When British General Lord Charles Cornwallis and his army surrendered to General George Washington’s American force and its French allies at the Battle of Yorktown on October 19, 1781, it was more than just military win. The outcome in Yorktown, Virginia marked the conclusion of the last major battle of the American Revolution and the start of a new nation's independence. It also cemented Washington’s reputation as a great leader and eventual election as first president of the United States.
“Washington’s fame grew to international proportions having wrested such an impossible victory,” according to the Washington Library, “interrupting his much desired Mount Vernon retirement with greater calls to public service.”
READ MORE: Explore George Washington's life in our interactive timeline
Timeline Leading Up to the Battle
In the summer of 1780, 5,500 French troops, with Comte de Rochambeau at the helm, landed in Newport, Rhode Island to aid the Americans. At the time, British forces were fighting on two fronts, with General Henry Clinton occupying New York City, and Cornwallis, who had already captured Charleston and Savannah, South Carolina, heading up operations in the south.
“It was obvious that the Americans needed a big victory if they were to convince the peace conference in Europe that they had a right to demand independence for all thirteen colonies,” writes Thomas Fleming in his book, Yorktown.
With the Continental Army positioned in New York, Washington and Rochambeau teamed to plan a timed attack on Clinton with the arrival of more French forces. When they found the French fleet was instead sailing to the Chesapeake Bay, Washington concocted a new plan.
“He would fool Clinton into thinking the Continentals were planning to attack New York while instead sneaking away to the south to attack Cornwallis,” according to the Army Heritage Center Foundation. “Washington ordered the construction of large camps with huge brick bread ovens where Clinton could see them to create the illusion that the Continental Army was preparing for a long stay. Washington also prepared false papers discussing attack plans on Clinton, and let these papers fall into British hands.”
Washington arrives in Yorktown
By mid-September 1781, Washington and Rochambeau arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia, 13 miles from the tobacco port of Yorktown, where Cornwallis’s men had built a defense of 10 small forts (a.k.a. redoubts) with artillery batteries and connecting trenches. In response, Cornwallis asked Clinton for aid, and the general promised him a fleet of 5,000 British soldiers would set sail from New York to Yorktown.
With a small force left in New York, about 2,500 Americans and 4,000 French soldiers—facing some 8,000 British troops—began digging their own trenches 800 yards from the Brits and started a nearly week-long artillery assault on the enemy on October 9.
“The heavy cannons pounded the British mercilessly, and by October 11 had knocked out most of the British guns,” the Army Heritage Center Foundation states. “Cornwallis received the unfortunate (for him) news that Clinton's departure from New York had been delayed.”
A new parallel trench, 400 yards closer to the British lines, was ordered by Washington on October 11, but completing it would entail taking out the British redoubts No. 9 and No. 10.
The Role of Alexander Hamilton
The attack on redoubt No. 9 would be undertaken by French troops, while the No. 10 siege would be led by Colonel Alexander Hamilton. The Founding Father wasn’t the top pick of Major General Marquis de Lafayette for the job, but Hamilton, who wanted to improve his reputation by proving himself on the battlefield, talked Washington into it.
To speed up the siege of the two redoubts—French troops were to take redoubt No. 9, while Hamilton’s men were assigned No. 10—Washington ordered the use of bayonets, rather than “pounding them slowly into submission with cannon,” writes Ron Chernow in Alexander Hamilton.
“After nightfall on October 14, the allies fired several consecutive shells in the air that brilliantly illuminated the sky,” Chernow writes. At that point, Hamilton and his men rallied from their trenches and sprinted across a quarter-mile of field with fixed bayonets. “For the sake of silence, surprise, and soldierly pride, they had unloaded their guns to take the position with bayonets alone. Dodging heavy fire, they let out war whoops that startled their enemies. ... The whole operation had consumed fewer than ten minutes.”
General Cornwallis Surrenders
Of his 400 infantrymen, Hamilton lost just nine in the attack, with some 30 wounded, while the 400 French-led troops lost 27 men, with 109 wounded, according to Fleming. Surrounded by enemy fire, and blocked from receiving aid by the French fleet that had arrived in Chesapeake Bay, Cornwallis was trapped.
The successful siege allowed the allies to complete the second parallel trench and “snuffed out the last remains of resistance among the British.” In a final effort on October 16, Cornwallis attempted a nighttime sea evacuation, but he was stopped by a storm.
On the morning of October 17, the British sent forward a red-coated drummer boy, followed by an officer waving a white handkerchief to the parapet. All guns fell silent—Cornwallis had surrendered.
The End of the Revolutionary War
Following the Battle at Yorktown and Cornwallis’s surrender—and the British down one-third of its force—the British Parliament, in March 1782, passed a resolution calling for the nation to end the war. "Oh God, it is all over!" Prime Minister Frederick North exclaimed upon hearing of the Yorktown surrender, writes Alan Taylor in American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804.
The British still had 30,000 men in North America, occupying the seaports of New York, Charles Town and Savannah,” according to Taylor. But the demoralizing loss at Yorktown diminished the British will to continue to fight the rebels. On September 3, 1783, the Revolutionary War came to an official end with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.