Why Yorktown Took Us by Surprise

May 1, 2018 – Yorktown, Virginia

Not far from the last two places we visited…Jamestown and Williamsburg…lies Yorktown, Virginia.  While the first two are considered to be the beginning and the middle of colonial America, the latter is where the United States finally won their independence from Great Britain. Coming to this important place for the first time, we knew very little about what took place here; the third leg of the Historic Triangle.  What we found totally surprised us!

Here is a quick synopsis of what happened in 1781:  Britain controlled New York and also was building a commanding presence in Virginia.  George Washington’s troops were readying themselves for an assault on New York, along with a large army of French soldiers led by Comte de Rochambeau.  Another group of Americans, led by French commander Marquis de Lafayette, was shadowing the British in Virginia.  Yet another group of French led by Comte de Grasse and located in the West Indies, promised naval support to the cause.  When Grasse sent word that he was headed to Virginia, Washington and Rochambeau had little choice but to do the same.   Washington left a skeleton crew in New Jersey to maintain the guise of a full camp by tending to hundreds of campfires and tents.  By the time the Brits figured out that the enemy was headed south, the French navy had already blocked the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and the combined American/French troops were well on their way to Yorktown.  Lord Cornwallis and his 6,000 man army were about to be surrounded by a force of 8,800 Americans and 7,800 French, along with the 35 French warships in the bay.  British commander Henry Clinton sent 25 ships south to take on the French, but were effectively driven back north by the larger navy.  Cornwallis was on his own.  The French and American armies attacked from the south, pinning the Brits against the York River.  Efforts to retreat across the waterway were foiled by a sudden storm, which all but sealed their fate.  Cornwallis surrendered, and the final battle of the Revolutionary War was complete.

So what was it that surprised us at Yorktown?  Well, first of all, the Americans couldn’t have won without the help of the French army and navy.

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Diana walks the American First Parallel, which was built in one night.

Why did they come to our aid?  They and the British had been vying for power in North America for quite some time, and the French recognized the United States as an independent nation with the Treaty of Alliance in 1778. By backing the Americans, they would have a better economic stance in the New World.

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Jim peers from an American position towards the British fortifications.

Also, George Washington did tell a lie, in the fact that he deceived the British into thinking he was staying in New York.  We forgive him for the fib.  🙂

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The far ridge is the British defensive line. The brick walls in the foreground encompass a Civil War cemetery. The ridge just beyond the brick walls is the American Second Parallel.

And did you know that a full third of the combined armies were German?  The reasons behind that are many, but just the fact that they were there surprised us.

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Redoubt 9, which the French took over with 400 men.

The final maneuver by the Americans was accomplished without using loaded muskets.  A division of U.S. men captured Redoubt 10 using only bayonets.

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The remains of Redoubt 10, which the York River is slowly reclaiming to erosion.

The British had a long list of demands when they surrendered, which were rejected by Washington.

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The Moore House, where the actual surrender was signed.

The British marched into what is now known as the Surrender Field between a long column of Americans on one side of the road and French on the other.

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The Surrender Field.

It was here that they laid down their unloaded weapons.  Seeing that the British still held New York, none of the participants knew that this was the battle that eventually won the war.

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A portion of the 242 cannons that were surrendered by the British.

Great Britain lost the will to fight a war far from their shores and withdrew from New York after the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

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The Victory Monument stands in Yorktown to commemorate the end of the Revolutionary War.  With our visit to the Historic Triangle complete, we moved on to Charlottesville, Virginia.  Be sure to see the cool things we found there in our next post!

12 thoughts on “Why Yorktown Took Us by Surprise”

  1. So nice to see you enjoying some of the historical sites in the east. One certainly can spend months visiting various sites from our countries early days. We were very lucky to live close enough to many historic location for day trips. Happy travels in the east!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m loving getting these glimpses of our history through your eyes. Always lots of fun facts and great pics! I too forget that other countries were at our side during our fight for independence from their neighbors. While the reasons were self-serving, the result changed the world forever. Good stuff!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As soon as the Continental Congress knew about the victory, Tracy, they approved the monument. It took a full 100 years until construction began, though. While the monument is impressive, the rest of the park has so many little interesting stories that blend into one amazing piece of real estate.. A lot went on during the Civil War too. There was a county clerk who grabbed all of the county records and his them in an ice house on a nearby island when the Union soldiers were headed to Yorktown. His office ended up being destroyed, but the records were saved. There are a lot of genealogists today who are thankful he did that. Any records that were in Richmond were destroyed, so most Virginia family trees don’t go back beyond the 1860’s.

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