Two hundred and thirty years ago one of the most momentous events in the history of this country took place, giving life to the dream called America.
On October 19, 1781 British forces (including German infantry) under Major General Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the American army General George Washington (supported by the French under Lieutenant General de Rochambeau). The end of the battle, for all intents and purposes, ended the Revolutionary War. The official peace terms were signed two years later in the Treaty of Paris.
Knowing Cornwallis was at Yorktown after a calamitous southern campaign, Washington secretly moved his army from New York to Virginia and set up a siege around the port city. Accompanying him were 7800 French troops, giving him a combined strength of around 16,600 men. They faced an exhausted and cornered British force of around 7000. It was the first time since the war began six years earlier that General Washington had enjoyed numerical superiority in a battle (revolutionarywararchives.com).
The siege lasted less than a month. During that time the British attempted to break through the French fleet (led by Admiral Francois Joseph Paul Compte de Grasse) and escape across the York River, to no avail. The Americans, who also had more artillery than the British, shelled Yorktown for three weeks. On October 18, Cornwallis had had enough. He sent a lone drummer and a Lieutenant carrying a white flag out to a prominent point and petitioned for terms of surrender.
The postscript to the battle is fascinating, if for no other reason than to illustrate the disdain the British had for the Americans, and the understanding by George Washington of the importance of symbolism and precedent.
Cornwallis requested light terms of surrender (which would have allowed his troops to return to England). Washington insisted on more strict terms, matching harsh treatment by the British after an American surrender in Charleston. British prisoners of war were to remain in America. With no recourse, Cornwallis signed the surrender on October 19.
For the formal surrender ceremony, Cornwallis feigned illness so as to avoid surrendering directly to Washington. Instead, he sent Brigadier General Charles O’Hara.
Adding to the insult, O’Hara offered his sword to French General Rochambeau – not the Commander in Chief. Rochambeau turned him away, directing him toward General Washington.
Washington, refusing to accept surrender from a subordinate, in turn directed O’Hara to Major General Benjamin Lincoln (who had surrendered in Charleston the year before). Lincoln accepted the sword. The British band played The World Turned Upside Down as it marched out of Yorktown and into the custody of the American forces.
By his actions, General Washington made it clear that the new country was inferior to no nation, a precedent that would live through the ages.
The battle of Yorktown was the last major battle of the war, and although conflict would continue for two more years, the outcome was no longer in doubt. In its aftermath a new republic struggled to its feet, beginning its journey to become the greatest nation on earth.