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 effectively ended.
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 trapped.
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 soldiers observed.
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.