October 17, 1781 — British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered 8,000 British soldiers and seamen to a French and American force at Yorktown, Virginia, today — officially bringing the American Revolution to a close.
The Siege of Yorktown, also known as the Battle of Yorktown, was a decisive victory by a combined force of American Continental Army troops led by General George Washington and French Army troops led by the Comte de Rochambeau.
The year before, 5,500 French soldiers landed in Rhode Island to assist their American allies in operations against British-controlled New York City. Following the arrival of dispatches from France that included the possibility of support from the French West Indies fleet of the Comte de Grasse, Washington and Rochambeau decided to ask de Grasse for assistance either in besieging New York, or in military operations against a British army operating in Virginia.
Cornwallis, at first given confusing orders by his superior officer, Henry Clinton, was eventually ordered to make a defensible deep-water port, which he began to do at Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis’ movements in Virginia were shadowed by a Continental Army force led by the Marquis de Lafayette.
Born in London and educated at Eton and Cambridge, in 1760, Cornwallis was elected to the House of Commons; two years later he inherited his father’s earldom and entered the House of Lords as Earl Cornwallis. In fact, the defeat at Yorktown did not destroy Cornwallis’s career. In 1786, he was appointed governor-general of India, where he brought important reforms to the civil service and the judiciary. He also instituted a major land reform and led military campaigns against native uprisings. In 1792, he was made a marquess for his service in India. Cornwallis died of a fever in 1805.
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