Siege of Yorktown, 28 September – 19 October 1781

Cornwallis’s Road to Yorktown
Opportunity Spotted
The Trap Closes
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yorktown map

Cornwallis’s Road to Yorktown

The road that led the British to defeat at Yorktown had begun with great promise in the previous year. Operating under the belief that the majority of the population of the south were actually loyalists, held down by a rebel minority, the British abandoned their attempts to win the war in the north, and switched to a southern strategy. There had been little activity in the south during the early years of the war, but the British still held Florida, from where they could threaten Georgia. In March 1778 a British expedition had managed to capture Savannah, and briefly threatened to return the entire state of Georgia to British rule. At the end of 1779 a more serious attempt was made to win the war in the south. The British commander in chief in North America, General Henry Clinton, sailed from New York with an army some 8,000 strong. Their target was Charleston, capital of South Carolina, and the fourth largest city in the United States. In a siege that lasted from 1 April to 12 May 1780, Clinton captured the city. The southern strategy appeared to be working. A proclamation of clemency looked as if it might restore British rule in South Carolina, making it the first state to return to loyalty after the rebellion. However, a second proclamation requiring those on parole to agree to support all British measures was too much and many men who might otherwise have stayed at home instead returned to the fray.

Engraving of General Charles Cornwallis, 1738-1805
Engraving of
Charles Cornwallis,

At the end of June news reached Clinton of a possible French attack on New York, and he left the south, taking with him 4,000 of his best men and leaving Charles Cornwallis in charge. Cornwallis had served well in a series of subordinate roles, and was eager to take command, but his experience of independent command was not to be pleasant. South Carolina rapidly descended into chaos. A significant number of loyalists did now appear, but so did as many rebels. Moreover, the actions of the loyalists were often indistinguishable from banditry, and forced many ex-rebels back into the field. Cornwallis was forced to establish bases across the state, each one a drain on British resources. One of the British bases, at Camden, attracted the attention of the newly appointed American commander in the south, Horatio Gates. Cornwallis was able to reach Camden before Gates, and on 16 August 1780 inflicted a crushing defeat on the Americans (Battle of Camden).

This was the high point of Cornwallis’s campaign. In September he launched an invasion of North Carolina, which never achieved any momentum and had to be abandoned after the force guarding his left flank was destroyed at the battle of King’s Mountain (7 October 1780). The following year Cornwallis launched another invasion of North Carolina. Once again, his campaign was crippled by the loss of a major detachment, this time at the battle of Cowpens (17 January 1781), where Tarleton’s Legion was badly mauled by Daniel Morgan. After a futile attempt to chase down Morgan, Cornwallis decided to retreat south. The new American commander, Nathanael Greene, followed south with a force that outnumbered Cornwallis. On 15 March 1781 Greene decided he was ready to offer battle, but despite outnumbering the British two to one the battle of Guilford Court House was a British victory. The problem for Cornwallis was that he could not afford the losses he had suffered in victory. It was clear that the expected loyalist risings in North Carolina were not happening. Cornwallis looked for a new strategy, and his mind moved to Virginia and the Chesapeake. Early in 1781 a British army commanded by Benedict Arnold had established itself on the coast of Virginia. Cornwallis proposed a British concentration in Virginia, supported by troops from New York. With a large army at his disposal, Cornwallis could then attempt to win a decisive victory. He had not learnt from his time in the Carolinas that battlefield victories would not lead to a restoration of British control over the colonies. If Camden had not restored British control over South Carolina, then why should a victory in Virginia be any different?

Abandoning his command in the Carolinas, Cornwallis and a weary band of just 1,000 men made their way north to Virginia. They finally reached Petersburg, Virginia, at the end of May. He arrived to find his friend William Phillips had died five days earlier. The 5,000 British troops in Virginian were now under the command of Benedict Arnold, with orders to establish a base on the Chesapeake but not to undertake any major action. Clinton received news of Cornwallis’s move at about the same time he arrived in Virginia. He had no interest in the idea of a major campaign on the Chesapeake, and was obsessed with the possibility of a French led attack on New York. His orders to Cornwallis were for him to establish a naval base on the Chesapeake, capable of sheltering ships of the line. If this base had been established, the British would have had a line of strongholds from New York to Charleston that would have allowed them to strike at will along most of the American coast. Clinton also ordered Cornwallis to prepare to return some of his troops to New York to prepare for a planned expedition into Pennsylvania.

Cornwallis was free to act almost at will in Virginia. The Marquis de Lafayette had command of the small American army present to face him, but only agile manoeuvring on his part kept his army safe. One mistake could have been fatal. On 6 July Anthony Wayne came close to disaster when he was ambushed by Cornwallis at Greenspring and was only extracted with difficulty. The disaster to come was not inevitable. At any point before mid-September Cornwallis could simply have marched away south. After receiving a series of contradictory orders over the summer, Cornwallis finally decided to fortify Yorktown with his entire force, taking advantage of Clinton’s orders to return any troops he could spare. On 2 August, the British forces began to dig in at their new base.

Opportunity Spotted

While Cornwallis threatened Virginia, the Americans were still based around New York. The French army, commanded by the Comte de Rochambeau, was based at Newport, Rhode Island, while their fleet received a new commander, the Comte de Barras, in May. Rochambeau held the unusual attitude for a French officer that he was subordinate to Washington, something that was to prove vital in 1781. In the spring of 1781 Washington was determined to attack New York. His aim was not the capture of the city, which contained the biggest British army in America, but to force Clinton to recall troops from other theatres of the war. Rochambeau agreed to support this plan, but little came of it. The British were well dug-in on Manhattan Island, and the Franco-American armies had great trouble getting into positions from where they could launch attacks.

In June news reached Washington of another French fleet heading to American waters. Admiral Grasse had managed to evade the Royal Navy at Brest, and was heading for the West Indies. It was possible that the combined French fleets would be able to gain temporary control of the seas around the United States, but for two months nobody knew where Grasse would sail, or in what strength. On 14 August, the news finally arrived. Admiral Grasse, with twenty nine ships and 3,000 men, was heading for Chesapeake Bay and a collision with Cornwallis.

Washington leapt at the chance to win a major victory. If he could transport the American and French armies from New York and Newport down to Yorktown and persuade Admiral Barras to join Admiral Grasse, then Cornwallis would have little chance of escape. The key was naval control. If the French fleet lost control of the seas then Clinton could rush troops from New York, and it would be the British seeking a decisive battle. Washington decided to take the risk, and was able to gain French support. Now all he had to do was move the combined armies 450 miles from New York to Yorktown.

The Trap Closes

First on the scene was Admiral Grasse. His fleet reached Chesapeake Bay at the end of August, and was anchored inside the Bay by 31 August. Admiral Thomas Graves, the new British naval commander, took his fleet of nineteen ships of the line to find and attack the French, and on 5 September managed to find his battle off the Chesapeake. However, the British were outnumbered from the start, and for unclear reasons part of the British fleet did not enter the battle. Despite that, the battle ended with only a slight French advantage. Graves remained in the area, and was considering another attack on the French when the second French fleet under Admiral Barras sailed into the bay. This gave the French a two to one advantage in ships of the line. On 13 September Graves returned to New York. This is often considered to be the decisive moment, leaving Cornwallis hopelessly trapped at Yorktown, but that is to overstate the case. If Graves had won, then the British position at Yorktown would have been saved, but he sailed back to New York before the main American and French armies had arrived. Cornwallis could still have escaped back into the south.

That freedom did not last much longer. The march south began on 19 August. This was a dangerous moment – if Clinton had realised what was happening, he could have launched an attack on the American armies as they marched. To fool him, Washington feinted towards New York, before turning his armies south. Clinton in New York was uncertain about Washington’s destination until 2 September, when the American armies had already reached Philadelphia. The essence of Washington’s plan was speed. Benjamin Lincoln, in command of the march, managed to get his Continentals 450 miles south in remarkably good condition. On 28 September the allied armies moved into camp two miles from Yorktown. Cornwallis was now trapped.


The defences of Yorktown were not strong. The town backed up against the York River. Opposite Yorktown was the town of Gloucester, also held by the British. An inner line of defence ran 500 yards from the edge of the town, but this line was incomplete when the siege began. The outer defences were even less impressive. About 1200 yards north west of the town was the Star or Fusiliers’ redoubt, while 1200 yards south west of the town was the Pigeon Quarter, a low hill, where Cornwallis had built three redoubts. While the allied army prepared for the siege, Cornwallis was largely passive, perhaps in the expectation of relief from New York. His only action was to abandon the defences in the Pigeon Quarter. These defences may well have been very vulnerable to allied attack, but by surrendering them Cornwallis gave the French and Americans a good position for their own artillery.

Cornwallis was badly outnumbered. He had 6,000 regular troops, with another 1,500 drawn from the fleet for a total of around 7,500 men. Facing him were 7,000 American regulars, 4,000 militia, 5,000 French regulars and 3,100 French marines (a total of 19,000 men, of whom 12,000 were professional soldiers). The allies had at least as big an advantage in artillery. His only hope was that Clinton would send a relief force from New York. If that was to happen, then it would have to happen quickly. Yorktown could not hold for long.

Siege warfare at this period was highly formalised. The French and Americans had the strength to follow the rules. A series of parallels would be build – fortifications parallel to the defences, from where a devastating artillery bombardment could be sent against the defenders. The first parallel, 600 yards from the British line, was started on 6 October. By 9 October they were ready to open fire. The bombardment was devastating. At such short range the French artillery was depressingly accurate, with the American artillery not far behind. On the second day of the bombardment, the British were forced to stop firing at day to preserve their guns.

Conditions within Yorktown were awful. Nowhere in the town was out of range of the allied guns – even Cornwallis was forced to live underground. Having had time to prepare, there was no shortage of food in the town, and the siege was too short for supplies to start to run low. The allies continued to tighten the siege. A second parallel, only 300 yards from the defences, was begun on 11 October. This parallel was very vulnerable at first. Cornwallis had saved his ammunition for just this moment and now ordered unrestricted firing, but over the next week the allied artillery battered down the British resistance. On 14 October a successful joint attack was launched on two British redoubts, which were quickly integrated into the second parallel. The allies were now in position to launch an assault on Yorktown.

At this late stage, Cornwallis finally took some action. On 15 October a raiding party broke into the second parallel and managed to spike six guns before retreating back to their lines. The next day, Cornwallis attempted to escape. The French and American forces besieging Gloucester were not as strong or as well dug in as those around Yorktown, so Cornwallis attempted to ship as many men as possible across the river to attempt a breakout. The weather intervened, making it impossible for enough troops to be ferried across quickly enough to gain surprise. Cornwallis had played his last card, and now prepared to negotiate.


On 17 October, Cornwallis sent an officer to Washington with surrender terms. Two days of negotiations followed. The Americans insisted on the same terms that the British had imposed at the siege of Charleston. All of the defenders of Yorktown were to march out and surrender their arms, before going into captivity. The surrender was signed just before noon on 19 October. Cornwallis could not face the prospect of leading his army out into surrender, and passed the task onto his second in command. Washington refused to take the surrender if Cornwallis did not lead it, and so Benjamin Lincoln, Washington’s second in command, accepted the surrender of the last active British army in North America.

The defeat at Yorktown broke the political will of Britain to continue the fight. No-one could see any route to eventual victory. Lord North’s government fell in March 1782. He was replaced by Lord Rockingham, who was determined to make peace, and restore good relations between Britain and the colonies. Although the fighting did not end immediately, the issue was no longer at doubt. A combination of French naval and land power, the American Continental army and Washington’s determination to strike a blow against the British had won one of the most decisive of all military victories.

Yorktown 1781, Brendan Morrissey, Ospre, 1997. Well illustrated and detailed account of the decisive battle of the war. Has a good set of 3D maps of the battlefield. Morrissey has written widely on the War of Independence.
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1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War, Robert L. Tonsetic. Starts with the American cause at a low ebb over the winter of 1780-1 and traces its revival and triumph during 1781, the year that saw the failure of the British southern strategy and the dramatic surrender of Cornwallis's army at Yorktown, the defeat that effectively ended any chance of British success. [read full review]
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War for America Black, Jeremy, War For America: The Fight for Independence 1775-1783. Provides a clear narrative of the war, taken year by year, with good chapters on some of the later years that are often skipped over. Also contains a good selection of quotes from participents in the conflict.
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The Glorious Cause Middlekauff, Robert, The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution 1763-1789. A very well researched book that is especially strong on the events that led up to the Revolution, which take up the first third of the book. Unlike many similar books it also covers the years immediately after the war and up to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
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See Also
Books on the American War of Independence
Subject Index: American War of Independence

How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (21 March 2004), Siege of Yorktown, 28 September – 19 October 1781,

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