Finally, they had won.
After more than six years of warfare, the War for Independence was ending – and it was an American victory. So many times the cause of American freedom had seemed lost.
So much hardship had been borne by these Continental troops, and so often General George Washington had kept them in the war equipped with little more than determination. Now, aligned before them was the fearsome British army that had been sent to conquer the South – the army that had won so many victories in the Carolinas and had inflicted so much suffering on American civilians.
Now these troops in red uniforms – composing perhaps (previously) the finest army in the world – were laying down their arms in surrender. And standing victorious before them were America’s citizen soldiers – “contemptible, cowardly dogs,” a British commander had once erroneously and ironically called them.
Led by General Washington and strengthened by a French army under General Comte de Rochambeau, these Continental troops had trapped General Charles Cornwallis and his British army with their backs to the water at Yorktown, Virginia. Washington had led a forced march from New York to the Virginia coast, and had taken the British by surprise. A French fleet had defeated the British navy at the nearby battle of the Capes – ending all hope of rescue for Cornwallis. The British had been battered into submission at Yorktown by a five-day artillery bombardment and repeated attacks by the Americans and the French. Finally, Cornwallis admitted defeat, and surrendered his army to the Americans he had so underestimated – but he could not bear to do it in person.
He officially claimed to be ill, and sent a substitute, General Charles O’Hara, to perform the humiliating task. O’Hara offered the surrender sword to General Rochambeau, who recognized the intended insult, and pointed him toward General Washington. The General refused as well, and directed the British substitute to a subordinate, General Benjamin Lincoln.
And so it ended. Other British troops were in the field – a huge army in New York – but the surrender at Yorktown was humiliation enough, and King George III agreed to give up the American colonies he had once vowed to subdue.
As Cornwallis’ defeated army marched to the surrender, a British band played a contemporary tune entitled “The World Turned Upside Down.”
[Listen here – https://www.americanantiquarian.org/thomasballads/items/show/326%5D
It was more appropriate than even they realized: American independence would launch a freedom movement that would topple tyrants for generations to come and would inspire oppressed peoples throughout the world to a “new birth of freedom.”
Mort Künstler’s Comments
In the fall of 2005, the U.S. Army War College’s Class of 2006 Gift Committee asked me if I would be interested in a commission to paint the surrender at Yorktown. To be able to accurately paint an event of such enormous importance was a wonderful opportunity. I’ve had an interest in this subject for a long time. Back in the 1970s, I did two small paintings on the surrender, and since I always wanted to do a major painting on the subject, I accepted the commission. I contacted Diane Depew at the National Park Service in Yorktown and John Giblin of the Army War College to help with the details.
The World Turned Upside Down places the Continental troops on the left with their artillery in the foreground. This is the way the scene would have looked to a British soldier standing in the road, waiting to march between the line of American troops, and French troops seen in the right background. It’s a different perspective from earlier artworks of the topic – and one that I think gives us a fresh view of this pivotal historical event.
The commander of Washington’s French allies, General Rochambeau sits astride his horse on the extreme right, with the flags of his Soissonnais Regiment fluttering above him. To his left, Washington’s aide, General Benjamin Lincoln – mounted on his grey charger – accepts the surrender from British General Charles O’Hara. General George Washington, is seen mounted to the left of his personal headquarters flag, the blue banner with the white stars. The flag with the unusual arrangement of red, white and blue stripes seen immediately to the right of Washington’s flag is a well-documented early American flag of the period.
The helmeted troops on General Washington’s right are the elite Life Guard, who served as the general’s personal guard. After the surrender ceremony, the British had to march a mile and a half to finally lay down their arms at what became known as “Surrender Field” – now a national historic site.
Although the Yorktown region had been drenched with torrential rains two nights earlier – as indicated by the puddle in the foreground – the day of the surrender was described as a beautiful, clear day with lots of white, puffy clouds. The puddle is also used as a design element, to act as a pointer that guides the viewer to the painting’s center of interest – General O’Hara offering the sword of surrender to General Lincoln.
I really enjoyed painting The World Turned Upside Down – it was a nice departure from the usual Civil War subjects I have been doing and I hope it proves to be a long-lasting reminder of our hard-won American freedom.