The Battle of Yorktown

October 6-19, 1781

The Battle of Yorktown is important because it was the last battle of the Revolutionary war. Yorktown, now Williamsburg, Virginia, is a river port near the Chesapeake Bay.

The Battle of Guilford Court House took place on March 15, 1781. Even though neither the British nor the Patriots won this battle, the British troops were worn out and they were forced to retreat. British General Charles Cornwallis moved his troops to to the coast of North Carolina. British General Henry Clinton ordered him to stay in the Carolinas and support the British troops there.

General Cornwallis decided not to remain in the Carolinas and instead moved his troops to Yorktown, Virginia. There he took over the command from Loyalist General Benedict Arnold. Here the British troops were low on reinforcements and supplies, and were waiting for more to come from New York City.

At the same time, General Washington was planning to attack New York with the help of the French, who had been convinced by Benjamin Franklin to join the Patriots. Because the British knew the Patriots' plan to attack New York, they did not send reinforcements to General Cornwallis in Yorktown. Actually, General Cornwallis was ordered to bring all his men to New York, but again he did not obey orders. Instead, all 7,500 of his men stayed in Yorktown.

There was a major naval battle at Chesapeake Bay, Maryland between the French protecting the Patriots and the British in September. The British were badly beaten and retreated to New York.

On October 6, 1781, with the help of the French, the Continental Army attacked General Cornwallis and his men at Yorktown. All together the French and the colonists were over 16,000 men.

Finally, on October 17th the British sent a fleet from New York to help General Cornwallis and his men, but by that time it was too late. The British were outnumbered and had hardly any food. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton had delivered a letter from General Washington to General Cornwallis. Washington wrote that he wanted to stop the "useless effusion of blood." On the same day the British fleet left New York, General Cornwallis realized there was no hope for his army and sent this answer to General Washington's letter:

York in Virginia,
17th October 1781,
1/2 PAST 4 P.M.


I have this moment been honoured with your Excellency's letter dated this day.

The time limited for sending my answer will not admit of entering into the detail of Articles, but the basis of my proposals will be that the Garrisons of York and Gloucester shall be prisoners of War with the customary honours, and for the convenience of the individuals which I have the honour to command, that the British shall be sent to Britain and the Germans to Germany, under engagement not to serve against France, America or their Allies untill released or regularly exchanged, that all Arms and publick stores shall be delivered up to you, but that the usual indulgence of side arms to Officers and of retaining private property shall be granted to Officers & Soldiers, and that the interests of several individuals in Civil Capacities & connected with us, shall be attended to. If Your Excellency thinks that a continuance of the suspension of hostilities will be necessary to transmit your answer I shall have no objection to the hour that you propose. I have the honor to be

Your most obedient & most humble servant,



On October 19, 1781, General Cornwallis and his 7,157 men officially surrendered to General Washington. No one knew at the time, but this was the last battle of the War. There were still some minor fights in the south where there were lots of Loyalists (colonists who remained loyal to King George III) and there were other battles on the Atlantic Ocean near England.

In April 1782, the British House of Commons voted to end the war.

Read Ebenezer Denny's journal entry about the surrender of the British.