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The World Turned Upside Down: George Washington and the American Victory at Yorktown


By the fall of 1781, General George Washington had been carrying the weight of the fight for American independence on his shoulders for six long years. At many times during that span, the struggle against the mighty British Crown looked doomed to end in miserable failure. No matter how distressing the war became, though, Washington maintained an unflagging spirit and an iron perseverance that formed the lifeline of America’s resistance. Time and time again, he found ways to keep the Continental Army in the field and guided his ragtag soldiers across bloody battlegrounds and throughout countless periods of privation. All of the sacrifices that Washington and so many others had made contributed to the greatest triumph of the Revolutionary War at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781. At that moment, the world turned upside down for the British empire and a future was forged for America in which she would be free to shape her own destiny rooted in liberty.

The eventual road to triumph at Yorktown began on the wooded, rocky slopes of Kings Mountain on the border between North and South Carolina on October 7, 1780. The American victory that was won here by the rugged, backcountry "Overmountain Men" sent a shockwave through the British and their Loyalist supporters. Coming after an unbroken string of British victories in the American South dating back to the fall of Savanah, Georgia in late December 1778, Kings Mountain was a game changer for the Patriots, awakening a new flame of revolutionary spirit.

The momentum that was earned at Kings Mountain was carried forward by General Nathanael Greene, who was appointed to command the Southern Department of the Continental Army on October 14, and his second in command, General Daniel Morgan. In January 1781, Morgan defeated a British force under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina. Later that March, the armies of Greene and British General Charles Lord Cornwallis clashed at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina. Although Cornwallis won the field, he lost over 25 percent of his army and subsequently abandoned his campaign against Greene in the Carolinas.

The armies of Greene and Cornwallis squaring off at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Reflecting on the bloody clash, General Cornwallis admitted, "“I never saw such fighting since God made me. The Americans fought like demons.” (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Following the bloodbath at Guilford Courthouse, General Cornwallis proceeded to march his troops northwards into Virginia, where he entrenched his army at Yorktown and Gloucester Point on the peninsula of Virginia’s York and James Rivers. Although a strike against New York City had recently seemed like the best option available to General Washington, Cornwallis’s move, plus the news that a French fleet was on its way to the Chesapeake Bay, changed everything. Determined to maximize this golden opportunity and strike a major blow against the British Crown, the troops of Washington and his French ally, the Comte de Rochambeau, set off from New York on what would become an almost 700-mile march along America’s eastern shore to reach Yorktown.

Throughout the march to Yorktown, Washington and Rochambeau remained in contact with elements of the Continental Army in Virginia under the Marquis de Lafayette and the French fleet commanded by the Comte de Grasse. While Lafayette’s troops pinned Cornwallis and his army in place, Admiral de Grasse and his navy guarded the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. Cornwallis’s position quickly became even more tenuous after de Grasse and his sailors battled a British fleet attempting to relieve the troops at Yorktown on September 5. The French succeeded in driving off the British fleet, which ultimately kept the Chesapeake under de Grasse’s control and left Cornwallis and his army isolated at Yorktown.

By September 26, Washington and Rochambeau’s 16,000-man army, which was broken down into 9,000 Americans and 7,000 French troops, was encamped near Williamsburg, Virginia. Two days later, the unified force reached its destination and began the hard work required to effectively besiege the roughly 8,400 British troops trapped in Yorktown. Guided by the expertise of French engineers, Washington and Rochambeau’s troops carved out siege lines, digging a series of parallel trenches that would allow them to creep their way toward the formidable British positions.

The first parallel was completed on October 9. At noon on that memorable day, an American flag was raised above an artillery battery near the bank of the York River. “I confess I felt a secret pride swell my heart,” reflected one American soldier, “when I saw the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ waving majestically in the very faces of our implacable foes.” That afternoon, General Washington was deservingly given the honor of igniting the first gun aimed at the British during the siege of Yorktown. After Washington’s gun roared, the entire line became a wall of fire and flame as allied gunners blasted away at the enemy. As historian Benson Bobrick records, “The whole French army stood and cheered for America as the muzzles flashed.”

General Washington firing the first gun aimed at the British during the siege of Yorktown. According to legend, his shot went through the window of his comrade, Thomas Nelson's home, which Cornwallis had turned into his headquarters. Bobrick writes that the shot "landed at the dinner table where some British officers, including the British commissary general, had just sat down to dine." The burst killed the commissary general and wounded several others. (Photo Credit: Don Troiani)

With their forces divided between the French on the left flank of the allied line and the Americans on the right flank, Washington and Rochambeau’s artillery hammered the Redcoats for nearly a week. Short on supplies and provisions because of the French naval blockade, the situation faced by Cornwallis and his men was made even worse as allied guns targeted them day and night, thereby preventing the British from making effective repairs to their defenses.

As the siege progressed, orders came down from General Washington that a new parallel must be dug 400 yards closer to the British lines. The second parallel had largely been completed by October 14, but for it to be properly secured and extended to the river, two major roadblocks, British redoubts #9 and #10, had to be taken by force. The job of seizing these positions fell to a force of roughly 400 Americans led by Alexander Hamilton and a French light infantry brigade under the baron de Viominel.

At 8:00 p.m. on October 14, three successive shells were fired high into the air, marking the signal for Hamilton and de Viominel to launch their simultaneous attacks. General Washington looked on from the main lines as the man who had been a skilled aide de camp and a part of his military family throughout the war got his much anticipated chance to lead troops in a pivotal combat operation. Hamilton and his men raced forward with fixed bayonets and unloaded muskets. They crashed into the enemy, viciously facing the defenders in hand-to-hand combat and overwhelming Redoubt #10 within ten minutes. The French also succeeded in their objective, suffering some 46 killed and 68 wounded in the sharp fight to conquer Redoubt #9.

Alexander Hamilton and his troops assaulting British Redoubt #10 on the night of October 14, 1781. (Photo Credit: Army Historical Foundation)

With redoubts #9 and #10 taken, the Americans and the French were able to perfect their siege lines even further, advancing to within 275 yards of Cornwallis’s line. In a letter to British Commander-in-Chief Henry Clinton, Cornwallis admitted that his situation was “very critical,” and warned, “The safety of the place is therefore so precarious that I can not recommend that the fleet and army should run great risk in endeavoring to save us.” It was clear that the end was near.

On October 15, the British launched an unsuccessful counterattack against the second allied parallel. One night later, Cornwallis attempted to orchestrate an escape by crossing over to the opposite side of the York River at Gloucester Point. A midnight storm, however, played a large part in unraveling the effort. On October 17, the dreaded moment had finally arrived. It was a very ominous day for the British, marking the fourth anniversary of General John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, New York in 1777, a defeat so momentous that it ultimately compelled the French to formally enter the Revolution on the side of the United States. It was because of that formal military alliance between America and France that General Cornwallis and his army now also found themselves on the verge of surrender.

After a 13-day siege, General Cornwallis asked for a suspension of hostilities for 24 hours while terms of capitulation were worked out by joint commissioners. Fourteen articles of surrender were drawn up on October 18 and the terms went into effect after they were signed the following morning. At 2 p.m on October 19, thousands of defeated and dejected Crown soldiers filed out of Yorktown. According to legend, British fifers and drummers played a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.” Adding to the misery of defeat, Cornwallis’s dispirited soldiers had to march between two victorious lines of allied soldiers lined up on opposite sides of a lane stretching a half mile long. Flanked by the splendidly dressed French troops on the left and the ragged Americans on the right, historian Ron Chernow records that the Redcoats gazed “only at the French soldiers until [the Marquis de] Lafayette prodded the band to strike up ‘Yankee Doodle,’ forcing the conquered army to acknowledge the hated Americans.”

Although many allied eyes yearned to catch a glimpse of the mighty Lord Cornwallis, the British commander was not at the head of his troops. Perhaps unwilling to suffer the humiliation of defeat, he claimed to be indisposed and did not appear, delegating his deputy, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara to represent him. Spurning General Washington and the Americans, O’Hara attempted to surrender to the French, presenting Cornwallis’s sword to Rochambeau. The French commander, however, refused to accept the sword and pointed to Washington. As Bobrick explains, “Washington, unwilling to allow Cornwallis to compel him to accept surrender from a deputy, in turn directed O’Hara to General [Benjamin] Lincoln….” It was a moment of great redemption for Washington’s second in command. In May 1780, Lincoln had been forced to surrender an army of over 5,000 American troops at Charleston, South Carolina and was denied the honors of war in surrender by the British. Now, that gut-wrenching defeat was a thing of the past as Lincoln accepted Cornwallis’s sword.

General Cornwallis's army surrendering to the Americans and the French at Yorktown on the afternoon of October 19, 1781. (Photo Credit: Mort Künstler)

At the end of the long line of allied soldiers, British troops found themselves in an open field, “where they tossed their weapons contemptuously onto a stockpile, trying to smash them,” as noted by Chernow. Once the deed was done, Cornwallis’s men marched past the architects of their defeat once again and into captivity.

As slightly over 8,000 British officers and men were surrendering to the Americans and the French at Yorktown, help was on the way, but it would not arrive in time to turn the tide. After departing from New York with 7,000 troops, 25 ships of the line, two fifty-gun ships, and eight frigates, British commander in chief Henry Clinton entered the mouth of Chesapeake Bay five days after Cornwallis and his army had capitulated. As Cornwallis wrote to his superior after the devastating defeat, “Sir,—I have the mortification to inform your excellency that I have been forced to give up the posts of York and Gloucester, and to surrender the troops under my command, by capitulation on the 19th instant, as prisoners of war to the combined forces of America and France.”

After receiving news of the catastrophic defeat at Yorktown, British Prime Minister Lord Frederick North paced the floor of 10 Downing Street in London and repeatedly exclaimed in despair, “Oh God! Oh God! It is over! It is all over!" He was absolutely right. Yorktown made it clear to many servants of the Crown that it was futile to continue to pour resources and manpower into the struggle to crush the dogged Americans in their fight for independence. The British Parliament even passed a resolution calling for the nation to end the war in March 1782. Although the Crown would maintain sizable numbers of troops in the American colonies, Yorktown marked the end of major combat operations in America. Peace negotiations between the warring powers began in 1782 and resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783. After eight years of toil and struggle, the United States of America was finally recognized as an independent nation, free at last to shape her own destiny rooted in liberty.

More than anything else, American independence was won on the battlefield by General George Washington and all of the faithful Patriots who endured endless hardships in the service of their young nation. As Washington once reminded his soldiers during the struggle against the mightiest empire in the world, “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army.” He never forgot what was at stake in the Revolutionary War. His devotion to the cause was so strong that it formed the lifeline of America’s resistance, inspiring the troops in the field to persevere until the fight was finally won. Washington, as one of his most famous biographers anointed him, was “The Indispensable Man” of the American Revolution. The triumphant general, however, did not believe that victory was due to him or his soldiers alone. As he professed in his farewell address to the Continental Army in November 1783, “The singular interpositions of Providence in our feeble condition were such, as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving, while the unparalleled perseverance of the Armies of the United States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement, for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing Miracle.”


American Battlefield Trust: Benjamin Lincoln.

American Battlefield Trust: Siege of Yorktown.

George Washington's Mount Vernon: Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route.

George Washington's Mount Vernon: Yorktown Campaign. Battle of Yorktown.

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow.

Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner.


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