At 2:00 pm on October 19, 1781, British soldiers filed
out of their trenches at Yorktown, Virginia, laid down their arms, and
surrendered their flags. At that moment the American Revolution
British general Charles Cornwallis had taken his troops to Yorktown, on
the Chesapeake Bay, because southern Patriots had worn down his army.
He hoped to meet up with the British navy, which might either resupply
his exhausted force or carry it away. But American and French troops
laid siege to Cornwallis’s lines, pounding them with cannon fire, and a
French fleet cut off escape by sea. The British found themselves
Thomas Nelson, governor of Virginia and a signer of the Declaration of
Independence, was with the American army at Yorktown. According to
tradition, he directed an artilleryman to fire at a stately brick home.
“It is my home,” he explained, “the best one in town, and there you
will be almost certain to find Lord Cornwallis and the British
headquarters.” According to legend, the first cannonball sailed through
a window and landed on a table where several British officers had just
sat to dine.
On October 19, as the redcoats marched forward to surrender, they could
not help but notice how poorly dressed and equipped George Washington’s
troops were. Few had uniforms. Many wore rags and went barefooted. “Out
of this rabble has risen a people who defy kings,” one of King George’s
Bands played as the British troops filed between the French and
American soldiers. The Americans played “Yankee Doodle.” The British
played a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.” After Yorktown the
British realized there was no point in fighting the upstart colonists
any longer. Americans had won their freedom.