On this date in 1781, the British army at Yorktown, Virginia commanded by Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the American and French forces lead by George Washington. Although the Revolutionary War did not formally end until the signing of a peace treaty in April 1783, the capitulation at Yorktown was the effective end of the war. We know the outcome of the revolution but the participants did not, which seems like an obvious statement but is a useful reminder that in order to understand events we need to remember how it looked to those involved. It's a humbling experience that should cause us to reflect on the limits to our ability to predict the future course of events.
The American Revolution did not follow a straight trajectory from its start on April 19, 1775 with the fights at Lexington, Concord and then along what is now known as Battle Road as the British retreated to the safety of Boston, to its end at Yorktown. After the initial victories at Concord, Bunker Hill and the British evacuation of Boston in March 1776, the next few months saw the nadir of the war for the Americans with the loss of New York (see Washington Crossing the East River) and the retreat across New Jersey, salvaged at the end by the dramatic events at Trenton and the Jersey Rising which forced the British to retreat to New York (see The Jersey Campaign).
The following year saw the British army occupy the American capital of Philadelphia but also a resounding patriot victory (spearheaded by General Benedict Arnold) at the Battle of Saratoga in upper New York state, a victory which triggered the formal entry in 1778 of France into the war as an American ally. Later that year the British evacuated Philadelphia, leaving New York city as their main base in the North.
With all of that, if you looked at the American situation at the end of September of 1780, less than 13 months before Yorktown, a successful end of the war looked nowhere in sight. In fact it was the most perilous time for the revolution other than the dark days of late 1776.
After the retreat from Philadelphia in 1778, the British decided to embark on a "southern strategy" to detach the southern colonies (Georgia, South and North Carolina and Virginia) from the rebellion. The first step was the occupation of Savannah, the only sizable settlement in Georgia, in December 1778 but the major push did not begin until early 1780.
In early 1780, the British sent a fleet and army to seize Charleston, South Carolina, the largest port in the southern colonies. After a five week siege the American army commanded, by General Benjamin Lincoln, surrendered his 5,000 soldiers, the largest American surrender of the war. The British followed up with a land invasion of South Carolina and seized the entire colony by the end of May 1780. In response, Washington sent General Horatio Gates, who gained unfair renown as the Hero of Saratoga having stolen credit from Benedict Arnold, along with some experienced regiments from his army.
Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, Gates combined the American regulars with local militias and advanced, against the advice of his officers, into South Carolina. Aware of the American movements, General Cornwallis quickly advanced and on August 16, 1780 shattered Gates' army at the Battle of Camden. Gates fled the scene on his horse, leaving his army behind and ending his career in disgrace. With no effective resistance left the southern colonies lay open to the British.
But it was not only in the South that events looked grim. Washington's army had been sitting for two years positioned in a ring around New York City, stretching from New Jersey through New York and into Connecticut. Units were understrength, pay and supplies from the Continental Congress were in short supply and morale was low as there looked to be no end to the war.
Then, on September 25, 1780, came what Washington later said was the most grievous personal blow he received during the entire war - the discovery of the treason of Benedict Arnold.
Arnold had been the outstanding American battlefield commander of the early part of the revolution. However, in the course of his critical role in the victory at Saratoga he was badly wounded and spent much time recuperating, including a stint in 1778 at Philadelphia where he became entwined with the Loyalist community. A great leader of men on the battlefield, off it he was prone to bitterness, excessive pride and envy, becoming entangled in endless disputes with other American field officers and tempted by the great riches promised by the British who approached him through his Loyalist contacts.
George Washington still considered Arnold a friend and confidant and when he asked Arnold his preference for his next appointment, Arnold requested command of the garrison at West Point on the Hudson River. West Point was the key defensive point (Arnold) on the river, blocking British access to the upper river. Washington named Arnold as commander at West Point and Arnold began planning to turn the site over to the British who would then advance up the Hudson, severing New England from the rest of the colonies. These plans were very far advanced when a British spy, Major John Andre, was discovered by American soldiers. Arnold, alerted to the capture of Andre, escaped before the Americans realized he was a traitor, but West Point was saved.
(West Point & The Hudson)
So as the month of September 1780 ended here is how the situation looked from an American perspective.
- The British were on the verge of capturing the Southern colonies as organized American resistance had evaporated.
- The American army in the North had completed two full years in a stalemate.
- The Continental Congress had proved itself ineffective and had lost the respect and confidence of its own army.
- The American commander had been profoundly shocked to find that a man he trusted and relied upon was a traitor.
And it helped that Washington was about to make one of his most inspired moves, sending General Nathanael Greene to rebuild an American army in the south and that a bunch of irate Scots-Irish settlers on the western side of the Appalachians were about to come storming across the mountains into the Carolinas; but that's a story for another time.