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Presentation U.S. History Primary Source Timeline

Revolutionary War: Groping Toward Peace, 1781-1783

The year 1781 was momentous for the American Revolution. The beginning of the year, arguably, witnessed perhaps the low point of American morale during the Revolution. "The people are discontented," George Washington wrote to John Laurens in early 1781, "but it is with the feeble and oppressive mode of conducting the war, not with the war itself." Indeed, Washington now believed that it was critical for the United States and its French allies to achieve a significant military victory in 1781 or all might be lost because of the state of American public opinion.

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, by John Trumball
Detroit Publishing Company

Even so, Washington could not have foreseen the events that eventually unfolded during the year, nor could he appreciate their significance as they occurred. Indeed, most of the year continued to be characterized by inactivity of the French and most of the Continental Armies. Only when the brilliant strategic activities of General Nathaneal Greene in North Carolina forced British General Cornwallis to march into Virginia did an opportunity open for Washington to achieve the military victory he had hoped for at the start of the year. In Virginia, on the Yorktown peninsula, Cornwallis found himself cornered by the combined forces of Washington's Continental Army and the French army and French fleet. These forces began seige operations against the British troops isolated at Yorktown. On October 17, 1781, Cornwallis sought terms of surrender.

It is important to understand that the significance of the British surrender at Yorktown could not be fully appreciated by contemporaries. Washington called Yorktown "an important victory" and "a glorious event," but he, like his compatriots, could not know what the British response would be to Cornwallis' surrender. Washington, the Continental Congress, and leaders in the states could only muddle along, waiting for events to unfold. In fact, Washington worried that the victory at Yorktown might diminish Americans' continued commitment to the war. For nearly the next two years, Washington would continue his efforts to keep the Continental Army intact, ready to fight if that became necessary.

Meanwhile, peace talks between British and American diplomats got underway in Paris in May 1782 and continued into the fall. In September, the American negotiators (John Jay, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin) discovered that the French foreign minister had sent his secretary on a secret trip to London. Now convinced of French duplicity, Jay, Adams, and Franklin let the British know that they were willing to negotiate unilaterally--that is, without French interference. After two months of difficult negotiations, the British and American diplomats signed the Preliminary Articles of Peace on November 30, 1782.

Until a definitive peace treaty was signed, the United States was still technically at war. British and French fleets continued to fight on the high seas and in the Caribbean, but no land actions took place on the North American continent. The focus of the patriots was on keeping the Continental Army intact, in case the peace talks broke down. At this point, the greatest danger to the Revolution was the officers of the Continental Army. Nearly fed up with Congress' inaction regarding their pay (among many other issues), officers encamped at Newburgh, New York, sent a declaration to Congress concerning the pay issue. This was a serious threat; Washington diffused the threat by his personal prestige and by continuing to lobby Congress on behalf of his officers.

For additional documents related to these topics, search using such key words as Charles Cornwallis, Nathaneal Greene, Yorktown, Newburgh and Preliminary Articles of Peace. Search Washington's Papers and the Journals of the Continental Congress by date, and use the terms found in the documents.