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A Picture from History: The Battle of Yorktown

We’ve learned about Lexington and Concord...but what about the final battle of the Revolutionary War that secured American independence.

We’ve all learned the 1775 story of Lexington and Concord and how the American Revolution began.

But the average American probably knows rather little about the final battle of the Revolutionary War that secured American independence — the 1781 Siege of Yorktown.

Storming of redoubt#10 during the Siege of Yorktown by H. Charles McBarron, Jr.
Siege of Yorktown by H. Charles McBarron, Jr.

Franco-American Alliance

Because French forces played an important role in Yorktown, the Franco-American alliance needs to be mentioned. As early as 1776, France provided the Americans with guns and ammo. The alliance was later solidified with the 1778 Treaty of Alliance.

From that point, France’s military and treasury backed American independence. Especially important for the Americans were the 4-pounder de Valliere cannons used in several key battles.

Canon de 24 de Vallière
Canon de 24 de Vallière (Photo: PHGCOM)

By July 1780, French General Rochambeau landed troops in Rhode Island to support George Washington’s Continental Army. 

In 1781, Washington and Rochambeau disagreed over whether they should liberate New York or move to engage the British in Virginia.

Plan of the Battle of Yorktown
Plan of the Battle of Yorktown (S. G. Goodrich)

With news of a French fleet arriving in the Chesapeake Bay, the men agreed they would move into Virginia.

Along the way, a misinformation campaign deceived the British into thinking they were planning a siege of New York. 

Washington & Troops Head to Virginia

In August 1781, Washington and Rochambeau led an army of 4,000 French and 3,000 Americans on a 680-mile march from Rhode Island to Virginia. The combined army swelled to over 15,000 men as more joined along the march.

Official National Park Service map of the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route
Official National Park Service map of the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route

As the French fleet defeated the British navy in the Battle of the Chesapeake, Gen. Cornwallis and his redcoats in Virginia could not escape by sea or receive reinforcements.

More French soldiers disembarked from the ships and surrounded the British-held port at Yorktown with nearly 20,000 men.

The British were not completely unprepared, though. They constructed a series of redoubts — small fortified outposts — around the town.

Bataille de Yorktown by Auguste Couder
Bataille de Yorktown by Auguste Couder

Battle of Yorktown

But on September 29th, the Franco-American forces advanced on the defenses under artillery fire. Vastly outnumbered, the 9,000 British defenders abandoned most of their redoubts to strengthen positions in town.

The French and Americans captured all but three British redoubts and used them to build siege positions for their own artillery.

By October 9th, the Franco-American army began a heavy bombardment from their freshly built trench lines. Washington ordered the cannons to fire all night, denying the British a chance to rebuild. 

On October 14th, Washington launched an assault on the two remaining British redoubts. The soldiers advanced in silence, using axes to hack through defenses, and only fired after they were fired upon.

American storming of redoubt #10 during the Siege of Yorktown Eugène Lami
American storming of redoubt #10 during the Siege of Yorktown by Eugène Lami

The redoubts were quickly taken, and the bombardment of Yorktown intensified as more cannons arrived. Cornwallis attempted to evacuate across the York River, but bad weather prevented escape.

Surrender

On the morning of October 17th, an officer waving a white flag emerged from Yorktown. The British tried to surrender to Rochambeau, but he refused and sent them along to Gen. Washington.

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull

When the surrender was finalized, the Americans captured 8,000 men, hundreds of artillery pieces, thousands of muskets, and 24 ships.

Although peace was not signed for another two years, Yorktown was the final major battle of the Revolutionary War. 

This is a new style of article for Pew Pew Tactical, if you liked it — let us know in the comments! If you didn’t enjoy it…well phooey. To catch up on previous Pictures from History, click on over to our History Category.

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10 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar
    JT

    Good but given the recent resurgence of Alexander Hamilton in pop culture, I’m surprised that you left his contribution out

    November 1, 2022 8:19 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Robert McDevitt Jr

    Nice summary, especially helpful are the maps. Please continue!

    October 31, 2022 5:17 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Nich718

    Great article! Keep them coming.

    October 31, 2022 1:02 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    motomike

    Now we gotta go fight tyranny once again in a week. GO VOTE

    October 30, 2022 8:13 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Kurtis Hughes

    OUTSTANDING !! Well done Gentlemen (and Ladies, if there were any involved. LOL) Well done....
    Another great History lesson.

    October 30, 2022 6:22 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Ross Clemons’s

    Excellent article on Yorktown - thank you!

    October 30, 2022 5:56 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Dominic Borres

    Thank you Matt for the history lesson and providing important details of the battles leading to the Siege of Yorktown. Another historical proof that coastal fortifications can turn against the defender if the rear is not successfully protected.

    October 30, 2022 5:41 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Marty Akers

    Great article. Taught me things I didn’t know about Yorktown. Keep it up and do more!

    October 30, 2022 5:04 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Robert Hunt

    Clear, concise, cogent. Thank you!

    October 30, 2022 3:12 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Chuck Cochran

    I went to public school in the 60's and 70's, and History textbooks at that time did very little to emphasize the importance of the Franco-American Alliance. It wasn't until I began studying on my own, that I came to realize the importance of that alliance. Without France's help, the Revolution would have had a very different outcome.
    As very little history is taught in Public Schools today, I work at home with my Grandchildren to correct that lapse in their education.

    October 30, 2022 2:34 pm
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