Armed Hostilities

The Battle of Yorktown

Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. The Cause of War
  3. The Battle
  4. Winners and Losers
  5. Reasons why the British Lost
  6. Why the Franco-American Army Won
  7. Conclusion
  8. Works Cited


The war of Yorktown is an important event in history of the United State since it marks a significant turnaround of events that led to independence of the nation from the British Colonialists. The war was orchestrated by the declaration of independence by the thirteen British Colonies in the mid-1770s, an event that saw the British rise its military activities in pursuance of the Continental army to counter the then increasing insurrections (Dudley 35).

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Its outcome contributed considerably to the nation’s destiny, peace, and identity. Due to the significance of this war, this paper reflects on the events that transpired during the war, the cause of the war, the participants, the duration of time involved, the winners, the losers, and the reasons for winning or losing.

The Cause of War

By the start of the year 1781, America had already engaged in a six-year war against the British in pursuit of independence. An earlier fight had taken place in 1775 at the Bunker Hill where 1200 American militiamen led by Maj. Gen. Israel Putman and Colonel William Prescott fought the British Army led by Maj. Gen. William Howe (Dudley 37). Though the Americans ran out of ammunition and retreated, they came to learn later that the British Army had suffered serious casualties than they had. After this battle, however, the efforts towards the struggle for freedom appeared to wane courtesy of “a bankrupt Congress, divisions in the Continental Army, and treason” (Thomas 34).

Lt. Gen. Comte de Rochambeau, with 5500-man French expeditionary force under his command, joined Maj. Gen. George Washington to wedge an attack on New York, which was under the British surveillance, but their attempt was futile as the British easily defeated them (Thomas 35). The French then suggested an attack on Virginia to trap the 8000-man British army under the Lt Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis. The idea was initially dismissed by Maj. Gen. Washington who only accepted it on hearing that “ the French West Indies fleet under the command of Francois was heading for the Chesapeake Bay with 3200 men ” (Thomas 35). Cornwallis was isolated, weakened, and waiting for backup that had not arrived. The Franco-American Army seized the opportunity to end the war.

The Battle

Maj. Gen. Washington assembled an army of 2500 Continentals and 4000 French soldiers and went to Virginia to rejoin the troupe under the command of Generals Lafayette and Wayne who were already there (Thomas 37). His intent was to wedge an attack on Cornwallis’s army that had been trapped in the port of Yorktown.

According to Middleton, attempts by “the British military and naval commanders, General Sir Henry Clinton, Admirals Thomas Graves and Sir Samuel Hood” to send help from the Empire State to support Cornwallis’s army were futile because of the well-equipped French Naval fleets (371). As a result, Washington, joined and reinforced by the French soldiers and heavy artilleries, marched to Yorktown with 9000 militiamen to besiege it.

Winners and Losers

September 28, 1781 is the date on which the war begun. Thomas reports on the events of that day that the heavy weaponry caused a great damage on the British strongholds providing loopholes that enabled the Franco-American contingents to seize key installations and enabled their cannon to permeate and rake enemy lines (36). After 21 days of fighting, Cornwallis and his men surrendered. The British Prime Minister Lord North could not imagine the defeat.

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The defeat of the British Army prompted the French to abandon “arrangements to discuss a compromise peace deal” for retaining that key states, including New York, Long Island, a part of Massachusetts, the Carolinas and Georgia (Goldberger 98). Had the war ended differently, the fragmented, bankrupt colonies would have yielded to the terms of the Mother country. On the contrary, the Yorktown victory meant the birth and establishment of United States as Nation.

Reasons why the British Lost

From the British perspective, their defeat was a disaster that “shattered its first empire” that threatened to relegate it to a second-class status (Middleton 373). No one wanted to take responsibility for the defeat with the blame being flung at any institution imaginable: the opposition, ministry, army, navy, and politicians. In the army, the two most senior officers, Clinton and Cornwallis, that were at the heart of the battle in North America vehemently castigated each other for the outcome of the war.

Clinton blamed the British navy for sending insufficient reinforcement from West Indies compared to the French naval fleets. In Middleton’s works, he narrates that Clinton was appalled when Rodney sent his deputy, Sir Hood with only fourteen weakly armed vessels as compared to the French’s twenty-eight vessels (373). Furthermore, Clinton accused Cornwallis of disobeying him and matching interior into Virginia against his command. Initially, Clinton had instructed Cornwallis to remain in the Carolinas, and that further advancement was only plausible after Carolinas were calmed and in collaboration with extra forces from New York (Middleton 374). However, he was forced to hesitantly reverse these orders following Cornwallis headlong move.

On the other hand, Cornwallis blamed Clinton for forcing him to take post at Yorktown and for false reassurance that he will send help to him despite his intent to leave Virginia. As Grainger points out, the defeat was linked to a weak command structure, poor working relationships between Clinton and Cornwallis, and lack of a unified strategy (203). The commanders were unable to strategize and adapt swiftly to the changing circumstances at the time of war. In addition, they were unwilling to outline and work toward common goals. In contrast, the French set their strategies right, utilized their “military superiority and experience and made use of Rochambeau’s vast experience in siege operations” to offer war-winning assistance to the Continental Army (Stewart and Robert 80).

Why the Franco-American Army Won

The victory was a product of many factors. Some associated the victory to divine providence that they allege was evident in Washington’s personality and ingenuity as the commander in chief. His governance was one of main factors in American victory.

The other factor is the concrete difficulties the British met in suppressing the insurgence including lack of visionary military and political leadership, indefatigable team of leaders of the American military, the ubiquity of the militia and the need to fight its European enemies in West Indies other areas (Stewart and Robert 84). The militia fought along the continental army and made the efforts of the British fruitless.

The participation of Steuben and Lafayette who were foreign military volunteers was also lauded. Wilhelm von Steuben was a German national and an adept army officer who played a central role in training the Continental Army on the tactics of European military (Riley 123). Maj. Gen. Marquis de Lafayette led 1200-man Continental troupe to Virginia before being joined by Gen. Wayne and later Washington himself. In general, the foreign military officers came along with professional military awareness and expertise profoundly required by the Continental Army.

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In addition, the French aid in terms of financial support, artilleries, and military personnel was supportive to the Americans (Brauer and Hubert 4). Nearly all the weaponry used by the Continental Army came from France. The French’s stake in the war was a contest with the British over the control of seas for trade purposes. As Stewart and Robert sum it up, the unfolding at Yorktown, though an outcome of Washington’s strategy, was won because of the “temporary predominance of French naval power off the American Coast and the presence of a French army” (82). The French assistance was also necessary as it helped to give American war efforts a strong national direction.


The Yorktown war was a decisive event that determined the course of direction for the parties involved. For the Americans, it led to an initiation of a peace negotiation process and thereafter, a ratification of the Treaty of Paris, leading to the realization of independence of the USA. For the British, it meant reshuffling of home government and redirection of efforts towards retaining its other colonies such as India and West Indies. The Yorktown encounter exemplifies how military trickery, cooperation, calculated opportunism, and appropriate response and mobilization of forces can lead to a successful military combat. It portrays how strategic insight and proper exploitation of enemy blunders can result in triumphs in military wars and how failed strategic leadership can be costly.

Works Cited

Brauer, Jurgen, and Hubert Van Tuyll. Castles, Battles, & Bombs: How Economics Explains Military History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Print.

Dudley, Wage G. “The Sea Battle that Shook an Empire.” Academic Search Premier 20.5 (2006): 34-60. Print.

Goldberger, Sarah. “Seizing the Past: Revolutionary Memory and the Civil War in Yorktown.” Academic Search Premier 122.2 (2014): 97-127. Print.

Grainger, John. The Battle of Yorktown, 1781: A Reassessment. New York: Boydell Press, 2005. Print.

Middleton, Richard. “The Clinton-Cornwallis Controversy and Responsibility for the British Surrender at Yorktown.” Academic Search Premier 98.3 (2013): 370-389. Print.

Riley, Jonathan. “Decisive Battles: From Yorktown to Operation Desert Storm.” Academic Search Premier 96.321 (2011): 123-123. Print.

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Stewart, Richard, and Robert W. Coakley. American Military History: The Winning of Independence, 1777-1783. Washington.D.C: Army Historical Series, 2001. Print.

Thomas, Fleming. “10 Battles That Shaped America.” Military History 27.5 (2014): 34-41. Print.

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