The Battle of Yorktown — the Decisive Battle of the American Revolution

September 28, 1781–October 19, 1781 — Siege of Yorktown

The Battle of Yorktown was the decisive battle of the American Revolution. General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army to General George Washington on October 19, 1781, following a lengthy siege.

Battle of Yorktown, 1781, Washington Observing Siege, Wyeth

Detail from George Washington at Yorktown by N.C. Wyeth, 1940. Image Source: N.C. Wyeth by Kate F. Jennings, 1995.

Battle of Yorktown Summary

The Battle of Yorktown — also known as the Siege of Yorktown — took place from September 28, 1781, to October 19, 1781, in and around Yorktown, Virginia. It was the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War.

American and French ground forces under the commands of General George Washington and General Jean Comte de Rochambeau, in concert with French naval forces under the command of Admiral François-Joseph, Comte de Grasse, surrounded and entrapped the British army commanded by General Charles Cornwallis.

Following a siege and bombardment lasting about 20 days, Cornwallis surrendered his army to Washington on October 19, 1781.

Although sporadic and bitter fighting continued in the South for several months, the victory at Yorktown was the last major engagement of the American Revolution and effectively ended the conflict in the Americans’ favor.

Lord Cornwallis Surrender at Yorktown, Painting, Trumbull
This painting by John Trumbull depicts the British surrender at Yorktown. Benjamin Lincoln is about to receive the sword from O’Hara. Image Source: Yale University Art Gallery.

Battle of Yorktown Timeline

This timeline presents the events of the Battle of Yorktown and the siege in chronological order.

Prelude to the Battle of Yorktown

February 6, 1778 — Franco-American Alliance Formed

The Franco-American Alliance was formed when France and the United States signed two treaties. One was the Franco-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce, which established diplomatic and economic ties between the two nations. The other was the Treaty of Alliance, which created a military alliance between the two nations. The American representatives who negotiated the treaties were Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Lee, and Silas Deane.

Benjamin Franklin, Portrait, Duplessis
Benjamin Franklin helped negotiate the treaties that formed the Franco-American Alliance. Image Source: Joseph Duplessis, National Portrait Gallery.

March 13, 1778

France informed Britain that it had recognized the United States as an independent nation.

March 17, 1778

Britain responded to the news of French support for America by declaring war on France.

June–July 1778

The British had occupied Philadelphia for nine months. However, they did not feel they could maintain control after they learned the French had entered the war. Around 15,000 troops under the command of General Henry Clinton were evacuated to New York, to strengthen the defenses there.

Spring 1780 — Southern Campaign Begins

In the spring of 1780, the British devised a plan to defeat the American forces in the south. Once that was accomplished, those forces would march north.

May 12, 1780

British forces captured Charleston, South Carolina.

July 1780

In July, French forces under the command of Rochambeau arrived at Newport, Rhode Island.

August 16, 1780 — Battle of Camden

American forces under the command of General Horatio Gates were crushed by Cornwallis at Camden, South Carolina.

October 7, 1780 — Battle of Kings Mountain

American militia forces under the command of Isaac Shelby, William Campbell, John Sevier, and others defeated Loyalist forces led by Patrick Ferguson at Kings Moutain, South Carolina. The American victory forced Cornwallis to delay an invasion of North Carolina.

Battle of Kings Moutain, Overmountain Men Prepare to Attack
American forces prepare to attack at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

January 17, 1781 — Battle of Cowpens

American forces under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Morgan defeated the British who were led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. The battle occurred near Chesnee, South Carolina. Due to the loss, Cornwallis decided to turn his attention to the pursuit of the American forces under the command of Major General Nathanael Greene.

March 15, 1781 — Battle of Guilford Court House

Cornwallis defeated Greene near present-day Greensboro, North Carolina. However, the British suffered heavy casualties and Cornwallis could not continue to pursue Greene. Cornwallis marched back to Wilmington, North Carolina, where the British supply base was, so his men could rest. By April, Cornwallis decided to turn his attention to Virginia.

May 10, 1781 — Cornwallis Enters Virginia

Cornwallis led his troops into Virginia, where he took command of all British forces. He waged a campaign of destruction throughout Virginia.

August 1, 1781 — Cornwallis at Yorktown

Cornwallis settled in at Yorktown, Virginia, after conducting raids in Virginia. He planned to use Yorktown as a base to resupply his army and continue his campaign in Virginia.

Spies working for Marquis de Lafayette found out about the British plan. Lafayette relayed the information to General George Washington, and Washington instructed Lafayette to use his 5,000 troops to block Cornwallis from escaping by land.

Battle of Yorktown, 1781, Yorktown Waterfront, NPS
This painting depicts the Yorktown waterfront in 1781. Image Source: National Park Service.

August 14, 1781

Washington was informed that a French fleet, under the command of Admiral de Grasse, was sailing to the Chesapeake Bay from the Caribbean. De Grasse had 28 ships, support vessels, and around 3,000 troops with him.

August 21, 1781

American forces, led by George Washington, began their march from New York to Virginia. They were joined by French forces, led by General Comte de Rochambeau.

August 30, 1781

De Grasse and the French fleet arrived from the West Indies. They delivered supplies and men to the Marquis de Lafayette.

August 31, 1781

The British fleet left New York to sail south to Virginia.

September 2–4, 1781

Washington and his army march through Philadelphia to cheers.

September 5, 1781

The French defeated the British in a naval battle in the Chesapeake Bay, off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. The victory at the Battle of the Chesapeake, also known as the Battle of the Capes, was strategic because it kept the British from reinforcing their troops in Yorktown or evacuating them. The British Navy was forced to return to New York and de Grasse resumed his blockade of the Chesapeake Bay.

September 11, 1781

Cornwallis was informed that reinforcements were going to arrive at any time.

September 14, 1781

De Grasse began taking Washington and de Rochambeau’s men to Virginia.

September 18, 1781

A final strategy meeting was held between the American and French commanders. Washington and Henry Knox met with Rochambeau and de Grasse on board the French flagship, Ville de Paris.

September 20, 1871

American and French forces assembled at Williamsburg, Virginia.

Siege of Yorktown

September 28, 1781

Washington and de Rochambeau arrived in Yorktown, and the Siege began.

Battle of Yorktown, 1781, Washington's Headquarters, NPS
This painting depicts General Washington at his headquarters during the siege. Image Source: National Park Service.

October 9, 1781

American and French forces began to bombard British positions in Yorktown. De Grasse brought 3,000 additional troops to Yorktown.

October 14, 1781

American and French forces attacked strategic British positions outside of Yorktown. Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm Graf von Zweibrücken led 400 men and took Redoubt Number Nine. Colonel Alexander Hamilton led another 400 troops and took Redoubt Number Ten. Charles Armand is believed to have been the first officer to breach the wall.

Siege of Yorktown, Storming of Redoubt 10
This painting by Eugène Lami depicts American forces attacking Redoubt No. 10 at Yorktown. Image Source: Wikipedia.

October 15, 1781

British troops led by Colonel Robert Abercromby attacked, attempting to spike American and French cannons.  Although they were able to damage several cannons and guns, they were turned back by the French. The cannons and guns were repaired by morning and the bombardment of Yorktown resumed.

October 16, 1781

The British attempted to sneak out of Yorktown by crossing the York River, but a storm blew in and ruined the plan. They were forced to halt the operation. Cornwallis met with his officers, and they agreed they had no option but to surrender.

Battle of Yorktown, 1781, British Troops Stack Arms, NPS
This painting depicts the British troops stacking their weapons during the surrender. Image Source: National Park Service.

British Surrender at Yorktown

October 17, 1781

A drummer boy, followed by an officer waving a white handkerchief, appeared and approached the American and French troops.

October 18, 1781

The Americans, French, and British negotiated the terms of surrender.

Battle of Yorktown Outcome

On October 19, 1781, the Articles of Capitulation were signed. Cornwallis surrendered more than 7,000 officers and men. Cornwallis refused to attend the formal ceremony and sent General Charles O’Hara in his place. O’Hara offered the sword of surrender to Rochambeau, who refused and directed O’Hara to give it to Washington. Washington also refused and instructed O’Hara to give it to his second in command, Benjamin Lincoln. At that point, the British soldiers laid down their arms between the American and French armies.

Charles Cornwallis, Portrait
Charles Cornwallis.

Battle of Yorktown Significance — Why was the Battle of Yorktown Important?

The Battle of Yorktown was important to United States history because it was the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War. The British forces, under the command of Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, were forced to surrender to French and American forces led by General George Washington.

The American victory sealed the independence of the fledgling United States of America and eventually led to British forces evacuating all of the positions it held in its former colonies. The American Revolutionary War officially ended when the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783.

Visit the Yorktown Battlefield

The Yorktown Battlefield is part of the Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia and is open throughout the year to visitors.

Battle of Yorktown APUSH Review and Notes

Use the following links and videos to study the Battle of Yorktown, the American Revolutionary War, and the Southern Campaign for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Battle of Yorktown APUSH Definition

The Battle of Yorktown in 1781 was the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War. Fought in and around Yorktown, Virginia, American forces defeated the British, forcing them to surrender and sign Articles of Capitulation on October 19, 1781. Although sporadic fighting continued, the war was essentially over. Great Britain recognized the independent United States of America in the 1783 Treaty of Paris and the American Revolution ended.

Battle of Yorktown APUSH Video

This video from Heimler’s History discusses the American Revolution, including the Battle and Siege of Yorktown.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The Battle of Yorktown — the Decisive Battle of the American Revolution
  • Date September 28, 1781–October 19, 1781
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Yorktown, Siege of Yorktown, Yorktown Campaign, George Washington, Charles Cornwallis, Surrender of Cornwallis
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 26, 2024