October 17, 1778, General Charles Cornwallis raised a flag of truce over the fortifications at Yorktown after having suffered not only the combined French and American attack but also disease, lack of supplies, inclement weather, and a failed evacuation. With the French navy in the York River and siege lines advancing on his position, defeat was inevitable. The only issue that remained was how to surrender with honor and save his army and the loyalist who were trapped there with them.
Cornwallis had reason to be concerned. Throughout the south there had been “incidents” actions take, primarily by loyalist militia but often enough by regular soldier, which could be
considered war crimes. Unarmed civilians and surrendering soldiers were killed, homes burned, and a general terror descended from Charleston to Richmond. If Cornwallis could
not prevail upon the honor of Washington and Rochambeau, his garrison stood a good chance of being annihilated by the American soldiers who witnessed the aftermath of these
actions. With no hope of relief or evacuation, Cornwallis began his correspondence with Washington on October 17, 1781. He knew that Clinton’s reinforcements were weeks from arriving, and if he did not end the hostilities soon, those in his camp that were not killed by Knox’s bombardment, would likely die of disease and starvation.
The final Articles of Capitulation reflect the concerns and compromises of the two sides over the surrender of British troops and the treatment of loyalists. “The garrison of York will march out to a place to be appointed in front of the posts, at two o’clock precisely, with shouldered arms, colors cased, and drums beating a British or German march. They are then to ground their arms, and return to their encampments, where they will remain until they are dispatched to the places of their destination.” Cornwallis hoped to maintain some dignity in surrender both for himself and his troops.
A demand of the British involved the treatment of loyalists. Washington tacitly acknowledged Cornwallis’s right to facilitate the escape of loyalists and American deserters in Article 8 by allowing Cornwallis unregulated use of the sloop Bonetta for carrying dispatches to British headquarters in New York City: “The Bonetta sloop-of-war to be equipped, and navigated by its present captain and crew, and . . . to be permitted to sail without examination.”
And so it was done. On October 19, 1781, at two o’clock that afternoon, the surrender ceremony commenced. Cornwallis never actually surrendered his sword to General Washington but that is how we like to remember it. Cornwallis chose not to participate in the surrender, citing illness and leaving General Charles O’Hara to lead the British troops. Washington, refusing to accept the sword of anyone but Cornwallis, appointed General Benjamin Lincoln to accept O’Hara’s sword. The war in North
America is over, the British surrender.
It will take two more long years for the final peace treaty to be signed and approved. Long years of troops waiting in the hopes that the war is finally over and they will not need to return to the battlefield but waiting nonetheless in case they must.
This beer, a Bière de Garde, is brewed for waiting. its high ABV means it keeps well in the bottle and yet, who wants it in the bottle, pour it in a glass, get on with the important work of building a nation, living our lives. To all the great men, American, French, German, and British who fought at Yorktown, we salute
your sacrifice and applaud your honor!
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