Yorktown siege

Yorktown siege

The Siege of Yorktown, October 1781.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / All rights reserved

Publication date: November 2013

Professor of modern history at the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis.

Historical context

The turning point of the American Revolutionary War

During the summer of 1781, George Washington planned to deliver a decisive blow to the British by launching a combined assault, by land and sea, against New York. The British Army Commander-in-Chief, Henry Clinton, is convinced that New York is indeed the target designated by the insurgents Americans and their French allies. But, faced with the 17,000 British entrenched in the fortified city, their opponents did not line up more than 10,000 men, including 4,000 French. The attack must therefore be carried out further south.

At the end of August, coming from the West Indies, Admiral de Grasse entered the Chesapeake Bay (Virginia) with 3,000 men. Washington’s army joined the French on September 26, barring Lord Cornwallis’s Yorktown army from entering the sea. The allies line up 15,000 men, including 6,000 French under Rochambeau. Without hope of being rescued, Cornwallis capitulated with the honors of war on October 19, 1781. La Fayette wrote to Vergennes, Louis XVI's Minister of Foreign Affairs: “The play has been performed, Monsieur le Comte, and the fifth act comes from finish. In fact, the capture of Yorktown precipitated the end of military operations.

This work was commissioned by Louis-Philippe Ier for the Gallery of Battles at the Museum of French History in Versailles.

Painted in 1836, it is part of the will of the July Monarchy to combine the glorious military heritage of the Ancien Régime with that of the Revolution.

Image Analysis

France victorious alongside the insurgents american

The two Allied commanders, Rochambeau with Washington on his left, are preparing to launch the final assault on the British troops entrenched in Yorktown. The ordinances take their orders. With half a century of hindsight, Couder has taken care to represent in good place other actors with a bright future: we recognize La Fayette, bareheaded behind Rochambeau, and Saint-Simon to the right of Washington. On horseback and from behind, the Duke of Lauzun completes this picture of the fine flower of the French aristocracy, helping the insurgents Americans.

The disastrous Treaty of Paris (1763) was erased by the Peace of Versailles (1783) which ended the conflict. In what is sometimes presented as a second Hundred Years 'War between Versailles and London, the stinging defeats of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) are avenged. “8,000 prisoners, including 7,000 regular troops and around 1,000 sailors. 214 pieces of cannon, including 75 of cast iron ": the precision of the accounts of the battle aims to testify to the indisputable character of the success achieved, while the War of Independence also showed the limits of French rearmament. Indeed, in April 1782, Admiral de Grasse lost the naval battle of Saintes, in the Caribbean. Finally, in the medium term, the results of the French intervention appear less favorable: very expensive, it ruined the royal finances, and Louis XVI gained neither in authority nor in prestige. As for the great French trade which hoped to supplant its British rival in transatlantic trade, it quickly became disillusioned: peace returned, trade relations with London resumed. The bitterness wins him over quickly.


The writing of history under the July Monarchy

"Hero of two worlds", La Fayette (1757-1834) is not only the embodiment of French commitment alongside the insurgents Americans and a key player in the early years of the French Revolution. In the 1820s, thanks to its exceptional longevity, its prestige was immense among French and European liberals struggling against political reaction. In 1830, it was he who introduced Louis-Philippe to the people of Paris from the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville. Couder stages the engagement of the French liberal aristocracy alongside freedom fighters, from the War of Independence to the Three Glorious Years. The Musée d'Histoire de France aims to capitalize on this glorious action.

It should be noted that at the siege of Yorktown is also illustrated Claude Henri de Rouvroy (1760-1825), future Count of Saint-Simon, relative of the famous memorialist of Louis XIV and of the Regency, founder of the eponymous utopian movement. Like La Fayette, he made the junction between the Age of Enlightenment and the XIXe century. But it will go beyond liberal thought to embrace socialism.

  • Franco-American alliance
  • United States
  • american independence
  • La Fayette (Marquis of)
  • american war of independence
  • Seven Years' War (1756-1763)
  • New York
  • Washington (George)


Pierre-Yves BEAUREPAIRE, France of the Enlightenment, 1715-1789, Paris, Belin, coll. “History of France”, 2011.

Bernard COTTRET, The American Revolution. The Quest for Happiness, 1763-1787, Paris, Perrin, coll. "Tempus", 2004.

To cite this article

Pierre-Yves BEAUREPAIRE, "The siege of Yorktown"

Video: The World Turned Upside Down: Siege of Yorktown