For six years, the specter of defeat had dogged Gen. George Washington’s every thought. As advantage after advantage slipped away, the American coffers dried up, and the most promising general betrayed the Revolution, it looked more and more like Washington and his motley army would lose their fight for independence. But in September 1781, on a hilltop he had feared he might never see again, Washington could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
Three weeks earlier, he had begun a march south from the New York area, where he and his soldiers had spent most of the war. Now, for the first time since being appointed commander-in-chief in 1775, he visited his home at Mt. Vernon. Things were finally looking up for his army, too, although he couldn’t have guessed how much. On September 28, 1781, 225 years ago today, he and his allies would reach Yorktown, Virginia. There he would score his first—and last—major offensive victory. The siege at Yorktown would win the American Revolution.
America’s revolutionary fervor had atrophied in the long years since 1776. The Continental army was broke. Enlistments had dwindled to nothing, and the goodwill of citizens had long since been spent. Americans were tired of this endless war. Unless Washington delivered some huge victory or advantage somewhere—anywhere—the Revolution would surely decay. But without command of the sea, he couldn’t do much. An enemy like the British, who could resupply, reinforce, or escape anywhere along the coast, was almost impossible to defeat. France, the Patriots’ ally since 1778, certainly had the naval might to take control of American waters, but French ships always seemed to be busy elsewhere. “If France delays timely aid now it will avail us nothing if she attempts it hereafter,” Washington wrote in the spring of 1781. “We are at the end of our tether and now or never our deliverance must come.”
He and his fellows were fighting for nothing less than their freedom, but to England and France America represented just one theater in a world war. The king’s soldiers were also battling the French and Spanish in Europe, the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean. Despite the size and strength of the British armed forces, London spared only a sliver for its commander-in-chief in America, Gen. Henry Clinton. Without reinforcements, which he constantly requested, Clinton resigned himself to a defensive strategy, a waiting game. Sooner or later he would either get enough men to crush the Continentals once and for all, or the colonists would grow so weary of the war that they would give up.
Gen. Charles Cornwallis had begun to doubt his slow-moving commander-in-chief. Ordered to defend British holdings in the Carolinas, the young, ambitious, and aggressive Cornwallis now wanted to attack Virginia. With a lucrative tobacco crop and numerous supply depots, Virginia kept the Rebels afloat. “If we mean an offensive war in America,” Cornwallis wrote on April 10, 1781, “we must abandon New York, and bring our whole force into Virginia.” Of course, Clinton didn’t want an offensive war in America until he got thousands more reinforcements, and to forsake New York, which the Crown had held since 1776, seemed folly. Cornwallis didn’t care. Clinton, luxuriously entrenched in a Manhattan mansion, might be content to watch the war slip by, but on April 25 Cornwallis and his army left Wilmington, North Carolina, headed for the Virginia coast.
Up north, Washington plotted his own strike. On May 22 he and the French Lt. Gen. Viscount de Rochambeau met in Wethersfield, Connecticut, to plan a strategy for their combined forces. They tentatively decided to attack New York. The fight wouldn’t be easy, but Washington admitted it was “the most capable of striking a deathblow to British dominion in America.” If nothing else, Clinton might request reinforcements from Cornwallis, which would lighten the pressure on the American army in the south.
Then Washington received a letter that changed the course of history. French Rear Adm. Comte de Grasse had been fighting British Adm. George Rodney for control of the Caribbean since April. Now, instead of returning to France as originally planned, he would sail his 29 warships and 3,000 men to the Chesapeake. De Grasse, in a single stroke, had given Washington his best opportunity of the war. But he’d also set a time limit: He had to return to the Indies by October 15. Washington had two months.
Washington learned of de Grasse’s plans on August 14. Two days later he had his army on the march. If Clinton suspected Washington was heading to Virginia, though, he would surely warn Cornwallis. And if Cornwallis moved inland or to the Carolinas, or if Clinton’s ships reached the Chesapeake first, de Grasse’s fleet would be useless. So Washington continued to feint on New York. Once his men reached New Jersey, they set up what looked like permanent camps. Clinton seemed to pay no attention, even as the vulnerable Patriots crossed the Hudson in scores of tiny boats. “An enemy a little bold and able would have seized the moment, so favorable for him, so embarrassing for us, for an attack.” wrote the French Col. William de Deux-Ponts. “His indifference and lethargy . . . is an enigma that cannot be solved by me.”
Clinton repeated his usual excuse: He needed more men. Not blind to the blatant warnings of an attack against New York, he asked Cornwallis on June 11 for 3,000 reinforcements. Clinton disapproved of his subordinate’s foray into Virginia; since Cornwallis had abandoned Wilmington, British posts in South Carolina and Georgia had fallen one by one. But he nonetheless allowed Cornwallis a relatively free hand. Rather than ordering him back to Wilmington, Clinton recommended “a defensive station in any healthy situation you choose, be it at Williamsburg or Yorktown.” Cornwallis didn’t like either because they were boxed in on a long peninsula. He made for Portsmouth instead.
By early July, Clinton had come around, at least somewhat, to Cornwallis’s interest in Virginia. Realizing that the Virginia Peninsula—bounded by the James and York rivers and the Chesapeake Bay--might serve as an important naval base, he told Cornwallis to keep all his men there and fortify Old Point Comfort, at the peninsula’s tip. He could also take Yorktown if necessary. Clinton considered the latter the more defensible of the two spots. That’s how a tiny, decrepit tobacco port on the York River came to decide the fate of an infant nation.
Once the allies crossed the Delaware, in the first days of September, the attack on New York was exposed as a bluff—to both Clinton and the Patriots, who until now had not known their true target. The New Englanders abruptly balked. For one thing, they didn’t want to stray so far from home; for another, they worried that if the British didn’t kill them, the southern climate would. Washington hurried ahead to Philadelphia to beg Congress for hard money to pacify his troops. The American superintendent of finance reluctantly turned over $20,000 in specie borrowed from the French. Washington rode on from Philadelphia on September 5; the French departed down the Delaware by boat later that day. It was “the prettiest trip imaginable,” wrote one of Rochambeau’s staff. “It would be difficult to have a more beautiful view than that of Philadelphia as one leaves it by water.”
That sightseer attitude was starting to rasp on Washington’s frayed nerves. For the French, this little adventure through the American countryside might mean an opportunity for la gloire. But if everything didn’t go perfectly, Washington and his men would lose their country. Washington was drowning in worries: Cornwallis might move; Clinton, who had 17,000 troops in New York, might attack; attrition on the march might enfeeble his army. Besides which, assuming the Americans made it to the Chesapeake, would the French ships actually be there? No one had heard from de Grasse since July 8. A storm—or the English navy—could have scattered the fleet, or the admiral might have decided to return home after all. Time and time again, the French had promised help that never arrived. As Washington wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette, “I am distressed beyond expression to know what is become of the Count de Grasse.”
A few hours after they left Philadelphia, the French army reached Chester, Pennsylvania. As they neared the shore, they saw an unusual sight: a six-foot-two-inch man in a Continental officer’s uniform jumping up and down on the riverbank, waving wildly with his hat in one hand and his handkerchief in the other. As they rowed in closer, they realized it was Washington. He had finally heard from de Grasse. The French fleet had anchored safely in the Chesapeake, and, what‘s more, Cornwallis hadn’t budged from Yorktown. “I have never seen a man more overcome with great and sincere joy than was General Washington,” said the Duc de Lauzun. Deux-Ponts added, “A child whose every wish had been gratified would not have experienced a sensation more lively.”
Washington’s men had marched 200 miles in 15 days; now they boarded boats that would ferry them the rest of the way down the Chesapeake and up the James. Washington did not join them; instead he sped his horse on a 60-mile gallop to a place he hadn’t seen since the war began. He arrived at the gates of Mount Vernon on September 9 and was greeted by a brood of young step-grandchildren. He stayed three nights and then set off to rejoin his troops in Williamsburg.
On the way, his high spirits suffered a blow. A messenger met him on the road to inform him that de Grasse’s fleet had disappeared. This time he didn’t have to fret long; the French ships returned on September 15. When the French Adm. Comte de Barras had sailed his eight-ship fleet from Newport, Rhode Island, to join de Grasse, the British Adm. Thomas Graves had chased him with 19 ships of the line and seven frigates. Graves and de Grasse had fought just inside the mouth of the Chesapeake on September 5. The engagement was inconclusive, but it battered Graves enough that he returned to New York rather than risk annihilation. Meanwhile, Barras had slipped unnoticed into the bay.
By September 22 all the allies had gathered in Williamsburg, and Washington could admire his superior force. Between his army and the troops from the south, the Americans mustered 8,845 soldiers. The French added another 7,800. “Everything has hitherto succeeded to our wishes,” Washington wrote that day. “The prospects . . . are as favorable as could possibly have been expected.”
September 28 dawned clear, and at sunrise the allies started down the peninsula to Yorktown. As they marched the 15 miles over what Washington called “a beautiful, fertile country,” the evidence of war was everywhere. Houses stood deserted, surrounded by downed fences and tall grass. But not until the fortifications of Yorktown rose on the horizon did the Americans spot the first enemy infantry pickets. A few cannonballs chased the British sentries back behind the city walls.
Cornwallis had dug in securely in Yorktown. Even with 16,000 men against the British 6,000, the allies dared not storm the city. Instead, on October 6, they too began to dig. They would lay siege to the British, choking them with ever-constricting circles of trenches and artillery. Washington, still baffled by his uncharacteristic good fortune, worried that his quarry would bolt up the York river. Cornwallis had pulled in his garrisons from the outer redoubts on September 29, an action Washington interpreted as prelude to an escape. It was not. Clinton had promised to send 5,000 reinforcements to Virginia within a week, and Cornwallis decided to protect his limited forces while he waited. He would wait in vain. Cornwallis never got his reinforcements. He and his army would leave Yorktown only as prisoners of war.
(For the final events of the siege, visit AmericanHeritage.com on October 19.)
—Christine Gibson is a former editor at American Heritage magazine.