Yorktown: The Final Battle?

Surrender at Yorktown
Surrender at Yorktown

On October 19, 1781, General Cornwallis surrendered his forces at Yorktown to General George Washington, after what most believe to be the final battle of the Revolutionary War.  But since we last saw Cornwallis and his army holed in up Wilmington, how did he get to Yorktown?

After the “victory” at Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis had to resupply his army and the only way for him to do that was to move back to the coast, delaying, once again, his advance into Virginia.  Although General Clinton, the commander of all the British forces in North America, had ordered Cornwallis to take the Carolinas on his way to Virginia, Clinton no longer felt that Virginia was important.  Clinton, and most of his army, was holed up in New York.  With Washington camped outside the city, Clinton did not feel inclined to fight his way out.  And he refused to send Cornwallis reinforcements to aid in moving out of Wilmington.

Finally Cornwallis decided to move north toward Yorktown, which he thought was a suitable place for a base of land and sea operations in the south.  With an army that numbered close to 7,000 men, he headed north.  On the way he was repeatedly harassed by a Patriot army led by the Marquis de Lafayette.  After a futile chase of the more mobile Patriot army, Cornwallis left Banastre Tarleton to search for Lafayette while Cornwallis and the main body of men continued on to Yorktown.  Tarleton responded by burning homes and towns, destroying crops of Loyalists and Patriots, and killing men he suspected of being Patriots indiscriminately.  This served as a spur to the Patriot militia in Virginia who soon swelled Lafayette’s numbers.

On August 2, 1781, Cornwallis and his army finally reached Yorktown and prepared to fortify the town and establish a port for naval activity.  Although Cornwallis now considered Yorktown to be indefensible, Clinton ordered him to stay.

General George Washington, hearing that Cornwallis had been ordered to stay in Yorktown, saw the opportunity to take care of a large piece of the British army.  Washington’s combined French-American army marched from New York to Yorktown, and the French navy sailed from the West Indies to Yorktown.  By September 28, the Royal Navy at Yorktown had been defeated by the French Navy, and Washington was camped outside Yorktown.  With the French fleet in the harbor and the Patriot army surrounding the town, Yorktown was under siege.

The Patriot cannon devastated Yorktown and the British army.  The British high command decided that Cornwallis could not be reinforced by land, but the naval reinforcements were turned away by the French fleet blockading the harbor.  On October 19, Cornwallis was forced into an unconditional surrender.  Unable to face giving up his sword, Cornwallis sent his second in command, General O’Hara, to effect the surrender.  General O’Hara tried first to give the sword to Lafayette:  better to surrender to the French than the Americans.  Lafayette refused.  Then O’Hara tried to give the sword to Washington.  Washington also refused, sending forward, instead, his second in command, Benjamin Lincoln.  Lincoln was the commander of Charleston when that city had been besieged and defeated by the British.

But if the last battle of the Revolutionary War was ended on October 19, 1781, why did it take two more years for the war to be over?  That question will be answered next week in the final chapter of “The Revolutionary War in a Nutshell.”