- 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
Leaving some four thousand men under Major General William Heath to watch Clinton, the Franco-American army moved to King’s Ferry on the Hudson, where it crossed between August 20 and 25. Next day it began the historic four-hundred-and-fifty-mile march to Virginia. Security was so tight only Washington, Rochambeau, and a few key staff officers knew where they were going.
An elaborate cover plan was laid on to confuse the British. Wooden landing craft were conspicuously displayed among the columns, roads leading to Staten Island—logical jump-off for a shore-to-shore assault on Manhattan—were repaired, and the French made a big gesture of building bake ovens. Clinton was completely duped. Not until the Americans were out of reach did it dawn on him that he’d been hoodwinked.
The feint having succeeded, the allies swung south through New Jersey, crossed the Delaware River at Trenton, and reached Philadelphia at the end of August. After parading through the capital the columns continued on to Head of Elk, an inlet at the top of the Chesapeake (now Elkton, Pennsylvania), where they arrived September 6.
In the West Indies, Admiral Hood had learned that de Grasse was going north, although it never occurred to him that the Frenchman was taking his whole armada. On August 10 Hood set sail for the Chesapeake with his fourteen ships. He arrived at the mouth of the bay on the twenty-fifth, found it empty, and continued on to New York. While the British were sailing up the coast, Vice Admiral Jacques-Melchoir St. Laurent, Comte de Barras, slipped out of Newport, Rhode Island, with eight battleships, four frigates, and sixteen supply vessels loaded with siege artillery, ammunition, and fifteen hundred barrels of salt beef. British Admiral Thomas Graves, his strength increased to nineteen of the line with the arrival of Hood, set sail from New York to intercept Barras.
Despite a calm front, Washington was worried. At Philadelphia he had expected to hear that the French fleet had reached the Chesapeake but all he learned was that Barras had put to sea and that Graves was on the prowl.
De Grasse was the key. Even without Barras the allies probably could wrap up Cornwallis, though it would take longer and be more costly. But if anything happened to de Grasse—a scattering storm or defeat by the British, a distressing habit of French admirals—the game was up. French naval superiority in the Chesapeake was crucial.
Washington left Philadelphia on September 5 to catch up with the army while Rochambeau proceeded more leisurely by boat to Chester, Pennsylvania. A few miles beyond Chester a courier from the south met Washington on the road. The general took one look at the dispatches, whirled around, and headed back to Chester at a gallop. As Rochambeau’s boat neared the landing, his party beheld the usually reserved Washington on the dock jumping up and down like a schoolboy, waving his hat in one hand and a handkerchief in the other. A few minutes later two normally dignified generals were happily whacking each other on the back.
De Grasse had reached the bay and was already landing St. Simon’s troops at Jamestown. Barring accidents, Cornwallis was doomed. As Virginia militia general “Joe Gourd” (the ex-tavern-keeper’s name was George but his men had hung the nickname on him) Weedon wrote: “We have got him handsomely in a pudding bag.”
His mind at ease, Washington ordered the march to continue, then set off on a bruising sixty-mile ride to Mount Vernon, his first homecoming in six years. There he relaxed for three days and entertained Rochambeau. As he was about to rejoin the army on September 12, however, he got disquieting news.
On the fifth the British fleet had appeared off the Virginia Capes, and de Grasse had sailed out to meet it. There had been a sea battle beyond the horizon, but nobody knew who won. After the sound of gunfire had died away, neither fleet had returned. Halting the army at Annapolis, Washington and Rochambeau rode hard for Williamsburg, arriving late in the afternoon of the fourteenth. Lafayette welcomed them warmly, but he didn’t know where de Grasse was either. Twenty-four hours later the clouds lifted. De Grasse was back, Barras had come in and was off-loading the guns and stores at landings along the James. As soon as his transports were empty, he sent them up the bay to ferry the waiting troops to the final rendezvous.
The fleets had fought an indecisive, two-hour engagement known today as the Battle of the Virginia Capes. Graves surprised the French fleet at anchor in Lynnhaven Bay, short seventeen hundred seamen ferrying St. Simon upriver and with four big ships absent patrolling the mouths of the James and York rivers. Slipping his cables, de Grasse cleared hastily for action but came out in ragged formation.