No trip through Colonial history is complete without a visit to Yorktown, the historic settlement that altered the course of the American Revolution. Once you have walked the abandoned streets of Jamestown and relived the heady pre-revolutionary days of Colonial Williamsburg, it’s time to revisit one of the most important moments in the American colonists’ fight against British rule. The battle at Yorktown and subsequent victory effectively ended the war and gave the colonists what they had long yearned for – Independence.
Yorktown was established in 1691, and by the early 1700s, had emerged as a major tobacco port and economic center in Virginia. At the peak of its success, Yorktown consisted of 200 residents, a bustling wharf with docks and storehouses, a Main Street that sat atop a bluff and was lined with stately homes, as well as several taverns and shops that were scattered throughout the town. All told, approximately 250 to 300 buildings made up Yorktown proper in 1750.
In 1781, as the American Revolution entered its sixth long year, the British General Lord Charles Cornwallis brought his troops to Yorktown. He had aggressively pursued the Colonist armies, sure of a British victory, but recent Patriot victories at King’s Mountain and Cowpens had sapped his reserves. He entrenched at Yorktown and began fortifying Yorktown and Gloucester Point, located across the York River. Nearby, a combined contingent of French and colonist troops watched Cornwallis’s movements and carefully planned their attack.
On August 30, 1781, a hastily assembled, yet formidable, French fleet under the command of Admiral Francois De Grasse blockaded the Chesapeake Bay and the York River. An additional 9 ships under the command of Admiral de Barras were racing to join him. On land, General George Washington began moving his allied American and French forces from New York to Virginia. By the end of September, 17,800 troops surrounded Cornwallis’s 8,300. Cornwallis could neither escape nor receive reinforcements. The siege on Yorktown began, ending in Cornwallis’s surrender on October 19, 1781. This major victory for the Colonists resulted in the British Prime Minister proclaiming that it was all over. And it was. Only a few minor skirmishes occurred thereafter and the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783 formally recognizing the United States as an independent country.
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