By Sam Burnham
On October 19, 1791, exactly 235 years ago today, British General Cornwallis signed the document of capitulation at Yorktown, Virginia. That effectively put an end to the American Revolution and secured Independence for the United States.
The surrender ended the Siege of Yorktown, a military action in which allied American and French forces under the command of Generals George Washington and Compte de Rochambeau pinned the British against the banks of the York River and then used artillery to shell them into submission.
The Allies created a perfect storm. The brilliant young Frenchman, Major General Marquis de Lafayette, had pursued Cornwallis onto the Virginia Peninsula as the British force was attempting to escape to fight another day. Washington heard of this development in New York and recognized an opportunity to put an end to the war. Feigning a siege if New York, he sneaked his army to the south before British commander Sir Henry Clinton could do anything about it.
What followed was one of those legendary American marches that we've seen turn the tide in wars. When an entire division, or even an entire army just gets up and relocates over an "impossible" distance in an "impossible" amount of time - the "we have to do this right now" American feat of military mobility. Washington's army marched from New York to Virginia in time to trap the British.
While the French fleet arrived just in time and clobbered the British naval force sent to rescue the Redcoats, Cornwallis went from facing off against the 24-year-old Lafayette to being outnumbered 2-to-1 and trying to also outwit Washington, Rochambeau, Henry Knox, and Baron von Steuben. And let's be honest, he wasn't trapped on a peninsula awaiting evacuation because he was handling Lafayette.
Parallels, trenches, were dug across the battlefield. Yorktown was not a traditional battle in terms of infantry lining off and firing while trying to outflank each other or break the lines of fire. Yorktown was a siege. The Allies dug trenches to put artillery in and shelled the British. When the Redcoats fell back, the Allies built a closer trench.
The second trench's completion was dependent on the capture of two British redoubts - earthen mini-forts protected by armed Redcoats and abatis. The French took Redoubt 9 and the Americans captured Redoubt 10. The taking of Redoubt 10 is another legendary American military feat. It guaranteed the completion of the second parallel and effectively sealed Cornwallis' fate. (As well as provided one of the few positives you'll ever hear me utter about Alexander Hamilton.)
To take the position, Alexander Hamilton led light infantry armed with unloaded muskets, to avoid having an accidental discharge tip off the British, on a head-on bayonet charge. They went up the slopes, through the abatis, over the top and quickly subdued the British forces inside. Once artillery batteries were put in place, Cornwallis was done.
Washington signed the ceasefire document at Redoubt 10 and the two sides sent representatives to discuss surrender. Capitulation was finalized on the 19th.
One of my favorite stories from Yorktown, probably one of the most American things to happen there, was about the song Yankee Doodle. The British had made the song as an insult to the Americans. The song is a depiction of a stupid and naive American who foolishly thought he could be the 18th century equivalent of a trendy hipster, much less a true gentleman. Lafayette, a fascinating man who deserves his own story here, gave us one of the earliest 'Merica moments. Instead of one of their typical marches, Lafayette ordered his band to play Yankee Doodle. At the surrender ceremony. In front of the defeated and embarrassed British Army. The cocky Frenchman slapped the British with the truth that they didn't just lose and lose badly, they lost the Yankee Doodle.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire