I originally wrote this for Dowdle Folk Art
It was a small stage for a grand event in the history of United States of America. A place of grace, loss, achievement, stratagem, surrender, and victory. All of this in a small field, just outside the town of York in the state of Virginia. Six years since the uprising in Massachusetts and five years since the Founding Fathers had proclaimed a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. Here in Yorktown much of the War of Independence came to its head. In this place, the British General Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the American General George Washington. The Siege at Yorktown is one of the greatest events of the United States’ history.
In Yorktown, George Washington really became the General that we know today. This campaign is what elevated his notoriety and brought about the praise as a leader and victor.
After six years, this once-small band of misfit soldiers made up of local farmers and tradesmen has developed to being an army. They were now an army of strategy with the aid of foreign resources. Relying upon their God they fought for liberty and their families. Utilizing nontraditional, guerrilla style warfare they had lasted through few wins and many defeats. They were upheld by a patient and persistent leader. He knew that if he relied on Providence and strategim they would have a chance to win this war to gain independence from their mother Britain. General George Washington was such a leader.
As we celebrate the 4th of July every year we must realize that 4 years after the signing of that beloved document our country was on the brink of destruction. We would have been diminished to a minimal army and sparse support looking to turn back to the rule of the King. The army was in rags and numbers were few. Without a patient General at the helm, we would likely not have this country we enjoy.
In writing back to his family in Connecticut, Lieutenant Colonel Ebenezer Huntington expressed his frustration by stating the following:
“The rascally stupidity which now prevails in the country at large is beyond all descriptions… Why don’t you reinforce your army, feed them, clothe and pay them? … [Do] not suffer yourselves to be duped into the thought that the French will relieve you and fight your battles… They will not serve week after week without meat, without clothing, and paid in filthy rags.
“I despise my countrymen. I wish I could say I was not born in America. I once gloried in it, but am now ashamed of it … and all this for my cowardly countrymen who flinch at the very time when their exertions are wanted and hold their purse strings as though they would damn the world rather than part with a dollar to their Army.”
Such was the plight of the American war in the late 1770s and into 1780. Support could no longer come from the Congress and it was put upon the states to support the war. Bitter winters, lack of food, declining numbers within the ranks, poor morale, and many that were unfit for duty in either health or apparel. This was the standing of our army that was striving to bring about the freedoms of this nation.
Early on many had come to the call to fight for liberty. Within the first skirmishes in Boston, Connecticut had amassed an army of 6,000 men, which was one-fourth of its military-aged men. The Continental Army was organized and grew in number after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But this honeymoon phase ended and numbers depleted. The Congress could not pay its volunteers and many grew restless. From 1777 until 1779 it looked like the war was lost due to insufficient numbers and funds. In 1779 the French made good on their promise to come to aid. They had sent clothing for support and ships were on their way to the Colonies. This altered America’s approach to this war and brought a newfound hope.
Receiving French Aid
Without the aid of the French, our likelihood of victory would have been slim if not impossible. We needed their aid. It gave us the hope to keep going, it gave us the needed allies on the ground, it gave us the naval support that we did not have as a young country. It was the support of France that provided us the necessities to gain our liberty.
In 1777 after that great victory in Sarasota the French it signed a treaty as an allied with the United States, thus proclaiming that they would come to our aid. But it was not until just prior to this fight in Yorktown three years later that that would occur. After receiving rations from the French they would come to the physical aid of the colonies. On the ground, French Lieutenant General Rochambeau and the French Army arrived in Newport, Rhode Island. They had come to support the rebel cause landing in July 1780. On the sea, they had brought a fleet of the French Navy lead by French Admiral DeGrasse.
With this aid, the chess pieces were in play and now the Colonies were ready for that fateful meeting in Yorktown.
Meeting in Yorktown
While General Washington had been battling the British General, Clinton, on a northern campaign, General Cornwallis was involved in a southern campaign. There he had had victories in Savannah and Charleston. Several skirmishes and guerrilla tactics in South and North Carolina had depleted his troops. To preserve his army he made his way to the coast to have seaborne access. He then held up with 8,000 troops in Yorktown early in 1781. Here he had hoped that he could cut off supply routes and again gain some control over the war by standing between the north and the south. This decision of General Cornwallis would lead to his fateful demise and the eventual loss of the war.
Through much of the war, General Washington had felt that victory in New York was crucial to American success. Seeing an opportunity he abandoned his post in the northern campaign to head swiftly to Yorktown. On August 20, 1781, he made the move with French towards Yorktown seeing this as an opportunity to take down Cornwallis’ struggling campaign. Making the swift move with Lieutenant General Rochambeau, General Washington and their men coordinated with French General Lafayette and the French Navy to head off the British Army. Lafayette kept Cornwallis under siege on the ground, while the French Navy kept control of the Chesapeake Bay from British ships.
Once arriving in Yorktown on 14 September 1781, Washington met Lafayette with great joy. Strategies were then made between land and sea forces and the armies gathered. On 28 September 1781, Allied armies left the town of Williamsburg. There they had stationed themselves, for the battlefield of Yorktown. Then, on 9 October 1781, the fighting in Yorktown began. The Allied Army had laid siege at Yorktown with the British troops having nowhere to go. Within a week British surrender had been decided and on 19 October 1781 Cornwallis stayed in his tent ill and sent his second-in-command, General Charles O’Hara. This Siege at Yorktown brought about liberty from Britain.
Victorious Through the Siege at Yorktown
This is a day of great celebration. George Washington and his men suffered to get here. Our Forefathers made sacrifices. They went through trial, suffering, and fatigue leading up to this point. Over six years had passed since the shot heard round the world in Lexington and Concord. It was bitter winters, it was protection through fog and rain in New York, It was moral victories, it was preparation in Valley Forge, it was a pivotal win in Saratoga in 1777. Many events lead to this glorious day in Yorktown. Yes, the Declaration of Independence had been signed and put forth in 1776 but it was not until 1781 that we finally caused great Britain to surrender that eventually led to our freedom as a nation. It was on these battlefields that ended the fighting on land for our War of Independence.
The events in Yorktown lead to the ending of a war in which we received liberty and freedom from Great Britain. This paramount victory in Yorktown led Washington and the Continental Army to regroup in New York. Here they watched over the British as a peace treaty was drawn up and the war officially came to an end. Finally, the British troops left New York and we had gained our liberty on 3 September 1783 through the signing of the Treaty of Paris.