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This Day in History: George Washington’s Siege of Yorktown

On this day in 1781, French and American forces begin a siege of Yorktown. It was the beginning of the end for the British.

They’d made a few mistakes that led to this moment.

Washington before Yorktown, by Rembrandt Peale

In the days and weeks just before the siege, General Charles Cornwallis was established with his troops in Yorktown, Virginia, near Chesapeake Bay. His commanding officer, General Sir Henry Clinton, was stationed with his troops in New York. On the American side, George Washington was working with the French and planning his next steps.

Both Washington and the French commander, Count de Rochambeau, agreed that they did not have enough troops to successfully attack Clinton in New York. They also knew that they could not attack Cornwallis without further support. The British Navy was too powerful, and it would provide Cornwallis with support—or at least an avenue of escape.

In mid-August, Washington received some good news: French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, was on his way to help, with as many as 29 ships of the line. De Grasse had restrictions on his offer of assistance: He would stay on the American coast only until October 15, and the French seemed disinclined to go as far as New York. Nevertheless, the offer gave Washington two months to use his new-found advantage. He decided to attack Cornwallis in Yorktown.

Washington worked out a plan. The Marquis de Lafayette, then in the South, was asked to contain Cornwallis. In the meantime, the French and American forces outside New York would begin to head south. Washington left a portion of his forces behind. Their job? Keep Clinton distracted and confused about American intentions for as long as possible. These troops made every effort to appear as if they were preparing for an attack on New York. As Washington and Rochambeau headed out, they also took pains to reinforce the subterfuge. Their men left in three groups, following different, indirect paths. They wanted to look like they could be coming back to surround New York.

And still Washington wondered if de Grasse would really follow through on his plan. Would de Grasse really be in Chesapeake Bay when Washington and Rochambeau arrived?

On September 5, Washington received a great piece of news. De Grasse had arrived, as promised. He had brought a fleet of 28 ships. Naval Historical Center historian William James Morgan describes Washington at this moment: “The usually taciturn Washington embraced Rochambeau and waved his hat furiously in unrestrained joy. At last the naval superiority for which the American commander in chief had pleaded unceasingly, and which he termed ‘the pivot upon which everything turned,’ was a reality.”

De Grasse’s arrival was even more of a miracle than Washington then knew. British Admiral George Rodney had learned of de Grasse’s movements and had decided to act. But, instead of going himself, the accomplished and well-respected Admiral ended up sending someone else in his place. Admiral Samuel Hood pursued de Grasse. Or, he thought he was pursuing de Grasse. In reality, de Grasse was traveling more slowly, days behind Hood. Hood traveled up the American coast and continued on to New York, where he joined British Admiral Thomas Graves. Hood still hadn’t found de Grasse. The two British admirals combined forces and returned to Chesapeake Bay, but de Grasse got there first. A battle ensued between the French and British naval forces on September 5.

The British were a bit of a mess in that conflict! Either because of bad command decisions or confusing signals, some of the British ships never engaged in that battle. Not good, since the British were outnumbered to begin with: 19 ships to 28. In the end, the British ships left for New York, leaving Cornwallis alone in Yorktown, with no naval reinforcements. The French were in charge of Chesapeake Bay!

Cornwallis’s fate was perhaps sealed in that moment.

By the middle of September, the Continental and French armies were in Williamsburg, where they joined forces with Lafayette and some Virginia militia. Soon, the forces set out for Yorktown. On the 28th, they surrounded Yorktown on all sides. The siege of Yorktown was underway. It would be three long weeks before a white flag was raised by Cornwallis on October 17.

But that is a story for another day.

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