The complete history of the Battle of Yorktown - We Are The Mighty
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The complete history of the Battle of Yorktown

Beginning on September 28, 1781, and ending on October 19, 1781, the Battle at Yorktown was a historic victory for the Continental Army. So why is this one of the better-known battles in America’s fight for independence? It has much to do with who was in command and what the Continental victory meant for American forces. The Battle of Yorktown was the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War. America’s success led to the Treaty of Paris and the birth of the United States of America.

Here is the complete history of the Battle of Yorktown

Leading up to Yorktown

The Revolutionary War had been raging for six long years. Of course it goes without saying that both sides had little energy left. Morale was low, supplies were less than plentiful, and the money was almost all gone. Making things more difficult for the British is the fact that they were simultaneously fighting a war with France and Spain. Since the American Revolution was wildly unpopular, many leaders felt there was no end in sight. American colonies had little food, the country was already in massive debt, and it seemed like the entire war would be for nothing. What America needed was a big win. 

The Battle of Yorktown timeline

In the summer before the battle of Yorktown, 5,500 troops landed in Newport, Rhode Island, to help the Continental Army gain independence from the British. British forces, spread thin, were fighting on two different fronts. General Henry Clinton occupied New York City, and Lord General Charles Cornwallis was in South Carolina after having just captured Charleston and Savannah. 

The American Army needed a big win if we were to convince our allies that we deserved our freedom. So, General George Washington and his ally Comte de Rochambeau decided the best thing to do would be to wait for more French troops to arrive. Then, with their reinforcements, they would mercilessly attack Clinton. However, the French fleet sailed for the Chesapeake Bay, not Newport, derailing the whole plan. So Washington had to quickly come up with a new approach while making it seem like he was still going to be in Rhode Island. 

It took a while, but by September, Washington and Rochambeau were in Williamsburg, Virginia, just 13 miles from Yorktown. In Yorktown, Cornwallis had a sizable defense built up that included 10 redoubts, with artillery batteries and trenches. When Cornwallis saw the approaching force, he reached out to Clinton, asking for more support. Clinton promised 5,000 British soldiers were on the way.

battle of Yorktown siege
Storming of redoubt #10 during the Siege of Yorktown.

Meanwhile… 

Prospects looked bleak, with just about 2,500 Americans and 4,000 French soldiers to face down nearly 8,000 British troops. So, the American and French soldiers started digging trenches just 800 yards from the British forces. A week-long artillery assault began shortly after.

The artillery fire helped tamp the British advance, and most of the big guns were gone within days. So, Washington ordered another trench to be dug. This one was just 400 yards from the British front line. The catch? Completing it would require American forces to take out two British redoubts. 

Washington decided that the French would take out one redoubt and the other would be left to the Americans. Colonel Alexander Hamilton was eager to prove himself on the battlefield, so Washington agreed to let him lead the charge.

Washington decided to switch things up on the battlefield to expedite this entire process. Instead of using cannons, he ordered the lines to use bayonets. That was a bold move that would eventually really pay off.

Nightfall and the surrender

When night fell on October 14, American artillery illuminated the sky. Hamilton and his men rallied in the trenches and prepared to strike. Their goal was to be silent and to surprise the enemy. So they sprinted with empty guns, relying on their bayonets to stop the British. Historians recount that the entire advance likely took less than ten minutes.

The triumphant advance meant that America could create the second trench and all but completely quash the British resistance. 

Two days later, Cornwallis tried to escape via a nighttime sea evacuation, but a storm forced him back. So, on the morning of October 19, the British sent a red-coated drummer and an officer waving a white flag.

Impacts

Of the 400 service members with him, Hamilton lost just nine soldiers in battle, and 30 were wounded. Twenty-seven French service members died, and 109 others were injured.

The Battle of Yorktown and Cornwallis’ surrender signaled a new development in the war. The British passed a resolution calling for their country to end the war for the first time. However, 30,000 service members in America were still embedded in seaports all along the coast. It took a while for all of them to leave. But on September 3, 1783, the Revolutionary War officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Of course, it would take an additional two years for Americans to formally secure independence. However, it would not have been possible without the Continental Army’s triumphant victory at the Battle of Yorktown. Many consider Yorktown to be one of the most significant British blunders of the war.

Yorktown Victory Monument

Just five days after the British surrendered, Congress passed a resolution to erect a structure dedicated to those who fought in the Battle of Yorktown. Of course, construction was delayed as America had lots of other pressing matters to attend to. So, Yorktown citizens waited until 1834. At that time, they asked that the monument be constructed. They followed up again two years later and then in 1876 and 1881. It took until 1885 for the statute to be complete. The Yorktown Victory Monument is at the Colonial National Historical Park in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. It is operated by the National Park Service and includes Colonial Parkway, Jamestown, and the Yorktown Battlefield. 

battle of yorktown monument
Overlooking the York River in Yorktown itself is the Yorktown Victory Monument.

How is the Battle of Yorktown observed?

Back in 1931, a four-day event commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown. It was attended by then-president Herbert Hoover, French dignitaries, and the Virginia governor. The event included the official dedication of the Colonial National Historical Park. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan visited the park for the bicentennial celebration. 

Frequently Asked Questions about the Battle of Yorktown

Why did the French send troops to help America?

France and Britain were long-time enemies, so the French assumed the position, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In the end, it worked to our benefit, of course.

Why is the Battle of Yorktown important?

The battle was the last of the significant battles of the American revolution and helped solidify America’s independence from Britain.

When did the American Revolution take place?

The American Revolution took place from 1775 until 1783.

How many battles did the Continental Army fight during the revolution?

Historians count more than 165 battles or engagements with the enemy during the war. 

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