The Yorktown Campaign ensured American efforts to win independence from Great Britain would end in success, and elevated General George Washington's notoriety as a result of his role directing the victory. Washington's Continental Army, substantially aided by French land and naval forces, surrounded the British southern army under the command of General Charles, Earl of Cornwallis.
The resulting siege at Yorktown forced Cornwallis' surrender and compelled the start of serious negotiations that ended in recognition of American independence at the Peace of Paris. Washington's fame grew to international proportions having wrested such an improbable victory, interrupting his much desired Mount Vernon retirement with greater calls to public service.
By 1781, Washington's already substantial worries over the health, pay, and morale of his Continental Army stationed outside of New York City were worsened by the success of Cornwallis' southern campaign. Cornwallis' tactical victory at Guilford Courthouse (March 15, 1781) left the Americans destitute of funds, soldiers, and morale. Additionally, former Major General Benedict Arnold, a newly crowned British Brigadier after the attempted surrender of his command at West Point, prepared for Cornwallis' arrival by destroying precious Continental supplies in Virginia. Washington could only watch and wait for an opportunity to attack New York, or wait for a British mistake.
The opportunity presented itself when Cornwallis entrenched his army at Yorktown and Gloucester Point on the peninsula of Virginia's York and James Rivers, with the expectation of reinforcement or evacuation. Washington abandoned his preference for action against New York City upon the advice of French Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, and proceeded south against Cornwallis. Washington and Rochambeau swiftly moved southwards while coordinating with elements of the Continental Army located in Virginia under the command of Major General Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, and the French Navy under Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse. Lafayette fixed Cornwallis in place while de Grasse kept control of Chesapeake Bay, preventing British naval assistance through his victory at the Battle of the Capes (September 5, 1781). In the process, Washington's combined Franco-American army transported from Head of Elk to the lines outside Yorktown.
On September 14, 1781, as reported by Captain Benjamin Bartholomew, "his Excellency Genrl. Washington arrived at 5:00 P.M. when there was twenty one pieces of Canon fired, he review'd the Troops."1 Washington's southward journey included a visit to his beloved Mount Vernon, his first since the war began six years earlier, before arriving outside Yorktown to supervise the construction of the Franco-American lines. With the opening of forty-one Allied guns on October 9, 1781, Cornwallis' position, already tenuous, was made so indefensible that surrender negotiations started less than a week later on October 17.
The surrender of over 7,000 British troops on October 19, 1781 did not end the war. The end came in 1783 after Washington moved back to New York City, with the Peace of Paris signed by a British government installed largely as a result of Washington's victory. Victory at Yorktown, however, brought Washington the increased political clout needed to avert a potential officers' rebellion at Newburgh, conduct the remainder of the war, and after a short retirement to Mount Vernon was the logical choice to oversee the Constitutional Convention and become the first President of the United States.
Russell S. Perkins
1. Benjamin Bartholomew, "14 September 1781," Marching to Victory: Capt. Benjamin Bartholomew’s Diary of the Yorktown Campaign, May 1781 to March 1782, ed. E. Lee Shepard (Richmond, VA: Richmond Historical Society, 2002), 22.
Bartholomew, Benjamin. Marching to Victory: Capt. Benjamin Bartholomew’s Diary of the Yorktown Campaign, May 1781 to March 1782 ed. E. Lee Shepard. Richmond, VA: Virginia Historical Society, 2002.
Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Ketchum, Richard M. Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign that Won the Revolution. New York: Henry Holt, 2004.