October 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 5
On the morning of October 17, 1781, an officer emerged from the British lines holding a white handkerchief
As October began, Gen. Charles Cornwallis and his army of 8,000 redcoats and Hessians knew they were in deep trouble. In late August, after a summer filled with conflicting instructions, they had been ordered to establish a naval base on the Chesapeake. They chose a site at Yorktown, Virginia, set up camp, and waited for the Royal Navy to arrive. It never did.
The British high command had known that French ships were on the way to support the rebels, but when a Royal Navy squadron reached the Chesapeake, it found nothing happening. So it continued north to New York, which also needed protection. From New York it and another squadron were hurriedly sent back to the Chesapeake, arriving in early September. But by then a huge French fleet was already in place. A week of naval battles drove the British off, leaving Cornwallis stranded.
Meanwhile, George Washington’s Continental Army and an assortment of French troops arrived and began preparing for a siege of Yorktown. On September 28 they took up positions within a mile of the British defenses. Over the next 10 days they crept closer, set up earthworks, and installed artillery. On October 9 Washington’s army began bombarding the British, and although Cornwallis’s men defended themselves gallantly, they were isolated and outnumbered. A promised relief fleet never arrived.
On the morning of October 17 an officer emerged from the British lines holding a white handkerchief. Late that afternoon Cornwallis made a formal offer of surrender. On October 20 the King’s troops marched to a field, surrendered their arms and colors, and were taken prisoner. A somewhat shaky tradition holds that as they marched, their musicians played an air called “The World Turned Upside Down.” A week later a British fleet finally arrived at the Chesapeake, with 25 ships of the line and more than 7,000 troops. On learning of the surrender, it went back to New York.
When word of the debacle reached Lord North, the prime minister, in London on November 25, he supposedly reacted by saying, “Oh God! It is all over!” Few others realized that the war had effectively ended. Cornwallis’s army was not much bigger than the one that had surrendered at Saratoga in 1777, and the British still held plenty of territory and had many more resources than the colonists did. Yet although skirmishes, sometimes fierce, would continue on land and sea for another two years, the Continentals’ victory at Yorktown had tipped the balance decisively in their favor. Opposition to the war in Parliament grew dramatically, and by the spring of 1782 the British government was looking for a way out. Like most insurgency movements throughout history, the Americans had won not by crushing their opponents but by holding out long enough to make them tire of fighting.