To the Editor:
Gen. Charles Cornwallis’ surrender to Gen. George Washington at Yorktown, Va., Oct. 19, 1781, ended serious fighting during the American Revolution and paved the way for the Treaty of Paris which recognized American independence. It was signed on Sept. 3, 1783 by representatives of King George III and John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and David Hartley.
It is ironic that Yorktown is within biking/hiking distance of Jamestown, the first permanent projection of British power in the United States, but that victory did not seem inevitable a few months earlier. The British had been very successful in the Southern theater, despite Gen. LaFayette’s best efforts which were hampered by the small size of his forces. British troops burned Richmond, and Gov. Jefferson and Virginia’s top leaders who had taken refuge at Monticello were almost captured in early June — and would have been except for the fortuitous midnight ride of Jack Jouett to warn them and the additional intervention by Mrs. Thomas Walker.
The French king wanted his great warship back, and the Continental Congress had no money to pay to keep it here. Thanks to the Spanish and the Cubans, including ladies who contributed even their gold wedding rings to fund American independence, the warship remained here. The tide turned more favorable after patriot victories in North Carolina. Cornwallis turned to the Yorktown peninsula to await reinforcements and supplies from the British fleet. On Sept. 5, French ships under Adm. Comte de Grasse defeated those British ships and boxed Cornwallis between the Atlantic and the American army augmented by French forces under Gen. Rochambeau who had marched quickly from Newport, R.I. (through Alexandria). Trapped, Cornwallis had to surrender.
Because the English army remained entrenched in New York, the patriots needed to return there to watch the enemy. Washington had to hold his army together for two more years when all were eager to return home. Until the peace treaty was signed, the English army was a danger to New England. The British were in no hurry to conclude a treaty they viewed as a humiliation. Washington, who had assumed command on July 3, 1775, was not able to surrender his commission until Dec. 23, 1783.
The Yorktown victory won Washington great honor both here and abroad because he and his allies had conquered the greatest military power of the day. For the second time, he became an international hero. Marked as America’s greatest leader, he became the logical choice to lead America in future decades.
We should celebrate Oct. 19 because without that victory, the Declaration of Independence might be a footnote in history. That document’s ringing words asserting our God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness would still stir hearts, but if we had lost the war, Jefferson, Washington and the other Founding Fathers would have been hung as traitors. Today too, it takes forceful actions, including war, to protect freedom. Let’s celebrate by flying our flags.
Ellen Latane Tabb