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On this day in 1781, the British Army under General Charles Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia thus ending the revolutionary war.
Despite the images of several famous paintings of the event, Cornwallis was not present at the surrender, claiming to be ill. The war was a disaster for England, though the loss of the American colonies was soon made up for by conquests in India and the annexation of the recently discovered Australasia.
France, the colonists’ ally, played a major part in the defeat of the English – some French leaders such as the Marquis de Lafayette went on to play major roles in the French Revolution some ten years later. Cornwallis was undaunted by the setback at Yorktown and went on to receive a knighthood and become Governor General of India.
Here is part of the poem Yorktown by American poet John Greenleaf Whittier, writing roughly one hundred years after the event. Not one of his best perhaps, but he was making a point:
From Yorktown’s ruins, ranked and still,
Two lines stretch far o’er vale and hill:
Who curbs his steed at head of one?
Hark! The low murmur: Washington!
Who bends his keen, approving glance,
Where down the gorgeous line of France
Shine knightly star and plume of snow?
Thou too art victor, Rochambeau!
The earth which bears this calm array
Shook with the war-charge yesterday,
Ploughed deep with hurrying hoof and wheel,
Shot-sown and bladed thick with steel . . .
Today I ask that all those now in slavery may become free.