Today in History

Today in History: October 19

Surrender at Yorktown

opposing troops facing each other
The Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown A.D. 1781,
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On October 19, 1781, British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army of some 8,000 men to General George Washington at Yorktown, giving up any chance of winning the Revolutionary War. Cornwallis had marched his army into the Virginia port town earlier that summer expecting to meet British ships sent from New York. The ships never arrived.

In early October, approximately 17,000 American and French troops led by Generals George Washington and Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau, respectively, surrounded British-occupied Yorktown. Off the coast, French Admiral François de Grasse strategically positioned his naval fleet to control access to the town via the Chesapeake Bay and the York River.

Yorktown map
A Plan of the Entrance of Chesapeak [sic] Bay, with James and York Rivers;…
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The Franco-American siege exhausted the British army's supplies of food and ammunition. With no hope for escape, Cornwallis agreed to the terms of Washington's Articles of Capitulation, signing the document at Moore House on October 19. Hours after the surrender, the general's defeated troops marched out of Yorktown to the tune "The World Turned Upside Down."

During his occupation of Yorktown, General Cornwallis set up headquarters in the Thomas Nelson House. The residence saw wartime action again during the Civil War, when it was used as a hospital.

Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown effectively ended the Revolutionary War. Lacking the financial resources to raise a new army, the British government appealed to the Americans for peace. Almost two years later, on September 3, 1783, the signing of the Treaty of Paris brought the war to an end.

Learn more about Yorktown and America's fight for independence: