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This Day in History: What happened after the British surrender—and before an official peace treaty?

On this day in 1782, a preliminary peace treaty is signed by British and American representatives. It had been more than a year since George Washington’s victory at Yorktown. We all hear about that triumph, but we hear much less about the difficult months that followed: We weren’t at war anymore. But we weren’t really at peace, either.

Americans hoped that British General Charles Cornwallis’s surrender to George Washington would be respected, but what if King George III refused to accept the defeat?

Painting depicting a variety of Continental Army uniforms, by Charles M. Lefferts (1909)

For months, then, General Washington faced a challenge: The army could not be disbanded. Some American cities were still occupied by the British. What if the peace fell through and the army was needed again? On the other hand, the soldiers had little to do. They were restless and worried about whether they would get paid. Washington somehow, amazingly, managed to hold his army together throughout 1782. He ran drills and kept them organized, despite the fact that they really had no official purpose—except to wait and see if they were needed.

Fortunately, a preliminary peace treaty was signed by British and American representatives in November 1782. That treaty reached American shores in March 1783. Congress quickly approved the treaty, and George Washington was able to formally declare a cessation of hostilities in his camp on April 19.

It had been exactly 8 years, to the day, since the “shot heard round the world” at the Battles of Lexington and Concord!

Yet, even then, the peace still was not final. Several months later, the official Treaty of Paris was (finally) signed. Congress approved that Treaty in January 1784.

Throughout this long two-year period, Washington stayed with his Army. You have to wonder how often he simply wanted to go home. But he had to have known that the army would fall into disarray and/or revolt without him. Indeed, in March 1783, when the Newburgh Conspiracy cropped up, only Washington’s presence saved the day.

In October 1782, Washington wrote: “The patience, the fortitude, the long, & great sufferings of this Army is unexampled in history; but there is an end to all things, & I fear we are very near one to this. Which, more than probably, will oblige me to stick very close to my flock this Winter, & try like a careful physicion, to prevent, if possible, the disorder’s getting to an incurable height.”

Washington would finally be able to resign and return home to Mt. Vernon at the end of 1783. He had been away for more than 8 years, with only a few brief exceptions before and after Yorktown. Can you imagine being away from home for so long?

What a joy it must have been to arrive home just in time for Christmas that year.

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