1781-1782: The ratificiation of the Articles of Confederation and the conclusion of the war
- March 1
- The ratification of the Articles of Confederation was delayed for two years by Maryland, who refused to ratify until the larger states-primarily Virginia and New York-had ceded their extensive land claims in the West to the national government.
Virginia countered with the accusation that Maryland's demand originated with the land schemes of some of its foremost political leaders, who hoped to manipulate Congress to their advantage once the lands were in the possession of the national government.
However, it was agreed that the possession of land would provide much-needed bolstering of the authority of the central government. New York was the first to cede its lands, and Virginia soon followed suit on January 2, 1781, whereupon Maryland ratified the Articles of Confederation. On March 1, 1781, just a little less than eight months before Yorktown, the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation went into effect.
The primary defect of the Articles of Confederation was that they were more concerned with keeping the government under control than with empowering it to carry out its duties. The state governments were accorded too much strength, at the expense of the national government. As a result, Congress was powerless to collect taxes, settle boundary disputes, and regulate commerce. Most of these flaws, however, were not felt until after the end of the Revolutionary War.
- General Nathanael Greene realized that the best way to take advantage of the partisan feeling in the south was to attack Cornwallis in a series of quick, short jabs, withdrawing before his opponent could counterattack with full force. Harried, Cornwallis left the Carolinas to head north toward Virginia, hoping to cut the enemy's lines of supply and reinforcement. Greene shifted his raids south, where he made British forces fight hard to retain Savannah and Charleston and prevented reinforcments from reaching Cornwallis when he needed them. Greene's campaign ranks in military history with that of Stonewall Jackson, in 1862.
Virginia became the scene of the crucial actions of the war. Here Cornwallis encountered troops under General Marquis de Lafayette, sent by Washington from New York. Lafayette was a protege of Washington, and he had followed Greene's campaigns. He refused to allow his force of 4,500 to be provoked into battle with Cornwallis' 7,200, but kept him occupied with a series of skirmishes around Richmond.
Washington was looking for a way to make use of French sea power when Admiral de Grasse sent word that he was sailing from the West Indies with 3,000 troops aboard. Washington made a decision that only a skillful and audacious leader could make: he would abandon the stalemate with Clinton in New York and march with Rochambeau to Yorktown. A force of less than 2,500 under General Heath remained behind to hold the Hudson Highlands and prevent the British from achieving their long-cherished goal of separating New England from the other colonies.
Washington's departure was made with the utmost secrecy. An attempt was made to make Clinton believe an attack from New Jersey was forthcoming. By the time he learned the truth, the allied American and French armies were passing through Philadelphia.
Admiral de Grasse had already landed his 3,000 troops at Yorktown when 19 British ships appeared, wholly unexpecting to see the French fleet. De Grasse weighed anchor to quickly meet and defeat them. Four days later, on September 9th, more French ships arrived. Cornwallis was bottled up, with no escape by sea.
- October 19
- General Clinton sent General Benedict Arnold, now fighting for the British, to make a diversionary raid on New London, Connecticut, but Washington marched steadily southward, arriving on September 26th, 1781. The combined French and American forces besieging Yorktown totaled around 16,650 men; about 3,000 of these were mostly ill-trained American militia. Notable commanders present in addition to Washington and Rochambeau included Major Generals Lafayette, Lincoln, and Von Steuben, and Brigadier Generals "Mad Anthony" Wayne and Henry Knox.
Cornwallis' army numbered 7,400, of which about 2,000 were German. He had seized Yorktown with the idea of possessing a good seaport and facilitating supply and communications, never envisioning the possibility of defending it from the landward side. He constructed an inner circle of defenses, with some outlying redoubts. By September 29th, the entire allied army stretched in a six-mile curve around the city.
On the morning of September 30th, the besiegers discovered that Cornwallis had withdrawn from most of his outlying redoubts. He had received word that Clinton was readying a large fleet and reinforcements to be sent to his aid. Believing he had only to hold out for a few days, Cornwallis foolishly gave up his outer defenses without a struggle. Due to the inevitable delays of war, Clinton's relieving forces would not leave New York until the day of the surrender. Meanwhile, American and French forces occupied the abandoned fortifications, and under cover of night, moved artillery into trenches dug an average of only 800 feet from the British line. This artillery went into action on October 9th.
The last infantry assault of the war was launched October 14, against two redoubts still in British possession. The American force was led by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, and secured its objective in the space of ten minutes. The siege line continued to squeeze inward. In desperation, a force of 350 British attempted a sortie, but achieved little. Around midnight before October 16th, Cornwallis tried to ferry some of his troops across the York River, on the chance that they might break through the line and escape to New York. This last remaining hope was dashed when a violent storm arose, scattering the boats.
On the morning of the 17th, a red-coated drummer boy ascended the parapets and began to play. The next day, terms of surrender were agreed upon, and the day after that-October 19, 1781-the defeated British army marched out of Yorktown. Their band played an old march called, "The World Turned Upside Down." Cornwallis, pleading illness, did not attend the surrender. His subordinate, General O'Hara, tried first to surrender his sword to Rochambeau, who motioned toward Washington. Washington, in turn, indicated that Lincoln, who had once surrendered on a similar occasion after the siege of Charleston, should accept the token.
A total of 7,247 officers and soldiers and 840 seamen laid down their arms; 482 of their comrades lay dead. American forces reported 20 killed, and 56 wounded, while the French suffered 52 killed and 134 wounded.
Nearly everyone, except King George III, recognized that Yorktown signified the end of the war The British people were overwhelmingly opposed to continuing the struggle, and soon a new ministry, in favor of peace negotiations, was in place.
- March 5
- Following Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown, everyone in the British ministry except King George III knew that the war was at its end. For another year, British forces continued to engage with French and Spanish in various locations around the world, although no further campaigns were mounted against Americans. After the ministry of Lord North was replaced with one more amenable to peace, negotiations quickly commenced.
- November 30
- Franklin, and John Adams signed the preliminary agreement, in which the British government agreed to recognize the independence of the United States.