When our nation was forming, The Chesapeake Bay and its five major rivers provided a highway to settle vast amounts of land. Four of those rivers, the Potomac, Rappahannock, York and James were all in Virginia.
The Revolutionary War was primarily a ground war with Britain, which at the time had the most powerful army and navy in the world. It was not long before the colonies recognized the need for an army and navy. The Continental Congress established the Continental Navy on October 13th, 1775
British Lord Cornwallis recognized the advantages the Chesapeake Bay and the rivers flowing into it would provide to invade and conquer its rebellious colonies. Some of the war’s major skirmishes and battles occurred in or around those bodies of water:
April of 1775 ~ John Murray, the Royal Governor of Virginia, took the gunpowder
stored in the Public Magazine in Williamsburg. He and his family left the capitol and took refuge aboard the Magdalen, a British warship in the James River. He later found safety on the HMS Fowey, a British warship in the York River. Eventually, he sailed south to Loyalist-controlled Norfolk.
December 9, 1775 ~ The Battle of Great Bridge (near current day Chesapeake, VA) was the first major land battle of the war to take place in Virginia. The patriot rout of the British at this strategic location, twelve miles south of Norfolk, would force the English to retreat.
January 1, 1776 ~ Lord Dunmore shelled Norfolk and landed troops. While they did not re-occupy Norfolk, they burned the structures on the shoreline that might be used by Virginia sharpshooters. Rather than fight to save the town, the Americans burned the rest of Norfolk so it could not become a Loyalist base.
May 27, 1776 ~ Gwynn’s Island, a 4 miles long and 3/4 miles wide island and less than half a mile from the Virginia mainland was the scene of one of the first naval battles of the Revolutionary War. It became the outpost of the last Royal Governor of Virginia before he fled the colonies forever.
May, 1779 ~ British Sir George Collier led almost 2000 men on 28 ships to Hampton Roads and captured the Gosport shipyard in Portsmouth and burned it along with the Continental Navy frigate Virginia. British forces outnumbered the Virginians 20-1.
December 30, 1780 ~ General Benedict Arnold (now on the side of the British) sailed from New York to the James River with almost 30 ships and 1,500 troops. Virginia’s military defenses were inadequate, without cannon or troops to stall movement up the James River. Arnold and his troops traveled past Jamestown and went overland to seize the capital. About 900 British soldiers and loyalists quickly made their way from William Byrd's plantation wharf at Westover to Richmond.
May, 1781 ~ General Cornwallis left the Carolinas and marched to Petersburg to take over Arnold's command all British troops in Virginia. Cornwallis gathered his forces at Yorktown and established fortifications across the York River in Gloucester. Yorktown was a deepwater port. There, his troops had shelter and the ability to forage and raid for provisions. Cornwallis expected reinforcements promised by General Clinton in New York, but British commanders did not work as a team. The British army depended on re-supply from the sea, but their navy did not coordinate their operations, unlike the French and Americans.
September, 1781 ~ American and French troops from New York marched south to the northernmost part of the Chesapeake Bay. French ships moved the troops by water to the Hampton Roads Peninsula, while artillery was moved by land to Yorktown. The French and Americans now outnumbered the British in troops and artillery. The French sailed their warships from the West Indies to the Chesapeake Bay, surprising the British and blocking their resupply. Neither the French nor British gained domination over the other in the "Battle of the Capes". The French maintained control of the Chesapeake Bay, while the British fleet returned to New York. Cornwallis was trapped at Yorktown and unable to get new supplies or troops.
October, 1781 ~ Redoubts and palisades protect the British artillery aimed at Washington’s troops. By October 3rd, the British are surrounded at Yorktown and Gloucester Pont by 18,000 American and French troops and artillery. The Americans build parallel trenches to the British redoubts. By October 11th the allied troops attack each redoubt leaving Cornwallis trapped at Yorktown.
The British surrender to the French and Americans on the afternoon of October 19th. 556 British were killed or wounded and 800 prisoners were taken. Allied casualties were 389, mostly French.
The Battle of Yorktown heralds the end of the Revolutionary War, even though the peace is not secured until 1783.