With his back to the York River, British General Charles Lord Cornwallis intended to refit and resupply his 9,000-man army in the fall of 1781. Sensing an opportunity, George Washington and his French ally, the Comte de Rochambeau, moved their force of almost 20,000 men south to Virginia.
On September 5, while the Allied army was still en route, the fleet sent to aid and resupply the British army was met by French warships and defeated in the Battle of the Capes, leaving Cornwallis isolated.
After a grueling forced march from New York, the Franco-American army arrived near Yorktown on September 28 and immediately began the hard work of besieging Cornwallis’s army. The French secured the left flank of the allied line, while the Americans held the right flank.
Cornwallis threw up a series of redoubts on the outskirts of Yorktown while most his men hunkered down in the town. With the help of French engineers, American and French troops began to dig a series of parallel trenches, allowing the allied force to move closer to the British lines.
On the afternoon of October 9, Washington began his bombardment. For nearly a week, allied artillery pounded the British defenders. To prevent Cornwallis from repairing his defenses, the fire was kept up day and night.
On October 11, Washington ordered that a new parallel be dug 400 yards closer to the British lines. To allow the parallel to reach the river, however, British redoubts #9 and #10 would need to be taken by force.
On the evening of October 14, after a heavy artillery bombardment, the Americans and French forces launched their assaults. The attack on Redoubt #10 was undertaken by a detachment of 400 light infantrymen commanded by Alexander Hamilton. The Americans attacked with fixed bayonets and unloaded muskets. After vicious hand-to-hand fighting, the British were overwhelmed. It was a stunning victory in which the Americans sustained only 34 casualties. At the same time, the French successfully wrested control of Redoubt #9.
Surrounded on three sides by enemy artillery, Cornwallis’s position had become untenable. On October 15, he launched a last-ditch counterattack. It failed miserably. Two days later, Cornwallis began negations to surrender his army, and on October 19, 1781, roughly 8,000 British soldiers laid down their arms.