The French Connection

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Victory in 1781 sprang mainly from de Grasse’s judgment. De Grasse had long served in the French navy but in subordinate capacities. Now in his late fifties, he was a most experienced professional sailor. But he was more than that. His ancestry went straight back to the Prince d’Antibes of the tenth century. His birth, his education, his inherited assumptions about his role in life, bred in him a supreme self-confidence. He made decisions easily but never foolishly. The arrogance of his temperament enabled him to ignore instructions that hobbled his actions. Like his ancestors he pursued gloire . Very quickly he realized there was little to be gained in the Caribbean. Taking a minor island here and there was unlikely to make his name memorable to posterity, and in any case the English fleet, strong but elusive, did not wish to engage in a decisive battle.

This de Grasse had realized before he crossed the Atlantic. From the very earliest days of his command he had longed to perform a bold and decisive stroke against England in America. He had written at once to Rochambeau to ask what he might do to help.

Rochambeau, as clear-sighted as ever, knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted de Grasse’s fleet to contain or destroy the British ships that were sustaining their troops and he wanted more French soldiers and, equally important, more French money. But the point of attack—New York or Virginia—was not Rochambeau’s to decide, and de Grasse was not to leave the West Indies without the concurrence of his Spanish ally.

In war luck helps, although it rarely decides the outcome. Perhaps luck, however, was more decisive in the last year of the Revolutionary War than in most. At first the dice fell badly. Washington decided to attack New York. Washington and Rochambeau’s armies met outside New York amid much mutual admiration of the differing qualities of each—the splendor, the discipline, the professional efficiency of the French striking the Americans and the simplicity, toughness, and dedication of the Americans surprising the French. Nevertheless Rochambeau had little hope of victory. In his judgment it was hopeless to attempt to take New York. It was doubtful if de Grasse could get his fleet over the harbor bar in order to be of material help, and Sir Henry Clinton’s forces were too strong. And more than half the burning summer passed before Washington began to realize that he was wrong and Rochambeau’s strategic sense correct, and that the right British army to attack was Cornwallis’ in Virginia. De Grasse settled that question, as indeed he was to settle the war.

De Grasse saw his opportunity for enduring fame. His Spanish counterpart in the West Indies was, as Spanish admirals tended to be, slow, very slow in his preparations for the attack in Jamaica. Closing one eye like a Nelson, de Grasse exceeded his instructions and left his Spanish ally for two months, taking with him nearly four thousand soldiers and, better still, a million livres raised for him by the governor of Havana. Rochambeau had informed de Grasse that he would be wanted at either Chesapeake or New York. De Grasse signalled Rochambeau that Chesapeake was his goal: he only had eight weeks to spare; every day was vital, and he, too, feared the harbor bar at New York. So he was en route to Chesapeake. Clinton saw the American and French armies strike camp and march south, but he did not follow, for he still believed that New York would be the ultimate target. And miracle followed miracle. De Grasse landed his troops on the James River without resistance, the American and French armies arrived there unmolested by the British, and the French fleet from Rhode Island made a successful rendezvous with de Grasse’s ships of the line. Three armies and two navies spread over sixteen hundred miles of land and ocean came neatly together—considering the logistic difficulties and the casualness of eighteenth-century communications, it borders on the incredible. As in an elaborate but deadly game of chess, the outcome was so clear to Cornwallis that he rapidly threw in his hand. There was not much battle and singularly little bloodshed at York town, but what there was fell mainly on the French, whose casualties were twice those of the American forces. Even so they were tiny—fifty-two killed, a hundred and thirty-four wounded. And everyone spoke glowingly of the dash and élan of Lafayette and his young aristocratic friends. But it was de Grasse’s fleet in the river that had sealed Cornwallis’ fate.

De Grasse had had the luck—for complex reasons that included bad British judgment—to hold temporary command of the sea and so secured the fame he pursued. Alas, fame proved fickle, for the man who made Yorktown possible was, within six months, defeated and taken prisoner at the Battle of the Saints. But for Rochambeau and Lafayette and the glittering army of the French aristocrats the next year was a delightful round of dinners, balls, and enthusiastic girls. The French army was meticulously correct, paying stiff, usually outrageous prices for all that it needed; so mutual happiness abounded. The diplomats took over, for Britain had conceded defeat—surprisingly so, but Earliament was restive. The country gentlemen who sat there could not face the cost of a long global war. And the French, too, with an empty treasury, were as eager as the British to extricate themselves from America, especially after de Grasse’s defeat in 1782.