A Near Thing at Yorktown

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It has been called “the one decisive engagement” of the American Revolution, since by closing the crucial gap in the ring around Cornwallis at Yorktown, it changed American independence from a possibility to a certainty. Yet many Americans have never heard of it, perhaps because the outcome of the long and bitter war was decided between the French and British navies, with no Americans present. Fought out of sight of land, it had only its participants as eyewitnesses, and their accounts have remained hidden in the naval archives of England and France. The encounter does not even have a generally accepted name. You will find it called the Battle of the Chesapeake, of Lynnhaven Roads, of Cape Henry, and of the Capes of Virginia.

King George III himself referred to it as “a drawn battle,” and in a sense it was. Not a single ship was taken or sunk during the action. Paradoxical as it may sound, the sea fight was actually decisive because it was indecisive. For its result was as crushing to Cornwallis as if every British warship had been sent to the bottom. To see why, it is necessary to abandon the conventional view of the noble lord’s plight, with his army of some 7,000 men “trapped” on the hastily fortified Yorktown peninsula. American historians, dazzled by the superb generalship displayed by Washington, Rochambeau, and Lafayette, have tended to write about the Yorktown campaign from the landward side. They have portrayed the hapless British general as stupidly allowing himself to be cornered by “the boy” (as he called the twenty-three-year-old Major General Marquis de Lafayette) between the York and James rivers, from which escape by land could easily be prevented.

But to the eyes of Earl Cornwallis in that hot summer of 1781, the picture must have looked entirely different. He was, as Washington described him in a letter to Rochambeau written on July 13, “free, from his superiority of force, to go where he would.” For a month he had been using that freedom to chase Lafayette’s elusive mixed army of Continentals and militia—varying in size from one to four thousand men and lacking shoes, clothing, and arms—back and forth across Virginia without being able to bring them to battle. Even against such a vastly inferior enemy, Cornwallis now discovered that he could not conquer and hold hostile territory merely by moving through it, as he boasted, “with uniform success.”

Roads in eighteenth-century Virginia were scanty or indifferent at best. The main avenues of transportation were rivers or sea lanes. Throughout the war the British armies depended upon the sea, not the land, for their mobility and logistical support and could not venture far away from it without risking disaster. Thus in heading for Yorktown, as his superior Sir Henry Clinton had ordered, Cornwallis was making for the great bay of the Chesapeake, where the protecting Royal Navy could come far into the land mass, and where he could again be in contact with Clinton in New York. Once in Yorktown, he believed that he could either establish an easily defended naval base and strengthen his army for the reduction of Virginia or send reinforcements northward if needed. If besieged by land, he regarded himself as more than safe by sea, since it could always be taken for granted that the British Navy ruled the waves.

What upset these calculations completely was the arrival off the Chesapeake on August 30 of Admiral Comte de Grasse with the entire French West Indies battle fleet of twenty-eight ships, bringing as well 3,300 regular troops commanded by the Marquis de Saint-Simon and, of almost equal importance, 1,200,000 livres in cash supplied by the Spanish bankers of Havana. Soon afterward, Lafayette’s small army was suddenly swelled by the advent of Washington with 2,000 Continentals and Rochambeau with 4,000 more French regular troops, who had made a heroic march of four hundred miles in twenty-eight days from their Hudson River encampments. From Newport, Rhode Island, the Comte de Barras had been induced to start southward with seven additional warships, as well as ten transports laden with tons of salt beef and a valuable train of siege artillery. From the British point of view, everything depended upon speedily regaining control of the sea. Unless a fleet could somehow be assembled to meet and beat De Grasse, thus opening the Chesapeake for Clinton to reinforce or evacuate Cornwallis, the siege of Yorktown could have but one outcome.

Today it is only too apparent why the British, although they were very nearly successful in delaying their ultimate defeat, failed to do so. Yorktown is the story of French and American allies, who might have been expected to quarrel, co-operating beautifully; and of George III’s admirals and generals, who might have been expected to work together harmoniously, indulging instead in endless professional, political, and personal bickerings. Private animosities, such as Clinton’s for Cornwallis and Vice Admiral Arbuthnot, and the lively detestation entertained by Admirals Rodney, Graves, and Hood for one another, accentuated the divisions in their commands. This was all the more harmful because Yorktown was what is now called an amphibious or combined operation, and it was ruined for England by insufficient forces too widely dispersed, divided authority, wretched communications, and a great deal of sheer bad luck. All these factors made the blunders of her shortsighted leaders appear to be even worse than they actually were. It was, as Randolph G. Adams has said, “one time when Britain failed to muddle through.”