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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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