Today in History: Lord Cornwallis’ failed attempt to flee leads to surrender at Yorktown in 1781

October 16th, 2013

On October 16, 1781, British General Lord Cornwallis attempted a last-ditch effort to escape the Continental Army at Yorktown, first by counterattacking the Americans and later by ferrying troops away from Yorktown. Neither strategy succeeded, which led to the surrender of Cornwallis’ forces in the following days. Yorktown was the last major land battle of the revolution, and the surrender of Cornwallis’ troops encouraged the British government to negotiate an end to the war.

In the summer of 1781, French and American troops began assembling with the goal of overthrowing British control in New York City. By September, George Washington had control of nearly 20,000 soldiers around the Chesapeake Bay area, between Frenchmen, militia, and Continental Army soldiers. At the end of September, Washington led the army out of Virginia to surround Yorktown.

In the weeks that would follow, Washington’s troops besieged the British and stormed several of their redoubts. On October 16, General Lord Cornwallis attempted to launch a counterattack against the Americans, but was unsuccessful. Later that evening, Cornwallis attempted to ferry many of his men across the river to Gloucester, but a storm prevented the soldiers from escaping.

On October 17, Cornwallis, Washington, and French General Rochambeau began negotiating for Cornwallis’ surrender, with an agreement signed on October 19, 1781.

For a first-person perspective on the siege of Yorktown, read James Thacher’s account

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