On October 19, 1781, after almost 2 weeks of being under siege, the British troops at Yorktown, Virginia, surrendered to combined American and French forces, effectively signaling the beginning of the end of the Revolutionary War.
A few weeks before the American and French troops began their bombardment of the British defenses at Yorktown, the French Admiral de Grasse defeated the British fleet off the Virginia Capes. This victory left the 7,000 troops in Yorktown under British General Cornwallis effectively without naval support, thus enabling the American and French troops to begin their siege without any serious opposition or threat of British escape by sea.
The 8,900 Americans (under General Washington) and 7,800 French (under the Comte de Rochambeau) traveled hundreds of miles south to arrive outside Yorktown on September 28. The combined armies began their bombardment on October 9—after digging a siege trench 600 yards from the British lines—and kept up a near constant barrage of fire from artillery and siege guns.
On October 14, select French and American troops stormed the last two British-held redoubts, and once those were captured, the combined troops completed a second, closer trench. In response, the British made a sortie before sunrise on the 16th to spike their enemies’ guns, but the guns were quickly repaired and soon began firing again.
General Cornwallis, for his part, had been holding out hope that promised reinforcements would arrive, but when it became clear that his troops couldn’t hold out that long, he attempted to send them across the river to try to break out on the other side. Unfortunately for him, after the first group got across, a squall prevented all further crossings.
Realizing his position was hopeless without the reinforcements, Cornwallis sent out a drummer and an officer with a white handkerchief on October 17 to signal their capitulation. On the 18th, the two sides negotiated the terms of the surrender, which formally occurred on the 19th.
With the surrender at Yorktown, it became clear that the British were losing ground in America. Indeed, the Siege of Yorktown ended up being the last major land battle of the war, though the war wouldn’t officially be over for another year and a half.
Find out more about the Siege of Yorktown and other people and events of the war in Fold3’s Revolutionary War collection.