It’s around 2 am on August 27th, 1776; over a year since the start of the American Revolutionary War.
In an apartment on the second floor of a tavern in Brooklyn, New York, a teenage boy named William lies in bed, fast asleep. But his slumber is interrupted… by the sound of his bedroom door creaking open. The boy's eyes quickly flutter open. Standing in the doorway, he sees the silhouette of an armed British soldier who points a musket in William’s face, saying, “Come with me.”
Nervous and confused, William throws on his clothes. Then he follows the soldier down a flight of stairs… and into his father’s tavern on the first floor. On one side of the room, William sees a British officer standing near a window. On the other, he sees three British soldiers holding his father at gunpoint. The officer steps forward and demands a drink. William’s father gives William a nod. He quickly shuffles behind the bar.
William grabs a bottle and pours a drink for the officer who gulps it down. Then the officer gently sets his glass on the bar top. In a soft voice, he says he’s in command of thousands of British troops hiding just outside. They’re on their way to launch a surprise attack against General Washington’s troops, located in nearby Brooklyn Heights. To get there, the officer needs William and his father to guide his men around a nearby hill through a passage called the “Rockaway Path”.
But defiant, William’s father steps forward and says, “We belong to the other side, General, and can’t serve you.” In response, the officer gives a slight signal and the three British soldiers raise their weapons and train them on William and his father. In a voice that grows cold, the officer says they’re his prisoners now; they have no choice in the matter.
He moves to the front door and then gestures for them to step outside. The father gives William a look as if to say, “Everything’s going to be fine.” But as William follows his father out into the dark night, he’s not so sure. He prays for their safety and the well-being of the unsuspecting colonial soldiers who have no idea what’s coming.
Back in March of 1776, General George Washington successfully captured Boston from the British. Washington suspected the British would respond by trying to sack New York City. So Washington made preparations to defend New York by placing his troops in Brooklyn, just across the east river from the southern tip of Manhattan. Washington’s instincts were right. In late August, thousands of British troops landed in Brooklyn determined to challenge Washington’s defenses.
On this night, in the early hours of August 27th, the British exploit a gap in the colonial lines. The teenage boy, William Howard Junior, and his father are forced to help the British sneak toward the colonial forces. The ensuing Battle of Brooklyn Heights, as it’s sometimes called, lasts for nearly three days. Over a thousand Americans are killed, wounded, or captured. In the end, Washington is forced to retreat across the river and ultimately, abandon the city.
But in spite of this humiliating defeat, Washington avoids surrender, and by retreating, he manages to keep his army intact. In the coming years, Washington will turn the tide of the war. He will wear the British down by waging a war of attrition on land and sea. With the help of his French allies, Washington will ultimately win America’s independence by delivering the British a mortal blow at the Siege of Yorktown which comes to an end on October 19th, 1781.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
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Today is October 19th, 1781: The Battle of Yorktown Ends the American Revolution.
It’s May 21st, 1781, at a local house in Wethersfield, Connecticut.
On one side of a table sits George Washington, the commander-in-chief of the continental army. On the other, sits a brilliant Frenchman who is trying to help Washington win the war: General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, the Count de Rochambeau.
At the start of the American Revolutionary War, Washington’s ragtag army of volunteers looked like they would be quickly crushed by British forces. But as the years went on, Washington and his men fought their way back by frustrating the British with deft military maneuvers - like strategic retreat. But even Washington knows that the only way to win the war is with the help of his French allies.
Last summer, Rochambeau arrived in the colonies with guns, ships, and thousands of French soldiers. He immediately placed himself under Washington’s command. Now, he’s sitting down with Washington to discuss their strategy for beating the British. And Rochambeau has good news. An enormous fleet under the command of French Admiral de Grasse is en route to the colonies.
Hearing this, Washington smiles. He tells Rochambeau, the impending arrival of de Grasse’s fleet is the perfect opportunity to achieve one of his major strategic objectives: taking back New York from the British.
Washington is convinced this is the right strategy to end the war. But Rochambeau disagrees. In 1781, the British forces are divided. Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in North America, is stationed in New York with thousands of troops. Meanwhile, his general, Lord Cornwallis, is waging a bloody war in the southern colonies. Instead of attacking Clinton in New York, Rochambeau suggests they send the French fleet in the Chesapeake Bay and launch a surprise attack against Cornwallis. But Washington’s mind is fixed. He lost New York six years ago in a humiliating defeat, and he is determined to win it back.
Rochambeau nods and agrees to support Washington’s strategy. He even goes so far as to sign a document approving of Washington’s plan. But privately, Rochambeau works against him. He sends a secret message to Admiral de Grasse encouraging him to sail south to the Chesapeake Bay.
A few months later, in June, Rochambeau sends Washington word confirming that Admiral de Grasse will soon be arriving to help them launch a joint attack against the British. Washington replies, repeating his desire for de Grasse to sail to New York. But again, Rochambeau deceives him. To Washington, Rochambeau claims he instructed the admiral to head north. But in his correspondence with de Grasse, Rochambeau communicates just the opposite.
Soon, though, Washington begins to reconsider his strategy. In the summer of 1781, the British intercept a letter from Washington naming New York as his principal target. Immediately, Clinton makes moves to defend the city. By early August, Washington is convinced that Clinton will reinforce New York with troops from the south, leaving Cornwallis vulnerable. And perhaps for the first time, Washington begins to see the wisdom behind Rochambeau’s initial suggestion.
Then in mid-August, Washington receives word that Admiral de Grasse is en route but not bound for New York. Instead, he’s heading to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, just off the coast of Virginia, with 30 ships and 3500 troops. De Grasse is expected to arrive sometime in early September. Hearing this, Washington fully abandons the idea of attacking New York, and instead, makes preparations to march south.
Washington is disappointed to not be able to retake New York. But his disappointment turns to excitement when, two days later, Washington learns some startling news. After a series of costly battles, Lord Cornwallis and his men took refuge in a port city of Yorktown, Virginia, at the mouth of Chesapeake. Cornwallis apparently intends to use Yorktown as a base of operations to continue his southern campaign. But Washington instantly recognizes that Cornwallis has marched into a trap.
When Admiral de Grasse arrives, the French fleet will block the mouth of the bay, and prevent any and all British ships from delivering Cornwallis much-needed supplies and troops. Colonial soldiers already in the region will close in on Yorktown, and hold Cornwallis in place while Washington and Rochambeau make the journey south. Once they arrive, they will lay siege to Yorktown, and force Cornwallis to surrender. But for their bold plan to work, Washington and his army must first make the long journey to the general's home state. There, on the capes of Virginia, the fate of the war will be decided and the stage will be set for a colonial victory.
It’s September 5th, 1781.
Rochambeau and his entourage of officers sail down the Delaware River on a small boat.
Washington and the colonial army are making the journey to Yorktown on land. But Rochambeau wanted to get to Virginia as soon as possible to rendezvous with the troops already in the region. He opted to make the journey by water.
Now, Rochambeau stands near the edge of his boat when he sees a strange sight in the distance: an American officer dancing on the shoreline, waving his hat in one hand, and a handkerchief in the other. For a moment, he thinks it looks like General Washington. But that’s not possible. Washington is far too stoic a man to dance a jig. So Rochambeau squints to get a better look. When he realizes it is Washington, Rochambeau smiles. He knows his friend must be bringing very good news.
Soon, Rochambeau joins Washington on land. The delighted Washington informs the Frenchman that he’s just received news that de Grasse has arrived in Chesapeake Bay. The two men embrace warmly congratulating each other. To Rochambeau, Washington seems as giddy as a schoolboy. But he knows it’s not just because their plan seems to be working. It’s also because Washington is about to go home for the first time in years.
Washington hasn’t been to Mount Vernon since he left to participate in the second continental congress back in May of 1775. To Washington, that seems like a lifetime ago. He is thrilled to see Mount Vernon again and to spend time with his wife, Martha. But Washington knows his stay will be short, and more business than pleasure.
Because not long after Washington and Rochambeau arrive at Mt. Vernon, they get to work planning the siege. Only a few days later, they continue the journey to Yorktown.
Rochambeau and his entourage continue to travel by boat. Washington and his aides ride out ahead of the army who marches on foot. But soon, Washington comes upon a messenger carrying news from Yorktown. Apparently, Admiral de Grasse left Chesapeake Bay, sailing out to challenge an incoming British fleet that was trying to reach Cornwallis. But no word has come back since. Immediately, Washington is riddled with anxiety. If de Grasse defeats the British fleet and returns to Chesapeake Bay, the plan can go forward. But if the admiral fails, their siege is doomed. Washington knows there’s nothing to be done but finish the journey and pray for good news.
So Washington continues south to Williamsburg. Not long after he arrives, good news does finally come. Admiral de Grasse has returned to Chesapeake Bay, victorious. And the Battle of the Chesapeake, as it’s called, is imminently consequential. The British fleet de Grasse challenged is forced to return to New York. And with the French fleet in control of the bay, and Lord Cornwallis and his men trapped, the stage is set for Washington to siege.
On September 17th, Admiral de Grasse sends a boat to pick up Washington and Rochambeau and carry them to his flagship, the Ville de Paris - the biggest warship in the world. That night, de Grasse treats Washington to a fine dinner on board the ship. Afterward, they lay out a timetable for the siege, set to begin at the earliest possible opportunity. Because by the time Washington returns to Williamsburg, his troops have arrived.
On September 28th, a sweltering late summer day, Washington and his army march the rest of the way to Yorktown where they set up camp. Washington knows Cornwallis will not ride out to meet them. According to the information he’s received, Cornwallis has less than 10,000 troops, and Washington is in command of almost twice that.
A few days later, on October 1st, Washington and Rochambeau order their men to start digging the first of their trenches. And soon, Washington will fire the first shot at the Siege of Yorktown. Then, under a steady barrage of cannon fire, the French and American soldiers will fight and dig, and push the trenches steadily closer to the British fortifications. The process will be long, arduous, and costly. But Washington knows all about the strategy of attrition. After six grueling years, thousands of lives lost and a huge fortune spent, victory is finally within his grasp.
It’s the morning of October 19th, 1781, just outside of Yorktown.
George Washington sits on top of his horse. By his side is his French counterpart, General Rochambeau, and a small group of their fellow officers. Stretching out in front of them are two long lines of their victorious troops. In the middle, is a procession of thousands of British soldiers and their German allies, the Hessians.
It’s not lost on Washington that the British commander - Lord Cornwallis - is not present today at this ceremony of surrender. Cornwallis claimed he wasn’t able to attend due to a sudden bout of illness. In his place, he sent Brigadier General Charles O’Hara. Washington and Rochambeau watch in silence as O’Hara steps forward to present his sword as the traditional symbol of surrender.
But O’Hara doesn’t present it to Washington, the highest-ranking officer, as is the custom. In a deliberate insult, he instead offers the sword to the top-ranking French officer, Rochambeau. But Rochambeau refuses it and points O’Hara back to Washington.
O’Hara’s face flushes with embarrassment as he's forced to walk back to Washington and offer the sword. But Washington doesn’t accept either. Since Lord Cornwallis sent an underling, Washington calls forward his second in command, General Benjamin Lincoln, and instructs him to receive the sword, officially bringing the ceremony to a close.
For the British, the fall of Yorktown is the beginning of the end. The capture of Cornwallis’s seven thousand troops is not a fatal loss for the British military. But when news of the battle reaches Britain, the public support for the war plunges. Soon, the King will call for a ceasefire, making Yorktown the last battle of the American Revolution.
It will take two years of negotiation, but eventually, a treaty will be signed in Paris. The King will finally recognize the American colonies as independent from the rule of Britain. The thirteen colonies will be free, but they are not yet a republic. After a six-year struggle over the role of government, the colonies will adopt the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Two years later, George Washington will be unanimously elected the first president of the United States. But Washington’s destiny, and the fate of America, is due, in large part, to their French allies.
The weapons, troops, naval support, and counsel of the French military played a crucial role in Washington’s victory; including at the Battle of the Chesapeake that enabled the Siege of Yorktown, which came to an end on this day, October 19th, 1781.
Next onHistory Daily.October 20th, 2011. Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s long rule comes to an end when rebels capture and execute him.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Brandon Buerk.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.