11 Facts About the Battle of Yorktown

Generals Rochambeau and Washington give the last orders for attack at the siege of Yorktown. With them is the Marquis de Lafayette. Circa 1781.
Generals Rochambeau and Washington give the last orders for attack at the siege of Yorktown. With them is the Marquis de Lafayette. Circa 1781.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

From the perspective of the American rebels and their French allies, the Battle of Yorktown (also known as the Siege of Yorktown) was an extremely lucky break. Pouncing on a narrow window of opportunity, the American and French forces laid siege to a small town on the Virginia coast and captured thousands of enemy soldiers. That sudden blow was what compelled Great Britain to ultimately recognize the rebellious colonies as one sovereign nation, ending the American War for Independence. Yet the siege on Yorktown might have gone very differently if it hadn't been for some bad weather and deceptive bread ovens. Here's what you should know about the battle that changed the world.

1. INSTEAD OF GOING TO YORKTOWN, GEORGE WASHINGTON WANTED TO RETAKE NEW YORK CITY.

The ink was barely dry on the Declaration of Independence when New York was attacked by the British. On August 27, 1776, General William Howe led a force of 35,000 British and German soldiers to Brooklyn. The Redcoats and Hessians seized Manhattan, the Bronx, Long Island, Staten Island, and surrounding regions, and New York City was held under British occupation for seven years. It became a convenient military outpost for the invading force. According to Valerie Paley of the New York Historical Society, "We were the British base of command until the end of the war."

Having suffered a bitter defeat when the Redcoats attacked Brooklyn in '76, General George Washington was eager to reclaim New York—and it looked like he would finally get his chance in 1781. There had been some indication that ally François Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse—an admiral in the French navy—might be sailing toward New York City with a 24-warship fleet that year (a fleet that seemed necessary if Washington wanted to lay siege to the island). But on August 14, Washington learned that the count was taking his vessels down to Virginia instead.

"I was obliged … to give up all idea of attacking New York," Washington wrote in his diary. At the time, he was in Westchester County, New York, as were the French General the Comte de Rochambeau and his troops. On August 18, the two commanders began an arduous journey. Leading a combined force of more than 2600 Americans and 4600 Frenchmen, they set out on a long march to Virginia. Their target was Lord Charles Cornwallis. A decorated British General, Cornwallis had served at the battle of Brooklyn and spent the past few years fighting in the American south. Now he was courting disaster at a place called Yorktown.

2. A NAVAL CLASH HELPED DETERMINE THE OUTCOME …

General Cornwallis had put thousands of British-led soldiers in a vulnerable situation. During the summer of 1781, Cornwallis was ordered to fortify a naval base along the Virginia coast. So he and the 7000 troops under his command set up shop in Yorktown, a seaside tobacco hub. Geography put them at a major disadvantage. Because the city was perched at the tip of a York River peninsula, the Franco-American allies figured that if they could hit Yorktown with a naval blockade and a strong land-based siege, Cornwallis and his men would be hopelessly isolated. Their subsequent capture might bring the whole war to an end.

Any opportunity to nab Cornwallis was too good to pass up, but going after him like this was a big gamble. Time was of the essence; if British reinforcements made it to Yorktown before the city fell, the campaign could turn into a bloody disaster. Enter the Comte de Grasse: On August 30, 1781, his fleet dropped reached the Chesapeake Bay, where the admiral transferred supplies and men to the waiting Marquis de Lafayette. One week later, the Comte de Grasse's naval force engaged with a 19-warship British fleet that had been sent to find it.

A two and a half-hour sea battle broke out. The French prevailed, damaging six British vessels and killing 90 sailors in the process. (De Grasse only suffered damage to two ships.) Had the British won, the seamen aboard those Royal Navy vessels might have landed in Yorktown and given Cornwallis the backup he so desperately needed. Instead, the groundwork was laid for a Franco-American victory.

3. … AND SO DID FRENCH BREAD OVENS.

So far as Cornwallis—and most of England—was concerned, Yorktown fell because the British Commander-In-Chief waited too long to throw a lifeline. General Howe had resigned his post three years earlier and was succeeded by General Sir Henry Clinton, who took control of the British forces in North America in 1778. He made some critical errors regarding the Yorktown siege.

For one thing, the allies managed to trick him. Clinton was headquartered in New York City and throughout the summer of 1781, he braced himself for an assault on NYC that never came. By late August (as we've seen), the Franco-American military leaders had decided to strike Virginia instead. But in order for their southern invasion to work, they needed to keep Clinton distracted. "If the enemy perceive that we [have given up] the idea of attacking New York," explained one of Washington's advisors, "they will reinforce [General Cornwallis] before we can get there."

So while the Washington-Rochambeau march was underway, the allies built a number of French-style, brick bread ovens in northern New Jersey, which fooled British spies into thinking that Rochambeau and the Americans were about to set up a huge army encampment just a few miles away from Staten Island. To help sell the ruse, Franco-American troops spread false rumors about a planned invasion of New York. The Brits bought it—for a little while, anyway. Clinton didn't figure out that Washington and Rochambeau were en route to Yorktown until September. And once the threat became clear, he didn't respond to Cornwallis's requests for backup troops right away. General Clinton finally sent a ship with 7000 reinforcements on October 19—the day Cornwallis surrendered and Yorktown was handed over to the allies. Of course, by that point it was too late.

4. IT WAS A BATTLE OF BARRICADES, TRENCHES, AND INTENTIONAL SHIPWRECKS.

Map of Yorktown, Virginia, showing the military layout, as related to the American Revolutionary War siege there.
Map of Yorktown, Virginia, showing the military layout, as related to the American Revolutionary War siege there.
Edward J. Lowell's The Hessians, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Building strong defenses was Cornwallis's number one priority. As soon as the general arrived in Yorktown on August 1, he started planning out physical barriers that would help safeguard the city from invaders. A line of four redoubts (hill-like fortifications made with dirt, wood, and sod) was built to the north of Gloucester Point, a neighboring village across the York River. Several others were made around Yorktown itself, including a massive, star-shaped one to the northwest that became known as "Fusiliers Redoubt." There were underwater barriers, too. Fearing a French naval strike, Cornwallis deliberately sunk around a dozen of his own ships near the mouth of the river, which he hoped would block other vessels from coming in.

The allied forces had their own construction projects. French and American troops spent the night of October 6 digging a 2000-yard trench that ran parallel to Cornwallis's southeastern redoubts and terminated near the York River. Legend has it that George Washington himself started things off there by being the first soldier in either army to swing a pick into the soil.

5. ROTTING HORSES STUNK UP THE PLACE.

To be successful, a siege needs to cut off the target's supply lines. Food, water, and other necessities grew scarce as the allies closed in around Yorktown. When it became clear that he wouldn't be able to feed his men and the hundreds of horses they'd commandeered from local farmers, Cornwallis got rid of the animals. After releasing some very bony steeds into the wild, he ordered that the rest of them be slaughtered on September 30. Around 400 horse carcasses were then dumped into the York River. The tide pushed many of them ashore, tainting the air with a hideous stench.

6. ALEXANDER HAMILTON LED A VITAL ATTACK.

Officially, the Battle of Yorktown lasted from September 28 to October 19, 1781. A pivotal moment took place on October 14. Two of the most strategically important bits of real estate in the whole siege were earthen barricades named Redoubt Number Nine and Redoubt Number 10, which had been built by Cornwallis's men to help block access to Yorktown from the south. During the battle, the allies slowly advanced beyond their original trench line and moved closer to the city itself, putting added pressure on the boxed-in British troops. As ground was gained, work began on a second parallel trench. But in order to finish it, the allies had to take Redoubts Nine and 10.

A dramatic attack on them both began at 8 p.m. on October 14. Wilhelm Graf von Zweibrücken—a German Lieutenant Colonel serving under Rochambeau—stormed Number Nine with 400 men. He lost 114 soldiers to death or injury during the first seven minutes of the struggle, but in the end, von Zweibrücken prevailed and seized the fortification.

Meanwhile, Redoubt 10 was taken by Colonel Alexander Hamilton, who almost didn't get the gig. Lafayette wanted his assistant Jean-Joseph Sourbader de Gimat to lead the assault, but Hamilton—who'd long hungered for glory—convinced General Washington to hand him the reins. The future Treasury Secretary's work was cut out for him: Once he made it to the redoubt, Hamilton had to leap over a ring of sharpened tree limbs at the top of the structure. But within the span of 10 minutes, he and the 400 men at his command captured Redoubt 10. By Hamilton's count, only nine of his troops were killed in the process and just over 30 were wounded.

7. THERE WERE A LOT OF GERMAN SOLDIERS ON BOTH SIDES.

Von Zweibrücken was part of the Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment, a unit of thousand-plus soldiers that were all recruited from Zweibrücken, a state that's now part of southern Germany. Originally created by the local Duke Christian IV to help pay off his debts to French King Louis XV, the regiment fought on France's behalf in both the Seven Years' War (against Prussia) and the American Revolution. At Yorktown, it incurred heavy casualties. As a token of his gratitude, George Washington gave the regiment one of the British brass cannons that had been captured. Rochambeau thanked them with two extra days' worth of pay.

Ironically enough, when the Royal Deux-Ponts attacked Redoubt Number Nine, they went up against another group of Germans. The Musketeer Regiment von Bose was a Hessian mercenary force from Hesse-Kassel that helped the British conquer Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. At Yorktown, they were one of four German units under Cornwallis's command. On October 14, the Musketeer Regiment worked alongside some of their British colleagues in an attempt to defend Redoubt Nine.

8. GENERAL CORNWALLIS DIDN'T SURRENDER IN PERSON.

Bad weather was what finally doomed Cornwallis. An October 16 British assault on the main allied line failed to make any significant headway. That night, their troops tried to sneak across the York River and escape through Gloucester Point. But their evacuation plans were foiled by a violent storm that blew in unexpectedly and made crossing the waterway impossible. Optionless and exhausted, Cornwallis threw in the towel.

Peace talks started the very next morning. Allied soldiers were treated to the sight of a British drummer boy and a red-coated officer carrying a white flag out of Yorktown at 9 a.m. on October 17. The two sides didn't finish negotiating the terms of surrender until October 19. Ordinarily, Cornwallis—as the defeated general—would have made an appearance at the formal surrendering ceremony that occurred that day. But Cornwallis claimed he was feeling ill and sent his second in command, Brigadier General Charles O'Hara, in his place.

9. "THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN" MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN PLAYED AFTERWARDS.

"I have the honor to inform congress," Washington wrote on October 19, "that a reduction of the British army under the command of Lord Cornwallis is most happily effected." Apart from select officers who were granted parole, all of the British land troops, mariners, and seamen were taken as prisoners of war under the agreed-upon surrender terms.

It's frequently said that as the defeated British poured out of Yorktown, their drummers and fifers played a familiar battle march called "The World Turned Upside Down." But this may be untrue. There's no reference to the song in any of the firsthand historical records from the Battle of Yorktown, with the Library of Congress dating the first reference to 1828. Nevertheless, Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to weave its title into the score of his Tony Award-winning show, Hamilton: An American Musical.

10. TECHNICALLY, THE WAR LASTED UNTIL 1783.

Though the Yorktown Siege is rightly considered a decisive victory, the Revolutionary War did not officially end until after the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783. Yorktown laid the groundwork for that historic moment. With the surrender of General Cornwallis, the British lost one third of their forces in North America. Public opinion and the British Parliament both turned against the war effort once the bad news crossed the Atlantic. Supposedly, when Prime Minister Frederick North learned about the Yorktown catastrophe, he exclaimed, "Oh God, it is all over!"

In fact, things were just getting started. The following April, American and British diplomats met up in Paris, France to discuss ending the hostilities between their countries. A preliminary agreement between Great Britain and the new United States of America was reached in November 1782. But before that could take effect, the British had to negotiate terms with France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic—all of whom had also been at war with the royal superpower.

While statesmen debated in Paris, fighting continued around the world. Military clashes between the European powers broke out overseas and in western North America. Meanwhile, American rebels kept skirmishing with redcoats on future U.S. soil. (Present-day Robertson County, Kentucky witnessed one of these post-Yorktown battles on August 19, 1782.) George Washington—wisely—decided not to immediately disband the continental army until the Treaty of Paris had been finalized by all parties involved. The last lingering British soldiers left the United States on November 23, 1783.

11. YORKTOWN WAS ALSO THE SITE OF A CIVIL WAR BATTLE.

Nearly a century later, Yorktown, Virginia weathered another military siege. From April 5 to May 4, 1862, more than 100,000 blue-jacketed troops landed there in an early phase of Union General George B. McClellan's ill-fated attempt to capture Richmond. Around Yorktown, they met an initial force of 13,000 Confederates led by Major General J. Bankhead Magruder. The rebels eventually withdrew to Williamsburg as McClellan pushed his way across the peninsula. Southern land mines and a northern hot air balloon were employed during this struggle. For his part, Magruder couldn't help but comment on the area's historical significance. In a letter designed to rally his men, the major general reminded them that "The long war of the Revolution culminated at length in victorious triumph on these very plains of Yorktown."

5 Fast Facts About Sake Dean Mahomed

Today's Google Doodle will be many people's first introduction to Sake Dean Mahomed, a noted traveler, surgeon, author, and entrepreneur who was born in Patna, India in 1759. Though he's been left out of many modern history books, Mahomed left a profound impact on Western culture that is still being felt today.

In honor of the 225th anniversary of the publication of his first book—The Travels of Dean Mahomed, a Native of Patna in Bengal, Through Several Parts of India, While in the Service of the Honorable the East India Company—on January 15, 1794, here are some facts about the figure.

1. He was the first Indian author to publish a book in English.

In 1794, Sake Dean Mahomed published The Travels of Dean Mahomet, an autobiography that details his time in the East India Company's army in his youth and his journey to Britain. Not only was it the first English book written by an Indian author, The Travels of Dean Mahomet marked the first time a book published in English depicted the British colonization of India from an Indian perspective.

2. His marriage was controversial.

While studying English in Ireland, Mahomed met and fell in love with an Irish woman named Jane Daly. It was illegal for Protestants to marry non-Protestants at the time, so the pair eloped in 1786 and Mahomed converted from Islam to Anglicanism.

3. He opened the England's first Indian restaurant.

Prior to Sake Dean Mahomed's arrival, Indian food was impossible to find in England outside of private kitchens. He introduced the cuisine to his new home by opening the Hindoostane Coffee House in London in 1810. The curry house catered to both British and Indian aristocrats living in the city, with "Indianised" versions of British dishes and "Hookha with real Chilm tobacco." Though the restaurant closed a few years later due to financial troubles, it paved the way for Indian food to become a staple of the English food scence.

4. He brought "shampooing" to Europe.

Following the failure of his restaurant venture, Mahomed opened a luxury spa in Brighton, England, where he offered Eastern health treatments like herbal steam baths and therapeutic, oil-based head massages to his British clientele. The head massages eventually came to be known as shampoo, an anglicized version of the Hindi word champissage. Patrons included the monarchs George IV and William IV, earning Mahomed the title shampooer of kings.

5. He wrote about the benefits of spa treatments.

Though The Travels of Dean Mahomet is his most famous book, Mahomed published another book in English in 1828 called Shampooing; or, Benefits Resulting from the Use of the Indian Medicated Vapour Bath.

12 Historic Facts About Martin Luther King Jr.

John Goodwin/Getty Images
John Goodwin/Getty Images

January 15,  2019 marks what would have been the 90th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the Atlanta native who became one of the most important figures in the civil rights movement. While it would be impossible to encompass everything King accomplished in a mere list, we’ve compiled a few intriguing facts that may pique your interest in finding out more about the man who helped unite a divided nation.

1. Martin Luther King was not his given name.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrives in London in 1961.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrives in London in 1961.
J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images

One of the most recognizable proper names of the 20th century wasn't actually what was on the birth certificate. The future civil rights leader was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929, named after his father Michael King. When the younger King was 5 years old, his father decided to change both their names after learning more about 16th-century theologian Martin Luther, who was one of the key figures of the Protestant Reformation. Inspired by that battle, Michael King soon began referring to himself and his son as Martin Luther King.

2. He was a doctor of theology.

Dr. King receives an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree at Newcastle University in England, November 14, 1967. He had earned a doctorate in theology in 1955.
Dr. King receives an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree at Newcastle University in England, November 14, 1967. He had earned a doctorate in theology in 1955.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Using the prefix "doctor" to refer to King has become a reflex, but not everyone is aware of the origin of King's Ph.D. He attended Boston University and graduated in 1955 with a doctorate in systematic theology. King also had a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary.

3. He made 30 trips to jail.

A telegram from boxer Muhammad Ali mailed to a jailed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967.
A telegram from boxer Muhammad Ali mailed to a jailed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

A powerful voice for an ignored and suppressed minority, opponents tried to silence King the old-fashioned way: incarceration. In the 12 years he spent as the recognized leader of the civil rights movement, King was arrested and jailed 30 times. Rather than brood, King used the unsolicited downtime to further his cause. Jailed in Birmingham for eight days in 1963, he penned "Letter from Birmingham Jail," a long treatise responding to the oppression supported by white religious leaders in the South.

"I'm afraid that it is much too long to take your precious time," he wrote. "I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?"

4. The FBI tried to coerce him into suicide.

Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery in March 1965.
Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery in March 1965.
William Lovelace/Express, Getty Images

King's increasing prominence and influence agitated many of his enemies, but few were more powerful than FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. For years, Hoover kept King under surveillance, worried that this subversive could sway public opinion against the bureau and fretting that King might have Communist ties. While there's still debate about how independently Hoover's deputy William Sullivan was acting, an anonymous letter was sent to King in 1964 accusing him of extramarital affairs and threatening to disclose his indiscretions. The only solution, the letter suggested, would be for King to exit the civil rights movement, either willingly or by taking his own life. King ignored the threat and continued his work.

5. A single sneeze could have altered history forever.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference in London, September 1964.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference in London, September 1964.
Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Our collective memory of King always has an unfortunate addendum: his 1968 assassination that brought an end to his personal crusade against social injustice. But if Izola Ware Curry had her way, King's mission would have ended 10 years earlier. At a Harlem book signing in 1958, Ware approached King and plunged a seven-inch letter opener into his chest, nearly puncturing his aorta. Surgery was needed to remove it. Had King so much as sneezed, doctors said, the wound was so close to his heart that it would have been fatal. Curry, a 42-year-old black woman, was having paranoid delusions about the NAACP that soon crystallized around King. She was committed to an institution and died in 2015.

6. He got a "C" in public speaking.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a meeting in Chicago, Illinois, in May 1966.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a meeting in Chicago, Illinois, in May 1966.
Jeff Kamen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

King's promise as one of the great orators of his time was late in coming. While attending Crozer Theological Seminary from 1948 to 1951, King's marks were diluted by C and C+ grades in two terms of public speaking.

7. He won a Grammy.

At the 13th annual Grammy Awards in 1971, a recording of King's 1967 address, "Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam," took home a posthumous award for Best Spoken Word recording. In 2012, his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (it was included decades later because its 1969 nomination was beaten for the Spoken Word prize by Rod McKuen's "Lonesome Cities").

8. He loved Star Trek.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks on the phone.
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

It's not easy to imagine King having the time or inclination to sit down and watch primetime sci-fi on television, but according to actress Nichelle Nichols, King and his family made an exception for Star Trek. In 1967, the actress met King, who told her he was a big fan and urged her to reconsider her decision to leave the show to perform on Broadway.

"My family are your greatest fans," Nichols recalled King telling her, and said he continued with, "As a matter of fact, this is the only show on television that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to watch, to stay up and watch because it's on past their bedtime." Nichols's character of Lt. Uhura, he said, was important because she was a strong, professional black woman. If Nichols left, King noted, the character could be replaced by anyone, since "[Uhura] is not a black role. And it's not a female role." Based on their talk, Nichols decided to remain on the show for the duration of its three-season original run.

9. He spent his wedding night in a funeral parlor.

Martin Luther King, Jr's wife, Coretta Scott King, and their four children Yolanda (8), Martin Luther King III (6), Dexter (3) and Bernice (11 months), in February 1964.
Martin Luther King, Jr's wife, Coretta Scott King, and their four children Yolanda (8), Martin Luther King III (6), Dexter (3) and Bernice (11 months), in February 1964.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When King married his wife, Coretta Scott, in her father's backyard in 1953, there was virtually no hotel in Marion, Alabama that would welcome a newlywed black couple. A friend of Coretta's happened to be an undertaker, and invited the Kings to stay at one of the guest rooms at his funeral parlor.

10. Ronald Reagan was opposed to a King holiday.

President Lyndon B Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.
President Lyndon B Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite King's undeniable worthiness, MLK Day was not a foregone conclusion. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan largely ignored pleas to pass legislation making the holiday official out of the concern it would open the door for other minority groups to demand their own holidays; Senator Jesse Helms complained that the missed workday could cost the country $12 billion in lost productivity, and both were concerned about King's possible Communist sympathies. Common sense prevailed, and the bill was signed into law on November 2, 1983. The holiday officially began being recognized in January 1986.

11. We could see him on the $5 bill—at some point.

The Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington, D.C.
The Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington, D.C.
Ron Cogswell, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2016, the U.S. Treasury announced plans to overhaul major denominations of currency beginning in 2020. Along with Harriet Tubman adorning the $20 bill, plan called for the reverse side of the $5 Lincoln-stamped bill to commemorate "historic events that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial" including King's famous 1963 speech. In April 2018, though, the Trump administration announced that those plans were on hold and the bills would be delayed by at least six years.

12. One of King's volunteers walked away with a piece of history.

Over 200,000 people gather around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where the 1963 civil rights March on Washington ended with Martin Luther King's
Over 200,000 people gather around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where the 1963 civil rights March on Washington ended with Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.
Kurt Severin/Getty Images

King's 1963 oration from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, known as the "I Have a Dream" speech, will always be remembered as one of the most provocative public addresses ever given. George Raveling, who was 26 at the time, had volunteered to help King and his team during the event. When it was over, Raveling sheepishly asked King for the copy of the three-page speech. King handed it over without hesitation; Raveling kept it for the next 20 years before he fully understood its historical significance and removed it from the book he had been storing it in.

He's turned down offers of up to $3.5 million, insisting that the document will remain in his family—always noting that the most famous passage, where King details his dream of a united nation, isn't on the sheets. It was improvised.

A version of this story first ran in 2017.

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