IF THE FRENCH did not recognize the significance to themselves of what they were doing in aiding the rebels, neither did the British as a whole consider what place their conflict with the American Colonies had or would have in history. They thought of it simply as an uprising of colonial ingrates which had to be put down by force. To those with a larger world view, it was an imperial power struggle against France.
Ideologically, in the eternal struggle of left and right, the rebellion was seen as subversive of the social order, and the Americans as “levelers” whose example, if successful, would set alight revolutionary movements in Ireland and elsewhere. The British government and its partisans, as opposed to Whigs and radicals, felt themselves to be the upholders of right and privilege who should be receiving Europe’s support instead of hostility in their fight for existence. With France and Spain as enemies and Holland about to be another, and with the prospect of the Neutrality League contesting sovereignty of the seas, Europe in not coming to Britain’s aid, or in actively aiding the Americans, was seen as cutting her own throat; if the Americans won, she would herself experience the tramp of radicals and hear the shout of “Liberty!” across her lands.
Of all people, the somnolent Prime Minister Lord North, who was always begging the King to let him resign because he felt inadequate to the situation, perceived the historical context of the conflict in which his country and its colonies were engaged, and the historical consequences of an American victory. “If America should grow into a separate empire, it must cause,” he foresaw, “a revolution in the political system of the world, and if Europe did not support Britain now, it would one day find itself ruled by America imbued with democratic fanaticism.”
The mutinies and privations of Mr. Washington’s army (the British could not bring themselves to accord him the title of “general”) offered a gleam of hope that the American Revolution was lagging, as could be seen in its want not only of material and finances but of fresh recruits. Encouraged, Clinton told himself comfortably, “I have all to hope and Washington all to fear.” Logically he was right, but a detached observer would have drawn no encouragement, for “hope” to Clinton meant further reason not to act, and “fear” for Washington meant a factor that existed to be overcome.
So certain were British managers of the war in their superiority of force that they remained convinced the rebels would have to give in and make peace. As Lord Germain, the King’s chief adviser, expressed it, “So contemptible is the rebel force now in all parts … so vast is our superiority that no resistance on their part can obstruct a speedy suppression of the rebellion.” Settled complacency allowed no other thought. Expectation of the rebels’ early collapse was all the more intense because it was sorely needed—for despite complacency, British resources were badly strained; recruiting was poor, victualing inadequate and finances on stony ground. The British clung to the belief that if only they could keep the war going, the Americans would have to surrender. Congress’ authority would fade and public opinion turn back to the mother country. Most cogent in their thinking was belief in the Americans’ early financial collapse. “I judge,” wrote General Murray from Minorca, “that the enemy finds the expense of this war as intolerable as we do.” A civilian skeptic was Walpole’s correspondent Horace Mann: “Unless some decisive stroke,” he wrote to his friend, “can be given to the French fleet either in America or in Europe, perseverance of the rebellious colonies and the point d’honneur of France will prolong it and wear us out.” George III himself could contemplate no such outcome. He insistently believed that victory was just over the hill, that the truly loyal people were about to rise and that with one or two hard blows the rebellion would collapse.
What made the difference in expectations on both sides was French intervention. The sinking to its lowest ebb in 1780 of the American cause prompted joint Franco-American planning to keep the Revolution alive and fighting. Washington had asked the French for money, for troops and, despite the mortifying results of d’Estaing’s campaign, above all for naval aid. He was absolutely convinced that without command of the coasts and freedom of the sea, the Americans could not win and that only by this means could Britain be defeated. The British arch in America rested upon New York and Virginia where Chesapeake Bay opened a long coastline on the Atlantic; communication between New York and Virginia, while the Americans held Pennsylvania and New Jersey in between, could only be had by water. Nor could the British Army live off the land, because of the hostility of the inhabitants; their supply and deployment within the country depended on transportation by water and control of ports and estuaries. If this could be blocked or wrested from them, the British would starve. Indeed, Clinton was to note afterward, of the period when he was afraid of losing naval superiority to d’Estaing, “Army three times in danger of starving.” If the statement was anxiety more than reality, it reflects Clinton’s sense of the deplorability of everything in the self-justifying account he wrote after the war.
Conversely, only if water transportation were made free to the Americans could the movement of troops make possible an offensive. This was the basis of Washington’s insistence on naval superiority. As he explained it to Colonel Laurens, son of the former President of the Congress, who was on a diplomatic mission to France, the British could not maintain “a large force in this country if we had the command of the seas to interrupt the regular transmission of supplies from Europe.… A constant naval superiority upon these coasts would instantly reduce the enemy to a difficult defensive.” Naval superiority “with an aid of money, would enable us to convert the war into a vigorous offensive.” Washington’s desire was for attack on New York, keystone of Britain’s military base in America. Recapture of Long Island and Manhattan from the British might, he believed, be the decisive blow. Because of the obstacle presented by the shallow draft of the waters at Sandy Hook at the entrance to New York, which had already barred the way to d’Estaing, and because of the better entry to Chesapeake Bay and its wider scope for action, his French ally Rochambeau, on the contrary, believed a campaign in the Chesapeake region would be more practical and more effective. Besides, it was here that the British Army under Cornwallis was the most active and menacing enemy force in the war.
Washington and other generals of the army deeply wanted America’s cause to be fought by her own people, but their hardest discouragement was the fainthearted patriotism of the country at large insofar as tangible support by the populace was evidence. At Valley Forge, Washington painfully acknowledged, failure of supply meant that there were men in his ranks “without the shadow of a blanket,” and they “might have been tracked from White Marsh to Valley Forge by the blood of their feet.” When levies were called for operations in the summer of 1780, fewer than thirty recruits had straggled into headquarters six weeks after the deadline. Civilians who volunteer generally wish to escape, not to share, privations worse than their own. They were not anxious to join the emaciated ill-clad ranks of the Continentals. Farmers’ contributions of wagons and teams to carry supplies were no more forthcoming.
After the d’Estaing fiasco, the army began to deteriorate, grumbling in their grievances against Congress for leaving them unpaid and in contention among themselves over ranks and seniority, and threatening resignations. Even General Greene, the steadiest of them all, now serving as Quartermaster General, complained bitterly that Congress gave him money no more equal to his needs than “a sprat in a whale’s belly.” He became so enraged by the negligence of Congress when he was trying to plan an offensive for the recovery of Savannah that even he talked of resigning.
On New Year’s Day of 1781 Pennsylvania troops, quartered in Morristown for a second hungry and shivering winter after the bitter one at Valley Forge, reached outrage at being left in misery and want and unpaid, while civilians sat tight in comfort. Lack of clothes and leather for shoes, of horses and wagons for transport, of meat and flour and gunpowder in all units, of fresh recruits and of the confidence and support of the country, had left an army barely able to stand up. Generals’ letters reporting their shortages flowed over Washington’s desk. Even when provisions were on hand, they could sometimes not be brought to hungry companies for lack of transport. The troops took their only recourse to make their case: mutiny. Connecticut and New Jersey troops no less neglected joined the Pennsylvania line in its action and the outbreak was only contained by the example of the two from Connecticut who had been executed. “I have almost ceased to hope,” Washington had confessed in 1780 shortly before the mutinies. “Thecountry in general is in such a state of insensibility and indifference to its interest that I dare not flatter myself with any change for the better.”
In France a change for the better was preparing. Vergennes, the Foreign Minister, though he did not appreciate being lectured by an American, was impressed by John Adams’ insistence that only naval power could decide the war in America, and that there was no use in France spending her forces on taking sugar islands in the West Indies or besieging Gibraltar or collecting an assault force for the invasion of Britain, because the place to defeat the English was in America. Pleas from the Continental Congress to the same purpose were having effect. From George Washington himself came a letter to La Luzerne, French Minister to the United States, stressing the need of naval superiority and asking for a French fleet to come to America. As forerunner, seven ships of the line under Admiral de Ternay, d’Estaing’s successor, came into Newport in July, 1780, bringing a man and a small land army who were to become essential partners in the final campaign. The man was General Jean Baptiste Rochambeau, age fifty-five, bringing three regiments under the command of the Marquis Claude-Anne de Saint-Simon, whose younger cousin Count Henri de Saint-Simon was the future founder of French Socialism. Both were related to the illustrious Duc de Saint-Simon, chronicler of the court of Louis XIV. The young count had volunteered to come with his troops to America to serve under Rochambeau’s orders. His regiments were then stationed on Santo Domingo in the West Indies, on loan to the Spanish. This happy addition was held in unhappy inaction for nearly a year because of the British blockade outside Newport. Without land transport, Washington could find no way to employ them. Without the means to move, Washington could not take the offensive, and to fight on the defensive, he knew, could never lead to victory. With money to pay for food, Rochambeau’s army remained at Newport, eating and flirting, militarily a blank— now, but not forever.
Rochambeau, a short stout figure of amiable disposition and solid military experience, proved an ideal ally, a strong supporter and loyal partner, willing to put himself second to the Commander-in-Chief without being subservient or a mere junior lieutenant. He had ideas of his own, which he was ready and able to advocate. Though sometimes engaged in sharp dispute with senior officers, he commanded the respect and unbroken discipline of his men. Despite the want and hardships of the coming joint campaign in enforced intimacy with Americans of alien speech and habit, no serious frictions marked the partnership. When the time came, the French soldiers marched through America in better order and discipline than either the English or the Americans had ever shown.
In the Rochambeau army was the Duc de Lauzun, the extravagant nephew of Rodney’s benefactor in Paris, soon to prove a dashing fighter in the Yorktown campaign. At Newport he “rendered himself very agreeable to the Americans by his prepossessing manners,” which we may easily understand to mean his free-spending habits. In a memoir, he relates that upon the departure of the French force from Brest, only half the promised transports were on hand, “forcing us to leave behind one brigade of infantry, one-third of artillery and one-third of my own regiment.” Clearly, the management of the French Navy had not improved since the muddled invasion effort of the year before. The most interesting thing about Lauzun’s memoir of his venture to a new world to attend the revolutionary birth of a new nation is the absence of any thought given or notice taken or comment of any kind about the historic events in which he was taking part, or about the country, people or politics of the war. As Lauzun was considered the archetype of young ornament of the French court, he may reflect his class and kind and the characteristics that brought them to extinction. Or, without making too much of it, he may merely have had a firm grasp of his personal priorities. These were his amours, which fill the first half of the memoir devoted to his life in France in the last years of the pre-Revolution aristocracy. For 140 pages we have a kiss-and-tell catalogue of his mistresses and their degree of “marked preference for myself” on first and growing acquaintance, with every name stated without regard for position, family or husband. When published under the Restoration, a time when émigrés of the former nobility wished to show the morality and rectitude of their lives, the book created a supreme scandal engaging two ruling critics, Talleyrand and Sainte-Beuve, in an angry controversy as to its authenticity. As the book’s only interest could be to contemporaries who knew and may have shared the favors of the ladies mentioned, it remains for posterity an empty shell with only a faint murmur of the glittering sea from which it came.
When, on August 25, Washington learned from Rochambeau the news brought by a French frigate, that the promised French Second Division on which he had counted to reinforce Lafayette and Greene in the South was blockaded at Brest and could not arrive until October at the soonest, by which time the army would have consumed all the provisions the region could supply, his iron endurance of disappointments was allowed to crack in a letter to his brother Samuel. “It is impossible for any person at a distance to have an idea of my embarrassments or to conceive how an army can be kept together under any such circumstances as ours is.” Within days came news of the defeat at Camden in South Carolina, exposing Virginia to invasion from the South. Washington could only patch the hole by sending a regiment from Maryland to Greene and summon the confidence to meet his French allies for a conference at Hartford on a plan of campaign.
On their arrival at Newport, de Ternay and Rochambeau marched down from Rhode Island (100 miles) through Connecticut to the meeting at Hartford on September 20–22. Washington brought with him old reliable General Henry Knox, the onetime bookseller from Boston who had made himself an artillery officer and had dragged the captured guns from Ticonderoga over ruts and hills to drive the British out of Boston in 1776. No one arrived with good news. Lafayette came fresh from the fighting in the South where in August, 1780, only three months after the fall of Charleston, the Americans had suffered the crushing defeat at Camden. Here the pugnacious General Lord Cornwallis was pursuing a campaign to conquer the whole of the state. At Camden he had thrashed General Gates, the hero of Saratoga and, afterward, a conspirator in the Conway Cabal that attempted to discredit and supplant Washington by a whispering campaign of insults designed to provoke him to resign. Conscious that he was indispensable, Washington refused to be drawn, but he could not prevent the malcontents in Congress from engineering the appointment of Gates to take command in the South. Under Gates’s clumsy generalship at Camden, the Americans lost 800 killed and 1,000 taken prisoner, and were further embarrassed by the hasty departure of their General in a retreat so far and so fast that it carried him by the evening of the battle seventy miles to Charlotte, and did not stop until he reached Hillsboro in the mountains. According to a statement by Alexander Hamilton, Gates in his craven abandonment covered 180 miles in three and half days, an unlikely distance in the given time, even with relays of fresh horses, which obviously could not have been prepared for a retreat. Whatever the actual fact, the shameful retreat was enough to plunge Gates into disgrace and suspend him from the army. An official investigation was ordered but never took place.
The victor, after fastening the British yoke on South Carolina, was now moving north through North Carolina toward Virginia, the Old Dominion and richest state of the South. Narrowed at its waist by the indentation made by Chesapeake Bay, it was the place, in Cornwallis’ opinion, to cut off the richer resources of the South from the North and achieve the decisive stroke to end the war. “A successful battle may give us America” was his favorite dictum. The gleam of that single battle lured every commander on either side in the hope of finishing off a miserable war that would not end.
Ending a war is a difficult and delicate business. Even intelligent rulers, when they exist, often find themselves unable to terminate a war, should they want to. Each side must become convinced at the same time and with equal certainty that its war aim is either not achievable or not worth the cost or damage to the state. The certainty must be equal, for if one side perceives a slight advantage or disadvantage it will not offer terms acceptable to the other. In the Hundred Years’ War that dragged France and England through the 14th century, both sides would have liked to quit but could not, for fear of losing power and status; hate and mistrust fed by the war prevented them from talking. In the ghastly toll and futility of 1914–18, no end could be negotiated short of victory for one side or the other, because each felt it must bring home to its people some compensating gain in the form of territory or a seaport or industrial resource to justify the terrible cost. To come home emptyhanded might mean a revolt against the rulers at home—or at least the loss of their position and place in society, as the Kaiser and the Hohenzollerns were thrown out in 1918. Common soldiers are not rulers and do not have to worry about losing thrones or office so why, when in hunger and rags, do they go on? The answer is a complex of many factors: because they have absorbed a sense of the goal, because giving up in desertion or mutiny carries the ultimate penalty, because of comradeship, because if they leave the army they would have nowhere to go and no way to go home. For rulers to stop short of the declared war aim, thus acknowledging their own as well as their party’s and their nation’s incapacity, is as problematic as the camel’s passage through the needle’s eye. Short of absolute defeat, would the leaders of the American cause have given up their fight for liberty and independence or the British King and ministers have given up their imperial control? “Forbid it, Almighty God!” would have been the answer, and so each side in America fought on for the gleam of that successful battle and the “decisive stroke.”
Clinton, with uncharacteristic optimism, wrote to the government after the capture of Charleston, “A few works if properly reinforced will give us all between this and Hudson river.” In London, Germain caught the gleam, stating, “One more campaign would reduce all the southern provinces.” No matter how the fortunes of war fluctuated, he continued to believe that suppression of the rebellion would be easy, a happy assumption of British strategists based on their total lack of acquaintance with Americans. They could not believe that farmers and woodsmen untrained as soldiers—“these country clowns,” as a Hessian officer spoke of them at Trenton—could ever stand up to the well-drilled British and German professionals. They forgot the extra weapon that is possessed by those who are fighting for a cause. Training is usually the criterion of military effectiveness, but not this time.
The American fighting style of firing from concealment behind walls and trees while wearing dull-colored homespun or fringed Indian tunics, in total contrast to the spit and polish of the brightly uniformed European armies who advanced in solid ranks to shoot and be shot at, was the major cause of the persistent British underestimation of the rebels. The very first opening fight at Lexington, when redcoats were killed all along the road back to Boston by the bullets of minutemen skulking behind stone walls, instead of in the decent well-drilled order of the soldiers of the King of France (or, alternatively, of the Duke of York) in the nursery rhyme who with 40,000 men marched up the hill and then marched down again, fixed the image of peasants, not to say savages— unfit to meet the infantry of Europe. When, not long after Lexington, the British marched up Bunker (Breed’s) Hill and then, much reduced, marched down again, they did not learn to change their estimate.
But despite the advantages of the American fighting style, at the Hartford Conference the outlook was bleak, and Rochambeau was pessimistic and Lafayette even more so. Because of the great decline in American credit since the taking of Charleston, the “very unfavorable” news about Camden and the fall in the finances of Congress, Lafayette pronounced “this campaign” at rock bottom. “We are still more destitute of clothing, tents and wagons for our troops,” he reported to Washington. It was essential to have provisions sent to them, “were it possible to find means of transportation. Despairing of this, as much is sent as possible northward on navigatable rivers.” His report was not one to encourage anyone, but the goal ahead was stronger than discouragement. The Hartford Conference was occupied mainly by the two commanders, Washington and Rochambeau, taking each other’s measure and discovering what comradeship they might—or might not—develop, and in discussion of what should be the locale of their joint action. Between Rochambeau, a knowledgeable soldier, and Washington, who inspired a touch of worship merely by being, mutual respect came easily; an agreed plan of campaign less so. They agreed that assault on New York, Washington’s dearest object, could not be accomplished without French command of adjacent waters, which de Ternay’s squadron could not by itself establish. Moreover, Rochambeau could not offer a firm plan of campaign because he had been instructed that the French fleet and army were to act together, and until additional French naval forces arrived, he felt obliged to remain in support of de Ternay’s force at Newport. Not until a year later when a second contingent of French land forces arrived under Admiral de Barras to replace the deceased de Ternay, and along with de Barras the promise of a French fleet coming to give the Americans the naval power they needed so badly, was the daring plan of envelopment by sea and land conceived that was to win the war.
But the American General’s mind was still fixed on New York. Washington did not like Rochambeau’s alternative of a campaign in the Chesapeake region to cut off the British threat from the South, because he believed the French soldiers would sicken in the summer heat of Virginia, and his own New Englanders despised the South for its snakes, heat and mosquitoes and had the deepest suspicions of the climate as unhealthy, not to say poisonous and rife with fever. Fever, undifferentiated by name because its sources in germs and infections were not known, could include malaria, pneumonia, yellow fever, typhoid, typhus and dysentery. Its prevalence in Virginia arose less from the climate, which was always blamed for all ill health, than from swamps and mosquitoes combined with unsanitary conditions of men living in military groups. Eight out of ten deaths in the 18th century were ascribed to “fever.”
To bring an army to Virginia would mean a journey of about 500 miles, which would have to be made on foot, as the only available sea transport was the eight-ship squadron at Newport under Admiral Count Louis de Barras, now the French naval commander there. Against the superior strength of the British fleet off New York, de Barras refused to transport troopships packed with soldiers down the coast to Virginia. The overland march appeared to Washington too risky and costly and likely to lose a third of the army to sickness and desertions, and he did not think the campaign could bring much benefit so long as the British controlled the offshore waters of the Virginia coast. He believed that an attack on New York, as a diversion causing Clinton to call up troops from the South, would do more to relieve Lafayette than direct action in his behalf. Most compelling was his emotional attachment to New York as his first major defeat of the Revolution in the early Battle of Long Island. It had left him with a yearning to retrieve the city. According to the alliance, Washington was Commander-in-Chief and Rochambeau, under his orders, giving the final decision to Washington, but Rochambeau, skillful as he was amiable, knew the art of supporting his flanks. Soon, in response to his persuasions, La Luzerne, the French Minister, and de Barras and others primed by Rochambeau were advocating the advantages of a campaign at the Chesapeake in their letters home.
What was the Chesapeake and why all the focus on it? Great Chesapeake Bay formed the coastline of Virginia, stretching for 200 miles along the Atlantic to Maryland and New Jersey. With its many doorways facing Europe and its many ports and estuaries facing inland and giving access to the interior, it was the widest opening to the southern section of the country. The Bay’s upper waters came within twenty miles of meeting the Delaware River near Philadelphia, thus forming a natural waterway connecting the South with the mid-Atlantic states and creating the strategic neck that Cornwallis believed should be cut.
The taking of Charleston had drawn the British into further investment in the South and had increased the importance of that region as a center of the war. Here was the place, it was believed, where the loyalty of the people would determine whether Britain could reclaim the allegiance of the Americans as a whole. It would be a long wait, if sentiment in the South were to be the test. “Defection” in South Carolina was reported by Colonel Balfour, who had been left in charge of occupied Charleston, “as so universal that I know of no mode short of depopulation to retain it.” Balfour’s radical solution reflected the attitude of the Loyalists, who felt the savagery of a civil war in their conflict with the patriots, and who, in their mutual feud, fostered the hostilities of the rebellion.
Strategically, the purpose of the battle for the South was to deprive the rebellion of the region’s resources and its trade with Europe through its Atlantic ports. The most intense and protracted fighting was taking place there; Loyalists joined destructive raids against the people and resources of the countryside. The British were pitted against the American General Nathanael Greene and such men as Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” and “unbeatable” Daniel Morgan, the “Old Wagoner”— so called because 25 years before, at the age of nineteen, he had driven a supply wagon in Braddock’s ill-fated campaign against the French and Indians. Enemy engagements in the South never took territorial hold because they were aimed mainly at trying to destroy the rebels’ forces and fighting capacity, rather than at occupying and taking control of territory. Destruction of manpower and seizure of territory are the twin objectives of all offensive campaigning. With respect to the first, the usual method since the beginning of time—or the beginning of warfare, which may be the same thing—short of killing the opposing soldiery, is to destroy the opponent’s supporting resources: food, shelter, transportation, labor and the revenue for purchasing all these. Pillage, burning and general devastation make occupation impossibly difficult, as Colonel Balfour dimly perceived, and were not helpful to Britain’s overall aim of reclaiming allegiance. Nevertheless, the British still saw in the South their opportunity for final victory, because they felt certain that a basically loyal population would at some near time rise for the Crown.
Charles, second Earl Cornwallis, Britain’s most aggressive general, was in command of the southern front, serving under a commander-in-chief of opposite temperament, the cautious and vacillating Sir Henry Clinton, based in New York. Between the two existed another of the antipathies that fractured British Army and Navy commands. Everybody hated somebody in the course of conducting the American war, and in this case the antipathy divided the parties in terms of policy and aims as well as personal dislike.
Clinton was a stand-patter determined to hold on to what he had—that is, his bases in New York and Charleston, especially New York, whose defense became his obsession—while Cornwallis was a go-getter who believed that Charleston could not be held unless all of its hinterland of South Carolina were secured, and that the South as a whole could not be conquered without taking Virginia—“opulent and prosperous Virginia,” as a Loyalist paper described it. As a peer, Cornwallis enjoyed a social superiority that made Clinton feel at a disadvantage. Headstrong and ambitious for professional advancement, Cornwallis was admired in the army as a bold soldier, almost a Bayard sans peur et sans reproche, and by his men as a paternal commander concerned for their welfare. Clinton saw him as an insubordinate officer whom he could not control because he felt constrained by his own lesser social rank and whom he suspected of intriguing to take his place. Since Clinton was always talking of resigning in favor of Cornwallis, who indeed carried a dormant commission as his successor (intended to avoid the possible accession of a German general if anything should happen to the chief), the question of succession was no secret, but it hobbled Clinton because he did not feel he should make plans for the commander who would follow him.
From the beginning of their association Clinton had suspected Cornwallis of a tendency to compose his own orders, writing in his journal, “I can never be cordial with such a man.” Believing Cornwallis to be Germain’s favorite, he felt himself disregarded in comparison. “I am neglected and ill-treated,” he complained to Germain, “every opinion but mine taken, every plan but mine adopted … forced into operations planned by others.” In his turn, Cornwallis was maddened by Clinton’s ambiguities of decision and shifts and postponements of plan. He asked the King’s permission to resign and come home, another of George III’s lieutenants who wished to give up his post. The request was refused. Mutual mistrust was not a good basis for command in the same theater of operations.
History’s design allows room now and then for individuals to have significant effect on the course of events as do larger impersonal forces like economics or the climate. Lord Cornwallis was one such individual. His seat was the borough of Eye in Suffolk, which his family had represented in Parliament off and on since the 14th century. He was born in 1738, the same year as George III. After school at Eton, having shown a military bent, he obtained a commission as ensign in the Grenadier Guards. At eighteen, while on a European tour with his tutor, a Prussian Army officer, he enrolled in the Military Academy of Turin, considered one of the best in Europe. In the relaxed Italian atmosphere, its curriculum had a charming irrelevance to the subject at hand. The students took ballroom dancing from 7 to 8 a.m., presumably on awakening, followed for contrast by the German language from 8 to 9 and for relief by two hours for breakfast from 9 to 11. Military instruction occupied one hour from 11 to 12, plus two hours for mathematics and fortifications from 3 to 5 in the afternoon. At five o’clock came more dancing lessons, visits, and attendance at the opera until supper. On two days a week students owed a duty of attendance at the King of Sardinia’s court. Turin, formerly a possession of Spain and then of France, was the residence of the Kings of Sardinia, whose royal title passed to the Dukes of Savoy and by them to the royal family of Italy at the time of the Unification of 1860.
If their studies did not deeply instruct Turin’s students in the science or the art of war, they provided a gentlemanly introduction to the military profession. War soon engaged Cornwallis in service with the Grenadier Guards as an ally of Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick in a continental offshoot of the Seven Years’ War. In 1762 he inherited his title on the death of his father. On returning to England in that year to assume his seat in the House of Lords, he took up a surprising position by associating himself with the Whigs, the Opposition party which vigorously opposed the King’s and the government’s coercive policy toward the restive Americans. Whether the unwarlike Turin program played some part in his choice or he was following a bent of his own mind, or was influenced by his good friend the Whig leader Lord Shelburne, is not apparent. Though superficially an orthodox Guards officer, he was a more ambivalent character than he appeared. In spite of his Whiggism, he was respectable enough to be made colonel of his regiment and an aide-de-camp to the King. He is not recorded as taking any part in debates in the Lords.
More emphatic than if he had spoken up, he stood with a brave little minority of four peers in support of Lord Camden’s motion in March, 1766, opposing the Declaratory Bill. The Bill was a government measure to assert Parliament’s right of taxation of the Colonies, intended to counteract what was seen as appeasement of the Americans by the repeal of the Stamp Act. As far as was reported, Cornwallis did not open his mouth in the debate on the Bill, but the remarks in the House of Lords by Lord Camden, for whose position he voted, were unequivocal. The Declaratory Bill, Camden said, was “absolutely illegal, contrary to the fundamental laws of this constitution,” itself “grounded on the eternal and immutable laws of nature,” because “taxation and representation are inseparably united.… this position is founded on the laws of nature for whatever is a man’s own is absolutely his own; no man hath a right to take it from him without his consent. Whoever attempts to do it attempts an injury, whoever does it, commits a robbery; he throws down and destroys the distinction between liberty and slavery.” These words could have been spoken by Tom Paine or Patrick Henry if not John Adams, who would never have allowed himself so romantic a view of “natural law.” They were presumably approved by Lord Cornwallis, since he voted with the speaker. Yet he did not refuse to take a command in the war, as did Lord Jeffrey Amherst and Colonel Ralph Abercromby, a hero in the Brunswick war and an outstanding soldier in the army, and others who disapproved of coercing America. On the contrary, Cornwallis volunteered for an assignment when the Americans took up armed rebellion and the British Army needed reinforcements in America. Governed by an exacting sense of duty, he felt that as a soldier holding the King’s commission it was his duty to help suppress rebellion. Yet either duty worked slowly or else ambivalence was already operating, for it was seven months after the Americans fired the shots at Lexington before he decided to accept a command in the suppression of the rebellion. The lag was due in part to the pleas of his wife, to whom he was deeply attached. In February, 1776, however, he departed for America in command of seven regiments, which he took to Halifax where General Howe had retired after yielding Boston. Cornwallis saw action in the battles of Long Island and White Plains. He captured Fort Lee on the Jersey shore of the Hudson and afterward pursued Washington across New Jersey to Trenton. Here he frustrated Washington’s advance in the Battle of the Brandywine and went on to occupy Philadelphia.
Cornwallis does not appear to have been too strongly gripped by the duty that had brought him to America, for war against a tattered colonial militia did not appeal to him as likely to add to a Guard officer’s reputation. Accordingly, he took the long voyage home on leave in 1777. Promoted to Lieutenant General, he returned to duty in America in 1778, sailing on the same ship with the Carlisle Peace Commission. His concern that his suite might be crowding the space wanted by the commissioners for their own use was outweighed by the enjoyment of the two earls’ friendly games of whist. In America he found himself named second in command to Sir Henry Clinton, who had been appointed Commander-in-Chief to replace the inglorious William Howe and who soon showed himself even less aggressive than his predecessor. When given command of the southern front, Cornwallis, despairing of Clinton’s inaction and convinced, like Rodney, that the war was being mismanaged, made his attempt to resign that was not allowed.
The French alliance had now intervened, convincing Cornwallis that the doorways by which the French could enter, bringing men, money and arms to the rebels, must be closed, in particular those of Chesapeake Bay. The Chesapeake ports were in regular use by the Americans for the shipping of tobacco and cotton and export goods to European traders to finance the purchase of arms and ammunition. Cornwallis envisaged a major offensive to subdue the South and make an end of insurgency there, for which Clinton was obviously disinclined. What Clinton wanted was for Cornwallis to settle contentedly at a permanent base and lend his army for operations in Pennsylvania or for defense of New York. Cornwallis thought this was pointless and wrote to his colleague General Phillips the shocking suggestion that “if we mean an offensive war in America, we must abandon New York.” Instead, we should “bring our whole force into Virginia” where “we then have a stake to fight for” and where his refrain “A successful battle may give us America” might be realized.
Proof of the dogma was not making much progress. The fighting at this time was conducted for the British by two hated and dreaded figures, the cavalry Colonel Banastre Tarleton, valued highly by Cornwallis as the spearhead of his army, and the traitor Benedict Arnold, who, having sold himself to the British for £10,000, as he thought, and fringe benefits, had to prove by his violence the value of what he had sold. (He had asked for £10,000 but received £6,000, calculated on a basis of 2 guineas per man of the West Point garrison.) Tarleton’s heavy dragoons trampled fields of corn and rye while his and Arnold’s raiders plundered and destroyed the harvested tobacco and grain in barns, spreading devastation. Tarleton was charged with driving cattle, pigs and poultry into barns before setting them afire. He was known as “no quarter Tarleton” for his violation of surrender rules in the Waxhaw massacre, where he had caught a body of American troops that held its fire too long before firing at fifty yards, too late to stop the charging cavalry. After surrender, they were cut down when Tarleton’s men, let loose to wield their knife-edged sabers, killed a total of 113 and wounded 150 more, of whom half died of their wounds. Enmity flared higher when the tale of the Waxhaw spread through the Carolinas, inflaming hatred and hostility and sharpening the conflict of Loyalists and patriots.
Owing to his wife’s serious illness, Cornwallis hurried home a second time, to be met by the misery of her death shortly after he reached England. Profoundly depressed, he wrote to his brother that the loss of his wife had “effectually destroyed all hopes of happiness in this world.” He could find nothing to live for save the army. The personal tragedy, leaving him alone and unoccupied, brought him back to the war once more, in July, 1779.
In August, 1780, Cornwallis defeated Gates in the battle of Camden. Though the English saw Camden as a pronounced victory, rebellion was not reduced and American militia and Continentals did not dissolve and leave the field to the victors. “We fight,” as Greene wrote to Luzerne, “get beat and rise to fight again.” As this was all too true, a victory in the field for the British did not appear to bring the contest any nearer to victory in the war. Greene’s simple formula kept the nucleus of an army and the coals of rebellion alive in the South, while the defeat at Camden proved almost a benefit because it led to the replacement of Gates and Washington’s appointment of Greene and Steuben to reform and command the southern army. All they had left was a remnant of the Continental militia, whose members would join together to fight for a few days or weeks and then return to care for their crops and fields, plus a saving addition of a few formidable partisans or guerrilla leaders, like the Swamp Fox and Andrew Pickens and Thomas Sumter, who kept the fighting hot and resistance to the British alive. Intensified raids of destruction by Tarleton’s men, whose cavalry gave them extra mobility, and the outrage aroused by the Waxhaw massacre stirred desires of revenge and augmented the feud between Loyalists and patriots. Their strife as much as anything kept the fires of rebellion hot in the Carolinas. In South Carolina, Cornwallis had to admit that the Swamp Fox “had so wrought on the minds of the people partly by the terror and punishments and partly by the promise of plunder that there was scarce an inhabitant [in the region] that was not in arms against us.” His diagnosis of the hostility, ignoring the raids of Tarleton and Benedict Arnold, who were plundering homes, burning flour mills and dragging off civilians as prisoners to the lethal prison ships, reflects the willful blindness of the invader who assures himself that the natives are only made unfriendly by some other provocation than his own. Cornwallis was convinced that after so crushing a defeat as the Americans had sustained at Camden, they could not maintain the Revolution in the South except with help from the North. To him this meant one thing—that he must wipe out the rebel forces in North Carolina and take control of that province. The one necessity for victory—to destroy the enemy’s army—proved beyond his reach. Exasperated by the partisans’ warfare that erupted whenever districts were thought pacified, Cornwallis’ commander in the province, Major Patrick Ferguson, resorted to the threat of terror. He issued a proclamation in September, 1780, to patriot officers that if they persisted in resistance to British arms, he would march over the mountains, hang their leaders and lay waste to the country with fire and sword. Ferguson was not a tyrant but ordinarily a humane and temperate individual. He had entered military service at fourteen, when his family purchased for him a cornetcy commission in the Royal Scots Greys. After a study of military science, more technical than ballroom dancing and the opera, he invented a rapid-firing breech-loading rifle capable of four shots a minute while hitting a target at 200 yards. As more efficient than anything the British Army possessed, it was, of course, not adopted; only 200 were manufactured. Ferguson was one of the few English officers to treat the American Loyalists with equality, sitting and talking with them for hours on the state of affairs and the ruinous effects of rebellion. As a local hero to the back-country people, he was chosen to lead a campaign to stamp out the patriot fires. Nevertheless, his ill-advised proclamation had the normal effect of such things. Used by the partisan leaders to call “over-mountain” men to throw off the iron heel of the oppressor in defense of their homes and lands, it brought in more than 1,000 mounted volunteers with their sharpshooting rifles. Clad in buckskin, they assembled at Sycamore Shoals in Tennessee. Ferguson sensed their dangerous mood and sent for reinforcements to Cornwallis, who was camped with his army only 35 miles away at Charlotte in North Carolina. His message, expressing urgency, read “something must be done,” but the help did not come. Taking the road to Charlotte that passed by a high ridge called King’s Mountain, and sharing the usual assumption that the Americans would be beaten, Ferguson decided to confront his pursuers on the ridge, though he might have reached Cornwallis in a couple of hours. He took his stand on a cleared oval space that crowned the ridge whose slopes were thickly wooded by tall pines from top to bottom, creating, as he believed, an impregnable position. The frontiersmen, informed of his location by spies, marched through a night of rain with rifles wrapped to keep them dry and their ears alert for sounds of ambush. As the weather cleared, they reached King’s Mountain at three in the afternoon, where they dismounted and circled the base of the hill. Having no commander, they elected a Colonel William Campbell to take command. Then, with war whoops and barking rifles, they charged up the hill, crouching behind tree trunks as they climbed. The height above, which had seemed a daunting obstacle, proved an advantage, for the British fire from the ridge “overshot us altogether, scarce touching a man except those on horseback.” Ferguson’s Loyalists, with bayonets bared, came charging downhill under the frontiersmen’s deadly rifle fire which felled them in rows. The redcoat ranks wavered and fell back. Attempting to rally the assault, Ferguson rode forward on a white horse, slashing with his sword at two flags of surrender already raised among his troops by men in panic. Target of fifty rifles, he was pierced and torn by their bullets and blasted from the saddle to a dead heap on the ground. The ridge was captured; the Battle of King’s Mountain was over in half an hour. His bloodstained riderless white horse plunged in abandon down the embattled slope where Ferguson died. News of the defeat at King’s Mountain sped through the region, causing Loyalist adherents to blow away like dust clouds. “Dastardly and pusillanimous” in Cornwallis’ words, they refused after King’s Mountain to aid the British while the rebels turned more “inveterate in rancour.” Seven hundred of the Loyalist force that fought with Ferguson were taken prisoner. Of them, twenty-four were tried for treason by the rebels at a drumhead court-martial, and nine found guilty and hanged, heating the feud of Loyalists versus patriots.
In this situation Cornwallis was persuaded he must abandon the campaign for North Carolina and fall back to winter in South Carolina. Accordingly he set out for Winnsboro, about fifty miles south of King’s Mountain and thirty miles from Camden, where his fortunes had been so high. The retreat, though the distance was short, proved a ghastly ordeal and the winter at Winnsboro his Valley Forge. In continual rain his men marched without tents and with food so scarce that they subsisted on nothing but turnips and Indian corn scratched from the fields for a yield of five ears a day for two men. With no rum and no beef, they pulled their wounded in wagons jouncing over rough fields. Rivers were the worst, with half-starved horses barely able to reach the other side through rushing icy waters. The last reverse was loss of a single blockhouse, made of strong logs, on a hill which had been fortified by Colonel Rugeley of the Loyalist militia with earth piled at the base and a circle of stakes defying it to be taken except by cannon. The American cavalry officer Colonel William Washington fashioned an imitation cannon from a tree trunk and, pulling it up, though not too close for inspection, summoned the blockhouse to surrender. Colonel Rugeley yielded without firing a shot.
For the patriots, the small triumph at King’s Mountain was offset by the difficulties of trying to prepare for a winter without the suffering of Morristown and Valley Forge. Pennsylvania had 5,000 horned cattle growing too thin to serve for beef. They could not be slaughtered anyway, because there was no hard money to buy salt to preserve the meat and merchants would not salt anything for paper money. Shortage of everything persisted—of cash first of all, of clothes, shoes, blankets, ammunition and, less material but more important, of popular support. Lethargy in prosperous Virginia was notable. While he believed that “the views and wishes of the great body of the people are with us,” Greene wrote to Jefferson, then Governor of Virginia, “they are, except, for the influence of a few, a lifeless and inanimate mass without direction or spirit to employ the means they possess for their own security.” Washington felt chagrined to have the French witness the poverty of his army and the “paucity of enlistments.” When the French came to find “that we have but a handful of men in the field,” he feared that they “might sail away.” Washington was sadly discovering the frailty of his fellowmen. “It is a melancholy thing,” he wrote, “to see such a decay of public virtue and the fairest prospects overcast and clouded by a host of infamous harpies who to acquire a little pelf, would involve this great continent in inextricable ruin.… Unless leaders in the states bestir themselves, our affairs are irretrievably lost.” Yet he never for a moment believed them lost. Through it all he had “no doubt but that the same bountiful Providence which has relieved us in a variety of difficulties before will enable us to emerge from them ultimately and crown our struggles with success.” In the face of the piling up of frustrations and disappointments—the mutinies, the fall of credit, doubting officers and failing army—Washington was still able, when he learned from Laurens that de Grasse was bringing part of his fleet to America, to state to a member of Congress with the confident assurance that made him unique, “The game is yet in our hands … a cloud may pass over us, individuals may be ruined and the country at large or particular States undergo temporary distress, but certain I am that it is in our power to bring this war to a happy conclusion.” If it was the need of the hour that produced a man so firm in purpose, so unshakable in faith, the same need had not yet produced a nation to match him.
Despite Cornwallis’ recent setbacks, the crushing of Greene’s army, engine of rebellion in the South, was still his overriding objective. On New Year’s Day, 1781, the year of so many decisions, Tarleton, in the van of Cornwallis’ force, received orders from the General “to push Morgan [in Greene’s army] to the utmost. No time is to be lost.” Tarleton had a force of disciplined dragoons, light infantry and five battalions of British regulars and a small artillery unit, altogether about 1,100 men. General Daniel Morgan commanded 1,600 Continental infantry, the Maryland and Virginia, and other state militias, 200 Virginia riflemen and a cavalry unit of his own, numbering 160 horsemen. Alerted by local partisans of Tarleton’s advance, Morgan took up position in a thinly wooded camp in the bend of the Broad River near the northern border of South Carolina. No Alamo or Argonne with heroic overtones, the site bore the plain domestic name Cowpens because cattle were customarily penned there when awaiting delivery to market. Morgan, crippled by painful arthritis, made camp at the base of a hill flanked by woods to prevent surprise penetration. Expecting his untrained militia to run at the charge of the dreaded Cavalry Legion, but knowing they could not run far because of the unfordable river behind them, he limped among the campfires, encouraging the men to stand firm next morning, long enough to fire three volleys. “Just hold your heads up, boys, three fires and you are free,” and he told them how the girls would kiss them and the old folks bless them when they returned home. As the first British infantry line marched forward with heavy tread and fierce shouts, Morgan called, “They are giving us the British halloo. Give them the Indian halloo, by God!” and was answered by wild cheers and shouts from his own lines. Calling to the men to aim for the epaulets of officers, he mounted and rode for the place of his tethered horses, to which he could see a militia unit was fleeing. When the runaways reached the horse park, the General was there ahead, waving his sword and barring their way, and crying to them to “Form again! Give them one more fire, and the day is ours!” Behind the lines, Virginia sharpshooters were picking off the riders from Tarleton’s saddles. Suddenly the dragoons were met in turn by a charge of American cavalry, under Colonel William Washington, swinging their sabers with no less vigor than the enemy. Pursued by the Americans for nearly a mile, the British line lost cohesion. “Give them one fire,” ordered Colonel Washington, “and I’ll charge them.” Below the hill, riflemen and Continentals were pouring fire on the British infantry, and at the order “Give them bayonet!” swept down upon them. Seeing their infantry broken and running, Tarleton’s horsemen, despite his furious orders, refused to make another charge, and turned and galloped from the field, shortly followed by their commander. Surrounded by vengeful rebels, his Legion, his dragoons, his light infantry and regular foot soldiers surrendered—all but a few obdurate artillerymen, who refused to yield and were killed or captured defending their guns. The British lost at Cowpens 110 dead, 700 prisoners, 800 muskets, 100 horses and Tarleton’s entire baggage train of 35 wagons with ammunition. Except for 300 who escaped, virtually the whole of Tarleton’s force was killed or captured—a substantial portion of Cornwallis’ army. “The late affair,” he was to say, “has almost broke my heart.” General Greene could take more satisfaction. “After this,” he said, “nothing seems difficult.”
Determined to allow the rebels no chance to exult over their victory at Cowpens, Cornwallis was seized by a passion for pursuit, to catch up and annihilate the enemy and take from them any encouragement his reverse might have given. The army’s intention, as General O’Hara, Cornwallis’ deputy commander, wrote to the Duke of Grafton, Lord Privy Seal in the North ministry, was almost fanatic: “Without baggage, necessaries or provisions of any sort for officer or soldier, in the most barren, inhospitable unhealthy part of North America, opposed to the most savage inveterate perfidious, cruel enemy, with zeal and bayonets only, it was resolved to follow Greene’s army to the end of the world.” Cornwallis needed a victorious battle not only for public effect but to gain control of the region, for as long as Greene remained in the Carolinas as a center of resistance, the rebellion would not be stamped out. Morgan was no less anxious to bring his company with booty and prisoners out of the pursuer’s way. Still determined to eliminate Greene and reclaim the South, Cornwallis was soon joined by reinforcements of 1,500 men, under General Leslie, sent by Clinton, who had received an addition of Irish recruits to fill their places in New York. With these reinforcements he intended to pursue his offensive into North Carolina.
Recent heavy rains had made high water in the rivers and turned the roads into troughs of mud that sucked at the marchers’ boots and slowed progress. Morgan, aching from his ailments, could not trot his horse and could hardly sit astride. Greene, aware of Morgan’s condition, was anxious to bring him safely out. With his usual care, he had ordered preparation of wheeled platforms on which improvised pontoons could be hauled with the army for crossing rivers. By this foresight, he was able to ease and speed Morgan’s flight and put his own army across flooded rivers, now grown too deep for fording. Cornwallis’ large army, plowing heavily through the mud churned by Morgan’s passage, was slowed, and delayed at every river, but kept on coming. In steady rain mixed with snow, they were making no more than six miles a day. Recognizing that at this rate he would not catch his fox, Cornwallis decided he must lighten his wagon train to speed his pace. On January 25, in midwinter, 250 miles from the nearest point of resupply at Wilmington, North Carolina, he ordered the discarding of what the Romans, knowing the problem, called impedimenta, all but a minimum of provisions and ammunition, and all “comforts”—that is, tents, blankets, personal baggage and, to the horror of his troops, several hogsheads of rum—the whole burned in a consuming conflagration as if to burn away the greatest British humiliation since Saratoga. To set an example, Cornwallis threw his own baggage into the flames. In the midst of nowhere, the extremism of the act seems almost suicidal, as if some premonition of the end, like the chill shadow of a cloud that darkens the earth, had turned his every prospect black. At first, free of its heavy wagons, the column made up speed, only to find itself blocked by the Dan River at flood stage with naked banks from which all boats had been pulled away by the Americans. The radical stripping of impediments had been in vain, leaving Cornwallis now with no choice but to retreat in the hope of rallying Loyalists’ support in the countryside and reaching a point of resupply. By scouring the country and slaughtering draft oxen for meat, he made it with an exhausted and hungry army back to Hillsboro, at that time the capital of North Carolina, supposedly a Loyalist center, where he raised the royal flag and issued a call to citizens to take up arms with his forces. On the principle that to declare a thing done can have the same effect as doing it, he added a proclamation that North Carolina had been recovered for the Crown. It was not persuasive. So few responded to the call to arms as to amaze General O’Hara at his government’s deceived expectations, “Fatal infatuation! When will government see these people thro’ the proper medium? I am persuaded never.” It was now February, 1781, and the British were no nearer a secure hold on the South or the “battle [that] will give us America,” though Cornwallis was still bent on achieving it by a battle with Greene that would eliminate him as the fulcrum of resistance in the South. Greene’s ever-reviving force was to Cornwallis what Gaul was to Caesar: it had to be conquered, not merely to avenge his defeats but because there was no point in his operations unless they were directed toward restoring royal government in the South as a basis for its restoration in America. Only this could justify the lives lost at King’s Mountain and Cowpens and comfort the shades of the men who had died there that they had not died emptily.
Johannes de Graaff, artist unknown
First Marquess, Lord Cornwallis, Commander of the British forces in the last campaign, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783
General George Washington at Trenton, by John Trumbull, 1792
The Siege of Yorktown, showing Williamsburg and Yorktown left of center, naval action of the Battle of the Bay, right of center, and the subsequent blockade of the Bay by the French fleet
Surrender of the British at Yorktown, October 19, 1781, by John Trumbull, 1786–87
Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney in his last years, by Joshua Reynolds, 1789
With his losses restored by the reinforcements, Cornwallis felt fit for battle again.
In pursuit Cornwallis was always at his most vigorous, though harassed by rebel partisans and Marion’s men and hampered by poor intelligence. He could get nothing from the local Loyalists. “Our friends hereabouts,” as he wrote to Tarleton, “are so timid and stupid” as to be useless. Supplies, supposed to reach him from New York via Charleston, often failed because of the partisans’ disruption of the roads. Absent rum after a day’s cold wet march was the worst privation, leaving many of the men, weakened by malaria, to be kept alive on opium. The underfed horses were sometimes too weak to pull the artillery, and men weakened by fever and shaking with ague often had to substitute for them. Their General while keeping his army moving had to organize protection of the supply line and push his way through to confront Greene. Rivers at flood stage in the winter rains had to be forded. Delayed for two or three days at a time at the banks of swollen rivers, Cornwallis fumed as he waited for the waters to subside. At the Catawba, broad, deep and rapid, and filled with “very large rocks,” Cornwallis, deceived by faulty or false intelligence, was led to the wagon ford of “swimming water” instead of to the shallower horse ford. The strongest men and horses were swept downstream in the swift current. Leading the van on a spirited mount, Cornwallis plunged in. His horse was shot in midstream by North Carolina militia posted behind timber at the fords. With a general’s spirit, the horse managed to clamber to the banks before it went down. General O’Hara’s horse fell on the rocks and was rolled with his rider forty yards in the torrent. The river was a mass of struggling redcoats, as reported by a Loyalist observer, “a-hollerin’, a-snortin’ and a-drownin’, a-snortin’, a-hollerin’ and a-drownin’.” With their knapsacks weighted with powder and ball, and their muskets across their shoulders, the redcoats could not fire, but in the heavy fog hanging over the river the North Carolinians could not get accurate range for general slaughter.
Greene, certain that Cornwallis would not stop until he had avenged his defeat at Cowpens and recovered the prisoners, pushed on as hard as his pursuer. His strategy was to keep Cornwallis moving, luring him northward in his pursuit away from his supply bases until, without supply train, he would be exhausted and isolated. He himself had received reinforcements from Steuben, giving him an army of about 4,000, of whom a third was militia, and he would have liked to turn and face his foe in a pitched battle, but against the enemy’s augmented force he was not going to allow himself to be caught at a time and place of the enemy’s choosing. Facing better trained troops, the best he could do was to deploy at his own time at a site to his own advantage. Traveling light, with his men carrying small portions of dried beef and corn and salt in wallets and guided by partisans who knew the bypaths through the swamps and forests, he kept well ahead of Cornwallis until, early in March, he came to Guilford in the center of North Carolina. A place he had previously reconnoitered, it was located on the main north-south road where it met at right angles an east-west road running along a wooded ridge. At the junction of the roads stood Guilford’s courthouse at the base of a gradual slope where the main road ran up to the top of the ridge. Halfway up the slope was a broad clearing flanked by thin woods, open enough to permit visibility for rifle fire. The site was similar to Cowpens, and here Greene decided to make his stand. He sorely missed Morgan, whom he had sent on his way home to Virginia in a litter, but he possessed Morgan’s shadow in a careful report that Morgan had written out for him after Cowpens. Knowing that Cornwallis would pursue for a finishing fight, Morgan had advised Greene to place his least reliable militia, the North Carolinians, in the center in a line interspersed with troops picked for firmness, and with a line behind of veteran Continentals to “shoot the first man who runs.” On either side of the front line would be placed Virginia riflemen and small cavalry units of sixty horsemen each, and with them on the slope two of Greene’s four guns to command the approach along the main road.
Informed by scouts, Cornwallis knew that his desired moment had come. The clash that followed was a textbook example of the seemingly senseless 18th century tactic in which brightly uniformed infantry march in compact phalanx against the muzzles of the enemy’s firearms. The expected effects of the tactic duly took place on both sides. The glistening steel of fixed bayonets advancing relentlessly upon them struck terror in the hearts of the defenders, who scattered into a stampede for escape while the point-blank target made by the British absorbed the lethal fire of the Virginia riflemen. In the platoons the well-drilled guards and grenadiers dropped down, hardly falling out of line. For two and a half hours of units moving forward and back under fire in recovery or counterattack, the exhausted armies fought, until both commanders, each seeing a line near collapse, called almost simultaneously for withdrawal. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was ended. Cornwallis was left in possession of the field and a technical victory, but his admitted casualties of 532 (killed and wounded), about 25 percent of his army, were double Greene’s at 261. The victory, as Cornwallis recognized, was “rendered without utility” because without provisions he could not hold the ground. In unkind assessment afterward, Charles Fox, at a civilian’s comfortable distance from the blood and bullets, was to say “another such victory would destroy the British army.”
Pyrrhic or not, the fortunes of Guilford Courthouse could not subdue Cornwallis’ instinct for aggressive action nor arrest his drive to Virginia, which he still thought, as he wrote to Clinton, “the only possible plan, even if it meant abandoning New York, for until Virginia is in a manner subdued, our hold on the Carolinas must be difficult if not precarious.” Though he could hope for no support from Loyalists, he intended to go on to carry out the mission assigned to General Phillips, who was dying from a fever, to establish a naval base more central to the country than Charleston, which the British campaign required.
THE Americans in the winter of 1780–81, following the Hartford Conference, were in no better case, although the British did not fully realize to what low ebb the rebellion had sunk. The mutinies in the army and the catastrophic fall of the financial credit of Congress, with every prospect, as Rochambeau expected, of the currency falling shortly “to total non-value,” darkened the outlook even more. In Virginia, Benedict Arnold, acknowledged on both sides as a general of the highest capacity, was conducting “thundering excursions” of destruction at the head of 2,000 men (largely southern Loyalists) on behalf of the enemy. Defense was weakening. Under the pall of accumulating misfortune, Congress determined to send a special envoy, in the person of Colonel John Laurens, to inform the court of France in the “clearest light the state of distress of this country.” To save the sinking cause of the Revolution, fresh help from France was essential. Benjamin Franklin was already in France as congressional commissioner, but it was felt that a fresh voice was needed to supplement the old philosopher’s finesse. The younger Laurens, who knew the privations in the field from shared experience, had an added personal reason to fight the British in the cause of his father, who, captured at sea with the incriminating Dutch treaty, was still a prisoner in the Tower of London. His son could be counted upon to be a forceful advocate. John Laurens had fought with Washington at Brandywine and Monmouth and afterward, and had been employed by him in a number of secret missions. Commissioned a colonel by Congress, he had fought a duel for what he considered insults to Washington with the troublesome Charles Lee, whose order for retreat at Monmouth in the New Jersey campaign of 1778 had so infuriated Washington, and who ever after had been trying to discredit the Commander-in-Chief in the hope of supplanting him. Since the duel, Laurens had been serving as Washington’s secretary, being credited by him with a character for “intrepidity bordering on rashness,” which would be useful for cutting through the diplomatic niceties established by Franklin in his relations with Vergennes. Engrossed in the female charms and admiration of Paris, Franklin as envoy had acquired more celebrity than tangible aid.
Before Laurens departed, Washington drew for him a dark and frank appraisal of conditions. He thought a point of crisis had been reached. The people in general had lost confidence and regarded the impressment of supplies as “burdensome and oppressive.” The system had excited “serious discontents” and “alarming symptoms of opposition.” The army had suffered “calamitous distress” and their patience was “nearly exhausted.” With money, the Allies could make a “decided effort” to secure America’s liberty and independence; without such aid, “we may make a feeble expiring effort” which could well be our last. In a letter of April 9 to Laurens in Paris, Washington put the case as starkly as he could: “We are at the end of our tether, and now or never our deliverance must come.”
Franklin, humiliated by the dispatch of a special envoy to his post while he was present, was galvanized by Laurens’ coming to make a more emphatic approach of his own. In letter and interview with Vergennes, echoing Washington’s “now or never,” he told the Foreign Minister he must face the dire fact that unless America received the “most vigorous aid of our allies, particularly in the article of money,” she might have to yield and sue for peace, leaving Britain to “recover the American continent and become the terror of Europe.” He asked Vergennes point-blank what Congress might be told it could expect in French aid. Vergennes answered that the King was prepared to make an outright gift of 6 million livres, to make up for the promised Second Division.
Laurens, on arriving, opened a campaign as direct as bullets. He promptly asked Vergennes for a loan of 25 million livres in cash (about $6 million), plus supplies of arms, ammunition, clothing, equipment and tents. Vergennes replied that the King could not make a loan for the kingdom, but as proof of friendship he would make an outright donation of 6 million livres. Knowing that this had already been promised to Franklin, Laurens said bluntly that without the supplies this was not enough; that France was in danger of losing all her past efforts in favor of America, unless all his requests were complied with. The interview, recorded by Laurens’ French-speaking secretary William Jackson, horrified Franklin, who was present and who reported home that Laurens “brusqued” them too much. Laurens followed brusquerie with shock. He said to Vergennes that the “sword which I wear in defense of France as well as my own country,” unless the help were forthcoming, “I may be compelled to draw against France as a British subject.” Not content with this thunderclap, he betook himself to the royal levee next day and, making his way up to the King, handed him a scroll explaining his requests. At this intrusion of business at a court formality, the King said nothing, merely handing the scroll to the Comte de Ségur, Minister of War, who was standing nearby. Next morning Laurens, expecting to be shunned, found himself invited to an interview with M. Necker, Minister of Finance, who promised a good portion of the supplies and immediate delivery of a good part of the cash. On the basis of the Minister’s word, Laurens was able to collect 2 million livres’ worth of supplies and 2 million livres in cash and arrange for four transports to carry them to America, and eventually to negotiate a loan underwritten by France of 10 million from the Dutch.
At the same time as the Laurens mission, Rochambeau by careful maneuvering was able to get a frigate through the English lines to carry his son Colonel Rochambeau to France with a report of the Hartford discussions and a complete account of the troops, vessels and money that were needed, which the son committed to memory in full, lest he be captured. In correspondence with Admiral de Grasse, Rochambeau could offer him no encouraging prospect, but this seemed not to deter the French Admiral or his countrymen.
Laurens’ and Franklin’s prospect of the Colonies falling away from the fight against England frightened the French. Until now they had believed that England’s defeat might be accomplished on her periphery by seizing her sugar islands and breaking into her trade. Now they were persuaded that more effective harm could be done by assisting American independence and the loss to Britain of the American continent. During Laurens’ visit, the decision was taken to go forward, and to commit French sea power in a major effort to resolve the American war. After the failure to invade England, France was ready to take offensive action in both America and the Antilles, where her intention was to deliver 2,000 French prisoners being held on Barbados, and to take Ste. Lucie from the English.
Louis XVI, putting his finger on one of the individuals that history chooses for agent, issued orders to Admiral François de Grasse to take a strong fleet of supply to the Leeward Islands and from there, after giving what aid was required by the Spanish under the terms of the Bourbon Family Compact, to proceed to America to cooperate with the generals of the Revolution in whatever military action they planned. It was the most positive act of his reign.
Emphasizing the importance of the operation, de Grasse was promoted to Rear Admiral, carrying with it the title of Lieutenant General in the army. At the same time, the young Claude-Anne, Marquis de Saint-Simon, cousin of the future founder of French Socialism, and a relative of the illustrious Due de Saint-Simon, chronicler of the court of Louis XIV, notified Rochambeau that he was ready to join him in America with his three regiments from Santo Domingo. De Grasse sent word to Rochambeau that he had received orders from the King to undertake the American mission and that he would arrive on the coast at the earliest by July 15 of the coming summer, 1781, with money and men-at-arms. He added that, owing to the promise of help to Spain, he was under orders to stay for only six weeks.
With matchless energy de Grasse appeared every morning at five o’clock in his quarters in the arsenal at Brest to oversee repairs and provisioning of his ships, and kept everyone jumping thereafter for a full day’s work. Born in 1722—ten years older than Washington, three years younger than Rodney—he came of a family ennobled in the 16th century. At the age of eleven he had received an appointment in the Garde de la Marine, which gave candidates an education at the Naval Seminary of Toulon, where young noblemen were trained to be naval officers and where at the edge of the seawall they became familiar with all the activity of the waterfront. From the windows of the school they looked out on the forest of masts, with its myriad rigging and flapping flags making patterns against the sky, and rows of black spokes thrusting the noses of cannon through holes in the ships’ sides. After a year at the seminary, twelve-year-old de Grasse, as young as Rodney had been when he first went to sea, won a similar first appointment as a page to the Grand Master of Malta. The Knights of Malta, who included many naval officers in their ranks, administered a fleet that was active in convoying merchantmen through the Mediterranean to guard them from corsairs sailing out of Tunis and Algiers and the doorways of Morocco. On convoy duty, young de Grasse met action and combat from the start of his career, culminating in the heroic resistance on board the Gloire in the Battle of Finisterre. In 1781, the year fateful for so much in this history, he was named Commander-in-Chief of French naval forces in the West Indies. This was the two years after Rodney was named chief of the British command in the Leeward Islands. In physical contrast to the slight Rodney, de Grasse was a tall, heavily built man six feet two in height and six feet six on deck in time of combat, in the words of an admiring junior officer. He was considered “one of the handsomest men of the age,” although his appearance when angry was “grim” and his manner “brutal,” according to a Swedish lieutenant, Karl Gustaf Tornquist, who served on his ship in these critical years and wrote a memoir of the experience.
WHILE Franco-American plans were in the making at Hartford and in the correspondence crossing the Atlantic, Rodney in September, 1780, was in New York, thwarted in offensive action by Clinton’s refusal to spare any forces from the defense of New York and also by his wordy dispute with Admiral Arbuthnot over which of them was the superior in command. Rodney concluded that he could accomplish little against these obstacles and that it was more important to return with his fleet to the Leewards to defend the islands in case the French should take advantage of his absence. He prepared for departure. Losing a strong-minded associate, Clinton saw him go with regret, writing to say goodbye and to express the hope of seeing him again, concluding wistfully, “should you be appointed Commander-in-Chief here as well as in the West Indies for which God grant.” God had not chosen to stand at the British elbow at this hour. To leave the decrepit and petty Arbuthnot in command of American waters at a time when the great Western continent was slipping from British hands, when Britain could have replaced him by a man of Rodney’s energy and enterprise, was another in the train of ill-thought if not plainly foolish decisions that infected British management of the American war. Clinton and Arbuthnot, incapable of concerted action while they despised each other, were left in position, while Rodney’s superior boldness and skill were retained in the West Indies, still considered a more important possession than America. With his fleet of fifteen ships of the line Rodney left New York in November, 1780. A violent gale, blowing for 48 hours while he made his way south, scattered his ships but carried no warning of the fearful wreckage that would greet him in the islands, nor of the tremendous fuss the home government was then making over their quarrel with the Dutch and the perfidy of Amsterdam in negotiating a treaty of commerce and amity with the rebels. He reached Barbados on December 6 to find a scene of devastation from one end of the Leewards to the other, as if some avenging army had passed through, bent on ruin. For once the wrecker had been no human enemy but an October hurricane, the most terrible in memory. A tidal wave raised by a titanic wind starting on October 9 had flooded Jamaica; then, blowing with ferocious force through the next day and night, the winds tore off the roofs of Ste. Lucie, beached and destroyed ships at anchor. With relentless sheets of rain and thunder and lightning, the storm roared through the night until 8 a.m., blasting house walls and windows, lifting cattle off the ground and the bodies of men to rooftops, crushing houses to rubble while the cries of the helpless people trapped in the ruins could not be heard through the crash of the elements and tumble of walls. Trees were torn up by the roots and the bark stripped from their trunks by the violence of the wind. The part of Rodney’s fleet that had been storm-scattered outside New York had come in, “dreadfully crippled,” while eight out of the twelve of his warships at Barbados were a total loss and only ten members of their crews saved; 400 inhabitants of Barbados were killed. Water sources and food, never plentiful on the islands, were reduced to dangerous scarcity; care and shelter for the homeless, repair of roads, wells, homes and every facility mounted to an overpowering burden, on ships of the fleet no less than on the towns. Supposing the ruin to have made no exception of forts and shore batteries, the British chose this moment, two months after the hurricane, to declare their war on the Dutch, with accompanying orders to Rodney to seize St. Eustatius and such other islands as they believed would be unable to offer resistance.
Receiving the orders at sea off Barbados on January 27, 1781, Rodney immediately prepared his ships for attack on St. Eustatius and coordinated measures with General Vaughan. He was ready to sail in three days and to appear on February 3 below Fort Orange, where, just over four years before, the Andrew Doria had received the fort’s salute to the flag of the Continental Congress. Rodney’s rampage of confiscations and evictions executed by Vaughan’s soldiers followed, leading to the accusations of Burke and Fox and to satisfaction in Tory quarters. Recording a report that 6,900 hogsheads of tobacco valued at £36,000 were stored in Eustatian warehouses before Rodney came, Captain Frederick MacKenzie—the most observant and active diarist on Clinton’s staff—gloated, “The loss of one half of it is enough to ruin all the rebel merchants in America.”
Rodney’s successful seizure of the island confirmed his value in the otherwise shaky company of the navy. Whether to restrain or strengthen him, the Admiralty sent him a vigorous second in command, Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, who had once served as midshipman under Rodney during his early convoy duty in the Mediterranean and had been with him again as a captain in the burning of invasion boats at Havre. From service in two campaigns and acquaintance over a period of forty years, they knew each other well—perhaps too well, with some of the disrespect familiarity is said to breed. They were now joined in the critical mission to stop de Grasse from crossing the ocean to reinforce the Americans. Mutual confidence would have been useful, but relations were, at best, ambivalent.
On being offered the post under his old chief, Hood at first wrote to the Admiralty asking to refuse, and two days later wrote again hoping it was not too late to change his mind. On his side, Rodney wrote to say, “I know no-one whatsoever that I should have wished in preference to my old friend Sir Samuel Hood.” That seemed unequivocal. But in private he is reported by one of his staff to have grumbled, “They might as well have sent me an old applewoman.” Here again was the pervasive animosity among commanders that seemed to grow from an ill-managed war.
Rodney’s sneer is startling, in view of Nelson’s future fulsome praise of Hood in the Napoleonic Wars as “the greatest sea officer I ever knew, great in all situations which an admiral can be placed in.” As Hood was to play a significant role in coming events, this remarkable difference of opinion of him, by two persons whose judgments were both based on personal experience as his commanding officer, is a matter of interest. Nelson was habitually overkind to his officers, and in this case rated Hood more highly than he deserved; his tribute cannot apply to situations in America in which Hood, on a number of occasions, was not only not great but something less than adequate.
“It has been difficult to find out proper flag officers to serve under you,” Sandwich informed Rodney rather tactlessly, although the difficulty, he said, was not personal but because some officers were unfit politically (which Sandwich referred to as “their factious connections”) and others because of “infirmity or insufficiency, and so we have at last been obliged to make a promotion in order to do the thing properly.” Rodney, as we have seen, professed himself well pleased by the choice of Sir Samuel Hood, although developing tensions were to break apart an old friendship and deprive the fleet at an important moment of cordial cooperation between its chiefs.
Hood arrived expecting to lead an expedition to capture the two Dutch colonies of Surinam and Curaçao, from which he anticipated rich booty, but on the basis of a false intelligence report that a large French fleet was on its way to the West Indies, Rodney felt obliged to keep all his forces ready for defense of the islands and called off the Surinam-Curaçao expedition. This was the first of Hood’s discontents. They then fell out over preferments to two places in the navy, one of which Hood believed Rodney had promised him for his first lieutenant while Rodney now said he must first fulfill promises made to a peer’s son belonging to “one of the first families in the kingdom.” Hood wrote to the Admiralty some very nasty letters about Rodney’s “instability” and his primary desire to stay on St. Eustatius to safeguard the proceeds of his capture. The two English fellow-officers were now in greater disaccord than ever occurred between the French and Americans despite their differences.
The real trouble was that Rodney, burdened with supervising the disposal of the property confiscated at St. Eustatius and with arranging for its loading on thirty transports and designating the proper ships for its safe escort back to England, was miserably ill with gout and with a urinary stricture that now added its torment. His one thought in his discomfort was to obtain leave to go home for relief. He had several times written to Sandwich for leave, without avail. “The continual mental and bodily fatigue,” he wrote on March 7, “that I have experienced for this year past preys upon me so much that unless I am permitted to leave this climate during the rainy season, I am convinced it will disable me from doing my duty to His Majesty and the state in the active manner I could wish and have been used to.” He entreats Sandwich to lay before the King that “in case my health should be such at the end of this campaign as to require a northern climate to restore it he will permit my return to Great Britain during the three rainy months.” It pains him “to request one moment’s respite from the public service but I have a complaint, owing to too much activity and exertion, which I am told by my physician will absolutely require my leaving the torrid zone.…” The warm humid climate of the summer months was in fact a disease breeder. Hundreds of soldiers and sailors were too sick to move and Rodney had been warned that if his stricture were left untreated it could develop to fatality. His urgency to return to England was understandable. Sandwich replied in May that he had made Rodney’s request an “official letter” and had apparently gained for him the King’s permission for leave, but hopes that “you will not avail yourself of your permission to leave your command in the present critical situation of our affairs. The whole government, and the public in general, are satisfied while you retain your command.” The war, Sandwich asserts with the benighted self-confidence of a minister who knows nothing, nor had ever bothered to learn anything of the field or the opponent, “cannot last much longer.” About French intervention, Sandwich was relaxed and casual, offering his opinion that “it is most probable that the French fleet in your seas will go to North America in the hurricane months.…” This demonstrated a poor sense of timing, for the hurricane months were still five months off, and the French, who had heard the urgency of the American call, had no need to wait until then—nor did they. “No one can so well judge,” Sandwich concluded, “of the propriety of following them as yourself,” and he leaves Rodney to be guided “by your own feelings.” Rodney’s feelings, as confided to his wife on March 18, were simple: “I must leave this country in June at farthest.” He mentions his severe gout as the reason plus “a very painful complaint” (prostate trouble). It was at this time that he gave vent to his vengeful feelings about the traitorous traders on St. Eustatius: “I cannot express the fatigue I have suffered on this island. Had I not stayed here, every villainy would be practiced by the persons who call themselves English.” It was now, in the irritable distress of his illness, that he issued his wrathful threat to leave the island “a mere desert.” He added the sad hope that would soon miscarry: “If my great convoy of prizes arrive safe in England, I shall be happy as, exclusive of satisfying all debts, something will be left for my dear children.”
On March 21, Sandwich forwarded an intelligence report to Rodney telling of a fleet of 25 sail about to leave from Brest, though Sandwich could not say where it was destined; probably, he suggested, to the West Indies and afterward to North America or to join the Spanish at Cádiz to “check your conquests.” His supposition was correct, if not alert, for this was de Grasse departing with his fleet on the first leg of his journey to America, which was already public knowledge. Mme. du Deffand, Walpole’s faithful correspondent on all the gossip of the French capital, had already written to him about a regiment in Saint-Simon’s command “which is one of those destined for America. Voilà nouvelles publiques.” (This is public news.) Public as it was, the report of the enemy’s approach, which was important for Rodney to know, did not reach him until a week after de Grasse had already arrived in the Leeward Islands and had met Hood in combat.
The Admiralty’s dispatches were sent by the cutter Swallow, evidently under an impression of speed derived from her name. Though fast for its size, a cutter, a single-masted vessel, carried only a small portion of the sail area of a frigate in which to catch the propelling winds. In contrast, the Americans, for the urgent correspondence between Rochambeau and de Grasse, used the French frigate Concorde, which zipped back and forth between Boston and the Leeward Islands in rapid transits of sixteen and eighteen days. The difference in sailing time was not simply a matter of ships but because the British, certain they knew best about everything oceanic, persisted in bucking the Gulf Stream. Flowing in a peculiar northerly circular course, the current slowed progress from Europe to the Caribbean while its swift current in the Atlantic shortened mail time from Europe to America. Traced first by whalers of Nantucket who followed the track of the whales, the course and speed of the stream was made known to Benjamin Franklin when he was Postmaster General by his cousin Captain Timothy Folger of Nantucket for use by the masters of mail packets crossing the ocean. Folger explained why American captains of merchant ships made faster time from London to Rhode Island than English captains of mail packets from London to New York. It was because American captains, advised by the whales, understood the location of the Gulf Stream and crossed over it, instead of running against it for days. From Folger’s chart and written directions instructing shipmasters how to track the stream by dropping thermometers at regular intervals and measuring the speed of surface bubbles and noticing changes in the color of the water, Franklin in 1770, before the war, offered the information to Anthony Todd, Secretary of the British Post Office. British sea captains, not inclined to take advice from American colonials and fishermen, ignored it. Franklin himself made a test on a voyage in 1776, dropping his thermometer two to four times a day from seven in the morning until eleven at night. His report on the Gulf Stream was withheld until after the war, when it could no longer help the British, but Folger’s map, the first map of the Gulf Stream, was published in 1768, before the outbreak of overt hostility and revolution.
With the West Indies as his first concern, Sandwich wrote again to Rodney saying that unless he could intercept de Grasse before he reached Martinique, the French would have a superior number of ships, so that England must depend “on the skill and conduct of our commander in chief and the bravery of the officers and people under him,” as there was no possibility of sending him reinforcements. Expecting the French any day, Rodney detached three sail of the line to Hood with orders to cruise windward of Martinique on the lookout for the enemy. Shortly afterward, Hood was moved inshore to keep a close watch on Fort Royal, in order to prevent four French liners stationed there from emerging to add their numbers to de Grasse when he should arrive, and to prevent de Grasse from entering to take possession of the “noblest and best harbour,” as Rodney had named it. Hood did not like the inshore position and repeatedly asked Rodney to let him go back to his former place, which Rodney refused. Strong disagreements about the proper position from which to watch for and intercept the enemy added to their quarrel.
On St. Eustatius, Rodney had appointed a commission to superintend disposal of the seized property and documents. The more he learned of the business operations of the traitorous British merchants, the more it fed his anger. The whole of the confiscated property “I have seized for the King and the state and I hope will go to the public revenue of my country. I do not look upon myself as entitled to one sixpence nor do I desire it. My happiness is having been the instrument of my country in bringing this nest of villains to condign punishment. They deserve scourging and they shall be scourged.” Whether or not this entire lack of interest in personal gain should be taken at face value, Rodney’s desire to bring the villains to judgment and wield the whip of their scourging was clearly what held him at St. Eustatius through the month of March and early April while his opponent was advancing toward him across the Atlantic.
With a strong fleet of twenty ships of the line, three frigates, and a swollen convoy of 150 transports bringing supplies and men to the West Indies, de Grasse sailed from Brest on March 22 aboard his huge flagship, the three-decker Ville de Paris of 110 guns, monarch of the French fleet, and the largest ship afloat. He expected to meet Hood or Rodney in combat in the West Indies. After supplying the needy islands, he was to give what aid was necessary to Spanish forces in Cuba and Santo Domingo and then, at the approach of winter, move on to America. Joined by an East India squadron of forty merchantmen, which were slow sailors and had to be taken in tow by the warships, he reached the offshore waters of Martinique at the end of April, 1781.
In America news came to Newport on May 8, like an arrow piercing the curtain of discouragement, that de Grasse was actually on his way, headed for the West Indies with America as his next destination. Coming just a month since Washington had confessed “We are at the end of our tether,” the news promised to give renewed life and new hope to the American fight. Ten months of impatient frustration had passed since Rochambeau and his infantry of 5,700 had come to Newport in the previous summer, held there ever since by the Americans’ lack of mobility and by Arbuthnot’s blockade outside the bay. De Ternay, the French naval commander, had died of a fever in the interim, to be succeeded in command by Count Louis de Barras, who had come via Boston bringing the report to Washington that de Grasse was on his way. A Council of War among Washington, Rochambeau and de Barras (who was unable to come) was immediately summoned to meet at Wethersfield, a town adjoining Hartford, on May 21. In the course of the discussions, Washington’s plan of campaign against New York was seemingly accepted, with reservations by the French on condition that de Grasse would cooperate in assigning his land forces to a joint offensive with the Americans. In spite of the twice-failed effort under d’Estaing for combined operations by French naval and American land forces, the conferees agreed to make the attempt again. Rochambeau, evidently sharing the opinion of a number of 20th century historians that Washington was no strategist (which fails to measure the more important quality of generalship), contradicted promptly the Wethersfield plan by writing to de Grasse on May 31 his own recommendation, that the offensive should be made at the Chesapeake. He enclosed copies of the Wethersfield agreements, saying that de Grasse must make his own judgment of the problem of the Sandy Hook shallows and suggesting that on arrival he look into the Chesapeake, and if he found no occasion for action there, to come to New York. He asked to borrow for three months the regiments arriving under Saint-Simon.
He wrote two more letters, on June 6 and 11, reporting frankly that American affairs were in a “grave crisis.” With no money or credit, these people “are at the end of their resources.… I must not conceal from you, Monsieur, that Washington will not have half the troops he is reckoned to have and that I believe, though he is silent on that, at present he does not have 6,000 men and that M. de Lafayette does not have a 1,000 regulars with militia to defend Virginia and nearly as many on the march to join him.… And that it is therefore of the greatest consequence that you will take on board as many troops as possible, 4,000 or 5,000 will not be too many, whether you aid us in Virginia or in seizing Sandy Hook to aid us afterwards to lay siege to Brooklyn.… There, Monsieur, are the different possibilities you have in view and the actual sad picture of the affairs of this country. Whichever, I am quite persuaded you will bring us naval superiority.” In closing, he re-emphasized the need to bring troops, and money to pay them. While it was hardly a report calculated to inspire an ally to invest his fate in a losing game, it evidently had the desired effect. We do not know what de Grasse thought or felt, and can only judge by his subsequent dedication of himself and his fortune to a faltering cause not his own. In relationship with allies and neighbors, the French can often make themselves exceedingly difficult and even disagreeable, but there was something in the destiny-filled air of 1781 that brought them to their most admirable. They were not ready, if they could help it, to let the American fight for independence be dissipated in the smoke of burned-out liberty and in the renewed imperium of their ancient rival.
Rochambeau’s preference for the Chesapeake in his letters to de Grasse was endorsed by other French envoys in America, who believed an assault on New York would be too hazardous and costly and the ability of Washington to hold New York after de Grasse had left very uncertain. The French court, as Rochambeau’s son reported when he returned with de Barras, was not prepared to invest the men and money required for a protracted siege of New York. The French were counting on a decision of the war in 1781 and had scheduled only six weeks for de Grasse’s action in America, after which he was supposed to return to the West Indies for action against the British in that sphere. In the planning with Rochambeau, the place along the American coast to which he would come and the site of the offensive campaign were left open for de Grasse himself to determine, a measure of confidence which may have been advised by Rochambeau’s knowledge of the man. Yet, considering how much was at stake, it represented a large deposit of confidence and trust in good luck that had not so far been the American portion. It left a wide area open for misadventure in coordinating naval forces and land forces under different national commands which had already failed for d’Estaing, not counting the hazards of transoceanic communication, subject to winds, weather and enemy action. That such matters were almost certain to bring a default of the kind that kept Howe and Burgoyne from coordinating the campaign that died at Saratoga, neither side seemed seriously concerned. In the result, the wheel of fortune—or Providence, in which Washington firmly trusted, with a helping hand from himself—turned upward on the American side. Faultless timing and good luck at every fork were to bring about the rarest of military operations—a campaign in which everything coordinates and no one of a hundred chances takes the wrong turn in the road.
While en route from Brest to the Caribbean, de Grasse made his choice. He wrote the letter informing Rochambeau that he was coming on the King’s orders and, as a foretaste, he detached a squadron of thirty ships with 700 soldiers to join Rochambeau at Newport. Contrary to Washington’s wish, he chose the Chesapeake for the scene of action, for a sailor’s reasons: because of the shorter sailing distance from the West Indies, its deeper waters and easier pilotage and the advice he had received from de Barras. The same frigate that had brought the Wethersfield letters turned around to carry his reply, so that the American command might have it as soon as possible. His request for American pilots to guide him in the Bay gave proof of serious intention.
Washington, at the same time, turning aside from New York, was coming around to Rochambeau’s preference for the Chesapeake. Changing his emphasis from ships to troops, he was now thinking of marching the army down on foot. Reports from Virginia, where Cornwallis had now penetrated, were “alarming,” and he was deeply disturbed by the devastations inflicted on his native state by the raids of Benedict Arnold. For a more positive reason, the possibility of trapping Cornwallis now offered itself, convincing Washington that a campaign in Virginia could be more decisive than continued inconclusive operations in the Carolinas. If Cornwallis and his army were to overrun Virginia, he warned Congress, they would soon be north of the Potomac. Moved for once to react, in fear of their own safety, Congress was induced to send militia from Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland to reinforce Greene. Writing to La Luzerne, Washington urged the French to send troops from the West Indies, so that by “one great decisive stroke, the enemy might be expelled from the continent and the independence of America established.” This opened a far more positive view of the outlook than Rochambeau’s depressing report of “grave crisis” and dwindling forces. It indicates that the Commander-in-Chief was beginning to think in terms of action at the Chesapeake against Cornwallis, and contemplating the march on foot to Virginia that was to bring him to Yorktown. The assured coming of de Grasse, and the report of Rochambeau’s son confirming that the Admiral’s purpose was to bring his fleet to establish naval superiority in American waters, swung the decision for the Chesapeake, which was reaffirmed when a probe of Clinton’s defenses of New York showed them to be of formidable strength.
The Americans’ strategic plan was the obverse of Britain’s. They too saw the South as the place to defeat the enemy. What they hoped to gain from a campaign at the Chesapeake would be to enclose Lord Cornwallis and the last important British army in America between a pincers of the Allied army and the French fleet, which would block him off from the sea and thus from help from New York and from overseas supply, while Allied commanders in the South, Lafayette and Greene, would take care of closing off his escape by land. In short, his army was to be enclosed in a squeeze where he would be forced to surrender or stand and die. The French fleet to close the sea exit was, of course, necessary to the plan. Cornwallis had not yet established himself at a base on the Chesapeake when the Allies at Wethersfield were discussing him as the destined target. He was just at that time on the way to placing himself there, where it was essential to the Allied purpose that he remain; otherwise the trap would have no occupant when the Allies arrived.
For the British, on their part, to reach victory, it was clear they needed a naval base more central to the country than Charleston. After evacuating Newport, all they had left was New York and Halifax, in Nova Scotia. New York was not a good port because of the bar at Sandy Hook. Their choice fell upon Portsmouth, in Virginia, at the southern end of Chesapeake Bay. But Cornwallis, as field commander, did not like what he saw of it, because the place was hot and unhealthy and could not provide protection for an anchorage of ships of the line. Surveying the area, he preferred Yorktown, a more attractive town about 100 miles further north on the “beautiful blue estuary,” a mile wide, of the York River where it emptied into Chesapeake Bay at the foot of Cape Charles. Then simply called York, it was only twelve miles from Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia, which consisted of a single street “very broad and very handsome,” as described by Blanchard, “with two or three public buildings pretty large.” Once an important business center with handsome Georgian brick houses, settled at the beginning of the century, York had greatly declined to a population of only 3,000 with 300 houses, because the tobacco culture had moved to new ground and British raids had forced merchants and farmers to move away. A town of 300 houses, York was situated on a plateau bordered by ravines. Swampy land and a 500-acre farm lay beyond. The Williamsburg road ran alongside. Across the James River, which ran more or less parallel to the York River, was Jamestown, the first city built by the English in America, and producer, says Tornquist, of the “best tobacco in the whole world.” On the same side, opposite York, was the promontory called Gloucester Point, held by Cornwallis as a part of his defense position. York’s entrance to the Bay still provided the only deep-water harbor for major ships and gave access up the Atlantic coast to New York. Because of its easy access to the enemy, Admiral Arbuthnot considered the Chesapeake vulnerable, but as just another of the old Admiral’s tired negatives, his warning received scant attention.
In May, 1781, the month when Rochambeau at Wethersfield was urging an offensive at the Chesapeake, Cornwallis had decided, with the approval of his naval advisers, to make his base at York instead of Portsmouth. He chose it because other ports of the region were too shallow and because York’s location was central to the labor supply of the area, which would be needed for work on fortifications. Establishment of the base with a ring of fortified earthworks around the town would take three months, a lapse of time that was useful, although they did not know it, for the Franco-American transatlantic planning of their offensive. Cornwallis completed his move to Yorktown on August 2, three days before de Grasse sailed from the West Indies for the coast of Virginia.
Because of its fate, the choice of Yorktown has been much disputed. Clinton certainly authorized it with the proviso that Cornwallis detach a portion of his army as reinforcement for the defense of New York. A dispute arose over this point when Cornwallis claimed that York could not be defended with less than his full force, in which he may have been right, although to maintain the full complement would have made the problem of provisioning more acute. Charges and counter-charges developed which have obscured the issue of responsibility. In keeping with his habit of off-again-on-again letters, Clinton assured Cornwallis in July that he could keep as large a force as he needed for defense of the base and was “at full liberty to detain all the troops now in Chesapeake—which very liberal concession will I am persuaded convince your lordship of the high estimation in which I hold a naval station in Chesapeake.” The responsibility for the decision was clearly enough for both to share and to permit Cornwallis authoritatively to make the move to Yorktown and settle himself there a month before the French fleet arrived to lock the door.