22 days, 236 years ago

About 7,000 British and German soldiers surrendered at Yorktown on Oct. 19, 1781, 236 years ago, marking the formal end of the Revolutionary War.

Still, most Americans didn't believe it was over.

The Marquis de Lafayette wrote home to France and said "the play is over … the fifth act has ended," according to Edward Ayres, a historian for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

But news of the British surrender following the Battle of Yorktown would have been news to residents on Virginia's Eastern Shore. There, British troops were still raiding farms for food and other supplies for more than a year after Yorktown, according to an account by the late author Kirk Mariner in his book, "Slave and Free on Virginia's Eastern Shore: From the Revolution to the Civil War."

Ayres said few viewed it as decisive until some time later. And indeed, the Treaty of Paris, formalizing the British surrender, was not signed until September 1783.

Other skirmishes took place on the western frontier, in the northeast and in the Carolinas, mainly between organized loyalist groups and patriot militia forces, Ayres said. Still, Yorktown was the last major military encounter between regular British forces and the Continental Army.

Before the Battle of Yorktown, British General Cornwallis occupied the town to establish a defendable deepwater port.

The Battle of Yorktown lasted 22 days, with Gen. George Washington, aided by French Gen. de Rochambeau leading a combined fighting force of about 17,600 troops, against British general Lord Cornwallis and his approximately 8,000 troops.

Washington and Rochambeau marched toward Virginia from New York in mid-August, while the French navy fought off the British in the Battle of the Capes, which proved significant because it prevented the British from bringing in reinforcements.

On Oct. 9, 1781, the American and French armies began bombing British positions, and within about a week, had moved their artillery close to remaining British fortifications, close enough to cause numerous British casualties. By Oct. 17, a British officer waved the white flag and told the Americans and French that he wanted to discuss surrender terms. At that point, the bombing of the British stopped, and surrender negotiations began. Two days later, the British signed the Articles of Capitulation.

After the British surrendered, they still had about 30,000 troops in America, even as American and French troops left Yorktown. Only Rochambeau's four regiments of French infantry stayed the winter in eastern Virginia. He wrote that the British could have continued to occupy coastal bases indefinitely, but they were unable to destroy the Continental Army or defeat the colonies.

Britain did not maintain its support of the war in America following the Battle of Yorktown. Growing sentiment in Parliament was that trying to defeat the colonies had been a failure, with war costs on the rise.

It wasn't until March 1782 that the British Parliament passed a resolution agreeing that the British should not continue the war against America; it took until September 1783 for the British to ratify the surrender, fully conceding America's independence.

"The allied victory at Yorktown seems to have been the final straw for Great Britain, which finally accepted the existence of the new American nation," Ayres wrote.

Want to Go?

What: The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

Where: Route 1020 in Yorktown, near Yorktown Battlefield.

Admission: $12 for adults; $7 children 6-12.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
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