Following an abortive attempt to evacuate his army from Yorktown, Lord Charles Cornwallis faced the reality that aid from Sir Henry Clinton would not arrive in time. French and American guns resumed bombardment of the British position at dawn on October 17. By mid-morning, Cornwallis came to a decision and sent a drummer to a visible location on the fortification, where he beat out the call for a parley. The guns were quickly silenced and a British officer came forward to the American lines; he was blindfolded and taken to confer with George Washington.
Washington refused to make the same mistake that had been made four years earlier by Horatio Gates in the surrender at Saratoga, where the defeated soldiers were allowed to return to their homes in exchange for a promise not to reenter the war in North America at a later point. The obvious problem with such leniency was that those soldiers could be assigned to another theater, thus replacing soldiers in that location who could then be sent to America.1
Terms were negotiated on October 18 and included the following provisions:
In a breech of military etiquette, Cornwallis declined to attend the surrender ceremony, claiming illness. The second in command, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, filled that role. To avoid the humiliation of turning over Cornwallis’ sword to Washington — known contemptuously to many British as “General Buckskin” — O'Hara attempted to present the token to General Rochambeau. The French commander refused to accept the sword and pointed to Washington. When O’Hara turned to make the presentation, Washington called on his second-in-command, General Benjamin Lincoln, to accept. Thus, General Buckskin won some satisfaction in the wake of his humiliation at the surrender of Charleston.
surrendering soldiers were to march out of their fortification with colors folded, surrender their arms at a predetermined location, then depart to detention2
- British officers were allowed to keep their side arms and to depart to Britain, or to a British-occupied American port
- officers and soldiers were allowed to retain personal possessions.
According to a widely recounted report, the defeated army departed to the strains of The World Turned Upside Down, a popular song whose words in part expressed the sentiments of the day:
If ponies rode men and grass ate cows,
And cats were chased into holes by the mouse . . .
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down.
In all, more than 7,000 soldiers surrendered at Yorktown. Additionally, more than 200 artillery pieces and enormous stores of small arms and ammunition ended up in allied hands. Nevertheless, the last shots of the war had not been heard. Fighting, much of it bitter, would continue in the South for a number of months. In late 1781, the British still had 30,000 soldiers in America and controlled the vital cities of Charleston, Savannah and New York.
It was not until October 24 that Clinton’s fleet arrived; he was apprised of the surrender and promptly returned to New York.
1. The Americans did not abide strictly by the terms of the Saratoga surrender, claiming a technical violation of the agreement, and continued to hold British and German soldiers in detention in Virginia.
2. Nearly 7,000 soldiers were detained for varying terms in prison camps in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
See Yorktown Campaign and Timeline of the War of Independence.
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