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The Battle of Yorktown, 1781: A Reassessment

The Battle of Yorktown, 1781: A Reassessment

John D. Grainger
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 214
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  • Book Info
    The Battle of Yorktown, 1781: A Reassessment
    Book Description:

    Yorktown (1781), where a British Army, commanded by Lord Cornwallis, surrendered to the American forces under George Washington and their French allies, has generally been considered one of the decisive battles of the American War of Independence. This accessible and authoritative account of the battle and the wider campaign goes back to original source material (diaries, letters, speeches, and newspapers), offering both a narrative of the events themselves, and an analysis of how the defeat came about and why it came to be seen as crucial. It shows that the battle was really a siege, that it involved relatively few numbers, and relatively little fighting, and was not immediately seen as decisive, with the war continuing for a further two years. It sets the battle and campaign in the wider context of a war which included action in the West Indies, Europe, Africa, Asia, and at sea; shows how movements of the French and British navies were a crucial factor; and, overall, reassesses the causes and significance of the battle. JOHN D. GRAINGER, a former school-teacher, is the author of numerous books on military history, ranging from the Roman period to the twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-371-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[v])
  3. [Maps]
    (pp. [vi]-[viii])
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-3)

    ‘Yorktown’ is distinguished as one of two battles in the War of American Independence which sealed the fate of the British power in the rebellious colonies, the other being ‘Saratoga’ in 1777. In both cases a British military force was blockaded and eventually forced to surrender; in both cases the news of this result had widespread political repercussions in Europe: with Saratoga it helped to persuade the French government that the Americans were worth supporting openly and not just clandestinely; in the case of Yorktown the news helped to persuade the government in Britain and a majority of the British...

  5. 1 Context
    (pp. 4-27)

    By mid-1781, when the military and naval crisis began which culminated in the fighting at Yorktown in October, the War of the American Rebellion had been going on for six years. Beginning with the skirmishes at Bunker Hill, at Concord, and at Lexington in Massachusetts, and the siege of the British forces in Boston in 1775, the area involved in the war had repeatedly widened, first throughout British North America, including Canada, then into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, then in 1778 to Europe. France had been keen to encourage the rebels from the very...

  6. 2 Distant Decisions
    (pp. 28-52)

    The campaign which brought together several armies and fleets at Yorktown and the Virginia Capes in September and October 1781 involved forces brought to that small geographical area from all over the western Atlantic. In July of that year they were scattered from New England to the Caribbean. This chapter and the next will be devoted to examining why and how they all foregathered at the points of contact.

    Virginia was relatively untouched by the war until late in 1780. It had, of course, contributed its men to Continental Army regiments, and its share of supplies to keep that army...

  7. 3 Approaches
    (pp. 53-67)

    I have already mentioned the variety of names which are given to the events discussed here: ‘battle’ or ‘siege’ or ‘campaign’, ‘Yorktown’ or ‘Chesapeake’ or ‘Virginia Capes’, and possibly others. The variety is instructive, since the choice made by a particular historian will carry with it an implication as to the part of the events as a whole which is seen as the most important, and which the writer will therefore emphasise. If one uses, as many United States historians do, the term ‘siege of Yorktown’, then that implies that the really decisive event was the fairly brief fight in...

  8. 4 The First Fighting
    (pp. 68-94)

    Admiral Grasse made a fairly slow passage from Saint-Domingue through the Bahama Channel, assisted there by the powerful northerly current. His fleet had successfully intercepted and captured every ship met with and so preserved secrecy. A particularly satisfying capture was the British packetQueen Charlotte, for on board was Colonel Lord Rawdon, on his way home on sick leave from South Carolina. The result was that no news of the fleet’s progress had gone ahead, though it was, of course, widely anticipated.¹ Certainly Cornwallis’s frantic note to Clinton on 31 August is a good indication of his surprise.²

    Like Commodore...

  9. 5 The Siege: Preparations
    (pp. 95-112)

    Yorktown as a town was less than a century old. It had been a locally important, if still minor, port in the first half of the eighteenth century, but was in slow decline by the time the War for Independence began, and the war had effectively stopped its trade. It had been a major tobacco exporting centre, and there was a line of storage warehouses testifying to that. Along the shore there were wooden wharves with warehouses attached, and these installations were part of the reason Cornwallis had chosen it as the putative naval base. The town faced somewhat east...

  10. 6 The Siege: Assault
    (pp. 113-149)

    The forces gathered by both sides at and about Yorktown were a heterogeneous mixture. The fleets were less so than the armies, but both contained fairly substantial numbers of men and officers from countries other than Britain and France: both, for instance, had Americans in their crews, and the French had numbers of volunteers from other European countries, notably Sweden.¹ It was the armies, however, which were most startlingly mixed.

    Cornwallis’s force of about 8,500 men was composed mainly of two groups. Four thousand six hundred men were in the various units of the British army, mainly infantry, but with...

  11. 7 Aftermath
    (pp. 150-176)

    The surrendered army was marched back into Yorktown and then counted by the victors. Many of the men succumbed to illness, as though it had only been the tension of the fighting which had kept them going. Captain James himself fell ill, and reports it:

    The business of the siege being over, and nothing to keep the effects of damps and colds from our constitutions, which before, from great exercise and exertions, had no opportunity of showing itself, began now to spread itself around our tents in intermitting fevers, and few I believe, if any, escaped this disorder. On the...

  12. 8 Results
    (pp. 177-186)

    It is recognised now that the defeat at Yorktown was the event which marked the beginning of the end of the War of American Independence; indeed, there are accounts which stop at the victory. It was not so clear at the time, and in fact the war went on for two more years. The disposition of the allied armies and navies made it quite clear that the war was going to go on: the French army of Rochambeau remained in Virginia, guarding that central territory, stationed at Williamsburg and Yorktown in the main (and incidentally this does tend to confirm...

  13. Sources and Bibliography
    (pp. 187-194)
  14. Index
    (pp. 195-204)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 205-209)