Yorktown is a small but significant town near the Chesapeake Bay in Eastern Virginia. This area, known as the Historic Triangle, encompasses Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown, Virginia and all their historical glory. It is home to many relics as well as small businesses and history lovers keen on keeping the history of this small town alive. For approximately three weeks in September and October of 1781, the US Continental Army fought tirelessly to gain the upper hand on the British Troops led by General Cornwallis. The Battle of Yorktown would become the pivotal point to winning the Revolutionary War against the British.
Battle of Yorktown: The British Underestimate General Washington
In the fall of 1781, the US was deeply involved in the Revolutionary War against England. Along with French forces, General Washington’s troops placed their focus on the area of Yorktown on the Chesapeake in Virginia. With access to the Atlantic Ocean as well as easy passage to the North or South, the British were certain that it would be a good place to conquer and establish a naval port.
With shorelines accessible to the Atlantic Ocean, additional British troops, supplies, and artillery could be transported easily from New York and Boston as needed. British General Cornwallis had his men set up redoubts, or forts, around the perimeter of Yorktown with trenches and cannons, as well as utilizing ravines and creeks to complete his defensive lines.
What Gen. Cornwallis didn’t realize was that the size of the French and American forces far outnumbered his British fleet. The American colonies had begun incorporating free Black men as part of their enlistments, and ironically, eventually enslaved people were also allowed to partake in the fight for freedom. Additionally, Cornwallis far underestimated the French support the Americans received as well, assuming they would tire of the fight and go home before the battle was over.
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What occurred was something much more detailed and disciplined from a group of soldiers with very little to no training. Guided by French allied forces, the American troops set up their own camp and positioned themselves strategically on the outskirts of Yorktown, effectively fencing in the British troops. Along with the French naval fleet creating a blockage in the Chesapeake Bay, the British began to falter, and some even deserted. The promised British ships coming to port from New York never arrived. The back-and-forth battles started to create the fall of the British in Yorktown, as they had fewer men and supplies to keep up their efforts. Deserters of the British army even provided information to the American camp, telling stories of Cornwallis’s army being sickly, with over 2,000 men hospitalized, as well as little ground to live on and not enough food for their horses.
Washington & French Allies Gain the Higher Ground
General George Washington, commander of the army of the colonies during the Revolution, is likely one of the most well-known historical personas in the United States. His brilliant tactical moves leading up to the siege of Yorktown, coupled with his French ally, the Marquis De Lafayette’s forces blockading and surreptitiously caging in the British forces, turned the entire tide of war in favor of the Americans. He recognized the importance of Yorktown as a higher ground looking out over the harbor.
Having his headquarters based near the battlefield in Yorktown was another significant decision that allowed Washington to gain the upper hand, as he could maintain the cover of deceiving his British enemies in New York and still be on location to manage the ensuing siege planned for Cornwallis’s army in Yorktown.
This was effectively the beginning of the end for General Cornwallis and his British fleet. The American troops, alongside the French allies and even some Native American forces, had the fortune of a larger troop base and were able to eventually put down the British rebellion in Yorktown. General Washington oversaw the surrender and capitulation of the British army and ultimately dictated the terms of surrender with moderate input from Gen. Cornwallis.
British Surrender Becomes Inevitable
Commissioners were appointed from both sides to begin negotiations which carried into the evening with no formal treaty of surrender accomplished by night’s end. Washington, irked by the delays and assumed preposition of Cornwallis, instructed his commissioners to write up a rough draft of the articles of surrender to be delivered to Cornwallis the very next morning. According to Washington, he “expected to have them signed at 11am and that the garrison would march out at 2pm.” On October 19th, just before noon, the “Articles of Capitulation” were signed “in the trenches of Yorktown.”
While the Battle of Yorktown itself was a massive victory for Washington and the colonies, the war was not over. The Treaty of Paris, officially bringing the war to an end, was not signed for almost two years after the Yorktown surrender by the British. However, the battle itself was the most pivotal and important naval conquest of the entire Revolutionary War. It depleted Britain’s army and finances to the point of surrender.
After the Battle: Yorktown Today
Today, Yorktown is a bustling and beautiful place to visit. Visually, remnants of the war remain, but the town has continued to prosper and grow despite the destruction of two wars. From self-guided walking tours to two different driving tours showcasing the Battlefield, siege lines, and Encampment, the Yorktown Battlefield Center and the Colonial National Historical Park provides places to learn more about the important players in the battle of Yorktown as well as genuine artifacts that were preserved from the battle.
Visitors can stop by the original Nelson House, the renovated Moore House where the surrender negotiations took place, as well as walk along the beautiful waterfront shoreline that was formerly a major port and economic center for tobacco trade in Virginia prior to the Revolutionary War.
Colonial Houses Reconstructed for Tourism
The Thomas Nelson House on Main Street was the home of Thomas Nelson, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence as well as a commander of the Virginia Militia during the Battle of Yorktown. His house was taken over by General Cornwallis upon his entry into Yorktown and transformed into the General’s headquarters. Unfortunately, the house was severely damaged during the American bombardment, so much so that Cornwallis moved out of the structure and into a small sunken grotto at the foot of the Nelson property garden.
After the battle, the house was used as a hospital for sick and wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Some even carved their names and initials into the brick walls near the front door, and you can still see those carvings today. The house even boasts an embedded cannonball, which was added to the exterior in the early 1900s. While not the actual mortar used during the Revolutionary War, its effect illustrates the damage done to houses during the Siege at Yorktown and provides a chilling reminder of just how real the battle was.
In contrast to the Nelson House, the Moore house went through much ownership transfer and sustained significant damage during the Civil War. Its significance as a historical landmark did not go unnoticed by residents of Yorktown and the National Park Service. In 1881 repairs and additions were made as the town prepared for the Centennial Celebration of the Victory at Yorktown. Fifty years later, the National Park Service restored the house to its original colonial appearance using archeology and historical images to aid in the restoration efforts.
You can visit the house during the tourism season, April through October. Self-guided tours allow you to view the upper and lower floors. Some of the furnishings are originally from the Moore Family, although most of the furniture is reproductions. It was never officially noted which room was used to sign the surrender documents, although the Moore family claimed it was the parlor. Thus, the parlor is currently decorated as the signing room.
Yorktown truly has a historical feel. You do not have to go far to see some sort of nod to Revolutionary history. With all the notated spots throughout the Town, you can truly see the historical value that Yorktown holds within the Historic Triangle of Virginia. And if you have a vivid imagination, your visit can be an extraordinary journey back in time. An adventure awaits in Yorktown!
Fleming, T. (2007, October 9). The Perils of Peace: America’s Struggle for Survival After Yorktown (First Edition). Smithsonian.
Ketchum, R. M. (2014, August 26). Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution. Henry Holt and Co.
Philbrick, N. (2018, October 16). In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown (The American Revolution Series) (Illustrated). Viking.