August of 1781. It’s hot and wet in Yorktown. Cornwallis’ troops are inside an ever-tightening noose of cannonades and entrenchments, and withering artillery bombardment. British General Clinton, in New York, is playing the violin. Meanwhile 3000 colonial militia, 8,000 regulars, and 8000 French troops had linked up north of New York and they headed into Virginia when the news reached them that Cornwallis was running low on supplies and was trapped in the Bay. By September handwritten messenger delivered pleas for reinforcements made it through to Clinton in New York; but he dragged his feet, and sent a note promising 5000 men by the end of September. Cornwallis reacted buy abandoning his outer most redoubts and with the exception of a few Fusiliers in a redoubt to the west of town, his men closed up the line and occupied just inner trench works.
Washington was delighted. Cornwallis had nowhere to turn and was out gunned, and the colonials began bombarding the British from the previously abandoned entrenchments. It must have been miserable on the British side. Every day new cannons were brought to bear upon the British, and they were facing a combined force of French and Colonials who hated the British with every breath they took.
A month earlier British Admirals Thomas Graves and Samuel Hood had tried to block colonial reinforcements, and provide resupply for Cornwallis. News had reached Hood that Compte De Grasse had left the Caribbean but the British didn’t know where he was headed. Hood sailed as soon and as directly as possible, and found no one in the bay on August 24th. Then he turned around and sailed to New York to report to General Clinton and Admiral Graves. When he returned on September 5th 1781, Compte De Grasse had appeared in the mouth of the Bay, the French fleet effectively stopping reinforcements to the British. Nineteen British ships of the line and 24 French ships of the line sailed into the open waters east of the Bay to face each other.
Both sides had problems from the outset. The British fleet was badly in need of resupply and repair. Some of the larger ships of the line had rigging that needed new ropes, and holes in sails. The French fleet had to abandon several hundred sailors from the fleet in the Bay Shore line, as they were busy supporting colonial operations on the ground. Many French ships had gun decks that were undermanned as a result.
The British attacked from the East in a line, and the French sailed westward in a line but the two long lines of battleships were tacking exactly opposite directions, headed towards each other. Lined up to the south, heading east, were the 24 French ships, four of which had over 80 guns. To their north, heading the opposite direction were the 19 British ships. British Admiral Graves decided to wear to, a maneuver where the ships stay in line, but each ship rotates around and changes direction 180 degrees. So the line moves in the opposite direction and suddenly the van, the lead ships, are in the rear, and the rear ships are the van.
The two lines weaved towards each other; the French had a wind from the North that allowed them to fire leeward. The
British had to fire windward. Therefore the French could use all three decks of guns. The British had to keep the bottom gun ports closed so they wouldn’t bring on water. The French ships in the lead were able to cause significant damage in their early volleys. Trying to close the gap with their center, Graves ships had only their bow guns to bear, while Compte De Grasse was still raking British ships near the van with enfilading cannon fire. French ships were firing two canon balls attached by a chain. This twirling projectile took down British rigging, and before they could even engage the middle, the HMS Intrepid and Shrewsbury were out of the battle. The battle began at 4 PM and by the time the sun set, the British had five badly damaged ships and had to scuttle the HMS Terrible. Grave and Hood and Drake conferred and decided not to continue the fight, but to head back to New York.
Essentially this was the beginning of the end of the Revolutionary War and the birth of America. King George III could no longer afford to wage war. The noose tightened until by October 19th, hungry, out of ammo, inundated with wounded and totally demoralized, Cornwallis negotiated for peace.