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US History E-Text > The Revolution: Frontier, Ocean, and South > Yorktown

On reaching Wilmington, North Carolina, Cornwallis did not go southward and begin a reconquest of the state he had lost; be proceeded, without orders from Clinton, into Virginia, in the hope of conquering that state, and in the belief that if he did so the Carolinas would easily fall again into his possession. Lafayette, with a thousand men, had come down from the North to join Steuben and watch Arnold and Phillips, while Wayne, with an equal number, was moving south from Pennsylvania. With great skill the young French marquis, with an inferior army, held the enemy in check for a month, when he was joined by Wayne. Cornwallis arrived on May 20. Arnold was sent back to New York, and Phillips died of fever. Then began a long series of maneuvers, marches, and countermarehes, Lafayette harassing the enemy in every way, but avoiding an engagement. The British general expected to make a brilliant stroke. "The boy cannot escape me," said he; but the boy had been schooled under Washington for four years, and no strategy of Cornwallis could entrap him. In one of Tarleton's raids Governor Jefferson was barely able to escape from his house at Monticello before it was surrounded by cavalry. Lafayette's army steadily increased. Early in August Cornwallis moved down the York River and occupied Yorktown, while the marquis stationed his army at Malvern Hill; and here they remained until the inaugurating of a great and unexpected movement that was to end the campaign and the war.

For three years, since the battle of Monmouth, Washington had held his army as a watchdog, guarding the great valley of the Hudson, while Clinton, in the city of New York, was ever threatening to invade it. Washington longed to attack the enemy in his stronghold, and would have done so during Clinton's brief absence in the South, but for the fact that he had weakened his own army by sending troops southward. During the spring of 1781 this scheme of attacking the city was revived. Count Rochambeau had arrived in Rhode Island the year before with six thousand French troops, and now, after nearly a year of enforced idleness, this army was to be joined to that of Washington for a combined attack. The two cornmanders conferred with this end in view, when suddenly the news reached them that Count de Grasse, with a powerful French fleet of twenty-eight ships of the line and six frigates, bearing twenty thousand men, was about to sail from the West Indies to Chesapeake Bay. The whole plan was at once changed. Washington determined to take a French-American army to Virginia, and to endeavor with the support of the fleet to capture the British army.

So necessary was it to deceive Clinton that Washington and Rochambeau kept their plan secret even from their officers until secrecy was no longer possible. Leaving General Heath with four thousand men to guard the Hudson, they crossed that river with four thousand Frenchmen and two thousand Americans on the 19th of August. Moving down the Jersey shore, they made a feint on Staten Island and led Clinton to believe that the intention was to attack it; but suddenly the army wheeled to the west, and it almost reached the Delaware before the object of the expedition was known. By the time the army reached Philadelphia it was generally known that the aim was to capture Cornwallis, and the rejoicing of the people of the city was loud and long. While en route to the South, Washington made a flying visit to his home at Mt. Vernon, which he had not seen for six years.

Meantime De Grasse reached the mouth of the York River and sent four thousand men ashore to augment the army of Lafayette. The British also had a powerful fleet in the West Indies, under the command of Admiral Rodney, a very able man; but Rodney returned to England, owing to sickness, and sent the fleet northward under Admiral Hood. Reaching Sandy Hook, Hood joined his fleet to that of Admiral Graves, and the two sailed for the Chesapeake to meet De Grasse. An action took place on September 5 in which several of the English vessels were so damaged that Graves and Hood sailed to New York for repairs and left De Grasse complete master in the Chesapeake. This was a matter of vital importance to Washington, as it prevented the escape of Cornwallis by sea. His only escape lay in a retreat upon North Carolina, but this was prevented by Lafayette, who lay across the peninsula with eight thousand men. Clinton, hearing of Washington's departure for the South, was deeply perplexed. In the hope of luring Washington back, he sent Arnold to harass the coast of Connecticut, but the traitor was driven away by the swarming minute men.

The allied armies reached the vicinity of Yorktown late in August. The approaches were made by means of parallel trenches, the first of which was completed on October 6, when the bombardment of the city began. Side by side labored the French chasseurs and the American continentals and militia, tightening the coils about the imprisoned British army. On the river bank below the town were two strong redoubts. One of these was captured by Baron de Vioménil, and the other by the youthful Alexander Hamilton, who was destined yet to play a great part in American history. Day by day the British works crumbled beneath the incessant fire of the allied cannon, and on the 17th of October, four years to a day after the surrender of Burgoyne, the white flag was seen waving above the parapet at Yorktown. The cannonade ceased and the surrender was effected two days later, the terms being exactly those accorded to Lincoln at Charleston. And it was Lincoln who was now sent to receive the sword of Cornwallis, who, playing sick, sent it by the hand of General O'Hara. The British arms were soon attacked, and the entire army of more than eight thousand men, including a few hundred seamen, became prisoners of war.

Everybody knew, on both of the Atlantic, that this master stroke had ended the war and that America had won. Clinton held New York for two years longer; but hostilities had ceased, and he only waited for peace to be arranged by treaty.1 The rejoicing over the surrender of Cornwallis was unbounded throughout America. The news reached Philadelphia in the early morning hours of the 24th, and the German watchman, continuing his rounds, added to his. "Basht dree o'glock," the further information, "und Gorn-val-lis ist da-ken."2 Wild scenes of rejoicing greeted the coming day, and Congress repaired to the Lutheran Church to thank God for the deliverance. When the news reached Paris the victory was celebrated with a brilliant illumination of the city. Even in England many of the anti-war party rejoiced; but Lord North, on hearing the news, paced the floor of his room, threw his arms wildly about, and repeated again and again, "0 God, it is all over, it is all over."

It was not until April 19, 1783, exactly eight years after Lexington, that Washington proclaimed the war at an end, and discharged the army. Some time later he took impressive leave of his officers and retired to his Mt. Vernon home, a private citizen.

The very important business of concluding a treaty of peace was now in progress. The treaty was arranged in Paris, and the American commissioners were Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams. Franklin was already in Paris, Jay was at Madrid, and Adams was in Holland trying to place a loan. American independence was a foregone conclusion, and every country in Europe was pleased with this outcome, except Spain, which foresaw that the United States as an independent power would become a menace to her American possessions. The North ministry had fallen, and the Marquis of Rockingham was now premier, with Shelburne and Charles James Fox as members of his Cabinet. All of these had been the friends of America from the beginning. In July, 1782, Rockingham died, and Shelburne, succeeding him as premier, became the one who, through his agents, treated with the Americans. Our commissioners had been instructed not to deal separately with England without the consent of France, and by these instructions Franklin was ready to abide. But Jay discovered, or thought he discovered, that the French minister, Vergennes, had proposed secretly to England that the United States be deprived of all the region between the Alleghany Mountains and the Mississippi River in the interests of Spain, and also that American fishermen be prohibited from Canadian waters, and he offered to treat with England secretly without the consent of France.

The proposition was gladly accepted by Shelburne. Franklin did not approve of Jay's course, but Adams, arriving from Holland about this time, sided with Jay, and Franklin yielded. They therefore arranged with Shelburne a preliminary treaty, whioh was signed November 30, 1782, while the definitive treaty was not signed until the 3d of September, 1783, the long delay being caused by the European situation.

By the treaty the independence of the United States was acknowledged, and the boundaries were Florida on the south, the Mississippi on the west, and the southern boundary of Canada on the north. The northern boundary could not be absolutely fixed, owing to imperfect geographical knowledge. This was done sixty years later, and a child born among the New Hampshire hills the same year that marked the signing of the preliminary treaty became the American agent in completing this work that was left unfinished.

The Mississippi was left open to both American and British shipping; the right of the Americans to fish on the coast of Newfoundland and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was continued, while British subjects were not granted fishing rights on the coasts of the United States. The other two questions to be disposed of were those relating to the loyalists and to the payment of private debts to British subjects, contracted by Americans before the war. Of these the former is the subject of a note at the end of this chapter; the latter was decided in the only right way to decide such a question -- every debt must be paid to its full extent in sterling money.

The treaty on the whole was a great diplomatic victory for the United States. As Mr. Lecky says, nothing that we could reasonably have expected was denied us. Aside from independence, the one abiding triumph of incalculable importance was the securing the Mississippi, instead of the Alleghanies, as the western boundary of the United States. Of scarcely greater importance was the purchase of Louisiana, twenty years later, than was this first step toward the expansion of the new republic to the western ocean.


1Soon after the surrender Washington returned to the Hudson Valley. The French army embarked for France in December. Guerrilla warfare continued in parts of the South and on the frontier for some time, but Yorktown ended hostilities between the regular armies. [return]

2Fiske, Vol. II, p. 285. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XIV p. 309-313. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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