Today in 1781, the Battle of Yorktown concluded with a Franco-American triumph over the British, a decisive conclusion to the American War for Independence.
In early 1781, the Franco-American high command began to lay plans for a decisive engagement against the British. However, one vital question remained – where to strike? General Clinton had amassed his forces in New York City, a target Washington had long set his eyes upon. Literation of the metropolis was now within reach, the Virginian figured, because allied forces greatly outnumbered Clinton’s.
In addition, the combined forces of 7,000 men would expend considerably less energy and resources in pursuit of such a goal, because the armies merged in White Plains, just north of New York City.
However, Clinton’s subordinate Cornwallis had already pushed into Virginia, where he conducted strategic raids throughout the summer of 1781. He was soon sent to Yorktown, ordered to set up a defensive position for a future British offensive on the region surrounding the Chesapeake Bay. Washington’s French counterpart Rochambeau hesitated on the proposal to take back New York, and French naval admiral Comte de Grass, after setting sail from the West Indies, insisted on landing his own reinforcements in Virginia. Unable to rebut both Rochambeau and de Grass, Washington reluctantly agreed to a grand push into Virginia rather than New York City.
Every aspect of the Franco-American plan in Virginia was calculated to preserve the element of surprise. To confound Clinton, Washington authored various communications that continued to telegraph his intention of taking New York City, and even moved soldiers into position such that it looked like this was truly the allied aspiration. In late August, the hasty march southward began. De Grasse initiated a blockade of Yorktown, and the allied forces converged thereupon. With numerous delays, Clinton remained behind in New York, and only when it was too late, made an earnest attempt to provide support to Cornwallis.
After a siege that lasted several weeks, and a series of Franco-American assaults upon strategic fortifications, the greatly outnumbered British army suffered several tactical losses and the loss of key positions. In the middle of October, Cornwallis attempted to evacuate Virginia and regroup at nearby Gloucester Point, but was hampered by a coincidental storm.
After conferring with his officers, Cornwallis eventually agreed to capitulate. The British surrendered over 7,000 soldiers, who publicly laid down their arms in a giant pile. In defeat, Cornwallis offered his sword to Washington only through proxy, grudgingly deferring the customary protocol to a subordinate.
Though there were numerous battles in the next years, Yorktown represented the final nail in the British coffin. From that point onward, the trajectory of overall success for the American patriots would never be reversed. News of the battle’s result sent a ripple throughout the world, and its colossal ramifications were felt on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. If Paine’s audacious declaration that Americans had within their grasp an opportunity “to begin the world over again,” the culmination of Yorktown proved to be the true starting point of such a goal. Freed officially from British subjugation, such a prospect – once portrayed as an outlandish prospect – was now an undeniable political reality.
After news of the surrender reached Philadelphia, the city began a multi-day celebration. Masses of people crowded into the streets, where fireworks were blasted into the sky. The city’s residents took to drinking, and toasts were made to the victors of the war and inheritors of a new future. It was to this ardor that Paine returned, lacking in wealth but filled with pride. The persistence of America had proven “superior to every effort to enslave her,” wrote Paine, and Britain was now forced to endure the “mournful story” that was its failures at Yorktown. At the pinnacle of his army’s morale, Washington brought his force back to New York, where it remained for the rest of the war.
When British Prime Minister Lord North heard of the outcome, he was aghast. Responding as if he had “taken a ball in his breast,” the head of government paced up back and forth “under emotions of the deepest consternation and distress,” and repeatedly bellowing “Oh God! It is all over!” King George III voiced his “deepest concern” toward the “unfortunate result of the operations in Virginia,” while concealing his own distress from the British public. North soon resigned, and the king was forced to rewrite his Speech from the Throne that originally presumed victory. The king briefly considered abdication, but decided against it.
Horror swept through both Parliament and the royal cabinet. After having come to believe that the American military collapse was imminent, fervent Tory and form colonial administrator Lord George Germain was genuinely shocked. In like fashion, Henry Dundas and Richard Rigby resigned from North’s cabinet. In stark contrast to the war hardliners, however, the Whigs that had long opposed the war in America – such as Edmund Burke, Horace Walpole, and Charles James Fox – were ecstatic.
At long last, the failure of Clinton and Cornwallis provided the political capital necessary to end the war effort permanently. Parliament adopted a resolution placing a halt on the war effort in February of 1782, and in May, and passed a corollary in May that condemned anyone advocating the continuation of war in North America was to be treated as an enemy of the crown.