Today In History: October 19, 1781: The Surrender at Yorktown

The surrender at Yorktown, which ended the American Revolutionary War.

The day before:

General Lord Charles Cornwallis to General George Washington, October 18, 1781

I agree to open a treaty of capitulation upon 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; but I expect to receive a compensation in the articles of capitulation for the surrender of Gloucester in its present state of defence.

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: engaging, on my part, that the ship shall be brought back and delivered to you, if she escapes the dangers of the sea, that the crew and soldiers shall be accounted for in future exchanges, that she shall carry off no officer without your consent, nor public property of any kind; and I shall likewise desire, that the traders and inhabitants may preserve their property, and that no person may be punished or molested for having joined the British troops.

If you choose 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.

(Check out the full correspondence in the days leading up to the 19th)

Cornwallis realized that aid would not come in time, and after two days of bombardment he sent a drummer out into view, who apparently was beating the rhythm of: “STOP! LET’S TALK!!!” A British officer high in rank came forward, was blindfolded and taken to George Washington (who was on his last legs himself).

The surrender document had already been drawn up, with Washington dictating the terms. Here are the Articles of Capitulation.

Over 7,000 soldiers surrendered at Yorktown.


The story goes that as the defeated army marched away, the band played “The World Turned Upside Down”. I did a quick Google search and found a lot of defensive impassioned people out there who feel the need to shout out into the wilds of the Internet with such comments as: “There is NO evidence that ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ was played …” I love nerds who take sides in meaningless historical debates like this. I adore them. I’m a nerd like that. But still. Whether or not it happened, it’s a good story. There are a couple of versions of said song (which has, by itself, a long interesting history). Here is one of the versions:

If buttercups buzz’d after the bee,
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse,
If the mamas sold their babies
To the gypsies for half a crown;
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down.

Dr. James Thacher, who served in the Continental Army, is one of our eyewitnesses of the capitulation, and he published his version of events a couple of years later, the relevant passage being:

“At about twelve o’clock, the combined army was arranged and drawn up in two lines extending more than a mile in length. The Americans were drawn up in a line on the right side of the road, and the French occupied the left. At the head of the former, the great American commander [George Washington], mounted on his noble courser, took his station, attended by his aides. At the head of the latter was posted the excellent Count Rochambeau and his suite. The French troops, in complete uniform, displayed a martial and noble appearance; their bands of music, of which the timbrel formed a part, is a delightful novelty, and produced while marching to the ground a most enchanting effect.

The Americans, though not all in uniform, nor their dress so neat, yet exhibited an erect, soldierly air, and every countenance beamed with satisfaction and joy. The concourse of spectators from the country was prodigious, in point of numbers was probably equal to the military, but universal silence and order prevailed.

It was about two o’clock when the captive army advanced through the line formed for their reception. Every eye was prepared to gaze on Lord Cornwallis, the object of peculiar interest and solicitude; but he disappointed our anxious expectations; pretending indisposition, he made General O’Hara his substitute as the leader of his army. This officer was followed by the conquered troops in a slow and solemn step, with shouldered arms, colors cased and drums beating a British march. Having arrived at the head of the line, General O’Hara, elegantly mounted, advanced to his excellency the commander-in-chief, taking off his hat, and apologized for the non-appearance of Earl Cornwallis. With his usual dignity and politeness, his excellency pointed to Major-General Lincoln for directions, by whom the British army was conducted into a spacious field, where it was intended they should ground their arms.

The royal troops, while marching through the line formed by the allied army, exhibited a decent and neat appearance, as respects arms and clothing, for their commander opened his store and directed every soldier to be furnished with a new suit complete, prior to the capitulation. But in their line of march we remarked a disorderly and unsoldierly conduct, their step was irregular, and their ranks frequently broken.

But it was in the field, when they came to the last act of the drama, that the spirit and pride of the British soldier was put to the severest test: here their mortification could not be concealed. Some of the platoon officers appeared to be exceedingly chagrined when giving the word “ground arms,” and I am a witness that they performed this duty in a very unofficer-like manner; and that many of the soldiers manifested a sullen temper, throwing their arms on the pile with violence, as if determined to render them useless. This irregularity, however, was checked by the authority of General Lincoln. After having grounded their arms and divested themselves of their accoutrements, the captive troops were conducted back to Yorktown and guarded by our troops till they could be removed to the place of their destination.”

One of my favorite sites, Boston 1775, describes the blame-game that ensued, following the capitulation, between the British generals.

Here is a strategic military map from 1781.

Map found here in this awesome collection (I could get lost in there forever.)

On the map you can see the positions of the British Army commanded by Cornwallis, and you can see the American and French forces commanded by Washington. And check out the French fleet (under Count de Grasse) comin’ down the pike!

And finally: here is a story I love. Again, perhaps it’s apocryphal, or even an out-and-out fabrication, but I love it nonetheless.

Benjamin Franklin was in Paris at the time of the surrender at Yorktown. He was there as a diplomat, and a walking-talking advertisement of Teh Awesome Colonies. He played chess, he drank, he socialized, he wore fur-lined hats, he was a great storyteller, and France went wild for him. One of the first international celebrities.

Word came to France of the decisive American victory, and the complete surrender to George Washington in Yorktown. Franklin attended a diplomatic dinner shortly thereafter where everyone was discussing the British defeat.

The French foreign minister stood, and toasted Louis XVI: “To his Majesty, Louis the Sixteenth, who, like the moon, fills the earth with a soft, benevolent glow.”

The British ambassador rose and said, “To George the Third, who, like the sun at noonday, spreads his light and illumines the world.”

Franklin rose and countered, “I cannot give you the sun or the moon, but I give you George Washington, General of the armies of the United States, who, like Joshua of old, commanded both the sun and the moon to stand still, and both obeyed.”


I would like to point out that I first wrote this piece in 2008, long before Hamilton came along. I’ve been an American Revolutionary War buff since … well, I was born into it. My family is a Boston family. It’s the air we breathed. But also my Irish immigrant family had absorbed the story into their bones and hearts. “John and Abigail” (no last names) were discussed in such a casual familiar way that when I was a kid I thought they were members of our family. So I just need to point this out. When I sat there in the audience at Hamilton (hands down, the most exciting night I’ve ever had in the theatre), and the Battle of Yorktown commenced, I felt a thrill of connection. I loved so much that Lin Manuel Miranda had incorporated the legend/myth/apocryphal-who-cares story about the British soldiers singing the old drinking song “The World Turned Upside Down,” as they marched off. The end of the song, the end of the war.

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4 Responses to Today In History: October 19, 1781: The Surrender at Yorktown

  1. Kim says:

    I listen to Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac on NPR every morning – he noted this “on this day in 1781 Cornwallis surrendered his British Army at the Seige of Yorktown” (mostly accurate quote lol) said Cornwallis refused to appear because Washington refused to have a band playing, instead he pretended to be indisposed. I love history – what is the truth?!

    Hamilton tickets! Really, that is totally awesome. My collegue’s daughter was privileged to attend a workshop conducted by the cast of Hamilton at the White House with her high school school history class last spring. She came back with stories about how wonderful the cast was, how kind they were, and how much she learned from the experience. Lin Manuel Miranda has done a lot to inspire an interest in history in a younger generation. Even my 9 yr grandson likes Hamilton. He asked me if I would take him to see it. (I almost digressed into a rant about the importance of the arts in education)

    I’m assuming you read “Johnny Tremaine” growing up. One of my favorite historical fiction books ever- first read to my class by my 5th grade teacher and then again on myown because I loved the story so much. Reading was my doorway to history.

    • sheila says:

      // My collegue’s daughter was privileged to attend a workshop conducted by the cast of Hamilton at the White House with her high school school history class last spring. //

      Wow! How amazing!!

      In retrospect, we were so lucky to buy tickets super early, before it had even opened on Broadway. We saw it in its first month, right after the first reviews came out. I had been aching to see it, due to my lifelong love of Alexander Hamilton – so we jumped on it when we had the chance. I would have been kicking myself if I had waited!!

      and yes: I loved Johnny Tremaine so much! I think I still have a copy somewhere.

  2. melissa says:

    I’m seeing Hamilton in March! I would be shocked if you hadn’t already seen it, since its all about HIM.

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