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Cornwallis Parole

  • General Cornwallis Was Paroled, October 28, 1781
Under the terms of this parole, British general Charles Cornwallis was free to leave Virginia and return to Great Britain on condition that he engage in no further military action against the United States.
Related documents:
  • Washington Commission
    Commission to George Washington as Commander in Chief, June 19, 1775
  • Map of Yorktown
    A French Map Depicting American, French, and British Forces In and Around Yorktown before the Battle of Yorktown, 1781
  • Storming a Redoubt at Yorktown
    Storming a Redoubt at Yorktown, oil painting, October 14, 1781
« Return to The Revolution Begins

General Cornwallis Was Paroled, October 28, 1781

The final major military engagement of the Revolutionary War took place at Yorktown, Virginia, in the autumn of 1781, where the British Army and its commanding general, Charles Cornwallis, second earl Cornwallis, made its headquarters. A French fleet under the command of Admiral François-Joseph-Paul de Grasse, comte de Grasse drove a British fleet away from the Capes of Virginia, making it impossible for Cornwallis to receive supplies and reinforcements. American general George Washington marched his army from New York to Virginia, where, with a large French and American army under Comte de Rochambeau, Washington laid siege to the British at Yorktown. They joined the Marquis de Lafayette who, in command of an American army, had been fighting the British in Virginia for six months.

The siege began on October 6, 1781, as the Americans and French formed a semicircle outside of the town and began an artillery bombardment. A successful storming of two British redoubts, or small temporary defensive enclosures, convinced Cornwallis that his position was untenable, and he surrendered his army to the combined American and French forces on October 19. He refused, however, to surrender in person and delegated the humiliating duty to his second in command. Washington consequently directed his second in command to receive the surrender.

Nine days after the surrender, Cornwallis signed this parole document. Under its terms, he was free to leave Virginia and return to Great Britain on condition that he engage in no further military action against the United States. His army remained in the United States as prisoners of war until exchanged or paroled. An able military commander, Cornwallis was received warmly in England and served as governor-general of India from 1786 until his death in 1805. Nearly two years after Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown, a formal peace treaty concluded the Revolutionary War, and King George III recognized the independence of the United States of America.

For Educators

Questions

1. What is a parole?

2. Under what conditions was General Cornwallis allowed to return to Great Britain?

3. Where was this parole signed? On what date was it signed?

Further Discussion

1. Consider this parole along with the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1783. In what ways did this document directly lead to the signing of this treaty? Would the British have surrendered even if this parole was not signed and Cornwallis was allowed to continue fighting against the rebelling American forces?

Notes

This document has slight tears along the left side, which obliterate a portion of the text.

Links

National Park Service. Yorktown Battlefield: History of the Siege.

Ayres, Edward. How the Allied Victory at Yorktown Won American Independence.

This Day in Virginia: October 28

Suggested Reading

Benninghoff, Herman O. The Brilliance of Yorktown: A March of History, 1781, Command and Control, Allied Style. Gettysburg, Pa.: Thomas Publications, 2006.

Johnston, Henry P. The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis, 1781. New York: Eastern Acorn Press, 1981.

Patterson, Benton R. Washington and Cornwallis: The Battle for America, 1775–1783. New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004.

[C]harles* Earl Cornwallis Lieutenant General [of his Brita]nnick Majesty's Forces.
 Do acknowledge myself a Prisoner of War to the [United] States of America, & having permission** from His [Excellenc]y General Washington agreeable to Capitulation to proceed to New York & Charlestown, or either, & to Europe,
 Do pledge my Faith & Word of Honor, that I will not do or say any thing injurious to the said United States or Armies thereof or their Allies, untill duly exchanged; I do further promise that Whenever required, by the Commander in Chief of the American Army, or the Commissary of Prisoners for the same, I will repair to such Place or Places as they or [e]ither of them may require.—
 Given under my Hand at York Town 28th day of October 1781—
 CORNWALLIS

* This document has slight tears along the left side, which obliterate a portion of the text.
** The writer of this document (probably a secretary or a clerk) used the long or leading s, a character that looks similar to an "f" but is used as an "s."