American History Stories—Volume II - Mara L. Pratt

Surrender of Cornwallis

After the surrender of Burgoyne, there was, I think, never quite such deep despair in the hearts of the Americans. Still the British were by no means weak. There were Clinton and Cornwallis with large and powerful armies yet to be defeated.

At last came the final great battle between Cornwallis' troops and those of Washington at Yorktown. Cornwallis had been very busy fortifying this town, into which he had withdrawn his forces. He had dug trenches, and had thrown up earth works all around the city to keep away Washington's army. Cornwallis' army had now grown much smaller than the Americans had any idea of. Indeed he had only 7000 men, 1000 of whom were negro slaves. Washington's army was nearly 16000, all well trained, and 3000 of them were "picked men" from the Virginia militia.

Clinton had promised, however, to send aid in a week's time surely; and so Cornwallis felt sure that if he could hold out until then, he should defeat Washington. On September 28, 1781, the American army marched up and encamped one mile from Yorktown. Cornwallis withdrew all his forces into the city to wait for Clinton's aid.

The Americans, however, had no thought of waiting. At once the batteries began their terrible work against the besieged city. Gun after gun which the British had placed upon their walls fell from the hands of the brave Briton who held it. The ditches were filled with fragments of the shattered walls, and heaped with the bodies of the dead soldiers.

The American forces drew nearer and nearer every night under cover of the entrenchments which they threw up in the darkness. On the evening of the 14th of October, they had come so close that Washington ordered an immediate attack; and accordingly two columns were formed—one French, the other American—to rush upon the city from the right and from the left. A hot battle ensued. Cornwallis, giving up all hope now of aid from Clinton, and finding himself surrounded on every side, declared all defence useless, and gave up the struggle.

The general whom Washington appointed to take possession of the defeated army was one who, at a previous battle, had been defeated by Cornwallis, and had been made to surrender his troops to him. Cornwallis had at that time been very severe with the general; and now he meted out to Cornwallis the same measure of severity.

The French and American armies were drawn up in two lines, and between them the conquered army passed.

When they came to stack their arms, the men, most of them, maintained a sullen silence, shading their faces with their hats. Some threw their guns with violence upon the ground. Some of the officers wept outright at giving up their arms, while others wore a look of haughty defiance, and refused to look upon their conquerors.

Washington and all his officers showed the utmost kindness to their captives. Even Cornwallis, in his report to Clinton, speaks of this, and mentions with great warmth the kindness of the French officers, which he hopes will be remembered in future warfare. But Cornwallis was so deeply humiliated by his conquest that he could hardly appreciate the courtesy of Washington. Once when they were conversing together, Cornwallis stood with his head bare.

"You had better be covered from the cold, my lord," said Washington, politely.

"It does not matter what becomes of this head now," answered Cornwallis, putting his hand to his brow.

With this surrender of Cornwallis, the war was really at an end. The power of the English army was broken. There were battles in other parts of the country after this, but all felt that peace was at hand; and when, at two o'clock in the morning, the news of Washington's great victory reached Philadelphia, the people were awakened by the watchman's cry, "Cornwallis is taken! Cornwallis is taken!"

[Illustration] from American History Stories - II by Mara L. Pratt


Lights flashed through the houses, and soon the streets were thronged with crowds eager to learn the glad news. Some were speechless with delight. Many wept, and the old door-keeper of Congress died of joy. Congress met at an early hour, and that afternoon marched in solemn procession to church to return thanks to God.

As soon as possible, the British army embarked in their vessels, leaving New York once more a free city. Then indeed, there was great rejoicing: There was a great show of fireworks on Bowling Green, where, you remember, had once stood the leaden statue of King George III.

[Illustration] from American History Stories - II by Mara L. Pratt


A week later, Washington called together all his officers to bid them farewell, and thank them for their ever ready aid and helpful courage during the terrible war. These brave men who had stood side by side in the bloody battle, facing death together for seven long years, met now together in silence and sadness.

When all were present, Washington raised his glass, and drank to the health of them all. Then he said—and his voice trembled, and there were tears in his eyes, as he spoke, "I cannot come to each of you to take my leave of you; but I shall be glad if each man will come and take me by the hand."

Then General Knox, a man whom Washington loved, came forward and with tears in his eyes, attempted to speak. Though he could not say one word, Washington understood; and, with tears in his own eyes, drew his friend's head down upon his shoulder and kissed him. Then each officer came forward to take his leave of his much loved commander; and the bravest men, the most warlike, men who without one tremor had faced the cannon's mouth, men who without a murmur had borne the sufferings of these terrible years, were not ashamed on that day, to let the tears run down their rough sun-burned faces as they said goodby to Washington.

[Illustration] from American History Stories - II by Mara L. Pratt


Sometimes I fear we get almost tired of hearing of Washington so much. I confess I often did when I was a child at school. There was the hatchet story of his childhood, the story of his wonderful journey when he was only twenty-one, and the old, old titles of "First President," and "Father of his Country"—yes, I did sometimes say that I was tired of hearing about him; but when I grew older, and I came at last upon a history that told me more, about the real character of the man, rather than so much about the battles he fought, and the victories he won, then I came to respect the great heart of the man. He was so brave and daring, and yet always so gentle, so charitable. Although he could dash into the thickest of the fight, yet when the battle was over, and the enemy were taken, you never hear of his blustering about as Burgoyne did, or bullying those who had fallen into his hands as Cornwallis did at the South, or Colonel Prescott at Newport. When a battle was over, he never thought he must celebrate it by getting drunk and making a brute of himself. No, whether in the camp or the drawing-room, whether with friends or with foes, whether conquered or conquering, Washington always thought it worth while to be a gentleman. I do not mean by that an aristocrat—not that; but a real gentleman,—a gentle man.


Revolution began 1775—ended 1781. Battle of Lexington April 19, 1775. Battle of Bunker Hill June 17, 1775. Declaration of Idependence July 4, 1776.

[Illustration] from American History Stories - II by Mara L. Pratt