Manuscripts and Special Collections

1781 and Yorktown

Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781

Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781

From The Popular History of England by Charles Knight, Vol. VI (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1860)

In April 1781 there was no indication that the campaigns of the season were likely to be decisive. American finances had collapsed completely. Lord Cornwallis had moved north from his base in South Carolina towards Virginia, and intended to link up with a further force sent to the Chesapeake Bay under Generals William Phillips and Benedict Arnold. Lord Cornwallis was unable to defeat a small American force under Layfayette decisively, but on the whole conducted a successful offensive campaign [see Document 8].

In May the arrival of Admiral de Barras to take command of the French fleet blockaded at Newport, Rhode Island, and the arrival of Admiral de Grasse with the French West India fleet altered the situation. Washington and the French Commander Rochambeau met at Wethersfield, Connecticut, to determine their strategy for the season and decided upon an assault on New York City. The operation failed, but obliged Sir Henry to withdraw certain forces from Lord Cornwallis and stay on the defensive to await the assault [see Document 9].

By the time Sir Henry realised that Washington had moved to the south, a welter of orders and counter orders had caused Lord Cornwallis to take up a defensive position at Yorktown, Virginia. De Grasse and 3,000 troops sailed for the Chesapeake, and the result of wide ranging fleet movements in August resulted in the British fleet being worsted at the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes on 5th September. The French and Americans were able to seal off the Chesapeake and Yorktown.

The approach to Yorktown

Clinton now realised that the only hope of saving Cornwallis was a successful naval action followed by a landing in strength to support him and an attempt to precipitate a general battle. It was a gambler's throw. By the end of September regular siege lines had been established by the Franco-American army around Yorktown and Gloucester. The outworks were lost on the 6th October, and from then on it was merely a matter of time till Cornwallis surrendered unless relieved by Clinton [see Document 10]. The latter was trying to get the battered British fleet repaired, but only succeeded in putting to sea on the 19th October.

Plan of the siege of Yorktown

Cornwallis's last letter to Clinton gives a clear if brief explanation of the situation [see Document 11]. Clinton's force arrived off the Chesapeake on the 24th, but it was too late. Cornwallis had asked Washington for a truce on the 17th and at noon of the 19th October a quarter of the British Army in America surrendered [see Document 12].


Next page:  The Aftermath


Manuscripts and Special Collections

Kings Meadow Campus
Lenton Lane
Nottingham, NG7 2NR

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 4565
fax: +44 (0) 115 846 8651