When Charles, Lord Cornwallis, British commander in the South during the American Revolutionary War, retreated to the Yorktown peninsula in June 1781 to rest and reequip his battered army, George Washington was outside New York, preparing an assault on that British-held city with the help of the four-thousand-man French expeditionary force commanded by the count of Rochambeau.
Then came news that the thirty-four-ship French West Indies battle fleet was heading for Virginia with three thousand infantry. (Rochambeau had urged the French admiral, de Grasse, to undertake this gamble.) Plans for New York were abandoned, and Washington executed a swift concentration of every available soldier before the little tobacco port on the Chesapeake. A trapped Cornwallis asked the British fleet and army in New York for help. The fleet sortied to clash with French ships of the line off the Virginia Capes in one of the most important least-known naval battles of history. The outnumbered British admiral, Thomas Graves, adhered rigidly to the conservative “Fighting Instructions,” which prescribed a strict line of battle formation aimed at limiting losses. De Grasse battered several British ships in a two-and-a-half-hour clash, and Graves, after two more days of fruitless maneuvers for advantage, abandoned Cornwallis and returned to New York.
Meanwhile, a smaller French squadron under Admiral Barras slipped into the Chesapeake, carrying the French army’s siege artillery. Trapped behind hastily constructed redoubts, without cannon heavy enough to match the French big guns, Cornwallis’s army crumbled under night and day bombardment. On October 14, two key redoubts were carried in a night assault. Three days later, Cornwallis surrendered. As his men marched out to stack their guns, their bands played “The World Turned Upside Down.” In London, when Prime Minister Lord North heard the news, he cried: “Oh God, it is all over.” So it was.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.