The Battle of Yorktown and the Treaty of Paris
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- 0:10 The Last Year of the War
- 1:16 Converging on Yorktown
- 2:10 The Seige of Yorktown
- 3:30 The Treaty of Paris
- 4:54 Lesson Summary
After the unsuccessful Southern Strategy, General Cornwallis pulled his army up to Yorktown, Virginia. A combined effort by the armies and navies of America and France resulted in British surrender and the 1783 Treaty of Paris that recognized the United States of America.
The Last Year of the War
Late in the American Revolution, George Washington had good reason to be hopeful. Despite Britain's Southern Strategy, American troops were making headway against the British army and their loyalist forces. Foreign navies were fighting the British at sea, and French officers, like the Marquis de Lafayette, were also helping on land. While the morale of the Continental armies and navies were on the rise, British troops became disheartened, and the English population was starting to grumble about another expensive, seemingly endless war.
In an attempt to disrupt the American troops in the south, General Charles Cornwallis had moved his army into Yorktown, Virginia at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. From there, he planned to attack the American supply and communication lines. And in the event that things went poorly, he figured he had a quick escape by sea.
Lafayette had been covertly following Cornwallis' actions and quietly gathering reinforcements throughout the summer, preparing for a coordinated attack. The Americans needed to stop Cornwallis before he received a supply shipment and reinforcements from England, but this would also have to be a surprise attack, so they could surround him before he escaped.
Converging on Yorktown
In mid-August 1781, the Continental Army received a message from across the sea. The French fleet was leaving the West Indies and heading to Yorktown. They would arrive within a month. The French army moved down from Rhode Island to join the American forces right under the nose of the redcoats. Moving thousands of men and animals secretly for several hundred miles would be a challenge today, but without the modern conveniences of roads or bridges, it seems impossible.
To try and slip away without being noticed, Washington established a decoy force, suggesting to the British that he was planning to attack their base in New York City. About two weeks later, the British commander-in-chief learned from a scout that the Americans were past Philadelphia. He desperately tried to get word to General Cornwallis. But by September 5, Cornwallis didn't need anyone to tell him he was in trouble. The French navy had arrived.
The Siege of Yorktown
A British fleet from New York was dispatched and the two rivals clashed at sea in the Battle of the Chesapeake. On September 16, the British attack fleet retreated to New York with their tails between their legs, leaving General Cornwallis pinned against the bay with France at his back and the combined army approaching from the front. At least 7,000 land forces arrived on September 28, joined by more than 3,000 French marines. The British army was surrounded.
The Battle of Yorktown was really a three-week siege. French and American cannons began to fire on British defensive positions without stopping in order to prevent the British from making any repairs. The allies captured the redoubts and turned the guns back on the British. As the allies drew closer to the town, Cornwallis began sinking his own ships in the harbor to keep them from being captured. After a failed attempt to escape, General Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781.
Back in England, King George insisted he could send more troops and win the war, but he didn't have any support in Parliament or among the English people. The surrender at Yorktown marked the end of the American Revolution. However, it would be two more years before the various navies resolved their fights overseas, British troops evacuated the United States and a peace treaty was signed.
The Treaty of Paris
In the peace talks that followed, the Americans' top priority, of course, was independence. Spain wanted Gibraltar, and France wanted some of the sugar islands in the Caribbean. Great Britain took advantage of the different interests among its enemies and proposed a secret meeting with America. Wanting the most favorable terms, the American delegation accepted, despite having been directed by Congress to work with France. By offering independence to the Americans but refusing the other nations' demands, Britain was able to keep her enemies from banding together.
The 1783 Treaty of Paris has ten articles. Perhaps most importantly, the British agreed to recognize American independence as far west as the Mississippi River. Americans agreed to honor debts owed to British merchants from before the war, and both sides agreed to return confiscated property. Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris on January 14, 1784, though both parties conveniently ignored provisions that didn't suit their interests. America's allies didn't make out so well with their treaties, collectively called the Peace of Paris. They reached none of their primary objectives, and both Spain and France were left deeply in debt.
A famous artist named Benjamin West attended the peace talks with the intention of painting the Treaty's acceptance. But only the Americans agreed to pose, and the painting was never completed.
British General Charles Cornwallis realized that his army's Southern Strategy wasn't as effective as he'd hoped. He moved his army north to Yorktown, Virginia, where he hoped to cut off the American forces. America and France began looking for an opportunity to attack. When a fleet from the West Indies set sail for Yorktown, the army had just one month to secretly get into position and surround Cornwallis. Following the Battle of the Chesapeake, the French navy controlled the water and 10,000 allied troops began bombarding the British defenses in a siege commonly known as the Battle of Yorktown. On October 19, 1781, General Cornwallis surrendered, ending the American Revolution, though America's allies fought at sea with Britain for two more years. In the 1783 Treaty of Paris, Britain pitted the allies against each other, offering American independence while ignoring the demands of other nations.
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Chapters in History 103: US History I
- 1. First Contacts (28,000 BCE-1821 CE) (7 lessons)
- 2. Settling North America (1497-1732) (11 lessons)
- 3. The Road to Revolution (1700-1774) (6 lessons)
- 4. The American Revolution (1775-1783) (10 lessons)
- 5. The Making of a New Nation (1776-1800) (12 lessons)
- 6. The Virginia Dynasty (1801--1825) (11 lessons)
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