Chronology of the Siege of Yorktown

September 28, 1781 - Allied army leaves Williamsburg, marches to Yorktown, and begins to invest the British works.

September 29, 1781 - Cornwallis, believing that Clinton's arrival is imminent, evacuates his outer works.

September 30, 1781 - As allied engineers begin to decide on the layout of siege lines, troops begin construction of gabions, fascines and other items for siege warfare. British artillery attempts to disrupt the allied efforts.

October 3, 1781 - Allied forces in Gloucester defeat Tarleton, forcing the British back within their lines at Gloucester Point. This is particularly important in that it cuts off British supplies of fresh food and fodder for British horses. Cornwallis will soon order many of his horses to be killed, to prevent them from starving to death.

October 6, 1781 - Allies begin digging the first siege line. Several days of rain have softened the ground, making digging quick, easy and quiet. The line goes up in one night.

October 9, 1781 - Artillery batteries are completed. The French open fire at 3:00 p.m. from the French Trench opposite the Fusilier's Redoubt. Washington fires the first American gun at around 5:00 p.m. Soon, more batteries open fire. French hot shot ignites H.M.S Charon, which quickly burns and sinks.

October 10, 1781 - Clinton sends word that he will arrive in 2-3 weeks with reinforcements.

October 11, 1781 - Allies begin to dig the Second Parallel.

October 14, 1781 - Allies storm and capture Redoubts 9 and 10, then complete Second Siege Line and advance the artillery.

October 16, 1781 - British sortie attempts to spike allied guns, but the raid is ineffective.

October 16-17, 1781 - With allied artillery firing point-blank into his works, destroying his fortifications, and causing high casualties, Cornwallis realizes Clinton will not arrive in time. Cornwallis decides to escape from Yorktown. About midnight, Cornwallis moves his able bodied troops to the waterfront and begins to ferry them across the river to Gloucester Point. After some are evacuated, a sudden storm arrives in such intensity that the evacuation must be abandoned.

Cornwallis is running out of heavy ammunition and lacks transportation for his equipment. Many of his guns are disabled, his troops are reduced to eating "rancid meat and wormy biscuits" and dysentery and smallpox have broken out in his army. Clinton is weeks away. Cornwallis decides that the only human thing to do is to seek terms of surrender.

October 17, 1781 - An officer with a flag of truce appears on the British parapet, accompanied by a drummer beating a "parley." Cornwallis seeks a cease-fire so commissioners can negotiate surrender terms.

October 18, 1781 - Commissioners meet at the Moore House. The British send Lt. Col. Thomas Dundas and Major Alexander Ross. The allies send the Viscomte do Noilles (Lafayette's brother-in-law) and Colonel John Laurens. The British argue the terms for many hours, but to no avail.

October 19, 1781 - In the afternoon, the British garrison at Yorktown marches to Surrender Field to lay down their arms. One hour later, the garrison at Gloucester Point undergoes similar ceremonies. This action surrenders one third of all British forces in North America, and is a devastating military disaster.

Clinton and the British Navy leave New York, heading for Yorktown. When they arrive off the Virginia coast five days later, they find they are too late, and sail back to New York.

Compiled and written by Jim Eccleston, July 1993

Leading to Siege After the Siege

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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