The Siege of Yorktown, 28 Sep–19 Oct 1781

Editor: Michael Spilling and Consultant Editor: Chris McNab

American Battles and Campaigns – The Siege of Yorktown, 28 Sep–19 Oct 1781

The final decisive major battle of the war, the siege of Yorktown established both the collapse of the British ‘Southern Strategy’ and Prime Minister Lord North’s ability to prosecute the war further. After a series of reverses and costly battles in the Carolinas, plus the hoped-for masses of loyalists not flocking in vast numbers to his army, British Gen Charles Cornwallis shifted his 7000 remaining troops into Virginia, having sent 2000 to the New York area in response to George Washington’s plans to assault the main British foothold in the colonies.

The Battle of Yorktown

The Siege of Yorktown, 28 Sept–19 Oct 1781. Image is taken from the book American Battles and Campaigns

Meanwhile, the French general dispatched to assist in the war, the Comte de Rochambeau, demurred at that objective, but offered the 7000 troops under his command to support operations against Cornwallis in Virginia. Washington had 2000 of his troops combined with the Marquis de Lafayette’s 2000 Continentals in Virginia before British Gen Henry Clinton in New York was aware of their departure.

The Battle of Yorktown

Cornwallis added the then British Gen Benedict Arnold’s command to his own and moved the combined force into the Yorktown peninsula, a magnificent defensive position, in the reasonable assumption that the Royal Navy would maintain command of the sea. Across the peninsula’s neck, Cornwallis employed his artillerymen and engineers in erecting a series of trenches and redoubts, with which he felt confident of repelling any conceivable Franco-American attack. Having forfeited the initiative, Cornwallis could only watch as Patriot troops clustered before his lines and French ships in the James River landed thousands of troops and, significantly, siege artillery. His entire strategy predicated upon the idea of support or evacuation by sea, Cornwallis found himself bereft of both when the French fleet under Admiral François de Grasse drove off a British relieving squadron in the battle of the Chesapeake Capes.

Read more about The Battle of Yorktown here in Newt Gingrich

Siège de Yorktown by Auguste Couder, c. 1836.[23] Rochambeau and Washington giving their last orders before the battle. By Auguste Couder - Own work (PHGCOM). Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com</em

Siège de Yorktown by Auguste Couder, c. 1836.[23] Rochambeau and Washington giving their last orders before the battle. By Auguste Couder – Own work (PHGCOM). Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com

Washington and Rochambeau’s combined forces numbered some 7000 Continentals, 4000 militia and 3100 French marines with 5000 regulars. Cornwallis’ 65 cannon found themselves under the close-range fire of 92 guns under the expert command of Gen Henry Knox. The besiegers moved their lines to within 1,000 yards of the British and opened fire. Cornwallis gradually contracted his perimeter in the vain hope of yet another relief force from New York by sea, the allies pressing in each time and further limiting British opportunities for escape or forage. British sapping parties did at times capture or disable Allied batteries and positions, only to see them recaptured the next day by overwhelming counter-attacks that also began to capture the British redoubts. Smallpox and starvation joined the ranks of Cornwallis’s enemies, even a simple lack of ammunition limiting his offensive ability.

An attempt to evacuate part of Cornwallis’s army via boats to the neighboring Gloucester peninsula collapsed under a sudden storm with severe losses. After a siege of some three weeks, Cornwallis offered to begin negotiating his surrender. Terms concluded upon the same day that Clinton finally arrived with 25 ships and 7000 relieving troops, which returned to New York at the news of Cornwallis’ surrender. Slaves promised their freedom in the British lines returned to their masters’ control, while 8041 British and Hessian troops stacked arms. A total of 660 British had died and 478 of the allies. With the surrender and the transfer of the British and Hessian troops to prisoner camps, land combat in North America essentially ceased, while British Prime Minister Lord North finally resigned upon the news of a second large-scale surrender in the Colonies.


Dr. Chris McNab is the editor of AMERICAN BATTLES & CAMPAIGNS: A Chronicle, from 1622-Present and is an experienced specialist in wilderness and urban survival techniques. He has published over 20 books including: How to Survive Anything, Anywhere — an encyclopedia of military and civilian survival techniques for all environments — Special Forces Endurance Techniques, First Aid Survival Manual, and The Handbook of Urban Survival. In his home country of Wales, UK, Chris provides instruction on wilderness hunting techniques and he is also an experienced martial arts instructor.

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