COLUMN: The Road to Yorktown

Published 12:16 pm Thursday, July 4, 2024

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Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of articles leading up to the bicentennial celebration. Previous articles are available at

By Frank and Gloria Womble

After the brief but fierce fight at Green Spring, Cornwallis finished his move across the James River and was soon prepared to ship out to New York from Portsmouth. However, he received orders on July 21 from General Henry Clinton, the British Commander-in-Chief in America, to keep all his troops in Virginia and do everything he could to hold the strategically important peninsula between the York and James Rivers. Cornwallis decided to make the village of Yorktown his base of operations.

After the Battle of Green Spring, Lafayette had General “Mad” Anthony Wayne follow Cornwallis. Lafayette believed that Cornwallis would embark his troops and head to Baltimore. He needed definitive information, so he placed a spy in the British camp. James, an enslaved Virginian owned by William Armistead Jr., posed as a runaway and became a servant of Cornwallis. James traveled freely between the British and American camps during the summer and early fall. As a double agent, he passed accurate intelligence to Lafayette and misleading information to the British. With his help, Lafayette finally learned the truth of Cornwallis’ intentions. He moved his division to a camp on the Pamunkey River near West Point, Virginia, east of Williamsburg, while General Wayne stayed south of the James River.

With substantial forces in place and Cornwallis encamped at Yorktown, Washington came up with a bold plan. He had learned that a French fleet under the command of Admiral Comte de Grasse was sailing towards Virginia. Lafayette would block the British from the west, while General von Steuben would move in from the southwest and General Green from the south. The French fleet would bottle up the English at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Washington would move most of his and the Comte de Rochambeau’s forces, about 8,000 men, down from New York and completely surround the British. If the allied troops and the French fleet coordinated their efforts, there was a good chance they could trap Cornwallis at Yorktown and achieve a decisive victory.

On September 5, 1781, one of the most important naval battles in American history, known as the Battle of the Capes, took place near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The battle between the British and French fleets was fairly evenly matched, but the British suffered more casualties and ship damage and broke it off at sunset. The two fleets sailed within view of each other for several days until British Admiral Thomas Graves decided to return to New York for repairs and to organize a larger relief effort. His withdrawal left Admiral de Grasse and the French fleet firmly in control of the Chesapeake Bay, preventing Cornwallis from being reinforced or evacuated. French supply ships also provided the Franco-American army with critical siege artillery and French reinforcements. Washington and Rochambeau met with de Grasse aboard his flagship Ville de Paris near Lynnhaven Inlet on September 18 to finalize their plans. The stage was set for the last major battle of the American Revolution.

The American Friends of Lafayette is partnering with Suffolk 250 and the Constantia Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, to commemorate the bicentennial of Lafayette’s Farewell Tour with events in Suffolk in 2025: A memorabilia exhibit from January 23 to March 1 at the Suffolk Center for the Cultural Arts; Lafayette’s arrival on February 23 at the Suffolk Visitor Center/Riddick’s Folly; a banquet on February 25 at the Hilton Garden Inn Suffolk Riverfront; and a reception on February 26 at the Washington Smith Ordinary in Historic Somerton.

Frank and Gloria Womble are life members of the American Friends of Lafayette. Frank is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Gloria is the America250 chair of Constantia Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, in Suffolk.