The Battle of Yorktown

Devon Denomme, Alexandra Lutz
  • Author
    Devon Denomme

    Devon has tutored for almost two years. They have a Bachelor's in Air Traffic Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and minored in Aviation Safety and Homeland Security. They also are AT-CTI certified.

  • Instructor
    Alexandra Lutz

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

What was the Battle of Yorktown? Learn about the Siege of Yorktown and the British surrender at Yorktown along with the aftermath of the battle and Yorktown's legacy. Updated: 07/08/2021

Table of Contents


What Was the Battle of Yorktown?

The Battle of Yorktown, also known as the Siege of Yorktown, was the final decisive victory by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The siege involved the routing and entrapment of British General Charles Cornwallis and his troops by the American forces, which were led by General George Washington. Upon their surrender, it was clear that the British had been defeated in the war, and a treaty was signed shortly thereafter, granting the United States its independence from the British Empire.

Context of the Battle of Yorktown

Lord Charles Cornwallis commanded the British troops in the south during the Revolutionary War. In fall of 1781, his troops occupied Yorktown as they waited for more supplies, ammunition, and troops from England.

Battle of Yorktown summary

The American Revolution began in 1775 with the Battles of Lexington and Concord, following years of what American colonists saw as oppressive rule by the British. The American colonists sought to break away from the mother-country and unite their freedoms under a new nation. The war was bitter and often left troops on both sides fighting for survival both during skirmishes and while moving from battle to battle.

By 1781, the war had dragged on for 6 long years. Both sides were feeling the effects of low morale and wanted the war to end desperately. Britain had the added burden of being at war with both France and Spain in Europe at the same time, as they had declared war on Britain and allied together. King George of Britain was unable to send additional troops not only because the British military was stretched too thin, but also for another reason: Neither Parliament nor the English people supported sending more troops to fight in an American war.

By the spring of 1781, General Washington knew that he needed to act quickly to secure a final American victory. With naval assistance guaranteed by the French, who had allied with the Continental American Army, Washington decided to stage an attack on the British-controlled port of Yorktown. If the Americans gained control of this port, they would divide the British troops and entrap the commanding officer of the British southern efforts, Lord Cornwallis. Cornwallis was currently holding his troops in the city to be resupplied and receive additional support from the British navy. This was a strategic location for the British because they also planned to attack American supplies, disrupt American communications, and make a quick escape from the city if needed. Unfortunately for Cornwallis, French naval forces defeated the incoming support during the Battle of the Capes, also known as the Battle of the Chesapeake. The British were trapped in Yorktown, only being able to leave on foot, setting up Washington and his troops for a decisive outcome.

The largest troop movement of the American Revolution took place in late summer of 1781. General Washington ordered the majority of his troops to march from their headquarters in New York to the city of Yorktown, Virginia without delay. With the stage set for a battle and British naval forces deterred by American allies, the Siege of Yorktown was ready to begin.

When was the Siege of Yorktown?

The Siege of Yorktown began on September 28, 1781, when American forces arrived in the vicinity of Yorktown. The battle lasted 22 days in total, with fighting occurring for the majority of that time. On October 17, 1781, the British officially surrendered to American forces after 20 days of constant bombardment. Two days later, on October 19, British forces slowly left the city, flanked by American forces on both sides. This was the final major battle of the American Revolution and led to the signing of a peace treaty between the nations in 1783.

Where was the Battle of Yorktown?

The Battle of Yorktown took place in the port city of Yorktown, Virginia, which lays along the York River near the Chesapeake Bay.

where was the battle of yorktown

The Battle of Yorktown took place in and around Yorktown, Virginia. The city was a strategic location along the York River, which fed into the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Yorktown was a crucial point to have control over, because it meant that whichever faction held control was able to readily resupply and receive additional support from other areas of the country (America) or from back home (Britain). The city was heavily garrisoned and very defensive towards incoming attacks. The British had constructed 10 small forts around the city to retain control over it. As a result, the area around the city became heavily entrenched so that American troops were able to get close enough to attack the enemy forces occupying the settlement. By the end of the siege, most of the trenches surrounding the city were dug per order of General Washington.

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  • 0:10 The Last Year of the War
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  • 2:10 The Seige of Yorktown
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Battle of Yorktown Summary

What happened at the Battle of Yorktown? The following timeline will discuss the important events leading up to and during the 22-day siege:

Early Fall 1781
General Cornwallis and 9,000 British troops take control of the port city of Yorktown, awaiting more supplies and troops from England. Meanwhile, General George Washington, assisted by Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau and his force of 4,500 French soldiers, devise a plan to retake the city. Washington ordered his troops to begin marching towards the city from New York, a total force of about 19,000 soldiers.
September 5, 1781
French naval forces in partnership with Washington, commanded by Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, defeat the British navy at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay during the Battle of the Capes. This action denies the British an additional 8,000 troops and supplies that would allow them to hold the city for months longer. American and French forces on land continue their march to Virginia, receiving further support and movement command from French commander Marquis de Lafayette.
September 28, 1781
American and French forces arrive near Yorktown and begin constructing trenches around the city by order of Gen. Washington. These would allow American and French troops to get within range of attack on British fortifications. The British are caught off guard and use their limited supply of remaining artillery to discourage the Americans, but fail when they run out of supplies.
October 9, 1781
American forces begin to bombard the British within Yorktown, as they now are within musket range. The siege lasts one week.
October 14, 1781
American and French forces coordinate a surprise attack on two of the 10 British forts around the city and gain control of them.
October 15, 1781
General Cornwallis orders a counterattack against American and French forces, but fails due to lack of supplies.
October 17, 1781
A British drummer boy advances alone on American forces, bearing a sword with a white handkerchief tied to it. This signifies the surrender of British forces. Fighting ceases.
October 19, 1781
The British forces request an honorable surrender, which is denied to them by General Washington. Over 7,000 British forces march between gatherings of French and American soldiers on both sides of the road out of Yorktown, defeated.

Who Won the Battle of Yorktown?

The British surrender at the Siege of Yorktown marked the end of the battle. The onslaught lasted 22 days, concluding on October 19, 1781.

Who won the Battle of Yorktown

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was the purpose of the Battle of Yorktown?

The Battle of Yorktown was George Washington's plan for a final victory over the British that would weaken them enough to signify the end of the American Revolution.

Why did the siege of Yorktown happen?

The Siege of Yorktown was George Washington's risky final attempt to end the war quickly. The Revolution had dragged on for 6 years by 1871 and both sides wanted an end to the war. Reclaiming Yorktown for the American colonists would prove to be a harsh blow against the British, so Washington decided to move his forces there and trap the British soldiers within, who were waiting for a resupply of rations, ammunition, and soldiers.

Why was the Battle of Yorktown so important?

The Battle of Yorktown was the final decisive victory for the American colonists in the Revolutionary War. By defeating one of the highest ranking British officers and his troops and taking control of the port of Yorktown, the colonists shows that they were capable of defeating the largest power in the world at the time and deserved to gain their independence.

Who won the battle of Yorktown and how?

The Battle of Yorktown was won by the American Colonial Army and their French allies. General George Washington, in a bold and risky move, marched most of his troops to Yorktown, which was being held by the British. After 22 days of siege, the British surrendered because they were low on supplies, which had been denied to them by the French at the Battle of the Chesapeake.

What were the major events of the Battle of Yorktown?

The siege began on September 28, 1781, when Washington's forces arrived in the area. They dug trenches around the city to get within firing range of the British forces, who were caught off guard. The Americans and their French allies bombarded Yorktown heavily on October 9 and claimed 2 of the 10 British fortifications around the city on October 14. On October 17, after over a week of siege, the British sent forth a drummer bearing a while flag on the end of a sword, marking their surrender. The official surrender came on October 19; the siege ended when British troops marched out of the city.

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