Why is the Siege so Important to American History?

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In 1780, the war shifted South. A bloody campaign in the Carolinas led Cornwallis’ army to Virginia in May 1781. Though Washington still hoped to recapture NYC, Lafayette encouraged him to besiege Yorktown instead. The resulting surrender crippled the British and spurred peace negotiations, ending the war for independence.

Understanding the Yorktown Landscape

The Yorktown landscape is rich with historical significance, from the ground you walk on to the buildings that still stand

in honor of the past.

While the tour covers a number of the historical houses, there are a variety of other things to see as well. Here is a little information about what treasures the landscape holds and what else can be seen in the Yorktown area. Come walk with us to experience history for yourself and learn about how the little area of Yorktown made such a huge impact on the freedoms we still enjoy today.

Yorktown was more than just a battleground, it was a trading hub too.

In 1691, Major Lawrence Smith surveyed 50 acres on the bluffs overlooking the York River, on land purchased from Colonel Benjamin Reade (great-grandfather of George Washington) and divided into 82 lots. Yorktown trustees assigned lots, and the owner was required to build within 1 year or forfeit the lot.

Situated on a deepwater port, the town thrived from the export of tobacco and import of foreign goods. Famous Virginia families such as the Digges and the Nelsons contributed to the success of Yorktown.

"We will fight like lions. Until the last man is killed." 

- French infantryman replying to Rochambeau

A Quote From The Yorktown Siege: 

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​​​​​​​The Turning Coleman Bridge

​​​​​​​Grace Church Graveyard


Washington, Lafayette, & DeGrasse Statue

Quotes of the Time

Here is a glimpse of the great minds that influenced not just the foundation of our great nation, but also changed the world!

“The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the Hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” 

“It is with infinite Pleasure I congratulate you on the...Capture of the whole British Army under Lord Cornwallis...two thousand nine hundred.”

“...the joyful event of the reduction of Lord Cornwallis and his whole force...this important affair has been affected by the most harmonious concurrence of circumstances that could possibly have happened.”

Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton

VA Governor Brigadier General Thomas Nelson, Jr.

Major General Henry Knox

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Interesting Terms From The Time

The English language has changed a lot over the years. Take a look at these terms used commonly in the Revolutionary War time period but are no longer well-known of today!


Tall, bottomless woven baskets into which dirt is packed in order to build a sturdy earthen wall.


A short, sturdy wall of earth, stone or brick to defend entrenchments around a fort.  


An enclosed mini-fort, usually with earthen walls with abatis and surrounded by trenches. 


Sharpened stakes or branches protruding from earthen walls to repel enemy climbers.

Laboratory Tent​​​​​​​

Place where artillery shells, shot, and cartridges were being produced and tested. 

Sappers and Miners​​​​​​​

A special unit performing invaluable engineering tasks during the Siege of Yorktown.

Also nearby is the Tobacco Road, an important road for traders.

From 1691 through the mid-18th century, Yorktown was a bustling hive, financed primarily by the exportation of tobacco. No roads opened from the town on the bluffs down to "Under the Hill" in those days, therefore this well-worn road was the primary means of carrying goods to and from the waterfront to be shipped or received.

Not far away is another such means, the Great Valley, at the head of which Scotch Tom Nelson placed his mercantile stores. While the road is NOT featured on our route, it is both nearby and interesting to see.

10 days after the surrender at Yorktown, a jubilant Continental Congress passed a measure to erect a monument to the French and American troops who had claimed such an amazing victory. For the next century, Yorktown residents and those interested in the Revolutionary War continued to plead for the monument.

On October 18th, 1881 the cornerstone was laid at last, and within 3 years it was completed to the specifications originally laid out. Though the statue of liberty atop the monument has been struck twice lightning and repaired, the monument stills stands as a testament to a nearly miraculous victory.

This impressive monument was raised in honor of Victory!

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French Admiral DeGrasse’s fleet defeats British Admiral Graves’ fleet, barricading the Chesapeake Bay so that General Cornwallis cannot escape.

Now General Cornwallis is bottled up on the York River.

September 5th, 1781

Battle of the Capes

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October 14th, 1781

Rush on, boys!

Cols Zweibrucken and Hamilton seize British redoubts 9 & 10, respectively, to incorporate into the allied lines.

Now the cannonade is too close for comfort and Cornwallis has no escape.

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October 3rd, 1781

Battle of the Hook​​​​​​​

Lauzun's Legion defeats Col Tarleton, trapping the British inside the Gloucester fortifications.

Now they are unable to send supplies to Yorktown, where the Allies have surrounded.

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October 19th, 1781

The World Turned Upside Down!

After two days of ceasefire for surrender negotiations, Gen O’Hara surrenders Cornwallis’ sword, and the British lay down their arms in Surrender Field.

“Oh God, it is all over,” wrote Prime Minister North. 

Here's a Quick Timeline of Important Events of the Siege

The Siege at Yorktown was a massive land and sea operation by the French and American armies and French Navy, requiring months of planning in utmost secrecy, as well as cooperation from Greene in South Carolina. 

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When the English arrived in Virginia, the river was called the Paumunk Flu, for the Pamunkey - one of the six original tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy, and the tribe to which Powhatan himself belonged.

The river was later renamed the Charles and in 1642, the York. Branching over the Virginia Peninsula from the Chesapeake Bay, the York River has a rich history of shipping, trade, and transportation. This river has seen some incredible historical events, and the discovery of her depths continues today!

The York River is rich with its own history dating back to the Powhatan.

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Influential Figures of the Time

Here are a few of the influential figures who were important to not only the Revolutionary War, but to the area and its rich history as a whole. A few of these important people of the Revolutionary War will be covered in our walking tours.

General George Washington

Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, commanding the allied Franco-American forces.

General Comte de Rochambeau

Commander of French Infantry, skilled veteran whose experience influenced the siege’s success.

Major General Marquis de Lafayette

French nobleman serving in the Continental Army, commander of Light Infantry Regiment.

Major General Henry Knox

Artillery Chief for the Continental Army, responsible for American artillery and production of projectiles.

General Lord Charles Cornwallis

Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the South, commanding at Yorktown.

Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton

Leader of Provincial British Legion, commanding the Tyndall’s Point garrison at Gloucester.