October 19, 1781: The British surrender at Yorktown.
The Siege of Yorktown, which began on September 28, 1781, was one of the last major battles of the American War of Independence and a decisive victory for the American side. Several weeks earlier, French admiral François-Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse, defeated a British fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake, cutting off supplies or relief to a now-trapped Lord Charles Cornwallis. Cornwallis, shortly after the battle, sent a message to his superiors: “If you cannot relieve me very soon, you must be prepared to hear the worst”.
The worst did come, when a combined force of French and American soldiers, totalling at around 21,000, marched from Williamsburg to Yorktown, Virginia and began shelling British lines. After over a week of heavy fire and the successful capture of two British fortifications, Redoubts #9 and 10, by Alexander Hamilton, Lord Cornwallis surrendered. On October 19, the articles of capitulation were signed by Cornwallis, Washington, Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur (Comte de Rochambeau), and the Comte de Barras in place of Admiral de Grasse; they declared the entirety of the British forces (over 7,000 troops) prisoners of war. Cornwallis declined to meet Washington on the day of surrender, claiming to be ill, and sent another officer to present his sword to the victorious commanders. Washington, in turn, refused the sword and had his second-in-command accept it in his stead.
Although the war did not formally end until 1783, the British Prime Minister, Lord North, is said to have exclaimed “Oh God, it’s all over!” upon hearing of the defeat at Yorktown.
Americans celebrate Japan’s surrender - August 1945.
POWs in Guam react to the news of Japan’s surrender - August 15, 1945.
May 8, 1945: Hostilities in Europe end.
On May 7, 1945, German representatives signed the German Instrument of Surrender in Reims, France. Shortly before midnight on the same day, a second surrender was signed in Berlin (a location chosen by the Soviet representatives), and on May 8, 1945, one minute after midnight, hostilities in Europe were officially over. By the time the war in Europe ended, millions of people (civilians and soldiers alike) had lost their lives to what is still the deadliest conflict in human history. The Soviet Union, where much of the bloodiest fighting took place, saw an estimated 24 million of its people die, a number that, on its own, made up nearly half of the total death toll. The United Kingdom, Italy, France, and the United States each suffered several hundred thousand military deaths over the course of a few years of fighting. And Germany, though obviously the instigator of the war, had ultimately lost millions of civilians to it as well.
In his announcement of Germany’s unconditional surrender, Karl Dönitz, the Third Reich’s last head of state, addressed the imminent crisis of Germany’s postwar future. As the rest of the world celebrated his country’s defeat and subjugation, he stated:
All of us have to face a difficult path… We must walk it by making the greatest efforts to create a firm basis for our future lives. We will walk it unitedly. Without this unity we shall not be able to overcome the misery of the times to come. We will walk it in the hope that one day our children may lead a free and secure existence in a peaceful Europe.
Meanwhile, Winston Churchill delivered a number of speeches to the people of the United Kingdom. In one, he addressed a crowd from the balcony of Ministry of Health in Whitehall, and he declared: “God bless you all. This is your victory!”, to which the people below replied “No - it is yours.”
April 9, 1865: The Battle of Appomattox Court House is fought.
This one-day skirmish was the last stand for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the Confederacy’s main military force. After several hours of fighting, General Lee proposed in a letter to Ulysses Grant that they meet at the McLean House, an estate within the small village of Appomattox Court House, so that he could surrender his force of nearly 30,000 men.
And so they met - face-to-face, for the first time in several years - and Grant offered these terms of surrender to Lee:
“… The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”
These were generous terms; Grant also provided food for the Confederate army and allowed the men to keep their horses and mules. One of Lee’s officers, shortly before the surrender at Appomattox Court House, predicted that if he were to surrender, “every other [Confederate] army will follow suit.“ Sure enough, when General Lee issued a farewell address to his army on April 10, the American Civil War had more or less come to an end.