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The Battle of Yorktown and the Treaty of Paris

  • 0:10 The Last Year of the War
  • 1:16 Converging on Yorktown
  • 2:10 The Seige of Yorktown
  • 3:30 The Treaty of Paris
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

After the unsuccessful Southern Strategy, General Cornwallis pulled his army up to Yorktown, Virginia. A combined effort by the armies and navies of America and France resulted in British surrender and the 1783 Treaty of Paris that recognized the United States of America.

The Last Year of the War

General Cornwallis moved troops into Yorktown as part of his plan of attack
General Cornwallis Yorktown

Late in the American Revolution, George Washington had good reason to be hopeful. Despite Britain's Southern Strategy, American troops were making headway against the British army and their loyalist forces. Foreign navies were fighting the British at sea, and French officers, like the Marquis de Lafayette, were also helping on land. While the morale of the Continental armies and navies were on the rise, British troops became disheartened, and the English population was starting to grumble about another expensive, seemingly endless war.

In an attempt to disrupt the American troops in the south, General Charles Cornwallis had moved his army into Yorktown, Virginia at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. From there, he planned to attack the American supply and communication lines. And in the event that things went poorly, he figured he had a quick escape by sea.

Lafayette had been covertly following Cornwallis' actions and quietly gathering reinforcements throughout the summer, preparing for a coordinated attack. The Americans needed to stop Cornwallis before he received a supply shipment and reinforcements from England, but this would also have to be a surprise attack, so they could surround him before he escaped.

Converging on Yorktown

In mid-August 1781, the Continental Army received a message from across the sea. The French fleet was leaving the West Indies and heading to Yorktown. They would arrive within a month. The French army moved down from Rhode Island to join the American forces right under the nose of the redcoats. Moving thousands of men and animals secretly for several hundred miles would be a challenge today, but without the modern conveniences of roads or bridges, it seems impossible.

British and French ships fought during the Battle of the Chesapeake
Battle of the Chesapeake Picture

To try and slip away without being noticed, Washington established a decoy force, suggesting to the British that he was planning to attack their base in New York City. About two weeks later, the British commander-in-chief learned from a scout that the Americans were past Philadelphia. He desperately tried to get word to General Cornwallis. But by September 5, Cornwallis didn't need anyone to tell him he was in trouble. The French navy had arrived.

The Siege of Yorktown

A British fleet from New York was dispatched and the two rivals clashed at sea in the Battle of the Chesapeake. On September 16, the British attack fleet retreated to New York with their tails between their legs, leaving General Cornwallis pinned against the bay with France at his back and the combined army approaching from the front. At least 7,000 land forces arrived on September 28, joined by more than 3,000 French marines. The British army was surrounded.

The Battle of Yorktown was really a three-week siege. French and American cannons began to fire on British defensive positions without stopping in order to prevent the British from making any repairs. The allies captured the redoubts and turned the guns back on the British. As the allies drew closer to the town, Cornwallis began sinking his own ships in the harbor to keep them from being captured. After a failed attempt to escape, General Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781.

The American Revolution ended after the surrender at Yorktown
Surrender at Yorktown

Back in England, King George insisted he could send more troops and win the war, but he didn't have any support in Parliament or among the English people. The surrender at Yorktown marked the end of the American Revolution. However, it would be two more years before the various navies resolved their fights overseas, British troops evacuated the United States and a peace treaty was signed.

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