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The Battle of Yorktown was the climax of the Revolutionary War. The combined forces of General Washington, General Rochambeau, Admiral de Grasse, and General Lafayette all converged on the greatest concentration of British troops in America. It took great amounts of planning, courage, and skill to execute this attack.

When General Rochambeau met General Washington in 1781 to determine their next move against the British, Washington wanted to attack New York City. Rochambeau convinced him that the wiser move was to move South. Word had come from General Lafayette in Virginia that Cornwallis had taken up a defensive position at Yorktown. Cornwallis was situated next to the York River. If they could surround the city by land and cut off Cornwallis' escape route on the river, Washington and Rochambeau would strike an enormous blow to the British forces. Planning for the elaborate campaign began immediately.

French Admiral de Grasse, stationed in the West Indies, would sail with his fleet to the Chesapeake Bay and secure the mouth of the York River. Meanwhile, Washington and Rochambeau would march south to Yorktown and form a semicircle around the city. The plan was simple in concept, but it would take great military skill to execute.

Troops Converging on Yorktown First, Washington and Rochambeau started to march towards New York City. They stationed approximately 2500 men at the American forts near the city to fool the British into believing that Washington's entire force was still there. Then the combined Franco-American army raced south to Virginia. As they marched south, Admiral de Grasse's fleet arrived at the Chesapeake Bay. They defeated the British fleet of Admiral Thomas Graves and won control of the entire bay. More importantly, this meant that they controlled the mouth of the York River and could prevent both Cornwallis' escape and any British communication with Cornwallis. On September 28, 1781, Washington and Rochambeau, along with Lafayette's troops and 3,000 of de Grasse's men, arrived at Yorktown. In all, there were approximately 17,000 men converging on Cornwallis' camp. The stage was set for the final showdown in America's fight for independence.

The combined forces approached Yorktown from the South. The French, under Rochambeau, formed the left flank of the attack, while the American troops, under Washington and Lafayette, approached from the right. The city was soon surrounded and under heavy fire. On October 14, the Franco-American forces captured 2 major British redoubts. Cornwallis' options were running out. He even tried sending blacks infected with smallpox over enemy lines in an attempt to infect the American and French troops. After a futile counterattack, Cornwallis offered to surrender on October 17. On the 19th of October, the papers were signed and he officially surrendered. This would be the final major battle of the Revolutionary War.

Cornwallis Surrenders Immediately after this battle, Lord North, the British Prime Minister, resigned. His successors decided that it was no longer in Britain's best interest to continue the war, and by November of 1782, the Treaty of Paris, in which Britain recognized the United States and promised to remove all its troops from the country, had been written. Just over 8 years after the Declaration of Independence, the United States of America was fully established as an independent nation.

During the negotiations at Paris, the course of Franco-American relations for the next century became apparent. Congress had urged the American negotiators, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Laurens, to follow the advice of the Comte de Vergennes. It soon became obvious, however, that Vergennes did not have the best interests of the United States first on his agenda. During the Revolutionary War, France and Britain had gone to war directly as well. The original French-American treaty of alliance stated that the two countries would not negotiate for peace separately. But the Americans found that they would get a much better deal if they negotiated separately from France, who did not want the new country to become too powerful. John Adams commented that Vergennes "means to keep his hand under our chin to keep us from drowning, but not to lift our head out of the water." The American diplomats went ahead and negotiated with Richard Oswald, the British negotiator, without any input from the French. When the terms of the treaty were finalized, Vergennes could only marvel at how well the Americans had negotiated without his help.









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Page Originated 4/2/04
Last updated 9/24/04
Web Master Fred Preston