The Battle of Yorktown 1781

General George Washington's resounding defeat of Lord Cornwallis's British army;
causing the British to surrender and effectively ending the American Revolutionary War.

Battle: YORKTOWN

War: American Revolutionary War

Date: 28th September to 19th October 1781

Place: Virginia, United States of America

Combatants: Americans and French against the British


American troops storming the redoubt

Generals: General Washington commanded the Americans, Lieutenant General de Rochambeau commanded the French and Major General Lord Cornwallis commanded the British.

Size of the armies: 8,800 Americans, 7,800 French and 6,000 British

Uniforms, arms and equipment: The British wore red coats and headgear of bearskin caps, leather caps or tricorne hats depending on whether the troops were grenadiers, light infantry or battalion company men. The German infantry wore blue coats and retained the Prussian style grenadier mitre with brass front plate.

The Americans dressed as best they could. Increasingly as the war progressed regular infantry regiments of the Continental Army wore blue uniform coats but the militia continued in rough clothing.

The French royal regiments of foot wore white coats.

French troops advancing in the Battle of Yorktown
French troops advancing to attack the British lines during the Battle of Yorktown.

Both sides were armed with muskets and guns. The back country riflemen carried long, small calibre rifles, weapons of considerably greater accuracy than the ordinary musket and which their owners used with proficiency.

Map of the Battle of Yorktown - the American Revolution by John Fawkes.
Map of the Battle of Yorktown by John Fawkes

British Infantry Officer
British Infantry Officer

Winner: The Americans and French

British Regiments:
1 troop of 17th Light Dragoons (in Tarleton’s Legion)
Royal Artillery
A composite brigade of Foot Guards (comprising 1st, 2nd and 3rd Foot Guards)
17th Foot later the Royal Leicestershire Regiment and now the Royal Anglian Regiment

23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers
33rd Foot now the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment
43rd later the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and now the Royal Green Jackets
71st Fraser’s Highlanders (disbanded at the end of the war)
76th Foot (disbanded at the end of the war)
80th Foot (disbanded at the end of the war)
Regiment of de Voit (Anspach)
Regiment of de Seybothen (Anspach)
Regiment of Prince Hereditary (Hesse)
Regiment of von Bose (Hesse)
Tarleton’s Legion
Simcoe’s Legion
North Carolina Loyalists


The British 23rd Regiment of Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers (from Tim Reese’s CD Rom of 116 illustrations of British and American Regiments from the Revolutionary War.

French Regiments:
Artillery
Lauzun’s Legion
Bourbonnois Regiment of Foot
Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment of Foot
Soissonois Regiment of Foot
Agenois Regiment of Foot

Americans Regiments:
4th Dragoons (Moylan)
Armand’s Horse
Lafayette’s Light Infantry
Muhlenburg’s Brigade
Hazen’s Canadian Regiment
1st New York Regiment
2nd New York Regiment
1st New Jersey Regiment
2nd New Jersey Regiment
Rhode Island Regiment
1st Pennsylvania Regiment
2nd Pennsylvania Regiment
Virginia Regiment
3rd Maryland Regiment
4th Maryland Regiment
3 brigades of Virginia Militia
Sappers and Miners


The Americans storming the redoubts on 14th October 1781 during the Battle of Yorktown

Account:
Losing his grip on the Carolinas, Cornwallis marched his army into Virginia and seized Yorktown and Gloucester, towns on each side of the York River.

With the arrival of the French fleet of Admiral De Grasse, General Washington was able to march south from New York with the joint American and French army to attack Cornwallis.

The British Army marching out to surrender at the end of the Battle of Yorktown
The British Army marching out to surrender at the end of the Battle of Yorktown

The Americans and French marched out of Williamsburg and arrived before Yorktown on 28th September 1781, forming a semi-circle around the entrenchments and putting the British under siege.  Cornwallis expecting Major General Clinton to sail from New York with a relieving force had decided to remain in Yorktown rather than march south to the Carolinas or attempt to reach New York. His first move was the inexplicable one of abandoning a line of four redoubts that dominated the British positions. The Americans immediately occupied the empty redoubts.

York Town from the River York
View of Yorktown from the York River before it was destroyed during the Battle of Yorktown

The Americans began formal siege operations on the eastern side of Yorktown on 30th September and on 9th October were sufficiently close to began an artillery bombardment.

On 14th October the Americans and French stormed two redoubts in front of their trenches and the position of the British in Yorktown became untenable.

American Continental Troops Capture Guns
American Continental troops capture British guns
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The British carried out a sortie on the 16th in which several guns in the two redoubts were spiked. On the same day Cornwallis attempted to pass the Guards, the 23rd and the Light Infantry across the York River to Gloucester but was thwarted by a storm.


General George Washington
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With no sign of Clinton’s relief and with inadequate supplies of artillery ammunition and food, on 19th October 1781 Cornwallis’ army marched out of Yorktown and surrendered.

Battle of Yorktown - French Representation
A contemporary French representation of the Battle of Yorktown
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Casualties:
6,000 British surrendered to the Americans and French with 10 stands of German and British colours, 240 pieces of artillery, small arms, ammunition and equipment.
The casualties during the siege had been 500 British, 80 Americans and 200 French.


General George Washington reviews the captured British army at the Battle of Yorktown.

Follow-up:
The capitulation of the British to the Americans and French ended the fighting in the war and led to the Peace Treaty that acknowledged the independence of the American states.  Clinton’s relieving force arrived in the Chesapeake on 24th October.


Cornwallis's British army surrenders to General Washington at Yorktown

Anecdotes and traditions:

  • The British bands are reputed to have played “The world turned upside down” as the troops marched out to surrender.
  • After the surrender the American and French officers entertained the British officers to dinner, other than Tarleton with whom the Americans refused to eat, due to the atrocities committed by his troops in North and South Carolina.


The British army surrendering at Yorktown

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References:

  • History of the British Army by Sir John Fortescue
  • The War of the Revolution by Christopher Ward

General Washington at Yorktown
General Washington at Yorktown
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The British surrender at Yorktown by Jean Le Barbier
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 The British surrender at Yorktown by Eugene Hess
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