The Yorktown Campaign, October 1781

By Brigadier General Creighton W. Abrams, USA-Ret., AHF Executive Director

By the spring of 1781 and after six years of war, the British forces in America hung on to a handful of coastal bases surrounded by a largely hostile countryside. At the same time, they continued with what amounted to a global war against France and Spain. Back in England, the war was becoming both unpopular and divisive.

The Americans, on the other hand, were deeply in debt and could not pay their soldiers on a regular basis. As a result, sporadic mutinies occurred. The Americans also faced shortages of food, ammunition, and other materiel, and their soldiers were becoming increasingly apathetic. Time was running out for both sides. One clear victory by either side would almost certainly decide the issue.

In May 1781, GEN George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, strongly desired that the decisive battle be at the city of New York, where LTG Henry Clinton, the overall commander of British forces in America, was in immediate command of 14,000 troops placed in formidable defensive positions.

Clinton also had the support of the Royal Navy, which had made the British colonization of America possible in the first place and was now indispensable to putting down the rebellion. It transported everything–soldiers, materiel, firepower, and even strategic communications from the British government. Tactically and operationally, it enabled the British Army to move men and materiel quickly from port to port along the Atlantic coastline of America.

Washington commanded a force of 10,000 (including French forces) at Peekskill, just north of New York City. When he met in late May with his key ally, LTG Rochambeau, who had arrived with 4,000 French troops the year before, they discussed two options: reinforcing the South, specifically Virginia; or attacking New York. Two months before, Washington had sent the Marquis de Lafayette to Virginia with 3,000 troops, by far the largest and richest state, to counter raids led by Benedict Arnold, now a major general in the British Army. Rochambeau, noting the comparative strength of Clinton’s forces in New York, preferred the Virginia option. Washington, however, wanted to strike a decisive blow, and it was not clear then that sending a large force 400 miles south would achieve anything significant. LTG Charles, Lord Cornwallis, commander of British forces in the South, was there, but he would not necessarily wait to be attacked.

The critical element for both options was French naval support. The Allies already had a smaller French fleet of twelve ships, carrying siege guns, at Newport, Rhode Island, but its commander, Admiral de Barras, was reluctant to go to the Chesapeake Bay and risk destruction along the way by British naval forces. Thanks to assiduous diplomatic efforts by American representatives in Paris, however, France provided more than troops and funds. They eventually consented to loaning the Americans the use of a much larger fleet during the Caribbean hurricane season–roughly from mid-July to mid-October.

The plan called for the larger French fleet, twenty-six ships under Admiral de Grasse, to provide local naval superiority (thereby, in modern terms, isolating the battlefield) so that the Allied army–American and French–could successfully attack a British force on land. Because Rochambeau could not tell Washington where the French fleet would go, nothing was decided in May, but the French Army was subsequently moved from Newport to join the Continental Army at Peekskill.

Meanwhile, in Virginia, Washington’s instructions to Lafayette called for him to prevent British raids and to maintain contact with Cornwallis’s force without becoming decisively engaged, a tall order for a 24-year old with his first independent command. Fortunately for him, his opponent, Cornwallis, was by then somewhat estranged from his commander, Clinton, in New York.

In fact, by May of 1781, Cornwallis was communicating directly with London, specifically with Lord Germain, the British Secretary of State for America, because he claimed he was too far from New York to get timely guidance. In addition, Cornwallis held what was called a dormant commission to assume command of all British forces in America if Clinton became incapacitated. Thus the two most important British Army commanders in America were more rivals than comrades. Their differences about how to fight the war were exacerbated by the great distance separating the two armies. To make matters worse, Clinton hated making decisions. Instead, he made suggestions to his subordinates and, when the war reached a critical period in September and October, on debilitating councils of war.

On 20 May, about the same time Washington and Rochambeau were conferring in New York, Cornwallis arrived in Petersburg, Virginia, with 7,000 troops to begin his Virginia campaign. Simultaneously he received suggestions from Clinton to establish a naval base near Portsmouth, which he ignored. Instead, Cornwallis conducted a series of successful raids. A month later, on 26 June, he arrived in Williamsburg and received two unusually direct letters from Clinton. The letters disparaged Cornwallis’s raids and, more importantly, ordered him to send six regiments of infantry back to New York, where Clinton believed Washington intended to attack. The letters also ordered Cornwallis to use the remainder of his force to establish a naval base on the Chesapeake. He decided to comply and move his force south across the James River near Green Spring Farm, and then through Suffolk to Portsmouth, where he could embark the six regiments.

Siège de Yorktown, by Auguste Couder
Siège de Yorktown, by Auguste Couder

Lafayette, now joined by MG Anthony Wayne in command of 1,000 Pennsylvanians, had maintained contact with Cornwallis. When he saw that Cornwallis was about to cross the James River, he decided to attack the British rear guard on 6 July. Cornwallis anticipated the attack and set a trap by making it look as though his main body had crossed the river. In reality, the bulk of his forces remained on the north side. Lafayette fell for the ruse and was soundly defeated, but managed to extricate most of his troops. Because Cornwallis dutifully continued to move toward Suffolk and away from Lafayette’s force, Lafayette, knowing that the Americans badly needed victories, claimed that he had won the battle.

While it was a relatively minor action, the Battle of Green Spring was important because it demonstrated what Cornwallis was capable of and what he could have done later if he and Clinton had been more in accord. When he arrived at Portsmouth, he received another surprisingly direct letter from Clinton on 20 July. He was ordered to disembark troops immediately and proceed to nearby Old Point Comfort to establish a naval base. After careful reconnaissance and the advice of both his engineers and his naval commander, he selected Yorktown as a better location.

From that point until his formal surrender on 19 October, Cornwallis gave every indication that he would do what he was told and would take no initiative of his own. The outcome, as far as he was concerned, was in Clinton’s hands. On 2 August, he disembarked his entire force at Yorktown and spent the next two months (until the Allies arrived on 28 September) fortifying his position. He also placed a force across the James River at Gloucester Point. Because Cornwallis never envisioned the debacle to come, the defenses around Yorktown were not very strong, nor was any attempt made to engage the nearby American force under Lafayette. Instead, he sent sarcastic letters to Clinton. Clinton was generally satisfied that Cornwallis was finally complying with his instructions and ignored the innuendoes.

Neither Clinton nor Cornwallis seems to have realized that, with roughly 22,000 troops in New York and Yorktown– roughly eighty percent of all their forces–they were essentially occupying two naval bases, but with very little naval support. Admiral Graves, the newly arrived commander of Royal naval forces in America, was in New York with five ships. The rest of his force was in the Caribbean under Admiral Sir George Rodney, who was ill and about to return to England. Before he set sail for home, Rodney sent fourteen ships under Admiral Sir Samuel Hood towards the Chesapeake. In the meantime, the two British land forces were vulnerable because they could not reinforce each other, nor could each be easily resupplied. The situation was even more dire for Cornwallis because if he were to fall under siege, he lacked the firepower and adequate supplies of ammunition to hold out for any length of time.

Washington, clearly the superior general to either of his opponents and never inclined to the kind of self-indulgence both Clinton and Cornwallis were prone to, better understood the importance of naval forces, despite the fact that he had none under his command. The best he could hope for was to borrow someone else’s, if only for a limited period, to neutralize those of the British.

Consequently, when Rochambeau informed him on 14 August that the French were sending a fleet of twenty-four ships, but only to the Chesapeake, Washington immediately decided to seek a decisive victory in the South. Five days later, he split his force, leaving 3,500 men in Peekskill under MG William Heath to keep an eye on Clinton, and set out with 2,000 Continentals and 4,500 troops under Rochambeau for southern Virginia, approximately 400 miles away. Washington also notified MG Henry Knox in Philadelphia and ordered him to begin moving his artillery south. To deceive Clinton of his real objective and allow him a head start, Washington continued to demonstrate that New York was his real objective. This plan worked until 30 August, when Clinton realized what the Americans were doing. Three days later, he sent a message to Cornwallis telling him of the Americans’ movements and that he would send reinforcements by sea. Washington also sent instructions to Lafayette ordering him to maintain contact with Cornwallis and, if at all possible, to keep him one place.

At least one historian, Barbara Tuchman, has argued that the decisive battle of the Yorktown campaign was a naval engagement which took place at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay on 5 September 1781, while Washington and his force of 6,500 Continentals and French marched towards southern Virginia. It was certainly crucial, because it temporarily gave the Allies an edge they had to have for the land battle.

While Admiral de Grasse was the hero of the 5 September encounter, he had help from the inept Admiral Graves. Admiral Hood, serving under Graves, had actually reached the Chesapeake first with fourteen ships on 21 August. When he saw neither British nor French naval forces, he proceeded to New York to join Graves, arriving on 28 August. At Hood’s urging, Graves joined him with five ships and the combined forces headed back to the Chesapeake on 31 August.

Admiral de Grasse had already arrived at the Chesapeake on 30 August and was in the process of foraging and disembarking the 3,000 troops with his ships. The other French fleet, Admiral de Barras’ twelve ships, which carried siege guns for the land battle, had left Newport on 25 August, hoping somehow to get to the Chesapeake by heading out into the Atlantic and thereby avoiding the Royal Navy.

When Graves and Hood arrived at the Chesapeake on 5 September, de Grasse was caught by surprise because he was expecting de Barras. Leaving two ships back with his sailors and officers who were ashore foraging, he immediately sent his fleet back out of the Chesapeake to do battle. The British fleet under Graves had several advantages–they were already in the right formation; they had the wind at their backs; their ships were copper-bottomed and therefore faster in the water; and they were skilled at close combat, which countered the numerical superiority (24 to 19) of the French.

But they also had Graves in command. He decided to follow British Fighting Instructions and promptly changed his formation in a way that allowed the French to place effective fire on their lead ships and kept Hood to the rear and out of the fight. After two hours, the French had inflicted more damage than the British but had not won the battle. For the next four days the two fleets sailed side by side out into the Atlantic without re-engaging. When de Grasse, having kept the British fleet at bay and given, he hoped, de Barras a chance to get into the Chesapeake, turned back, Graves decided to head back to New York to refit, leaving Hood in a towering rage.

De Grasse arrived in the Chesapeake on 12 September and found de Barras safely in the bay. Thus Graves had not only failed to eliminate the threat from de Grasse’s force, he had failed to locate and destroy a much smaller force that carried the critical siege guns. The Allies now controlled the Chesapeake Bay, and Cornwallis was trapped.

Washington, who constantly sought information about the location and status of the French fleet during the long march south, was absolutely delighted when heard the good news. He now realized, perhaps more than anyone that the end was in sight. But he had to act quickly, because the Royal Navy could return. In fact, Clinton intended to order the British fleet to return to the Chesapeake area with 4,000 troops under his personal command to reinforce Cornwallis. Furthermore, de Grasse would not stay indefinitely. He had, however, promised Washington that he would stay in the Chesapeake until the end of October.

Washington’s entire force of roughly 14,000 troops assembled at Williamsburg on 26 September and moved immediately to Yorktown, arriving on the 28th to begin the siege. While he had proved himself a skilled general over the course of the war, siege warfare was not Washington’s forte. Therefore, he wisely let Rochambeau and Baron von Steuben, the German officer who provided invaluable assistance to the American cause, conduct the planning, since both had extensive experience in siege operations.

Planning for the siege of British forces at Yorktown became much easier when Cornwallis decided on 29 September to withdraw his forces from all but one of the outer defenses and to concentrate his forces primarily in the ten redoubts–strongpoints just outside the town itself–he had constructed during August and September. He did so largely because he had received several messages from Clinton telling him that help, in the form of Graves’ fleet and 4,000 troops, was on the way and would depart New York on 5 October.

Fortunately for the Allies, Admiral Graves could not be induced to set out to sea again until he had completely repaired the damage from 5 September. Despite Clinton’s regular messages of encouragement and promised help (now twenty-eight ships and 7,000 troops), reinforcements did not leave New York until 19 October, the day of Cornwallis’s surrender.

The siege of Yorktown was conducted skillfully and rapidly. First, the Allies seized the abandoned defensive line and converted it to their own purpose. With an abundance of manpower, they then dug–primarily at night and done quickly to minimize exposure to British artillery–the “first parallel,” a long and deep trench about 1,000 meters long and 600 to 800 meters from the British defenses. Then artillery, including French siege guns and everything Henry Knox brought, was moved into battery positions within the trenchline. On 9 October, artillery from the French on the left and the Americans on the right opened up. The Allies rate of fire quickly reached 4,000 rounds per day, battering the beleaguered British forces within Yorktown.

On 11 October the Allies began work on the second parallel, only 300 meters from the British lines. Because the second parallel ran directly into Redoubts 9 and 10, the Allies attacked both — the French against Redoubt 9 and the Americans, led by LTC Alexander Hamilton, against Redoubt 10–on the night of 14 October. In less than thirty minutes, the Americans and French seized both positions. For the next sixty hours, the artillery fire inflicted against the British troops in the town, from 100 guns and mortars in both parallels and other positions, was horrific. By then, most civilians had been sent out of Yorktown, not to ensure their safety, but to reduce the number of mouths to feed. British counterfire, initially impressive but never fully effective, was overwhelmed by the Allies’ superiority in number of artillery pieces and amounts of ammunition.

Yorktown, 14 October 1781, by H. Charles McBarron (U.S. Army Center of Military History)

By the morning of 17 October, Cornwallis decided that his position was untenable and that he could not hold out until Clinton finally arrived. Moreover, there was a strong possibility that Clinton’s reinforcements would never reach Yorktown, especially since French naval forces controlled the Chesapeake. Therefore, Cornwallis sent out a white flag to request an armistice and to begin negotiating a surrender. This took two days because Cornwallis demanded more than Washington was willing to grant him, plus he was trying to buy time for Clinton to arrive, which Washington understood. Finally, on the afternoon of 19 October, the American and French forces assembled outside the entrance to Yorktown. Cornwallis, unable to endure the mortification of having to surrender, sent his deputy, BG Charles O’Hara to carry out the surrender. When O’Hara tried to surrender to Rochambeau, the French general directed him to Washington, who, realizing that it was not Cornwallis, pointed him to MG Benjamin Lincoln, his second in command.

When news of Cornwallis’s surrender reached London on 25 November, the Prime Minister, Lord North, knew immediately that the war was over, declaring, “Oh God. It is all over. It is all over.” On 5 March 1782, Parliament passed a bill authorizing the government to make peace with America. Lord North resigned fifteen days later.

While it took the Americans another two years of skillful diplomacy after Yorktown to win their independence in a formal peace treaty, the war was won with the British defeat at Yorktown. Through perseverance, skilled leadership from officers such as George Washington, and help from their French allies, the American Army won a great victory against the most powerful nation of that time period. Furthermore, the Yorktown Campaign demonstrated how much the American Army had improved in a relatively short period of time, in addition to providing an early successful example of the employment of joint and multinational forces.

For additional information on the Yorktown Campaign, please read: Thomas N. Fleming, The Last Drum: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781; Barbara Tuchman, The First Salute; and Brendan Morrissey, Yorktown 1781: The World Turned Upside Down.

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