On this historic day, September 28, 1781, the siege of Yorktown begins


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The Siege of Yorktown, Virginia, the decisive battle in America’s shocking triumph over the mighty British Empire in its Revolutionary War, began on this historic day, September 28, 1781.

The siege ended three weeks later, on October 19, with the surrender of the British garrison led by Lord Charles Cornwallis.

George Washington’s Continental Army and its French allies surrounded the Redcoats by land and sea.

“The British surrender foresaw the end of British rule in the colonies and the birth of a new nation – the United States of America,” writes the American Battlefield Trust.

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The United States had won its bold bid for independence on the battlefield five years after declaring it publicly on paper.

Britain officially recognized American independence almost exactly two years later, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783.

General George Washington (center) inspects the French battery on the opening day of the siege of Yorktown in October 1781. Lithograph by Zogbaum published in 1881.
(Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images)

The Americans, aided by French troops under the Comte de Rochambeau, set a trap for the outnumbered Redcoats at Yorktown.

The American forces in Washington benefited from the leadership of another Frenchman, the remarkable Marquis de Lafayette.

Their 19,000 troops, split almost evenly among the Allied nations, surrounded about 9,000 Redcoats on a spit of land where the York River meets the Chesapeake Bay.

French warships had sailed into the Chesapeake Bay a few weeks earlier.

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Cornwallis had no way of escaping and realized his cause was hopeless. He surrendered with relatively little loss of life considering the forces amassed.

About 800 men were killed or wounded between the combatants, according to the American Battlefield Trust. But the American victory was overwhelming and decisive.

Illustration of General George Washington leading the retreat of the Continental Army across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan after their defeat by British forces in the Battle of Long Island, August 29, 1776. Engraving by JC Armytage d 'After a painting by Wageman.

Illustration of General George Washington leading the retreat of the Continental Army across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan after their defeat by British forces in the Battle of Long Island, August 29, 1776. Engraving by JC Armytage d ‘After a painting by Wageman.
(Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images)

Cornwallis surrendered his entire garrison.

The American Revolution was over. The United States had won.

“Washington’s fame has reached international proportions after winning such an unlikely victory.”

The victory required remarkable logistical and intellectual dexterity on the part of Washington and Rochambeau.

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A few weeks earlier, they had been working on a long-standing plan to defeat the British under General Henry Clinton in a decisive battle in New York.

The Redcoats had occupied New York for most of the war after crushing and humiliating Washington’s army in 1776.

Generals Rochambeau (1725-1807) and Washington (1732-1799) give the last orders to attack the siege of Yorktown.  With them is the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834).

Generals Rochambeau (1725-1807) and Washington (1732-1799) give the last orders to attack the siege of Yorktown. With them is the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834).
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“In the spring of 1781, Washington traveled to Rhode Island to meet with Count Rochambeau and plan an attack on Clinton,” writes the National Park Service in its history of the siege of Yorktown.

“A French fleet was due to arrive in New York later that summer, and Washington wanted to coordinate the attack with the fleet’s arrival. As planned, Rochambeau’s army marched in July and joined the troops of Washington outside of New York.”

A few weeks earlier, the Americans and the French were working on a long-standing plan to defeat the British in a decisive battle at New York.

It was only then, in July, that they learned that the French fleet was sailing in the Chesapeake Bay instead.

Washington quickly devised a cunning new plan to take advantage of the long-awaited French naval forces and crush Cornwallis’s forces at Yorktown.

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“In order to deceive Clinton, Washington had his men build large military camps and huge brick bread ovens visible from New York to give the appearance of preparations for a stay,” reports the National Park Service.

“Washington also prepared forged papers under his signature discussing plans to attack Clinton, and let those papers fall into British hands.”

With the subterfuge established, Washington and Rochambeau marched to Yorktown in mid-August, marching past the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in September before reaching Yorktown and besieging Cornwallis.

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“Washington’s fame reached international proportions after winning such an unlikely victory, interrupting his longed-for retirement at Mount Vernon with greater calls for public service,” writes George Washington’s Mount Vernon Library.


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