It was August 1781, and George Washington learned British Gen. Charles Cornwallis had occupied Yorktown, Va., with 9,500 troops.
Cornwallis' soldiers were exhausted and in a defensive stance.
For more than six years, the British had mostly been on the offensive in the Revolutionary War. Their sudden defensive posture showed they were starting to weaken.
As commander of the Continental Army, Washington saw potential for victory.
His plan: surround Cornwallis' troops on land and prevent their escape by sea with the help of the French navy.
The surprise attack would be the greatest risk of Washington's military career. If he lost, it would be a blow to the American Revolution. If he won, the war would be over.
To distract British Gen. Henry Clinton in New York -- and prevent him from sending reinforcements to Yorktown -- Washington ordered American forces to raid Clinton's troops.
Washington boosted his army by advising Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur -- commander of 6,000 French troops in Newport, R.I. -- to move most of the men south to Virginia. The American general then convinced French naval forces to block Chesapeake Bay, preventing a British escape.
So here it was August, and Washington's Continental Army began the 500-mile march to Yorktown.
To conceal the target, he split his troops into three columns, sending them on several winding routes. He also kept the destination from his troops until the last moment, preventing leaks from reaching Clinton, says historian Burke Davis.
Washington arrived near Yorktown with 20,000 soldiers, outflanking Cornwallis' troops by more than 2-to-1. Meanwhile, the French allies controlled Chesapeake Bay.
"Washington clearly knew that if he prepared carefully for the battle, there would be no way out for the British army," Donald Phillips wrote in "The Founding Fathers on Leadership: Classic Teamwork in Changing Times."
Washington met with French admirals to fine-tune his strategy. He then ordered his troops to dig trenches and move artillery in place while Cornwallis' forces watched helplessly.
"If you cannot relieve me very soon, you must be prepared for the worst," Cornwallis wrote in a letter to Clinton.
On Oct. 9, Washington fired the first cannon shot. The Continental Army followed with nonstop gun and cannon fire.
Every defensive tactic Cornwallis tried failed miserably. Incurring heavy losses, he asked for a 24-hour truce to negotiate with Washington. Washington offered a two-hour cease-fire and demanded unconditional surrender.
Worn down, Cornwallis agreed. On Oct. 19 the formal surrender took place. To heighten the impact on the British, Washington had allied forces form a double line that stretched a mile. He then told British soldiers to walk between the allies and lay down their weapons.
When Britain's prime minister, Frederick North, heard the news, he said bitterly, "It is all over."
The victory at Yorktown effectively had ended the war.
"Washington creatively concentrated nearly all of his forces -- and risked everything he had -- for one shot at victory," Phillips wrote. "Had Washington been any less of a leader, had he played it safe, the war could have gone on for years, perhaps until some sort of compromise was reached.
"In the end, the American leadership took the risk and won -- and the British leadership played it safe (in their defensive position at Yorktown) and lost."
Washington (1732-99) went on to become CEO of one of the greatest management teams ever -- our nation's founders.
As president from 1789 to 1797:
He drew a blueprint. Washington knew "his actions would set (the tone) for future chief executives," Mark McNeilly wrote in the new book, "George Washington and the Art of Business."
Washington understood the "decisions he made could either start the U.S. on the path to greatness or cause the grand experiment in self-government to fail," he wrote.
The new president saw that his success hinged on establishing a "powerful, effective and yet limited role for the executive branch" and creating the right culture for the new government, McNeilly noted.
He inspired growth. A key part of Washington's vision was the "freedom to expand westward to the agreed-upon boundaries" of a new nation, McNeilly wrote. A key initiative involved the opening of the Northwest Territory in the Ohio River Valley.
Washington's vision for growth inspired presidents from Thomas Jefferson to James Polk and beyond.
He branched out. Washington was more than a military and political warrior. He was also a leader in the private sector. An avid real estate investor, he became a successful farmer and entrepreneur, notes James Rees, author of "George Washington's Leadership Lessons."
Washington launched a number of businesses at Mount Vernon, Va., "including an aggressive gristmill operation, an incredibly productive fishing venture and, in the final years of his life, a ground-breaking distilling operation."
He learned to listen. Early on, Washington was a man of few words, Rees notes. He knew the chief benefit of listening -- learning.
He knew when to quit. Increasingly, Washington felt he was "losing the full extent of his capabilities" as president, McNeilly wrote. He wanted a younger person to take over. By quitting after two terms, he sent a message to future presidents -- limited tenure, no power grabs.
He guided successors. In his farewell address, Washington pushed for a strong defense, increased commerce and unity among states. He also stressed the importance of the Constitution, education and morality -- saying our democracy depended on all three.
He reached higher. "Although Washington deserves to be credited as the indispensable man during the War of Independence (and beyond), he himself ascribed the country's success to God on more than one occasion," Rees noted.