Surrender at Yorktown

On October 19, 1781, British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army of some 8,000 men to General George Washington at Yorktown, giving up any chance of winning the Revolutionary War. Cornwallis had marched his army into the Virginia port town earlier that summer expecting to meet British ships sent from New York. The ships never arrived.

In early October, approximately 17,000 American and French troops led by Generals George Washington and Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau, respectively, surrounded British-occupied Yorktown. Off the coast, French Admiral Fran├žois de Grasse strategically positioned his naval fleet to control access to the town via the Chesapeake Bay and the York River.

The Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown A.D. 1781. Illman Brothers, [ca.1870]. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

The Franco-American siege exhausted the British army’s supplies of food and ammunition. With no hope for escape, Cornwallis agreed to the terms of Washington’s Articles of Capitulation, signing the document at Moore House on October 19. Legend has it that hours after the surrender, the general’s defeated troops marched out of Yorktown to the tune “The World Turned Upside Down.”

During his occupation of Yorktown, General Cornwallis set up headquarters in the Thomas Nelson House. The residence saw wartime action again during the Civil War, when it was used as a hospital.

Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown effectively ended the Revolutionary War. Lacking the financial resources to raise a new army, the British government appealed to the Americans for peace. Almost two years later, on September 3, 1783, the signing of the Treaty of Paris brought the war to an end.

A Plan of the Entrance of Chesapeak [sic] Bay, with James and York Rivers;… London, Published by Wm. Faden, Charing Cross, Novr. 26th 1781. American Revolution and Its Era: Maps and Charts of North America and the West Indies, 1750 to 1789. Geography & Map Division

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