The Complete History of the Battle of Yorktown

Beginning on September 28, 1781 and ending on October 19, 1781, the Battle of Yorktown was a historic victory for the Continental Army. So why is it one of the best-known battles of the American struggle for independence? It has a lot to do with who was in command and what continental victory meant for American forces. The Battle of Yorktown was the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War. America’s success led to the Treaty of Paris and the birth of the United States of America.

Here is the full story of the Battle of Yorktown

Leading to Yorktown

The War of Independence had been raging for six long years. Of course, it goes without saying that both sides had little energy. Morale was low, supplies were less than plentiful, and the money was almost entirely gone. Making matters more difficult for the British was the fact that they were simultaneously waging war with France and Spain. Since the American Revolution was extremely unpopular, many leaders felt there was no end in sight. The American colonies had little food, the country was already heavily in debt, and it seemed that the whole war would have been for nothing. What America needed was a big win.

Timeline of the Battle of Yorktown

In the summer before the Battle of Yorktown, 5,500 troops landed at Newport, Rhode Island, to help the Continental Army gain independence from the British. The scattered British forces were fighting on two different fronts. General Henry Clinton occupied New York and Lord General Charles Cornwallis was in South Carolina after capturing Charleston and Savannah.

The US military needed a big victory if we were to convince our allies that we deserved our freedom. So General George Washington and his ally the Comte de Rochambeau decided that the best thing to do would be to wait for more French troops to arrive. Then, with their reinforcements, they would ruthlessly attack Clinton. However, the French fleet sailed for Chesapeake Bay, not Newport, derailing the whole plan. So Washington had to quickly find a new approach while making it look like he was always going to be in Rhode Island.

It took a while, but by September Washington and Rochambeau were in Williamsburg, Va., just 13 miles from Yorktown. At Yorktown, Cornwallis had built a substantial defense which included 10 redoubts, with artillery batteries and trenches. When Cornwallis saw the force approaching, he reached out to Clinton, asking for more support. Clinton promised 5,000 British troops were on the way.

Capture of Redoubt #10 during the siege of Yorktown.

Meanwhile…

The outlook looked bleak, with roughly 2,500 Americans and 4,000 French soldiers to face nearly 8,000 British troops. Thus, American and French soldiers began to dig trenches only 800 meters from the British forces. A week-long artillery assault began soon after.

Artillery fire helped to check the British advance, and most of the big guns were gone within days. So Washington ordered another trench to be dug. This was only 400 yards from the British front line. The problem? Completing it would require American forces to eliminate two British redoubts.

Washington decided that the French would eliminate one redoubt and the other would be left to the Americans. Colonel Alexander Hamilton was eager to prove himself on the battlefield, so Washington agreed to let him lead the charge.

Washington decided to change things on the battlefield to speed up this whole process. Instead of using cannons, he ordered the lines to use bayonets. It was a bold move that would eventually pay off.

Nightfall and Surrender

As night fell on October 14, American artillery lit up the sky. Hamilton and his men assembled in the trenches and prepared to strike. Their goal was to shut up and surprise the enemy. So they ran with empty guns, relying on their bayonets to stop the British. Historians say the whole advance probably took less than ten minutes.

The triumphant advance meant that America could create the second trench and almost completely crush British resistance.

Two days later, Cornwallis attempted to escape via nighttime sea evacuation, but a storm forced him back. So, on the morning of October 19, the British sent a drummer in a red coat and an officer waving a white flag.

Implications

Of the 400 servicemen with him, Hamilton lost only nine soldiers in action and 30 were wounded. Twenty-seven French soldiers died and 109 others were injured.

The Battle of Yorktown and the surrender of Cornwallis marked a new development in the war. The British passed a resolution calling on their country to end the war for the first time. However, 30,000 American servicemen were still embedded in seaports all along the coast. It took time for them all to leave. But on September 3, 1783, the War of Independence officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Of course, it would take two more years for the Americans to officially gain independence. However, this would not have been possible without the triumphant victory of the Continental Army at the Battle of Yorktown. Many consider Yorktown to be one of the biggest british mistakes of the war.

Yorktown Victory Monument

Just five days after the British surrender, Congress passed a resolution to erect a structure dedicated to those who fought in the Battle of Yorktown. Of course, construction was delayed because America had many other pressing issues to deal with. So, the citizens of Yorktown waited until 1834. At that time, they requested that the monument be built. They followed again two years later, then in 1876 and 1881. It took until 1885 for the statute to be complete. Yorktown’s Victory Monument is at Colonial National Historic Park in the Hampton Roads area of ​​Virginia. It is operated by the National Park Service and includes Colonial Parkway, Jamestown, and Yorktown Battlefield.

yorktown battle monument
Overlooking the York River in Yorktown itself is the Yorktown Victory Monument.

How is the Battle of Yorktown observed?

In 1931, a four-day event commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown. He was followed by Herbert Hoover, then President, French dignitaries and the Governor of Virginia. The event included the official inauguration of the Colonial National Historical Park. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan visited the park for the bicentennial celebration.

FFrequently asked questions about the Battle of Yorktown

Why did the French send troops to help America?

France and Britain were longtime enemies, so the French took the position: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In the end, it worked to our advantage, of course.

Why is the Battle of Yorktown important?

The battle was the last of the significant battles of the American Revolution and helped solidify America’s independence from Britain.

When did the American Revolution take place?

The American Revolution took place from 1775 to 1783.

How many battles did the Continental Army fight during the revolution?

Historians count more than 165 battles or engagements with the enemy during the war.