11 Facts About the Battle of Yorktown
By Mark Mancini
From the perspective of the American rebels and their French allies, the Battle of Yorktown (also known as the Siege of Yorktown) was an extremely lucky break. Pouncing on a narrow window of opportunity, the American and French forces laid siege to a small town on the Virginia coast and captured thousands of enemy soldiers. That sudden blow was what compelled Great Britain to ultimately recognize the rebellious colonies as one sovereign nation, ending the American War for Independence. Yet the siege on Yorktown might have gone very differently if it hadn't been for some bad weather and deceptive bread ovens. Here's what you should know about the battle that changed the world.
1. INSTEAD OF GOING TO YORKTOWN, GEORGE WASHINGTON WANTED TO RETAKE NEW YORK CITY.
The ink was barely dry on the Declaration of Independence when New York was attacked by the British. On August 27, 1776, General William Howe led a force of 35,000 British and German soldiers to Brooklyn. The Redcoats and Hessians seized Manhattan, the Bronx, Long Island, Staten Island, and surrounding regions, and New York City was held under British occupation for seven years. It became a convenient military outpost for the invading force. According to Valerie Paley of the New York Historical Society, "We were the British base of command until the end of the war."
Having suffered a bitter defeat when the Redcoats attacked Brooklyn in '76, General George Washington was eager to reclaim New York—and it looked like he would finally get his chance in 1781. There had been some indication that ally François Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse—an admiral in the French navy—might be sailing toward New York City with a 24-warship fleet that year (a fleet that seemed necessary if Washington wanted to lay siege to the island). But on August 14, Washington learned that the count was taking his vessels down to Virginia instead.
"I was obliged … to give up all idea of attacking New York," Washington wrote in his diary. At the time, he was in Westchester County, New York, as were the French General the Comte de Rochambeau and his troops. On August 18, the two commanders began an arduous journey. Leading a combined force of more than 2600 Americans and 4600 Frenchmen, they set out on a long march to Virginia. Their target was Lord Charles Cornwallis. A decorated British General, Cornwallis had served at the battle of Brooklyn and spent the past few years fighting in the American south. Now he was courting disaster at a place called Yorktown.
2. A NAVAL CLASH HELPED DETERMINE THE OUTCOME …
General Cornwallis had put thousands of British-led soldiers in a vulnerable situation. During the summer of 1781, Cornwallis was ordered to fortify a naval base along the Virginia coast. So he and the 7000 troops under his command set up shop in Yorktown, a seaside tobacco hub. Geography put them at a major disadvantage. Because the city was perched at the tip of a York River peninsula, the Franco-American allies figured that if they could hit Yorktown with a naval blockade and a strong land-based siege, Cornwallis and his men would be hopelessly isolated. Their subsequent capture might bring the whole war to an end.
Any opportunity to nab Cornwallis was too good to pass up, but going after him like this was a big gamble. Time was of the essence; if British reinforcements made it to Yorktown before the city fell, the campaign could turn into a bloody disaster. Enter the Comte de Grasse: On August 30, 1781, his fleet dropped reached the Chesapeake Bay, where the admiral transferred supplies and men to the waiting Marquis de Lafayette. One week later, the Comte de Grasse's naval force engaged with a 19-warship British fleet that had been sent to find it.
A two and a half-hour sea battle broke out. The French prevailed, damaging six British vessels and killing 90 sailors in the process. (De Grasse only suffered damage to two ships.) Had the British won, the seamen aboard those Royal Navy vessels might have landed in Yorktown and given Cornwallis the backup he so desperately needed. Instead, the groundwork was laid for a Franco-American victory.
3. … AND SO DID FRENCH BREAD OVENS.
So far as Cornwallis—and most of England—was concerned, Yorktown fell because the British Commander-In-Chief waited too long to throw a lifeline. General Howe had resigned his post three years earlier and was succeeded by General Sir Henry Clinton, who took control of the British forces in North America in 1778. He made some critical errors regarding the Yorktown siege.
For one thing, the allies managed to trick him. Clinton was headquartered in New York City and throughout the summer of 1781, he braced himself for an assault on NYC that never came. By late August (as we've seen), the Franco-American military leaders had decided to strike Virginia instead. But in order for their southern invasion to work, they needed to keep Clinton distracted. "If the enemy perceive that we [have given up] the idea of attacking New York," explained one of Washington's advisors, "they will reinforce [General Cornwallis] before we can get there."
So while the Washington-Rochambeau march was underway, the allies built a number of French-style, brick bread ovens in northern New Jersey, which fooled British spies into thinking that Rochambeau and the Americans were about to set up a huge army encampment just a few miles away from Staten Island. To help sell the ruse, Franco-American troops spread false rumors about a planned invasion of New York. The Brits bought it—for a little while, anyway. Clinton didn't figure out that Washington and Rochambeau were en route to Yorktown until September. And once the threat became clear, he didn't respond to Cornwallis's requests for backup troops right away. General Clinton finally sent a ship with 7000 reinforcements on October 19—the day Cornwallis surrendered and Yorktown was handed over to the allies. Of course, by that point it was too late.
4. IT WAS A BATTLE OF BARRICADES, TRENCHES, AND INTENTIONAL SHIPWRECKS.
Building strong defenses was Cornwallis's number one priority. As soon as the general arrived in Yorktown on August 1, he started planning out physical barriers that would help safeguard the city from invaders. A line of four redoubts (hill-like fortifications made with dirt, wood, and sod) was built to the north of Gloucester Point, a neighboring village across the York River. Several others were made around Yorktown itself, including a massive, star-shaped one to the northwest that became known as "Fusiliers Redoubt." There were underwater barriers, too. Fearing a French naval strike, Cornwallis deliberately sunk around a dozen of his own ships near the mouth of the river, which he hoped would block other vessels from coming in.
The allied forces had their own construction projects. French and American troops spent the night of October 6 digging a 2000-yard trench that ran parallel to Cornwallis's southeastern redoubts and terminated near the York River. Legend has it that George Washington himself started things off there by being the first soldier in either army to swing a pick into the soil.
5. ROTTING HORSES STUNK UP THE PLACE.
To be successful, a siege needs to cut off the target's supply lines. Food, water, and other necessities grew scarce as the allies closed in around Yorktown. When it became clear that he wouldn't be able to feed his men and the hundreds of horses they'd commandeered from local farmers, Cornwallis got rid of the animals. After releasing some very bony steeds into the wild, he ordered that the rest of them be slaughtered on September 30. Around 400 horse carcasses were then dumped into the York River. The tide pushed many of them ashore, tainting the air with a hideous stench.
6. ALEXANDER HAMILTON LED A VITAL ATTACK.
Officially, the Battle of Yorktown lasted from September 28 to October 19, 1781. A pivotal moment took place on October 14. Two of the most strategically important bits of real estate in the whole siege were earthen barricades named Redoubt Number Nine and Redoubt Number 10, which had been built by Cornwallis's men to help block access to Yorktown from the south. During the battle, the allies slowly advanced beyond their original trench line and moved closer to the city itself, putting added pressure on the boxed-in British troops. As ground was gained, work began on a second parallel trench. But in order to finish it, the allies had to take Redoubts Nine and 10.
A dramatic attack on them both began at 8 p.m. on October 14. Wilhelm Graf von Zweibrücken—a German Lieutenant Colonel serving under Rochambeau—stormed Number Nine with 400 men. He lost 114 soldiers to death or injury during the first seven minutes of the struggle, but in the end, von Zweibrücken prevailed and seized the fortification.
Meanwhile, Redoubt 10 was taken by Colonel Alexander Hamilton, who almost didn't get the gig. Lafayette wanted his assistant Jean-Joseph Sourbader de Gimat to lead the assault, but Hamilton—who'd long hungered for glory—convinced General Washington to hand him the reins. The future Treasury Secretary's work was cut out for him: Once he made it to the redoubt, Hamilton had to leap over a ring of sharpened tree limbs at the top of the structure. But within the span of 10 minutes, he and the 400 men at his command captured Redoubt 10. By Hamilton's count, only nine of his troops were killed in the process and just over 30 were wounded.
7. THERE WERE A LOT OF GERMAN SOLDIERS ON BOTH SIDES.
Von Zweibrücken was part of the Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment, a unit of thousand-plus soldiers that were all recruited from Zweibrücken, a state that's now part of southern Germany. Originally created by the local Duke Christian IV to help pay off his debts to French King Louis XV, the regiment fought on France's behalf in both the Seven Years' War (against Prussia) and the American Revolution. At Yorktown, it incurred heavy casualties. As a token of his gratitude, George Washington gave the regiment one of the British brass cannons that had been captured. Rochambeau thanked them with two extra days' worth of pay.
Ironically enough, when the Royal Deux-Ponts attacked Redoubt Number Nine, they went up against another group of Germans. The Musketeer Regiment von Bose was a Hessian mercenary force from Hesse-Kassel that helped the British conquer Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. At Yorktown, they were one of four German units under Cornwallis's command. On October 14, the Musketeer Regiment worked alongside some of their British colleagues in an attempt to defend Redoubt Nine.
8. GENERAL CORNWALLIS DIDN'T SURRENDER IN PERSON.
Bad weather was what finally doomed Cornwallis. An October 16 British assault on the main allied line failed to make any significant headway. That night, their troops tried to sneak across the York River and escape through Gloucester Point. But their evacuation plans were foiled by a violent storm that blew in unexpectedly and made crossing the waterway impossible. Optionless and exhausted, Cornwallis threw in the towel.
Peace talks started the very next morning. Allied soldiers were treated to the sight of a British drummer boy and a red-coated officer carrying a white flag out of Yorktown at 9 a.m. on October 17. The two sides didn't finish negotiating the terms of surrender until October 19. Ordinarily, Cornwallis—as the defeated general—would have made an appearance at the formal surrendering ceremony that occurred that day. But Cornwallis claimed he was feeling ill and sent his second in command, Brigadier General Charles O'Hara, in his place.
9. "THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN" MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN PLAYED AFTERWARDS.
"I have the honor to inform congress," Washington wrote on October 19, "that a reduction of the British army under the command of Lord Cornwallis is most happily effected." Apart from select officers who were granted parole, all of the British land troops, mariners, and seamen were taken as prisoners of war under the agreed-upon surrender terms.
It's frequently said that as the defeated British poured out of Yorktown, their drummers and fifers played a familiar battle march called "The World Turned Upside Down." But this may be untrue. There's no reference to the song in any of the firsthand historical records from the Battle of Yorktown, with the Library of Congress dating the first reference to 1828. Nevertheless, Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to weave its title into the score of his Tony Award-winning show, Hamilton: An American Musical.
10. TECHNICALLY, THE WAR LASTED UNTIL 1783.
Though the Yorktown Siege is rightly considered a decisive victory, the Revolutionary War did not officially end until after the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783. Yorktown laid the groundwork for that historic moment. With the surrender of General Cornwallis, the British lost one third of their forces in North America. Public opinion and the British Parliament both turned against the war effort once the bad news crossed the Atlantic. Supposedly, when Prime Minister Frederick North learned about the Yorktown catastrophe, he exclaimed, "Oh God, it is all over!"
In fact, things were just getting started. The following April, American and British diplomats met up in Paris, France to discuss ending the hostilities between their countries. A preliminary agreement between Great Britain and the new United States of America was reached in November 1782. But before that could take effect, the British had to negotiate terms with France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic—all of whom had also been at war with the royal superpower.
While statesmen debated in Paris, fighting continued around the world. Military clashes between the European powers broke out overseas and in western North America. Meanwhile, American rebels kept skirmishing with redcoats on future U.S. soil. (Present-day Robertson County, Kentucky witnessed one of these post-Yorktown battles on August 19, 1782.) George Washington—wisely—decided not to immediately disband the continental army until the Treaty of Paris had been finalized by all parties involved. The last lingering British soldiers left the United States on November 23, 1783.
11. YORKTOWN WAS ALSO THE SITE OF A CIVIL WAR BATTLE.
Nearly a century later, Yorktown, Virginia weathered another military siege. From April 5 to May 4, 1862, more than 100,000 blue-jacketed troops landed there in an early phase of Union General George B. McClellan's ill-fated attempt to capture Richmond. Around Yorktown, they met an initial force of 13,000 Confederates led by Major General J. Bankhead Magruder. The rebels eventually withdrew to Williamsburg as McClellan pushed his way across the peninsula. Southern land mines and a northern hot air balloon were employed during this struggle. For his part, Magruder couldn't help but comment on the area's historical significance. In a letter designed to rally his men, the major general reminded them that "The long war of the Revolution culminated at length in victorious triumph on these very plains of Yorktown."