Early in September 1781, Lord Charles Cornwallis remained confident about his force's security at Yorktown, where British troops had been fortifying their position atop a bluff on the south side of the York River. Reinforcement or evacuation was to be provided by a Royal Naval fleet dispatched from New York by Sir Henry Clinton. That sense of assurance, however, was shaken when word of the Battle of the Capes arrived. By September 10, Admiral Thomas Graves was sailing his badly hammered fleet back to New York for repairs. Whether that fleet could be restored in time to return to Virginia was a matter of deep conjecture.
On September 28, the forces of Washington and General Rochambeau departed from Williamsburg and marched eastward a short distance to join the Marquis de Lafayette’s army outside of Yorktown. Two days later, in an attempt to conserve his strength, Cornwallis pulled in soldiers that had been stationed in outer fortified positions, but enabled his enemy to creep forward and man those same positions.
The besieging French and American forces desired to dig trenches to allow movement of big guns closer to British fortifications, but such activity was usually accomplished under cover of darkness; clear skies and moonlight had made the work unsafe. Trenching began in earnest on October 6 and the heavy bombardment of Yorktown followed three days later, which continued day and night. Thousands of shells were fired and both sides sustained casualties, particularly the defenders in Yorktown. Occasional skirmishes occurred outside the town where parties of redcoats were discovered foraging for food by French or American troops.
On October 14, allied forces stormed two redoubts held by the British. Alexander Hamilton, who had long lobbied for a command, led one effort and performed ably; the French succeeded in taking the other position. Guns were pulled up to the newly won locations, which could then command all parts of the besieged town.
The following night, the British attempted to silence some of the cannon that were pounding Yorktown. Several hundred soldiers left the fort under the cover of an artillery barrage. They experienced some success by killing a number of allied soldiers and temporarily disabling a half-dozen cannon.
Cornwallis then discarded his hope for reinforcements and attempted a major evacuation. He began to ferry his army across the York to British-held Gloucester Point on the north bank. From there he hoped to make a forced march to evade the numerically superior allied armies — leaving his sick and wounded soldiers behind. However, a major storm intervened and scattered the transport boats after a single crossing. The British army recongregated in Yorktown in the knowledge that their fate was sealed.
At 10 a.m. on October 17, Cornwallis signaled to his opponents that he wanted to parley and the guns at Yorktown fell silent.
On the same day, Clinton’s fleet, whose repairs had been long delayed by a lumber shortage, was ready to sail. However, fate still did not cooperate and the British vessels had to wait another two days for favorable winds and tides. On the 19th, the rescue fleet was finally at sea, but hundreds of miles to the south, Cornwallis’s sword was being offered to the victors as a token of the surrender of the British army at Yorktown.
During the siege, the Americans sustained about 80 casualties, the French more than 200 and the British more than 500.
See Yorktown Campaign and Timeline of the War of Independence.
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