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French-American Cooperation: 230 Years Ago, the Battle of Yorktown

French-American Cooperation: 230 Years Ago, the Battle of Yorktown

Published on October 19, 2011
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Statue of Rochambeau in Washington, DC.

The Battle of Yorktown, which took place exactly 230 years ago today on the coast of Virginia, was a key event in the history of the United States as well as French-American friendship.

On October 19, 1781, after 21 days of fighting, the British troops, led by Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis, surrendered their weapons to the American revolutionary forces, led by General George Washington, and to the French troops under the command of the Comte de Rochambeau.

This battle, which marked the defeat of the British forces and paved the way for American independence, took place in the small town of Yorktown at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. It was here in this colony that Sir Henry Clinton, who was leading the British forces on American soil and controlled New York City at the time, had ordered Lord Cornwallis to establish a military port.

Hearing of the withdrawal of the British troops in Yorktown, Generals Washington and Rochambeau, who had agreed to march toward New York, ultimately chose to lay siege to the Virginian colony, which could be taken more easily.

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Plan of the Battle of Yorktown, S. G. Goodrich, 1875

This was a strategic decision, strengthened by the arrival of French Admiral de Grasse in the Chesapeake Bay with a fleet of 28 ships, which cut off seaborne supplies to the British and prevented any chance of escape. On the ground, no less than 8,800 Americans and 10,800 French soldiers were mobilized against some 7,500 British soldiers — a quarter of the British forces deployed to the continent.

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General Cornwallis (center) surrenders to the French (left) and American (right) troops in Yorktown (fictional vision since Cornwallis was not present at the ceremony). John Trumbull, 1820

On October 17, 1781, Lord Cornwallis was forced to surrender, powerless in the face of the allied military force. After two days of negotiations, the official ceremony to mark the British surrender took place without the presence of Cornwallis, who claimed he was sick.

The Mosquito Factor

In addition to the numerical and strategic superiority of the allies, there was one factor that worked against the British. The region was swarming with mosquitoes carrying malaria; in contrast to the British, many American soldiers were immune to this disease. The French benefited from the incubation period of around 6 months for this disease: the first symptoms only appeared after the battle was over.

The allied victory in Yorktown paved the way for the Treaty of Paris of September 3, 1783, which ended the war. Regularly celebrated in reenactments as a critical step toward securing American independence, it still remains one of the key symbols of French-American cooperation in history.

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