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1820 Painting by artist John Trumbull depicting the surrender of Cornwallis' army at Yorktown in 1781

The British Surrender / Surrender Field

If only... once Cornwallis arrived in Yorktown it seemed his fate had been sealed from that moment. However, records indicate that on October 5 back in New York, Clinton had assembled some 7,000 troops to send to Cornwallis' aid. However, the fleet of 25 ships did not set sail from New York until October 19, the day Cornwallis surrendered to General Washington. It arrived off the Chesapeake cape on October 24, just about a week too late.

On the 16th Cornwallis sent the better part of his light infantry across the York River to Gloucester. However, a sudden and violent storm arose that prevented the boats from returning and actually damaged a good many of them from further service.

The morning of the 17th, the allies brought to bear all of their artillery on the town and British encampments. The British were out of ammunition and could not return fire. It was hopeless. A red-coated drummer climbed one of the parapets and calmly beat out the call for a parley. Although the allies could not hear the drum roll, they understood what it meant and the firing ceased. A white handkerchief carried by a British officer made his way out of town toward the defenses. He was blindfolded and led to the rear and joined Washington in discussing terms for a truce. The request was for a 24 hour cease fire so an armistice and terms of surrender could be worked out.

Augustine Moore House 1862 The MOORE HOUSE IN AUGUST, 1862 WITH UNION TROOPS after General Mc Clellan forced a small confederate force out of Yorktown. Expecting a much larger standoff, Mc Clellan amassed what would be the largest artillery force to date along a line running from Yorktown across the peninsula almost to the James River. Moore House AUGUSTINE Moore House today where the surrender terms were negotiated between American and British forces.

Cornwallis, having already spent a good bit of time reconnoitering the area before the siege began, suggested the Moore house as a suitable location for the meeting to discuss the terms of surrender. Two officers from each side met to discuss those terms on October 18, and their meeting lasted well into the night.

Augustine Moore's House on the eastern most side of battlefield and just up from the York River was one of the few structures still remaining in tack at the time of the cessation of the conflict. It was built in the early 1700s. Although the house had gone through a number of remodeling, including extensive damage during the Civil War, the National Park Service restored the building in 1934 to the way it appeared in 1781.

Surrender Field Surrender Field

When Cornwallis asked to discuss terms, he fully expected to negotiate with Washington to take his army back to England. That was not going to happen. The Americans insisted on the exact terms granted by the British to the defeated American army in Charleston, South Carolina the previous years. Those terms deprived the surrendering Americans at Charleston with their personal honor intact. After much debate the terms were accepted by the British which in part meant that at the surrender ceremony, the British army would case their regimental flags, and, their military band would play a British tune instead of professionally saluting the victors with renditions of American or French Songs. American tradition has it that the British song played was "The World Turned Upside Down." However, there was no historical record of which song or songs were played by the band. The account of it being that particular song was added to the historical record almost a 100 years after the event.

At dawn on October 19, pipers from the British camp signaled the surrender. At 2:00 p.m. that afternoon British forces marched out of Yorktown to present themselves for the surrender at what is now called Surrender Field. As the humiliated British army marched out to a solemn drumbeat, they were dressed in smart new uniforms, their colors furled and the drums covered with black handkerchiefs. Noticeably absent from the surrender was Lord Cornwallis, who claimed to have been taken ill and did not actively take part in the ceremony.

Surrender Field Observation Observation pavilion overlooking surrender field

After the main body of English prisoners were marched off to prison camps in Virginia and Maryland, Cornwallis and his principal officers joined Washington, Rochambeau and other American officers for several days where they discussed the campaign and the treatment of prisoners. Several days later, the British officers were paroled and sent back to New York.

During the surrender 7,247 prisoners were taken. Besides 1000s of muskets and other supplies, some 244 artillery pieces were also taken. Casualties included 20 Americans and 56 wounded. The French lost 52 men and 134 wounded. The British lost 156 killed and 326 wounded. After the surrender, the Virginia Militia escorted the British prisoners of war to prison camps, after which they were demobilized.

Surrender Artillery Captured British artillery on display at Surrender Field


I have the mortification to inform your Excellency that I have been forced to give up the posts of York and Gloucester, and to surrender the troops under my command, by capitulation on the 19the instant, as prisoners of war to the combined forces of America and France

Lieutenant General Charles Lord Cornwallis to General Sir Henry Clinton, Commander in Chief, British Forces in America, October 20, 1781

News of the event was sent to Congress in Philadelphia by Lieutenant Colonel Tench Tilghman. He arrived early in the morning on the 22nd of October. He was immediately taken to President Thomas McKean and at that time word was spread throughout the streets of Philadelphia that Cornwallis had been taken.

Word of Cornwallis' surrender would not reach England until November 25. When the King received the news, he expressed shock, but expressed that he was determined to carry on the war. Those sentiments were not those of Parliament and in 1782 they voted to authorize the King to make peace with America. Commissioners were appointed by both sides and on November 30, 1782, over a year after the Yorktown surrender, provisional articles signed. It would take almost another year before a definitive treaty was signed by the United States of America that would officially end the long war.

Artist James Peale's Painting of George Washington at Yorktown after the battle.

The above painting is strikingly similar to another painting titled George Washington at Princeton by Charles Peale that hangs in the US Senate. Artist James Peale visited the battlefield at Yorktown shortly after the battle and made sketches of the landscape, including the captured artillery and surrendered British flags. In the background of the painting is the York River complete with some of Cornwallis' sunken fleet.

George Washington at Princeton

Artists Charles Wilson Peale painting of George Washington at Princeton.

This painting titled George Washington at Princeton, was painted in 1779, 2 years before the battle at Yorktown. Note the similarities in the two. This version was painted by James Peale's older brother, Charles Wilson Peale. James often helped his brother in completing paintings