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 François de Grasse strategically positioned his naval fleet to control access to the town via the Chesapeake Bay and the York River.
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.
- Search on Cornwallis or Yorktown in the George Washington Papers.
- Visit the Timeline featured in Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789 for more information on the Revolutionary War.
- American Revolution: A Resource Guide and Primary Documents in American History are rich in materials related to this era. Visit the webguides for links to a wide variety of information on the Revolutionary War.
- Military Battles and Campaigns contains maps of major military conflicts including troop movements, defensive structures and groundworks, roads to and from sites of military engagements, campsites and local buildings, as well as topography and vegetation. The Rochambeau Map Collection contains forty manuscript and twenty-six printed maps, as well as a manuscript atlas used by Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau when he was commander in chief of the French expeditionary army (1780-82) during the American Revolution. Use the zoom views to see battle plans, surveys, and more up close.
- For photographs of Yorktown during the Civil War, including images of troops, camps, and artillery, search on Yorktown in Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints.
- Search the Today in History collection for other events related to the Revolutionary War such as the Battle of Bunker Hill and Lexington and Concord.