This painting depicts the forces of British Major General Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis (1738–1805) (who was not himself present at the surrender), surrendering to French and American forces after the Siege of Yorktown (September 28 – October 19, 1781) during the American Revolutionary War. The central figures depicted are Generals Charles O’Hara and Benjamin Lincoln. The United States government commissioned Trumbull to paint patriotic paintings, including this piece, for them in 1817, paying for the piece in 1820.
Like a man frantically climbing a ladder, who keeps reaching for rungs after he has arrived at the top, George Washington continued to prepare for war after Yorktown. He pleaded with Admiral de Grasse to accompany him with the fleet to Charleston, convinced that retaking the city would be the decisive stroke. He worried that the good news from Yorktown would lull the people and their representatives in Congress into a dangerous apathy. The days, months, and years of anxiety had worn him down. Too many defeats had weighed on him, too many betrayals and disappointments had wrung his soul. He could not believe the truth: that when silence fell over the field at Yorktown, the war was effectively over. America’s independence was won.
For another year and more, Washington would wait nervously, afraid of the “haughty Pride” of the British, and “totally in the Dark” about enemy intentions. But the British had no intentions. They were fought out. They would not rebound from this surrender as they had from Burgoyne’s four years earlier. They would, finally, go home.
In January 1782, Anthony Wayne took his Pennsylvania regiments to join Nathanael Greene in South Carolina. Greene sent his friend to keep watch on the British still occupying Savannah. Wayne’s men fought some skirmishes and defeated an uprising of Creek Indians. Wayne remained eager for accolades and glory, but now even he wrote to his wife, “I am satiated with this horrid trade of blood.”
Like Washington, Wayne was impatient with the “unworthy torpor & supineness” of those who considered the war as good as over. He agreed with an officer who wrote to him about “chimney corner soldiers,” who counseled the army to let down its guard while fifteen thousand redcoats occupied New York and ten thousand more did garrison duty in the South.
But others could see the truth. “The play, sir, is over,” Lafayette wrote to the French foreign minister after Yorktown. “The fifth act has just been closed.” On hearing word of Cornwallis’s fate, Lord North, the British prime minister who had steered his majesty’s government through a tumultuous decade, exclaimed “Oh God, it is all over!” He took the news, it was said, “as he would have taken a ball in the breast.” King George huffed that “we can never continue to exist as a great or powerful nation after we have lost or renounced the sovereignty of America.” Yet in early 1782 British soldiers abandoned Wilmington, North Carolina. Peace negotiations began between the two governments in April. In July, the last occupiers left Savannah.
At last the god of war appeared to be sated with blood, treasure, and destruction. The once delightful Virginia village of Yorktown, now an abject, stinking ruin, symbolized the conflict’s mad and wasteful frenzy. But someone always has to be the last to die.
John Laurens, along with Hamilton and Lafayette, was one of the young luminaries of the revolution. The handsome, educated son of a prominent Charleston family had fought recklessly at Brandywine, had received wounds at Germantown and Monmouth, had been captured with the fall of Charleston, and, exchanged, had fought at Yorktown. He had found time to serve as an aide to Washington and an envoy to the French. His only fault, Washington said, was an “intrepidity bordering upon rashness.”
At Yorktown, it was the gifted twenty-six-year-old Laurens who had negotiated the details of Cornwallis’s capitulation. He then returned to his home state to fight alongside Greene, harassing British patrols seeking food for the troops inside Charleston. Laurens, a fellow officer said, wanted “to gain a laurel for his brow previous to a cessation of arms.” In August 1782, he led his troops in an attack against an armed British forage party five times his numbers. He exposed himself unnecessarily and was shot dead. He left behind a widow and a young daughter.
Barely four months later, on December 14, British troops sailed away from Charleston forever. General Greene gave Anthony Wayne the privilege of parading his Continental soldiers into the town. New York City remained the only bastion of British power in the thirteen colonies. Henry Clinton had gone home, handing over command there to Guy Carleton, whose spirited defense of Quebec in 1775 had saved Canada for Britain.
While the British wolf’s teeth had flashed nearby, the states had neglected to adequately support their men in the field. With the threat rapidly abating, they were even less inclined to open their coffers. During the two years that followed Yorktown, the army continued to suffer for want of basic necessities. General Greene begged Congress and the states for supplies. His men suffered from lack of clothing and food. Many still went barefoot.
With peace now casting its warm light across the nation, many civilians became convinced that it was republican virtue that had won the war. The Continental Army soldier, a hireling who had submitted to military discipline, was not a model of a free man. “Civilians could portray themselves,” historian Charles Royster has observed, “as the rescuers of the army at Valley Forge rather than the main cause of the army’s hardship.” In 1782 a Virginia official noted that “some how there is a general disgust taken place for [Continental soldiers].”
Now the distinction between summer soldiers and actual soldiers faded. Sunshine patriots emerged from the shadows. “There are too many of our Citizens,” Anthony Wayne had noted in the spring of 1781, “that would not hesitate, to wipe off the large debt due to the army, with a Sponge.”
As early as 1777, Daniel Morgan, in his usual blunt language, had given his opinion “that the War should not end until the Soldiery were provided out the Estates made by it and of such as had too much Property to their Share.” The reluctance of the people and the states to honor their debt to the fighting men had reached a crisis with the mutinies of 1781, when soldiers had felt they were “starving in detail for an ungrateful people who did not care what became of us.”
The officers, as Washington knew, had also spent “the flower of their days” fighting for a cause that often seemed hopeless. Like their men they had seen little pay. They nursed similar grievances. During the desperate months of 1780, with American hopes hanging by a thread, Congress had voted to give the officers half pay for life, the standard pension in the British army. In early 1783, as peace negotiations moved toward conclusion, the army’s leaders realized that the time to make Congress live up to this promise would soon pass. They changed the demand to five years’ full pay. They insisted that Congress amend the Articles of Confederation to allow the money to be raised through taxes.
Events came to a head in March 1783. By this time, Horatio Gates, still serving as second in command, was overseeing the bulk of the troops outside Newburgh in New York’s Hudson Valley. One of Gates’s aides passed among the officers two anonymous circulars. They suggested that if Congress failed to agree to the officers’ just demands, the men should pursue one of two alternatives. If the war continued, they should refuse to fight and should lead the army westward, leaving Congress and the major cities to the mercy of the British. If peace was concluded, they should keep the troops under arms and march to Philadelphia to obtain what they deserved by force.
The issue became part of a vitriolic debate. Opponents felt the war had been fought to get rid of just such special privileges as pensions, which might perpetuate an idle class of ex-officers at the expense of the yeomanry. Those who favored the officers’ position saw that these men had sacrificed eight years of their lives while others had tended their farms or made money in trade. They deserved recompense. What was at stake this time was no sergeants’ mutiny but a full-blown military coup that could snuff out the infant republic. Conversely, any officer who even tolerated talk of mutiny could be court-martialed and hanged.
The disgruntled officers called a meeting for March 15, 1783, in the spacious central meeting hall of the camp. Washington had been alerted to the gathering in advance. He remained the moral keel of the army. The soldiers, one officer told him, “universally think and speak of you with love, pleasure, gratitude and applause.” He carefully planned his strategy, enlisting the help of Henry Knox. Like Washington, Knox sympathized with the officers’ plight but abhorred their attempt to bully the civil authority.
On the day set, the grumbling officers filed into the great room. Gates opened the meeting. At the appropriate moment, Washington strode in, “visibly agitated,” to address his officers. He appealed to their sense of dignity and self-sacrifice. Their behavior, he hoped, would allow posterity to say of them, “Had this day been wanting, the World had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.”
Washington’s rhetoric did not appear to sway the angry men. But he was not done. He had received a letter, he told them, from a member of Congress. It appeared to indicate that the officers’ demands were likely to be met. He begged their permission to read it. He began, then fell silent. He pulled from his pocket a pair of spectacles that he had recently begun wearing. Only a few close aides had seen them perched on his nose. As he slipped them on, he asked the officers’ forgiveness, “observing at the same time,” a witness recorded, “that he had grown gray in their service and now felt himself going blind.”
It was a consummate performance by a skilled actor. Many of the men, who had lived through all the horrors of war, now wept. By the time Washington had finished reading and left the hall, the mood had changed completely. After a half hour of debate, Knox offered a proposal condemning the threats contained in the anonymous circulars that had touched off the affair and affirming the officers’ loyalty. It passed unanimously. The so-called “Newburgh Conspiracy” was over.
The affair had served its purpose. Members of Congress were sufficiently spooked to comply with most of the officers’ demands. Urged on by Washington, they issued interest-bearing certificates for the five years’ pay and amended the Articles to allow for a modest tax.
Less than a month later, on April 11, 1783, came news of the official end of hostilities with Britain. The Treaty of Paris, in which “His Britannic Majesty acknowledges the said United States . . . to be free Sovereign and independent States,” was signed September 3. Envoys John Adams, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin had wrung for America terms better than most had dared hope for.
It was time for the troops to go home. Many felt the pangs of parting from friends with whom they had shared so much, whom they had come to love. “We were young men and had warm hearts,” one of them later remembered. They knew their lives would never again be illuminated by such a noble cause, nor would their minds crackle with such intensity.
General von Steuben planned a final, triumphant ceremony to precede the soldiers’ dismissal. It was not to be. The troops, as part of the agreement that ended the Newburgh Conspiracy, had been promised three months’ wages, a down payment on the back pay owed them. Congress could not find the money. Not for three months’, not even for one month’s pay. Only IOUs, and those of scant value.
There would be no parade. The high command judged it imprudent to dismiss the men as a body—they might join together and pillage the country. Instead, most regiments were marched to their home states, then released under the fiction of a furlough so as to keep them under military discipline.
The men who had “suffered and bled without a murmur,” Washington wrote, were dismissed “without a settlement of their accounts or a farthing of money in their pockets.”
Destitute Maryland Continentals, having distinguished themselves again and again during the war, had to make their own way home from the deep South. Many resorted to begging. Joseph Plumb Martin, who had fought in the ranks since the beginning of the conflict and would leave behind one of the most vivid memoirs of the war, had to take a job on a farm in New York in order to earn traveling money to reach his home in Connecticut. He said of his fellow soldiers, “When the country had drained the last drop of service it could screw out of the poor soldiers, they were turned adrift like old worn-out horses, and nothing said about land to pasture them upon.”
Washington, Steuben, and Knox all pleaded with Congress to maintain a small army. Knox preached the need for an academy, perhaps near the still-important base at West Point, to train officers, engineers, and artillerymen in the science of war. Congress would not hear of it. “Standing army” was a dirty word. The Continental Army would immediately shrink to seven hundred men stationed at a few scattered posts on the frontier.
One ceremony remained. When the ink had dried on the Treaty of Paris, it was time for the last redcoats to leave. Early in November, Washington said goodbye to the troops still left at West Point. Of Henry Knox, he would later write that there was “no one whom I have loved more sincerely, nor any for whom I have had a greater friendship.” He gave his principal adviser the honor of leading the march into New York City.
On the spanking clear morning of November 25, Washington and Knox, with a small contingent of troops—ill-clad as always—rode south from Harlem Heights through a desolate landscape. All the trees on Manhattan Island had been cut down, many of the homes abandoned. Part of the city still lay in ruins from the 1776 fire. On Staten Island, Americans jeered at the enemy troops marching toward the embarkation docks. An ill-tempered British ship’s gunner fired in anger a cannonball that fell short, pointlessly expending powder in what may have been the last shot of the war.