Yorktown Campaign

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Yorktown Campaign

YORKTOWN CAMPAIGN. May-October 1781. Patriot fortunes were at particularly low ebb during the winter and spring of 1781. Finances had finally collapsed completely. The British were firmly established in the far south, and Virginia's military operations had left that state ravaged by enemy raiders. Mutiny erupted in the unpaid, ill-fed, badly clothed, sickly, and seemingly forgotten Continental army. The alliance with the French, now in its third year, had been a big disappointment.


General George Washington discouragingly wrote in his diary that May:

In a word—instead of having everything in readiness to take the Field, we have nothing—and instead of having the prospect of a glorious offensive campaign before us, we have a bewildered, and gloomy defensive one—unless we should receive a powerful aid of Ships—Land Troops and Money from our generous allies & these, at present, are too contingent to build upon.

Troops, ships, and money from the French allies that was a key to victory, but there also had to be a decisive and coordinated point of attack. Where would that be?

To Paris went the Donatien-Marie-Joseph de Vimeur, vicomte de Rochambeau, son of the commander of 5,500 French troops at Newport, Rhode Island. With him went John Laurens, aide-de-camp to Washington and son of the former president of the Continental Congress (now imprisoned in the Tower of London), bearing a letter from the Marquis de Lafayette. All beseeched their European allies for monetary, military, and naval assistance.

As the collapse of the American resistance seemed imminent, the French and Spanish governments made significant efforts to support the colonial revolt and bolster their own strategic objectives in the New World. In the first months of 1781 they developed a series of strategic decisions that impacted upon the American quest for independence in a dramatic fashion. Paris and Madrid officials decided to concentrate their resources in the Caribbean, and French naval assistance was sent to North American in the autumn of 1781. The principal Franco-Spanish objective was Jamaica, but islands in the Lesser Antilles and the Floridas also invited their attention. From France sailed an armada, commanded by Admiral François-Joseph-Paul, comte de Grasse, bound for the West Indies. A sub-division, commanded by the Bailli de Suffren, headed for the Indian Ocean. The Spanish Council of the Indies dispatched Don Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis as commissioner regius to push a more activist policy among the sometime reluctant military and naval commanders headquartered in Havana. He was also charged to support Louisiana Governor Bernardo de Gálvez's plan to drive the British from West Florida.

For the British there was a sense of elation and desperation. On the one hand, the American revolt seemed about to implode in a burst of exhaustion, financial distress, and military failures. On the other, the British faced problems of strategic overreach, thinly dispersed forces, and uncooperative leadership. They concentrated their American army at New York, but had separate expeditionary forces in the Caribbean, the Floridias, the Carolinas, and Virginia. Should they lose naval superiority, any one of these forces might find itself entrapped by a superior Franco-American or Franco-Spanish combined operation. All sides concentrated their naval forces in the West Indies, where the lucrative sugar islands proved inviting targets of opportunity.


The key to understanding the Yorktown campaign can be found in three critical allied commander conferences and a series of contradictory, confused, and contrary decisions by semi-independent British commanders that collectively led to the most daring, dramatic, and successful combined arms victory in the age of fighting sail. The first conference occurred in February 1781 when Saavedra met with Spanish army and navy commanders in Havana and secured a reluctant agreement to support Gálvez's expedition against Pensacola. Of particular importance here was the willingness of Commodore the chevalier de Monteil to employ his French naval squadron (temporarily in Havana) in support of this expedition. The agreement brought into being a degree of inter-allied cooperation not seen previously in the Caribbean.

The British surrender of Pensacola in May earned Gálvez a promotion to field marshal and his designation as commander of Spanish ground forces in the Caribbean. He then dispatched his long-time friend, Saavedra, to sail with Monteil to Saint-Domingue (now Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic) to coordinate operations with De Grasse, who was expected from France. The battle for Pensacola exposed the vulnerability of isolated British garrisons to combined operations that secured local naval control. The French and Spanish understood this, but British leadership ignored the lessons of West Florida and the near loss of Savannah in 1779. Meanwhile, the picture for the Americans suddenly brightened. First, in March, at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, Major General Nathanael Greene lost a battle to General Charles Lord Cornwallis. This nominal defeat, however, so depleted the British general's forces that he withdrew to Wilmington to resupply his troops. This withdrawal to the coast uncovered the Carolinas for possible reconquest by Greene's Continental and militia troops.

The second conference occurred in mid-May, when Commodore Jacques-Melchior-St. Laurent, comte de Barras arrived in Boston on the frigate Concorde. He did not bring with him the hoped-for second division of French troops to Newport, Rhode Island, but he provided Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau a confidential letter indicating that De Grasse was to come to the North American coast during the Caribbean hurricane season. Although not yet authorized to give this last important piece of news to Washington, Rochambeau did propose that the two senior commanders meet to decide what might be done with the forces at hand. The American commander understood the criticality of naval superiority to military success, but had experienced disappointment after disappointment with the French Navy's inability to secure dominance at crucial points along the North American coast in previous years. The latest example came in March 1781, when Captain Charles-René-Dominique Gochet, the chevalier des Touches secured a tactical victory over a Royal navy squadron off the Virginia coast and then threw away the opportunity to isolate a British raiding party in the Chesapeake by returning to Rhode Island.

General Sir Henry Clinton was in and around New York City with about 10,500 rank and file troops, whereas Washington had 3,500 Continentals in the Hudson Highlands. The French fleet was bottled up at Newport with about 5,000 French troops. Lafayette was in Virginia with a sizable detachment of Continental troops, prepared to oppose the British raiding parties in that region, and Anthony Wayne was preparing to add his support with more regulars. Greene was doing what he could to contain the forces of Cornwallis in the Carolinas. What Cornwallis would do from his Wilmington base was unknown. Enemy forces were also known to be coming up Lake Champlain from Canada, and an invasion of northern New York was a possibility.

Washington and Rochambeau conferred at Wethersfield, Connecticut, on 22 May 1781, with this strategic situation as the backdrop for their deliberations. They also shared the disappointing knowledge that Barras lacked the naval strength to join in amphibious operations unless he received huge reinforcements. Washington therefore proposed a joint Franco-American ground operation against New York City. The American commander believed New York was the decisive point of attack, and that it would be extremely hazardous to march 450 miles to the Chesapeake Bay in a hot summer under the possibility of securing French naval superiority (never before achieved) against a mere raiding party. Rochambeau objected strenuously, realizing that the British had spent five years fortifying the New York islands and possessed army and naval superiority and interior lines to thwart any attack. He also understood that it would be extremely difficult for the deep-draft, heavily armed French vessels to cross the bar at Sandy Hook and enter New York harbor.

Washington obstinately stuck to the idea of a New York campaign, and Rochambeau reluctantly agreed that the proposed plan was the best possible option, at least for the time being. However, Rochambeau asked what might be done later, if naval reinforcements from the West Indies happened to become available? It is important to note that Rochambeau was not authorized at this time inform Washington that De Grasse actually was under orders to effect such cooperation. It is therefore incorrect to say, as many writers have, that the "Wethersfield Plan" visualized the strategy of the Yorktown Campaign. Washington's restrained reply was that, with effective French naval support, the strategic possibilities would be almost unlimited. The two commanders decided at Wethersfield that De Grasse should be asked to come north as soon as possible, and that Rochambeau would move his army towards New York, where they would probe Clinton's position.

Back in Newport on May 28, Rochambeau wrote to De Grasse a critical letter that undercut much of what Washington desired. He painted a gloomy picture of the situation and urged the admiral to bring money, soldiers, and ships northward as soon as possible. While acknowledging that he and Washington had agreed in choosing New York as the primary target, he also noted that the "southwesterly winds and the state of distress in Virginia will probably make you prefer the Chesapeake Bay." Enclosed in this epistle was a copy of a letter from Anne César, chevalier de La Luzerne, then serving as French ambassador to the United States. The letter, addressed to Barras and Rochambeau, stated that it appeared "imperative to take into the Chesapeake all the naval forces of the king along with whatever land forces the generals judge suitable." This enclosure was critical to the operational decision that was made in the West Indies. Nearly important was a second letter, dated 6 June, in which Rochambeau reported that the funds necessary to pay and to supply the French army would dry up by mid-October unless De Grasse brought with him 1,200,000 livres in specie.


Meanwhile, in the south, Cornwallis devised an operational plan that made the Chesapeake option much more inviting to America and its allies than it had been when Washington and Rochambeau met in Wethersfield. When Clinton left Cornwallis to command British forces in the South after the capture of Charleston (12 May 1780), Clinton instructed his subordinate to make the security of South Carolina his primary concern. Clinton's over-all strategy for the prosecution of the war in America was, for the time being, defensive. He planned to hold the vital bases at New York, Charleston, and Savannah until the government furnished the reinforcements he considered necessary for further offensive operations. Although Sir Henry has never been called a military genius, his estimate of the situation was sound. He called for 10,000 more troops and the assurance of continued naval supremacy for operations in 1781. Most historians agree with the soundness of this assessment.

The zealous Cornwallis, however, had other ideas. The best way to defend South Carolina, he proposed, was to attack into North Carolina and destroy what little American armed strength was located there. Clinton had no objection, provided that Cornwallis remembered his primary mission. Since New York was too far away for Clinton to control the operations of Cornwallis, the latter was granted the authority to communicate directly with London. While Cornwallis was preparing for his move into North Carolina he learned that American General Horatio Gates was advancing against his forward bases. Ignoring the odds, Cornwallis took the offensive, and brilliantly defeated Gates at Camden on 16 August 1780. Some have said that this victory cost the British the war.

Cornwallis sent his aide-de-camp, Captain Alexander Ross, to carry the news of the victory at Camden to London. When he returned from England in December, Ross informed Cornwallis that he had the favor of Lord George Germain, the American Secretary. Dazzled by the Camden victory, Germain virtually gave Cornwallis free rein in the south. As a result, Cornwallis's attitude toward Clinton was no longer that of a subordinate to a superior. Germain thought he found in the relatively youthful Cornwallis a general who would implement what historian John W. Fortescue has called Germain's "insane schemes of conquest without garrisons and of invasions without communications" (History, III, p. 358).

Despite the British disasters at Kings Mountain (7 October 1780), and Cowpens (17 January 1781), and the failure of expected Loyalist support in North Carolina, Cornwallis followed Gates's successor, Major General Nathanael Greene to the Dan River. He ignored Clinton's instructions to make the security of South Carolina his primary concern, and refused to withdraw from an untenable position around Hillsboro, North Carolina. His Pyrrhic victory at Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781 forced him to withdraw, but instead of falling back to Camden, South Carolina, he moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. Furthermore, he so misrepresented the facts of the Guilford engagement that Clinton and the London authorities were led to believe he had gained control of North Carolina. By the time they knew the truth, Cornwallis was marching to Virginia and Greene was moving against the scattered British forces of the young Francis Lord Rawdon in South Carolina.

When Clinton received the incredible news that Cornwallis had abandoned the Carolinas and arrived at Petersburg, Virginia, he expressed his disapproval. However, he was presented with a fait accompli, and so he acquiesced in the Virginia move. Exasperated by Lord George Germain's meddling and by the government's support of Cornwallis's strategy in the Carolinas, which favored expansion over pacification, Clinton decided to resign "the instant I could with propriety." Consequently, Clinton gave his subordinate complete freedom of action, even though he wished Cornwallis was back in South Carolina. Fortescue says that Clinton "kept Cornwallis close at hand in order to resign the command to him, instead of sending him back, as he ought, to Carolina" (History., III, p. 391).

The famed Hessian jäger commander, Johann Ewald, could not understand why Cornwallis would throw away hard won ground in the Carolinas for less acreage in Virginia. Shortly after allied commanders returned from Wethersfield to their camps to prepare for the coming campaign, they learned that Cornwallis had reached Virginia. This meant Lafayette was in a dangerous position, and that plans for the diversion against New York would have to be speeded up in the hope that Clinton might reduce his forces in Virginia to defend his main North American base. It also meant that the Chesapeake option contained a much more inviting target than existed at the time of the Wethersfield meeting.


The Americans and their allies were now faced with certain alarming developments. The most serious was that the Wethersfield plan had been compromised. On 3 June, Clinton received an intercepted copy of the plan. This was ironic, for the intercept persuaded Clinton of a Franco-American attack on New York to such an extent that Washington and Rochambeau were in Philadelphia before Clinton began to anticipate a possible switch to the Chesapeake strategy.

The next bad news came from Commodore Barras. He was under orders to withdraw from Newport to provide greater base security at Boston once Rochambeau's army left Rhode Island. If he did so, he could have undertaken a profitable raiding campaign in the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of St. Lawrence during the summer. In a delicate negotiation, however, Rochambeau persuaded Barras to stay in Newport under the protection of a few French troops and American militiamen. If he remained, operations could be more easily coordinated between Barras, Rochambeau, and De Grasse, and Barras would be more readily available to transport the siege artillery left in Newport to whatever location in which it might be needed. However, Washington also received news that British forces had pushed up Lake Champlain to Crown Point, and he had to resist the proposal that he detach regulars to meet a possible invasion of northern New York.


On 20 June the Concorde sailed out of Boston for the West Indies carrying messages from Barras, Rochambeau, and La Luzerne to Admiral De Grasse, along with several pilots who had knowledge of navigation in American waters. A few days later, Saavedra accompanied Monteil's squadron heading for Cap Français, Saint-Domingue (modern Cap Haitien, Haiti). Both awaited De Grasse—he arrived on 16 July. After reading the dispatches from the north, De Grasse decided that the Chesapeake Bay would be his destination. De Grasse then met with Saavedra on board La Ville de Paris in the third and most crucial allied conference of the year. After several days of discussions, they concluded a Franco-Spanish concord known as the De Grasse-Saavedra Agreement.

This document permitted a most critical element in the Chesapeake encirclement. Both men concluded that the onset of the hurricane season required them to postpone any invasion of Jamaica until early 1782. This understanding freed ground and naval forces for use in operations elsewhere. Although De Grasse desired Spanish ships to accompany him northward, Saavedra knew that the Spanish government could not endorse the direct support of the United States that such a move would constitute. Instead, they compromised. De Grasse would surprise everyone and take all his ships of the line to North America, whereas Saavedra promised to send four Spanish naval vessels from Havana to Cap Français to protect the French merchantmen anchored there. Later, in Havana, a very frustrated Saavedra would be unable to convince Admiral José de Solano to honor this commitment, but fortunately, the Spanish ships were not needed. Saavedra also agreed to release a French army force that had been stationed at Saint-Domingue and allocated to Gálvez's command for the Jamaica invasion. These troops were made available to De Grasse for employment on the American coast. As a consequence, De Grasse would bring with him approximately 3,300 infantry, 100 artillerymen, 100 dragoons, 10 field pieces, and a few siege guns and mortars.

De Grasse and Saavedra then turned to a consideration of future operations. De Grasse promised that he would return to the West Indies in October. He further agreed that the French would allow Gálvez to command ground forces in attacks on the British Windward Islands, should the Spanish desire to make this a combined operation. (As it turned out this winter campaign was solely a French one.) It was understood that Gálvez would command the ground troops and De Grasse the naval vessels during the Jamaica campaign.

The single element remaining on the agenda concerned the money Rochambeau requested to support the proposed operations. Much to De Grasse's disgust, the French merchants and planters on Saint-Domingue refused to loan money to this purpose, and he was forced to go begging to Saavedra. The Spaniard agreed to seek funds in Havana. This decision forced De Grasse to make another choice. Instead of sailing east of the Bahama Islands toward the American coast, he would have to negotiate the shallow Bahama Channel between those islands and Cuba so that he could pick up any funds Saavedra might acquire. The Spaniard sailed ahead, and in Havana he secured overnight loans from local citizens amounting to 1.2 million livres. These funds were forwarded to De Grasse near Matanzas, on the northeast Cuban coast. This, too, was ironic. Forced to sail in the Bahama Channel, rather than directly into American coastal waters, De Grasse evaded any British sighting of his fleet. This permitted him to sail toward the Chesapeake without his opponent knowing the strength of his forces or his destination. Meanwhile, the Concorde sailed northward with news of De Grasse's intentions for the anxious Washington, Rochambeau, and Barras.

The British failed to understand the size of De Grasse's fleet and the risks the French admiral would take. This incomprehension contributed to the inadequate force deployment by Admiral Sir George Rodney, commander of the Royal navy fleet in the Caribbean. Rodney made three conventional assumptions about French naval behavior, based on past experience, and these assumptions proved totally wrong in this instance. His first error was in assuming that part of De Grasse's fleet would be diverted from military action to serve as escorts to convey homeward the merchantmen in port in the West Indies. His second mistake was to assume that some of De Grasse's fleet would remain in the West Indies, which led to his third erroneous assumption, that only about ten French ships of the line would make the trip to North America. Rodney made no effort to ascertain the accuracy of these conclusions. For instance, he did not order any of his frigates to shadow De Grasse's movements. Instead, the ailing Rodney took three ships of the line with him to convoy British merchantmen home and sent three more in a convoy to Jamaica. Two of these were to sail to New York, but they did not arrive in time. Finally, he sent Admiral Sir Samuel Hood with fourteen to join Admiral Thomas Graves in New York. In addition, he sent a dispatch to Graves directing him to meet Hood at the Chesapeake, but the French captured the ship carrying this message. Thus, De Grasse's audacity was rivaled by British complacency and misfortune.

De Grasse left Saint-Domingue on 5 August, and sailed slowly through the Bahama Channel with Spanish pilots. The twenty-eight French liners spent one day loading the 1,200,000 livres from Havana before proceeding northward. Hood and his fourteen ships left Antigua on 10 August. Because they sailed east of the Bahamas, they missed sighting De Grasse's fleet. Sir Samuel arrived at the Chesapeake Capes on 25 August, and found neither Admiral Graves, whom he expected, nor the French, whom he anticipated. He therefore continued north to New York where, on 28 August, he alerted Graves of the danger to Cornwallis. Royal naval forces numbered nineteen ships of the line, compared to De Grasse's twenty-eight. Neither British admiral realized that their French opponents overmatched them in fleet strength.


The junction of Rochambeau's forces with those of Washington did not take place until six weeks after plans were made at Wethersfield. The French infantry left Newport on 9 June and moved twenty-five miles north, to Providence. On 18 June the French troops started west. Washington, meanwhile, reorganized his own forces, and by 24 June he was camped near Peekskill, New York, awaiting Rochambeau's arrival. On the 28th, however, he conceived the ambitious plan of capturing the British posts on the north end of Manhattan Island so as to speed up subsequent operations against Clinton.

Major General Benjamin Lincoln was given 800 good troops for this surprise attack—400 light infantry under Colonel Alexander Scammell, the battalion of Lieutenant Colonel Ebenezer Sprout, and a detachment of artillery. They were to descend the Hudson River from Peekskill on the night of 2-3 July, capture the works around Kings Bridge, and raid Forts Tryon and Knyphausen (formerly Fort Washington). If this plan did not turn out to be feasible, Lincoln was to land above Spuyten Duyvil and support an attack by the duc de Lauzun's Legion, and the Connecticut militia against the Tory troops of Oliver De Lancey Jr., who were deployed around Morrisania, northeast of Kings Bridge. The complicated plan was coordinated with Rochambeau, who gave his full cooperation, Washington personally supervised most of the preparations, but everything went wrong.

Washington had advanced with the rest of his force to Valentine's Hill, four miles above Kings Bridge, to support Lincoln, and Rochambeau was asked to hurry toward the same point. After spending the day of the 3 July reconnoitering for further operations against Manhattan, Washington withdrew his entire force to Dobb's Ferry on 4 July, and the French joined him there on the 6th.

During the four days starting 21 July, 5,000 French and American troops pushed out to form a screen while Washington and Rochambeau, with an escort of 150 Continentals, thoroughly reconnoitered the northern defenses of Manhattan. This convinced them that an attack would require formal siege operations, which they lacked the means to undertake. Allied plans now hung on word from De Grasse. There was still no suspicion that the closing scene of the American Revolution would be enacted at a place called Yorktown, Virginia.


After failing in his efforts to trap Lafayette, Cornwallis reached Williamsburg, Virginia, on 25 June. There he received Clinton's letter of 11 June, which said: "I beg leave to recommend it to you, as soon as you have finished the active operations you may be now engaged in, to take a defensive station in any healthy situation you choose, be it at Williamsburg or Yorktown." Clinton also requested that a major portion of Cornwallis's force be sent to New York, to defend against the expected allied attack. Another letter, received this same day, was dated 15 June. This one added Portsmouth and Old Point Comfort, both in Virginia, to possible locations for Cornwallis's base. It also informed him of the possibility that De Grasse was moving his French fleet from the West Indies to attack New York.

The ever-eager Cornwallis, who thought operations in Virginia were so important that Clinton should abandon New York to provide the necessary strength to support them, now made the startling request that he be allowed to return to Charleston. He also decided that he could not hold a position on the peninsula after sending a detachment of troops to New York, and made plans to cross the James River to reach Portsmouth. He skillfully lured Lafayette into the action at Green Spring, 6 July, but failed to follow up on his advantage. If he had, he might well have crippled the American army to such an extent that he could maintain his position on the peninsula. Instead, he crossed the James and immediately (8 July) received instructions from Clinton to send 2,000 or 3,000 troops to Philadelphia, instead of New York. On the 12th he received another letter, this one changing the destination of the reinforcements back to New York. Finally, on 20 July, he was told to keep all his troops and establish a naval station on the tip of the peninsula at Old Point Comfort. This last directive reflected Admiral Graves's desire for an ice-free, winter anchorage at Hampton Roads.

This tangle of orders and counter-orders resulted from Clinton's efforts to direct Cornwallis with instructions that took eight days to arrive, while Germain was trying to direct both of them from across the Atlantic. All three agreed that major operations should be undertaken in the Chesapeake, but they disagreed on the timing. Clinton wanted to establish a post at the mouth of the Chesapeake that would immediately serve as a base for naval operations and later, when the necessary reinforcements were available, as a base for land operations in the Middle Colonies. Cornwallis wanted to move on the Middle Colonies operations immediately, even if it meant abandoning New York. Historian Fortescue suggests that Germain "desired to combine both designs after some incomprehensible fashion of his own," and accuses Germain of "ill-timed interference … in every respect fatal" (History, p. 391). According to Fortescue, noting that Clinton's demand for reinforcements from Cornwallis was almost immediately contradicted by a letter from Germain that prohibited the withdrawal of troops from the Chesapeake:

This was nothing less than the rejection of the Commander-in-chief's scheme in favour of his subordinate's; yet by the irony of fate Clinton had hardly received this order before Germaine [sic] repented of it, and wrote again, though of course too late, to approve of Clinton's original plan (History, p. 390, citing Germain to Clinton, 7 and 14 July 1781).

Historian John Tilly shares in this judgment, and concludes:

The combination of Cornwallis's presence in Virginia, Graves's desire to winter at Hampton Roads, Germain's dispatch, and the rebel and French threat to New York forced Clinton to compromise…. The gist of Clinton's decision was simple: Cornwallis was to set up, somewhere in the vicinity of Hampton Roads, a 'post' suitable for the protection of a squadron of ships of the line (British Navy, 247).

Clinton's final order, which told Cornwallis to establish the base at Old Point Comfort (modern Fort Monroe, Virginia), also authorized Cornwallis to occupy Yorktown, if this would contribute to the security of his main position. However, Cornwallis's engineers advised him that the former site was unsuitable. They judged that the channel was too wide to be covered by shore batteries, there would be inadequate protection for shipping, and enemy vessels could closely approach the post and bombard it. Cornwallis therefore picked Yorktown for his main base, and established a supporting position across the York River at Gloucester Point. Although Clinton later insisted that this was a violation of his orders, he tacitly acquiesced in this arrangement. Cornwallis might have been better served had he returned across the James River and taken a position at Portsmouth, where fortifications had already been erected and from which he might have more easily escaped to the Carolinas. These considerations notwithstanding, by 22 August Cornwallis had moved his entire command into the two posts that they would eventually leave only as prisoners of war.


On 14 August Washington and Rochambeau received the news that shaped the decisive operation of the war: De Grasse was sailing for the Chesapeake with 28 warships and more than 3,000 troops. He would remain available for combined operations until 15 October, and then he would return to the West Indies. Moreover, German reinforcements reached New York in early August, bringing Clinton's total strength to over 15,000 rank and file troops. This seemingly negated any chance of a successful assault on the now well-defended New York. Additionally, probes at Clinton's defenses proved their impregnability, at least by the forces currently at hand.

Washington's course of action was now obvious, but he remained obsessed with New York even though, as early as 2 August, he had expressed growing support for the Chesapeake option. Washington believed Cornwallis would escape any trap in the Chesapeake region before the army could arrive. In addition, he had been disappointed too many times by the French navy to depend on it now. He also realized that most of his New England troops would not go so far southward.

Further complicating allied planning was the distinct possibility that the British navy would interfere with any operation in the Chesapeake. For instance, Commodore Barras could be spotted and attacked by the British fleet before reaching the Peninsula with the French siege artillery and the Americans' reserve of salted provisions from Newport. Natural disaster also loomed, in the form of a hurricane that might strike the French fleet either en route to the Chesapeake or after it arrived. Additional concerns revolved around the possibility that Clinton might attack the strung out Franco-American columns along the Hudson, or that he might strike out against Philadelphia, or toward the fortress of West Point.

Finally, with a decisiveness that does credit to his reputation as a great captain, Washington abandoned his preference for New York and started planning the strategy dictated by De Grasse's Chesapeake decision. Rochambeau directed Barras to take the siege guns and supplies from Newport to the Chesapeake. Barras left Newport on 25 August, forcing British Admiral Graves to contend with two French fleets at sea whose size and destination he did not know. Washington directed General William Heath to remain on the Hudson with half the army, including most of its New Englanders, and charged him with three tasks. Heath was to cover the passage of the Virginia expedition across the river, feign a move towards Staten Island to confuse Clinton, and then withdraw to the Hudson Highlands. Washington called to duty thousands of militiamen from Pennsylvania to Connecticut should Clinton sortie from his New York defenses. As a consequence Clinton remained behind his New York entrenchments and frittered away an opportunity to redeem some of the losses that the British had already sustained in the Carolinas. The importance of this rear guard of American troops to the whole plan is neglected in most of the historical literature on the campaign.

The Americans crossed the Hudson River by Kings Ferry to Stony Point on 20-21 August, and the French completed their crossing on the 25th. Clinton was puzzled by this movement, but not worried. He knew De Grasse was expected, but he had been assured that Rodney would send a superior force, and he was confident that the Royal navy would retain command of the Atlantic coastal waters. On the latter assumption, therefore, Clinton ruled out the possibility that Washington would march to Virginia. Far from concerned about the indications that the Americans were preparing to attack Staten Island—his spies duly reported the presence of boats with the American army—Clinton was planning an attack on Rhode Island. Fortescue assesses the situation in the following terms:

It was not until the 2nd of September [when the allied army reached Philadelphia] that Clinton realized that Washington was actually on the march for Virginia, but still he felt little anxiety. He wrote to Cornwallis that Admiral Robert Digby's squadron was expected shortly, and that he himself would send reinforcements and make a diversion from New York, adding, in tragic ignorance of the true state of affairs, that as Graves had sailed Cornwallis need fear nothing (History, p. 393).

Admiral Digby's three ships did not arrive in time to accompany Admirals Graves and Hood to their fateful encounter with De Grasse in the battle of the Chesapeake Capes on 5 September. The French navy's tactical victory was a strategic triumph of enormous proportions that not only sealed Cornwallis's fate but also that of most of the British empire in North America.


After crossing the Hudson, the allies followed three roughly parallel routes to Princeton, New Jersey. The American light infantry moved on the left, through Paramus, to simulate an attack in the direction of Staten Island, and the entire army halted in the vicinity of Chatham and Springfield (due west of New York City) during 28 August in order to heighten the deception and also to close up the columns. On the 29th the columns still marched as if heading for Sandy Hook to link up with the French fleet, but on the next day they abandoned the deception and openly headed for Princeton.

The leading elements of Washington's army reached Princeton on the 30th, and Washington rode ahead with Rochambeau to enter Philadelphia the same day. The American troops passed through Philadelphia on 2 September and continued straight on to reach Head of Elk on 6 September. They found time, however, to let Congress know that, despite the lawmakers' problems of higher finance, they wanted a month's pay before they continued their patriotic steps southward, and they wanted it in hard money. Robert Morris had to raise the funds by borrowing from Rochambeau's war chest. French troops entered the American capital in two divisions on 3 and 4 September, dazzling the provincials with their brilliant uniforms, their bands, and their military precision.

After struggling with problems of transportation and hoping for news of the two French fleets, Washington had left Philadelphia on 5 September. At Chester, that afternoon, he received the joyful intelligence that De Grasse had reached the Chesapeake safely. Now all he had to worry about was whether Barras would get through with the siege guns and whether Lafayette and the troops brought by De Grasse would be able to keep Cornwallis from escaping up the Peninsula and into the Carolinas.

While their troops waited at Head of Elk, Baltimore, and Annapolis for transportation, Washington and Rochambeau rode ahead with their staffs. From 9 to 12 September they stopped at Mount Vernon, Washington's home, which he had not seen for six years. They reached the Peninsula on 14 September. Although Cornwallis had not tried to escape the Chesapeake region, the naval situation was still fraught with suspense. Washington had learned on 12 September that de Grasse's fleet had sailed away to meet a British fleet that was approaching the Chesapeake, and there was still no news about Barras. By the morning of the 15th, however, word came that De Grasse was back and that Barras had arrived safely. The noose encircled Cornwallis's neck, although the trap door had not yet been sprung.


With the Yorktown campaign, Washington achieved an astounding strategic success. While luck figured prominently, the American commander showed skill of the highest order in planning and executing this concentration of allied forces. The odds against all of this coming together successfully were astronomical, but they had been overcome.

Still, one must not laud the American general too much. As his biographer Joseph J. Ellis notes, Washington's "subsequent distortion of the historical record" (he indicated that he had advocated the Chesapeake idea in the fall of 1780) "was designed to make the Yorktown victory a possibility he saw early on, whereas his correspondence reveals that New York had dominated his mind's eye for so long that he only gave it up grudgingly and gradually" (p. 133). In allocating praise for the success of the Yorktown campaign, the strategic contributions of Rochambeau, De Grasse, Barras, and Saavedra should never be overlooked, nor should the exertions of thousands of French and American sailors and soldiers, who collectively turned paper plans into physical reality, be ignored. All these participants contributed to an outcome in which, according to Washington biographer James T. Flexner, "the curtain fell on the greatest defeat which the European aristocratic way of life had so far suffered" (p. 464).

SEE ALSO Cornwallis, Charles; Clinton, Henry; Finances of the Revolution; French Alliance; Wethersfield Conference, Connecticut.


Breen, Kenneth. "A Reinforcement Reduced? Rodney's Flawed Appraisal of French Plans, West Indies, 1781." In New Interpretations in Naval History: Selected Papers from the Ninth Naval History Symposium. Edited by William R. Roberts and Jack Sweetman. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1991.

――――――. "Sir George Rodney and St. Eustatius in the American War: A Commercial and Naval Distraction, 1775–1781." Mariner's Mirror, 84 (May 1998): 192-203.

Chávez, Thomas E. Spain and the Independence of the United States. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

Dull, Jonathan R. The French Navy and American Independence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency George Washington. New York: Knopf, 2004.

Flexner, James Thomas. George Washington in the American Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.

Fortescue John W. History of the British Army. 14 vols. London: Macmillan, 1911–1935.

――――――. The War of Independence. London: Greenhill, 2001.

Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington: A Biography. 7 vols. New York: Scribner, 1948–1957.

Gottschalk, Louis. Lafayette and the Close of the American Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

Johnston, Henry P. The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis, 1781. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881.

Larrabee, Harold A. Decision at the Chesapeake. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1964.

Lewis, Charles Lee. Admiralde Grasse and American Independence. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1945.

Lewis, James A. "Las Damas de la Havana, El Precursor, and Francisco de Saavedra: A Note on Spanish Participation in the Battle of Yorktown." The Americas 37 (July 1981): 83-99.

Mackesy, Piers. War for America, 1775–1783. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Padron, Francisco Morales, ed. Journal of Don Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1989.

Rice, Howard C., Jr., and Anne S. K. Brown, eds., American Campaigns of Rochambeau's Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J. and Providence, R.I.: Princeton University Press and Brown University Press, 1972.

Skaggs, David Curtis. "Decision at Cap Français: Franco-Spanish Coalition Planning and the Prelude to Yorktown." In New Interpretations in Naval History: Selected Papers from the Thirteenth Naval History Symposium. Edited by William M. McBride. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1998.

Syrett, David. Royal Navy in American Waters, 1775–1783. Brookfield, Vt.: Gower Publishing, 1989.

Washington, George. The Diaries of George Washington. 4 vols. Edited by Donald Jackson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976–1979.

Whitridge, Arnold. Rochambeau: Neglected Founding Father. New York: Collier Books, 1965.

Wickwire, Franklin B., and Mary Wickwire. Cornwallis: The American Adventure. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Willcox, William B. "The British Road to Yorktown: A Study in Divided Command," American Historical Review 52 (October 1946): 1-35.

――――――. Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1964.

Yorktown Campaign

views updated May 14 2018


YORKTOWN CAMPAIGN (August–October 1781). On 19 October 1781, American and French troops forced the surrender of a sizeable British army at Yorktown, a decisive victory that reversed the war's momentum, and proved to be the last major engagement of the Revolutionary War.

By late 1780, the patriot cause arguably reached its low point: British victories at Charleston and Camden virtually destroyed the southern wing of the Continental Army; the American military supply system collapsed and

rampant inflation eroded the army's purchasing power; a weak Continental Congress provided ineffective political leadership; scarce resources led General George Washington to cancel military operations against New York City; and the alliance with France had yet to produce significant results. By contrast, British optimism remained high. Their "southern strategy"—securing one by one the southern colonies from Georgia northward—seemed to bear fruit.

By early 1781, the tide was turning. Lord Charles Cornwallis, who commanded British troops in the South, failed to eliminate resistance by pesky Continentals and militia under Major General Nathanael Greene. Unable to pacify South Carolina, Cornwallis moved his army into North Carolina. Failing to secure North Carolina, he proceeded into Virginia contrary to official orders. The British ministry was not displeased, however, for they hoped to secure this tobacco-rich region, prevent French incursions into the Chesapeake, and draw support from its supposedly large loyalist population. Moreover, Cornwallis's superior, Sir Henry Clinton, recognized that British occupation of Virginia could disrupt the flow of patriot supplies from the north to forces in the Carolinas if the British could obtain adequate naval support. But when Clinton learned that Admiral de Grasse's squadron had left France for North America, he developed reservations about a Virginia campaign. Initially, the British commander instructed Cornwallis to abandon operations and reinforce New York; however, when the French fleet appeared to sail for the Chesapeake, Clinton directed Cornwallis to assume a defensive position there. The offensive-minded Cornwallis reluctantly followed orders to establish a fortified harbor along Virginia's coast. He selected Yorktown, a prosperous tobacco port of approximately 2,000 residents. His troops occupied the town on 1 August 1781.

The arrival of de Grasse's French squadron in the Chesapeake on 29 August proved key to the unfolding campaign. Washington had planned to besiege the main British army in New York, and had hoped that joint operations with the Comte de Rochambeau's French army and de Grasse's squadron would make that possible. But when he learned that the French fleet would make a brief foray into the Chesapeake, Washington shifted his attention southward. There, the Marquis de Lafayette, whose small American force opposed Cornwallis, informed Washington that the British position was vulnerable. Washington recognized the opportunity, and implementing diversionary measures to keep an unsuspecting Clinton in New York, he and Rochambeau secretly marched their armies to Virginia in mid-August.

By late August, Cornwallis detected de Grasse's arrival. On 5 September 1781, French and British naval forces collided in the Battle of the Capes, with de Grasse's larger squadron battering the ships of Admiral Thomas Graves. De Grasse extended his blockade of the lower Chesapeake Bay and the York River, while Graves's damaged ships returned to New York. Britain's military fortunes had rested upon naval superiority, and now France controlled Yorktown's waters. The allied armies' arrival in mid-September meant that Cornwallis's 8,300 men were completely surrounded by more than twice that number. At that point, he was faced with two choices: he could either attempt to break through allied lines into the hostile Virginia interior, or he could await a relief expedition. He chose the latter.

Washington and Rochambeau began their siege of Cornwallis's army, while Clinton prepared for its rescue. By 9 October, allied forces completed their first line of trenches, hauled up heavy artillery, and unleashed a devastating cannonade upon British defenses and nearby warships. Two days later, they began a second line only 300 yards from the enemy. When two British redoubts, numbers 9 and 10, blocked allied progress, Lafayette and the Baron de Vioménil each directed 400 American and French forces against the fortifications. On the night of the 14th, Colonel Alexander Hamilton's assault on number 10 and Vioménil's on number 9 quickly overcame resistance and captured the redoubts. With his defenses pummeled by enemy artillery, a desperate Cornwallis attempted a breakout. Late on the 16th, he began ferrying troops north across the York River to Gloucester, where

they planned to surprise allied forces and escape the Yorktown trap. Luck was not with the British. A violent storm scattered the boats, and forced the redcoats' return. Cornwallis saw little choice but to negotiate his surrender, and on 19 October 1781, approximately 7,000 of the King's troops laid down their arms—the very same day that Clinton's expedition sailed to relieve Yorktown.

The battle's outcome was significant. For the United States and France, it reflected extraordinary coordination and cooperation in an age of poor communication. For Britain, it undermined Parliament's resolve to continue the war. Thereafter, both sides sought acceptable terms to conclude the fighting.


Fleming, Thomas J. Beat the Last Drum: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1963.

Pancake, John S. This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780–1782. University: University of Alabama Press, 1985.

Sands, John O. Yorktown's Captive Fleet. Charlottesville: Published for the Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Va., by the University Press of Virginia, 1983.

Wickwire, Franklin and Mary. Cornwallis: The American Adventure. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.


See alsoRevolution, American: Political History ; Revolution, American: Military History andvol. 9:Correspondence Leading to Surrender .

Yorktown, Battle of

views updated May 18 2018

Yorktown, Battle of (1781).The entry of France into the Revolutionary War in May 1778 gave Americans hope that they might achieve victory rather than just stave off defeat, for French naval power could impede the flow of British resources across the Atlantic and help to trap British forces in the seaports from which they operated. Yet it was not until the autumn of 1781 that four factors combined to produce a decisive victory.

First, Gen. George Washington kept the Continental army in the field despite shortages of money, clothing, food, and ammunition. Second, the leaders of the French army ( Rochambeau) and fleet ( de Grasse) were competent commanders, willing to cooperate with one another and with Washington. Third, the British had concentrated their resources in home waters to forestall invasion. Ships sent across the Atlantic were responsible for protecting both the West Indies and British coastal enclaves in North America. Fourth, Britain's efforts to use loyalists to reestablish royal control in the South failed to eliminate rebel activity in South Carolina. Charles Lord Cornwallis, commander of the last British mobile force in America, invaded North Carolina and then Virginia, to eliminate support for the rebels further south.

Cornwallis's operations in Virginia during the summer of 1781 put his 10,000‐man army within range of Franco‐American forces based in southern New England and New York. Washington saw the opportunity Cornwallis had presented, and Rochambeau and de Grasse agreed to attempt a joint operation. Leaving half the American army to pin Sir Henry Clinton's forces at New York City, Washington with 2,300 Continentals and Rochambeau with 4,000 Frenchmen began moving south on 20 August. They reached Williamsburg on the 26th, having traveled down Chesapeake Bay by ship. There they joined 3,400 Continentals and 3,200 Virginia state and militia troops already operating against Cornwallis, who had withdrawn to Yorktown, on the York River, to await resupply.

The plan's key element was de Grasse's fleet, which arrived on 26 August from the West Indies, established control of the coastal waters inside the Capes of Virginia, and contributed 4,800 more men to the besieging force. Ten days later, de Grasse fought a strategically decisive engagement with a British squadron sent by Clinton to evacuate Cornwallis's force. The British failure to penetrate past de Grasse, plus Cornwallis's inertia, allowed Washington and Rochambeau to spring their trap.

The allies closed in on Yorktown on 28 September, and on 6 October began formal siege operations, which would have been impossible without French heavy artillery. By 14 October, the cannonade had weakened British positions sufficiently to allow the allies to capture key outposts: 400 American light infantry, led by Alexander Hamilton, took the smaller Redoubt No. 10 sooner and with fewer casualties than the French at Redoubt No. 9. Cornwallis and 8,000 men surrendered on 17 October.

Yorktown's most decisive effect was on political opinion in Britain. The British still had substantial forces in North America, but all were tied down defending coastal enclaves; Cornwallis's army was the last force surplus to garrison requirements they had been able to scrape together. Britain could have continued the war, but its political leaders had lost the will to fight.
[See also Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


Henry P. Johnston , The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis, 1781, 1881; repr. 1979.
Douglas S. Freeman , George Washington: Victory with the Help of France, 1955.
William B. Willcox , Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, 1964.

Harold E. Selesky

Yorktown, Siege of

views updated May 18 2018

Yorktown, Siege of (1781) Last major military campaign of the American Revolution. Trapped on the peninsula of Yorktown, Virginia, 7000 British troops under Lord Cornwallis surrendered to superior US and French forces, after attempts to relieve them failed.