Yorktown, October 16-18, 1781 (Hamilton 36)

Like 9/11, the British surrender at Yorktown was recognized as a world-changing event at the very moment it happened. Everyone remembered where they were and what they saw and did. We have eyewitness accounts from Americans and French, British and Germans, officers and enlisted men, even one woman who followed her husband to war.

In this week’s post, I’ll give you a couple notes on what happened each day, and then let the eyewitnesses tell the story. (If you don’t know how the players got to this point, my post on the earlier part of the Siege of Yorktown is here. )

October 16, 1781: A failed attempt to escape

Events of the day:

  • Commander-in-Chief Henry Clinton had promised General Charles Cornwallis (in a letter Cornwallis received on October 2) that the British fleet would depart from New York by October 5. On October 16 it had not yet left New York Harbor. None of the combatants at Yorktown knew that: the British fleet might sail into view at Chesapeake Bay in two days or two weeks. Hence the American and French allies were in a hurry, and the British wanted to stall.
  • From their newly completed second parallel (incorporating Redoubts 9 and 10, captured by the French and Americans on the night of October 14-15), the Franco-American allies bombarded the earthworks around Yorktown from 300 yards away.
  • After dark, Cornwallis began to ferry his troops across the York River to Gloucester, hoping that from there he could march overland to New York. A sudden storm forced him to cancel the plan and return to Yorktown the part of his troops that had already crossed.

Johann Doehla (German in service of the British):

This afternoon the enemy cannonaded terribly. … Everybody easily saw that we could not hold out much longer in this place if we did not get help soon. (“The Doehla Journal,” translated by Robert J. Tilden, William and Mary Quarterly 2nd series, 22:3 [July 1942], p. 254)

Siege of Yorktown, 1781. Image: U.S. Military Academy via Wikipedia.
Siege of Yorktown, 1781; Gloucester is to the northeast. Image: U.S. Military Academy via Wikipedia.

General Charles Cornwallis to Commander-in-Chief Henry Clinton (from a letter written10/20/1781):

[Once the second parallel was complete,] we knew that there was no part of the whole front attacked on which we could show a single gun, and our shells were nearly expended; I therefore had only to chuse between preparing to surrender next day, or endeavouring to get off with the greatest part of the troops; and I determined to attempt the latter, reflecting, that though it should prove unsuccessful in its immediate object, it might, at least, delay the enemy in the prosecution of farther enterprizes. Sixteen large boats were prepared, and upon other pretexts were ordered to be in readiness to receive troops precisely at ten o’clock: With these I hoped to pass the infantry during the night; abandoning our baggage, and leaving a detachment to capitulate for the town’s people, and the sick and wounded; on which subject a letter was ready to be delivered to General Washington.

After making my arrangements with the utmost secrecy, the light infantry, greatest part of the guards, and part of the 23d regiment, landed at Gloucester; but at this critical moment, the weather, from being moderate and calm, changed to a violent storm of wind and rain, and drove all the boats, some of which had troops on board, down the river. It was soon evident, that the intended passage was impracticable ; and the absence of the boats rendered it equally impossible to bring back the troops that had passed, which I had ordered about two in the morning. In this situation, with my little force divided, the enemy’s batteries opened at day break: The passage between this place and Gloucester was much exposed, but the boats having now returned, they were ordered to bring back the troops that had passed during the night, and they joined in the forenoon without much loss.

Our works in the meantime were going to ruin; and not having been able to strengthen them by abbatis, nor in any other manner than by a slight fraizing [see this post: search “abatis”], which the enemy’s artillery were demolishing wherever they fired, my opinion entirely coincided with that of the engineer and principal officers of the army, that they were in many places assailable in the forenoon, and that by the continuance of the same fire for a few hours longer, they would be in such a state as to render it desperate, with our numbers, to attempt to maintain them.

We at that time could not fire a single gun; only one eight-inch and little more than a a hundred cohorn shells remained; a diversion by the French ships of war that lay at the mouth of York river was to be expected. Our numbers had been diminished by the enemy’s fire, but particularly by sickness [malaria and smallpox]; and the strength and spirits of those in the works were much exhausted by the fatigue of constant watching and unremitting duty. Under all these circumstances, I thought it would have been wanton and inhuman to the last degree to sacrifice the lives of this small body of gallant soldiers, who had ever behaved with so much fidelity and courage, by exposing them to an assault, which, from the numbers and precaution of the enemy, could not fail to succeed. I therefore proposed to capitulate … (Quoted in Banastre Tarleton’s A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America)

Corporal Stephan Popp (German in British service):

We had no rest or sleep, for the enemy kept up heavy firing and pushed their lines forward within a stone’s throw, with a battery of 14 guns and approaches and trenches so well made that it was only a matter of a few days before we would be completely surrounded and hemmed in under their concentrated fire. (Popp’s Journal, 1777-1783)

October 17: “An officer holding up a white handkerchief”

Events of the day:

  • Admiral Graves and the British fleet in New York City continued preparations to sail. And still, none of the combatants at Yorktown knew where this fleet was.
  • Admiral De Grasse and the French fleet were still at hand, two days past the date on which their king had ordered them to set sail so that they would be home before the winter set in. The British did not seem to know that De Grasse had orders to leave in mid-October.
  • Cornwallis sent a request to Washington that they discuss terms of surrender. Washington gave Cornwallis two hours to send an outline of his proposed terms. Cornwallis sent them in late afternoon.
  • Fourth anniversary of the surrender of 5,800 British troops under General Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York (10/17/1777). It was one of the few American triumphs on the battlefield during the Revolutionary War, and a factor in persuading King Louis XVI to lend assistance to the United States.

Admiral Graves (British), in New York:

The excessive want of stores and provisions and the immense repairs wanted for a crazy and shattr’d Squadron, with many cross accidents which have interven’d, has thrown back the equipment of the Squadron to a great distance. They are not quite ready – They are now very short of bread, and all the ovens will not keep up the daily consumption. Several Ships have parted their cables, others broke their anchors, and three been on shore … I see no end to disappointments … (quoted in Fleming, Beat the Last Drum)

James Thacher (American, surgeon in the Massachusetts 16th Regiment):

The whole of our works are now mounted with cannon and mortars; not less than one hundred pieces of heavy ordnance have been in continual operation during the last twenty-four hours. The whole peninsula trembles under the incessant thunderings of our infernal machines; we have leveled some of their works in ruins, and silenced their guns; they have almost ceased firing. We are so near as to have a distinct view of the dreadful havoc and destruction of their works, and even see the men in their lines tore to pieces by the bursting of our shells. But the scene is drawing to a close. … (More here)

Corporal Stephan Popp (German in British service):

The enemy opened a heavier fire than at any time and from all sides at once. The Light Infantry returned from Gloucester, reporting that it was impossible to escape in that direction … Lord Cornwallis himself visited the works and saw how near the enemy had come. He returned to his headquarters and at once sent the first flag of truce, which was very civilly treated. The English troops at once began to destroy their tents, ruin their arms, and prepare for surrender. At 12 o’clock another flag of truce was sent, – firing ceased, – there were messages going through the lines, and we were all heartily glad the fighting was over. (Popp’s Journal, 1777-1783)

General Cornwallis to General Washington:

Sir: I propose a cessation of hostilities for twenty-four hours, and that two officers may be appointed by each side, to meet at Mr. Moore’s house, to settle terms for the surrender of the posts of York and Gloucester. I have the honor to be, &c. (From the appendix to Tarleton’s History)

Lt. Ebenezer Denny (American):

In the morning, before relief came, had the pleasure of seeing a drummer mount the enemy’s parapet, and beat a parley, and immediately an officer, holding up a white handkerchief, made his appearance outside their works; the drummer accompanied him, beating. Our batteries ceased. An officer from our lines ran and met the other, and tied the handkerchief over his eyes. The drummer sent back, and the British officer conducted to a house in rear of our lines. Firing ceased totally.

Had we not seen the drummer in his red coat when he first mounted, he might have beat away till doomsday. The constant firing was too much for the sound of a single drum; but when the firing ceased, I thought I never heard a drum equal to it – the most delightful music to us all.  (Military Journal of Major Ebenezer Denny)

Sarah Osborn, wife of an American soldier who traveled with the army (referred to below as “deponent”):

They dug entrenchments nearer and nearer to Yorktown every night or two till the last. While digging that, the enemy fired very heavy till about nine o’clock next morning, then stopped, and the drums from the enemy beat excessively. Deponent was a little way off in Colonel Van Schaick’s or the officers’ marquee and a number of officers were present, among whom was Captain Gregg, who, on account of infirmities, did not go out much to do duty.

The drums continued beating, and all at once the officers hurrahed and swung their hats, and deponent asked them, “What is the matter now?”

One of them replied, “Are not you soldier enough to know what it means?”

Deponent replied, “No.”

They then replied, “The British have surrendered.”

Deponent, having provisions ready, carried the same down to the entrenchments that morning, and four of the soldiers whom she was in the habit of cooking for ate their breakfasts. (More here)

Washington replied to Cornwallis:

My Lord, I have had the honour of receiving your lordship’s letter of this date. An ardent desire to save the effusion of human blood will readily incline me to listen to such terms, for the surrender of your posts and garrisons at York and Gloucester, as are admissible. I wish, previous to the meeting of the commissioners, that your lordship’s proposals, in writing, may be sent to the American lines; for which purpose, a suspension of hostilities during two hours from the delivery of this letter will be granted. I have the honour to be, &c. (More here)

Cornwallis’s proposals arrived at allied lines at about 4:30 p.m.

The time limited for sending my answer will not admit of entering into the detail of articles; but the basis of my proposals will be, that the garrisons of York and Gloucester shall be prisoners of war with the customary honours; and, for the conveniency of the individuals which I have the honour to command, that the British shall be sent to Britain, and the Germans to Germany, under engagement not to serve against France, America, or their allies, until released, or regularly exchanged: That all arms and public stores shall be delivered up to you; but that the usual indulgence of side arms to officers, and of retaining private property, shall be granted to officers and soldiers: And that the interest of several individuals, in civil capacities and connected with us [i.e., Loyalists], shall be attended to. If your excellency thinks that a continuance of the suspension of hostilities will be necessary to transmit your answer, I shall have no objection to the hour that you may propose. … (More here)

Sergeant Joseph Plumb Martin (American):

We waited with anxiety the termination of the armistice and as the time drew nearer our anxiety increased. The time at length arrived – it passed, and all remained quiet. And now we concluded that we had obtained what we had taken so much pains for, for which we had encountered so many dangers, and had so anxiously wished. Before night we were informed that the British had surrendered and that the siege was ended. (More here)

October 18: Negotiating the terms of surrender

Events of the day:

  • The last three British warships reached Sandy Hook, and four ships crossed the bar into the open sea. And still, none of the combatants at Yorktown knew where this fleet was.
  • Negotiators for the allies and the British hammered out the terms of surrender. The Articles of Capitulation were presented to Washington for his approval at around midnight.

Corporal Stephan Popp (German in British service):

Quiet all day, while flags of truce were coming and going, negotiating terms of surrender. (Popp’s Journal, 1777-1783)

Lt.-Col. Saint George Tucker (American):

[Yesterday] Lord Cornwallis being allow’d but two hours sent out another Flag to request further time to digest his proposals—It has been granted and Hostilities have ceased ever since five OClock [on the 17th]. It was pleasing to contrast the last night with the preceeding—A solemn stillness prevaild—the night was remarkably clear & the sky decorated with ten thousand stars—numberless Meteors gleaming thro’ the Atmosphere afforded a pleasing resemblance to the Bombs which had exhibited a noble Firework the night before, but happily divested of all their Horror.

At dawn of day [on the 18th] the British gave us a serenade with the Bag pipe, I believe, & were answered by the French with the Band of the Regiment of Deux Ponts. As Soon as the Sun rose one of the most striking pictures of War was display’d that Imagination can paint—From the point of Rock Battery on one side our Lines compleatly mann’d and our Works crowded with soldiers were exhibited to view—opposite these at the Distance of two hundred yards you were presented with a sight of the British Works; their parapets crowded with officers looking at those who were assembled at the top of our Works—the Secretary’s house with one of the Corners broke off, & many large holes thro the Roof & Walls part of which seem’d tottering with their Weight afforded a striking Instance of the Destruction occasioned by War …

This was the Scene which ushered in the Day when the pride of Britain was to be humbled in a greater Degree than it had ever been before, unless at the Surrender of [British general John] Burgoyne [at Saratoga, in 1777]—It is remarkable that the proposals for a surrender of Lord Cornwallis’s Army were made on the Anniversary of that important Event …  (More here)

Washington to Cornwallis, during the morning of the 18th:

My Lord, to avoid unnecessary discussions and delays, I shall at once, in answer to your lordship’s letter of yesterday, declare the general basis upon which a definitive treaty of capitulation may take place.

The garrisons of York and Gloucester, including the seamen, as you propose, shall be received prisoners of war. The condition annexed, of sending the British and German troops to the parts of Europe to which they respectively belong, is inadmissible: Instead of this, they will be marched to such parts of the country as can most conveniently provide for their subsistence; and the benevolent treatment of the prisoners, which is invariably observed by the Americans, will be extended to them. The same honours will be granted to the surrendering army as were granted to the garrison of Charlestown.* 

The shipping and boats in the two harbours, with all their guns, stores, tackling, furniture, and apparel, shall be delivered in their present state to an officer of the navy appointed to take possession of them.

The artillery, arms, accoutrements, military chest, and public stores of every denomination, shall be delivered, unimpaired, to the heads of the departments to which they respectively belong.

The officers shall be indulged in retaining their side arms; and the officers and soldiers may preserve their baggage and effects, with this reserve, that property taken in the country [i.e., property plundered from Americans] will be reclaimed.

With regard to the individuals in civil capacities [i.e., the Loyalists], whose interest your lordship wishes may be attended to, until they are more particularly described, nothing definitive can be settled.

I have to add, that I expect the sick and wounded will be supplied with their own hospital stores, and be attended by British surgeons, particularly charged with the care of them.

Your lordship will be pleased to signify your determination, either to accept or reject the proposals now offered, in the course of two hours from the delivery of this letter, that commissioners may be appointed to digest the articles of capitulation, or a renewal of hostilities may take place. I have the honour to be, &c. (More here)

NOTE: On May 12, 1780, some 5,000 besieged Americans at Charleston, under General Benjamin Lincoln, surrendered to a British force of 14,000 under Sir Henry Clinton and his second-in-command, General Charles Cornwallis. The Americans were denied the “honors of war.” By the customs of 18th-century warfare, since the Americans had gallantly defended their position and had asked for terms of surrender before they were overrun by force, they should have been allowed to leave with colors (national and regimental flags) flying and drums beating. Their military band should have been permitted to play one of the British army’s national songs. Such honors were a brief, gentlemanly recognition of the valor of the defeated, before they became prisoners of war. The British under Clinton and Cornwallis refused to allow the Americans the honors of war. This insult had not been forgotten: General Benjamin Lincoln was Washington’s second-in-command at Yorktown, and the siege of Charleston had ended a mere 17 months earlier.

Cornwallis to Washington:

I agree to open a treaty of capitulation up on the basis of the garrisons of York and Gloucester, including seamen, being prisoners of war, without annexing the condition of their being sent to Europe … I shall in particular desire, that the Bonetta sloop of war may be left entirely at my disposal, from the hour that the capitulation is signed, to receive an aid de camp to carry my dispatches to Sir Henry Clinton. Such soldiers as I may think proper to send as passengers in her, to be manned with fifty men of her own crew, and to be permitted to sail, without examination, when my dispatches are ready …

If you chuse to proceed to negociation on these grounds, I shall appoint two field officers of my army to meet two officers from you, at any time and place that you think proper, to digest the articles of capitulation. I have the honour to be, &c. (More here)

For the rest of the day, the negotiators – Lt.-Col. John Laurens and the Viscount de Noailles (for the Americans and French) and Major Alexander Ross and Lt.-Col. Thomas Dundas (for the British) – hammered out the terms of surrender.

James Thacher (American):

It is a circumstance deserving of remark, that Colonel Laurens, who is stipulating for the surrender of a British nobleman, at the head of a royal army, is the son of Mr. Henry Laurens, our ambassador to Holland, who, being captured on his voyage, is now in close confinement in the tower of London. (More here)

Laurens had been taken a prisoner of war at Charleston. He insisted that the British be denied the honors of war at Yorktown*:

Having placed the terms on which a capitulation would be granted before Colonel Ross, that gentleman observed, “This is a harsh article.” “Which article,” said Colonel Laurens.

“The troops shall march out with colors cased, and drums beating a British or German march.”

“Yes sir,” replied Colonel L., with some sang froid, “it is a harsh article.”

“Then, Colonel Laurens, if that is your opinion, why is it here?”

“Your question, Col. Ross, compells an observation which I would have suppressed. You seem to forget, sir, that I was a capitulant at Charleston – where General Lincoln, after a brave defence of six weeks’ open trenches, by a very inconsiderable garrison, against the British army and fleet, under Sir Henry Clinton and Admiral Arbuthnot, and when your lines of approach were within pistol-shot of our field works, was refused any other terms for his gallant garrison, than marching out with colors cased and drums NOT beating a British or a German march.” “But,” rejoined Col. Ross, “my Lord Cornwallis did not command at Charleston.” “There, Sir,” said Col. Laurens, “you extort another declaration. It is not the individual that is here considered; it is the Nation. This remains an article or I cease to be a Commissioner.” (More here)

* NOTE: This story was recorded by Major William Jackson. Laurens and Jackson were both raised in South Carolina and fought at Charleston. They spent months working together during the embassy to France in early 1781, Laurens as special minister, Jackson as his secretary. When Laurens returned to the United States, Jackson remained in France to arrange the purchase and shipment of munitions and other supplies. He returned to the U.S. in February 1782, and presumably heard about Yorktown from his friend Laurens – who would, I assume, have been particularly happy to tell a fellow prisoner from Charleston how the British had been denied the honors of war. More on Jackson coming up in Hamilton Musical, 38 (“The World Turned Upside Down?”).

Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton:

Your letter of the 3d. of September my angel never reached me till to day. My uneasiness at not hearing from you is abated by the sweet prospect of soon taking you in my arms. Your father will tell you the news. Tomorrow Cornwallis and his army are ours. In two days after I shall in all probability set out for Albany, and I hope to embrace you in three weeks from this time. Conceive my love by your own feelings, how delightful this prospect is to me. Only in your heart and in my own can any image be found of my happiness upon the occasion. I have no time to enlarge. Let the intilligence I give compensate for the shortness of my letter. Give my love to your Mama to Mrs. Carter [Angelica] to Peggy and to all the family.

Adieu My Charming beloved wife, I kiss you a thousand times, Adieu, My love
A Hamilton (Letter here)

Next up: October 19, 1781.


  • I’ll put a list of the primary sources that I know of at the end of the next Hamilton post. Meanwhile, thanks to Michael Newton (author of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years) for providing me with several that aren’t readily available.
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