230 years ago Lord Cornwallis’ representatives handed his sword to the French and American commanders outside the British fortifications at Yorktown, Virginia. It would take two more years for negotiations to result in a treaty, but with the surrender of the largest British armies in the colonies, the War of American Independence was decided on this day.
This is not the only major event in world history that happened on this date. In 1812 the Emperor Napoleon began his retreat from Moscow on this date; exactly one year later he lost the Battle of Leipzig, ending his control over Germany and beginning the final phase of his defeat. (In 1805 he won one of his most important victories on October 19, defeating the Austrians at the Battle of Ulm.)
This is also the date on which Scipio defeated the Carthaginians at the Battle of Zama, putting an end to the Second Punic War.
Lord Cornwallis’ career did not end with the defeat at Yorktown; he went on to a number of distinguished posts in what remained of the British Empire. As Governor General in India, he was responsible for some important and on the whole beneficial reforms while defeating Tipu Sultan, among the wiliest and most determined enemies the British ever faced on the subcontinent. He served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, helping to organize the (not very successful) union of Ireland and Great Britain after the failed rebellion of 1798.
But the defeat at Yorktown was the most important historical event with which he was ever associated. The battle that established American independence for good ranks with the defeats of Napoleon and even the Battle of Zama as one of the most important battles that made the modern world.
Worth remembering — and worth remembering that without the French fleet, there would have been no British surrender.