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. Upon word that the French Fleet in the Caribbean was sailing north from and would be available for a siege south of New Jersey, George Washington and his French ally, the Comte de Rochambeau, moved their force of almost 8,000 men south to Virginia, planning to join and lead about 12,000 other militia, French troops, and Continental troops in a siege of Yorktown.
On September 5, while the Allied army was still en route, the French fleet commanded by Admiral de Grasse was guarding the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. In the Battle of the Capes this fleet engaged and drove off a British fleet attempting to relieve the British army at Yorktown. This left 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 negotiations to surrender his army, and on October 19, 1781, roughly 8,000 British soldiers laid down their arms.