Yorktown, Virginia • October 19, 1781
This month of October, 238 years ago, American and French soldiers and sailors won a battle in a small town in Virginia. Because of their bravery, they won the last major battle of the American War of Independence. Because of their sacrifice, they helped to create a new nation in this world, the United States of America.
The years, 1780 and 1781, were among the darkest, and most desperate years for General Washington, and the American War of Independence.
The winter of 1780 was the coldest of the Revolutionary War. New York Harbor froze over. Deep, hard snowdrifts covered the winter camps of the Continental Army. The hardships and deaths among the soldiers were even worse than those experienced at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777 – 1778. Starvation, extreme inflation of money, and lack of pay for the army was normal.
Popular support for the war had declined. The paper currency of the Continental Congress was worthless. The lack of pay hit hard at the army’s morale. Soldiers could not support their families. Merchants refused to accept the Continental currency. One Loyalist wrote, “Mock-money and mock-states shall melt away // And the mock troops disband for want of pay.”
General Washington’s ragged army lacked weapons and ammunition. Many soldiers deserted. Many more soldiers simply went home when their enlistments expired. Washington could not go on the offensive. The army remained on the defensive near New York. The British made two attempts to destroy the principal army base at Morristown, New Jersey. Militia soldiers rose to the emergency, and helped to turn back the British attacks.
In January 1780, the entire Pennsylvania Line mutinied. In April, two hundred soldiers of the New Jersey Line mutinied. Congress even voted to cut funding for the Army. The American cause was rocked by military defeats, especially in Georgia and the Carolinas.
In March 1780, General Washington declared St. Patrick’s Day a holiday to honor the many Irish soldiers in the Continental Army. Martha Washington traveled from Virginia and stayed with her husband each winter throughout the war. Martha Washington, and other exceptional women, washed clothes and blankets, and cared for sick and dying soldiers every single bitter winter of the American War of Independence.
In April 1780, General Washington finally received some welcome news. General Lafayette had returned from France, and arrived in Boston on April 27. Lafayette brought secret news that he had secured military and financial help from France for General Washington’s army.
Lafayette had worked with Benjamin Franklin in Paris to secure the promise of 6,000 French soldiers to be sent to America. Lafayette arrived at General Washington’s headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey on May 10, 1781. The general and his officers were delighted to hear that France would be sending ships, soldiers, and money to help the Continental Army.
The following year, 1781, was another 12 months of desperation for General Washington’s army. Congress was bankrupt. Soldiers were not paid. Three-year enlistments were expiring. Popular support for the war reached an all time low. In spite of this desperate situation, General Washington somehow managed to keep the army together.
In the spring and summer of 1781, General Lafayette and other Continental commanders were fighting hard against British forces commanded by General Charles Earl Cornwallis in the southern states. In August 1781, General Cornwallis moved his army of about 9,000 men to Yorktown, Virginia. The British army dug in. The general expected to receive reinforcements and supplies, delivered by the Royal Navy, from British headquarters in New York.
A small American force, commanded by General Lafayette, quietly took up positions on Malvern Hill, and placed their artillery on this high ground near Yorktown. Lafayette and his soldiers watched the British army of General Cornwallis in Yorktown, and reported their intelligence to General Washington.
On September 5, 1781, a French fleet of 24 ships, commanded by Rear Admiral François Joseph Paul, le Comte de Grasse, sailed to Virginia from the West Indies, and defeated a British fleet of 19 ships, commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves, near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.
The victory of Admiral DeGrasse in the Battle of the Virginia Capes, deprived General Cornwallis of naval protection and support. Chesapeake Bay was sealed. The French navy prevented the British navy from delivering reinforcements from New York, or evacuating the British army by sea. The British could not escape. They were trapped in Yorktown.
Days earlier, Admiral DeGrasse had conducted an amphibious operation near Yorktown, landing French regiments of about 3,500 men from the West Indies to support Lafayette at Yorktown.
A second French fleet, commanded by Admiral Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, le Comte de Barras, sailed from Newport, Rhode Island. They landed artillery and heavy siege guns in support of General Lafayette at Yorktown.
Meanwhile, General Washington’s Continental Army of about 8,000 regulars and 3,100 militia were marching south to Yorktown. Five French infantry regiments, one cavalry regiment, and two battalions of artillery marched with the Americans. These French soldiers, 450 officers and 5,300 men, marched side-by-side with General Washington’s army on their way to fight at Yorktown for the independence of the United States of America.
It was in February 1778, that King Louis XVI of France had joined the fight for American independence. The French king completely changed the strategic balance of power in favor of the Americans. When Louis XVI signed the document of French alliance with the future United States of America, he forced the British King George III to doubt all hope of a military victory in the American colonies.
At first, French support for the American colonies was carried out in secret. The French sent weapons, ammunition, intelligence, and financial support. It was all used up as fast as it came in. Benjamin Franklin, living in Paris, asked for more.
In 1780, Louis XVI gave the order to send the French expeditionary force to America to reinforce General Washington. General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, le comte de Rochambeau, commanded this French expeditionary force. It was known as l’Expédition Particulière (the Special Expedition).
General Rochambeau commanded five infantry regiments, le Bourbonnais, le Soissonnais, le Gatinais, le Saintonge, and le Royal Deux-Ponts, as well as one cavalry regiment, la Légion de Lauzun. General Rochambeau also commanded two battalions of artillery from the Auxerre regiment.
Some men of the Gatinais regiment remained in Providence, Rhode Island to guard the baggage and munitions stored in the Old Market House. Soldiers of the Gatinais also protected the surgeons and nurses at the hospital in University Hall against possible British attack.
Many soldiers of le Royal Deux-Ponts (“Royal Regiment of Two Bridges”) came from the region around the city of Zweibrücken (“Two Bridges”), a German town on the border with France.
In July 1781, Rochambeau’s regiments left Newport, Rhode Island. They marched across Connecticut to join General Washington’s army on the Hudson River near New York. Washington and Rochambeau then marched their combined forces south to Yorktown, Virginia.
The French and American soldiers marched 680 miles through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. They reached Williamsburg, Virginia on September 14, 1781. Eight days later, on September 22, they joined the American soldiers commanded by General Lafayette, holding the high ground around Yorktown.
Today, the Washington–Rochambeau Revolutionary Route (W3R) is a designated National Historic Trail. Signs along the route, exhibits, and interpretive centers, describe the crucial role of French diplomatic, military, and economic assistance provided to the United States.
On September 5, the French fleet of Admiral DeGrasse had defeated the British fleet near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. The French navy kept the British navy away from Yorktown, trapping the British army inside the town.
French and American soldiers began the siege of the British army within the city on September 28. French heavy siege artillery pounded the British in Yorktown. American and French soldiers dug trenches closer and closer to the town, in preparation for the final assault.
On the night of October 14, 1781, Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton led simultaneous bayonet assaults against British strong points. Lafayette’s 400 men from two French regiments, le Royal Deux-Ponts and le Gatinais, took the British Redoubt Number 9. Alexander Hamilton’s 400 men from two American regiments, the New York and Connecticut light infantry, took the British Redoubt Number 10.
Capturing these two strong points was the final hammer blow that broke the British defenses at Yorktown. The British had eaten all their horses. There was no escape. After a failed British counter attack, General Cornwallis surrendered five days later, on October 19, 1781.
It is said that the British army band played “The World Turned Upside Down” at the surrender ceremony.
After six years and six months of inconclusive fighting against the ragtag Continental army, the British Parliament and the British people were sick of the war. They despaired of ever beating the Continental army and their French allies.
The final straw was the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown. This ultimate disaster at Yorktown led to peace two years later in Paris.
The Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783 by representatives of King George III of Great Britain and representatives of the United States of America.
The Treaty of Paris ended the American War of Independence, and recognized a new, independent nation in the world, the United States of America.
Thank you France.