Hundreds of African Americans who had joined the British infantry now went to work building breastworks and redoubts around Cornwallis’ Yorktown encampment. “The heat is too great to admit of [white] soldiers doing it,” the general wrote. But dozens of Britain’s Black auxiliaries had contracted smallpox in Portsmouth. Ignoring pleas from his second-in-command, Cornwallis left them there to die or face recapture and reenslavement.
Meanwhile in the Hudson Highlands, the Comte de Rochambeau, who commanded the 6,000 French troops serving in North America, urged Washington to abandon his dream of an amphibious assault on New York Island in favor of much easier prey: Cornwallis’ 9,000 British and German troops in Virginia. But Washington could not let go of his designs on Fortress New York. Already he had noticed northern soldiers’ increasing “disinclination to the Service.” These men would be even less inclined to march 400 miles south to Virginia, owing to their “objections to the climate,” where yellow fever was a distinct possibility and malaria all but inevitable.
On Aug. 14, Rochambeau announced that de Grasse and his 28 ships of the line had set sail for North America — but not for New York, as Washington had requested. Instead, they would enter the Chesapeake Bay, preventing Clinton from reinforcing or rescuing Cornwallis. If Washington wanted to fight the British, it would have to be in his home state.
The American commander initially responded to de Grasse’s fait accompli with “expressions of intemperate anger.” But in the end, he surrendered to his French counterparts’ judgment. On Aug. 20, the allied troops began their westward crossing of the Hudson River — the first stage of their journey to Virginia.
Washington was still worried that his soldiers would balk, as Lafayette’s had, at having to travel so far south. To “put them in proper temper,” he surprised them along the way with something he had never previously been able to provide. The soldiers received, instead of the usual hyperinflated Continental paper money, a month’s pay in gold and silver coin, with every shilling borrowed from the French and Spanish.
Besieged at Yorktown, Cornwallis held out for an honorable interval, finally surrendering on Oct. 19. As soon as the news reached London, Parliament voted to cease offensive operations and open peace negotiations. When Congress learned of Cornwallis’ surrender, it voted to thank the French and U.S. fighters, honor them with a marble column in Yorktown — and hit Americans with the heaviest taxes they had ever known. The delegates figured that if their attempt to pay down the nation’s enormous war debt provoked a taxpayer rebellion, at least they would only have to worry about that one threat.
The French-American and British forces would never have met at Yorktown if a host of improbable circumstances had not converged. If Cornwallis could have tolerated the “disgrace” of marching his army back to South Carolina or the supply headaches that operations in North Carolina entailed, he might never have entered Virginia. Had it not been for a storm off Long Island late in February 1781, Washington would not have sent Lafayette south at the head of 1,200 light infantry. And Washington himself would not have returned to his home state later that year if Rochambeau had allowed him to carry out his aching ambition to assault Clinton’s army in New York City.
Earthshaking events like Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown are like combination locks. Move one tumbler one click in either direction and Oct. 19 becomes just another day.
Woody Holton is the author of Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution, his most recent book which he discussed last March on Ben Franklin’s World, a podcast produced by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. You can find the episode at benfranklinsworld.com/ episode-325.