Constitution Daily

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On this day: Yorktown spells doom for the British

October 19, 2012 by NCC Staff


On October 19, 1781, British forces are forced to surrender to General George Washington at Yorktown, staring an effective end to the Revolutionary War and beginning America’s role as a global factor.


lincolnsurrenderA month later, British Prime Minister Lord North repeatedly exclaimed, “O God! It is all over,” when first hearing of the defeat. It took almost two years for a negotiated peace treaty to end the conflict, but the British presence in North America would be mostly limited to Canada after the Yorktown disaster.


A combined American and French force of more than 14,000 men had moved quickly to surround British and German forces led by Lord Cornwallis that had withdrawn to Virginia in September 1781. Over the course of a month, troops led by Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau cut off Cornwallis’ group of 7,000 troops from being resupplied by British naval forces – aided by a key French naval action.


On September 5, 1781, at the Battle of the Capes, a French fleet under the Comte de Grasse forced a British fleet to return to New York City. It was de Grasse who decided to sail to the Chesapeake, and not New York City - changing the course of the war.


The joint American-French force laid siege to Yorktown, with Alexander Hamilton also involved in an attack to capture a key British defensive position.


On October 17, 1781, aides appointed by Cornwallis started surrender negotiations with Washington’s subordinates. One surrender condition seemed harsh and it was related to treatment by Cornwallis’s superior officer, General Henry Clinton, of the American General Benjamin Lincoln.


A little over a year earlier, Clinton had forced Lincoln to surrender his force of about 5,000 troops after British forces laid siege to Charleston, South Carolina. Then Clinton insulted Lincoln by not allowing the Americans to surrender with honor by displaying their colors and playing a song to honor the British. General Lincoln was then exchanged for another prisoner, and by the time of the Yorktown siege he was Washington’s second-in-command on the battlefield.


The British agreed to the Washington’s surrender terms, but then Cornwallis refused to meet Washington in public to finalize the surrender. Claiming he was ill, Cornwallis sent the Irish General, Charles O’Hara, with Cornwallis’s sword. The British-German forces were denied the same surrender honors as Lincoln’s forces had experienced in Charleston.


At the end of the surrender march, General O’Hara offered the sword to Washington, who turned to Lincoln and instructed Lincoln to receive O’Hara’s sword and supervise the surrender of arms.


The Treaty of Paris in September 1783 officially ended hostilities between the Americans and the British.  The American government had operated under the Articles of Confederation during the conflict and would do so until the Constitution was ratified in June 1788.


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