Last week, we covered the tightening noose around the British army at Yorktown, Virginia in October of 1781. The army there under General Cornwallis was getting increasingly desperate, and awaiting a relief force that General Clinton had promised to send from New York.
British Relief Fleet
I suppose “promise” is a strong term. Clinton promised to do what he could, but sending a relief fleet was still dependent on the arrival of more British Navy ships along with the new Commander of North America, Admiral Robert Digby.
|British Surrender at Yorktown
The following day, Clinton received notice that the British fleet had been defeated at the Battle of the Capes and that the French controlled the waters around Yorktown. Clinton’s response was that Cornwallis had assured him that the army had sufficient supplies to hold out until the end of October, giving them time to work on a plan to relieve them without rushing into anything immediately.
He called another council of war to discuss the new information. The council interviewed several officers who had recently been with Cornwallis in Virginia. Those officers agreed that the army could hold out for at least three weeks against an army of 20,000 once the siege started. And at this point the start of the siege was still several weeks away. So, once again, the council voted to do nothing and wait for Admiral Digby’s arrival.
A few days later, on September 17, Clinton received more detailed information from Admiral Graves, detailing the naval defeat and confirming that the British could not get to Yorktown by sea, and that the fleet was returning to New York for repairs.
|Gen. Henry Clinton
Clinton held a third council of war and decided that a relief fleet needed to arrive in Virginia by the end of October, which was still nearly six weeks away. Rushing back to Virginia without a force of sufficient size would only make things worse. Two days later, the remainder of the British fleet under Graves limped into New York Harbor. It would probably take months to repair some of the ships and restore them to a condition where they could return to battle.
Graves had first sailed for Virginia with 19 ships of the line, thinking he would face a French fleet of about 14 ships. Instead, he faced off against 28 ships of the line. A few days after Graves returned, Clinton received a note from Cornwallis informing him that French Admiral de Barras had joined Graves. The French had a total of 36 ships of the line in Virginia. There was no way the British could overpower that fleet anytime soon. Even if the British could repair the ships quickly and Admiral Digby arrived with his expected three additional ships of the line, that fleet would be nowhere near the size of the enemy fleet in Virginia.
On September 23, the council of war met again, resulting in General Clinton’s letter to Cornwallis, tentatively hoping to send a relief fleet from New York on October 5. Clinton, however, still had concerns. Given the size of the French Navy, it was not clear that the British relief fleet could even find a place to land a reinforcement army safely nearby, and that they could link up with Cornwallis in Yorktown. Such an effort might only make the loss even greater.
The following day, September 24, Admiral Digby finally arrived in New York. Digby confirmed that he did not have any large number of ships arriving anytime soon. He had brought Prince William, the third son of King George III. William was serving as a midshipman and was the only member of the royal family ever to visit America up until this point. While the prince did much for morale, he could not offer much hope of military relief for Yorktown.
By this time General Clinton seemed more preoccupied over being blamed for a loss rather than coming up with a way to extricate Cornwallis and his army. At yet another council of war, he suggested that Cornwallis might try to escape. All the other officers at the council thought this was unrealistic. Clinton also brought up the idea of a diversionary attack against Philadelphia again, which the council also rejected.
|Adm. Robert Digby
The plan seemed like a longshot. The French navy was keeping its distance from Yorktown. The British hoped to slip into Yorktown and offload an army while the remainder of the navy kept the French fleet away. This seemed like a longshot, and relied on the enemy making several mistakes. But it was the best they had. In trying to pull off this action, it was quite possible that the British fleet might be captured or destroyed, leading to a far greater loss than the loss of just Cornwallis’ army.
The British repeatedly pushed back the launch of the relief fleet. Initially, Clinton had hoped that they could depart on October 5th. That then pushed back to the 8th, then the 12th, and again to October 17th. On that date, the relief fleet finally sailed out of the harbor, but then had to wait until the 19th for favorable winds to sail south.
Escape to Gloucester
Clinton still relied on Cornwallis’ assessment that his army could hold out until the end of October. That assessment proved overly-optimistic. As we covered last week, the allied forces captured the final British redoubts on October 14 and were bearing down on the main British army inside Yorktown.
|British positions at
Yorktown & Gloucester
The French fleet still kept its distance, giving the British the ability to cross the York River where they still held an outpost at Gloucester Point. Overnight, Cornwallis would leave a small portion of his army to keep up fire against the enemy while the bulk of his army crossed the river in small boats to Gloucester. They would have to abandon most of their cannons and supplies in the crossing. Once in Gloucester, they could defeat the small French army of about 800 and fight their way north through Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey to make it back to New York.
You might think that this sounds like a pretty crazy maneuver with no hope of success, and you would be right. The odds of marching his army over 400 miles through enemy territory with almost no support verged on the impossible. But Cornwallis saw that as his best hope at this point.
The British had sixteen large row boats to cross the York River. It was a dark and cloudy night, which helped shield the British actions from the enemy. At around 10:00 PM, the first ships began ferrying soldiers from Yorktown to Gloucester Point.
As the night wore on, those storm clouds turned into an actual storm. Thunder and lightning accompanied a downpour of rain. Winds blew the water into waves. Several of the ships capsized, drowning many of the occupants. The rain also increased the river currents so that several ships were forced downstream into the bay. By two in the morning, Cornwallis called off the effort, with most of his army still in Yorktown. The storm subsided in the morning after sunrise, but by then it was too late to do anything.
Cornwallis called his own council of war. The officers agreed that their fortifications were collapsing. Enemy fire and disease had decimated their ranks, and those who could fight were too exhausted to fight well.
At 10:00 in the morning on October 17, a British officer marched out of the British lines waving a white handkerchief. A drummer boy accompanied him, beating out a call for parlay. The allied guns ceased fire and the officer informed the allies that Cornwallis wanted to discuss surrender.
|Gen. Charles O'Hara
The following morning, October 18, four officers: one American, one French, and two British, met in a nearby house owned by a merchant named Augustine Moore, to work out the details of surrender. The team completed 14 Articles of Capitulation. The British prisoners would be marched to Winchester, Virginia and Frederick Maryland. There would be one British officer for every 50 soldiers.
Other officers would be released on parole and permitted to return to New York or Britain on condition that they would no longer fight until exchanged. The French Navy would carry the officer to New York under a flag of truce. Sick and wounded prisoners would be provided with care in hospitals.
The British agreed to turn over their artillery, arms, supplies and public stores without destroying them. This included British ships and boats still in the water around Yorktown. At 2:00 pm the following day, the British army would march out of their lines with shouldered armed and color’s cased. An honored foe would be permitted to fly their colors as they marched out. But because the British denied this honor to the Continentals who surrendered at Charleston, the Continentals now denied that honor to the British.
|French drawing from 1781 of the surrender
Officers were permitted to retain their side-arms. All officers and soldiers could retain their private property. Property that had been looted from Americans would be returned. Loyalists captured with the British army would not be punished by the army, but the Americans insisted that the articles stipulated that they still might be accountable under civil law, meaning that loyalists could be tried, convicted, and executed.
Cornwallis accepted the terms, only requesting that the British Frigate Bonetta, nearby be permitted to carry his dispatches back to New York following the surrender, informing General Clinton of the defeat. Although not stated, the frigate would also carry a number of loyalists and deserters back to New York.
The two sides haggled over the terms well into the night. Washington informed the negotiators that their time was up. Cornwallis would agree to the articles by the following morning so that the surrender could take place at 2:00 PM as planned.
At noon the following day, October 19th, the French and American Armies assembled in two lines extending more than a mile. Generals Washington and Rochambeau prepared to take possession of the army under General Cornwallis.
The British second in command, General Charles O’Hara led the British army out from their defenses. According to some accounts the British band played a tune called The World Turned Upside Down. Some witnesses noted that the British averted their eyes to the French and tried to ignore the Americans. General Lafayette orders his musicians to play Yankee Doodle.
|Gen. Lincoln Receives Sword from Gen. O'Hara
While the French soldiers were in dress uniforms, the Americans were in rags, many of them barefoot. All, however, were on best behavior. By contrast, many of the British soldiers were clearly upset at their loss. A great many were thought to be drunk. When it came time to ground their arms, any of the British soldiers threw them on the ground, hoping to break them. The Hessians didn’t really seem to take the loss personally, and seemed perfectly at ease.
Following the ceremony, the British and Hessians returned to their quarters in Yorktown to await being marched inland over the following days.
The British surrendered a little over 7000 soldiers. The army had lost close to 500 killed and wounded in the siege. Hundreds more were dead or dying from disease. Smallpox, malaria, and other diseases had swept through the British camp. The British also turned over thousands of muskets, more than 100 cannons, several ships and boats, and a great deal of other equipment. The Americans lost a reported 88 killed and 301 wounded, although many more would die from wounds or disease in the coming weeks. Among those who died of disease was Washington’s stepson, Jack Custis. The 26 year old volunteer died from camp fever about two weeks after the surrender.
That night, Washington held a dinner for officers from the American, French and British armies. Only one British officer was not invited, Banastre Tarleton had generated too much bad blood to the American officers to put aside their feelings. There's also very good evidence that Colonel Tarleton, who had killed American prisoners after battles in the past, was very much concerned for his own life and well being and did his best to keep a low profile and out of sight of the victorious Americans.
|comte de Rochambeau
The dinner itself resulted in an odd dynamic. The French officers seemed to have much more in common with the British officers. Those two groups seemed to get along much better than either did with the Americans. The Hessian officer Johann Ewald noted there was a great deal of enmity between the French and American officers. General Cornwallis failed to attend the dinner, but did feel well enough to visit with French General de Viomenil that evening.
Despite efforts to encourage Admiral de Grasse to engage elsewhere, especially Charleston, the Admiral demurred and returned to the West Indies. The British prisoners were marched inland.
On October 19, the same day as the surrender, General Clinton personally took command of a relief army aboard the British fleet that sailed out of New York. The fleet reached the Chesapeake on the 24th. They had not yet received word of the surrender, but soon realized what had happened and turned around to go back to New York.
On November 4, General Cornwallis, under the terms of his parole, boarded a ship for New York to meet with General Clinton and provide details of the loss of his army.
Following the victory, no one was sure what would happen next. The war would continue for another two years as both sides tried to figure it out.
Just after the surrender, Washington wrote to General Greene saying “My greatest fear is that Congress viewing this stroke in too important a point of light, may think our work too nearly closed, and will fall into a state of languor and relaxation; to prevent this error, I shall employ every means in my power.”
On his return from Yorktown in November, Washington spent a week at Mount Vernon to mourn the death of his stepson with his wife Martha. He travelled to Philadelphia where he spent about four months meeting with Congress and top officials, trying to decide next steps for the war. He then returned to his camp outside of New York to continue the standoff with General Clinton. By spring, he would settle into a home in Newburgh.
The French army under Rochambeau remained in Virginia. The general was undecided whether he could offer more assistance to Washington in New York, or march to South Carolina to assist General Greene. In the end, his army spent the winter in Williamsburg, before receiving notice the following summer that his army was being recalled. Rochambeau returned to France, while his army was shipped to the West Indies to assist with the war effort there.
Next week, we deal with more consequences of the surrender at Yorktown, as the war in North Carolina comes to an end with the evacuation of Wilmington.
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Next Episode 301 Evacuation of Wilmington (Available March 3, 2024)
Previous Episode 299 Siege of Yorktown
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MIDDLETON, RICHARD. “The Clinton–Cornwallis Controversy and Responsibility for the British Surrender at Yorktown.” History, vol. 98, no. 3 (331), 2013, pp. 370–89. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24429518
Hon. Robert Digby: https://morethannelson.com/officer/hon-robert-digby
World Turned Upside Down lyrics: https://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/stagsere/se1/se14/000027/html/world_upside_down/worldturned.pdf
(from archive.org unless noted)
March to Victory: Washington, Rochambeau and the Yorktown Campaign of 1781, (army.mil): https://history.army.mil/html/books/rochambeau/CMH_70-104-1.pdf
Johnston, Henry P. The Yorktown Campaign and the surrender of Cornwallis, 1781, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881.
Stevens, Benjamin (ed) The Campaign in Virginia, 1781: An exact reprint of six rare pamphlets on the Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy, London: Stevens, 1888.
Rice, Howard C. The American Campaigns of Rochambeau's Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, Princeton University Press, 1972 (borrow only).
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Hallahan, William H. The Day The Revolution Ended: 19 October 1781, Castle Books, 2009
Ketchum, Richard M. Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution, Henry Holt and Co. 2004.
Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on archive.org).
Philbrick, In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, Penguin Books, 2019.
Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan Company, 1952.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.