MIRACULOUS is a term often applied to the Yorktown campaign. The opportunity to combine his land forces with French naval power to enclose Cornwallis in the vulnerable position he had chosen at Yorktown would be, Washington realized, his one chance to defeat the enemy and bring a culmination to the long struggle. To conduct his own forces into place to do the job would be a task of extraordinary difficulty and would involve a serious risk of failure—of his own reputation, of his army and of the cause of independence. It required a decision as bold as Hannibal’s to cross the Alps by elephant. Washington took it without visible hesitation. He, not Cornwallis, popularly called the English Hannibal, was the Hannibal of his time. The first necessity was to arrange the meeting of French naval and American land forces on the Virginia coast at a specified time and place. The junction in Virginia had to be coordinated by two different national commands separated across an ocean without benefit of telephone, telegraph or wireless. That this was carried out without a fault seems accountable only by a series of miracles.
Rochambeau’s army from Newport had marched from Rhode Island to join Washington on the Hudson in the first week of July, 1781. Dispersed through the White Plains area, their joint camp was centered at Philipsburg (Philipse Manor) in Yonkers, four miles from White Plains and less than twenty miles from where the British forces occupying New York were quartered in former American barracks on the grounds of King’s College, near Trinity Church, in the Wall Street section.
The offensive planned by the Allied army of French and Americans for a union with de Grasse would require a march from the Hudson of approximately 500 miles, measured over local roads down through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, to Virginia. The army would be a mixed group of two newly acquainted allies speaking different tongues, with arrangements to be made along the route for food and drink and river transportation. Foraging and bivouacking at night, they would have to rely on come what may. Despite the obstacles and hazards involved in organization of the march, once Washington had taken a decision, it remained firm, not subjected thereafter to second questions.
In the midst of dispiriting frustrations and shortages and the sneers and plots of jealous generals seeking to oust him, and disappointed in having to give up his desire to retake New York, Washington was yet able to respond to a new hope and summon his energy for a new campaign. On August 15, one day after receipt of de Grasse’s letter stating his choice of the Chesapeake, Washington notified the Continentals to make ready to march. On this day he issued general orders to the Continentals: “the army will hold itself in the most perfect readiness to move at the shortest notice.” He followed these by a letter to Rochambeau specifying the route of the first stage of the March to Trenton and a letter to de Grasse requesting him to send all his frigates, transports and other vessels to convey the troops down the Bay. The troops selected to go were some 4,000–5,000 French of Rochambeau’s army, consisting of regiments of old repute—the Saintonge, the Soissonnais, the Deux-Ponts, the Bourbonnais, the one-time Auvergne—plus armed marines of the fleet and some 2,000 American Continentals—so named to give a sense of national unity to units coming from different colonies—of the New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island lines. In the French group was the Duc de Lauzun’s cavalry legion, astride tiger-skin saddle blankets and wearing scarlet breeches, pale blue coats and fur hats. A garrison of 4,000 militia units and the rest of the American army remained to guard the Hudson forts and cover the main army’s crossing of the river. A planned program for the long march had to be prepared. Arrangements for food and forage depots to be placed across New Jersey were made possible by French money. Letters went to the governors of Maryland and Virginia requesting their aid for provisions and for shipping to transport the American and French troops down the Delaware and the Bay to their rendezvous with the French fleet. Not yet knowing whether de Barras with the artillery and beef and extra naval force would come to form a junction with de Grasse and hearing nothing of either of the fleets, “you can readily conceive,” Washington wrote to Greene, “that the present time is as interesting and anxious a moment as I have ever experienced.”
The news from Newport that de Barras had agreed to come and a letter from de Grasse saying he was going “to do the impossible by sending to meet you” six or seven men-of-war of shallow draft followed by frigates and generally every ship fit to ascend the river together with siege cannon from his ships, 1,800 troops, and 1,200,000 francs promised that the great envelopment was moving toward actuality.
Destination at the camp in New York was kept tightly secret even from the Allied troops, so that Clinton should not learn of the proposed envelopment of Cornwallis and be moved to send reinforcements to Yorktown. The Comte de Deux-Ponts, one of the French regimental commanders, was himself in the dark. We “are in perfect ignorance whether we go against New York or whether we are going to Virginia to attack Lord Cornwallis,” he recorded. Bets were being placed in camp on New York versus Virginia.
From where the Allies were situated on the edge of the continent, their first and largest obstacle would be a crossing of the Hudson. Too deep to be forded, too wide to be bridged, the great North River, as it was called, in contrast to the Delaware or South River, could only be crossed by ferryboat. To carry over 6,000–7,000 men with equipment, provision wagons, draft animals and artillery when the enemy was within striking distance was a vulnerable and perilous operation that could not be accomplished in a day, and during embarkation would expose the army to attack. The tension for the French and Americans, as they prepared for the journey by ferry was great. Would the British appear from lower New York to fire on the ferries from shore—or, worse, on the encumbered men while they were boarding?
Dobbs Ferry, at the present Tappan Zee Bridge, was one of the two crossing points. The other, considered the more secure, was King’s Ferry further up the river where the stream was narrowest opposite West Point. Here in 1778 a chain had been pulled across the river to prevent the passage of British warships.
The ferries for transport across the majestic river were broad-beamed one-masted schooners of shallow draft, the famed sloops of the Hudson, carriers of the river traffic north and south and across the stream for over a century. Dutch-built, the sloops at an average of 100 tons were 65–75 feet long, with rounded stern and wide decks, a large mainsail and small jib. The cross-stream passage from bank to bank made use of the long experience of Dutch skippers, more skilled than the English. Leaning on long heavy tillers, they took advantage of shifts in winds and tides and of every twist of the current around river bends that could advance their progress. They usually sailed at dark to take advantage of the moon’s tides and night breezes.
In heavy rain on August 19, 1781, Washington’s and Rochambeau’s armies broke camp to march to the ferry crossings. One regiment crossed first at Dobbs Ferry, where the river is a mile wide, while the rest of the Americans and the more heavily loaded French with all their horses and equipment were to cross at King’s Ferry. Here, although the river was only a quarter of a mile wide, the ferry route followed a diagonal and longer course from Verplanck’s Point on the eastern shore to Stony Point, the western terminus, where one of three landings connected with the main road going south.
Apart from the protection the militia could offer, the only safeguard was Clinton’s known difficulty in bringing himself to act. Would that be enough? Washington had laid several false trails pointing to Staten Island, which lies at the mouth of the Hudson where the river enters New York Bay, to give an impression that he was planning to use Staten Island as a base for assault on New York City. He had ordered that all boats moored along the lower Hudson and the shores of the Bay be collected as if in preparation for such an assault, and local patriots had been told to ask pointed questions about Staten Island in the taverns and in talk with neighbors.
Clinton accepted these indications, which were eagerly collected and conveyed to him by Loyalist agents, convincing him in gloomy solipsism that he himself as Commander-in-Chief, together with New York, was the intended target of the rebel forces assembling in his back yard. He spent his days momentarily expecting assault and, while enduring the anxious wait, dared not move a man or a gun of his defense forces out of position to act against the enemy who were so plainly gathering with purposeful intention. A new anxiety reinforced his paralysis. Rumors were circulating of a French fleet coming to America from the West Indies, and they spoiled his sleep with the thought of his being robbed of naval superiority. The possible threat to his associate in Virginia did not trouble him, for, as he wrote to London on May 30, “Cornwallis is safe enough unless a superior fleet shows itself in which case I despair of ever seeing peace restored to this miserable country.” The “superior fleet” that he feared was, as he wrote, already in the West Indies on its way to America.
By “peace,” Clinton meant, of course, suppression of the rebellion, and he was more aware than his naval colleagues of the danger to the British in relation to food and other supplies if naval superiority were gained by the enemy. Britain’s position in the Colonies depended on maritime control and active support by the Loyalists. One of these was already lacking and if she lost the other, her army and civil authorities would have to live on air. Clinton’s appreciation of this factor was particularly acute because, judging by the accounts that survive in his papers of orders for food and liquor, he lived high. He ordered brandy in 10-gallon lots. His food orders were equally generous, including beef, veal, mutton, tongues, beef rumps, fish, crabs, tripe, sweetbreads, eggs. On August 24, while the rebel army were in the midst of their crossing of the Hudson, Clinton ordered 43 pounds of beef, 38 pounds of veal, an illegible number of “birds,” crabs and turkeys and two calves’ heads (perhaps he was giving a party). He also ordered his boots from London and his stableboys’ shoes soled in London and a steady supply locally of lavender water and “Hemet’s dentifrice” and scented powder and, on August 27, a comb. One does not know how many persons of a very large headquarters staff dined at his table, but whatever the number (one mention refers to 148 general officers), they certainly ate and drank heartily. Could it be that all that brandy by the gallon helps to explain the slack performance of the British command? Were they dulled by alcohol?
While the army was billeted downtown, Clinton’s place of residence was at the Beekman House, at the present 52nd Street and East River. Clinton himself actually occupied four different houses, perhaps to deceive a would-be assassin. “In and near New York,” according to a political journalist, “Sir Henry Clinton has no less than four houses; he is quite a monopolizer. At times, when he is visible, he is seen riding full tilt to and from his different seats; in this, he is the Ape of Royalty.” The possession of this multiple real estate and the existence of a longtime mistress, Mrs. Baddeley, by whom he had several children, were no doubt related to his obsessive desire to hold on to New York.
Unimpeded by Clinton, Washington’s forces, a day after leaving camp at Philipsburg, reached the ferry crossings.
Down the cobblestone slopes leading to the docks the procession of the Allied army came; provision wagons were hauled aboard the ferries, followed by the rank and file of foot soldiers as they crowded over the gangways, while reconnaissance officers kept a tense watch for approaching redcoats. No shots or sudden charge of cavalry with flashing sabers broke“ into their orderly progress. The ferries filled with men, ropes were uncoiled and flung over the side to waiting dockhands, sails were hoisted and the boats slid into the water.
From an observation platform erected for him by the French on a plateau overlooking Haverstraw Bay, a bulge in the river five miles wide, Washington watched the ferries bearing his soldiers over the water on the journey to the last, best hope of victory in the long fight for independence. The Americans started crossing on August 20, and all were across by the next morning. Claude Blanchard, the French Commissary or Quartermaster General, standing next to the Commander-in-Chief on August 25 (the date given in his diary), as he watched the crossing, could feel the emotion stirring behind the impassive exterior. He sensed that as Washington surveyed the pageant moving across the broad stream “glittering in the sunlight,” he seemed “to see a better destiny arise, when at this period of the war, exhausted, destitute of resources, he needed a great success which might revive courage and hope. He pressed my hand with much affection when he left us at two oclock and crossed the river himself to rejoin his troops.” “I have the pleasure to inform Your Excellency,” Washington wrote to Rochambeau in a letter dated August 21 from King’s Ferry, on the far side, “that my troops arrived at the ferry yesterday and began to pass the River at 10 oclock in the morn and by sunrise of this day, they were all compleatly on this side of the river.” His date does not fit with Blanchard’s because Washington apparently came back after his first crossing and went over a second time with the French. The last of his troops landed after dinner in the darkness of the western shore at the foot of the Catskills, where the wail of the wildcat drifts through the undomesticated hills, and the rumble of thunder means that the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew are playing at bowls.
The French, slowed by their longer march to their ferry and a heavier train of equipment, embarked several days later, and they too crossed safely without incident. The calm of the Hudson crossing had remained untroubled except for Rochambeau’s order to unload surplus burdens for storage in Peekskill, which “made the rank and file complain loudly,” as reported by Rochambeau’s aide, Ludwig von Closen. Closen had a happier piece of news for his journal when a message of crucial importance to the campaign was delivered on the day of the American crossing by an officer returning from Newport to say that de Barras, the French naval commander, was now agreeable to bringing down the transports with the troops, meat and siege guns, which “greatly eased” Rochambeau’s mind. All the French were across the river by August 25. The absence of British interference puzzled the Allies. “An enemy of any boldness or any skill,” wrote the Comte de Deux-Ponts in his diary, “would have seized an opportunity so favorable for him and so embarrassing for us as that of our crossing the North River. I do not understand the indifference with which General Clinton considers our movements. It is to me an obscure enigma.” Even Clinton’s intelligence officer, William Smith, was conscious of the inertia. “There is no spirit of enterprise,” he wrote on September 3, immediately after the crossing of the river, “the general dulness kills the spark that happens to rise in the mind of any man.… Washington’s present movement from the Hudson is the severest censure upon the British commanders in this quarter.” It may have been partly due to the fact that Clinton, at the time of the crossing, was absent on Long Island at the conference with Graves that ended in the same spirit of inertia as governed New York. Admiral Hood had just come into Sandy Hook on August 28 after his vain pursuit of de Grasse from the West Indies. He had rowed over to Long Island to confer with Graves and Clinton, and they had agreed that Graves should sail to the Chesapeake with the combined English fleet of nineteen ships to seek and defeat the expected squadron of de Barras from Newport with his eight ships before de Barras could join his strength to de Grasse. Presumably, Clinton left someone in command back in New York capable of giving orders in the emergency he was always expecting. One cannot suppose that preparation for the Hudson crossing passed unnoticed by everyone in the area, or that Clinton’s headquarters was so naked of intelligence agents that none came a distance of fifteen miles or so to report. In fact, spies were constantly arriving at headquarters relaying in detail every move of the rebels’ advance, even to the report by a woman who claimed to have penetrated the camp and located Washington’s quarters. One can only speculate that headquarters was so relieved to see the enemy moving away from New York that it had no wish to interfere with their passage, or that lethargy and lost impetus had so far taken possession that the command no longer really cared about the war. A sense that the powers at home are not really interested in a war diminishes offensive spirit in the field, and just such a suspicion pervaded the mind of the British Commander-in-Chief, expressed in an extraordinarily revealing letter to his patron, the Duke of Newcastle. The letter complains of “reinforcements to every place but this,” and asks pointedly, “Is it because America is become no object? If so, withdraw before you are disgraced!” That was hardheaded advice that few would have ventured, and, like most displeasing advice, it was given no hearing. If Clinton’s “no object” is the clue to the British attitude in the war, it presents another enigma, for it does not fit with the predictions of the doomsayers at home that the loss of America would mean the decline and fall of the British Empire. People rarely take seriously reports of their own decline, and Britain’s war leaders were no different from the normal run. Dire prophecies of decline and fall to follow loss of the American colonies did not penetrate their thinking nor make them fight more effectively.
Chiefly, Clinton’s passivity was the result of his fear to move any of his defense forces out of position lest they might leave a hole open for the enemy to enter. Afterward, in his postwar apologia, he claimed he could not have attacked the Allies after the river-crossing because their forces, as he calculated extravagantly, far outnumbered his own. In fact, after the arrival of 2,400 Hessians, who had joined him on August 11, more than a week before the crossing, the reverse was the case. More to the point, he did not move because he was transfixed by the notion of imminent assault on New York. One would think this was the moment to attack first, ahead of his opponents, but that would have required a quick hard decision, which was not Clinton’s way. He did nothing, as Washington had hoped, permitting the Allied army to walk away without hindrance. When a staff officer suggested to him that he might follow the rebels’ march on the other side of the Hudson, he demurred, “for fear that the enemy might burn New York in his absence.” Agents had reported to him that Washington had cached food dumps all across New Jersey, and other informants were citing evidence that indicated a march headed south rather than against New York. It is very difficult for a recipient of secret information to believe its validity when it does not conform to his preconceived plans or ideas; he believes what he wants to believe and rejects what does not verify what he already knows, or thinks he knows.
Meanwhile Hood and Graves had not yet sailed for Chesapeake Bay. Neither of them had Rodney’s instinct for perceiving the shape of enemy strategy. Clearly the great effort of transferring an army across the Hudson would only have been undertaken by the rebels for a major strategic purpose which it would be important for the English to frustrate. That the plan was for the envelopment of Cornwallis to be carried out by the rebels’ combining with de Grasse in Virginia seems not to have been envisaged by the two admirals who, as seamen, did not concern themselves with land movements, nor did they even grasp the crucial naval necessity of preventing the French from gaining superiority in Chesapeake Bay. They were locked into two fixed assumptions: that de Grasse was coming to New York, not the Chesapeake, and that he would not be coming with more than an inferior number of ships—perhaps twelve. Besides, everyone assumed that bold Rodney in the West Indies, who had been emphatic in his assurances, would take care of de Grasse in the Caribbean or, at the least, arrive at the same time to equalize naval forces. Preconceived fixed notions can be more damaging than cannon. The assumptions about de Grasse were probabilities, not certainties, and not an excuse for the British failing to place themselves in the best position possible to meet the French fleet if it came, whether or not Rodney was just behind. Hood, who knew the extent of Rodney’s incapacitating illness and had himself been designated to substitute for him as the pursuer of de Grasse, could have disabused his colleagues of their expectation but did not; in his several inactions during this period, he is not easy to explain.
The inability of all three British commanders, Hood, Graves and Clinton, to envisage the envelopment of Cornwallis by a combination of the rebel army and the French fleet on the Virginia coast was simple obtuseness, the more so as the destination of Washington’s march had been revealed by deserters and, so it is said, by an American girl, mistress of Rochambeau’s son—inadvertently, one hopes. As usual with clandestine information, Clinton and his staff did not believe it, and, as always, underrated their opponent. They could not believe that Washington would undertake so Herculean a task as a march to Virginia, or would leave the Hudson forts denuded of his main army. If there was to be a junction with de Grasse, it seemed obvious to Clinton it was planned for Staten Island, for attack on New York.
In truth, a month of paralysis took hold of the British command in America when the French fleet entered the situation, as if each of the three—Clinton, the Commander-in-Chief; Graves, the Naval Chief; Cornwallis, General of the Army on the spot—had been administered a sedative. It began when a dispatch from Rodney reached Clinton on September 2 reporting that de Grasse’s destination was the Chesapeake, as he had learned from the pilots who came to meet de Grasse at Cap-Frančais. Though the news threatened Cornwallis and not directly himself, Clinton realized that a fateful moment was at hand. “Things appear to be coming fast to a crisis,” he wrote to Germain. “We are therefore no longer to compare forces with the enemy, but to endeavour to act in the best manner we can against them. With what I have, inadequate as it is, I will exert myself to the utmost to save Lord Cornwallis.” In short, he recognized at this point that Cornwallis had to be “saved.” On this day, too, he learned from Philadelphia, where the marching army he had thought on its way to Staten Island had arrived to a rapturous public greeting, that the land forces of Washington and Rochambeau were headed for a union with de Grasse at the Chesapeake. Clinton now had in his possession the full outline of the enemy’s scheme, and although he was by nature the most hesitant of the three commanders, he did act at once to order Graves to take on board 5,000 reinforcements to relieve Cornwallis, for departure on October 5, with the qualification, “as soon as the way is clear”—as if expecting that de Grasse, if indeed he had come, would obligingly move out of the way. De Grasse had, in fact, arrived. After crossing the Atlantic without interception by Rodney or Hood, and after escaping Hood’s notice by the maneuver through the Bahama Channel, he entered Chesapeake Bay on August 30, while Graves and Hood were still considering the matter at New York. Graves was anchored in the harbor inside the bar and Hood outside. For three days they remained in place. It was not until August 31 that they hoisted sail for the Chesapeake, and no sense of urgency impelled them because they expected to retain numerical superiority in any event—provided they could block de Barras from adding his strength to the French fleet. But de Barras had already left Newport, on his way to the Bay on August 25, well before Hood and Graves left New York.
Anxious to be on time for the rendezvous with de Grasse at the Chesapeake, Washington had ordered the Allied armies, as soon as they disembarked on the Jersey shore, to supply themselves with three days’ rations and be ready to move at four o’clock in the morning, with the New York First Regiment leading, followed by the artillery and the Rhode Island Regiment and the French First Division. The march to Virginia had begun. The journal of Rochambeau’s aide, Baron von Closen, is an invaluable record of the journey.
Von Closen was a native of the Palatinate, the Rhineland district lying between France and Germany. He had adopted France as his country, and entered military service at fourteen as a “pleasing, industrious, extremely intelligent, especially well informed” young officer. Rapidly promoted, he obtained a commission with the Royal Deux-Ponts regiment, who came to America in 1780 with Rochambeau. The Deux-Ponts wore sky-blue uniforms with lemon-yellow collars and facings. Closen was among the foreign diarists of the expedition who, unlike the Duc de Lauzun, were interested observers of the scenes and persons of American life and studiously recorded their observations in journals which, after 200 years, give us glimpses of what America looked like where they passed, often with unexpected views and comments.
Because of the limited and primitive roads of the period, and to ease the pressure of foraging on the countryside and to add to Clinton’s uncertainty about the objective, the Allied army, in two groups, took separate routes along two parallel lines. Foot soldiers covered fifteen miles the first day, a distance that over the next two weeks remained about the daily average. Officers rode, including the French who had brought their own horses. Washington’s army marched in three columns, arriving at scheduled destinations at different times. On the way, Washington, further to implicate Staten Island, ordered the construction of hardtack ovens at Chatham, New Jersey, to suggest the establishment of a permanent camp and, in addition, the collection of thirty flat-bottomed boats on wheels, both for use on rivers going south as well as to imply a crossing to Staten Island.
Von Closen’s route passed through the well-cultivated lands of long-settled New Jersey, where imperturbable cows under old gnarled apple trees lazily lifted their heads to stare at the riders. He finds pasture fences arranged like fence rails in France, “five of them, one on top of the other.” Describing a “very beautiful small valley” along the river road between Chatham and Elizabethtown, he thought it “a land of milk and honey, with game, fish, vegetables, poultry,” where the inhabitants—of Dutch origin, he thinks—“have kept it neat” in contrast to New York state “where misery is written on the brows of the inhabitants”—one of von Closen’s odd remarks of now buried import. The riders continue on a “beautiful route” to Pompton, passing several large residences and fine cattle. At a “grandiose residence” in Whippany they are served a “sumptuous dinner,” not repeated next day when at Bullion’s Tavern at Basking Ridge they eat a “rather mediocre supper,” balanced for von Closen by happiness in learning he is to have a bed, although he has to share it with Colonel Smith, an aide to Washington. They come next to Princeton, described in Blanchard’s Journal as “a pretty village where the inns are handsome and very clean. A very handsome college is also to be seen there, [having] 50 scholars, [with] room for 200.” So much for Princeton. After a “very good American breakfast” they push on to Trenton, having covered 45 miles that day. They dine with Washington and hear his account of past battles. Half a mile from the Delaware, Trenton is a “charming site in spite of the ravages of the Hessians (who made themselves hated).” The district is still rich in large villages reminding von Closen of his native Palatinate, though it has no good Rhine wine. Instead the people drink a delicious “Pery,” or pear cider.
During the army’s march through Jersey, a courier brought news on August 29 causing profound anxiety. An observer at Sandy Hook—a general of the New Jersey militia known to be trustworthy—reported the appearance of a fleet of eighteen ships, identified by their flags as British. Later the count was modified to fourteen, but either way the combination of the newcomers, which were thought to be Rodney’s ships from the West Indies, with Graves’s fleet would, they feared, give the enemy the most dreaded weapon, naval superiority over any number that de Grasse was expected to bring. The ships were not of course Rodney’s but Hood’s, now part of Graves’s fleet, which was not animated by any great offensive energy in its Admiral.
Crossing the Delaware on September 1, the marchers arrived in Philadelphia the next day, having covered so far 133 miles. At Philadelphia the generals, who had entered the city three days in advance of the army, were met by the cheers of spectators and an ovation when they stopped at the City Tavern. Ecstatic applause greeted the dazzling spectacle of the French as they passed in review in their bright white uniforms and white plumes. Wearing colored lapels and collars of pink, green, violet or blue identifying their regiments, they were the most brilliantly appointed soldiers in Europe. The gold and silver thread in the facings and hats of their orderlies and the gold-headed canes the orderlies carried made them all look like generals. The artillery wore gray with red velvet lapels. Extravagant sartorial display had a purpose: it created an impression of wealth and power on the opponent and pride in the wearer, which has been lost sight of in our nervously egalitarian times. It seems a puzzle how the white uniforms could have been kept clean and pristine after one or two days’ march along dusty or muddy roads. No women were on hand for laundering, for Washington had expressly forbidden camp followers to accompany the march, giving orders that wagons must not give them space nor food rations be issued. Cleaning, as far as it went, would be accomplished by covering stains with talc or white powder of one kind or another used to whiten wigs. Major Gaspard Gallatin, a staff officer of the Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment who kept a journal of the New York campaign, tells us that on reaching Philadelphia, the French Army, “having halted to burnish its arms and dust its white uniforms,” and in the case of some units to change into dress uniform, “made a most impressive entrance in the City.” In contrast, the American troops, grim-faced because they had not been paid, were in no very agreeable mood and were thought by some to be on the edge of mutiny, leaving some doubt whether they would continue to march. Nevertheless, they duly saluted as they filed past the flag, and past Washington, Rochambeau, Luzerne and the members of Congress assembled on the balcony of the State House. As the soldiers marched by, the congressmen doffed their thirteen hats in response. The brass instruments that accompanied French regiments excited the utmost enthusiasm of the crowd, who were accustomed only to fife and drum. The perfect marching in step to the music and the colorful regimental flags augmented the delight of the spectators who, von Closen thought pridefully, “could never have imagined that the French troops could be so handsome.” The ladies watching the review from Minister Luzerne’s residence are “enchanted to see such handsome men and hear such good music.” Rochambeau and his staff are housed “like Princes” by Luzerne. With Washington and his generals they enjoy an “excellent repast” at the home of Robert Morris, with “all the foreign wines possible with which to drink endless toasts” to the United States, to the Kings of France and Spain, to the Allies and to the Count de Grasse. Afterward, the city was illuminated in Washington’s honor.
The Allies spent the next day sightseeing in the “huge” city, which, with its large harbor and convenient piers for loading and unloading ships that come up the river, is “as commercial as Boston,” having shops filled with fine merchandise. Merchants of the city, von Closen notes, “profited greatly” by the occasion because everyone “stocked up.” The city had 72 straight, wide and well-built streets and sidewalks. The Congress meeting hall has the “finest view imaginable,” and there is a “very famous College with the title of University” (the present University of Pennsylvania). At the home of Joseph Reed, “President of the State [sic] of Pennsylvania,” the visitors are entertained at a ceremonial dinner of which the main feature was an immense ninety-pound turtle with soup served in its shell.
Toasts and ovations and honors did not compensate for lack of transport ships expected at Philadelphia. Morris, more familiar with obtaining money than boats, had been able to supply only a few. These were enough to carry the heavy field guns, but hope of water transport for the troops had to be abandoned.
From Philadelphia, the army moved on toward Chester, in Pennsylvania, on the way to its destination at Head of the Elk, at the top of the northernmost inlet of Chesapeake Bay. The anxiety that now rode with Washington like a physical pain can be judged in a letter he wrote on September 2 to Lafayette. “I am distressed beyond expression to know what is become of the Count de Grasse, and for fear the English fleet, by occupying the Chesapeake … should frustrate all our flattering prospects in that quarter.” He added that he was anxious, too, about de Barras, who was supposed to be coming down to the Chesapeake with the guns and beef for the army. If Lafayette learned anything “new from any quarter,” he was to send it “on the spur of speed for I am almost all impatience and anxiety.” These words from General Washington, for so long a rock against an ordinary man’s anxieties, reveal his agony on the march to Virginia. Would all the planning and the alliance and the hope come to nothing? Was he leading his army to futility at the end?
On September 5, as he rode into Chester, the agony was banished in a heart-stopping moment when a courier from de Grasse’s fleet came riding up to tell him that the Admiral had actually arrived in the Bay with no less than 28 ships and 3,000 troops, and that they were already being disembarked in contact with Lafayette. The Cornwallis trap was laid! After announcing the stunning news to his troops, Washington turned his horse northward to inform Rochambeau, who was coming down by barge. As Rochambeau’s boat neared the dock at Chester, he and his staff saw the astonishing sight of a tall man acting as if he had taken leave of his senses. He was jumping up and down and waving his arms in sweeping circles, with a hat in one hand and a white handkerchief in the other. On nearing the shore they could see that the eccentric figure was undoubtedly General Washington, ordinarily so grave and self-contained. Rochambeau jumped from the barge to be embraced as the wonderful news was conveyed. No one had ever seen the General so unrestrained and joyful and almost childlike in his happiness. A single worry remained. What about de Barras? Had he been intercepted in the Bay, and the food and guns he carried possibly lost to the Allies at the very brink of the ultimate encounter?
On the day that Washington heard the report about de Grasse, the same news was delivered in Philadelphia when a courier entered the hall where Minister Luzerne was entertaining Comissary Blanchard and eighty guests. All the guests fell silent as the messenger’s document was taken to Luzerne, who, after hasty scanning, and in excitement almost equal to Washington’s, read aloud the announcement that Admiral de Grasse with a reported 36 ships (an exaggerated count) was in the Bay, with 3,000 troops being disembarked to join Lafayette. The company was transported, and the courier overwhelmed as the guests crowded around him. In the city when the news was made public by Luzerne, the population raised cries of “Long live Louis Sixteenth!” and mounted scaffolds and platforms to deliver funeral orations for Cornwallis and lamentations for the Tories.
As if to allow the joy and relief at Chester no unalloyed hour, Washington and Rochambeau, as they rode southward, heard a distant rumble of gunfire from the Bay. It carried a somber message: that the fleets of de Grasse and the British had met and opened combat. Stricken in suspense, the generals looked at each other, not daring to speak aloud their question. Which fleet had prevailed?
The outcome was, in fact, to be the turning point of the war and, it might be said, of the 18th century, for it proved to be the enabling factor of the rebels’ Yorktown campaign.
In the Bay both fleets had made their entrance at the foot of the Capes. De Grasse, arriving on August 30, had anchored his main fleet in Lynnhaven Bay, off Cape Henry. Graves, entering on September 5, had come in at the foot of Cape Charles where the mouths of the York and the James rivers flowing down past Yorktown open onto the Bay.
Aghast upon entering the Chesapeake, Graves saw, instead of the twelve to fourteen ships he had expected de Grasse to bring, the great array of de Grasse’s fleet of 28 ships of the line plus some frigates and gunboats. Against this superior force, Graves had, however, the superior position in that he was sailing in regular procession with the wind behind him, while de Grasse, after the knotty business of landing his troops to join Lafayette, was trying to maneuver his ships out of the harbor into the open sea where he would have room to form a battle line. In seeking combat, his purpose was to deny the Bay to the British and prevent the entrance of a force to aid or rescue Cornwallis. Graves’s purpose was, of course, the reverse: to keep the sea-lanes open to Cornwallis. His opportunity to overwhelm the French was, according to naval critics, ideal. He was running down before the wind in good order, while the enemy in straggling succession was laboring to negotiate the uneasy passage around Cape Henry to the open sea. If he had attacked the disconnected French van one by one, he could have destroyed them. But that was not the tactical formula of Fighting Instructions, and Graves was a conformist to the code, and a product of the Royal Navy’s greatest self-inflicted wound, the lost initiative left by the execution of Admiral Byng and the court-martial of Admiral Mathews. He knew that his duty under Fighting Instructions was to form line ahead in a battle line parallel to that of the enemy. Because the enemy had no line, Graves was at a loss. From one o’clock to 3:30 p.m., with the wind in rapid changes of direction, first in favor of the French and then of the English, Graves struggled to fulfill the formula, and by the time he raised the signal to engage, he had lost his advantage. While hoisting the blue-and-white-checkered flag that signaled “bear down,” meaning that every captain should turn toward the enemy and attack the nearest individually, he kept the line ahead signal, which supersedes all others, still flying from his mizzenmast. “Bear down” would mean there would be no line, while the superior signal said to stay with it. The puzzled captains obeyed the superior signal. Keeping their line, they were brought up against the French at an angle instead of parallel, with the result that only their lead ships—part of Graves’s force, instead of the whole—could engage. Cannon boomed and French gunnery told. Four of Graves’s ships were so badly damaged as to be useless to him for renewing action next morning. For the next two days, September 6 and 7, while carpenters and riggers made what repairs they could at sea, the two fleets watched each other without engaging. They broke contact next day with no clear-cut victory or defeat discernible, yet with import that would place the Battle of the Bay among the decisive sea combats of history. Graves’s fleet was damaged and dispersed; de Grasse’s fleet held command of the Bay. The old culprit, “misunderstood” signals—the word was Graves’s in his subsequent explanation to Parliament—had mangled yet another naval battle, although in fact the signals had been understood only too well.
On September 9, de Grasse precipitated a resolution by sailing his fleet back into the Bay to make it his domain. At the same time, de Barras, the critical addition to the contest, slipped in from Newport with his siege guns and his beef and his eight fresh ships.
Again at a loss, Graves, as senior naval officer, asked for a Council of War, which gave its opinion that, under the circumstances of his damaged ships and the enemy’s increased numbers, he could not give “effectual succour” to the garrison at Yorktown. Admiral Hood, as Graves’s junior, rashly advised that Graves should re-enter the Bay himself to contest the French dominion, although his persuasion was not eloquent or forceful enough to take effect.
Faced with the question often met by commanders in a tight spot, whether discretion is not the better part of valor, Graves concluded that it was, and decided that his proper course was to take his fleet back to New York for repairs to fit it for return to Yorktown. This he did, leaving the French by sea and land holding closed the gateways for either aid or exit to Cornwallis.
Cornwallis’ reaction to the enemy landing at his doorstep was no less static than Clinton’s at the Hudson. The same absence of combative response, almost of laziness, marked both occasions. When de Grasse first arrived in the Bay, his initial act, before the naval battle with Graves, had been to ferry his 3,000 land troops up the river to be disembarked to join and reinforce Lafayette’s force facing the British stationed on Gloucester Point, across the river from Yorktown. Cornwallis had seen in the Bay the size of the fleet sent against him, which he overestimated at thirty to forty ships. As they detached one by one to come upriver to disembark their troops, and the French were caught in the scramble of landing when it would have been difficult for them to defend themselves, Cornwallis, whether in lassitude or absurd overconfidence, did not attack. “It was a pleasant surprise for our troops on landing,” recalled Karl Gustaf Tornquist, the Swedish lieutenant serving with de Grasse, in his memoir, “that Cornwallis did not move in the least to hinder them, since indeed a single cannon could have caused much damage in the narrow and in many places winding river. Instead he was content to draw nearer to York, destroying everything which lay in his way, not sparing defenceless women and children.” Even when the newcomers were combined with Lafayette’s force of 5,000, Cornwallis’ 7,800 men approximately equaled them. His inactivity at this point was due to his expectation of relief from New York, assured in Clinton’s letters, though his failure to attack the hampered foe seems strangely unenterprising.
Without an observer stationed on the Capes with a prearranged signal, the outcome of the Battle of the Capes (as the combat in the Bay is sometimes called) remained unknown to Washington and Rochambeau for four silent days until scouts reported that the French fleet was still afloat in the Bay and the English had vanished over the horizon. Even then the generals could not rid their minds of a possible British return, which might cancel the rising hope that if pressed on land, Cornwallis’ surrender was now a realistic possibility, bringing American victory with all its Allied objectives.
The army, still slowly trudging along its rough thoroughfare, would take another week before the vanguard could reach Williamsburg and complete the last ten miles to stand before Yorktown.
During these crucial days, Cornwallis, too, had caught the strange contagion of passivity so foreign to him that lately had afflicted his colleagues. After learning of the outcome of the Battle of the Bay he had the time, which he did not use, during the slow approach of the enemy to open a land retreat for his about-to-be beleaguered army. The least reconnaissance of Lafayette’s little army standing opposite to him at Gloucester would have shown that it was not overpowering.
A hard-hitting offensive could have broken through. He did not attempt it. As William Smith, Clinton’s intelligence officer in New York, perceived, a spark had gone out. What quenched it is hard to say, unless it was a developing sense that America was slipping from the British grip and would not be arrested. Cornwallis’ surprising inaction may be charged to Clinton’s repeated assurance of reinforcements coming to his aid, for it was military tradition that a commander did not enter combat before an awaited reinforcement should arrive to add to his strength. After learning of Washington’s passage through Philadelphia, Clinton corrected his first mistaken assumption that Washington was headed for Staten Island to attack New York. He wrote again to Cornwallis, on September 2, to say it was now clear that the army was marching southward with attack on Yorktown in mind. “You may be assured,” Clinton wrote, that if Yorktown were attacked, “I shall either endeavor to reinforce the army under your command by all the means within the compass of my power or make every possible diversion in your Lordship’s favor.” An even more specific promise, dated September 6, came by express boat. “I think the best way to relieve you is to join you as soon as possible with all the Force that can be spared from hence which is about 4,000 men.” These were the reinforcements he had put aboard Graves’s ships when in August he had received the boatload of 2,400 Hessian mercenaries, which relaxed his obsessions about the defense of New York and allowed him the startling generosity of offering to let go 4,000 of his own men. “They are already embarked,” he wrote, without mentioning that they were still in port. He added an assurance that anyone might have been justified in taking as definite from any commander other than the hesitant Clinton. They would sail “with large reinforcements on October 5” … the instant he was notified by Graves that “we may venture.”
No hesitations or “maybes” qualified these commitments, and however little confidence Cornwallis had in Clinton as a bold or venturesome commander, he had every reason to expect prompt and effective support. Knowing Clinton’s vacillation, his reliance on the promises may have been ill-judged, but even before he received these assurances, which took two weeks to come down from New York, Cornwallis, strangely for a soldier known for his pugnacity and verve, had not taken or prepared any offensive action against the slow pedestrian approach of the enemy, and none to open a path for an escape route for his own army in the event that siege was in store for him.
When the Allied army marching down from Philadelphia arrived at Head of the Elk in Maryland on September 6, they found only empty wharves, once again. No boats awaited them, only more miles of sore feet. Washington had written ahead to Maryland friends and officials to collect fishing boats and everything else available, but he was told when he came that British cruisers had seized or destroyed every vessel of useful size on the Chesapeake. In bitter conference, the generals agreed to embark on the few boats at hand about 2,000 troops, 1,200 French and 800 Americans, and send the rest of the army on foot down the road to Baltimore 55 miles away. A greater asset than boats was money. Hard money came from Robert Morris, borrowed from friends and from the French on the pledge of his personal credit and shipped from Boston and Philadelphia. The sight of the money in silver half crowns rolled out of the kegs so that the men could see it won over the mutinous troops, wrote von Closen, “and raised spirits to the required level.” According to a Major William Popham of a New York regiment, “this day will be famous in the annals of history for being the first in which the troops of the United States received one month’s pay in specie.” Covering twenty miles a day on this stretch, the men reached Baltimore on September 12. Here at last they found water transport—in ships sent by de Grasse and in some others at Annapolis. Five frigates and nine transports took them down the Bay to be disembarked at Jamestown, on the James River just across from York.
At this point the pressure of the last days and weeks caught up with Washington. In spite of the felt need for haste, lest Cornwallis escape or make the attack on Lafayette that he should have made long since, Washington gave himself a holiday to visit his wife at Mount Vernon, his treasured home and lands sixty miles up the Potomac, which he had not seen, nor his wife, in six and a half years. The pull was one he could not resist, although delay added to his abiding fear that Cornwallis might move out of the trap before it could be sprung. This was Washington’s greatest anxiety. From Mount Vernon he wrote to Lafayette, “I hope you will keep Lord Cornwallis safe without provisions or forage until we arrive.” Lafayette maintained the barrier, though not against any test by Cornwallis, who made no move to break out at this time when he could have done so or, indeed, as General in command of the position, he should have done so. Washington wanted to show off his fine place to the French and return the hospitality they had given at their tables to the Americans at Newport. To anyone else a hurried ride of sixty miles each way would have seemed too far, but for Washington’s energetic spirit it was feasible. With his personal servant and an aide, accompanied by Rochambeau and his staff, Washington left Head of the Elk on September 8 and galloped most of the way, reaching Baltimore in one day. Rising at dawn the next morning, the General and his two companions reached their destination as twilight dimmed the pillared white house on the hill. Unable to keep up the pace, the French followed behind. After Washington entertained the French company for two days, they rode back, stopping for a night’s rest at Fredericks-burg. On September 14 they reached Williamsburg to meet Lafayette and Saint-Simon’s regiments and a vanguard of American Continentals encamped there. Here the good news that de Grasse was in command of the Bay and the British fleet gone was confirmed, mixed as always with trouble in the old problem of American shortages. Both food and ammunition for the army had dwindled to thinnest levels. As so often before, the foot soldiers who fought the war for American Independence were going hungry, and the prospect rose of the guns falling silent for lack of ball and powder just when they were needed to sustain a steady fire on the British garrison. Despite a good harvest in Maryland and Virginia, provisions lacked, owing to disorganized transportation and an incompetent quartermaster. Tornquist described the Williamsburg country when he passed through it as “very fertile, an average crop-yield gives sufficient sustenance for its owner the next year. Except for this advantage these inhabitants could never have withstood a six years’ war; for although 12,000 acres in the neighborhood have been fallow each year for lack of farmers, who at the age of fifteen were sent to camp; yet now during a severe siege they had sufficient provisions to supply an army of 15,000 men and a fleet of 45 sails, in spite of all the ravages a bitter enemy had perpetrated during his march through the country.”
The ravages Tornquist saw were as horrid as any to be found in any war. “On a beautiful estate a pregnant woman was found murdered in her bed through several bayonet stabs; the barbarians had opened both of her breasts and written above the bed canopy: ’Thou shalt never give birth to a rebel.’ In another room, was just as horrible a sight five cut-off heads arranged on a cupboard in place of plaster-cast-figures which lay broken to pieces on the floor. Dumb animals were no less spared. The pastures were in many places covered with dead horses, oxen and cows. A storehouse of tobacco which had been collected from Virginia, Maryland and Carolina for many years, containing 10,000 hogsheads of the best tobacco, was laid in ashes. Such was our first sight on landing in this unfortunate country. We did not find a single trace of inhabitants, for those who had been unable to flee lay on the ground as a token of the Godless behaviour of their enemies.” The atrocity of the slaughtered mother of course spread rapidly through the vicinity. According to another account, which Tornquist evidently could not bring himself to mention, the unborn baby had been torn from the womb and hung from a tree. Tornquist makes no attempt to identify the murderers except by implication, in that it is entered in his memoir immediately following the statement that Cornwallis’ troops on their way to York destroyed “everything which lay in his way, not sparing defenceless women and children.”
Happily for the Allied army, the gold of the generous Cubans, brought by de Grasse, was on hand to subsidize farm wagons as a means of local carriage. At the same time, Washington issued a proclamation prohibiting all masters of vessels and “all persons whatsoever” from “exporting any beef, pork, bacon or grains—wheat, corn, peas, flour or meal made from same … by land or water,” under stated penalties. The fear of useless guns remained to torment the Allied command.
A greater worry besetting them was de Grasse’s approaching deadline for departure before the “decisive stroke” had been achieved. Washington asked for a conference with the French Admiral. Delighted to meet the revered Commander-in-Chief, de Grasse in a nice gesture sent a captured British ship, the Queen Charlotte, to convey Washington and Rochambeau down the James River to meet him aboard his flagship, the Ville de Paris, anchored at the foot of Cape Henry. On September 18, the two generals, together with General Knox, the American artillery commander, and their aides, climbed the ladder of the huge vessel to meet the Admiral awaiting them on deck in his blue and scarlet uniform with the broad red ribbon of the Order of St. Louis stretched across his chest. De Grasse welcomed his American visitor, almost as tall and imposing as himself, with an embrace, two kisses on his cheeks and, according to report, the enthusiastic greeting “Mon cher petit général!” causing Knox almost to choke in his effort to suppress an explosive laugh. Surely no one had ever addressed the Roman dignity of the American chieftain as “My dear little” anything since his mother in his infancy.
What the visitors learned from de Grasse was only semi-satisfactory. Systematic in his habits, Washington had written out his questions in advance. His French-speaking aide, Colonel Tench Tilghman, who had been educated abroad, recorded de Grasse’s replies. Opening with an eloquent statement of the issue that engaged them as “big with great events and the peace & independence of his country, the general tranquility of Europe,” Washington spoke of the vital importance of the French fleet remaining in place to block the river mouths until “the reduction of Lord Cornwallis’ position [is] assured.” He asked if the Admiral’s orders named a fixed time for his departure and, if so, could he name the date; and whether he was required to return the regiments of Saint-Simon by a certain time and, if so, could he detach a portion of his fleet as their convoy while keeping his main fleet in the Bay “to form a sufficient cover to our operations, preventing the enemy from receiving supplies by water and any attempt by the British to relieve Lord Cornwallis.” He also asked if de Grasse could force the passage of the upper York to control the river and its shores in the stretch above Yorktown so as “to complete the investiture of the enemy’s posts,” and finally, whether “your Excellency be able to lend us some heavy cannon and other artillery—powder also—and in what number & quantity of each.” In the Admiral’s replies, the main point was partially gained. He agreed to prolong his stay until the end of October, and since his ships would not depart before November 1, Washington “may count upon” Saint-Simon’s troops “to that period for the reduction of York.” As regards cannon and powder, because of the amount used in the combat against Graves, he could not spare more than “a small quantity,” and he could not commit himself to control of the upper York because that depended on wind and tide, and he did not think it very useful in any case. His real reason for this negative, which he did not mention, was that he did not have enough small ships able to navigate the creeks and upper river—“crooked as a snake in motion,” in the words of an American boatman. But he would stay; that was the main point, allowing time for the process of siege to take effect.
On their return, the two generals did not find the Queen Charlotte a lucky ship. First she was becalmed in the Bay, and then blown off course by a gale, and when at last pushing up the river, she was so slowed by winds and currents that her passengers had to transfer to rowboats and commandeer sailors to row them upstream. They did not step ashore at Williamsburg until September 22, after five days’ absence. Time was racing. As they landed, it was a rare encouragement for Washington and Rochambeau to see the ships from Baltimore and even a few from Philadelphia coming in, bringing the troops from the laborious march to be reunited with the command.
As von Closen recorded it, his detachment had reached Wilmington, capital of Delaware, in a location “one of the pleasantest and most favorable on the whole continent.” Here they visit the site of the Battle of Brandy wine in 1777 and learn from an officer of the enthusiasm “impossible to imagine” that greeted the news in Philadelphia of de Grasse’s arrival in the Chesapeake. This moment of wonderful hope is quickly blasted at Head of the Elk, “an uninteresting little place” where troops of the New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania lines refused to march further without receiving back pay. Rochambeau dispelled the dark memory of mutiny by a gift to Washington of 50,000 livres, a third of all he had left in cash, which inspirited the troops enough to make them resume the march. Washington wrote urgently to Morris saying he needed at least a month’s pay as soon as possible and that $20,000 was not nearly enough.
Coming to the Susquehanna, the marchers were obliged to make a “diabolic crossing,” as von Closen recalled it, at a wide ford through “very rapid water over very large stones,” and although the river was only one and a half feet deep, the horses stumble at every step but carried them across without accident. Finding no river transportation at Baltimore, they determine to “rely on the strength of our horses” and go ahead independently without waiting for boats. Here they meet trouble. Advancing without a guide, they lose their way in the woods, crash through brambles and thorns, fall over fences and ditches until torn and bruised and, lost in the dark, they come upon a house which proves to be the home of some hospitable people named Walker, who care for the horses and whose two daughters prepare a supper and offer shelter for the night. In the morning they are astonished by Mr. Walker’s refusing any payment except for a few shillings for the horses’ oats, all the more remarkable, von Closen wrote, “since the Americans occasionally do not scruple to bleed us as much as they can” and, when they present a bill, add a charge in addition to that for food and forage of four to six crowns “for the trouble.”
On their way the travelers find good inns and clean beds but no such generosity as Mr. Walker’s. At one place a bill was presented for $21.
On September 16 they hear with “unparalleled joy” the good news that after a successful outcome of the naval battle in Chesapeake Bay, de Grasse had remained in possession of the Bay. On the 18th they reached Williamsburg to meet joyfully with Lafayette, and on the 22nd they welcomed the return of Washington and Rochambeau from their initial visit to de Grasse on the Ville de Paris.
Informed of the coming of this enlarged enemy force, Cornwallis too began to weigh valor in the balance against discretion. Commanding the last effective army in America, and the last Britain was likely to be able to raise, he had to think of its preservation. To leave Yorktown before envelopment was the problem. If he could break through the blockade maintained by de Grasse with one ship of the line and two frigates at the mouth of the York, the British, using transports they had tied up at York, might on a dark night, if unseen by the Allies, sail past the enemy and across the Bay to the Virginia coast on the far side. To break up the blockade, their means would be fire ships, a nasty weapon. Empty boats filled with tarred faggots and sticks and set alight by red-hot cannonballs heated almost molten would be released in the river to be carried downstream by wind and tide. As living torches, they would set fire to and destroy the blockaders, creating such panic and confusion on the French ships as would cause their captains to cut their cables and sail away. If that was Cornwallis’ hope, it seems farfetched; nevertheless, the attempt was made on the night of September 22. Four schooners were converted to fire ships and given to the command of four volunteers, one the captain of a Loyalist privateer. With the wind aiding, they were advancing down the river “with every probability of success,” according to one captain’s journal, when the privateer captain set his ship alight too soon. The French, at this vision of moving fire, “fired 20 or 30 shots at us” before retreating “in a precipitate and confused manner.” Adding to the fire storm, the other fire ships had set themselves alight; the “whole river was now aglow” and muscular tongues of flame licked the sky. With sails and flag blazing, one boat blew up and the heat that was felt as it passed by a companion ship was so great that the pilot ran his ship aground. In the end, the only result was the loss to the British of four vessels, leaving Cornwallis no nearer to a way out.
On September 28, the clink of bridles and the rhythmic clomp of horses’ hooves and tramp of marching men were heard in the British camp in Yorktown, announcing the approach of the enemy army from Williamsburg. The next night, Cornwallis astonished his army by ordering withdrawal from the outer defense line, the better to consolidate his forces for a compact defense. He believed that the expenditure in lives in a fight for the outer lines was not worth making when he was in expectation of early relief. Reasonable and compassionate, his decision was the most unfortunate he could have made. The abandoned redoubts—these were earthworks shaped like sections of a wall, built to absorb the impact of shells and to act as barriers to the assault of troops—were promptly occupied by the Allies when they found them empty in the morning, and made duck blinds for their artillery, soon to be rulers of the siege. When good fortune for once had descended in the form of de Barras’ arrival from Newport with the siege guns, 1,500 barrels of salt beef and a contingent of French troops, the former British redoubts were ready-made foundations for the American batteries. Landed six miles up the James, de Barras’ guns had to be tugged and dragged over streams and muddy roads at tortoise pace to position at Yorktown. Installed to the satisfaction of the engineers, they were to become, like de Grasse’s ships in the Bay, “masters” of the situation.
In their new forward positions, donated by Cornwallis, the Allied generals were enabled to obtain a closer view of the terrain and the British defenses and to begin construction of their own siegeworks.
Impenitent fortune at this moment had a new blow in store for the Allies. During the generals’ absence on the visit to de Grasse, a report had circulated that a British naval reinforcement under Rear Admiral Digby of the home fleet was coming to support Admiral Graves. The news made de Grasse nervous no less than Washington. It “alarmed and disquieted these excitable gentlemen of the Navy,” wrote von Closen, who had carried the Digby report to de Grasse and found his reaction disquieting indeed. Trained in the French doctrine of avoiding a battle that threatened loss of ships, de Grasse had no desire to wait around to encounter the approaching Admiral Digby. Baron von Closen returned from his interview at first glance with appalling news. At the moment when the components of victory—the French fleet and the land army—had joined, fulfilling the plan for the “decisive stroke” and bringing it near enough to touch, de Grasse declared himself prepared to hoist sail and move away from his blockade of the York. In the Allies’ extreme hour of high hope, the blow seemed like a grenade tossed at a wedding; after the first horrified reaction, it was made clear that de Grasse did not intend total departure nor abandonment of the blockade. In a dispatch to Washington, he explained that “the enemy are beginning to be almost equal to us, and it would be imprudent of me to put myself in a position where I could not engage them” effectively. He would leave two ships (two!) at the mouth of the York, and sail with the rest to “hold out in the offing so that if the fleet come to force the entrance [to the Bay] I can engage them in a less disadvantageous position. I shall set sail as soon as the wind permits me.” Stunned by the words to “hoist sail,” Washington and Rochambeau hardly noticed, or else put little reliance on, de Grasse’s declared intention to “hold out in the offing” where he could still engage the enemy effectively if they attempted to enter the Bay. His proposed move still appeared as desertion. Washington wrote back a letter as frantic as his temperament ever allowed, speaking of the “painful anxiety” which he had suffered since being informed of de Grasse’s intention of renouncing, as he thought, an enterprise … “after the most expensive preparations and uncommon exertions and fatigues” and “entreating” the Admiral to consider that “if you shd withdraw your maritime force from the position agreed upon, that no future day can restore to us a similar occasion for striking a decisive blow.” He added that it could hardly be Digby’s intention to “engage in a general action with a fleet whose force will be superior.” Appalled by their ally’s seeming desertion, Washington and Rochambeau agreed that the only man who might persuade de Grasse to reconsider was Lafayette, just recovering from the agues and fevers of a bout with malaria. Bearing Washington’s letter, he was sent by frigate, still shaking from his illness, on the desperate errand to Lynnhaven Bay off Cape Henry. To his horror, he found the anchorage empty, not a mast nor a sail to be seen. The frigate-master assured him that the Admiral could not have sailed away or he would have been notified. After a twelve-hour search of the Bay, de Grasse was discovered anchored where he blocked the mouth of the York, though leaving the entrance of the Bay on the ocean side still open to British intrusion. De Grasse’s own flag captains, as it proved, unhappy at the proposal to leave, which they said in a conference with the Admiral “did not appear to fulfil the aims we had in view,” had refused, or showed an intention to refuse, to hoist sail. Admiral de Grasse now agreed to remain, and confirmed his change of mind in a letter to Washington and Rochambeau on September 25 in which he agreed to maintain his anchorage at the foot of Cape Henry, blocking the entrance to the Bay, and also to blockade the mouth of the York. The letter was received on September 27.
On arriving at Yorktown on September 28, Washington, after re-connoitering the position, spent his first night in the open under a spreading mulberry tree. The next morning he began the deployment of his forces for the siege. The French and their batteries were placed on the left to command the ground between the York River and the town, while the American infantry and artillery took up position on the right. Additional French batteries were mounted above the town on the same side. Lauzun’s legion and the Virginia militia held an inland strip across Gloucester Point, blocking movement by the British stationed at the point’s tip protruding from the York riverbanks opposite Yorktown. Cornwallis was lodged at the rear of the town, while Washington’s and Rochambeau’s respective headquarters faced the town directly. In front of their headquarters two parallels, or trenches to receive the besiegers, were to be dug 200 and 300 yards apart. Cornwallis’ only reaction until now had been entirely defensive. After learning of the Allied approach to Virginia and knowing the outcome of the Battle of the Bay, he set about industriously fortifying his perimeter by the construction of redoubts.
During September, engineers drove the work force—including several thousand Negro slaves who had deserted to the British in the hope of gaining their freedom—in constant hard labor on the redoubts.
On September 30, the Allies felt that Yorktown was “completely invested” and that the two main objects of a siege—to prevent the defenders from receiving aid or from making their escape—had been accomplished. No passage was left open except upriver leading into the heart of the country, and Cornwallis was not expected to attempt escape by that path. Yet a lurking fear remained that he just might try, in the hope of leading his army in a sortie or breakout through the besieging lines, to make his way in a raid through the farming country of Maryland and Pennsylvania back to Britain’s base in New York. Washington continued to worry about this stretch of the upper river, which he had tried and failed to persuade de Grasse to occupy with his warships. That escape by Cornwallis would vitiate the whole campaign which Washington had brought to this stage, was a gnawing anxiety, and exerted on him a compelling pressure to let loose a barrage of all the firepower he could throw. Because he knew that until he could employ really heavy artillery to be followed by a well-prepared assault by troops, anything less might fail, he restrained his fierce desire.
On the day de Grasse entered Chesapeake Bay to complete the envelopment of Cornwallis, William Smith, Clinton’s intelligence officer in New York, asserted, “A week will decide perhaps the ruin or salvation of the British Empire.” Within that week, the Battle of the Capes indeed brought a decision—neither ruin nor salvation, but room for the power that would ultimately take Britain’s place in world affairs. Clinton did not have Smith’s prophetic bones. “You have little to apprehend from the French,” he had assured Cornwallis in his letter of September 2. Despite the information he had by now received, he could not conceive of losing control of Chesapeake Bay to the French. He, no more than anyone, had expected de Grasse to strip the Antilles and his convoy duties for the sake of America. In fact, the battle did not arouse much concern or convey its significance until Graves himself wrote, a few days later, the terrible words that no British ear ever expected to hear about a sea area under British sovereignty: “The enemy have so great a naval force in the Chesapeake that they are absolute masters of its navigation.” All the dooms predicted by the Whigs could be contained in the two words “absolute masters,” and even if they did not go beyond Clinton’s desk, the sense they carried may explain why the energy went out of the mission to save Cornwallis.
Much of it had already faded. On September 13, the day before Graves’s grim letter was received, another Council of War of general officers in New York was summoned. In frustration at the failure to launch a rescue, Councils were being held every few days. William Smith privately thought the staff officers “servile … not a man of business or enterprise among them.” At the Council on September 13, a forceful plea for action was made by Major General James Robertson, military governor of New York, who was considered an administrative officer rather than a man of war. He was a sport among the servile insofar as he took seriously the subject they were met to consider. For the sake of making haste and for the greater chance of bringing the relief force through the enemy lines, he proposed that the expedition sail without transports, but instead that all the 5,000 men be crammed aboard the Robust, the only ship of the line available in New York.
Thoroughly shocked at the thought of a procedure so unorthodox and even dangerous, Clinton and the Council vetoed the idea. Robertson nevertheless put it in writing for the next day. Inaction leading to the loss of Cornwallis, he claimed, could bring down the whole cause in America. The reinforcements, if brought to bear, would enable Cornwallis to attack the enemy with his whole force. Dangers were probabilities, whereas doing nothing was certain death.
He did not carry the day. Instead, Clinton convened another Council, on September 14, at which the letter from Graves was read, and put to it a leading question with the answer built-in: whether the relief should be hazarded during “our present naval inferiority,” or, given that the enemy has mastery of the Chesapeake and that officers recently returned from Yorktown when questioned have asserted that Cornwallis could hold out until the end of October and could feed 10,000 on full allowance for that time—indeed, it was their opinion he could defend the post “against twenty thousand assailants,” Clinton claimed—whether it would be better to wait until receipt of “more favourable accounts” from Admiral Graves or until he had made a junction with Admiral Digby. The Council, taking its indicated cue, declared in favor of waiting.
Cornwallis’ own spirit had gone slack. For an interval of ten days after the Battle of the Bay, when he knew that its outcome had left the French in control of the seacoast with the resulting odds against his own rescue, he made no move to prepare to escape from the pocket he was in before the Washington-Rochambeau troops arrived to close his back door. When the Bay was known to be lost, this was the time when he might still have fought his way out by land—if not all the way to New York, at least through Maryland to the mouth of the Delaware. Unless he could count on Clinton’s promise of relief as a sure thing, the risk of a march through semi-hostile country, with Tarleton to cut a path, was less than the certain disaster to come if he were enclosed. From September 6, when Washington’s army had passed through Chester and Head of the Elk, unless intelligence was nil, Cornwallis must have known they were coming. On what day he learned of their advance we do not know, but it was doubtless at about the same time he learned of the naval outcome which elicited Admiral Graves’s dismaying report on September 9 that the French were “absolute masters of navigation” in the Chesapeake. Recognizing the prospect of siege, Cornwallis wrote Clinton as Commander-in-Chief on September 16-17, “If you cannot relieve me very soon, you must be prepared to hear the worst.” The “worst” was left ambiguous. If the “worst” meant defeat or surrender, it must be inferred that Cornwallis, without a ready source of provisions, had no intention of fighting his way out by land. When that letter was received in New York, on September 23, a War Council was summoned the next day to consider this sudden drawing of the curtain and its purport.
Clinton, to whom ambiguity was second nature, took the worst to mean retreat, which would have relieved his soul, for it would have lifted from him the burden of having to risk breaking through the de Grasse barrier to bring relief to York. As he was to acknowledge in his revealing postwar apologia, he “would not have been greatly displeased to have heard that Lord Cornwallis had made his escape to Carolina with everything he could take with him.” Why, as Commander-in-Chief, he did not at this point order Cornwallis to make his escape was a failure which Cornwallis was later to cite as his excuse for not doing so.
Graves was no more eager to head back to the Chesapeake to challenge de Grasse again. With several of his ships crippled by the engagement in the Bay, he arrived in New York for repairs on September 24, nineteen days after the battle, five days having been consumed in maneuvering across the bar at Sandy Hook. Now it was up to him to put his fleet in shape to confront de Grasse or somehow to slip past him with relief forces for Cornwallis in York. Yet in New York, where ten ships were discovered in need of repair, he obdurately refused to move unless every one of his ships was fully repaired from hull to rigging, every damaged mast replaced and every vessel in seaworthy condition to join the squadron. At first he had appeared full of spirit and pugnacity, informing Clinton that everything would be done to restore his ships as rapidly as possible and that he was prepared to break through the French barrier to land troops at the mouth of the York. He proposed a scheme whereby de Grasse, being located in an area of strong tides, would find it difficult to maneuver to fire his broadsides, whereas he himself could take advantage of the tide to slip by under cover of darkness to anchor in the York River and disembark there. This castle in the air was to remain a phantom. On the basis of reports from the dockyards, Graves said he would be ready to sail by October 5, twelve days hence. This was the first of many creeping deadlines which came and went with no departure. For three weeks troops and crew had been embarked on motionless ships. The delays and postponements gave rise to impatient and puzzled muttering. Generals had not come to join their contingents, nor admirals their ships. Their absence elicited from an astute observer, Captain Frederick MacKenzie of the Adjutant General’s office, a remark that could stand for the whole conduct of the American war: “Our generals and admirals don’t seem to be in earnest about this business.”
Here was the problem as an empire slid from under their feet: the problem of making do with faulty processes and broken parts, of misunderstood signals, of the useless rigidity of Fighting Instructions, of a scurvy-producing diet, of political quarrel among combat officers, of employing worn-out and withered naval commanders, of putting the protection of trade ahead of strategic operations, of poor and too often false intelligence of enemy movements and intentions and, embracing all these, the problem of not knowing or caring to know the nature of the enemy and undertaking to suppress a major rebellion on the assumption that the rebels could be described, in the words of Lord Rawdon, a respected British officer, as “infatuated wretches.”
When, at the end of their long march, the last of the Allied army tramped into Williamsburg on September 26, everything for Cornwallis now depended on how soon Clinton would expedite the relief he had so firmly promised. The mood in New York had not been vibrating with urgency, except with regard to the expected arrival of a naval addition coming under Admiral Digby. “Digby, Digby!” was the cry circulating in the army among officers who would have to go with a relief force. As it was known from a message brought by frigate that Digby was coming with a total of three ships, he could not be thought likely to perform a marvel, but it was believed he would add to the Hood-Graves complement of nineteen just enough to give superiority over de Grasse. The vision of two or three extra ships immediately caused the gleam of victory to shine anew. “Should our fleet beat theirs,” wrote Captain MacKenzie, “we have a fair prospect of ending the rebellion.”
With his three ships, Digby duly arrived on September 24, bringing one element to brighten the situation in the person of Prince William Henry, the King’s son and future successor as King William IV. Under some happy ministerial illusion, he had been chosen, according to a rumor picked up in Rochambeau’s camp, to visit America with the intention that he would eventually take office as Governor of “opulent and prosperous” Virginia. A 21-gun salute boomed rather emptily in greeting. How many people it made unhappily conscious that the guns were booming here but not at York, we cannot know. The visit of the Prince showed that New York still had energy, if not to galvanize a relief mission, at least to entertain royalty. Lethargy vanished in a burst of parties, receptions and parades for the visiting Prince. Tours of the city and reviews of German and English regiments, dinners with distinguished citizens and an evening concert by a military band, with General Clinton in attendance, took minds off anxiety about Cornwallis while evoking a nice show of loyalty to the Crown.
While the bands played in New York, Cornwallis watched the horizon in vain for masts to appear. A dispatch from Yorktown told how he was “in daily expectation of the appearance of the British fleet to relieve him, and without them has no great hopes of withstanding the great force collected against him.” War Councils summoned by Clinton in New York conferred futilely, unable to decide what to do.
Cornwallis waited while the guns pounded for the promised reinforcements, but no sail appeared. While in New York the navy hesitated and councils vacillated, the painful procrastination of the relief force rose from fear of risking the navy, Britain’s wooden walls and defender of empire around the world. In Graves’s spiritless hands after the Battle of the Bay, the navy lost its function like a candle without a flame. While the navy remained static for six empty weeks waiting for the wind and for courage, down on the blue estuary where the York flows into the Chesapeake an empire disappeared.
Councils followed each other like the fall of autumn leaves. At these meetings, participants agreed that the relief expedition must be hazarded and would probably get through, but they questioned how, having lost surprise, would it come safely out? Without a clear answer, the Council agreed again on the oft-repeated sailing date of October 5, of which Cornwallis should be informed. Clinton’s letter to this effect was what decided Cornwallis, in anticipation of the relief, to withdraw on September 29 from his front lines for a consolidation of his forces. Because repairs at the New York dockyards were not complete, Graves’s intended sailing date of October 5 was not met. Departure dates for October 8 and 12 likewise went by, with no ships hoisting sail.
By now the New York chiefs well knew that Cornwallis’ situation was precarious and delay was dangerous. Worried by Graves’s procrastination, William Smith put it to Governor Tryon of New York: “Every hour is precious to Lord Cornwallis.” One ship, theMontague, as noted by Captain MacKenzie, still lacked a mast and if all were ready to sail by October 10, it would take three days to get over the bar and seven before effective help could reach Cornwallis. Captain MacKenzie, in his journal, begins to doubt that the fleet will ever depart, and he wishes some other action could be undertaken elsewhere to “counterbalance our losses.” He slips in an interesting admission when he wonders if such action might make “the enemy’s thirst for peace be equal to our own.” Graves now says they cannot sail until October 12, while the captains talk of not being ready for ten days. “If they cannot,” notes MacKenzie, “they may as well stay for ten months.” Clinton, reporting the Council meeting to Cornwallis, writes that barring an “unforeseen accident” we should pass the bar by October 12,“ but Yorktown is clearly not primary with him, for he comes back to a favorite project of his, if he could not come in time, “I will immediately make an attempt upon Philadelphia” to draw off “part of Washington’s force from you.” That was feeble comfort to a man under the daily pounding of 16-inch mortars. Another sailing date was missed when a storm broke on October 13, crushing one of Graves’s ships against another and causing a smashed bowsprit. The paralysis had become pervasive.
At Yorktown during the night of October 6, workmen began digging the first Allied parallel facing the enemy. Stretching from the American quarters to the French, the Allied forces were supported by four redoubts, two in each camp, and a battery of guns aimed to “sweep with fire” enemy vessels coming up the river. The defenders’ fire on the work party was desultory, causing two minor casualties.
On October 9, the first American guns at Yorktown opened fire on the British defense works. For the past three days, engineers had been directing artillerymen in the construction of the batteries while night workmen were employed in digging the parallels. Work continued during the day by men from Saint-Simon’s troops, who constructed zigzag communicating trenches to the batteries and built abatis to fortify them. These were palisades of sharpened stakes pounded into the earth, with points up, to prevent attackers from climbing over the parapets. Casualties during the work were slight: one killed and seven wounded, but the toll increased, of officers as well as workmen, as the labor continued.
According to custom, the ceremonial opening of the first parallel of a siege called for troops to occupy the trench, flying flags with fife and drums. The honor was given to a detachment under Colonel Alexander Hamilton, whose appetite for public notice led him to order a useless and wanton display of his troop performing the Manual of Arms on the parapet. So astonished was the enemy by this act of bravado that they thought either it had some ulterior and menacing motive or that the Colonel was mad—and did not fire, sparing Hamilton a deserved lesson. Fifty guns from the Allied lines were now firing. Most were Saint-Simon’s, which de Grasse’s ships had brought down from Baltimore; the others were fieldpieces pulled by manpower down from White Plains under command of General Knox. When urged to wait until he could send them by ship, Washington, remembering how Knox’s guns dragged overland from Ticonderoga had delivered Boston, insisted that they accompany the march. The difficulty of bringing them over rutted roads and unbridged streams slowed the pace, increasing the anxiety that Cornwallis might escape or so strengthen his defenses as to make them impassable. The guns were in place before he did either.
Europeans, from repeated practice, had developed a science and a formal ritual of siege warfare of which Americans on their wide-open continent and in their wooden cities were ignorant. They were soon instructed, in the guttural accents and cheerful profanity of their drill-master and military teacher, Baron von Steuben, the authenticity of whose title—or lack of it—bore no relation to the affection in which he was held. All day convalescents and workers off duty from the regiments fashioned mysterious artifacts calledgabions and fascines—earth-filled wicker baskets and bundles of dry sticks used to thicken the earthworks. Trees chopped down throughout the town to clear the field of fire supplied the material. By this time the response of British guns was diminishing, for Cornwallis, recognizing that he was under a real siege, had ordered the conserving of ammunition.
After Cornwallis sustained the opening barrage of gunfire from the Allied batteries in the first parallel, he informed Clinton on October 11 that “nothing but a direct move to York River which includes a successful naval action can save me.” The cannonading that began on October 11 delivered by 16-inch mortars was so “horrendous,” as described by Lieutenant Bartholomew James of the Royal Navy, another diarist, “that it seemed as though the heavens should split.” The noise and thundering of the bombardment grew “almost unendurable.” Lieutenant James saw “men lying nearly everywhere who were mortally wounded, whose heads, arms and legs had been shot off. The distressing cries of the wounded and the lamentable suffering of the inhabitants whose dwellings were chiefly in flames” intensified the carnage.
As the ring of siege drew closer, a last sharp thrust showing no sign of paralysis took place on October 3 on the Gloucester side, engaging the two bellicose cavalry leaders, Tarleton and the Duc de Lauzun. To blockade Gloucester as a possible land exit for Cornwallis, Washington had placed there a unit of 1,500 Virginia militia, who usually ran when confronted by the dragoons, plus Lauzun’s legion of 600 as well as 800 armed marines. In British command of the Gloucester camp, Tarleton had led his Cavalry Legion out for foraging and was returning with wagons loaded with Indian corn when he was met in a narrow lane by Lauzun’s legion armed with lances. When a horse wounded by a lance thrust collided with Tarleton’s, he was thrown; his dragoons scrambled to his rescue, enabling him to seize another horse to remount and escape under the protective rifle fire of his infantry. Outnumbered, they were ordered by Tarleton to retreat, while Lauzun’s men charged in pursuit, protected in their turn by the steady fire of the Virginia militia. Tarleton’s dragoons made good their retreat into Gloucester, which was thereafter invested by the French commander, the Marquis de Choisy. The clash of the two heroes terminated without changing the fortunes of the war except for a new respect for the firm stand of the Virginia militia.
During the night of October 11—12, the Allies moved closer to start work on a second parallel, 300 yards from the Hornwork, largest of the British redoubts and central piece of the defenses. The new parallel was within assault distance of the two most obstructive British redoubts, numbers Nine and Ten. Until these were eliminated, it was clear that, under the fire of their batteries, the parallels could make no further advance; a major assault upon the two redoubts was necessary. It was ordered for October 14, to be carried out by bayonet attack. In expectation of hand-to-hand combat, tremendous tension rose as the companies were selected and orders given. Tension was heightened when Washington addressed to the soldiers a brief speech of exhortation, which was not usual for him. He said that success depended on both redoubts being taken, for if the British recaptured either, they could add to it extra strength of men and guns, making impossible any further advance of the Allies’ parallels and delaying the siege, with the attendant danger of giving time for British naval relief. Brought to a peak of fervor, French and Americans under the overall command of Lafayette plunged into battle. The French of the Royal Deux-Ponts had a fiercer fight in storming number Nine than the Americans of the Rhode Island Light Infantry, under Hamilton and Captain Stephen Olney, at number Ten, because the abatis at Nine had not been as thoroughly smashed by the siege guns as those at Ten. Bayonet thrusts and musket volleys at arm’s length dealt death and wounds as the attackers were thrown back in their desperate climb over the stakes. So fierce was their assault that Lieutenant James thought the enemy had “stormed from right to left with 17,000 men.” Under strong impressions, the veracity of eyewitness diaries is sometimes reduced. With losses of 15 French and 9 Americans killed, both the redoubts were taken by 10 p.m. To the surprise of the attackers, who expected a last-ditch defense, they found 73 prisoners in their hands, among them the commander of number Nine, a Major McPherson, who was said by his captors to have retreated from his post with thirty men when the firing began, virtually yielding the redoubt. Whether this was a sign of defeatism in Cornwallis’ army or the tragic failing of one individual can never be known. As soon as the redoubts were taken, men of the Pennsylvania line who had been held in reserve dropped their guns to take up picks and shovels and go back to digging the second parallel further forward. Under a British battery still firing, the cost in the French sector was 136 wounded.
Capture of Redoubts Nine and Ten as posts for Allied artillery gave Washington command of the enemy’s communication to Gloucester, the remaining possible point of exit. Cornwallis thought the same, for after this loss, in his own mind he gave up. He addressed to Clinton an extraordinary letter. Coming from a general commanding a vital position at a critical moment in a war of great import for his country and, whether or not he realized it, for history, it may be unique in military annals. Honest, and without evasion, taking no refuge in ambiguity, he wrote, “My situation now becomes very critical. We dare not shew a gun to their old batteries and I expect that their new ones will open to-morrow morning; experience has shewn that our fresh earthen works do not resist their powerful artillery, so that we shall soon be exposed to an assault, in ruined works, in a bad position and with weakened numbers. The safety of the place is therefore so precarious that I cannot recommend that the fleet and army should run great risque in endeavouring to save us.” He looks finality in the eye, lays no blame, makes no excuses.
Yet he was too much of a soldier just to sit there and die. Custom in sieges required at least one effort to break out before yielding. Within 24 hours of the loss of Redoubts Nine and Ten, Cornwallis ordered 350 picked men to assault the Allies’ second parallel, with the object of spiking their guns by jamming bayonets down their barrels. Just before dawn of October 16, in the quietest hour of the night, he launched an attack that succeeded in silencing seven cannon but in the process excited a sharp counterattack by the French grenadiers under the Vicomte de Noailles and the Allied engineers. In a parental fury to protect their cubs, they drove the enemy out and, while bullets whizzed over their heads, removed the spikes. By daybreak their batteries were again in action.
With Yorktown shaking under Allied fire, his casualties mounting and men falling sick with fever, Cornwallis decided upon a last effort to escape Yorktown. For the night of October 16, he planned to ferry his army in three trips across the York River to the Gloucester side, either to meet the relief ships at sea that Clinton had said were coming or, if he had to, somehow to make his way north by land. The night of the 16th was protectively black as the operation began. It was not Allied guns that aborted it. No spy or deserter or renegade Loyalist had alerted Washington. Nature, so often a careless arbiter of the addled affairs of men, did the job. A heavy storm at midnight and a cloudburst of pelting rain soaked the men in flight to a shivering chill and tossed their boats in confusion against the rocky shore, making a landing impossible. Before morning light, most returned to their starting point under the rifle fire of the now alerted Allies. A goodly number were blown by the storm out into the Bay.
At daylight on October 17, Allied batteries on the captured redoubts opened a thunderous bombardment on British positions, knocking out British batteries still able to fire. With the hope of escape terminated, capitulation was the only course open to a Council of War convened by Cornwallis in the Hornwork.
At ten o’clock on the morning of October 17, a faint tattoo of drums, barely making itself heard over the pounding of the guns, was located coming from a small red-coated drummer boy standing on the parapet of the Hornwork. The taller figure of an officer waving a handkerchief in lieu of a white flag emerged from the Hornwork and walked toward the American lines with the drummer boy alongside, still furiously beating his drum. Upon this apparition, now both audible and visible, Allied guns ceased their fire. The silence that fell over the shattered town was a more eloquent sound than any heard in the last six and a half years. Its significance could hardly be believed. Still holding his white handkerchief, the British officer was escorted to American quarters, and the note he carried from Cornwallis was delivered at a run to Washington’s tent. The note read:
I propose a cessation of hostilities for twenty four hours and that two officers may be appointed by each side to meet at Mr. Moore’s house to settle terms for the surrender of the posts at York and Gloucester.
I have the honour to be, &c: Cornwallis
What were Washington’s feelings when he read the word “surrender” and when he wrote his reply no diary tells. After years of privations and disappointments and bloodstained footprints in the snow of the men for whom he could not obtain decent footwear, to have now brought the war to this consummation and have the enemy give in could only have stirred profound emotion. Too deep for tears, or words, it was not confided to any person or page. In reply to the notice of surrender, he wrote, “An ardent desire to spare the further effusion of blood will readily incline me to listen to such terms for the surrender of your posts and garrisons of York and Gloucester as are admissible.” He added that Cornwallis’ proposed terms should be sent in writing to the American lines prior to the meeting of the Commissioners. The word “cessation” of hostilities during the time allowed was changed in the American reply to “suspension,” at the suggestion of John Laurens, recently returned from France and acting as adviser to Rochambeau and Washington. Still concerned about leaving too much time open for rescue by sea, Washington allowed a time limit of two hours instead of 24.
Cornwallis’ feelings when he surrendered to rebels and contemptible foes, as he thought them, were equally unrecorded. The need to justify himself is uppermost in an interesting letter he wrote to Clinton on that day. Now that the fight was over, he began to find excuses and suggest blame. As might be expected, he laid the blame politely but unmistakably in Clinton’s lap. At the same time, he seems conscious that his own passivity needed explanation.
I have the mortification to inform Your Excellency that I have been forced to give up the posts of York and Gloucester and to surrender the troops under my command by capitulation on the 19th inst. as prisoners of war to the combined forces of America and France.
He goes on to say that he “never saw this post in a favourable light,” and when found he was to be attacked in it by powerful forces—“nothing but the hopes of relief would have induced me to attempt its defence; for I would either have endeavored to escape to New York by rapid marches from the Gloucester side immediately on the arrival of General Washington’s troops at Williamsburg [the opponent appears as “General” here for the first time] or I would have attacked them in the open field, but [here comes the knife]being assured by Your Excellency’s letters that every possible means would be tried by the navy and army to relieve us I could not think myself at liberty to venture on either of those desperate attempts.… ” Why not? Desperate attempts when the worst is in prospect is a general’s business. Cornwallis was a man who could have thrust his hand in a flame if necessary, but not a man to organize the logistics and arrangements of a large campaign with a likely risk of failure. The smooth face in the Gainsborough portrait with no lines of thought or of frowns or of laughter—with no lines at all—tells as much. It is a face composed by a life of comfort and satisfaction without any need of desperate attempts.
As we know, Cornwallis took neither of the two courses he mentions to Clinton. He did nothing at the time of the Allied army’s arrival at Williamsburg on September 26, except three days later to order with-drawal from his front lines to the inner defenses of Yorktown, nor did he make any effort to escape by way of Gloucester until too late, and he certainly did not give any sign of contemplating an attack on them “in the open field.”
The clue to Cornwallis, one might suppose, was his initial opinion that forceful coercion of the Americans was a mistake because it could not succeed. Other men of the army and navy who shared his opinion refused to fight for the mistake. Cornwallis did not refuse; on the contrary, he volunteered, supposedly from a sense of duty while holding the King’s commission. It may be that his ambivalence about the war, from the beginning, lurked in his mind to become the reason for his halfhearted fight. His conduct during the last month is not easily understandable. Like Hamlet, he could say to us, the heart is not to be plucked from my mystery.
Perforce accepting the shortened truce, Cornwallis was able to deliver his proposals within the two hours allowed. His stipulations were more concerned with procedure and protocol than with military conditions, and, as such, they generated hours of controversy between the two parties when they met.
The parley Commissioners were John Laurens and the Vicomte de Noailles, Lafayette’s brother-in-law, representing the Allies, and on the other side two aides, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas and Major Alexander Ross, for Cornwallis.
Cornwallis’ conditions proved inadmissible. He asked for the honors of war to be granted to his garrison in the ceremony of surrender. Among these were the right to attend the ceremony with flags flying and the right to march to music of their choice. For some Byzantine reason of European custom, the right of the capitulators to play the national airs or anthems of the victor was considered to imply that they had put up a good fight. Washington did not think so. In his judgment, in a letter to Governor Sim Lee of Maryland, Cornwallis’ conduct “has hitherto been passive beyond conception.” In Washington’s creed, danger was created to be overcome. Moreover, at the surrender of Charleston, eighteen months before, the British had allowed no honors of war to the defenders and required them to appear with flags cased—that is, furled. Laurens, who had taken part in that occasion, was adamant in refusing to allow the British the honor of marching to the music of their choice with regimental flags flying. When told by Major Ross that this was a “harsh article,” Laurens reminded the Major that after a gallant defense of six weeks in open trenches at Charleston, the same had been refused by the British there. Ross replied that “Lord Cornwallis did not command at Charleston,” and was firmly told by Laurens, “It is not the individual that is here considered. It is the nation. This remains an article or I cease to be a commissioner.” Next, the British wanted honors for the garrison of Gloucester, while Laurens insisted it should be treated as one with the rest. A compromise was finally found, allowing the cavalry to ride with drawn swords and sounding trumpets while the infantry must keep its colors cased.
To plunge into passionate dispute over the trivialities of so-called honor is a queer but not uncommon gambit of men who have just come from putting their lives at stake in serious combat. These were men who had been fighting for empire in one case and for national independence in the other. Did they think they were altering the verdict of the battlefield?
A more substantive issue next arose in the British demand that British and German troops as prisoners be returned to their countries of origin under parole not to re-engage. The same provision granted at Burgoyne’s surrender had permitted the prisoners to fill the places of other troops at home, who could then be sent to America. This time it was disallowed. The most obstinate issue concerned treatment of the Loyalists who had fought for Britain and whose protection Laurens said he had no power to grant and which he was sure Washington would not permit. While the army waiting outside the parley stirred in restlessness at the delay, the arguments dragged on, until the terms were finally concluded at midnight.
When copied and delivered to Washington, he promised to reply to the modifications early in the morning, with another two hours granted for Cornwallis’ signature, expected at 11 a.m., to be followed by surrender of the garrison at two o’clock, failing which, hostilities would resume. The signed papers were duly delivered in the given time. Promptly at 2 p.m. on October 19, 1781, the first steps took place in the ceremony so often described, inaugurating the existence of a new nation.
Lined up on one side of the road to Williamsburg were ten French regiments in their white uniforms, with white silk flags bearing the royal fleur-de-lis in gold. On the other side stood the Americans, with the Continentals drawn up in front and the less disciplined and shabbier militia, some with toes poking through broken boots, behind. The British, with polished black boots and gaiters whitened, and wearing fresh uniforms issued by their commissary so that they should not be included in the surrender of property, marched out between the lines with colors tightly cased, no flags flying to wave them along. As required, they marched to the music of their own nation—according to one of history’s most memorable invented legends, a ballad, as everyone supposes, called “The World Turned Upside Down.” In fact, no such song or melody by that name existed.*
In the surrender march, the Germans, stiff and correct, followed soberly in step, but the British, having emptied their last stores of rum and brandy, “appeared much in liquor” and exhibited morgue (bitterness) and insolence and, above everything else “contempt for the Americans,” as remarked by the French Quartermaster, Claude Blanchard. Contempt of the defeated for the victor, seemingly a perverse response, is a loser’s sentiment—denying admission of its own fault or failure and believing itself robbed of victory by some malign mischance, as in sports when a gust of wind might divert the throw of a ball, giving victory to the opponent. The British kept their eyes on the French, refusing to look at their late subjects, until Lafayette called for the playing of “Yankee Doodle,” which brought all British heads around in a single turn toward the Americans.
The ceremony of surrender was too much for the soldierly heroism of Lord Cornwallis, who on the grounds of illness did not attend, sending his second in command, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, to act for him. Admiral de Grasse, too, though an author of the victory, was kept absent by an attack of asthma and was represented by Admiral de Barras.
Washington, statuesque on horseback in his familiar buff and blue, was stationed at the head of the American line. When O’Hara approached as Cornwallis’ deputy, he advanced toward Rochambeau, evidently intending to surrender his sword to the French rather than the Americans. Rochambeau with a smile shook his head and pointed to General Washington across the road. Washington, not willing as Commander-in-Chief to complete the ritual with the British second in command, pointed to his own deputy, General Lincoln, who had been the American commander at the surrender of Charleston. Whether Lincoln accepted the sword from O’Hara for Washington has been a disputed point. He did indicate to O’Hara the spot in the field called the Pigeon Quarter where the British should lay down their arms. Inebriated or not, the redcoats slammed the guns down with spiteful vigor in the hope of breaking the locks, until O’Hara, watching, ordered them to stop this petty revenge.
THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN
The tune “Derry Down,” more plaintive than jaunty, is not particularly suitable for marching, but on the way to surrender jauntiness might not be wanted.
Taking place at a seaport of the Bay where a British Admiral had declared the French to be “absolute masters of its navigation,” the surrender at Yorktown marked an overturn of naval sovereignty that added gall to the occasion. Within a year Rodney would prove the overturn ephemeral, but at Yorktown it had marked a further fall for the British.
On October 17, the day when Cornwallis, heralded by his little drummer boy, asked for terms, his would-be rescuers in New York, Graves and Clinton, setting a record for belated action in military history, finally fixed a time to leave on the mission that had been waiting ever since Clinton had acknowledged on September 2 that Cornwallis would have to be “saved.” An army of 7,000 was boarded, sails were hoisted, Graves’s fleet with Clinton on board moved slowly down the Hudson. They crossed the Hook on October 19, on the same day when, in Yorktown, Washington and Cornwallis signed and accepted the terms of surrender. Five days later, October 24, they were off Cape Charles without encountering the feared interference from de Grasse, who had no reason to risk battle for a cause already won. While small craft scuttled through the bay seeking news, a boat came out from the York to tell the tale. Time had not waited; the door was closed. All the expense and armed force exerted for nearly six years had gone for nothing. No victory, no glory, no restored rulership. As a war, it was the historic rebuke to complacency.
The two masters of lethargy, Admiral and General, with their 35 ships and 7,000 men turned around and sailed back uselessly to New York.
Officially the war was not over, nor American sovereignty recognized, nor would it be until the long-drawn-out process of negotiating a peace treaty, which was to last two years, was concluded in 1783. No shots heard round the world were fired to announce the surrender. The event spoke for itself, verifying the independent statehood of America saluted nearly six years before by the guns of St. Eustatius. At that time, American independence was not a fact but only a newborn Declaration. When de Graaff’s guns spoke, hardly six months had passed since, as the second President, John Adams, was to say, “The greatest question was decided which ever was debated in America, and a greater never was or will be decided among men.” The purport of those words hung over the capitulation at Yorktown, notifying the Old World that the hour of change to a democratic age had come.
*The words occur in one of many versions sung to the popular tune “Derry Down.” Best known of these was the ballad “The King Enjoys His Own Again,” an old Jacobite serenade to Bonnie Prince Charlie, anything but appropriate to this occasion. Another version, entitled “The Old Woman Taught Wisdom” or “When the World Turned Upside Down,” contained these lines of notably uninspired poetry:
If buttercups buzz’d after the bee
If boats were on land, churches on sea
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse
If the mamas sold their babies
To the Gypsies for half a crown
If summer were spring
And the other way ’round
Then all the world would be upside down!
The statement that “The World Turned Upside Down” was the tune played by the capitulators has been traced to John Laurens, who is supposed to have told it to William Jackson, his close associate during Laurens’ trip to France and also the recorder of Laurens’ conference on surrender terms with Cornwallis’ aides. Jackson, later assistant to a Secretary of War, is said to have communicated what Laurens told him to Alexander Garden, author of Anecdotes of the American Revolution, published in Charleston in 1828. It has been suggested that what Laurens said was something to the effect that the capitulators marched in a slow and dispirited manner, as if they felt the “world had been turned upside down,” and that Jackson presumed he was referring to the ballad containing those words. Variants as to date and origin of the ballad, as to whether it was or was not a marching tune—e.g., “The rhythm in 6/8 time is not adapted to marching” (Frank Luther, Americans and Their Songs), and, alternatively, “The music makes an excellent march” (Kenneth Roberts, Northwest Passage)— have led students through a maze of contradictory references, leaving us with only one certainty: that the tune played by the capitulators at Yorktown, like what song the sirens sang, is historically obscure.