In 1765, certain influential members of Colonial American society began to protest the British government. They felt that Parliament had no right to pass laws without at least boasting representative from the colonies. Liberty fever spread across the thirteen colonies, and in 1775, Massachusetts militiamen engaged British Redcoats for the first time, leading to the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). One July 4, 1776, after a long debate in the sweltering Philadelphia summer, the Second Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence. It was official. America was its own nation.
The next five years saw stiff fighting across the former British holdings. Though the Continental Army was outgunned, outclassed, and never far from starvation or nakedness, they managed to impress France, Britain’s sworn enemy, to support their cause. General George Washington, a gentleman planter from Virginia and former British Army officer, proved a tremendous leader, and by 1781, the war was hugely unpopular in Britain (think Vietnam) and the Redcoats were unable to stand long against the Americans. What had started the war as a rag-tag collection of farmers, blacksmiths, lawyers, slaves, Indians, freedmen, and plantation owners had become, in six short years, a capable fighting force more than able to stand up to the world’s greatest army.
In 1781, General Cornwallis, one of the Queen’s top commanders in the American theater, withdrew to the coastal Virginia City of Yorktown after a number of hit-and-run attacks by men under the Marquis de Lafayette. Cornwallis’s decision to entrench at Yorktown was not his own: He had been ordered to choose a position on the Virginia Peninsula by his superior, Sir Henry Clinton. Cornwallis surely must have known that he was backing himself into a corner, but he did as he was told, reaching the city in August with several hundred battle-weary men. At once they set about fortifying the city.
Knowing Cornwallis’s position, Washington, who was in New York at the time, ordered Lafayette to make sure that Cornwallis didn’t escape. Then, with 2,500 of his own men, he linked up with a French regiment of 4,000 under the Count de Rochambeau and began marching south. The plan was to decapitate Cornwallis’s army once and for all with help from a French naval fleet commanded by the Count de Grasse.
In early September, Cornwallis’s expected reinforcements failed to break through a French blockade. By the end of the month, the French and Americans had completely surrounded Yorktown and began overtaking the city’s outer defenses.
After a near two week siege, General Cornwallis, on October 19, 1781, surrendered his forces to Washington and Lafayette. Though the war would continue for another two years, the victory at Yorktown effectively ended hostilities in the colonies proper, and convinced not only Britain but also the world that America was here to stay.