- Historic Sites
Triumph At Yorktown
Two hundred years ago everything depended on a French fleet leaving the Indies on time; two American armies meeting in Virginia on time; a French fleet beating a British fleet; a French army getting along with an American one; and a British general staying put.
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
Long after midnight, October 23, 1781, hoofbeats broke the silence of slumbering Philadelphia’s empty streets. Reeling in the saddle from exhaustion and shaking with malarial chills, Lieutenant Colonel Tench Tilghman, aide to General George Washington, pulled up to ask an elderly German night watchman how to get to the home of Thomas McKean, president of the Continental Congress.
Having pointed the way, the watch resumed his round, excitedly ringing his hand-bell and bellowing in fractured English: “Past dree o’clock und Cornval-lis ist ta-gen! Past dree o’clock und Cornvallis ist tagen!”
Four days earlier at an obscure river hamlet on Virginia’s Tidewater, Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, Earl Cornwallis, had surrendered a beleaguered British army to a Franco-American force under Washington.
The year now drawing to a close had not begun so auspiciously. It was, in fact, one of the blackest hours in the struggle for independence. In September, 1780, Benedict Arnold, one of Washington’s ablest men, had defected, almost taking the vital Hudson River fortress of West Point with him. American finances were a shambles. Despite the presence of a French army and naval squadron in Rhode Island, the French alliance was turning sour, and British arms seemed everywhere invincible.
A powerful army under Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton lay secure in New York City while Washington’s half-clad Continentals watched hungrily from their cold camps along the Hudson. In North Carolina Nathanael Greene was running for his life before the relentless pursuit of that same Lord Cornwallis, and the Royal Navy had a lock on the coast from Canada to Spanish Florida.
On New Year’s Day, 1781, six regiments of the Pennsylvania Continental Line mutinied, followed by part of the New Jersey Line. Order was restored, but the mutiny cost Washington half his Pennsylvanians, until then among the most reliable troops in the army. At the same time, Arnold, now a British brigadier general, landed in Virginia and swept unopposed to Richmond, burning and pillaging as he advanced.
But if the rebellious colonists had troubles, so did the British. Maintaining an army in combat three thousand miles from England was a terrible strain on a nation with no friends in Europe, which found itself at war with France, Spain, and Holland in addition to its erstwhile colonies. The command system was falling apart. Clinton, commander in chief in New York, was disgusted, feeling sorry for himself, and quarreling with everyone. Cornwallis, ostensibly his subordinate, was doing as he pleased in the Carolinas with the tacit approval of Lord George Germain in London, who, as Secretary of State for American Colonies, compounded the confusion by trying to run the war from home.
The navy was in poor shape. Keeping the long Atlantic supply line open, holding the American coastline, protecting the English Channel, Gibraltar, the Mediterranean, and far-off India were almost more than it could handle. Should England lose, even briefly, her tenuous superiority in American waters, the war would be in jeopardy.
The chain of events leading to Yorktown began early in 1781 with a series of uncoordinated maneuvers in widely separated areas—in New York, Virginia, New England, North Carolina, and the West Indies. Their convergence was a delicate balance of calculated risks, careful planning, execution, and luck on one side aided by mediocre leadership and insubordination on the other.
In late February, Washington acted to take some pressure off defenseless Virginia by sending his colorful inspector general, “Baron” Friedrich von Steuben, to teach green recruits how to become soldiers. Steuben set up shop in the Piedmont west of Richmond and began to whip some five hundred volunteers into Regulars with his particular amalgam of enthusiasm, energy, and multilingual profanity.
Washington also dispatched the twenty-three-year-old Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier south with three battalions of light infantry to take care of Arnold. It was the Marquis de Lafayette’s first independent command, but the ungainly and excitable youth measured up to the challenge.
First, he had to face another incipient mutiny. The troops didn’t like the idea of going so far from home. Lafayette rounded up the principal agitators, executed one and pardoned another under the muzzles of a firing squad, then paraded the division and chewed it out. Anyone who objected, he announced, didn’t have to go. All he had to do was step forward, get his’ dishonorable discharge, and go home.
Nobody called his hand. Near the end of April he reached Richmond with one thousand Continentals and two thousand militia, just in time to prevent the British from burning the town. Not ready for a showdown, the raiders withdrew to Portsmouth on the coast.