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A Near Thing at Yorktown
“Admiral Graves lost no ships… he merely lost America”
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
The one man who might have wrecked the allied strategy was Sir George Brydges Rodney, Admiral of the White; his Leeward Islands fleet was nearly as powerful, and considerably faster, thanks to its copper bottoms, than De Grasse’s armada. But Rodney’s mind was on the wealth of the sugar islands rather than on the obviously poorer colonies to the north. Public-spirited avarice for trading advantages in the West Indies was to cost England a continent. Rodney had just seized the Dutch island of St. Eustatius, with booty amounting to the fantastic sum of 75 million francs. Quite mistakenly, he regarded the traffic in “naval and warlike stores” between that island and the rebellious colonies as being the key factor which had permitted the rebels to take the offensive and had thereby “prevented the American war from being terminated.”
Like other eighteenth-century commanders, Rodney was plagued by what seem to us to be intolerably slow and unreliable communications. Even the swiftest frigates took weeks to transport dispatches, which were always in danger of loss by shipwreck or capture. Two such mishaps befell Rodney’s attempts to warn New York that De Grasse’s fleet, escorting a two-hundred-ship convoy, had left Martinique on July 5 for some unknown destination. Some of the ships, he thought, were destined for America. His first dispatch was destroyed in the wreck of the sloop Swallow, driven ashore on Long Island by four Yankee privateers. Copies reached their destination six weeks after they had been sent. The Active, carrying Rodney’s second warning, was captured and taken into Philadelphia.
During the summer hurricane season Admiral Rodney fully intended to go himself to North America to insure British maritime supremacy there, but gout and other afflictions caused him on July 24 to order his second in command, Sir Samuel Hood, Rear Admiral of the Blue, to take fourteen of his ships to Antigua to refit, then to escort an incoming convoy to Jamaica, and finally to reinforce Rear Admiral Graves in order “to counteract the schemes of his Majesty’s rebellious subjects” in North America. In an earlier letter to Hood on July 7, Rodney had mentioned De Grasse’s fleet of twenty-eight “sail of the line, a part of which is reported to be destined for North America” (author’s italics).
That was Rodney’s fatal miscalculation. To the moment of his own departure for England on August 1, for reasons of health, along with several of his ships (“invalids like himself”), the British admiral was convinced that De Grasse would never be foolish enough to leave the French sugar islands undefended. As for the plans of De Grasse himself, Rodney believed that he was going to accompany the commercially important summer trade convoy to France with the main body of his fleet. Actually ten of De Grasse’s ships were originally destined to return to France.
With Britain’s best admiral out of the picture, the fate of her rule in the American colonies was placed squarely in the hands of four men: Rear Admirals Graves and Hood, and Generals Clinton and Cornwallis, not one of whom grasped the scope of the allied plans. In one lucid moment on June 9, Clinton, otherwise obsessed by intercepted dispatches from Washington telling of an imminent attack upon New York, wrote prophetically to his chief in London, Lord George Germain: “If the Enemy remain only a few Weeks superior at Sea, our insular and detached situation will become very critical.” But all that was in the Earl of Sandwich’s department, the Admiralty; and everyone assumed that Hood’s fourteen ships with Graves’ supposed eight, or twenty-two in all, would be more than a match for Barras’ seven, plus De Grasse’s possible contribution of twelve, for a total of nineteen. This bad strategic arithmetic set the stage for a naval disaster.
Everyone had also lost track of Admiral de Grasse, whom Rodney had promised to watch “like a lynx.” Even as late as August 28, when the French commander was just two days away from the Chesapeake with his whole fleet, and Hood was even closer to Sandy Hook, Graves wrote (to Hood): “We have as yet no certain intelligence of De Grasse; the accounts say that he was gone to Havana to join the Spaniards and [they are] expected together upon this coast; a little time will show us.” When Hood arrived at the Hook on the evening of that same day, he confessed that he did not know De Grasse’s strength or objective, but that he had come “with a full persuasion that our force was a match for theirs.”
Meanwhile, De Grasse in the West Indies had been told by a letter from Rochambeau that “all our means at hand can do nothing without the assistance and naval superiority which you can bring us.” The French general had painted the allied situation in very dark colors, urging the Admiral to bring both his fleet and an army and a large sum of money northward as soon as possible, leaving the choice of Sandy Hook or the Chesapeake to him. De Grasse chose the Chesapeake; and Rochambeau, who received the good news on August 14, immediately notified Washington, who seems then to have decided upon the master stroke of the war. He would abandon the attack upon New York and march the allied armies around the unsuspecting Clinton to join Lafayette before Cornwallis at Yorktown. It was a full two weeks before Clinton caught on, and then it was too late for him to act.