18¢ Battle of Yorktown
Issue Date: October 16, 1981
City: Yorktown, VA
Printed By: Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Printing Method: Lithographed and engraved
U.S. #1937-38 commemorate the Battles of Yorktown and the Virginia Capes – important victories in the American Revolution.
Battles of Yorktown and the Virginia Capes
During the American Revolution, the ability to resupply armies, deploy troops, and transport munitions stored in towns along Virginia’s inland water routes was dependent on control of the Chesapeake Bay. The British campaign to secure this vital region ultimately led to the surrender of British General Cornwallis and American victory in its War of Independence.
Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay is strategically located at the mouth of the James and York Rivers. In 1779, a British fleet seized control of the Chesapeake Bay, dropped additional forces, and destroyed forts and military warehouses along the inland rivers. The raids gave the British necessary supplies at the same time they depleted the Continental Army’s stockpiles. British expeditionary forces continued the raids throughout 1780 and highlighted Virginia’s military weakness. In the spring of 1781, Major General Marquis de Lafayette entered Virginia and combined his forces with those of General Anthony Wayne. They reached Richmond just in time to prevent the British from burning the capital.
As Lafayette’s forces defended Richmond, British General Lord Charles Cornwallis traveled southward along the James River. Joined by other British forces, Cornwallis managed to maneuver around Lafayette’s Continental Army and reach Yorktown on the York River. British naval ships delivered additional troops. On August 2, 1781, Cornwallis began construction of two rights of defensive lines around Yorktown.
Word of Cornwallis’ movements reached General George Washington, who met with French General Rochambeau to determine their next move. Rochambeau convinced Washington to move south and surround the city by land. A fleet under the command of French Admiral de Grasse would secure the Chesapeake Bay and cut off Cornwallis’ escape route on the river.
The French fleet of 27 ships reached Virginia on August 28, 1781, and immediately started a blockade of the York and James Rivers. Additional French troops were delivered to strengthen Lafayette’s forces on land. On September 5, 1781, the French fleet engaged a 19-ship fleet commanded by British Admiral Graves and soundly defeated them. The Battle of the Virginia Capes left the French Army firmly in control of the Chesapeake Bay and the entrances to the James and York Rivers. As a result, the British garrisons at Yorktown and Gloucester Point were completely isolated from resupplies or reinforcement.
In mid-September, Washington’s troops combined with Lafayette’s for a total of 17,600 soldiers opposite 8,300 entrenched with General Cornwallis. The siege of Yorktown began on October 9, 1781, with heavy artillery fire on the British defensive line. After a week of heavy battle, the British attempted to evacuate across the York River. However, the British ships that were to transport them had scattered or sunk in a violent storm. With their escape route cut off and the entrances to the York River and Chesapeake Bay blocked, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown and the Revolutionary War ended.
Haym Salomon was born on April 7, 1740, in Leszno, Poland. Salomon raised funds and gave his own money to help the American war effort during the Revolutionary War.
As a young man, Salomon traveled throughout Western Europe and learned a great deal about finance and other languages. He returned home to Poland in 1770, and spent some time in England before immigrating to the US in 1775.
In New York City, Salomon found great success as a financial broker for merchants conducting overseas trade. Salomon sympathized with the revolutionary cause in America and joined the Sons of Liberty. However, in September 1776, he was arrested by the British for being a spy. They pardoned him, but forced him to stay on a British ship for 18 months interpreting for the Hessian (German) soldiers. Salomon complied, but also used this time to free some of the American prisoners on the ship and encouraged the Hessians to abandon their support of the British. Salomon was released but arrested again in 1778. He was sentenced to death, but was able to escape by bribing a jailer.
Salomon then made his way to Philadelphia and resumed his work as a broker. He soon became the agent to the French consul and the paymaster for the French forces in America. In 1781, Salomon started working with Robert Morris, the superintendent of Finance.
Later that year, George Washington had trapped British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown. However, he was unable to launch the battle because he and Congress didn’t have enough money to provide food, uniforms, or supplies for the troops to carry it out. Washington estimated he’d need $20,000 to cover these costs. When Morris told him they didn’t have the funds, Washington replied, “Send for Haym Salomon.” Salomon quickly raised the $20,000 by selling bills of exchange, enabling Washington to lead the successful Battle of Yorktown.
Salomon was able to keep the war effort funded largely by selling bills of exchange to American merchants for their dealings with France and the Dutch Republic. He also offered low-interest loans to members of the Continental Congress and never asked that they be repaid. Salomon also gave money to people that he considered were unsung heroes of the war. One of these people was Bodo Otto, a surgeon for the Continental Army. Otto had established a hospital at Valley Forge and used his own money to buy medical supplies. After the war, Salomon gave him the money to reestablish his medical practice in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Between 1781 and 1784, Salomon contributed a great deal of his own fortune to the American cause. He also conducted extensive fundraising – providing more than $650,000 (more than $338 million in today’s dollars) to the American war effort.
After the war, Salomon continued to contribute his own money to the fledgling nation. He also fought to overturn laws that restricted Jewish citizens like himself. Most notably, he successfully pushed for the Pennsylvania Council of Censors to remove the religious oath that was required for taking office. Salomon died on January 8, 1785 from tuberculosis that he had contracted in prison. He died in poverty, having given all of his fortune to the American war effort.
Several places are named in his honor as well as a World War II Liberty Ship. He is also honored in the Heald Square Monument in Chicago as part of the sculpture Triumvirate of the Patriots. The triumvirate consists of the figures of Robert Morris, Haym Salomon, and George Washington. You can see the statue here.