War of Independence (detail of Boston massacre print)

Victory at Yorktown

In August 1781, General George Washington was monitoring British activity in New York City when he learned that the French fleet was sailing to the Chesapeake Bay. A large British army had retreated from the southern interior, and now occupied Yorktown, Virginia. Washington and Comte de Rochambeau, commander of French forces in America, saw a fleeting opportunity to entrap the enemy. They rushed south.

While the French fleet commanded by Admiral Comte de Grasse blocked the Chesapeake and held the British fleet at bay, American and French troops trapped British forces at Yorktown in the fall of 1781. They bombarded the town relentlessly and, in bold assaults, captured important outlying positions. Fierce British counterattacks proved fruitless. On October 17, the British commander, Lord Charles Cornwallis, accepted a humiliating reality: his position was untenable. He had no choice but to surrender.

The British surrendered more than 8,000 troops at Yorktown. They remained in control of New York and Charleston, and continued limited fighting in the colonies and abroad for another year. But once news of the surrender reached London, popular support for the war vanished. This disaster, together with other setbacks at home and abroad, led to the downfall of Prime Minister Lord North. Britain opened peace talks with American diplomats in Paris.


George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, 1787
Comte de Rochambeau by Charles Willson Peale, about 1782
Lord Charles Cornwallis by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783
Washington and His Generals at Yorktown, by James Peale, undated, after Charles Willson Peale, about 1781
Artillery, munitions, and gunners’ tools, 1798
General Charles Cornwallis’s letter to George Washington conceding defeat, October 17, 1781
French engraver’s depiction of the surrender at Yorktown, 1781

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