Reflections on the Siege and Capitulation of Yorktown and Gloucester

Critical Thinking

April 21, 2021
by Ian Saberton Also by this Author


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Lt. General Earl Cornwallis, the British general officer commanding in the south, occupied Yorktown and Gloucester on August 1 and 2, 1781, the evacuation of Portsmouth was completed on the 18th, and four days later he was joined by the remaining troops from there.

Meanwhile momentous events were taking place elsewhere. On August 14, while posted with General Washington on the Hudson, Lt. General the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French expeditionary force, received notice from Rear Admiral the Comte de Grasse that he would quit Santo Domingo, the capital of Hispaniola, on the 13th for the Chesapeake, bringing with him twenty-five to twenty-nine ships of war, over 3,000 troops, ten field pieces, and a number of siege cannon and mortars. He would return with the troops on October 15.

Displaying a decisiveness that does them great credit, Washington and de Rochambeau decided in concert to abandon their plans for taking New York City and to strike south for Virginia as soon as possible. On August 21 their march began, with 2,000 Continental and 4,000 French troops, and was conducted in such a way as to mislead General Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander-in-chief, that an attack on Staten Island was in prospect. It was not until September 2, when the Continentals were marching through Philadelphia, that Clinton received intelligence that the allied forces were bound for the Chesapeake. Even if he had known a few days earlier, there would have been no window of opportunity to fit out a troop reinforcement for Cornwallis in time to reach him before the French blockade of the Chesapeake began.

To conceal his destination as long as possible de Grasse took an indirect route through the Bahama Channel, arriving off the Capes of Virginia on August 29, the date on which he was spotted by HMS Guadeloupe, which promptly reported his presence to Cornwallis. According to a detailed note of his fleet appearing in The Cornwallis Papers,[1] he had brought thirty-seven men of war, all but three of which were of sixty-four guns or more, and eight frigates. He proceeded to anchor in Lynnhaven Bay and on September 1 dispatched forty boats with troops to Jamestown Island, where they joined up with Major General the Marquis de Lafayette in attempting to bottle up Cornwallis on the landward side of Williamsburg Neck. All that was needed to complete the naval armament was the arrival of a convoy of siege artillery from Newport, Rhode Island, escorted by Admiral the Comte de Barras.

On September 5, as he rode through Chester, Washington received news of de Grasse’s arrival, and on the 6th his Continentals reached the Head of Elk, a short distance from the northern point of Chesapeake Bay. Two days later they were joined by de Rochambeau’s men.

What, in the meantime had become of the Royal Navy? On May 3 Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney, the naval commander in the West Indies, had warned his counterpart at New York that de Grasse might visit the coast of North America, “in which case I shall send every assistance in my power.” On learning of de Grasse’s projected departure, he detached his second-in-command, Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, after him, but unaware of the strength of de Grasse’s armament, he assigned to the squadron only fourteen men of war, three frigates, and a fire-ship. Following a more direct route, Hood reached the Chesapeake four days before de Grasse, but not finding him there, he sailed onwards to New York. It was only then that Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, the naval commander on the North American station, was acquainted with de Grasse’s approach, though not with his overwhelming strength. Seized of the need to take immediate action, he united five of his seven men of war with Hood’s reinforcement, and assuming overall command, he set sail on August 31 for the Chesapeake, hoping to pre-empt or contest de Grasse’s occupation of the Bay or at least to prevent de Barras, of whose departure he was aware, from joining up with de Grasse. In none of these objectives was Graves successful. Finding de Grasse had already arrived, he attempted to dislodge him, but in the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes on September 5 he came off worse against a superior French fleet, and two or three of his ships were badly damaged. After the two fleets had maneuvered for a further five days, de Barras passed safely within the Capes, de Grasse re-entered the Bay, and shortly afterwards Graves, outnumbered and outgunned, sailed for New York to repair the damage to his ships.

To consolidate the entrapment of Cornwallis all that now remained was for Washington’s and de Rochambeau’s men to join up with Lafayette’s and the French naval troops on Williamsburg Neck. From the Head of Elk the artillery and stores were embarked in transports while the main body of the troops marched on to Baltimore and Annapolis. By September 18 they had boarded vessels there and by the 26th all had been set ashore at landings in James River near to Williamsburg. Washington assumed command of the entire land forces while de Rochambeau, who was nominally under him, had also arrived to command those of the French.

From Cornwallis’s perspective events from the arrival of de Grasse to the capitulation are set out in his correspondence with Clinton in The Cornwallis Papers. It is unnecessary to elaborate here, save to apportion blame for the disaster.

Undoubtedly the Royal Navy was in part responsible. No allowance was made for a worst-case scenario with the result that its men of war were too few to repulse de Grasse and remain in control of North American waters. Nor does its culpability end there. There are strong grounds for believing that repairs to the ships damaged in the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes were not progressed as rapidly and as urgently as the critical situation demanded.[2] Had they been completed a week sooner, Cornwallis might well have been saved. As it was, the date of departure was constantly put back, the fleet was not ready to convoy Clinton and 7,000 troops till October 19—the day of the capitulation, and it did not arrive off the Capes of Virginia till five days later.

Surrendering British troops marching out of Yorktown, 1781, painted by Louis Blarenberghe, 1800, for the Palace of Versailles. (Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library)

After the capitulation we are treated to the distasteful spectacle of Cornwallis and Clinton attempting to offload onto each other responsibility for the disaster, whereas in reality both were in part to blame. As explained in a recent article of mine,[3] Cornwallis for his part ought never to have marched from North Carolina into Virginia in the first place, while Clinton, once Cornwallis was there, brought undue pressure on him to return to Williamsburg Neck, tacitly acquiescing, despite Cornwallis’s severe reservations, in the choice of Yorktown as the only place to protect ships of the line. The danger to such a post, if command of the Chesapeake were lost, it did not take an accomplished strategist to see[4]—and Clinton was aware that de Grasse was expected in the hurricane season.[5]

With hindsight it is easy to question decisions taken by Cornwallis immediately before and during the siege, but it would be harsh to do so, as they are perfectly understandable under the circumstances then obtaining. After the French naval troops had joined up with Lafayette’s men on September 1, he could have attacked them before the arrival of Washington’s and de Rochambeau’s reinforcement and hopefully broken out, whether to retire to the Carolinas or retreat to the north. Alternatively he could have broken out on the Gloucester side and attempted by rapid marches to reach New York. Yet either option would have involved the abandonment of numerous sick, artillery, stores and shipping, and under these circumstances it was entirely reasonable that he should have preferred to await news from Clinton of his intentions. In mid September Clinton’s dispatches arrived, in which he undertook to embark with a reinforcement as soon as possible, and with this assurance Cornwallis, again quite reasonably, forsook for the time being all thoughts of breaking out.

Cornwallis has been criticised for abandoning his outer line of defense, about half a mile beyond the inner, on the night of September 29 as the enemy began to invest Yorktown. If it could have been held, if only for a few days, defense of the post would have been protracted. Yet, observing that the enemy were taking measures that could not fail to turn his left flank in a short time, and having just received word from Clinton that there was every reason to expect his departure on October 5, Cornwallis did not hesitate to withdraw within his inner works, conscious that he could hold out till Clinton’s anticipated arrival. It is idle to try and second-guess his judgement now.

In his Campaigns Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton makes out a seemingly convincing case for breaking out on the Gloucester side soon after Major the Hon. Charles Cochrane arrived on October 10 with Clinton’s dispatch of September 30. In it Clinton indicated that his departure had fallen back at the earliest to the 12th but that even that date was subject to disappointment. Yes, the chances of a break-out would have markedly improved if Cornwallis had acted promptly as Tarleton suggests, but in the circumstances in which he found himself it is perfectly understandable that, for the same reason as he had not abandoned his post earlier, Cornwallis should have decided to wait for relief till matters became critical. By the 16th they had become so and on that night he attempted to transfer his fit troops to the Gloucester side, but fate in the form of a squall intervened, his boats were dispersed, and the attempt came to nought. He was then left with no option but to capitulate.

As far as Washington is concerned, he emerges from his campaign as a decisive, resolute commander with keen strategic awareness, but his success was due less to concentrating his forces in an exemplary way than preponderantly to chance circumstances, namely Cornwallis’s absurd decision to march from North Carolina into Virginia, the occupation of Yorktown and Gloucester against his better judgement, its coincidence with the arrival of de Grasse, the failure of the Royal Navy to cater adequately for command of North American waters, Cornwallis’s decision not to break out at once from Yorktown, and ultimately the squall which put paid to his doing so at the close of the siege. “Est-il heureux?” Napoleon was wont to ask of a prospective general. “Is he lucky?” In Washington’s case the answer, incontrovertibly, is: “Yes, in spades!”

According to Henry Johnston, the besiegers numbered 5,500 Continentals, 7,500 French, and 3,000 militia—a total of 16,000, and he calculates the besieged to be 7,500, though they were in fact 225 fewer. Of those that capitulated the return of October 18 appearing in The Cornwallis Papers[6] lists 5,950 rank and file, and when we extrapolate by using a factor of 17.5 percent to cater for officers, NCOs and drummers, we arrive at a figure of 6,991 for all ranks. If, from the return of October 27 appearing in Johnston,[7] we subtract the staff of the public departments, followers of the army, pioneers, and odds and sods not listed in the former return, the figure is 6,949 for all ranks, so that the two returns correlate as it is reasonable to assume that some of the severely wounded had died in the interval before the later return was prepared. Not accounted for in the above figures are some 800 marines engaged on land on each side.

Writing in 1902, Sir John Fortescue concluded, “The blow was, on the whole, perhaps the heaviest that has ever fallen on the British Army.”[8]It would have been difficult at that time to disagree with him.


[1]Ian Saberton ed., The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War(“CP”), 6 vols (Uckfield: The Naval & Military Press Ltd., 2010), 6: 103-4.

[2]See Allen French ed., Diary of Frederick Mackenzie (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930), 2: 653, 664. For a biographical note on Mackenzie, see CP, 3: 38. He was one of Clinton’s aides-de-camp.

[3]See Ian Saberton, “The Decision that Lost Britain the War: an Enigma now resolved,” Journal of the American Revolution, January 8, 2019.

[4]See, for example, Clinton to Cornwallis, May 29 and June 1, 1781, CP 5: 120.

[5]See Clinton to Cornwallis, June 19, 1781, CP 5: 135.

[6]CP 6: 116-7.

[7]Henry P. Johnston, The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis 1781 (reprint of 1881 edition, Williamstown, MA: Corner House Publishers, 1975), 164-5.

[8]Sir John Fortescue, A History of the British Army (Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1902), 3: 395.


  • So my question is this. Is then fair to say that Cornwallis was a competent commander but perhaps due to a lack of caution on his part and an over trust of his royal navy counterparts that led to his defeat, not necessarily a lack of ability as a general? Therefore making much of his criticism underserved, or does he still deserve the blame despite his previous success in the war? So guess I am asking if is in your opinion does one mistake undo months of success and proper planning?

  • Thank you, Nicholas. In short, Cornwallis was an astute battlefield commander, but in other respets was sadly ill suited to command in what was akin to a civil war. Strategist he was not. The chance events that led to his capitulation are set out in this article. I suspect you have not read my other pertinent article in JAR about him. It is referred to in note [3] of the bibliography at the end. I commend it to you.

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