It was a long time in coming…After 6 years of war with the British, the Articles of Capitulation were signed by General George Washington, Le Comte de Rochambeau, Le Comte de Barras, Comte de Grasse, and General Thomas Cornwallis on October 19, 1781. Cornwallis was forced to surrender after a strategy developed by the American and French commanders left him and his troops isolated and without support from the British Navy. With no supplies, large numbers of his troops unavailable due to wounds and disease, and few options left to him, Cornwallis had very little choice but to surrender.
What an amazing experience it would have been to watch the ceremonial surrender of the British Troops at Yorktown. Unlike conflicts of our time, there was an actual ceremony in which the British and Hessian troops who fought at Yorktown laid down their weapons in the presence of the Continental Army and French military personnel who fought with them. Thankfully, there are eye witness journal accounts from which to learn more about the events of that day. Imagine standing on a hill and seeing a line of American soldiers along a road that stretched one mile in length. An equally long line of French soldiers stood on the other side of the road. The French were dressed in uniform, while the Americans were a bit more rustic in appearance. Baron Yon Closen, on officer of the French Army, described the Continental soldiers as follows: “the Americans, who, to tell the truth, were eclipsed by our army in splendor of appearance and dress, for most of these unfortunate persons were clad in small jackets of white cloth, dirty and ragged, and a number of them were almost barefoot.” However, the Americans were clearly jubilant, and the British were clearly angry and demoralized. Several of the journals recount the scornful attitude of the British troops toward the Americans. At the end of the lines, were General Washington and Count Rochambeau nobly sitting atop their steeds. At 2:00 p.m., the British and Hessian troops began a somber march between the lines of American and French soldiers. Ever somberly they trudged toward Washington and Rochambeau while their bands played “The World Turned Upside Down.”
Although it was Generals Washington and Cornwallis who signed the Articles of Capitulation, they did not come face-to-face with one another during the ceremony. The attached image is John Trumbull’s famous work “Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.” As can be seen in the painting, George Washington is not the officer who accepted General Cornwallis’ sword. The title of the painting is also something of a misnomer because Cornwallis, feigning illness, sent his second in command, General O’Hara, to offer his sword in surrender. General O’Hara tried to surrender to the French leader, but Rochambeau declared that the French were subordinate to the Americans. It is unclear if O’Hara’s action was intentional or unintentional. O’Hara then offered the sword to Washington. Washington, consistent with his customary gracious and self-deprecating manner, told O’Hara, “Never from such a good hand.” Washington’s second in command, Major General Benjamin Lincoln accepted the sword, as can be seen in Trumbull’s painting. The painting, by the way, is on display in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. After 3500 British and German troops took part in the ceremony, they returned to camps where an equal or greater number of ill or wounded soldiers awaited their return. Washington actually extended an invitation for Cornwallis to dine with him that evening, but Cornwallis again feigned illness. O’Hara went in his place, and by all accounts, it was a cordial evening.
And how did the negotiations regarding what was included in the Articles of Capitulation occur? Through an exchange of letters between Washington and Cornwallis which can be read at:http://www.bingoforpatriots.com/american-history/american-revolution/articles-of-capitulation/letters-exchanged-between-general-washington-and-general-cornwallis-regarding-british-surrender/ It should be noted that while Washington suggested in one of his letters that he anticipated British troops would be attended to by British physicians and personnel, Cornwallis thought of more of himself. “I shall, in particular, desire, that the Bonetta sloop of war may be left entirely at my disposal, from the hour that the capitulation is signed, to receive an aid-de-camp to carry my dispatches to Sir Henry Clinton. Such soldiers as I may think proper to send as passengers in her, to be manned with fifty men of her own crew, and to be permitted to sail without examination, when my dispatches are ready: engaging, on my part, that the ship shall be brought back and delivered to you, if she escapes the dangers of the sea, that the crew and soldiers shall be accounted for in future exchanges, that she shall carry off no officer without your consent, nor public property of any kind.”
It is worth reading the Articles of Capitulation because the document is both brief and interesting. Included in the details are how the ceremony of surrender would occur, how the enemy troops would leave American soil, and what was to be done with the non-military personnel (such as traders). The Articles end with the admonition: “No article of capitulation to be infringed on pretence of reprisals.” Considering the large amount of lengthy saber rattling documents that were exchanged between the British Parliament and various colonial legislative bodies before the war began, it is startling to realize how quickly and succinctly the entire matter was wrapped up once the decision to surrender had been made.
Please take a moment to savor the victory of the Continental Army over the British Military. Consider how a small group of barefoot, underpaid, and hungry men pulled together, with the support of the French, to achieve a victory which must have seemed unthinkable only a few decades before. It is astounding to think about what a small group of determined Americans can accomplish in the face of a well-established monolithic machine such as the British military. Perhaps, we can learn from the patience, determination, and perseverance of those who came before us more than 200 years ago….They can serve as a model for us of What IS Right With America!
Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.
Read the Articles of Capitulation at:http://www.bingoforpatriots.com/american-history/american-revolution/articles-of-capitulation/
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