All The World Would Be Upside Down: Yorktown Surrender 1781 October 19th


The British Surrender at Yorktown October 19, 1781

America declared its independence in 1776, but it took another five years to win a battle that spelled the end for the British.  That day came on October 19, 1781, when the British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his troops in Yorktown, Virginia.

The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis is an oil painting by John Trumbull. The painting was completed in 1820, and hangs in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington, D. C. (see above)  The cast of characters (along with two extra canines – Wyatt and Gavin numbers 34 and 35) is provided below:


French intervention made the British position in America much more tenuous.

Until 1778, the British army had been able to depend on the dominance of the Royal Navy. After all, they were successful o the world stage.  British troops could be transported anywhere along the Atlantic coast of the colonies, and British generals had no need to fear for their extended Atlantic supply line.  The British plans got complicated when until leaders in Paris gummed up the works.   Once the French joined the war, their navy posed an immediate threat. If French ships could get on the same playbook with American troops on land, isolated British garrisons could be captured.

At first, the French and Americans failed to co-ordinate their operations.  However at Yorktown, Virginia, they succeeded to dramatic effect in autumn 1781. Their success lead to the defeat of the British. General Cornwallis’s British army was trapped by American and French troops and cut off from relief by the French navy. Cornwallis’s surrender effectively ended the war in America        

General Cornwallis brought 8,000 British troops to Yorktown. They relied on help from British ships sent from New York. The British ships never arrived.  The British navy was intercepted by the French.The French navy kept British ships from entering through the York River or Chesapeake Bay  The British returned to New York. That was lucky for General George Washington and the Continental army. The thirteen colonies found their opportunity to beat the world’s largest empire.

On September 5, 1781, at the Battle of the Capes, a French fleet under the Comte de Grasse forced a British fleet to return to New York City. It was de Grasse who decided to sail to the Chesapeake, and not New York City – changing the course of the war.

French troops led by General Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau joined General Washington.  Rochambeau and Washington gathered an army of 17,000 soldiers to take Yorktown back from the British in early October. The army continued a siege on Yorktown. They surrounded the town. The siege cut off supplies.  The joint American-French force laid siege to Yorktown, with Alexander Hamilton also involved in an attack to capture a key British defensive position.

After awhile, the British ran out of food and ammunition. They could not continue fighting.

Following an abortive attempt to evacuate his army from Yorktown, Lord Charles Cornwallis faced the reality that aid from Sir Henry Clinton would not arrive in time. French and American guns resumed bombardment of the British position at dawn on October 17. By mid-morning, Cornwallis came to a decision and sent a drummer to a visible location on the fortification, where he beat out the call for a parley. The guns were quickly silenced and a British officer came forward to the American lines; he was blindfolded and taken to confer with George Washington.

On October 17, 1781, aides appointed by Cornwallis started surrender negotiations with Washington’s subordinates.

One surrender condition seemed harsh and it was related to treatment by Cornwallis’s superior officer, General Henry Clinton, of the American General Benjamin Lincoln.

A little over a year earlier, Clinton had forced Lincoln to surrender his force of about 5,000 troops after British forces laid siege to Charleston, South Carolina. Then Clinton insulted Lincoln by not allowing the Americans to surrender with honor by displaying their colors and playing a song to honor the British. General Lincoln was then exchanged for another prisoner, and by the time of the Yorktown siege he was Washington’s second-in-command on the battlefield.

The formal surrender ceremony was held October 19, 1781.

British agreed to the Washington’s capitulation  terms, but then Cornwallis refused to meet Washington in public to finalize the surrender. Claiming he was ill, Cornwallis sent the Irish General, Charles O’Hara, with Cornwallis’s sword. The British-German forces were denied the same surrender honors as Lincoln’s forces had experienced in Charleston.

At the end of the surrender march, General O’Hara offered the sword to Washington, who turned to Lincoln and instructed Lincoln to receive O’Hara’s sword and supervise the surrender of arms.

Washington refused to make the same mistake that had been made four years earlier by Horatio Gates in the surrender at Saratoga, where the defeated soldiers were allowed to return to their homes in exchange for a promise not to reenter the war in North America at a later point. The obvious problem with such leniency was that those soldiers could be assigned to another theater, thus replacing soldiers in that location who could then be sent to America.

Terms included the following provisions:

surrendering soldiers were to march out of their fortification with colors folded, surrender their arms at a predetermined location, then depart to detention2

British officers were allowed to keep their side arms and to depart to Britain, or to a British-occupied American port.  Officers and soldiers were allowed to retain personae possessions.

In a breech of military etiquette, Cornwallis declined to attend the surrender ceremony, claiming illness. The second in command, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, filled that role. To avoid the humiliation of turning over Cornwallis’ sword to Washington — known contemptuously to many British as “General Buckskin” — O’Hara attempted to present the token to General Rochambeau. The French commander refused to accept the sword and pointed to Washington. When O’Hara turned to make the presentation, Washington called on his second-in-command, General Benjamin Lincoln, to accept. Thus, General Buckskin won some satisfaction in the wake of his humiliation at the surrender of Charleston.


According to a widely recounted report, the defeated army departed to the strains of The World Turned Upside Down, a popular song whose words in part expressed the sentiments of the day:

If ponies rode men and grass ate cows,

And cats were chased into holes by the mouse . . .

If summer were spring and the other way round,

Then all the world would be upside down.

If ponies rode men and grass ate cows,

And cats were chased into holes by the mouse . . .

If summer were spring and the other way round,

Then all the world would be upside down.

There is some dispute as to whether the British actually played “The World Turned Upside Down” as they surrendered at Yorktown. Tradition says yes, but at least one scholar has claimed that the earliest mention of the song being played as arms were laid down didn’t occur until 1828, almost fifty years after the event.

Contemporary accounts are certain, however, of the importance “Yankee Doodle” had in the ceremony. Henry Knox, Washington’s chief of artillery, says that the British band was specifically not allowed to play the song. The Marquis de Lafayette writes that the French army played the song to “discomfort” the British as they marched from the fort between the French and Americans.


One thought on “All The World Would Be Upside Down: Yorktown Surrender 1781 October 19th

  1. Interesting. I have not known of this particular surrender before. The song is amusing in its lyrics. Just as an aside in the painting who is riding the white horse in the center? The tradition in art is to depict the victor or the leader riding on a white horse. This is done despite the fact that the person may never have had a white horse.


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