The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14

Author: Henry B. Dawson  | Date: A.D. 1781

Siege and Surrender of Yorktown

A.D. 1781


After almost seven years of struggle, the American colonies, with the aid of France, won by the success of their arms that independence which they declared in 1776. The close of the Yorktown campaign with the surrender of Cornwallis virtually ended the Revolutionary war.

While the victory of the Americans over Burgoyne at Saratoga (1777) produced a most encouraging effect upon the colonies, their scattered forces still had much arduous work before them. The defeat of Washington at Brandywine and at Germantown (September and October, 1777) left the British, under Howe, in possession of Philadelphia. Being in no condition to keep the field, Washington went into winter quarters at Valley Forge, twenty miles northwest of that city. There, in the most inhospitable surroundings, the army remained from the middle of December, 1777, suffering untold privations, while the British passed a winter of gayety in Philadelphia. The American camp consisted of log huts with windows of oiled paper. The soldiers built the huts in bitter weather, their only food being cakes of flour and water which they baked at the open fires. To the hardships of exposure were added the sufferings of disease; to scarcity of provisions, lack of clothing. The men, said Lafayette, "were in want of everything; they had neither coats, hats, shirts, nor shoes; their feet and their legs froze till they became black, and it was often necessary to amputate them."

After such a winter it seems remarkable that Washington could have so strengthened-his army as to win the Battle of Monmouth in the following June. The next considerable events of the war were the taking of Stony Point by the British in 1779, and its recapture by Anthony Wayne in the same year. The war went on during the next two years with varying results, but none decisive. The defection of Benedict Arnold deprived the Americans of a capable soldier and gave him to the enemy. The American victory at the Battle of the Cowpens, January 17, 1781, was offset by the triumph of Cornwallis at Guilford Court House, March 15th, but this was that general’s last success on American soil. His own account of the surrender of Yorktown, in a letter addressed to Sir Henry Clinton, here follows the complete narrative of Dawson, which covers the final year of the actual war of the American Revolution.


THE seventh year of the war of the Revolution was productive of great events. Opening with the mutiny of the Pennsylvania line of troops, its progress soon developed the disaffection of the New Jersey line also, and all the skill of General Washington was necessary to maintain that discipline in the army on which the salvation of the country depended. The resources of the country, from the long-continued struggle through which it had passed during six years, had become exhausted; its currency had become depreciated beyond precedent; and the people, weary of the contest, were lukewarm as well as enervated.

At that time, also, the Federal Congress appeared to lack that nerve and decision which had marked the proceedings of the same body earlier in the war; and contenting itself with "recommendations," without attempting to enforce its requisitions or even to advise the adoption of compulsory measures by the States, it left the troops who were in the field without clothing, provisions, or pay, and indirectly forced upon them those acts of apparent insurrection which, resolved to their first elements, might not improperly have been called "acts of necessity," and been justified, in charity, as essential to their self-preservation.

So gloomy, indeed, were the prospects of American independence at that time that the interposition of some foreign government was, by general consent, considered absolutely essential; and never were the good qualities of the Commander-in-Chief more nobly displayed than at this period, when, amid the most pressing discouragements, referred to, he urged the States to strengthen the bonds of the confederacy and to renew their efforts for the great final struggle with their haughty and determined enemy.

The enemy, still anxiously seeking to establish his power in the Southern States, had sent General Arnold to Virginia, with a strong detachment of troops, to cooperate with Lord Cornwallis, who was busily engaged, in a series of movements, in measuring his strength and his skill with General Greene; and, soon afterward, a second detachment, under General Phillips, was sent to the same State.

Early in May the Count de Barras arrived from Europe with die welcome intelligence of the approach of reenforcements from France; and that a strong fleet from the West Indies, under Count de Grasse, might be expected in the American waters within a few weeks. In view of these facts a conference between General Washington and the Count de Rochambeau was held at Weathersfield soon afterward, and the plans of the campaign were discussed and determined on.

Among the principal operations proposed was an attack on the city of New York; and in accordance with these plans the allied forces of America and France moved against that city. Every necessary preparation had been made for the commencement of active operations, when, on August 14th, a letter reached General Washington in which the Count de Grasse informed him that the entire French West Indian fleet, with more than three thousand land forces, would shortly sail from Santo Domingo for the Chesapeake, intimating, however, that he could not remain longer than the middle of October, at which time it would be necessary for him to be on his station again. As the limited period which the Count could spend in the service of the allies was not sufficient to warrant the supposition that he could be useful before New York, the entire plan of the campaign was changed; and it was resolved to proceed to Virginia, with the whole of the French troops and as many of the Americans as could be spared from the defence of the posts on the Hudson; and instead of besieging Sir Henry Clinton, in his head-quarters in New York, a movement against Lord Cornwallis and the powerful detachment under his command was resolved on.

At the period in question Lord Cornwallis had moved out of the Carolinas, formed a junction with the force under General Phillips, and had overrun the lower counties of Virginia, until General Lafayette, who had been sent to the State some weeks after, by superior skill and the most active exertions had succeeded in checking his progress. The purpose of the allies was to prevent the escape of Lord Cornwallis from his position near Yorktown; and General Lafayette was ordered to make such a disposition of his army as should be best calculated to effect that purpose. In case this purpose should be defeated, and Lord Cornwallis succeed in effecting a retreat into North Carolina, it was designed to pursue him with sufficient force to overawe him: while the remainder of the armies, at the same time, should proceed, with the French fleet, to Charleston, which was, at the same time, the enemy’s head-quarters in the South.

The marine force of the allies was composed of two fleets-that of Admiral Count de Grasse, then on its way from the West Indies, composed of twenty-six sail of the line and several frigates; and that of Admiral Count de Barras, then at anchor in Newport, composed of eight sail of the line, besides transports and victuallers: their military force embraced the main bodies of the American and French armies, under Generals Washington and Rochambeau, then near New York; the detachment of American troops, under General Lafayette, then in Virginia; and more than three thousand French troops, under General Saint-Simon, who were then on their way from the West Indies with the Count de Grasse.

The main body of the enemy’s force, under Sir Henry Clinton, was in the city of New York and its immediate vicinity; Lord Cornwallis, with his own command and that which, under Generals Phillips and Arnold, had overrun some portions of Virginia, numbering in the aggregate about seven thousand three hundred fifty men, exclusive of seamen and Tories, was occupying the neck of land between the James and York rivers, where General Lafayette was holding him in check; while the Southern army, under Lieutenant-Colonel Balfour, through the successful movements of General Greene, was mostly confined to Charleston and its immediate vicinity. Admiral Rodney, with a large naval force, was leisurely spending his time in securing his portion of the spoils in the West Indies; Sir Samuel Hood, with fifteen sail of the line and six smaller vessels, had been detached by Admiral Rodney to intercept Admiral de Grasse, and to maintain an equality of power in the American waters; and Admiral Graves, with part of his fleet in New York and a part before Newport, caused the enemy to feel perfectly secure in the positions he occupied.

As has been stated, the intelligence from Admiral de Grasse changed the plans of the allies; and, instead of General Clinton and the main body of the enemy in the city of New York, Lord Cornwallis and the combined forces under his command, then at Yorktown, were made the objects of General Washington’s attention. In executing this plan, however, it was necessary to exercise great caution, not only to prevent Sir Henry Clinton from moving to the assistance of Lord Cornwallis, but also to prevent Admiral Graves from joining Sir Samuel Hood, and, by occupying the Chesapeake, keeping open the communication by sea between Yorktown and New York.

For this purpose, on August 19th the New Jersey line and Colonel Hazen’s regiment were sent to New Jersey, by way of Dobbs Ferry, to protect a large number of "ovens" which were ordered to be erected near Springfield and Chatham in that State; and forage and boats, with some efforts to display the same, were also collected on the west side of the Hudson, by which the enemy was led to suppose that an attack was intended from that quarter. Fictitious letters were also written and put in the way of the enemy, by which the deception was confirmed; and Sir Henry Clinton appears to have supposed that Staten Island, or a position near Sandy Hook, to cover the entrance of the French fleet into the harbor, was the real object of the movements, until the allied forces-which had crossed the Hudson, leaving General Heath, with a respectable force, on its eastern bank-had passed the Delaware, and rendered the true object of the movement a matter of obvious certainty.

The body of troops with which General Washington moved to the South embraced all the French auxiliaries, led by Count Rochambeau; the light infantry of the Continental army, led by Colonel Alexander Scammel; detachments of light troops from the Connecticut and New York State troops; the Rhode Island regiment; the regiment known as "Congress’ Own," under Colonel Hazen; two New York regiments; a detachment of New Jersey troops; and the artillery, under Colonel John Lamb, numbering in the aggregate about two thousand Americans and a strong body of French. It is said that the American troops, who were mostly from New England and tide Middle States, marched with reluctance to the southward, showing "Strong symptoms of discontent when they passed through Philadelphia," and becoming reconciled only when an advance of a month’s pay, in specie -which was borrowed from Count Rochambeau for that purpose -was paid to them.

The allies, having thus successfully eluded the watchfulness of the enemy in New York, pressed forward toward Annapolis and the Head of Elk, whither transports had been despatched from the French fleet to convey them to Virginia; and, on September 25th, the last division reached Williamsburg, where, with General Lafayette and his command, and the auxiliary troops, the entire army had rendezvoused.

In the mean time the enemy, as well as the French auxiliaries, had not been inactive. Lord Cornwallis, vainly expecting reenforcements from New York, had concentrated his army at Yorktown and Gloucester, on opposite sides of the York River, and had been busily employed in throwing up strong works of defence, and preparing to sustain a siege.

Admiral Graves, after a bootless cruise to the eastward for the purpose of intercepting some French storeships, had returned to New York on August 16th or 17th, and since that time had been employed in refitting, taking in stores, etc., in blissful ignorance of the approach of Admiral de Grasse. Admiral Rodney, advised of the movements of the French fleet, had sent "early notice" to the Admiral commanding in America; but his despatches, which were sent by the Swallow, Captain Wells, never reached Admiral Graves. Sir Samuel Hood’s squadron also had been sent to the northward to check the movements of the French fleet or to strengthen the fleet of Admiral Graves, after touching at the Chesapeake, before the French fleet arrived there, had sailed for New York, and on the afternoon of August 28th had reached that port, and communicated to the Admiral the first intelligence of the movements of the French fleet which he had received. On August 31st the Admiral, with five ships belonging to his own command, and the squadron under Sir Samuel Hood, sailed for the Chesapeake, where he found the French fleet, and on September 5th accepted the invitation to fight which the Admiral de Grasse extended to him; but considered it prudent to return to New York immediately afterward.

The Admiral Count de Grasse, with a naval force of twenty-six sail of the line and some smaller vessels, had sailed from Santo Domingo on August 5th; on the 30th of the same month he entered the Chesapeake and anchored at Lynn Haven; on the following day he had blockaded the mouths of the James and York rivers, and prevented the retreat of the enemy by water; and, as has been before stated notwithstanding the absence of about nineteen hundred of his men, besides three ships of the line and two fifties with their crews-had gone out and fought with Admiral Graves and nineteen sail of the line. General the Marquis Saint-Simon, at the head of thirty-three hundred French troops, had been landed from the fleet on September 2d; joined General Lafayette on the 3d; and on the 5th, with the latter officer and his command, had moved down to Williamsburg, fifteen miles from York, and cut off the retreat of the enemy by land. Admiral de Barras, with his squadron and ten transports, having on board the siege-artillery and a large body of French troops under M. de Choisy, sailed from Newport on August 25th, and entered Lynn Haven Bay in safety on September 10th, while Admiral de Grasse was absent in engagement with Admiral Graves.

As before mentioned, the different divisions of the allied forces rendezvoused at Williamsburg, in the vicinity of Yorktown, in the latter part of September. At the same time the enemy’s fleet, overawed by the superior force of the combined fleets under Admirals de Grasse and de Barras, had returned to New York, leaving General Cornwallis and his army to the fortunes of war; and enabling the naval force of the allies to cooperate with their military in all the operations of the siege. General Heath, with two New Hampshire, ten Massachusetts, and five Connecticut regiments, the corps of invalids, Sheldon’s Legion of Dragoons, the Third regiment of artillery, and "all such State troops and militia as were retained in service," remained in the vicinity of New York to protect the passes in the Highlands, and to check any movement which Sir Henry Clinton might make for the relief of Lord Cornwallis.

At daybreak on September 28th the entire body of the army moved from Williamsburg, and occupied a position within two miles of the enemy’s line; the American troops occupied the right of the line; the French auxiliaries the left. York, the scene of operations referred to, is a small village, the seat of justice of York County, Virginia, and is situated on the southern bank of the York River, eleven miles from its mouth. On the opposite side of the river is Gloucester Point, on which the enemy had also taken a position; and the communication between the two posts was commanded by his land-batteries and by some vessels-of-war which lay at anchor under his guns.

On September 29th the besiegers were principally employed in reconnoitring the situation of the enemy and in arranging their plans of attack. The main body of the enemy was found intrenched in the open ground about Yorktown, with the intention of checking the progress of the allies, while an inner line of works, near the village, had been provided for his ultimate defence; Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe, with his legion, the Eightieth regiment of the line, and the Hereditary Prince’s regiment of Hessians, the whole under Lieutenant-Colonel Dundas, being in possession of Gloucester Point. The only movement was an extension of the right wing of the allied armies, and the consequent occupation of the ground east of the Beaver-dam Creek, by the American forces.

On the evening of that day Lord Cornwallis received despatches from New York in which Sir Henry Clinton advised his lordship that "at a meeting of the general and flag officers, held this day (September 24, 1781) it is determined that above five thousand men, rank and file, shall be embarked on board the King’s ships, and the joint exertions of the navy and army made in a few days to relieve you, and afterward to operate with you. The fleet consists of twenty-three sail of the line, three of which are three-deckers. There is every reason to hope that we start from hence October 5th." Gratified with this promise of assistance, and probably confident of his ability to hold his inner position until he could be relieved, Lord Cornwallis imprudently retired from the outer line of works which he had occupied, and on the same night (September 29th) occupied the town, leaving the outer lines to be occupied by the allies, without resistance, on the next day.

On September 30th the allies occupied the deserted positions, and were thereby "enabled to shut up the enemy in a much narrower circle, giving them the greatest advantages." Before the allies moved to the positions which had been thus deserted, Colonel Alexander Scammell, the officer of the day, approached them for the purpose of reconnoitring, when he was attacked by a party of the enemy’s horse, which was ambushed in the neighborhood, and, after being mortally wounded, was taken prisoner. On the same day the transports, having on board the battering-train, came up to Trubell’s, seven miles from York, whence they were transported to the lines; and the lines were completely and effectively occupied. The French extended from the river above the town, to a morass in the centre, while the Americans continued the lines from the morass to the river, below the town, the whole forming a semicircle, with the river for a chord.

On the same day the Duc de Lauzun, with his legion of cavalry, and General Weedon, with a body of Virginian militia, the whole under Sieur de Choisy, invested Gloucester, in the course of which a party of the Queen’s Rangers, which had been sent out to observe the movements of the allies, was driven in with considerable loss.

On the following day (October 1st) eight hundred marines were landed from the fleet to strengthen the party which was investing Gloucester; and from that time until the 6th both the allies and the enemy vigorously prosecuted their several works of attack or defence, or otherwise prepared for the great struggle which was then inevitable.

On the night of October 6th, under the command of General Lincoln, the besiegers opened their trenches within six hundred yards of the enemy’s lines, yet with so much silence was it conducted that it appears to have been undiscovered until daylight on the 7th, when the works were so far completed that they afforded ample shelter for the men, and but one officer and sixteen privates were injured. In this attack the enemy appears to have bent his energies chiefly against the French, on the left of the trenches; and the regiments of Bourbonnois, Soissonnois, and Touraine, commanded by the Baron de Viomenil, were most conspicuous in the defence of the lines.

The 7th, 8th, and 9th of October were employed in strengthening the first parallel, and in constructing batteries somewhat in advance of it, for the purpose of raking the enemy’s works and of battering his shipping. Communications were also made in the rear of the left of the line, in order to secure the greater number of openings. On the night of the 10th the trenches on the left were occupied by the regiments of Agenois and Saintonge, under the Marquis de Chastellux; on that of the 8th by the regiments of Gatinois and Royal-Deux-Ponts, under the Marquis de Saint-Simon.

At 5 P.M. of the 9th the American battery on the right of the line opened its fire--General Washington in person firing the first gun-and six eighteen and twenty-four pounders, two mortars, and two howitzers were steadily engaged during the entire night. At an early hour on the morning of the 10th the French battery on the left, with four twelve-pounders and six mortars and howitzers, also opened fire; and on the same day this fire was increased by the fire from two other French and two American batteries-the former mounting ten eighteen and twenty-four pounders, and six mortars and howitzers, and four eighteen-pounders respectively; the latter mounting four eighteen-pounders and two mortars. "The fire now became so excessively heavy that the enemy withdrew their cannon from their embrasures, placed them behind the merlins, and scarcely fired a shot during the whole day." In the evening of the 10th the Charon, a frigate of forty-four guns, and three transports were set on fire by the shells of hot shot and entirely consumed; and the enemy’s shipping was warped over the river, as far as possible, to protect it from similar disaster.

On the night of the 11th the second parallel was opened within three hundred yards of the enemy’s lines; and, as in the former instance, it was so far advanced before morning that the men employed in them were in a great measure protected from injury when the enemy opened fire. The three following days were spent in completing this parallel and the redoubts and batteries belonging to it, during which time the enemy’s fire was well sustained and more than usually destructive. Two advanced batteries, three hundred yards in front of the enemy’s left, were particularly annoying, inasmuch as they flanked the second parallel of the besiegers; and as the engineers reported that they had been severely injured by the fire of the allies it was resolved to attempt to carry them by assault.

Accordingly, in the evening of the 14th, these redoubts were assaulted-that on the extreme right by a detachment embracing the light infantry of the American army, under General Lafayette; the latter by a detachment of grenadiers and chasseurs from the French army, commanded by Baron Viominel. The attacks were made at 8 P.M., and in that of the Americans the advance was led by Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Hamilton, with his own battalion and that of Colonel Gimat, the latter in the van; while Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens, at the head of eighty men, took the garrison in reverse and cut off its retreat. Not a single musket was loaded; and the troops rushed forward with the greatest impetuosity-passing over the abatis and palisades-and carrying the work with the bayonet, with the loss of nine killed, and six officers and twenty-six rank and file wounded. The French performed their part of the duty with equal gallantry, although from the greater strength of their opponents it was not done so quickly as that of the Americans. The German grenadier regiment of Deux-Ponts, led by Count William Forback de Deux-Ponts, led the column; and Captain Henry de Kalb, of that regiment, was the first officer who entered the work. The chasseur regiment of Gatinois supported the attack; and, in like manner with that on the right, the redoubt was carried at the point of the bayonet.

During the night these redoubts were connected with the second parallel; and during the next day (October 15th) several howitzers were placed on them and a fire opened on the town. These works, important as they had been to the enemy, were no less so to the allies, from the fact that, with them, the entire line of the enemy’s works could be enfiladed, and the line of communication between York and Gloucester commanded.

The situation of Lord Cornwallis had now become desperate. He "dared not show a gun to the old batteries" of the allies, and their new ones, then about to open fire, threatened to render his position untenable in a few hours. "Experience has shown," he then wrote, "that our fresh earthen works do not resist their powerful artillery, so that we shall soon be exposed to an assault in ruined works, in a bad position, and with weakened numbers." To retard as much as possible what now appeared to be inevitable, at an early hour next morning (October 16th) the garrison made a sortie; when three hundred fifty men, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Abercrombie, attacked two batteries within the second parallel, carried them with inconsiderable loss, and spiked the guns; but the guards and pickets speedily assembled, and drove the assailants back into the town before any other damage was done.

About 4 P.M. of the 16th the fire of several batteries in the second parallel were opened on the town, while the entire line was rapidly approaching completion. At this time the situation of the enemy was peculiarly distressing; his defences being in ruins, his guns dismounted, and his ammunition nearly exhausted while an irresistible force was rapidly concentrating its powers to overwhelm and destroy him. At this time Lord Cornwallis entertained the bold and novel design of abandoning his sick and baggage, and by crossing the river to Gloucester and overpowering the force under General de Choisy, which was then guarding that position, to fly for his life, through Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Jerseys, to New York. As no time could be lost, the attempt was made during the same night, but a violent storm, coming on while the first detachment was still on the river, preventing the landing of part of it, the movement was abandoned; and those troops who had crossed the river returned to York during the next day.

The Seige of Yorktown

On the morning of the next day (October 17th) the several new batteries, which supported the second parallel, opened fire; when Lord Cornwallis considered it no longer incumbent on him to attempt to hold his position at the cost of his troops, and at 10 A.M. he beat a parley and asked a cessation of hostilities, that commissioners might meet to settle the terms for the surrender of the posts of York and Gloucester.

A correspondence ensued between the commanders-in-chief; and on the 18th the Viscount de Noailles and Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens met Colonel Dundas and Major Ross to arrange the terms of surrender. Without being able to agree on all points, the commissioners separated; when General Washington sent a rough copy of the articles, which had been prepared, to Lord Cornwallis, with a note expressing his expectation that they would be signed by 11 A.M. on the 19th, and that the garrison would be ready to march out of the town within three hours afterward. Finding all attempts to obtain more advantageous terms unavailing, Lord Cornwallis yielded to the necessities of the case and surrendered, with his entire force, military and naval, to the arms of the allies.

The army, with all its artillery, stores, military-chest, etc., was surrendered to General Washington; the navy, with its appointments, to Admiral de Grasse.

The terms were precisely similiar to those which the enemy had granted to the garrison of Charleston in the preceding year; and General Lincoln, the commander of that garrison, on whom the illiberality of the enemy then fell, was designated as the officer to whom the surrender should be made.

"At about 12, noon," says an eyewitness, "the combined army was arranged and drawn up in two lines extending more than a mile in length. The Americans were drawn up in a line on the right side of the road, and the French occupied the left. At the head of the former the great American commander, mounted on his noble courser, took his station, attended by his aides. At the head of the latter was posted the excellent Count Rochambeau and his suite. The French troops, in complete uniform, displayed a martial and noble appearance; their band of music, of which the timbrel formed a part, was a delightful novelty, and produced while marching to the ground a most enchanting effect. The Americans, though not all in uniform nor their dress so neat, yet exhibited an erect, soldierly air, and every countenance beamed with satisfaction and joy. The concourse of spectators from the country was prodigious, in point of numbers probably equal to the military, but universal silence and order prevailed. It was about two o’clock when the captive army advanced through the line formed for their reception. Every eye was prepared to gaze on Cornwallis, the object of peculiar interest and solicitation; but he disappointed our anxious expectations; pretending indisposition, he made General O’Hara his substitute as the leader of his army. This officer was followed by the conquered troops in a slow and solemn step, with shouldered arms, colors cased, and drums beating a British march."

"Having arrived at the head of the line, General O’Hara, elegantly mounted, advanced td His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief, taking off his hat, and apologizing for the non-appearance of Earl Cornwallis. With his usual dignity and politeness, His Excellency pointed to Major-General Lincoln for directions, by whom the British army was conducted into a spacious field, where it was intended they should ground their arms. The royal troops, while marching through the line formed by the allied army, exhibited a decent and neat appearance as respects arms and clothing, for their commander opened his stores and directed every soldier to be furnished with a new suit complete prior to the capitulation. But in their line of march we remarked a disorderly and unsoldierly conduct, their step was irregular and their ranks frequently broken. But it was in the field, when they came to the last act of the drama, that the spirit and pride of the British soldier was put to the severest test; here their mortification could not be concealed. Some of the platoon officers appeared to be exceedingly chagrined when given the order `ground arms’; and lam a witness that they performed this duty in a very unofficer-like manner, and that many of the soldiers manifested a sullen temper, throwing their arms on the pile with violence, as if determined to render them useless. This irregularity, however, was checked by the authority of General Lincoln. After having grounded their arms and divested themselves of their accoutrements, the captive troops were conducted back to Yorktown and guarded by our troops till they could be removed to the place of their destination.

"The British troops that were stationed at Gloucester surrendered at the same time, and in the same manner, to the command of the French general, De Choisy. This must be a very interesting and gratifying transaction to General Lincoln, who, having himself been obliged to surrender an army to a haughty foe the last year, has now assigned him the pleasing duty of giving laws to a conquered army in return, and of reflecting that the terms which were imposed on him are adopted as a basis of the surrender in the present instance."

The General-in-Chief on October 20th issued a "general order" congratulating the army "upon the glorious event of yesterday"; and after thanking the officers and troops of his ally, several of his own officers, and Governor Nelson of Virginia and the militia under his command, he concludes with these words: "To spread the general joy in all hearts, the General commands that those of the army who are now held under arrest be pardoned, set at liberty, and that they join their respective corps.

"Divine service shall be performed in the different brigades and divisions. The Commander-in-Chief recommends that all the troops that are not upon duty, to assist at it with a serious deportment, and that sensibility of heart which the recollection of the surprising and particular interposition of Providence in our favor claims."

The intelligence of the surrender, as it spread over the country, gave general satisfaction and filled every American heart with joy. Congress went in procession to the Dutch Lutheran Church to return thanks to Almighty God for the victory, and a day was set apart for general thanksgiving and prayer; the thanks of the same body were voted to the forces, both of America and France; and in the plenitude of its good-feeling it "resolved" to do that which it has not yet commenced to perform-to erect a marble column at York, in commemoration of the event.1

But a greater and more enduring monument than any which the Congress has ever "resolved" to erect, commemorates the capture of Cornwallis: the fall of British dominion in the thirteen colonies on the Atlantic sea-board, the disinterested self-sacrifices of General Washington and the very few who enjoyed his confidence and regard, and the triumph of "the true principles of government." A country which, from small things, has become prosperous, powerful, and happy; a people, whose intelligence and enterprise and independence have astonished the old nations and their rulers; and the homage of admiring millions, freely and voluntarily offered, in every quarter of the globe-these form a monument which will commemorate the fall of Cornwallis, and the patriotism of Washington and Greene, of Wayne and Hamilton, of the honest yeomanry and the devoted "regulars" of that day, long after the resolutions of the Congress-if not the Congress itself-shall have sunk into obscurity and been entirely forgotten.


I have the mortification to inform your Excellency that I have been forced to give up the posts of York and Gloucester, and to surrender the troops under my command, by capitulation, on the 19th instant, as prisoners of war to the combined forces of America and France.

I never saw this post in a very favorable light, but when I found I was to be attacked in it in so unprepared a state, by so powerful an army and artillery, nothing but the hopes of relief would have induced me to attempt its defence, for I would either have endeavored to escape to New York by rapid marches from the Gloucester side, immediately on the arrival of General Washington’s troops at Williamsburg, or I would, notwithstanding the disparity of numbers, have attacked them in the open field, where it might have been just possible that fortune would have favored the gallantry of the handful of troops under my command; but being assured by your Excellency’s letters that every possible means would be tried by the navy and army to relieve us, I could not think myself at liberty to venture upon either of these desperate attempts; therefore, after remaining for two days in a strong position in front of this place in hopes of being attacked, upon observing that the enemy were taking measures which could not fail of turning my left flank in a short time, and receiving on the second evening your letter of September 24th informing me that the relief would sail about October 5th, 1 withdrew within the works on the night of September 29th, hoping by the labor and firmness of the soldiers to protract the defence until you could arrive. Everything was to be expected from the spirit of the troops, but every disadvantage attended their labor, as the works were to be continued under the enemy’s fire, and our stock of intrenching tools, which did not much exceed four hundred when we began to work in the latter end of August, was now much diminished.

The enemy broke ground on the night of the 30th, and constructed on that night, and the two following days and nights, two redoubts, which, with some works that had belonged to our outward position, occupied a gorge between two creeks or ravines which come from the river on each side of the town. On the night of October 6th they made their first parallel, extending from its right on the river to a deep ravine on the left, nearly opposite to the centre of this place, and embracing our whole left at a distance of six hundred yards. Having perfected this parallel, their batteries opened on the evening of the 9th against our left, and other batteries fired at the same time against a redoubt advanced over the creek upon our right, and defended by about a hundred twenty men of the Twenty-third regiment and marines, who maintained that post with uncommon gallantry. The fire continued incessant from heavy cannon, and from mortars and howitzers throwing shells from 8 to 16 inches, until all our guns on the left were silenced, our work much damaged, and our loss of men considerable. On the night of the 11th they began their second parallel, about three hundred yards nearer to us. The troops being much weakened by sickness, as well as by the fire of the besiegers, and observing that the enemy had not only secured their flanks, but proceeded in every respect with the utmost regularity and caution, I could not venture so large sorties as to hope from them any considerable effect, but otherwise I did everything in my power to interrupt this work by opening new embrasures for guns and keeping up a constant fire from all the howitzers and small mortars that we could man.

On the evening of the 14th they assaulted and carried two redoubts that had been advanced about three hundred yards for the purpose of delaying their approaches, and covering our left flank, and during the night included them in their second parallel, on which they continued to work with the utmost exertion. Being perfectly sensible that our works could not stand many hours after the opening of the batteries of that parallel, we not only continued a constant fire with all our mortars, and every gun that could be brought to bear upon it, but a little before daybreak on the morning of the 16th I ordered a sortie of about three hundred fifty men, under the direction of Lieutenant-Colonel Abercrombie, to attack two batteries which appeared to be in the greatest forwardness, and to spike the guns. A detachment of guards with the Eightieth company of grenadiers, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Lake, attacked the one, and one of light infantry, under the command of Major Armstrong, attacked the other, and both succeeded in forcing the redoubts that covered them, spiking eleven guns, and killing or wounding about one hundred of the French troops, who had the guard of that part of the trenches, and with little loss on our side. This action, though extremely honorable to the officers and soldiers who executed it, proved of little public advantage, for the cannon, having been spiked in a hurry, were soon rendered fit for service again, and before dark the whole parallel and batteries appeared to be nearly complete. At this time we knew that there was no part of the whole front attacked on which we could show a single gun, and our shells were nearly expended. I therefore had only to choose between preparing to surrender next day or endeavoring to get off with the greatest part of the troops, and l determined to attempt the latter.

In this situation, with my little force divided, the enemy’s batteries opened at daybreak. The passage between this place and Gloucester was much exposed, but the boats, having now returned, they were ordered to bring back the troops that had passed during the night, and they joined us in the forenoon without much loss. Our works, in the mean time, were going to ruin, and not having been able to strengthen them by an abatis, nor in any other manner but by a slight fraising, which the enemy’s artillery were demolishing wherever they fired, my opinion entirely coincided with that of the engineer and principal officers of the army, that they were in many places assailable in the forenoon, and that by the continuance of the same fire for a few hours longer they would be in such a state as to render it desperate, with our numbers, to attempt to maintain them. We at that time could not fire a single gun; only one 8-inch and little more than one hundred Cohorn shells remained. A diversion by the French ships-of-war that lay at the mouth of York River was to be expected.

Our numbers had been diminished by the enemy’s fire, but particularly by sickness, and the strength and spirits of those in the works were much exhausted by the fatigue of constant watching and unremitting duty. Under all these circumstances I thought it would have been wanton and inhuman to the last de gree to sacrifice the lives of this small body of gallant soldiers, who had ever behaved with so much fidelity and courage, by exposing them to an assault which, from the numbers and precautions of the enemy, could not fail to succeed. I therefore proposed to capitulate; and I have the honor to enclose to your excellency the copy of the correspondence between General Washington and me on that subject, and the terms of capitulation agreed upon. I sincerely lament that better could not be obtained, but I have neglected nothing in my power to alleviate the misfortune and distress of both officers and soldiers. The men are well clothed and provided with necessaries, and I trust will be regularly supplied by the means of the officers that are permitted to remain with them. The treatment, in general, that we have received from the enemy since our surrender has been perfectly good and proper, but the kindness and attention that have been shown to us by the French officers in particular-their delicate sensibility of our situation-their generous and pressing offer of money, both public and private, to any amount-has really gone beyond what I can possibly describe, and will, I hope, make an impression in the breast of every British officer, whenever the fortune of war should put any of them into our power.

YORKTOWN, Virginia, October 20, 1781.

1A commemorative column, surmounted by a statue of General Rochambeau, heroic size, was unveiled at Washington May 24, 1902.ED.


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Chicago: Henry B. Dawson and Charles Cornwallis, "Siege and Surrender of Yorktown," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed December 5, 2022,

MLA: Dawson, Henry B., and Charles Cornwallis. "Siege and Surrender of Yorktown." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 5 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Dawson, HB, Cornwallis, C, 'Siege and Surrender of Yorktown' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 5 December 2022, from