Washington at Yorktown

It was a village on a river. Settled in 1630, its waterfront would become lined with shops and warehouses. It would prosper for a while, then become a sleepy area with only a few buildings and houses. It seemed an inauspicious place in which the world's history would be changed. It was Yorktown, in Virginia, the year was 1781, and on Oct. 19 history would be made here.

It had been a bad year for Gen. George Washington and the American cause. There was the mutiny of part of the Pennsylvania Continental Army on New Year's Day and Congress seemed unable to effect more men and supplies or to breathe new life into the French alliance.

But the British armies were doing well. Gen. Charles Cornwallis had taken Charleston and much of South Carolina the year before and moved into North Carolina and Virginia. In the North Gen. Henry Clinton had 17,000 troops fortifying his position in New York City. General Washington, in the Hudson Valley, had only 4,500 men. He summarized the bleak situation: ''... instead of having everything in readiness to take the field, we have nothing; and instead of having the prospect of a glorious offensive campaign before us, we have a bewildered and gloomy defensive one....''

Three weeks later, however, the sun began to shine for Washington. The French fleet was en route to assist his forces and by July 4, 800 French troops would enter the Hudson Valley, with more on the way. But with good news came the problem of deciding on strategy. There were two choices: to attack Clinton in New York City or to move south to strike a blow at Cornwallis.

Because of Clinton's superior forces, the second alternative was attractive, provided that (1) Cornwallis decided to take a position along the Chesapeake, thereby exposing his troops to a blockade by the French fleet; (2) Clinton could be led to believe that the attack would be against his forces, preventing his assistance to Cornwallis; and (3) the American-French forces could rush to Virginia, join with Marquis de Lafayette's small Army, and surprise Cornwallis before he could retreat.

The decision to move to Virginia was adopted. Cornwallis had indeed decided to set up base along the Virginia peninsula at Yorktown. What is more, Washington made Clinton believe that an attack on New York City was imminent by having fake hardtack bakeries built in New Jersey where presumably American troops would be digging in, eating, and fighting. Washington crossed the Hudson on Aug. 21 and was south of Philadelphia before Clinton realized he'd been had.

By September American and French forces in Virginia totaled nearly 17,000. Cornwallis had only 7,000 men, and the French fleet controlled the Chesapeake. The siege of Yorktown began on Sept. 28; it was only a matter of time before Cornwallis would surrender.

The British formally surrendered on Oct. 19. It was a moving event, with American troops precisely at noon lining up on one side, the French on the other. The French were spiffy in their ''complete uniforms,'' while the Americans put on an ''erect, soldierly air, and every countenance beamed with satisfaction and joy.'' There were thousands of spectators, yet silence and order were the hallmarks of the day.

At two o'clock British soldiers began to lay down their arms. Some of the British cried, many swore. Cornwallis did not show, feigning indisposition, and his second-in-command offered his sword to Washington's second-in-command. The British bands played sad tunes, including ''The World Turned Upside Down.''

The world would not be the same. A new nation, born in 1776, was destined to live. The American Revolution had been won. In Yorktown, in Virginia, in the year 1781.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.