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The bloodshed, the glory and triumph, the birth of a nation. These were all direct results of the American Revolutionary War, which itself had officially begun upon the first shots fired by the British army at Lexington and Concord. After these initial shootings, a number of battles were fought to preserve the colonists’ freedom from tyrannical England. The climax of the war occurred along the fields of Yorktown, Virginia, where a battle between the colonists and the British was brewing. Entering the battle, the British forces believed that they clearly possessed the upper hand against the insubordinate, rag-tag rebel army. But as time wore on and the battles drew to a close, the history books would address the outcome of the Battle of Yorktown in the following manner that over-confidence in their military knowledge and tactics proved to be England’s undoing at the Battle of Yorktown, one of that nation’s greatest war-time blunders.

The British Army stationed in the colonies was under the command of Lieutenant General George Cornwallis, who himself had defeated the Americans forces on numerous occasions in battles occurring in the northern colonies. An order was sent from those back in England for General Cornwallis to move the British soldiers within his command toward the southern colonies.

The colonial forces led by that of General George Washington, assisted by General Marquis De Lafayette, General Rochambeau, and Admiral de Grasse along with their 17,000 men launched the battle that would bring England to its knees. Before he could even fathom the dangers that lay ahead, British General Lord Cornwallis engaged himself and his men in a battle he could not possibly triumph. However, planning the course of the attack for the French-American army was not an easy task to execute. Nevertheless, the battle might not have been won if it was not for the assistance of the French navy.

Initially, British General Lord Cornwallis had ignited rage throughout the Carolinas. He fought these battles and won, without so much as a doubt in his opponents’ minds; however, his army was becoming weaker every battle without him realizing it. On the weeks that followed in the year 1781, British General Henry Clinton ordered Lord Cornwallis to stay in the Carolinas and support British troops there. General Cornwallis decided not to follow the order, and so he moved his whole army to Yorktown, Virginia. At General Cornwallis’s arrival at Yorktown, Cornwallis took command from British General Benedict Arnold. While at Yorktown, The British troops were short on reinforcements and supplies. A battle including General Washington’s troops was to occur in New York City at the same time, so no reinforcements were sent to General Cornwallis’s aid. General Cornwallis was ordered again to march all his troops to New York, however, once again he disobeyed orders and he and his 7,500 men remained encamped at Yorktown.

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While General George Washington and General Rochambeau commanded the Franco-American forces in the north, General Lafayette gave the word to Washington that General Cornwallis and his troops were stationed at Yorktown. No one expected for General Washington and his troops to march southward, they had no reason to. To conceal Washington’s plans of heading south towards Cornwallis, he stationed ,500 of his soldiers in American forts near the city of New York. While at night, General Washington and General Rochambeau quietly moved from the forts and begun to head south.

Upon their arrival at Yorktown, Generals Washington, Rochambeau, and Lafayette began to plan the attack. They gave word to French Admiral de Grasse to station in the West Indies and later sail towards Chesapeake Bay and take control of the York River to block Cornwallis’s escape route to the sea. Both, General Washington’s and General Rochambeau’s forces formed a semi circle around the city. Now, Lord Cornwallis had no way of fleeing. “The French-American forces added up to about 17,000 men, that is far more than the 7,500 men General Cornwallis had stationed in the city.” (Leckie 0)

Before the fighting had even begun, things were going downhill for the British armed forces. Cornwallis had 8,800 troops and 1,000 freed slaves but, ,000 of the aforementioned men were ill. The Americans had 8,00 Continental Army troops, and 7,500 French troops under their command. Additionally, there were an extra 4,000 sailors on board the French ships supporting the colonial movement. (Dupuy 76)

General Cornwallis had requested that fellow British commander General Henry Clinton send a warship filled with British troops from New York to rally to his aid at Yorktown. After receiving this order, Clinton could not make up his mind as whether or not to obey in the event that the soldiers under his command were attacked by Washington’s troops whom he reasoned were still camped in New York. This dispute left Cornwallis’s troops severely undermanned for the pending battle ahead.

At Yorktown, Cornwallis decided to make a square half mile fort around his headquarters to protect his troops and to fortify a defense against the rebel army. The inner defenses were strong, but as the British were low in tools and supplies, they were unable to fully complete the perimeter.

On September 8, the allies began their march to Yorktown. They planned a siege of the fort, whereas a direct attack would result in far too numerous casualties. The French were masters at siege warfare, as was Baron Von Steuben, a Prussian General who too was assisting the American army. Since the Americans possessed no experience in the area of siege warfare, the French and Prussians instructed them on how to dig zig-zag trenches through the fields to which artillery could be brought closer to the British stronghold. This maneuver would allow the allies to weaken the fort’s defenses before an open attack. In addition, the colonial forces were deployed in a semi-circle about 6 miles long around the fort’s perimeter. Upon sight of this, Cornwallis started to panic as he was severely undermanned. He attempted to escape by transporting his men across the nearby river to Gloucester Point. But the American defense lines, and the impeccable timing of bad weather, prevented the escape. As the colonists and the British began to make their attack on the British, the walls of the British fort started to crumble.

As the battle wore on, the American and French forces took up siege positions before Yorktown. On October th, a large artillery barrage led the attack, with General Washington himself touching off the Americans first cannon shot. The Allied bombardment continued without letup, battering the British positions with devastating results. (Lumpkin 7)

Unbeknownst to Cornwallis, French Admiral Count de Grasse was sailing in full force from Haiti with a powerful fleet of twenty-eight heavy warships. When de Grasse arrived, he imposed a blockade on Chesapeake Bay and the mouths of the James and York Rivers. This bold and daring military action prevented Cornwallis’s land forces from making their escape out of the city.

Finally, on October 17th, the British sent a fleet from New York to help General Cornwallis and his men, but by that time it was far too late. The British were outnumbered and were greatly deprived of hardly any food. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton had delivered a letter from General Washington to General Cornwallis. “Washington wrote that he wanted to stop the useless effusion of blood. (Dupuy 7) On the same day the British fleet left New York, General Cornwallis realized there was no hope for his army and sent this answer to General Washingtons letter

York in Virginia,

17th October 1781,

1/ PAST 4 P.M.


I have this moment been honoured with your Excellencys letter dated this day. The time limited for sending my answer will not admit of entering into the detail of Articles, but the basis of my proposals will be that the Garrisons of York and Gloucester shall be prisoners of War with the customary honors, and for the convenience of the individuals which I have the honor to command, that the British shall be sent to Britain and the Germans to Germany, under engagement not to serve against France, America or their Allies until released or regularly exchanged, that all Arms and public stores shall be delivered up to you, but that the usual indulgence of side arms to Officers and of retaining private property shall be granted to Officers and Soldiers, and that the interests of several individuals in Civil Capacities and connected with us, shall be attended to. If Your Excellency thinks that a continuance of the suspension of hostilities will be necessary to transmit your answer I shall have no objection to the hour that you propose. I have the honor to be

Your most obedient and most humble servant,

Cornwallis (Dupuy 80)

On October 18, with the British ammunition exhausted, the figure of a red-coated drummer boy appeared on a British fieldwork on Hampton Road. The Allied guns went silent, as a British officer emerged holding up a white handkerchief, sent to General Washington to end the three weeks of siege. The British messenger also told Washington that General Cornwallis wished for a truce followed by a full surrender. Cornwallis army surrendered as Prisoners of War, with only the senior officers accepted on parole and returned to England.

“The Americans forced the British out of the fort, demanding that the British bring their colors. The British played “The World Turned Upside Down” while leaving their stations at Yorktown.” (Encarta) At p.m. on October 1th, the British ranks marched down the Hampton Road lined on both sides with French and American soldiers. Cornwallis did not surrender in person but, instead, had his second in command, General Charles OHara lead the column of British soldiers. Cornwallis later claimed to be inside the fort very sick. At first the British tried to surrender to the French, as they were overly embarrassed and did not wish to admit defeat to the rebel army. The French did not allow this and insisted that the British surrender to the Americans. O’Hara attempted to give Washington Cornwallis’s sword. Washington refused to accept the sword from Cornwallis’s second in command. He instead made the British surrender to the American second in command, General Benjamin Lincoln.

Once Cornwallis decided to surrender, he had no alternative but to accept General Washingtons terms. These were, on the whole, not only just, but rather extremely generous. “The British army was to surrender to the Americans; the navy to the French. Officers were to retain their side arms and private property; soldiers were to be kept in Virginia, Maryland or Pennsylvania; Cornwallis and some other officers were permitted to return home to England on parole.” (Mitchell 10)

A New Jersey officer reported that . . . the British officers in general behaved like boys who had been whipped at school. Some bit their lips; some pouted; others cried. Their round, broad-rimmed hats were well-adapted to the occasion, hiding those faces they were ashamed to show. (Mitchell 110)

When word of the surrender reached London, the Prime Minister, Lord Frederick North, resigned. Parliament heard of the surrender and it decided England had been beaten. They instructed the King to make peace with the colonists. The colonies were given to the Americans, which allowed the colonists to form their own government. Following the surrender, General Cornwallis sailed to the West Indies to fight the Spanish who were trying to capture Jamaica from the British. “Admiral de Grasse was captured by the British and held in prison in England. After the surrender, he was released to France, but his remarkable contribution to the victory at Yorktown was all but forgotten as he retired from the navy. General Rochambeau received high honors from the French king and he continued to serve in the French army into his later years. General Washington retired from the army after the War, but was later named the first President of the United States in 178.” (World Book)

After reviewing the actions and outcomes of the Battle of Yorktown, the French and the Americans won the war for a number of reasons First, the British were fighting ,000 miles from home. This meant it would take a long period of time for supplies or money to be sent to America. The American patriots received invaluable aid from France in the form of money, warships, cannons, ammunition, and other supplies. Most importantly, however, the French taught the colonists battle strategies that helped lead to the defeat of the British. The motive behind the actions of the American troops became greater as they further overtook the British. They were fighting for a new country, in addition to a new beginning. The British soldiers on the other hand were led by General Cornwallis who was not nearly as successful as a leader has he had been in past encounters with the colonials. The British army was fighting far from home to preserve the colonies for the English crown. Their morale was not nearly as strong as the colonist’s.

But after the passing of some two hundred years since the last bullet shot out of a rifle on the bloody fields of Yorktown, Virginia, the results of the Battle of Yorktown state the obvious; that the British, plainly and effectively using their own massive egos and lack of military skill, messed up big time in securing what should easily have been a British victory in the American Revolutionary War. Works Cited

The Battle of Yorktown. World Book 1 Encyclopedia. 18. IBM Corporation.

Dupuy, Trevor Nevitt. The Military History of Revolutionary War Naval Battles. New York Franklin Watts, Inc, 170.

Leckie, Robert. The World Turned Upside Down The Story of American Revolution. New York G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 17.

Lumpkin, Henry. From Savannah to Yorktown The Battles of the American Revolution. Philadelphia Paragon, 187.

Mitchell, Joseph B. Decisive Battles of the American Revolution. San Francisco Fawcett, 176.

Yorktown, Siege of. Microsoft Encarta 6 Encyclopedia. 15. Microsoft Corporation.

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