Turning the World Upside Down

The British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia changed the course of history

Americans celebrate no military victories as national holidays.  If the country did choose a battle to celebrate, the last major battle of the Revolutionary War would be at the top of the list.  On October 19, 1881, British soldiers under the command of General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to a combined army of American and French troops at Yorktown, Virginia.  The result of this day cannot be understated in its importance.  After years of fighting and numerous instances of the Continental Army perched on the brink of destruction, the Americans had persevered.  America would be its own country, free of British rule.

By the summer of 1781, the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington had been at war with the greatest military power on Earth, the British Army, for six long years.  Constantly underfunded and under equipped, the Continental Army continued its fight for freedom.  After an American victory in October of 1777 at Saratoga, New York, the Americans received a welcomed ally in France, the longtime enemy of the British.  It was in 1781 at Yorktown where French assistance played a vital role.

The British were fighting on two fronts in the colonies.  One front was centered around New York City while a second front was active in the southern colonies.  George Washington was preparing to attack New York, joined by French troops under the command of General Comte de Rochambeau.  He was waiting for the arrival of the French fleet before beginning the fight.  However, history changed when the French fleet diverted to Virginia with 3,000 French infantry to attack a British army of about 8,300 men entrenched at Yorktown.  George Washington would lead his army south to join in the attack but not before giving the British commander in New York, General George Clinton, the appearance that he was going to stay.  Washington had his men build army camps and brick ovens so he could give Clinton the illusion that the American Army was in New York.  In reality, he only left a token force behind and proceeded towards Yorktown with the bulk of his army.

On September 5, 1781, two foreign fleets clashed off the Chesapeake Bay in an engagement that would turn the tide of the war.  Known as the Battle of the Capes, the British naval commander Thomas Graves was battered by French ships in a two and a half hour clash.  After two more days, the British fleet abandoned the Virginia coast and headed towards New York.  This meant that the French fleet controlled the sea and the British could not use their own fleet in the impending battle to retreat.

By the end of September, approximately 17,600 American and French troops were at Williamsburg, Virginia thirteen miles west of Yorktown.  General Cornwallis saw the danger of his position and asked General Clinton in New York to send reinforcements.  Clinton responded by sending 5,000 additional British soldiers, however these men would never make it to Cornwallis.  The British fleet faced crucial delays and did not start towards Yorktown until October 17, too late to stop Cornwallis’ surrender.

On October 9, 1781, American and French troops began their assault against the British positions at Yorktown.  Cornwallis had his men build defensive positions but did not have the heavy guns needed to withstand the French ships offshore or the soldiers on the ground.  By October 16, Cornwallis’ outnumbered soldiers attacked the allied center without success.  Later that night he attempted to evacuate his army across the York River.  But as it did many times throughout the Revolutionary War, fate would intervene.  A large windstorm made the evacuation impossible and the British would stay put were they were.  In an untenable position.

On October 17, Cornwallis sent word through the lines that he wanted to discuss terms of surrender.  The formal surrender occurred two days later on October 19, 1781.  The men of the British Army were marched between lines of American soldiers on one side and French soldiers on the other.  The Americans played “Yankee Doodle” while the British played a song entitled “The World Turned Upside Down.”  The world certainly was.

As the greatest power on Earth, the British king and government were horrified by the defeat at Yorktown.  Although they had the resources to continue fighting, British resolve waned.  The British had other engagements to fight around the world.  In 1782, the British Parliament passed a resolution stating their intention not to continue the fight in the American colonies.  On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed acknowledging the colonies as free and independent.  The war was over.  The United States of America took its place among the  nations of the world.

Point of Surrender at the Yorktown Battlefield

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