On this day in 1781, after an extensive military campaign fought on land and sea over nine months, British general Charles Cornwallis sucked it up and finally surrendered his army at Yorktown. It marked the effective end of the American Revolution.
In his biography of the “virile,” “powerfully rough-hewn,” and “exceedingly graceful” George Washington, Ron Chernow describes the scene:
In the shadow of a redoubt near the river, the articles of surrender were signed at eleven a.m. on October 19. At two p.m. the French and American troops lined up on opposite sides of a lane stretching a half mile long. Baron von Closen noted the contrast between the “splendor” of the French soldiers, with their dress swords and polished boots, and the Americans “clad in small jackets of white cloth, dirty and ragged, and a number of them … almost barefoot.” Led by drummers beating a somber march, thousands of defeated British and Hessian soldiers trudged heavily between the allied columns, their colors tightly folded. As they ran this gauntlet, they had to pass by every allied soldier. Legend claims that British fifes and drums played “The World Turned Upside Down.” In another reminder of allied revenge for Charleston, General Benjamin Lincoln, who had been refused the honors of war there, led the procession. Even at the end the British evinced a petty, spiteful attitude toward the Americans, gazing only at the French soldiers until Lafayette prodded the band to strike up “Yankee Doodle,” forcing the conquered army to acknowledge the hated Americans. At the end of the line, the British soldiers emerged into an open field, where they tossed their weapons contemptuously onto a stockpile, trying to smash them. Then they filed back past the double column of victors. The entire wonder of the American Revolution was visible for all to see. It wasn’t the well-dressed French Army who were the true victors of the day, but the weather-beaten, half-clad American troops.
A version of this post was originally published on October 19, 2011.
IMAGE: Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (1820)