The Battle of Yorktown

When British General Charles Cornwallis established a fortified base at Yorktown Virginia in August 1781, his forces included a squadron of 4 warships and about 50 merchant and transport vessels. When the British surrendered to the American Revolutionary forces on October 19, much of the fleet lay on the bottom of the York River. Some ships were sunk by enemy artillery fire, but about 12 of the merchant ships were intentionally sunk by the British to form a barrier against a possible assault from the river.

A historical map showing some of the vessels scuttled in the York River during the siege and Battle of Yorktown in 1781. Photo courtesy of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

The French salvaged some of the scuttled vessels, but the others remained underwater. In the 1930s, many objects, including bottles, ceramics, and cannon were recovered from some of these sunken ships using a barge, clamshell buckets, and a hard-hat diver. From 1975 to 1981, Virginia Department of Historic Resources archeologists surveyed the river bottom using remote sensing technology. Nine vessels were located by 1981 and best preserved was selected for intensive excavation. This later proved to be the brig Betsy.

—Synopsis courtesy York County Parks