The War in the South

After Monmouth Courthouse there were to be no more major battles in the North and indeed scarcely any more serious fighting in the Revolutionary War. During 1779 the British mounted a counteroffensive in the lower Hudson, designed to interrupt the flow of supplies from the Revolution’s main bases in Massachusetts and Connecticut to Washington’s army at White Plains. They took Stony Point, just short of West Point, which Kosciusko had been fortifying with chains and redoubts since April 1778, but it was recaptured by Anthony Wayne, a young Pennsylvanian tanner turned general, in July; an attempt to surrender West Point to the British in September 1780 by Benedict Arnold failed when his papers were found on Major John André. André was hanged as a spy; Arnold, the disgruntled Faust of the Revolution, its most ferocious soldier and most ambitious zealot, escaped to the British, who granted him general rank. He escaped to fight another day against the Americans’ French allies in the West Indies.

There was also to be a long passage of arms in the wild Old Northwest, south of Lakes Michigan, Erie, and Ontario, which had been so fought over by the French, British, and Americans in King George’s and the French and Indian Wars. The American loyalist Sir John Johnson, son of the Sir William who had terrorised the borders of French Canada in the 1750s, took up the terrorisation of the Mohawk River region, with his Indian ally, Joseph Brant, during 1778–81, causing Washington to detach a force under John Sullivan to pacify the region by counterterror in an expedition up the Susquehanna River in 1779. A little earlier the remarkable American patriot George Roger Clark had embarked almost single-handed on an effort to wrest the Ohio country from the British and their Indian allies. Starting from the Forks of the Ohio (Pittsburgh) in May 1778, he was to carry war against the British and their Indian allies as far away as St. Louis, at the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, seven hundred miles from Philadelphia, where independence had been declared, and Vincennes on the Wabash, one of the Ohio’s great tributaries that rises south of Lake Erie. Vincennes had been taken by a British party under Henry Hamilton, who led it down from Detroit on a winter march of seventy-one days—worthy of the French and the Americans at their toughest—in October–December 1778. Clark, who was acting on the authority of the state of Virginia, which regarded the Ohio as part of its dominion, had already been in Vincennes, after boating the length of the Ohio from Fort Henry (Wheeling, West Virginia), and had gone on to take the former French forts of Chartres, Kakaskia, and Cahokia, the latter now a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. Hearing of Hamilton’s arrival, Clark, believing the British “could not support … we should be so mad as to attempt to mark 80 Leagues through a Drowned Country in the Debth of Winter,” led his party back for seventeen days, at one stage wading a twenty-mile flood in the Wabash Valley, to surprise Hamilton and force his surrender. The number present at the Vincennes encounter was tiny—two hundred Americans, seventy-nine British—but Clark’s triumph was to be confirmed at the peace which ended the war, thus planting the frontier of the United States on the banks of the Mississippi.

These distant campaigns, crucial though Clark’s role was in determining the future political geography of his country, contributed nothing to settling the outcome of the war. That was being decided far away in territory as yet—the abortive 1776 descent on Charleston excepted—uncontested: the rich coastal cities of the South and their cotton and tobacco backlands. Britain had long contemplated carrying the war into the Carolinas and Georgia—Virginia, with its high concentration of rivers and vast hinterland, was a tougher nut—because they were, in Piers Mackesy’s phrase, “in many ways the soft underbelly of the rebellion.” The population of 750,000 whites lived in fear of a slave population of 300,000, which was suspected of sympathising with the British; many of the whites were themselves loyalists none the less. Geography, too, seemed to favour the sort of amphibious force which the Crown controlled. Because the South lived by the export trade, possession of the ports could throttle its livelihood, while the interior offered few of those natural obstacles—wide rivers and mountain ranges running parallel to the coast—which the Americans had proved so adept at using to their advantage in New England and the Middle Atlantic. The “Low Country,” as Southerners call the region today, is a continuous belt of almost unobstructed plain, a hundred miles deep and five hundred long, running from Chesapeake Bay to the swamps of northern Florida. Though heavily wooded and, in the eighteenth century, poorly provided with roads, the terrain is not difficult to traverse at any season of the year, while there is no severe winter to confine armies to quarters in the colder months.

The lowland South, indeed, remains to Europeans one of the least alien of North America’s regions. Its landscape has a Mediterranean quality—the soft, friable soil, the hot and tangy pinewoods, the relentless insect noise put the European visitor in mind of the southern reaches of the Rhône Valley—while its social character is less un-European than that of any other part of the United States. The strong division between classes, the dominant rurality, the intense regionalism within the region itself, are familiar; so, too, are the femininity of its womanhood, the alignment towards the sea, the sense of disassociation from the rest of the continent, the weight of history. History cannot have weighed so heavily in the eighteenth century—the South’s obsession with its past is a legacy of the Civil War—for it was then a young country, but most of the other likenesses with Europe were already present. It is easy to believe that the British considered the South a far more promising theatre of operations in which to bridle the Revolution than the hard, cold, high, narrow, and fanatical Northeast.

The keys to the South were two: the extravagantly beautiful coastal cities of Charleston and Savannah, the first commanding the magnificent natural harbour at the mouths of the Ashley and the Cooper rivers, the other the estuary of Georgia’s only significant river, also the Savannah, which furnishes an axis of movement into the foothills of the Appalachians that define the lowland South’s western boundary. British strategy for 1779 was directed to the capture of these two places, in the belief that they could be used as bases around which loyalists in Georgia and South Carolina would rally and from which offensives could be launched to extirpate revolution in North Carolina and then Virginia, its ideological heart, which had produced the Stamp Act and Independence resolutions and the Declaration of Rights, which had supplied more troops to the Continental Army than any state except Massachusetts, and which had borne George Washington, its military leader. Britain certainly had no thought that an expedition into the South would draw it into a war in the backland, that that war would be lost, and that the defeat would lead to the loss of its American empire. So, however, would the pieces fall.

The campaign into the South began in December 1778. When Clinton was ordered to evacuate Philadelphia and fall back on New York he was also ordered to send a force to Savannah under Archibald Campbell, which arrived off the city on 29 December. The strong French fleet, commanded by Admiral Jean Comte d’Estaing, which had been in American waters since July, had departed to engage in the alternative campaign in the West Indies, so that Campbell’s voyage passed unobstructed. The Savannah garrison had thrown up the usual American timber obstacles, between the swamps then surrounding the city, but it lacked both skill and heart and was easily overwhelmed by Campbell’s rough Highlanders. They were soon joined by a force under Augustine Prevost from East Florida. The British, unlike the Americans, succeeded in turning Savannah into a true stronghold, and from it they waged a wide and largely profitable war through South Carolina in 1779. In January, Campbell marched up the Savannah to Augusta, on the approaches to the Appalachian hill country, and raised a large force of loyalists; the Americans had successes against it but failed to recapture Augusta; Prevost failed to take Charleston, against which he marched via Beaufort in May, but when d’Estaing and his fleet arrived off Savannah, to which Prevost had by then returned from Charleston, the French admiral, a sizeable French army, and several hundred Americans not only failed to penetrate the city’s defences but suffered a humiliating defeat.

D’Estaing now departed for Boston, leaving the way clear for Clinton to add his strength to the Southern operation. In November 1779 he brought down the garrison from Providence, Rhode Island, the last British enclave in New England, to New York, left a rearguard to hold the city, and took his main force of 8,500 men south to besiege Charleston. Calling first at Savannah to put his expedition in order, Clinton sailed for Charleston on 1 February 1780. It had recently been fortified by a group of French engineers, including Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, the future architect of Washington, D.C. Clinton took his time about investing the place, so that large groups of North Carolinans and Virginians, sent by George Washington at the urgent appeal of Charleston’s defenders, were able to make their way into the city while the British waited offshore. Seven hundred and fifty Virginians, who had marched five hundred miles from New Jersey in twenty-eight days—a feat of endurance akin to that of General John Nicholson’s force in the march from Mardan to Delhi in 1857 during the Indian Mutiny—arrived within the Charleston lines on 6 April.

By then, however, Clinton was ready to pounce. The strength of the American defences lay in a line of entrenchments dug between the Ashley and Cooper rivers which enclose the peninsula on which Charleston stands. Charleston is a small city, which is one of its charms, and thus wholly indefensible against an enemy which commands the surrounding waters and the isthmus to its rear. Clinton already commanded the waters, got easily on to the isthmus, and, soon after opening a bombardment with his vastly superior artillery, convinced the defenders that they could not sustain the defence. It was a mercy that the British did not, as they had at Quebec in 1759, make the interior of the city their target, for its enchanting Barbadian double-verandaed wooden houses would have burned in a trice. The surrender of 12 May 1780 spared one of the glories of Atlantic civilisation; chance spared it again in the years 1861–65. The tender attention of its citizens, and the encompassing waters which protect its edges from the attack of suburbanisation, combine today to present a vision of how perfect a thing the English-speaking rich of the eighteenth century could make a city.

With the two strongholds of Charleston and Savannah now in his hands, Clinton returned to New York, leaving General Cornwallis and the hard-riding cavalry colonel, Banastre Tarleton, to pacify the Carolinas and carry war into Virginia. Cornwallis very quickly fixed upon a strategy. It was to raise a force from the large number of loyalists believed to be willing to serve in the back country and meanwhile to set up a cordon of posts 150–200 miles inland on which the campaign of pacification could hinge. These, at Camden, Rocky Mount, Cheraw, Hanging Rock, and Ninety Six, were all located on the headwaters of the two rivers which reach the Atlantic north of Charleston near Georgetown: the Santee and the Great Pee Dee. Their secondary function was to force an American army attempting the recapture of Charleston to concentrate against any one of them in order to open its line of advance. The strategy was both orthodox and, in the circumstances, correct. Congress had appointed Horatio Gates, with Baron de Kalb one of the Revolution’s emigré supporters, to command in the South. He was not Washington’s choice and he mishandled the campaign. Catching up with de Kalb from North Carolina, Gates decided to march on Camden, the most important of Cornwallis’s posts, through Cross Creek, into the Cape Fear River, rather than by the easier and more northerly route by Charlotte. The Cross Creek country was swampy, barren, and infested with British sympathisers. It was a hungry and tired American army, therefore, that reached Camden on 15 August, after a march of nineteen days, and it was in no state to fight the British regulars which Gates attempted to surprise next morning. Though outnumbered, the British easily panicked Gates’s militiamen into flight; harried by Tarleton’s cavalry, Gates’s army disintegrated. All that was left of the Revolution’s presence in South Carolina after the Camden defeat were the partisan bands led by Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, and Andrew Pickens, whose raids against the British and their sympathisers caused bloodshed and misery but could not of themselves alter the balance of power in the theatre.

The initiative, indeed, now passed to the British and might have remained with them, had Washington not got his way with Congress and appointed to succeed Gates a general who had served him well in the northern campaigns and in whom he had confidence, Nathanael Greene. Greene’s year in the South, from his appointment in October 1780 until the British collapse at Yorktown in September 1781, was a mixed passage. He was defeated as often as he was successful; but he was relentless, he made the best of the resources he had, including the assistance of the American irregulars, and in the end he wore the British down, as good a way of achieving victory as by decisive battle in the open field. The essence of his success lay in using the enormous distances over which the campaigning was conducted—Cornwallis was forced to march over five hundred miles in four months of the beginning of 1781—to exhaust the small force deployed against him—the opposed armies each numbered below five thousand men—and then to move sharply to the counteroffensive when the opportunity offered. Once Cornwallis’s field army had been put out of action, the British posts could be picked off at leisure, thus bringing the Carolinas under American control without the cost of bloody engagements on the battlefield.

Greene had, nevertheless, to fight at the outset, and made a poor fist of it. His subordinate, Daniel Morgan, dealt a shrewd blow against Tarleton on 17 January 1781 at the Battle of Cowpens in the distant upcountry of South Carolina, Cornwallis having foolishly divided his force, but, when Cornwallis turned on him, he had to beat a hasty retreat as far away as the unfordable Dan River, a tributary of the Roanoke in southern Virginia. Trying his luck again, Greene sailed out in February 1781 as far as Guilford Court House, on the headwaters of the Cape Fear River, near Greensboro, North Carolina. There on 15 March he met Cornwallis in pitched battle, one of the fiercest of the war, and was defeated. He had chosen his ground well, however, placing his first line on open farmland, his third in the woods behind. When the British, excited by their success in dispersing the militiamen in front, reached Greene’s seasoned Maryland and Virginian Continentals in rear, the redcoats were drenched with steady musketry. Cornwallis saved the day only by firing his artillery on foe and friend alike. When the smoke cleared, Greene began to withdraw but Cornwallis was in no state to follow. His force had lost a quarter of its strength and he was short of supplies. He fell back to the Cape Fear River, hoping supplies might be brought up it, but the enemy commanded the steep banks and none came. So he marched downriver to Wilmington, North Carolina, which he reached on 7 April, after another 150 miles on the road, and there decided that the Carolinas had overcome him. Greene was now in his rear and he feared defeat at the river crossings if he turned back, precisely what he had hoped to inflict on the Americans when he had pegged out his line of posts north and east of Charleston the previous autumn. The commandant at Charleston was willing to send boats to bring him down, but that would have meant delay and the abandonment of his horses, so precious in the South’s wide spaces. On 25 April, therefore, Cornwallis set off by land for Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay country, having written a scheme for future operations. It was eerily prophetic: “I am quite tired of marching about the country.… If we mean an offensive war in America, we must abandon New York and bring our whole force into Virginia.”

Behind him Greene embarked on a systematic campaign against the British posts on the rivers, fighting actions near Camden (Hobkirk’s Hill) on 25 April 1781 and at Eutaw Springs on the Santee in September. Both of these he lost, but the effect was to drive the British in on Charleston, drawing the detached garrisons behind them; Ninety Six, which sustained a month’s siege in May and June, had then to be abandoned, and Augusta also. By the autumn of 1781 Charleston and Savannah alone remained as British Southern strongholds. In the Floridas, which Britain had acquired from Spain in 1763, the Spanish, who had entered the war in 1779, profited by the over-extension of her enemy’s armed forces—now committed in India, Africa, the Mediterranean, where the Great Siege of Gibraltar was raging, the West Indies, the Atlantic, and home waters, in which the infant American navy was raising havoc—to claw back the coastal towns and river forts then lost. Baton Rouge, the modern capital of the state of Louisiana, held by a scratch garrison of five hundred, fell in August 1779 to an expedition led by Bernardo de Galvez, Governor of Spanish Louisiana, and Natchez, on its high bluff above the Mississippi, shortly after; he then turned to the Gulf towns of Mobile and Pensacola. He took Mobile from the rear, having ascended the river on which it stands from Mobile Bay, in March 1780. After returning to Havana to gather reinforcements, he moved against Pensacola in March 1781, besieged Fort George, and forced its surrender on 8 May. The whole of West Florida—the seaward sections of the modern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama—were thereby returned to Spain, which retained them until the sale of all the Floridas to the United States in 1819. These were not Britain’s only setbacks in the South.

Lord Camden’s pre-war forecast of the difficulties of carrying war into a region of “1,800 miles” had thus been far exceeded by 1781. If the fronts in Canada and the Ohio country, in the Gulf, and along the lower Mississippi are counted in with the Atlantic coast of the thirteen colonies, Britain had in fact been campaigning around a strategic perimeter of over 3,000 miles in length, and often over exterior rather than interior lines, which greatly increase distance. If the distances over which the French had attempted to exert power in the wars of King William, Queen Anne, and King George and in the Seven Years War seem great, those over which Britain was operating between 1775 and 1781 were greater still, so much so, indeed, that comparisons with other extended strategies are hard to find. From Portsmouth, Britain’s main home naval base, to New York is 3,000 miles; from New York to Charleston another 650; from Charleston to Augusta a further 150—3,800 in all. The United States, campaigning against Germany in 1945, was operating at an extreme outreach of 3,500 miles from New York, against Japan in the Solomon Islands in 1942 again at 3,500 miles from Honolulu. Alexander the Great in the Punjab was 2,500 miles from Macedonia, the German army at Stalingrad only 1,500 miles from Berlin. Britain’s achievement in sustaining a war at such long range deserves recognition, all the more because she was simultaneously conducting other campaigns as far away as West Africa and southern India.

The scale of the American war, measured in number of men on the ground, might be judged minor also, for the total of British and mercenary troops sent to America between 1776 and 1781 did not much exceed sixty thousand. Proportionately the naval effort made was far greater, for the mobilisation of transport to ship and supply the army, and of men o’ war to protect the convoys, was the largest yet seen in any campaign; but it was men on the ground who counted, and by 1781 there were no more forthcoming. By contrast, American militiamen, even regulars, continued to come forward in numbers, and since July 1780 there had been a French army under Rochambeau at Newport, Rhode Island. Clinton retained seventeen thousand soldiers in and around New York but was effectively marooned there because British naval strength had now fallen to a level which could not guarantee safe protection to a troop convoy in the face of the French fleet in American waters. In any case, he lacked the will to move, instead asking Cornwallis to send troops to reinforce him.

Cornwallis in Virginia had troubles of his own, troubles which were to attract into the state most disposable troops remaining in the war and so determine that it should become its culminating and decisive theatre. His troubles had begun, paradoxically, with the arrival in Virginia of the renegade Benedict Arnold on 3 January 1781. Arnold had sailed from New York on 20 December and, after delays at sea, had landed at Hoods Point on the James River on 3 January. His orders were to cause destruction, raise loyalist recruits, and prevent the Virginians from taking measures to defend themselves, all of which he did to such effect that in February, Washington, still at White Plains, felt alarmed enough to send the Marquis de Lafayette overland to oppose him. Lafayette marched down the traditional route through New Jersey and Pennsylvania to Head of Elk at the top of Chesapeake Bay, found enough small ships to carry him to Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, and then resumed his overland march to arrive in Richmond (not then the capital of Virginia) at the end of April. Anthony Wayne followed him from Pennsylvania, arriving on 10 June, and a force of Virginian riflemen under William Campbell three days later.

This was not to Cornwallis’s liking. He had left the Carolinas because he despaired of restoring order in those states. Now he faced a growing concentration of American forces in tidewater Virginia, geographically a far more difficult region over which to establish control. Unlike the open and poorly watered Carolinas, Virginia is broken up by rivers and estuaries into a complex of estuaries, inlets, and intermediate peninsulas, any one of which is a potential refuge for an enemy or a trap for a pursuer deprived of waterborne means of escape. The Chesapeake, from Elton at its head to the Atlantic exit at Norfolk, is some 175 miles long on the north to south axis. Into its western shore drain four rivers that flow off the Appalachian chain, the Susquehanna, the Potomac, the York, and the James; the headwaters of the James are known as the North and South Anna rivers, while into the James flows the Appomattox, on which Petersburg stands. Several of these rivers are navigable for seventy-five or a hundred miles above their estuaries: the Rappahannock as far as Fredericksburg, the Potomac to above Alexandria, near modern Washington, D.C. In the political and economic geography of eighteenth-century Virginia, the peninsula between the York and the James rivers—the “Peninsula” of the Civil War—was the key area. On it stood Williamsburg, then the state capital, as well as the vanished remains of Jamestown, the first place of permanent English settlement in North America. At its head was Richmond, already an important commercial centre for the agriculture and industry of the state. The shores of the peninsula were lined with the oldest plantations of the colony, while across the York and the James stood the most important of the tidewater harbours at Gloucester, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Suffolk. It was a region made by nature for the strategy of march, countermarch, and amphibious advance and withdrawal, rich in water communications, protected from the ocean by the great arm of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, well provided even in the eighteenth century with passable roads, and offering a friendly army copious supplies of food and riding and draught animals.

Cornwallis might have played a strategy of march and countermarch to advantage during 1781, for the main American force was still immobilised far away at White Plains outside New York, where Washington’s primary concern was to persuade Rochambeau at Newport, Rhode Island, to join him in an offensive against Clinton on the lower Hudson. For much of the summer, indeed, Cornwallis did succeed in moving about Virginia at will; he arrived at Petersburg from Wilmington, North Carolina, by an overland move on 20 May and spent much of June and July chasing Lafayette from place to place, subjecting Anthony Wayne to a sharp defeat at Jamestown Ford on 6 July, while his freebooting subordinate, Banastre Tarleton, raided as far as Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson’s seat and the meeting place of the Virginian legislature underneath the Blue Ridge Mountains, in early June. There were now five thousand American troops in Virginia but seven thousand British, and Cornwallis retained the initiative.

It was taken from him not by the enemy but by his own superior. Clinton, a less able and more timorous general, had rightly failed to comprehend any rational strategic purpose in Cornwallis’s abandonment of the Carolinas for the much more difficult and less profitable campaigning ground of Virginia; he now wrongly decided that he was at greater risk than Cornwallis, to whom he sent a series of orders during June and July, all confusing and often contradictory. He demanded that Cornwallis weaken his force to strengthen his own position by fortifying a harbour in which he could be supported by the British fleet. This despite the fact that Clinton’s situation in New York was unassailable, that a large French fleet under Admiral de Grasse had sailed from France for the Caribbean, that the British fleet in the western hemisphere was weakened by commitments in the West Indies and the need to send ships for repair in British ports, that Clinton had conceded freedom of strategic manoeuvre to Washington by his unwillingness to venture outside his New York base, and that the immobilisation of Cornwallis in the Yorktown peninsula might, could a British fleet not reach him, lead to his destruction.

So it was all to turn out. Clinton’s series of letters effectively put Cornwallis on the defensive, while he might have been acting offensively; worse, they tied his force to a fixed point. On 6 July, while marching from Williamsburg to Portsmouth, from where he was to ship troops to New York, he inflicted a final defeat on his opponents when he caught Wayne’s pursuing vanguard at the Jamestown Ford (now Green Spring Battlefield) and beat him back with loss. Then more letters arrived cancelling the order to reinforce New York but ordering him to fortify Old Point Comfort at the top of the Yorktown peninsula opposite Hampton Roads, the great anchorage off Norfolk where a British fleet was expected to rendezvous later in the year. Cornwallis found Old Point Comfort indefensible, and, as Clinton also required other fortifications to be built at Yorktown itself and at Gloucester opposite, commanding the narrow entrance to the York River, he set off thither, arriving by water on 4 August. Lafayette, following cautiously at a distance, took up a position at West Point, where the Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers combine to form the York. Cornwallis’s engineers meanwhile began to throw up lines of earthworks around the little riverside settlement of Yorktown to protect it from the landward side.

With the initiative in his hands, Washington now moved to profit by it. His eyes were still on New York, but an armed reconnaissance against its defences on 21 July convinced him that they were too strong to be carried. That was Rochambeau’s view also; he and Washington had agreed at a meeting at Wethersfield, Connecticut, on 21 May to concentrate their forces and the French had arrived at White Plains, after a march of 220 miles in eleven days from Providence, on 18 June. What to do next? The American forces were divided and, in the view of both Rochambeau and Washington, “at the end of their resources.” The British retained three seaboard strongholds: at New York, Yorktown, and Charleston. The only light on the strategic horizon was the temporary naval weakness of the British and the equally temporary naval superiority of the French in American waters. If Admiral de Grasse’s fleet could sail from the West Indies to support the American armies before Britain found the ships to re-establish her control of the American coast, great things might be achieved. Time was short, however, and the choice of the point of concentration crucial. As late as August, Washington still hoped that de Grasse would help him crack New York’s defences. Then the French admiral sent word on 14 August that he had a different objective. He was sailing for the Chesapeake with twenty-nine warships and three thousand troops and would remain there until 14 October, when he would have to return to the Caribbean. This made up Washington’s mind. “Matters now having come to a crisis,” he wrote in his journal, “and a decisive plan to be determined on, I was obliged, for the shortness of Count de Grasse’s promised stay on this Coast, the apparent disinclination in their Naval Officers to force the harbour of New York and the feeble compliance of the States to my requisitions for Men … to give up all idea of attacking New York; and instead to remove the French Troops and a detachment of the American Army … to Virginia.”

The removal was a formidable logistic exercise. In two months at most, Washington would have to displace from a distance of 450 miles, make a junction with de Grasse, and carry a strong defensive position at Yorktown in the teeth of a resolute enemy’s resistance. Washington set off at once, the French following, down the familiar route through New Jersey to concentrate at Princeton. They were at Trenton on 30 August, whence, failing to find sufficient boats to use the Delaware for onward movement, they marched to Philadelphia, which they passed through on 2 September, to reach the top of Chesapeake Bay at Head of Elk on 6 September. By then they had heard the heartening news that de Grasse had arrived in Chesapeake Bay; the timetable, however, was still at risk, for insufficient boats were found to ship the whole force onward. While siege stores were sent forward by water, some troops had to be marched to Annapolis and Baltimore, and Washington himself proceeded overland to Williamsburg. Not until 26 September was the whole force—Washington’s New York contingent, Rochambeau’s French army, Lafayette’s and Wayne’s Virginian contingents, and de Grasse’s reinforcement—assembled on the peninsula, the waterborne elements having come down Chesapeake Bay to land at Jamestown, Burwull’s Ferry, and College Landing near Williamsburg. The contestants in what was to prove the decisive confrontation of the war were now all grouped in an area about twelve miles square; American and French numbers were about seventeen thousand, British about seven thousand, and the need to resupply alone would determine that an outcome could not be long delayed.

The thumbscrew of time had been tightened for the British by the failure of their fleet, under Admirals Graves and Hood, to break through the French cordon at the mouth of the Chesapeake between 5 and 9 September. Outmanoeuvred and outnumbered, by twenty-eight to nineteen, Graves and Hood retired to New York, leaving de Grasse, now joined by the Newport squadron under Commodore de Barras, in control of Virginian waters. Since the only other naval force remaining to the British on the American side of the Atlantic lay in the West Indies and numbered ten ships, Britain had conceded command of the sea at the decisive point to the enemy, an almost unprecedented and rarely to be repeated lapse of strategic grip by the Royal Navy. The concession was to spell the end of the six-year-long effort to reimpose royal rule over the American colonies.

At Yorktown, Cornwallis had enclosed the few streets of the little town with a double line of entrenchments, redoubts, and batteries in a circuit some two miles round, the ends resting on the York River; the outer line was formed of individual strong places, the inner of continuous trenches. It was an orthodox eighteenth-century field system, of the sort that had served men in America before: at West Point, which had deterred attack, and even at Bunker Hill, overrun though the earthworks had been. At Yorktown, however, Cornwallis’s system was to be subjected to attack by professional siege engineers, who included Louis Duportail and Jean-Baptiste Gouvion, both graduates of the French military engineering school at Mézières. They swiftly threw up a chain of exterior earthwork “parallels,” from which the preparatory bombardment could begin; from them forty heavy guns and sixteen mortars, enough to overwhelm Clinton’s puny artillery, opened fire on the evening of 9 October. In the first day some 3,600 solid shot and shells fell on the British positions; Cornwallis immediately concluded that “against so powerful an attack [he could] not hope to make a very long resistance.” He had already abandoned all his outworks, except those known as Redoubts 9 and 10 and Fusiliers’ Redoubt, which stood on the water and guarded his weakest spots, but by 14 October the enemy siege engineers had pushed forward a second parallel which brought these under direct bombardment; that night they were taken by storm in a bloody assault. Cornwallis’s soldiers could still show fighting spirit, for on 16 October they sallied out and spiked eleven enemy guns; but he himself was so dispirited that he tried that night to evacuate the garrison into the subsidiary entrenchment at Gloucester across the York River. When a sudden storm scattered the boats, he accepted that he was beaten and made preparations to offer his surrender. Next morning, 17 October, the request for parlay was beaten on a drum, a blindfolded officer was taken into American lines, and terms discussed. They were written next day in a building called the Moore House on the waterside and at two o’clock in the afternoon of 19 October 1781 the British marched out to lay down their arms, surrender their colours, and pass into captivity. This was not to be a Saratoga; Cornwallis’s army was not permitted to take ship for home. Yorktown, the unexpected and unavoidable battle, was to be ended as a complete American victory and an ignominious British defeat.

It was not the end of the war in the “great continent of 1,800 miles.” Clinton, arriving from New York off Yorktown five days too late, returned to that base, where the British would stay until 25 November 1783. Savannah would remain in British hands until 11 July 1782 and Charleston until 14 December; indeed, many of the forts in the west, including Detroit, would remain in British hands until 1797. Nathanael Greene meanwhile extinguished the last pockets of resistance in the South, though as late as August 1782 the Americans of Kentucky suffered a Canadian and Indian raid, which Daniel Boone helped to repulse. Nor was it the end of the larger war. Britain remained at war with France and Spain and at the Battle of the Saints, between the West Indian islands of Dominica and Guadeloupe, inflicted a shattering defeat on de Grasse’s fleet on 12 April 1782; the victory was reinforced later in the year when the siege of Gibraltar was lifted and the Royal Navy’s control of the western Mediterranean was decisively restored. Despite these strategic alleviations, the significance of the surrender at Yorktown could not be denied. Britain had lost an empire and a new nation had been created, which would shortly embrace a policy of high-minded detachment from the strategic and military entanglements of the old world across the Atlantic. The United States had fought a war to win its liberty, but its Founding Fathers sought no wars in America’s future. Washington’s independent United States would be left with scarcely an army or navy at all and its people to depend on the remoteness and expanse of their enormous national territory as its defence. The notion that a war might arise between the states themselves was unimaginable. The thought that the upturned earth of the trenches and redoubts at Yorktown, already returning to nature in the spring of 1782, might be fought over again by soldiers who all called themselves American defied imagination itself.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!