A Near Thing at Yorktown

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By September 13, at any rate, there were no less than thirty-six French ships of the line across the entrance to the Bay. As Hood sadly reflected: “We should have barred the entrance to De Grasse; now he has barred it to us.” So, the resolution of the British council of war, signed by Graves, Hood, and Drake, concluded that

because of the position of the enemy, the present condition of the British fleet, the season of the year so near the equinox, and the impracticability of giving any effectual succour to General Earl Cornwallis in the Chesapeake, … the British fleet should proceed with all dispatch to New York.

Says Stephen Bonsal in When the French Were Here: “That was indeed a war council that should be gratefully remembered in our annals. Its members contributed powerfully to the founding of the United States of America.”

Rumors that the English fleet had received “a severe drubbing” trickled into New York, and on September 17, according to the Memoirs of Major General William Heath, “when a packet arrived at New York, 3,000 people were said to be waiting on the wharves to learn the news, but not a word transpired; nor did the countenance of the officer who landed appear to beam with the smiles of fortune.” When the fleet returned on the twentieth, and ten ships docked for repairs, “the inhabitants were in great consternation, many were packing up their goods.”

Not until the night of September 14 did the worried Rochambeau receive from the unhurried De Grasse a letter giving a circumstantial account of the battle of September 5. Strangely enough, none of the allied leaders seems to have realized at the time what a decisive engagement had taken place. De Grasse was in a state of alarm over the news that Rear Admiral Digby was on his way to New York with reinforcements for Graves, and it was only with difficulty that Washington persuaded him to stay within the Capes, lest the returning British might catch him again without sea room on a lee shore. In his diary, Washington described the battle as “a partial engagement … with Admiral Graves whom De Grasse has driven back to Sandy Hook,” as a result of which, so he told Governor Thomas Sim Lee on September 15, “the Bay is now secure.”

About a month later, on October 19, Washington wrote to Major General William Heath those prophetic words: “The naval engagement appears to have been of much greater importance than was at first estimated.” By the time a British relief expedition could be made ready to sail from New York with a reinforced fleet of twenty-five ships with 7,000 troops on board, on that same day, Cornwallis had already surrendered. As one French officer wrote in his journal: “They were too late. The fowl had been eaten.”

The British public began its search for a scapegoat. Lord Cornwallis got off easily: “Neither the government nor the nation,” said Benjamin F. Stevens, “blamed him for the disaster that had overtaken his command.” General Clinton escaped any public censure and had “a very kind reception from the King,” but was given no further employment in the field, and spent his remaining years in an interminable pen battle with Cornwallis. There were a few open attacks upon Rear Admiral Graves in the House of Lords, some of them exaggerated and unjust. But as Michael Lewis angrily inquires:

What did they do to Graves on his return? Shoot him? Cashier him? Certainly not. They did not even try him. He was reemployed, rose to high rank, and ultimately gained a peerage. And why not? He had faithfully kept their rules, their Instructions, their inviolable line. He had lost no engagement, no ships—none was lost on either side. He had merely lost America.

As Washington had predicted, the navy had had the “casting vote” in deciding the outcome of the war, and it was the French Navy which delivered what soon became known as le coup de Grasse. Yorktown was still to be besieged, and deeds of valor were still to be performed, but after De Grasse had sealed off the ocean approaches, Cornwallis’ chances of avoiding surrender were exactly nil. Once he had capitulated, whatever might happen elsewhere, the British attempt to subdue the rebellious colonies was doomed to failure.