Detail of the Siege of Yorktown (1781), a 1786 gouache painting by Louis-Nicholas van Blarenberghe. Blarenberghe was a professional painter of battle and campaign scenes for the French army. He executed his Yorktown paintings under the direct supervision of Berthier, a skilled draftsman and former member of Rochambeau's staff in America (1781-83).

By the end of September, approximately 18,000+ American and French combatants had gathered in the Williamsburg area of Virginia, while about 8,000+ British soldiers, with their German auxiliary troops occupied Yorktown and Gloucester Point. The number of combatants are not exactly known, and the figures given in historical accounts are estimates, which are based on various administrative reports prior to, and after, the siege. Such data is then adjusted based on assumptions as to what number are 'effectives' [physically able to engage in combat] and as to naval personel being employed 'in direct support' of the land operations. One outstanding scholar of the the military aspects of the Revolution, Mark Mayo Boatner III, goes farther than most in identifying his assumptions and other factors in deriving his figures. The following is based upon data from his remarkable Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (p.1248, Bicentenial Edition, NY, 1974).

Continental Infantry7,290
Total Continental Army7,980
Total (non adjusted for effectives)11,133
Non-effectives (sick)

Total Effectives ('rounded figure')9,500

St. Simon's3,000
Army detachments [See note at bottom of page]800
Naval personnel
abord ships, in
direct support.
Excluding est 15,000 naval personnel
on ships that contributed to the overall


'Reported' army strength at start.
Includes German mercenaries.
Estimated naval personnel
directly supporting
Estimate naval personnel figure is
from number that surrendered to de Grasse.
Estimated British total at start9,725
Estimated sick-1,500

Cornwallis recognized the odds were in the allies' favor, and he sent Clinton a note asking for help. Clinton responded that a British fleet with 5,000 men would sail for Yorktown from New York on 5 October. Meanwhile, Cornwallis had his men construct a main line of defense around Yorktown that consisted of ten small enclosed forts (called redoubts), batteries with artillery and connecting trenches.
          Besides the overwhelming numbers of combatants, Cornwallis faced a serious disadvantage in artillery compared to the impressive array assembled by the allies. The artillery aspects of the siege are covered at The Artillery at the Siege of Yorktown (1781) webpage.

28 September 1781
American and French armies marched from Williamsburg to take up siege positions outside of Yorktown. The began digging a trench 800 yards from the British defense line.
29 September
Cornwallis, believing that Clinton's arrival was imminent, evacuated his outer works.
30 September
As allied engineers planned the layout of siege lines, troops began construction of gabions, fascines and other items for siege warfare. British artillery attempted to disrupt the allied efforts.
3 October
Allied forces at Gloucester defeated Tarleton, forcing the British back within their lines at Gloucester Point. This is particularly important in that it cut off British supplies of fresh food and fodder for British horses. Cornwallis soon ordered many of his horses to be killed, to prevent them from starving to death.
6 October
Allies began digging the first siege line. Several days of rain had softened the ground, making digging quick, easy and quiet. The line went up in one night.
9 October
Artillery batteries were completed. The French open fired at 1500 hours from 'the French Trench' opposite the 'Fusilier's Redoubt'. Washington fired the first American gun at around 1700 hours. Soon, more batteries opened fire. French hot shot ignited the H.M.S Charon, which quickly burnt and sank.
10 October
Clinton sent word that he would arrive with reinforcements in 2 to 3 weeks.
11 October
Allies began digging the Second Parallel.
14 October
Allies assaulted and captured Redoubts 9 and 10. This permitted completion of the Second Siege Line and allowed advanced placement of the artillery. [See link to webpage on this action at the bottom of this page]
16 October
British launch a sortie to spike allied guns, but the raid is ineffective.
16-17 October
With allied artillery firing point-blank into British defense works, destroying fortifications and causing high casualties, Cornwallis realized Clinton would not arrive in time. Cornwallis decided to escape from Yorktown. About midnight, Cornwallis moved his able bodied troops to the waterfront and began to ferry them across the river to Gloucester Point. After some were evacuated, a sudden, intense storm arrived, forcing the operation to be abandoned.
        Cornwallis' force became low on heavy ammunition and lacked transportation for his equipment. Many British guns were disabled, and their troops were reduced to eating "rancid meat and wormy biscuits" as dysentery and smallpox broke out in the ranks. Knowing that Clinton's arrival would be weeks away, Cornwallis decided that the only human thing to do was to seek terms of surrender.
17 October
An officer with a flag of truce, accompanied by a drummer beating a parley, appeared on the British parapet Cornwallis sought a cease-fire so commissioners could negotiate surrender terms.
18 October
Commissioners meet at the Moore House. The British sent Lt. Col. Thomas Dundas and Major Alexander Ross. The allies sent the Viscomte de Noilles (Lafayette's brother-in-law) and Colonel John Laurens. The British argued the terms for many hours, but to no avail.
19 October
In the afternoon, the British garrison at Yorktown marched to Surrender Field to lay down their arms. One hour later, the garrison at Gloucester Point underwent similar ceremonies. This action surrendered one third of all British forces in North America, and proved to be a devastating military disaster when viewed in context of the broader global aspects of the war.
        Clinton and the British Navy that had left New York, for Yorktown arrived off the Virginia coast five days later. Finding that they were too late, the force sailed back to New York.

The 19 October surrender was impressive to all who witnessed it, most of Cornwallis' army marched out of Yorktown between two lines of allied soldiers -- Americans on one side and French on the other -- that stretched for more than one mile. The British marched to a field where they laid down their arms, and returned to Yorktown. They did not know that on that very day, Clinton sailed for Yorktown from New York with 5,000 of troops.

News of the British defeat at Yorktown spread quickly. Celebrations took place throughout the United States. London was shocked. The British prisoners were marched to prison camps in Winchester, Virginia and Frederick, Maryland. The American army returned to the Hudson River, while the French army remained in Yorktown and Williamsburg area for the winter. Clinton and Cornwallis eventually returned to England where they engaged in a long and bitter public controversy over who was to blame for the British defeat at Yorktown.

Again, from Boatner's work, the following data is presented for land operations only: American casualties: 23 killed, 65 wounded; total 125. French casualties: 60 killed, 193 wounded; total 253. British casualties: 156 killed, 326 wounded, 70 missing; total 552. British surrendered (including non combatants): 7,241 plus 840 naval personnel to de Grasse. German casualties are not included.

Though the British still had 26,000 troops in North America after Yorktown, their resolve to win the war was nothing like it had been before Yorktown. The war had been lengthy and costly. Replacing Cornwallis' captured army was a questionable proposition, particularly because the British also were engaged in military struggles in India, Gibraltar, the West Indies and Ireland. In effect, the War for American Independence was a 'world War' for both England and France. In this broader context, it can be better appreciated how the Yorktown victory played a key role for the British Parliament, in March 1782, passing a resolution saying the British should not continue the war against the United States. Later that year, commissioners of the United States and Great Britain signed provisional articles of peace -- concurrent with similar articles being signed between British and French representatives. In September 1783, the final treaty was signed which ended the war and acknowledged American independence.

[Foregoing text is an edited version of one from a NPS page that was "compiled and written by Jim Eccleston, July 1993." Webpage author of the NPS page was Sandy Groves. Reference to combatant figures taken from Boatner were not part of the NPS text.]

Further information on Blarenberghe's Yorktown paintings can be found at webpage "Comments on famous paintings of the Siege of Yorktown (1781)".

Information on the 800 French Army [often mistakenly listed as 'marines'] detachments loaned by de Grasse from his ship garrisons is at webpage: The 800 French Army Troops at Gloucester (1781).

Page created 20 December 2001; revised 27 April 2006.