(Original post updated 10/18/2018)
Answer: All of the enslaved people in Yorktown who had escaped to the British in hopes of freedom.
When the British forces under Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington and his French allies on October 19, 1781, the terms of capitulation included the following phrase
It is understood that any property obviously belonging to the inhabitants of these States, in the possession of the garrison, shall be subject to be reclaimed.
(Article IV, Articles of Capitulation; dated October 18, 1781. Source and Complete Text: Avalon Project-Yale Law School)
Thousands of escaped enslaved people had flocked to the British army during Cornwallis’s campaign in Virginia in what has been called the “largest slave rebellion in American history.”
They had come in the belief that the British would free them. Cornwallis had put them to work on the British defense works around the small tobacco port, and when disease started to spread and supplies ran low, Cornwallis forced hundreds of these people out of Yorktown. Many more died from epidemic diseases and the shelling of American and French artillery during the siege.
The African Americans in Yorktown included at least seventeen people who had left Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation with the British, as well as members of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved community also captured earlier in 1781. They were all returned to bondage, along with thousands of others as Virginian slaveholders came to Yorktown to recover their “property.”
Among them was Isaac Granger Jefferson, a five-year-old boy who was returned to Monticello and later told his story.
The stories of some of the people “reclaimed” by Washington are told in my book, IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives.
The Battle of Yorktown and role of African-American soldiers there –as well as the fate of the enslaved people in the besieged town — are featured in THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah.
“A fascinating exploration of war and the myths of war. Kenneth C. Davis shows how interesting the truth can be.” –Evan Thomas, New York Times-bestselling author of Sea of Thunder and John Paul Jones