COLUMN: Victory at Yorktown!

Published 6:41 pm Thursday, July 4, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a series of articles leading up to the Lafayette Farewell Tour Bicentennial celebration. Previous articles are available at

By Frank and Gloria Womble

The jaws of a trap were closing on Cornwallis. On September 26, 1781, transports with artillery, siege tools, French infantry, and shock troops arrived from Head of Elk, Maryland, giving Washington command of an army of 7,800 Frenchmen under the Comte de Rochambeau, 3,100 militia, and 8,000 Continentals. Two days later, Washington led the army out of Williamsburg to surround Yorktown. After reconnoitering the British defenses, he decided that they could be bombarded into submission.

The allied army established siege lines, dug trenches, and emplaced artillery. On October 9, Washington fired the first gun; legend has it that this shot smashed into a table where British officers were eating. The Franco-American guns began to tear apart the British defenses. Captain James Duncan, an American officer, recorded the scene in his diary: “Last night commenced a very heavy cannonade, and the enemy returned fire with no less spirit. The whole night was nothing but one continual roar of cannon, mixed with the bursting of shells and rumbling of houses torn to pieces.”

By October 14, the trenches were within 150 yards of the British outer defenses of Redoubts 9 and 10. Washington ordered that all guns within range begin blasting the redoubts to weaken them for an assault that evening. Washington planned to use the cover of a moonless night and silence to gain the element of surprise. Soldiers would attack with unloaded muskets and fixed bayonets.

General Washington placed Lafayette in charge of the Continental Army Light Infantry Division. Lafayette’s forces attacked that night. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton led 400 men who captured Redoubt 10 as French troops captured Redoubt 9. These victories allowed Allied forces to advance within 50 yards of British troops.

Washington could now have his artillery shell the town from three directions. When the Allies moved some of their artillery into the redoubts, the British sent a storming party to counterattack, but they were only briefly successful before the French drove them out. The bombardment resumed, with the American and French artillerymen competing to see who could do the most damage to the enemy defenses.

In desperation, Cornwallis attempted to evacuate his troops across the York River to Gloucester Point. There, his troops might be able to break through the Allied lines and march to New York. The first boats made it across, but a squall hit when they returned to take more soldiers, making the evacuation impossible. 

Out of options, the British waved the white flag of surrender on October 17. Cornwallis refused to attend the formal surrender ceremony on October 19, claiming illness. Instead, his adjutant, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, surrendered to Major General Benjamin Lincoln, Washington’s second-in-command. In all, 8,000 soldiers, 214 artillery pieces, 24 transport ships, and thousands of muskets, wagons, and horses were captured. The last major battle of the American Revolution was over. The Treaty of Paris was signed two years later, officially ending the war and recognizing the independence of the United States.

The American Friends of Lafayette is partnering with Suffolk 250, the Constantia Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, and Riddick’s Folly to commemorate the Bicentennial of Lafayette’s Farewell Tour with events in Suffolk in early 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.