When Cornwallis surrendered to Washington: How American independence was won in 1781

American independence - Cornwallis surrendered to Washington

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Did a lie and nine blank cartridges win independence for America? The war ended at Yorktown. It was there, on October 19, 1781, that Cornwallis surrendered to Washington.

To find out more of the story, check out these two different accounts of the events of that time during the revolutionary war. The first was written for America’s bicentennial in 1976, and the second offers some insight from 1906.

How America fought the British … and won. (1976)

By Ronald Miskoff / The Central New Jersey News (July 1, 1976)

The aging iron signs that boast “Washington slept here” are pale memories of the glorious days of the American Revolution when patriots and tories chased each other through New Jersey, each in pursuit of a quick victory and an end to a war that no one wanted.

Though most of the original 13 colonies contain at least some strands of the conflict in their history books, none approaches the role of the Garden State, often called the “Cockpit of the Revolution.”

Used in its original sense, ‘cockpit’ means the place where roosters fought, as cigar-smoking men cheered them on. There were few cheers for the armies of Washington and Cornwallis, but the fighting was nonetheless fierce, and to the death.

Like the other colonies, New Jersey was moved to open opposition by the British passage of the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Duties of 1767. Though reaction was at first mild, it grew with the Mutiny Act and the Intolerable Acts.

By 1774, Committees of Correspondence had been formed throughout the colonies, and at a three-day meeting in July that year, the committee of New Jersey, meeting in New Brunswick, voted loyalty to the British throne, but favored a boycott of some English goods.

Hostilities grew stronger in the next two years, as New Jersey became one of the member colonies of the Continental Congress, which was slowly taking over the role as the dominant government in the colonies.

By April 1775, open hostilities started with the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, and New Jersey was plunged into a verbal civil war where patriots and loyalists faced each other in argument and agonizing, some picking the British side, and the others taking sides with the revolutionaries.

Finally, the state’s Provincial Congress voted June 21, 1776 to send five men to Philadelphia to vote for a declaration of independence.

Surrender of Cornwallis

The five, John Hart, a Hopewell farmer; Richard Stockton, a Princeton lawyer and former member of the governor’s council; Francis Hopkinson, of Bordentown, another member of the governor’s council; Abraham Clark of Elizabeth, who had been a farmer, surveyer and sheriff of Essex and Dr. John Witherspoon, the president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton.

They signed the Declaration of Independence, while other colony leaders were preparing to launch New Jersey as an independent state.

A state constitutional convention provided that in the event “a reconciliation between Great Britain and these colonies,” the constitution would be “null and void.”

The lines had been drawn, and the stage was set for the war, but New Jersey and her 12 sister colonies had to fight for the independence whose ideals were written in those documents so eloquently.

Much — or even most — of that fighting was to take place on New Jersey soil.

During three winters, New Jersey sheltered General George Washington and his Continental Army.

The battles of Trenton, Princeton, Red Bank, Monmouth and Springfield were fought in New Jersey.

”No other state so generally and continuously felt the impact of the struggle for independence,” wrote Richard P. McCormick in his ”New Jersey — From Colony to State.”‘

Stationed in New York, Washington sent General Hugh Mercer to New Jersey to guard against British movement into the state. After a skirmish between British General William Howe and Washington in August 1776, Washington, beaten by the English, moved his army into New Jersey.

Charles, first Marquis Cornwallis

The British pursued, and while they took positions at Rahway and New Brunswick, Washington made a temporary camp at Hackensack.

By November 1776, Washington’s army was at its lowest point. New York had fallen, and Washington’s men had lost confidence in the cause. But almost at that desperate moment, Tom Paine, author of the pamphlet “Common Sense,” served with the American army and wrote,

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country, but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

“This stirring appeal, which was read to the troops on the eve of the battle of Trenton,” McCormick wrote, “gave elequent form to the determination of those patriots who clung to the cause in its darkest hour.”

Historical image of George Washington (4)

Pursued by the British, Washington, who had halted in New Brunswick around Dec. 1, 1776, was forced to continue on toward the Delaware River. He crossed the river, and on December 7, recrossed it to Princeton, after the British had failed to continue the pursuit.

Thinking the conflict was over, the British generals put their forces into winter quarters, Spreading them throughout the state, with headquarters at New Brunswick.

Meanwhile, the conflict among the civilian population continued. Loyalist farmers were selling goods to the British army, and often were the victims of plundering and burnings by patriot bands.

Finally, Washington, who had crossed back into Pennsylvania, decided to fight the British at Trenton. First he sent two wings of soldiers to serve as the advance force, and on Christmas Day, 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware and met with his armies.

Although they arrived after eight in the morning, Washington’s forces took Col. Johann Rall’s army by surprise. The whole battle lasted just and hour and a half, and the pa- triots’ attack had succeeded beyond all expectations.

Fearing a counterattack and facing exhaustion, the Americans returned to their Pennsylvania encampment, delirious with joy at the victory.

The victory brought reinforcements from the British, and by Jan. 2, 1777, 8,000 men under General Cornwallis were on the march from Princeton toward Trenton, in pursuit of Washington.

The Americans, sensing the new battle, had crossed the Delaware again and were awaiting Cornwallis at Trenton.

Cornwallis arrived at the Washington encampment, and while waiting until the next morning to attack the Americans, learned that Washington’s forces had doubled back and headed toward Princeton.

Cornwallis took after them, and the Americans, heading toward New Brunswick, turned off at Kingston, now part of Franklin, and headed up the Millstone River to Millstone.

Out of Cornwallis’ reach, Washington and his army, weakened by the battles, moved north to Morristown, where they spent the winter of 1777.

“Within the brief span of two weeks, Washington by his great daring and resourcefulness, entirely altered the military balance in New Jersey,” wrote McCormick.

The British then concentrated their forces in the area between New Brunswick and Perth Amboy.

American Revolution - Lord Cornwallis

“Perhaps more important,” McCormick went on, ”the whole patriot cause had been rescued from the dangers of despondency. Cornwallis and Howe had lost the best opportunity they would ever have to bring the war to an end.”

Yet the war continued. Though Washington had a difficult winter at Morristown, he was thrust back into battle when, on April 14, 1777, Cornwallis led a force of 4,000 men in a surprise raid on Bound Brook. By the time the American General Greene arrived from Basking Ridge with reinforcements, Cornwallis had returned to New Brunswick, still under British control.

Washington moved to Middlebrook, in the Watchung Mountains, as the British moved to a position between New Brunswick and Perth Amboy.

Then Howe, in command of the British, moved to the area between Millstone and Middlebush, now Franklin, on June 14, in an attempt to lure Washington into battle. But instead Washington sent Lord Stirling to Metuchen and estar lished his own headquarters at Quibbletown, now the New Market section of Piscataway, just after the British moved back toward New Brunswick.

House of Cornwallis's surrender, Yorktown, Virginia
House of Cornwallis’s surrender, Yorktown, Virginia

The British moved from the New Brunswick-Perth Amboy area two days later, sending Stirling on the run toward Westfield and Washington back to Middlebrook.

The battle was not fought and the British, after returning to Perth Amboy, moved out of the State July 1 to Staten Island.

“Thus the New Jersey campaign, which had begun so auspiciously for the invaders on Nov. 20, 1776, came to an inglorious end,” McCormick wrote.

“The tide had been turned by the victories at Trenton and Princeton; and Washington, by confining the enemy to the small area of the lower Raritan Valley and maintaining his own army intact, was able to retain the advantage, prevent an overland attack on Philadelphia, and force the British withdrawal from the state.”

But the following spring brought renewed fighting.

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The British, now led by Sir Henry Clinton, began a march through the state in June 1778. Washington’s army, about equal in size to Clinton’s, met at Monmouth Court House, now Freehold, on June 28.

Washington sent General Charles Lee to engage the British, while the major part of the army would follow. But, a disagreement between Lee and Washington led to a serious argument almost on the battlefield, and Washington took control of the whole army.

After a confrontation near the Old Tennent Church in Monmouth Court House, the American army again was victorious, sending Clinton to Sandy Hook.

General George Washington

The Americans then moved to New Brunswick, no longer in British control, and on July 4, 1778 celebrated the second anniversary of the fledgling republic’s birth on the banks of the Raritan River.

The following winter, Washington set up his headquarters at the Wallace House in Somerville, and in the summer of 1779 Washington and his army moved to New York.

His army spent the following winter at Morristown, and though it was one of the harshest, the American forces were able to survive it better than at Valley Forge.

ALSO SEE: President George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)

In the spring of 1780, Washington was alarmed the British might try another sweep of the State from a base at Staten Island. Washington came down from Morristown to Short Hills, but the British again retreated after conducting two small raids.

As the major  battles were going on, small skirmishes continued to plague the state. Simcoe’s Raiders ran a terrifying Campaign through the Raritan Valley in October, 1779, “which left smoldering houses, ruined crops and lasting hatreds,” according to McCormick.

The final seige at Yorktown, Va. was preceeded by the American armies marching once more through New Jersey. But after the 1781 conflict, the war had been won by the Americans, and a preliminary treaty was signed on Jan. 20, 1783.

The war had left ruins from Morristown to Trenton and east to the Jersey shore. Churches homes and virtually every other building had been affected by the battles.

Not only that, but “The very fabric of society had been torn by the clash between the Whigs (Americans) and the Tories,” McCormick wrote.

The new nation’s capital was moved to Princeton from June, 1783 to November of the same year. The Continental Congress met in the library room at Nassau Hall.

Washington met with the Congress for 10 weeks to discuss plans for demobilization of his army. He stayed at the Berrien House near Rocky Hill during that time and from his offices there wrote his “Farewell Orders to the Armies of the United States.”

Men who were drawn from every part of the nation fought as “but one patriotic band of Brothers,” Washington wrote.

The news reached New Jersey about Nov. 1, 1783 that the Treaty of Peace had been signed Sept. 3 in Paris, and New Jersey, as well as the rest of the new nation, celebrated.

The hard-fought battles that erupted on the New Jersey stage served to bring independence to the 13 colonies. The term, “cockpit,” thus is fitting, especially when considering the war’s aftermath and the wrecked battlefield it left.

Cornwallis’s letter to Washington, before the surrender

York, Virginia 17th Octr 1781


I propose a Cessation of Hostilities for Twenty four hours, And that two Officers may be appointed by each side to Meet at Mr Moore’s house to settle terms for the surrender of the posts of York & Gloucester. I have the honour to be. Sir.

Your most obedient & most humble Servant


Cornwallis letter to Washington

How American independence was won in 1781 (from 1906)

by Ben Winslow – New-York Tribune (New York, NY) December 2, 1906

Did a lie and nine blank cartridges win independence for America? Everyone knows how our little difficulty with King George terminated, but some of the details have been forgotten. The war ended at Yorktown. It was there, on October 19, 1781, that Cornwallis surrendered to Washington.

After ravaging Virginia to the extent of about ten million dollars, he had fortified himself at Yorktown. Lafayette’s little army of three thousand was useless against Cornwallis’ seven thousand, but when the enemy invaded Yorktown and a French fleet sailed into Chesapeake Bay, the French general was quick to perceive that the British general had trapped himself.

This information was quickly dispatched to General Washington. He brought his army into Virginia, and the American army of sixteen thousand began the siege that finally resulted in the surrender of Cornwallis.

These are the facts known to every school child; but in presenting the affirmative side of the question it is necessary to produce a few circumstances that are more or less obscure.

Why Cornwallis surrendered to Washington

Two things, in addition to the presence of the American army before Yorktown, brought about the surrender of Cornwallis. One was a lie; not a spoken lie, but a lie enacted for the purpose of deceiving General Clinton. The other was nine blank cartridges fired at Port Orange, St. Eustatius, Dutch West Indies.

The lie enters in this manner: While General Washington and General Lafayette were holding Cornwallis in Yorktown, General Clinton, with eighteen thousand British soldiers, was holding an imaginary army out of New York.

George Washington created that imaginary army out of New York. George Washington created that imaginary army by pretending to be gathering a force for an attack on New York.

He carried the deception to such an extent that ovens, for the purpose of baking bread for the American force, were erected under Clinton’s nose. Clinton, deceived by Washington into the belief that New York was to be attacked, stayed to meet it, instead of going to Cornwallis’ assistance.

ALSO SEE: The fascinating history of the American flag, and its evolution since 1777

With his eighteen thousand men pecking at their backs and Cornwallis’ seven thousand in front, Washington and Lafayette must have been defeated. Thus a well-enacted lie fooled Clinton, and thereby contributed to the American victory at Yorktown.

General Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis by John Singleton Copley

But for the presence of Admiral de Grasse’s French fleet in the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, Cornwallis could have escaped by sea. The presence of the French fleet was the result of the nine blank cartridges fired at St. Eustatius.

If you will take your atlas and look among the many little islands scattered over the Atlantic Ocean to the southeast of Puerto Rico, you will find the island of St Christopher.

Measure twelve miles in a northwesterly direction from St Christopher, using the scale in the corner of the map, and you may find a little speck of an island. It is so small and insignificant that it does not appear on all maps, and it is just probable that you will not find it. This little speck is the island of St. Eustatius.

Over the ramparts of its little fort, from which tiny cannon of ancient type point seaward, there floats the tricolor of Holland, fluttering lazily in the breeze.

Beneath the muzzles of these toy engines of war lies a beach speckled with the dismantled remains of many stone houses, and a harbor from which trade has long since vanished. Forgotten and ignored, little St Eustatius sleeps, peacefully dreaming of its eventful past when it played an important part in the world’s history.

Only memories are left

Today, only the memories surrounding the ruined estates nestling lonely among the volcanic hills are left; but it was not thus a century and a quarter ago. Then the little fort was alive with the soldiers of the tiny Dutch colony. The guns that pointed seaward were not toys but modern pieces of ordinance, and they looked out upon a roadstead crowded with shipping.

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Holland was a neutral nation, and St Eustatius was the trading point between America and that country. American vessels made frequent trips to the little island, taking on cargoes of powder and bullets brought from Holland in Dutch merchantmen.

These war munitions went to supply Washington’s army, and in exchange good old Virginia tobacco went to Holland in the same Dutch bottoms. Great Britain could not interfere, because the cargoes were consigned to a Dutch colony, and the tobacco for bullet trade went merrily on.

One day in November, a great crisis arose. The Andrea Doria sailed into the roadstead of Port Orange. Eleven puffs of white smoke spurted from its guns, and eleven peals of gun thunder rumbled in from the sea. The flag of Holland had been saluted by a cruiser commissioned by the Continental Congress.

All eyes turned toward the fort. Would Governor de Graaff answer the salute? To do so meant that Holland recognized the United Colonies as an independent nation. Not to do so meant to offend their best customer. If ever a Dutchman was in a predicament, Governor de Graaff was.

The expectant populace became impatient as the moments dragged. Finally a puff of smoke burst over the ramparts of Fort Orange, and then another and another — four, five, six. The little battery was hidden behind the dense pall of smoke and only the flash of powder was seen. Seven, eight, nine — and then silence. The salute had been answered, but not gun for gun.

For four long, bloody years that salute rankled in British hearts. Trade between the Americans and Dutch continued to flourish and grow, until England could stand it no longer. War was declared on Holland.

How American independence was won in 1781, when Cornwallis surrendered to Washington

Importance of St Eustatius

The British fleet under Admiral Rodney was then at the island of Barbados keeping an eye on Admiral de Grasse’s French fleet, which was forming at the island of Martinique for the purpose of assisting the struggling Colonists.

Orders were immediately sent to Admiral Rodney to capture St. Eustatius, whose Governor had rubbed the Lion’s fur the wrong way. He sailed to an easy victory, but tarried too long at St. Eustatius to superintend the disposal of the booty.

While he tarried Admiral de Grasse slipped away and appeared in Chesapeake Bay in time to cut off Cornwallis’ retreat and prevent reinforcements reaching him. That is the part the nine blank cartridges played in the struggle for American independence.

The argument is this: If Washington had not deceived Clinton, the Colonial army would have been caught in its own trap, and if de Grasse had not blocked the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, Cornwallis could have escaped.

To reason from effect to cause; de Grasse did block the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, because Rodney was at St. Eustatius, and Rodney was at St. Eustatius because the little Dutch colony had answered the salute of an American cruiser.

As for the lie, that is a question of ethics; but the nine blank cartridges — the people of St. Eustatius firmly believe they caused Great Britain to lose an empire. What you will believe depends entirely upon the way you look at the facts.

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