Refusing to meet the British head-to-head, he chose instead to use his more nimble, smaller numbers to push and pull at the enemy lines. He had little choice, given the state of his troops. Lafayette spelled out the situation most clearly in the same letter to Washington: “Was I any ways equal to the Ennemy, I would be extremely Happy in my present Command — But I am not Strong Enough even to get Beaten.” These are powerful words from the leader who, in just a few months, would be essential to forcing the British — led by Cornwallis — to surrender at Yorktown.
The British pushed up the peninsula toward the capital, Richmond, hoping to destroy the city and capture the governor and Assembly. The government withdrew to Charlottesville for safety, yet some legislators fell into the hands of a British cavalry led by Banastre Tarleton. Jefferson narrowly escaped on horseback through the woods around Monticello as British dragoons arrived. Lafayette proceeded to strike small blows at the British units that raided central Virginia, drawing them into a kind of cat-and-mouse game. The enemy continued to hold the upper hand, but Lafayette succeeded in buying time to receive militia reinforcements from both Pennsylvania and Virginia. By the end of June, Lafayette’s numbers were equal to those of Cornwallis, who complained that he had “in vain endeavoured to bring the [Marquis] to action” and began to move back down the peninsula.
Still, the hardships continued. Real money was in short supply and Virginia currency depreciated almost daily. At different times, Lafayette noted some “poor fellows almost naked” among his ranks, and that “the want of arms and ammunition render our situation very precarious.” He summed up the situation in an August 1781 letter to Thomas Nelson, who had by then succeeded Jefferson as Virginia’s governor. Lafayette wrote that “it is useless to complain,” and that “whatever means are put into my hands I shall endeavor to use, and with pleasure.” By the end of the month, however, he confessed to Nelson that “should [the Army’s weakness] be known to Cornwallis he may ruin us at one stroke.”
Fortunately, the suffering and privations would see an end soon. Cornwallis occupied Yorktown with the hope that he would stay temporarily in advance of another move. The tides turned against him. Late summer brought more reinforcements to Virginia, including Washington and Rochambeau and significant portions of the allied armies. At the same time, the British navy lost control of the mouth of the Chesapeake, allowing French vessels to arrive with men and munitions. At the end of September, combined American and French forces marched toward Yorktown, where they would lay siege to Cornwallis and his troops. On the 19th of October, Cornwallis signed his surrender.
Lafayette could almost see into the future. Even before the siege at Yorktown, Lafayette wrote to Washington: “The enemy has been so kind as to retire before us. Twice I gave them a chance of fighting (taking care not to engage them farther than I pleased) but they continued their retrograde movement. Our numbers are I think exaggerated to them, and our seeming boldness confirms the opinion.” The young man, who twice left his home to fight in another nation’s war, helped bring the surrender of one of the most powerful and experienced commanders of his day.