On the morning of October 19th, 1781, British troops along with their allies marched out of Yorktown, Virginia with flags furled to surrender to combined American and French forces. The siege and surrender at Yorktown proved to be the decisive blow to British hopes of regaining control of the American colonies. To celebrate the anniversary of the surrender, the National Archives Motion Picture Department would like to share a film by the National Park Service, recreating the official surrender ceremony while also discussing the siege and its impact.
Victory at Yorktown (Local Identifier: 79-HFC-88)
By the summer of 1781, the Americans had been struggling for independence for six years. They had received a major boost in 1778 when the French had declared open war on the British and sent direct aid to the colonies. This support fully materialized in 1780 when a French fleet under the command of Comte de Rochambeau arrived in Rhode Island with around 5,500 troops. There George Washington met with Rochambeau to plan where to attack the British forces. Washington wanted the combined Franco-American forces to move against New York City, where General Sir Henry Clinton, the overall commander of British forces in America, was stationed. The Compte de Rochambeau, however, favored attacking the southern wing of British forces, under the command of General Charles Cornwallis in Virginia, where the British were in a much weaker position. The deciding factor was the Admiral Comte De Grasse, commanding the French West Indies fleet, who had been ordered to swing north after attacking British positions in the Caribbean. De Grasse (with input from Rochambeau) communicated his intentions to sail for the Chesapeake Bay and attack Cornwallis, settling the debate. Washington agreed and the combined armies began moving south in August, leaving behind a small force to deceive Clinton into believing an attack on New York was imminent.
Meanwhile, the British leadership, under General Clinton, spent much of 1781 issuing vague and often contradictory orders. Clinton was worried that the combined Franco-American forces would indeed attempt to lay siege to New York and ordered Cornwallis to send any troops he could spare north to aid in its defense. After Cornwallis had begun loading troops onto transport ships and was making preparations to sail north, Clinton directly countered his previous orders and ordered him to fortify either Yorktown or Williamsburg to fulfill a request by the Royal Navy to secure a southern deep water port, noting limitations of New York harbor. Cornwallis pointed out that due to the geography of the Chesapeake Bay region, any naval base would always be open to an attack. Nevertheless, he complied with the order and after inspecting various locations settled on Yorktown as the best option and began fortifying the location while communicating as such to Clinton.
While these events were transpiring, Admiral De Grasse’s fleet had sailed north, unbeknownst to the British, who had not expected his entire fleet to head towards the American colonies. De Grasse reached the Chesapeake Bay at the end of August, where he set up a blockade of the York and James rivers to prevent any aid from reaching Cornwallis. Once the British command knew that the allied force was headed south, the Royal Navy departed with nineteen ships while Clinton warned Cornwallis and assured him he was sending 4,000 reinforcements. On September 5th, the Royal Navy force made it to the Chesapeake and found the French fleet anchored there. De Grasse ordered his ships to attack, and in the ensuing Battle of the Chesapeake Bay, also known as the Battle of the Virginia Capes, or more simply the Battle of the Capes, the French ended up victorious. After the British fleet retreated and headed back to New York for repairs, the French navy began ferrying troops to the encirclement of Yorktown.
On September 28, 1781, General George Washington led over 17,000 soldiers to begin the encirclement and siege of Yorktown, occupied by over 8,000 British troops. Cornwallis recognized that he could not hold out for long without reinforcements, so he wrote to General Clinton informing him of the dire situation. Clinton responded back that he had would send the navy with 5,000 troops from New York at the beginning of October. In the Meantime, Cornwallis and his soldiers constructed a mainline of defenses around the town consisting of ten small enclosed forts known as redoubts connected by trenches and artillery positions. The Franco-American forces had begun digging a trench opposite the British lines once they had reached Yorktown and by October 9 had finished them and moved their own artillery into place. On the night of October 11th, they began construction of a second line 400 yards in front of the British. Before they could be finished, however, redoubts 9 and 10 had to be captured from the British. During the night of October 14th, 400 French and 400 Americans stormed both redoubts and successfully captured them.
After several last desperate attempts to escape, Cornwallis realized the situation was hopeless and sent a solitary drummer followed by an officer flying a white flag with a note to General Washington to begin discussions of formal surrender. The next day, four officers: one American, one French, and several British met at Moore House outside Yorktown to lay out the formal surrender ceremonies. The terms were rather strict: their flags must be furled and there were to be no regimental marches or cadences, leaving British musicians to play the popular tune “The World Turned Upside Down.” On October 19th, Cornwallis marched his army out of Yorktown to lay down its arms. Between two lines of soldiers, one American and the other French, the British and Hessian soldiers proceed to an open field, known today as “Surrender field” to lay down their arms or “ground their firelocks,” in 18th-century military language.
These events were recreated almost 190 years later by historic reenactors in front of cameras for “Victory at Yorktown” and narrated by William Conrad. This is actually the second time that this film has been covered in the Unwritten-Record. Five years ago Heidi Holstrom wrote about Mark Meader, a Specialist within Motion Pictures who had spent over forty years participating in living history reenactments, including his participation in this very film, which you may read more about here. The film ends with a list of participating reenactment organizations.
Works Cited and Additional Resources
The British Soldier in 1774, Resources About the British Soldier in the 18th Century, put together by the National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/sama/learn/historyculture/britishsoldier.htm
Recreating History: Yorktown’s Redoubt 10 at the US Army Heritage and Education Center: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHi_kjjFL6s
Yorktown Battlefield: https://www.nps.gov/york/learn/historyculture/history-of-the-siege.htm
Battle of Yorktown in the American Revolution: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/revolutionary-war/battles/yorktown
Articles of Capitulation, Yorktown: https://www.mountvernon.org/education/primary-sources-2/article/articles-of-capitulation-yorktown/
The United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, which traces it’s origins back to the continental army: https://fifeanddrum.army.mil/