War in the South


In the summer of 1781, Cornwallis moved his army to Yorktown, Virginia. He expected the Royal Navy to transport his army to New York, where he thought he would join General Sir Henry Clinton. Yorktown was a tobacco port on a peninsula, and Cornwallis believed the British navy would be able to keep the coast clear of rebel ships. Sensing an opportunity, a combined French and American force of sixteen thousand men swarmed the peninsula in September 1781. Washington raced south with his forces, now a disciplined army, as did the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau with their French troops. The French Admiral de Grasse sailed his naval force into Chesapeake Bay, preventing Lord Cornwallis from taking a seaward escape route.

In October 1781, the American forces began the battle for Yorktown, and after a siege that lasted eight days, Lord Cornwallis capitulated on October 19 (Figure). Tradition says that during the surrender of his troops, the British band played “The World Turned Upside Down,” a song that befitted the Empire’s unexpected reversal of fortune.

A painting depicts American general Benjamin Lincoln holding out his hand to receive the British general’s sword as he formally surrenders. General George Washington is in the background, mounted on horseback. British and American troops are lined up, at attention, on opposite sides of the field; the Americans stand under an American flag, while the British soldiers stand under a white flag.
The 1820 painting above, by John Trumbull, is titled Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, but Cornwallis actually sent his general, Charles O’Hara, to perform the ceremonial surrendering of the sword. The painting depicts General Benjamin Lincoln holding out his hand to receive the sword. General George Washington is in the background on the brown horse, since he refused to accept the sword from anyone but Cornwallis himself.

“The World Turned Upside Down”

“The World Turned Upside Down,” reputedly played during the surrender of the British at Yorktown, was a traditional English ballad from the seventeenth century. It was also the theme of a popular British print that circulated in the 1790s (Figure).

A sixteen-paneled print shows a series of images in which animals and humans switch places; women adopt men’s roles; fish fly through the air; and the sun, moon, and stars appear below the earth.
In many of the images in this popular print, entitled “The World Turned Upside Down or the Folly of Man,” animals and humans have switched places. In one, children take care of their parents, while in another, the sun, moon, and stars appear below the earth.

Why do you think these images were popular in Great Britain in the decade following the Revolutionary War? What would these images imply to Americans?

Visit the Public Domain Review to explore the images in an eighteenth-century British chapbook (a pamphlet for tracts or ballads) titled “The World Turned Upside Down.” The chapbook is illustrated with woodcuts similar to those in the popular print mentioned above.