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This Day In History: British General Lord Cornwallis Surrenders At Yorktown, Bringing An End To The American Revolution

October 19, 2016

This day in history, October 19, 1781, Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis, surrounded at Yorktown, Va., by American and French regiments numbering 17,600 men, surrendered to George Washington and Count de Rochambeau, bringing about an end to the American Revolution.

After several important victories against Patriot forces, Cornwallis lead his men to the Virginia coast in April, 1781 so that he could maintain seaborne lines of communication with the large British army of General Henry Clinton in New York City. He eventually settled at Yorktown in August and he began fortifying it.

General George Washington instructed the Marquis de Lafayette, who was in Virginia with an American army of around 5,000 men, to block Cornwallis’ escape from Yorktown by land. In the meantime, Washington’s 2,500 troops in New York were joined by a French army of 4,000 men under the Count de Rochambeau.

Washington and Rochambeau planned their attack on Cornwallis with the assistance of a large French fleet under the Count de Grasse, and on August 21 they crossed the Hudson River to march south to Yorktown. They got to the Chesapeake Bay in early September.

At the same time, a British fleet under Admiral Thomas Graves failed to break French naval superiority at the Battle of Virginia Capes on September 5, denying Cornwallis his expected reinforcements. Beginning September 14, de Grasse transported Washington and Rochambeau’s men down the Chesapeake to Virginia, where they joined Lafayette and completed the encirclement of Yorktown on September 28. Another 3,000 French troops were carried by de Grasse’s fleet.

During the first two weeks of October, the 14,000 Franco-American troops gradually overcame the fortified British positions with the aid of de Grasse’s warships. A large British fleet carrying 7,000 men set out to rescue Cornwallis, but they were too late.

On October 19, General Cornwallis surrendered 7,087 officers and men, 900 seamen, 144 cannons, 15 galleys, a frigate, and 30 transport ships. He did not attend the surrender ceremony claiming that he was ill. His second-in-command General Charles O’Hara, carried Cornwallis’ sword to the American and French commanders. At Washington’s behest, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln accepted it. Washington himself is seen in the right background of “The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown” by artist John Trumbull. As the British and Hessian troops marched out to surrender, the British bands played the song “The World Turned Upside Down.”

Peace negotiations began in 1782, and on September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, formally recognizing the United States as a free and independent nation after eight years of war.