A French Map Depicting American, French, and British Forces In and Around Yorktown before the Battle of Yorktown, 1781
This map was printed in Paris, France, by publishers Esnauts and Rapilly about 1782. The map depicts the placement of American, French, and British forces in and around Yorktown, Virginia, in the weeks leading up to the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781. Published for a French audience and meant to emphasize, perhaps even exaggerate, the importance of French assistance in the American victory, the map shows the French fleet, commanded by French Admiral François-Joseph-Paul, comte de Grasse, blocking the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The British fleet, led by Admirals Thomas Graves and Samuel Hood, could not relieve or aid General Charles Cornwallis, second earl Cornwallis, at his camps in Yorktown and Gloucester Point. On September 5, 1781, in the Battle of the Capes, six of the nineteen British ships were badly damaged and could no longer engage in battle. One, The Terrible, had to be destroyed. The map depicts this vessel in flames.
The map also shows the arrangement of Continental army camps under the command of Generals Washington, Lafayette, and Rochambeau and the locations of forts, redoubts, and cannons. The American and French forces were arranged in a semicircle outside of Yorktown. Cornwallis and the British forces were camped in Yorktown and across the York River at Gloucester Point. The blockade of the Chesapeake Bay resulted in an American-French victory at the Battle of Yorktown and the surrender of the British on October 19, 1781. General Cornwallis and most of his soldiers were taken as prisoners of war. De Grasse's fleet returned to the West Indies.
The French had supported American independence since 1778. King Louis XVI was initially hesitant to support a rebellion that declared independence from monarchial power but could not resist the opportunity to weaken France's traditional enemy, Great Britain. America and France signed treaties of alliance and commerce in February 1778 and Americans received French money, supplies, and troops. This assistance benefited the Americans in cases like Yorktown, when the Americans alone did not have the resources or manpower to defeat the British.
The Battle of Yorktown was the last significant military engagement of the American Revolution. Patriots and Loyalists later skirmished in several states, and American settlers and pro-British Indians clashed on the frontier. The French and Spanish navies engaged in battle with the British in the West Indies, but peace was being negotiated. The Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, and ended the war between the United States and Great Britain.
1. In what ways did the French help the Americans?
2. Who fought in the Battle of Yorktown? Who won?
1. Consider the role of the French in the Battle of Yorktown. Would it have been possible to win the battle, and subsequently the war, without French aid?
Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. 2d rev. and exp. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Stephenson, Richard W., and Marianne M. McKee, eds. Virginia in Maps: Four Centuries of Settlement, Growth, and Development. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2000, pp. 110–111.