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Walking History: The Battle of Yorktown

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In honor of Independence Day we visit the Battle of Yorktown, the final and most important battle of the Revolutionary War which resulted in American independence from Great Britain. This episode does a deep dive into the battle, discussing its background, the chess game that Washington was playing with the British, and the battle itself. Finally, we end by discussing what it’s like to visit this incredible battlefield today.

In honor of Independence Day we visit the Battle of Yorktown, the final and most important battle of the Revolutionary War.

Want to jump ahead in this episode?

Summary: 4:35
Interesting Facts: 7:15
Background of the Battle: 8:35
The Battle: 32:55
Aftermath: 52:50
Visiting Today: 55:20


The Battle of Yorktown, also known as the Siege of Yorktown, was the final and most important battle of the Revolutionary War, resulting in the complete surrender of the British forces under General Lord Cornwallis to General George Washington and eventually leading to the full British surrender and independence for the United States. Culminating on Oct. 19th, 1781, the battle pitted a combined force of about 17,000 American and French troops against just over 8,000 British. The British had been holed up in the port town of Yorktown, Virginia, near the Chesapeake Bay since the summer, but by October they found themselves trapped between a French fleet at sea and American and French troops by land. Without escape or reinforcement the British forces were sitting ducks.

By 1781 the American Revolution had reached its 6th year of fighting, with both sides tired, but momentum was on the side of the Americans. The French had allied with the Americans and were providing soldiers, supplies, and their powerful navy. The British had tried unsuccessfully for years to control the Middle and New England colonies, and by 1781 their only force, though a large one, in the northern colonies was stationed in New York City. Washington’s strategy of protracted fighting and avoiding large, pitched battles had worn down the enemy, and support for independence steadily grew throughout the new United States. But victory was far from certain. British forces, particularly those under General Cornwallis, were attacking throughout the south, and the British forces in New York City far outnumbered Washington’s and could defeat or capture his army at any time. 

The Americans, and French, however, with a great deal of ingenuity and a little bit of luck, managed to corner and defeat Cornwallis’ southern force. “Oh God! It’s all over.” Said British Prime Minister Lord North upon hearing the news of the defeat at Yorktown. For all intents and purposes it was, although Washington and the rest of those fighting didn’t know it yet, still afraid of the British force in New York. The British would not attack, however, and soon peace negotiations began, finally ending with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. It secured full independence for the fledgling United States, creating the first democracy the world had seen since Rome, and proved that the world’s most powerful countries and their monarchs could be challenged and overcome.

Useful Links:

Map of the Battle of Yorktown
Map of the Yorktown Campaign
Summary of the Battle of Yorktown - NPS
Washington and Rochambeau's Route to Yorktown - NPS

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