The Battle of Yorktown, Then and Now
Nat Brown /
Restaurant owner Glenn Helseth and his wife have operated the Carrot Tree Kitchens Restaurant in Yorktown, Virginia, for more than a decade. Since the National Park Service owns the building in which his restaurant is housed, Helseth was forced to close his restaurant following the start of the government shutdown on October 1.
A week later, with his employees out of work and his rent payments piling up, Helseth decided to engage in an act of civil disobedience and reopened his restaurant to the public on the morning of October 8. This simple act should remind us of the principles that animated our founding. It’s also notable because of where it occurred.
Today marks the 232nd anniversary of the British surrender at Yorktown, the final major battle of the Revolutionary War. Through brilliant strategy and effective teamwork, General George Washington and his French allies bottled up British General Charles Cornwallis and his forces, leaving them no other option than to wave the white flag.
Yorktown almost didn’t happen. In the summer of 1781, Washington was contemplating an attack on New York with the combined American and French forces under his command. That would have been a major step, as the British had controlled New York City since the earliest days of the Revolution.
Instead, Comte de Rochambeau, who led the French forces, argued that the troops should march south to target Cornwallis in Virginia. Washington approved the plan only after making certain that Comte de Grasse, head of the French West Indies Fleet, would move his ships to Chesapeake Bay until the middle of October. That would prevent the British from rescuing Cornwallis by sea.
While marching South, Washington sent out false dispatches indicating his army would attack New York. So Cornwallis, who had been ordered to fortify a deep-water port at Yorktown, felt at ease, even though de Grasse chased off a nearby British fleet in the Battle of the Chesapeake on September 5.
By September 28, Washington had surrounded Yorktown and began moving on the British forces there. He had Cornwallis trapped, under heavy fire, with no prospect of escaping by land or by sea. The British leader offered to surrender on October 17 and agreed to terms two days later, although Cornwallis himself refused to be present at negotiations, claiming illness.
It would be almost two years before the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, was signed. But after Yorktown, the British had lost their will to fight, and the Colonists were on the road to independence. That’s worth celebrating at the Carrot Tree—and everywhere else across the U.S.
Nat Brown is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.