Battle of Yorktown: Newborn America

Washington plans a siege of Yorktown

Protracted war

The American War of Independence proceeded within the framework and canons of the 18th century. The British had a generally unfriendly (and large) territory. And a relatively “compact” ground, but tactically professional contingent. The large empire of the troops was not to attack. The era of huge armies, although it was close, had not yet arrived.

Tactical skill (discipline, drill, finely tuned army system as a whole) was compensated by strategic incompetence. It was difficult to reproach the British for this. Until now, they dealt either with the same compact professional armies of the great powers or with feudal territories that easily succumbed to the tried and tested “divide and rule”, or in general with outright savages.

In America, however, they faced a modern nation that had reached a high level of ideological consolidation. Therefore, no matter how the British did not defeat the American armies, others came to their place. At the same time, the Americans, although they were inferior to the professional army of the empire, were, plus or minus, at the same technological and social level. And whipping boys weren’t.

As a result, the British did not just feel themselves all the time on a foreign hostile land. They still could not put themselves in order because all the time they could be attacked by the modern troops of 13 colonies, organized according to the European model.

But by 1781, that was only half of the problem.

French factor

By this time, both the Americans and the British were pretty tired of the war raging since 1775. But a few years ago, the French also joined the fighting parties, seeking revenge on Britain for the Seven Years War. And in general, to spoil the British – this, in any case, was a holy cause.

If the British hadn’t come up with something clever urgently, the war would have ended in defeat sooner or later.

In the beginning, this “smart” was an attempt to enlist the support of loyalists from the southern colonies. The British sent serious contingents there – to support the “friends”, and with their help put the South under firm control, in order to then go to the centers of the rebellion in the north. But it did not work out – the Americans were active in the region, and at the same time, although they were beaten several times, they did not let themselves be completely destroyed. Loyalists never had to become an influential force – they were actively slaughtered by local patriots, thus leveling this potential problem.

Initially, the British tried to gain a foothold in both Carolines. But, having failed for the above reasons, they rolled back to Virginia. Frustrated by the frustration of hopes, the British were at a loss for what to do. Then, sitting in occupied New York, General Clinton ordered the commander of the British ground forces in the south, Charles Cornwallis, to establish a naval base in the Chesapeake Bay.

Cornwallis chose as such the town of Yorktown, located on the York River – the place was quite convenient. Even if the British could not control the land. But at least they will strengthen their traditional fiefdom – the sea. On August 2, British forces began to land in the cities.

True, in the event that serious enemy forces appeared on this very sea, the newly organized base could become no more than a big trap for the 9,000-strong army of Cornwallis.


For a time, British naval superiority in American waters was overwhelming. But back in March 1781, a large fleet left the French Brest under the command of Admiral de Grasse. He went to the 13 colonies of the West Indies relatively not far from the coast – for the French there were many tidbits that could be taken away.

As for the American-French ground forces, their commanders Washington and de Rochambeau in July tried to capture New York, which was in British hands. Unsuccessfully. Then the thoughts of the commanders turned to Cornwallis, who was sitting in the south – if they had smashed him, the British would have found themselves in a serious minority and without distinct prospects. This could very well end the war.

Naval battle in the Chesapeake Bay

Fortunately, in mid-August, Washington learned that de Grasse’s fleet was returning from the West Indies.

In early September, a battle took place in the Chesapeake between the English and French fleets. It ended, from a tactical point of view, with nothing – the main striking force of both sides was retained, although “on points” there was a slight superiority of the French. Which was logical – their fleet was palpable, although not critical, more.

But in a strategic sense, the French broke the bank – the British commander Thomas Graves was not defeated, but returned to New York. This meant that Cornwallis in Yorktown was now deprived of the possibility of retreat by sea – it was blocked by French ships.


The troops of Washington and de Rochambeau marched from Williamsburg, Virginia on 28 September. The combined forces numbered about 16 thousand people. Quite enough to defeat Cornwallis, blocked from the sea and cut off from supplies.

Sophisticated by the experience of the war with the British, taught by the battles with the dashing dragoons of Tarleton, the Americans evenly distributed the artillery on the march. All so that, in the event of a surprise attack, the column could immediately join the battle. Everyone understood that a cornered rat would fight much more desperately.

Battle of Yorktown: Newborn America
The siege of Yorktown

But Cornwallis did not throw out any tricks, but was engaged in the construction of defensive positions around Yorktown. The answer was simple – the British commander was waiting for reinforcements from New York.

In the meantime, he was preparing to hold on – he sank small ships, blocking the fairways leading to the places of convenient landing. He built redoubts. And he gave orders to slaughter the horses – supplies were already running out.

And the Franco-Americans began a correct siege according to all the canons of the 18th century. They dug parallels of trenches, rolled out the cannons, and at night brought glanders closer and closer to the positions of the British. The first parallel began to be dug on October 6 – and on the 9th the besiegers concentrated their artillery and opened fire on Yorkatun.

A few days later, the British closed almost all the embrasures – realizing that they would not win an artillery duel anyway. But the people of Cornwallis took their toll at night, when the enemy could not really aim, and hit exactly the guns.

On October 11, the allies pushed the glanders far enough to lay the second parallel – about 250 meters remained from it to the enemy. The Americans and the French had not yet had time to put forward artillery, but were already forced to occupy the parallel with people. And the British used this moment to the fullest – the gunners were ordered not to spare ammunition. True, the night later, the Allies pulled up the artillery closer, and Cornwallis again went into deep defense.

Three days later, the French and Americans began to attack the British redoubts at night and took possession of two of them. The British responded with a daring night raid, during which they managed to disable 6 guns. But fundamentally, this did not change anything.

Last chance and surrender

Things were slowly but surely going to the point that Cornwallis would still be squeezed out. And he decided to use the last chance. The plan was simple – at night to transfer the army to the other side of the river, where the English-controlled town of Gloucester was located. In the waters of York, nothing threatened him – the ships of de Grasse did not enter the river, being collected in a single fist in case of the return of the Graves fleet.

If successful, where the minimum forces of the allies were concentrated, it was possible to try to break through. But Cornwallis was prepared for another – the weather failed. A strong wind rose and a downpour fell. When they ended, dawn came. It was too late to rush about.

The capture of the British redoubt

Then Cornwallis, realizing that there would be no reinforcements, sent envoys to discuss his surrender. And on October 19, the British laid down their arms.

The siege of Yorkathun did not end the war immediately – the British still had significant forces in the colonies. But against the background of the still fresh French and the Americans who gained a second wind after a resounding victory, this was not enough. There was only one way out – to send more troops. But parliament was already fed up with an unsuccessful war – the more time passed, the greater part of the British elite was inclined to leave the 13 colonies alone.

Ahead were political disputes, diplomatic trade in Paris, the signing of a peace treaty. The fate of the future United States was not yet clear. They could either become a reality for centuries, or turn out to be a one-day state – the Americans had enough internal problems and contradictions. But one thing was clear – the country was more or less formed, and, fused in the fire of battles for independence, gathered into a single whole – at least for a while.

How newborn America would seize its historic chance now depended on her alone.

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