- 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
Settled in 1691 on a sixty-foot cliff above the York River—only half a mile wide at that point—Yorktown, then simply called York, had been a busy tobacco port with some three hundred houses and three thousand inhabitants clustered along a single main street and four cross streets. Extensive dockage lined the riverbank. After 1750, however, the town began to slip. By 1781 its dwindling population occupied about seventy houses, with many empty buildings falling into ruin.
The leading resident was Thomas Nelson III, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of Virginia’s wealthiest men. A jovial fat man whose affability and fund of off-color stories hid an inner core of steel, Nelson shortly succeeded Jefferson as governor and set about reviving Virginia’s war effort, stepping on a lot of toes and bankrupting himself in the process.
While Lafayette and Cornwallis shadowboxed in the Tide-water, the long threads of a victorious strategy were being drawn together five hundred miles to the north. On May 21 and 22 Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French army, met at Wethersfield, Connecticut. After deciding to join forces along the Hudson, they surveyed the strategic possibilities, including a move against Cornwallis.
Recapturing New York was an obsession with Washington. “Papa” Rochambeau, as he liked to call himself, wasn’t enthusiastic, especially after a good look at the British defenses. Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur had been a soldier for forty of his fifty-six years and knew his trade. Nevertheless, he went along with Washington’s wishes.
After the meeting, Washington wrote to various subordinate commanders and congressional leaders, going into some detail about his proposed attack. On June 5 the pouch containing his dispatches landed on Clinton’s desk. To this day nobody is sure whether the capture was a lucky break or a deliberate plant. Many on Clinton’s staff suspected the latter, but Clinton was convinced, until too late, that he was the Franco-American objective.
The French joined the Americans on July 6 after a smartly conducted march of two hundred and twenty miles in eleven days over wretched, dust-choked roads in midsummer heat. They consisted of the royal Bourbonnais, Soissonnais, Saintonge, and Deux Ponts regiments plus artillery and the Duke of Lauzun’s legion of light infantry and hussars. In their brilliant uniforms—pure white, with each regiment bearing its own color on collars and lapels, the sergeants wearing ostrich plumes in their caps, and the Duke of Lauzun’s officers astride tiger-skin saddlecloths—they may have looked like comic opera soldiers but they were as tough as Scotland’s “ladies from hell.”
If the Americans were awed by the lavish equipment of their allies, the latter were equally amazed at how the former made do with almost nothing. Each recognized and respected the quality of the other. Except for minor dustups, the armies got along well.
Meanwhile, another loop in the snare to choke Cornwallis was taking shape. In early summer Admiral the Comte de Grasse brought a powerful French fleet to the West Indies. He was to cooperate with the Spanish there but had leeway to help Washington if the opportunity arose. Fortunately, the Spanish were not eager to start anything.
Rochambeau wrote de Grasse explaining the situation, imploring him to come soon with whatever reinforcements he could scrape together, as well as badly needed cash to pay the armies. He outlined both the New York and Virginia options, subtly emphasizing the latter and trusting the admiral to read between the lines. De Grasse didn’t disappoint him.
A major miscalculation by the British naval commander in the Indies helped. Admiral Sir George Rodney, returning to England, didn’t think the French would leave their sugar islands and merchant shipping unprotected with an enemy fleet at hand. He departed with six ships of the line, leaving Admiral Sir Samuel Hood with only fourteen to deal with the French, now reinforced to twenty-eight of the line.
It was one of the great strategic mistakes of the war. Instead of dispersing his fleet, Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse, Marquis de Grasse-Tilly and Comte de Grasse, concentrated it, borrowed three infantry regiments and General Claude Anne de St. Simon from the San Domingo garrison and raised 1,200,000 livres in silver by popular subscription in Havana. On August 5 he sailed north. No British admiral would have dared such a gamble.
On August 14 Washington learned that de Grasse was coming, that his destination was Chesapeake Bay, and that he could stay no later than October 15. Suspecting he’d been outflanked, Washington exploded. Everybody—most notably Rochambeau—kept out of his way until the storm had blown itself out. Despite his disappointment, Washington scrapped his cherished New York project and began to plan a southward move.