Yorktown was a former tobacco trading post now in decline, not much bigger than a large village. But Yorktown was tucked away on the northern edge of the York peninsula in rural Virginia, and in 1781 it became the site of a brief siege between two small armies, fought with all the decorum and formality of 18th century European warfare. About 5,000 British and Germans faced perhaps 18,000 Americans and French. After only three weeks the smaller garrison surrendered, tired and low on ammunition. Casualties for both sides totaled less than 1,000 dead and wounded.
By contrast, at the siege of Stalingrad 161 years later, 107,000 Germans surrendered to one-point-two million Russians after five months of desperate fighting. At least a million died. At Waterloo in 1815, 190,000 troops slugged it out, leaving 14,000 dead in 10 hours. Another siege would take place at Yorktown during the Civil War 81 years after the more famous siege. Yorktown does not rank as a major military engagement by the conventional criteria of size, duration or casualties, but this small scale encounter was one of the most decisive battles in military history. The fact that it was the last major battle of the American Revolution has ensured that every Briton and American has heard of it.