CONSTITUTION CORNER - Article 52
YORKTOWN - THE FINAL BATTLE!
By Judy Leithe
By 1775, it became clear that the American Colonists were intent upon resisting the absolute rule of Britain’s King George III. After receiving the American Declaration of Independence, in July of 1776, the British Crown appointed General Henry Clinton to suppress all Colonist’s uprisings, and to crush the newly formed Continental Army led by General George Washington.T
Through the many battles that took place during the Revolutionary War, there was a decided contest of wills between General Washington and his British counterparts, Generals Clinton and Charles Cornwallis.
Washington famously drove the British out of Boston in the Battle of Bunker Hill, March 4, 1776 (Articles 31 & 32). Six months later, in August, Clinton and Cornwallis severely defeated Washington in the Battle of Long Island, with British forces nearly four times larger than that of the American Army.
Over the fall and early winter of 1776, Cornwallis doggedly pursued Washington across the state of New Jersey. However, in late December, he was stunned to learn of Washington’s daring crossing of the Delaware River during a violent snowstorm, followed by his successful routing of Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey (Articles 34, 35 & 36). But, given his superior troop strength, the over-confident Cornwallis felt he could easily conquer Washington and his ragged army when they tried to cross the Asunpink Creek Bridge on their escape from Trenton. He boasted to his officers, “We’ll bag the ol’ fox in the morning,” only to have Washington slip past his grasp at midnight and, in the morning of January 3, 1777, he went on to defeat Cornwallis in the Battle of Princeton (Articles 34 – 38.)
Cornwallis’ successes in Georgia and South Carolina, during 1778 and 1779, were somewhat dampened when the French Army allied themselves with the American cause for independence from the British Crown. However, even though the French General Jean Baptiste Rochambeau and his army of 6,000 troops had landed in Rhode Island in July of 1780, Cornwallis thought they were still at too great a distance to pose a problem for the British campaign in the South.
On January 17, 1781, one of Cornwallis’ most reliable officers, Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarelton, and 50 of his dragoons, fled the Cowpens battlefield, leaving the rest of the British troops under attack by Patriot Generals Nathaniel Greene and Daniel Morgan.
After the Battle of Cowpens (Article 51), General Greene made use of a smaller fighting force and carried off numerous “hit and run” attacks on Cornwallis’ supply lines and engaged in skirmishes with isolated British encampments. Greene’s men were well versed in his motto, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” Cornwallis was determined to catch up with Greene’s more agile troops but was becoming agitated at narrowly missing them, time after time. Cornwallis was reported to be in a fit of rage when, through his telescope, he saw Greene’s men actually waving good-bye as they quickly escaped downriver.
In March, after Cornwallis finally defeated Greene at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, he was chagrinned to have lost over a quarter of his forces. When news of the battle reached the English Parliament, it was noted that, “Another such victory would ruin the British Army!”
British supply lines were running low, which caused Cornwallis to move his troops to the coast of Virginia, where he believed he could count on the British Navy for reinforcement, supplies, and, if necessary, mobility for his army. What he didn’t count on was the arrival of Washington and his army, along with the French Army and Navy, which had dominated the British Navy up and down the coast.
As a native Virginian, former land surveyor, George Washington, now a seasoned General, knew that Cornwallis had made a mistake when he established his large army on the coast near Yorktown. This was a low-lying and unfortified location. Washington, and his allies, had cut off all possible land passages, so the only escape would be by British ships which, for once, were not at his disposal.
A fierce battle ensued, but as the day wore on, it became clear that the Continental Army would ultimately defeat the British. On October 19, 1781, General Cornwallis, claiming illness, gave his sword to an aide, who then surrendered it to General Washington. The British maintained troops in Charleston and New York City for another two years. Finally, and unceremoniously, the British removed the last of their military from America when they signed the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, thus formally recognizing the United States of America as an independent and sovereign country.
The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, October 19, 1781, oil painting by John Turnbull, hangs in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington D.C.