died throughout the Lesser Antilles with the loss of countless ships from many nations. The Royal Navy's loss of 15 warships with 9 severely damaged crucially affected the balance of the American Revolutionary War, especially during Battle of Chesapeake Bay. An outnumbered British Navy losing to the French fleet proved decisive in Washington's Siege of Yorktown, forcing Cornwallis to surrender and effectively securing independence for the United States of America. [59]

At the Cape Henry Memorial located at Joint Expeditionary Base Fort Story in Virginia Beach, Virginia, there is a monument commemorating the contribution of de Grasse and his sailors to the cause of American independence. The memorial and monument are part of the Colonial National Historical Park and are maintained by the National Park Service. [60]

British line Edit

British fleet
Ship Rate Guns Commander Casualties Notes
Killed Wounded Total
Van (rear during the battle)
Alfred Third rate 74 Captain William Bayne 0 0 0
Belliqueux Third rate 64 Captain James Brine 0 0 0
Invincible Third rate 74 Captain Charles Saxton 0 0 0
Barfleur Second rate 98 Rear Admiral Samuel Hood
Captain Alexander Hood
0 0 0
Monarch Third rate 74 Captain Francis Reynolds 0 0 0
Centaur Third rate 74 Captain John Nicholson Inglefield 0 0 0
America Third rate 64 Captain Samuel Thompson 0 0 0
Bedford Third rate 74 Captain Thomas Graves 0 0 0
Resolution Third rate 74 Captain Lord Robert Manners 3 16 19
London Second rate 98 Rear Admiral Thomas Graves
Captain David Graves
4 18 22 Fleet flag
Royal Oak Third rate 74 Captain John Plumer Ardesoif 4 5 9
Montagu Third rate 74 Captain George Bowen 8 22 30
Europe Third rate 64 Captain Smith Child 9 18 27
Rear (van during the battle)
Terrible Third rate 74 Captain William Clement Finch 4 21 [61] 25 scuttled after the battle
Ajax Third rate 74 Captain Nicholas Charrington 7 16 23
Princessa Third rate 70 Rear Admiral Francis Samuel Drake
Captain Charles Knatchbull
6 11 17 Rear flag
Alcide Third rate 74 Captain Charles Thompson 2 18 20
Intrepid Third rate 64 Captain Anthony James Pye Molloy 21 35 56
Shrewsbury Third rate 74 Captain Mark Robinson 14 52 66
Casualty summary 82 232 314
Unless otherwise cited, table information is from The Magazine of American History With Notes and Queries, Volume 7, p. 370. The names of the ship captains are from Allen, p. 321.

French line Edit

Sources consulted (including de Grasse's memoir, and works either dedicated to the battle or containing otherwise detailed orders of battle, like Larrabee (1964) and Morrissey (1997)) do not list per-ship casualties for the French fleet. Larrabee reports the French to have suffered 209 casualties [37] Bougainville recorded 10 killed and 58 wounded aboard Auguste alone. [31]

The exact order in which the French lined up as they exited the bay is also uncertain. Larrabee notes that many observers wrote up different sequences when the line was finally formed, and that Bougainville recorded several different configurations. [23]

Admiral de Grasse's fleet [62]
Division Ship Type Commander Casualties Notes
Killed Wounded Total
Escadre blanche et bleue (vanguard)
Pluton 74 Captain Albert de Rions [63]
Marseillois 74 Captain Castellane-Masjastre [64] First officer Champmartin wounded. [65] [66]
Bourgogne 74 Captain Charritte [67]
Diadème 74 Captain de Monteclerc (WIA ) [68] [69] [66] [70]
Réfléchi 64 Captain Cillart de Surville [62]
Auguste 80 Captain Castellan (flag captain) [71] 10 58 68 [31] Van flag, Chef d'Escadre Bougainville
Saint-Esprit 80 Captain Chabert-Cogolin [67] (WIA ) [66] [69]
Caton 64 Captain Framond (WIA ) [66] [69]
Escadre blanche (centre)
César 74 Brigadier Coriolis d'Espinouse [72]
Destin 74 Captain Dumaitz de Goimpy [73]
Ville de Paris 104 Grasse (Lieutenant général)
Vaugiraud de Rosnay (Major general)
Cresp de Saint-Césaire (flag captain) [74]
Division, Squadron and Fleet flagship
Victoire 74 Captain Albert de Saint-Hippolyte
Sceptre 74 Captain Rigaud de Vaudreuil [75]
Northumberland 74 Captain Bricqueville [76]
Palmier 74 Captain Arros d'Argelos [73]
Solitaire 64 Captain Champion de Cicé
Citoyen 74 Captain d'Ethy
Escadre bleue (Rear)
Scipion 74 Captain de Clavel [77]
Magnanime 74 Captain Le Bègue de Germiny [78]
Hercule 74 Captain Turpin du Breuil [79]
Languedoc 80 Captain Parscau du Plessix [80] Rear flag, Chef d'Escadre de Monteil [75]
Zélé 74 Captain de Gras-Préville [81]
Hector 74 Captain Renaud d'Aleins [71]
Souverain 74 Captain Glandevès du Castellet [63]
Reconnaissance and Signals
Signals and reconnaissance Railleuse Frigate Captain Sainte-Eulalie [82]
Aigrette Frigate Traversay

The 74-gun Glorieux and Vaillant, as well the other frigates, remained at the mouth of the various rivers that they were guarding. [62]

Marching on Yorktown

Meanwhile in the north the armies of George Washington and experienced French General Rochambeau met at White Plains and began to plan their next move. Washington was eager to launch an attack on New York, which was still heavily defended by the British. Rochambeau, however, believed that easier victories were to be found elsewhere in the south, where Lafayette’s French army was keeping an eye on Cornwallis’ men.

In August, they received word from another French commander, Admiral De Grasse, who had left France months earlier with the intention of supporting the American cause. De Grasse’s 29 ships and 3,200 soldiers were headed towards Virginia, where they would help tip the balance in any attack on Cornwallis’ forces. With this news, Washington abandoned his dreams of New York and brought his armies south.

De Grasse disembarked his troops to join Lafayette and then brought the fleet north to pick up Washington and Rochambeau’s men. Not realising the size of the French fleet, the British tried to attack it but were beaten off at the battle of Chesapeake. By the time he reached Yorktown Washington had command of 8,000 Frenchmen, 8,000 men of his own Continental Army and 3,000 militiamen.

Yorktown and American Independence

“The World Turned Upside Down,” a 1981 watercolor painting by Arthur Shilstone, depicts the October 19, 1781, British surrender at Yorktown. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Collection.

On October 20, 1781, the day after the surrender of about 7,000 British and German soldiers at Yorktown, the Marquis de Lafayette wrote home to France exulting “the play is over … the fifth act has just ended.” Yorktown’s own General Thomas Nelson gave a more cautious, and slightly less optimistic, appraisal. Writing to Virginia’s delegates in the Continental Congress, he concluded “This Blow, I think must be a decisive one, it being out of the Power of G. B. [Great Britain] to replace such a Number of good Troops.”

As news of the surrender of Cornwallis’s army spread, numerous victory celebrations were held throughout the country. Some were marked with solemn sermons, while others featured the consumption of quantities of “spirits.” Despite the joyous celebrations however, most Americans at the time did not assume that the struggle for independence was won, and few even viewed the events of October 19 as particularly decisive until some time later. Little indication can be found in the diary entries and letters written after Yorktown for example, even by the members of the Continental Congress, to suggest that anyone believed the war was soon coming to an end.

They were right of course. The war, and to some extent the fighting, continued for some time. The western frontier still saw conflict between Indians who supported the British cause and American settlers, and numerous skirmishes continued to be fought in New Jersey, New York and the Carolinas, primarily between patriot militia forces and organized groups of loyalists. The Yorktown campaign, however, was the last significant military engagement involving British regular forces and the Continental Army.

Nevertheless, the Revolution was not over. It would be another two years before America’s independence was assured. Even after the surrender of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, the British still maintained about 30,000 troops in America. By early November, the grand allied army at Yorktown had dispersed. Some French regiments returned to the Caribbean with De Grasse’s fleet Washington and his Continental soldiers marched back north to resume their stand-off with the British in New York the militia went home and only Rochambeau’s four regiments of French infantry remained to spend the winter in eastern Virginia.

The French plan of entrenchments at Yorktown in 1781. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Collection.

The most immediate result of the British defeat at Yorktown therefore was a stalemate in the South, much like the one that had existed in the North since 1780. The British still occupied New York City, Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, as well as Canada and parts of Florida. British forces in North America outnumbered those that the allies could muster, and even in the lower South the British had more troops than General Nathanael Greene commanded.

There was no question that if they chose to, the British could continue to occupy their coastal bases indefinitely. It was equally obvious however that they were apparently unable to destroy the Continental Army or to conquer the rebellious colonies. It was unrealistic, and perhaps unwise, for the Americans to expect the French to send a large enough force to take New York and equally unlikely to expect the bankrupt Congress to fund a large enough army for General George Washington to do the job. It now seemed that the decisive arena of the war lay not in North America, or even in the West Indies where the combined Spanish and French fleets outnumbered what ships the British could afford to send, but elsewhere.

The decisive point of the war now revolved around the strategic goals of the three major European powers. The victory at Yorktown encouraged France to continue fighting, and neither France nor Spain was ready to make peace since they had not yet achieved their basic aims. The French still hoped to win more victories and reduce Great Britain’s power, while Spain still hoped to capture Gibraltar. Great Britain, on the other hand, was fighting too many enemies in too many places. The British had been fighting a world war for several years, and the goal of subduing the Americans began to become secondary in importance compared to that of defending the homeland and far-flung interests in the West Indies, India and elsewhere.

Up until the loss of Cornwallis’s army, Parliament had supported the war in America, but after Yorktown there was a growing body of opinion that the six-year-long attempt to conquer the former colonies had failed. The four years from October 1777 to October 1781 had seen two entire British armies lost in the American theater. The costs of continuing the war were rising, and the result was an increasingly heavy tax burden on the middle classes, which controlled the balance of power in the House of Commons. King George III was still determined to continue the effort to suppress the American rebellion, but the opposition party in the Commons began to gain support from the critical group of lukewarm government supporters. By early 1782 the opposition began a campaign of motions and votes that gradually eroded Lord North’s majority in the House of Commons. By March Lord North had been forced to resign as prime minister. Although the new ministry did not immediately end the war, it did open the way for preliminary peace negotiations with the United States.

Another 16 months were to pass before final peace treaties were concluded and ratified, but by November 1782 the British had conceded the most critical issue – the independence of the United States. With Parliament unwilling to continue the war against the United States, the king was forced to accept the loss of the former 13 colonies. By detaching the Americans from the worldwide war, the British were able to concentrate on their main foes, France and Spain. The final peace treaties were signed in September 1783, and on November 25 the British army left New York City, their last military base in the new nation.

A recent study of the Yorktown campaign concludes that it was “one of those relatively minor events which have disproportionate effects, because it brought the participants’ minds to the point of the larger decision of whether to continue the war.” The allied victory at Yorktown seems to have been the final straw for Great Britain, which finally accepted the existence of the new American nation.

Watch the video: Battle of Yorktown American Revolution (December 2021).