Wednesday, Oct. 19, marks the 240th anniversary of the American victory over the British at Yorktown, Virginia.
The 1781 victory had been six-and-a-half years in the making. “The shot heard ’round the world,” which launched the Revolutionary War, had been fired on April 19, 1775, in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Gen. George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, had had only a few wins — at the battles of Trenton, Princeton and Saratoga, to name some — and many defeats along the way.
Rick Green, founder of Patriot Academy, said in an email to The Western Journal that one of the lessons of Yorktown is that “victory does not come overnight.”
“The surrender at Yorktown was more than five years after the Declaration of Independence and eleven and a half years after The Boston Massacre,” he added.
Washington’s greatest victory in the arduous war had been keeping his army in the field.
His fight had mainly been one of strategic positioning for the purpose of preserving his forces. As long as the Continental Army stayed in the conflict, the hope of American independence was alive.
By means of timely retreats and feints, Washington’s army was able to avoid total defeat by the redcoats. With the help of the French, the Americans believed, they could land a crippling, perhaps war-ending blow.
In the summer of 1781, British forces — about 8,000 strong under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis — marched through the Virginia countryside wreaking havoc. A detachment of troops nearly captured Virginia Gov. Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in Charlottesville.
The only Continental force in the region to oppose Cornwallis was a division of about 1,200 troops under Gen. Marquis de Lafayette, a young French aristocrat who had joined the American cause in 1777.
By early August, Cornwallis had encamped his men on the Yorktown peninsula to await transport north by ship.
Lafayette realized the British had made a strategic mistake and sent word to Washington, then in the New York City area, that if he could reinforce him quickly, they could bag Cornwallis’ entire force.
As it happened, Washington had also received word that French Adm. François Joseph Paul de Grasse could bring a fleet north from the West Indies by early September, including 28 ships and 3,000 soldiers.
Washington saw everything coming together and wasted no time moving most of his troops the 400 miles from New York to Yorktown.
With the Continentals en route from the north, de Grasse won a decisive naval victory against a British fleet at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on Sept. 5 that ensured Cornwallis would not receive reinforcements by sea.
On September 5, The Royal Navy, attempting to sail up the Bay to Gen. Cornwallis, is met by French warships at the mouth of the Chesapeake. In this Battle of the Capes, the British fleet is soundly defeated trapping British troops without supplies and much-needed reinforcements. pic.twitter.com/g8RyVsgfvB
— U.S. Army (@USArmy) October 19, 2021
Washington’s troops and their French allies, a combined force of about 17,000, encircled Yorktown and commenced a siege in late September.
After a grueling march, the Allied forces arrive near Yorktown on September 28 and immediately begin the hard work of laying siege to Cornwallis and his men.#ArmyHistory | #ArmyHeritage pic.twitter.com/j819s1C2lu
— U.S. Army (@USArmy) October 19, 2021
The British raised the white flag on Oct. 17, and the formal surrender took place two days later.
When news of the victory made it up to Philadelphia four days later, the bell atop the Pennsylvania Statehouse — later designated the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, respectively — rang out from 3 a.m. until dawn.
The Continental Congress convened in the building early that morning and passed a resolution stating, “Congress will, at two o’clock this day, go in precession to the Dutch Lutheran church, and return thanks to Almighty God, for crowning the allied arms of the United States and France, with success, by the surrender of the whole British army under the command of Earl of Cornwallis.”
A few days later, the legislative body also issued a proclamation recounting the remarkable “interpositions of [God’s] Providence” that had helped bring them to victory and encouraging Americans to set aside Dec. 13 as a day of “thanksgiving and prayer.”
Yorktown would be the last major battle of the Revolutionary War.
On April 19, 1783, eight years to the day after the first shot of the war was fired in Lexington, word finally reached Washington’s troops encamped north of New York that the Americans and British had come to a preliminary peace agreement.
On Sept. 3, the parties signed a formal peace treaty ending the conflict.
On the bicentennial of the Battle of Yorktown in 1981, then-President Ronald Reagan commemorated the occasion with French President François Mitterrand.
— RonaldReaganLibrary (@Reagan_Library) October 19, 2016
“And now, this field, this ceremony and this day hold a special meaning for people the world over, whether free in their lives or only in their dreams,” Reagan said. “Not long after the Battle of Yorktown, Lafayette wrote home to France. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country.'”
Drawing his remarks to a close, Reagan observed, “We live in a troubled and violent world. But there is a moral fiber running through our people that makes us more than strong enough to face the tests ahead. We can look at our past with pride, and our future can be whatever we make it.”
Green told The Western Journal that Americans can find inspiration in their history.
“As President Ronald Reagan said, ‘If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.’ Virtually every major problem in American society today has occurred because our civic ignorance allowed false narratives to be accepted as truth,” Green said.
“Knowing and celebrating our history; knowing and celebrating the principles of liberty in our Declaration and Constitution; and knowing and celebrating the unprecedented force for good that is the American Story — that civic literacy and celebration is absolutely essential if we wish to save this Constitutional Republic.”
Portions of this article first appeared in the book “We Hold These Truths” by Randy DeSoto.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.