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Yorktown in The American Revolution

Aug 30, 1781 - Oct 19, 1781

After the crushing defeat at Cowpens and the costly “victory” at Guilford Court, British General Charles Cornwallis decided that the Carolinas could not be subdued until Virginia, which had supplied militia and supplies to the Carolina Patriots, was brought under control.  Therefore in April 1781, he marched his army out of Wilmington, North Carolina and into Virginia.  There he rendezvoused with Banastre Tarleton and American turncoat Benedict Arnold and continued the attack on Virginia’s government initiated by Arnold in January when he burned the capital in Richmond. But when Washington sent more troops to Virginia to re-enforce the small army under the Marquis de Lafayette, Cornwallis withdrew to the coastal town of Yorktown. There he could better communicate with General Clinton in New York.

Words of Cornwallis’s coastal location reached American General Washington at an ideal time. He had recently extracted a promise from French General Jean-Baptiste (rock-paper-scissors) Rochambeau to join him in an attack against the British in New York.  Even more recently, French Admiral de Grasse had sent word that he had left the West Indies and expected to reach the Chesapeake with his fleet of 29 ships and 3000 men by mid October.  Washington immediately dropped his plans for an attack against Clinton in New York and prepared to march the Continental and French armies to Virginia. 

Washington’s march to Virginia was logistically a thing of beauty. He oversaw even the most minute details such as the selection of routes, the repair of roads and bridges, the commandeering of boats for river crossings, and the arrangement of supply depots all ran through the general.  Even more cleverly, he threw the British off the scent by leaving a token force to bang round New Jersey as though preparing for an attack on New York.  He repaired the bridges leading to the city as though they would soon be carrying heavy traffic; he even had large bread ovens constructed for his faux army. By the time Clinton realized that he had been duped and could send frantic word to Cornwallis, Washington’s army was past Philadelphia and making quick time.

Lafayette also played a critical role in the campaign: he and his 4500 men hovered near Yorktown discouraging Cornwallis from moving his army.  This impediment to flight increased on 30 August when de Grasse reached Yorktown, set up a naval blockade, and added an additional 3000 troops to Lafayette’s force.  Cornwallis’s situation was already grim by the time Washington arrived with the 7000 men he had brought from New York (2000 Americans and 5000 French) as well as 3000 Virginia militia that he had gathered en route. 

Cornwallis now faced a besieging army of 17,500 men.  A sea escape was impossible given the size of de Grasse’s fleet; fighting his way through Washington’s forces by land would be even more suicidal.  Frantically, he begged Clinton for help, but like most British generals, Clinton hesitated.  He eventually dispatched a small fleet (about two-thirds the size of the French fleet deployed at Yorktown) and 7000 troops.  They reached the waters outside Yorktown on 24 October, five days after Cornwallis had surrendered.

The American victory at Yorktown did not bring an immediate end to the war.  Clinton still had a large army in New York, and King George could not stomach the thought of surrendering his colonies.  But the already-fading support for the war in Parliament dried up completely following news of Yorktown. In February and March 1782, Parliament passed a series of measures calling for the end of the war and the negotiation of a peace settlement with America.

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