Ornamental Separator

A Confluence of Factors

Washington owed his victory at Yorktown to storms, geography and fear of disease

On Sept. 28, 1781, nearly 20,000 U.S. and French soldiers left Williamsburg and marched 11 miles southeast to Yorktown, pinning Lord Cornwallis’ 9,000 British and German troops against the York River. From that moment, Cornwallis’ surrender and American independence became all but inevitable.

What brought this array of European and American armies to the Virginia peninsula in the fall of 1781? The answers to that question are many and varied, including luck, accident, weather, commanding officers caught between masculine pride and anxiety about lengthening supply lines, enlisted men fearing tropical disease and — perhaps most of all — George Washington’s ability to change his mind.

Cornwallis’ Dilemma

In December 1780, Cornwallis’ troops marching north from South Carolina easily occupied Charlotte, in the Piedmont of North Carolina. At this time, the majority of free North Carolinians lived in the backcountry, and the state’s narrow and shallow rivers cut off Cornwallis’ access to fresh supplies arriving from the mother country. So in April 1781, his troops had to walk all the way to Wilmington, near the coast, to resupply.

Where should Cornwallis go next? He considered returning to South Carolina but decided that would be “disgraceful.” Heading back into the North Carolina backcountry would necessitate constant resupply runs to Wilmington. Nor could Cornwallis remain on the Carolina coast without subjecting his troops to what was likely malaria — the “fatal Sickness, which so nearly ruined the Army last Autumn.”

That left Virginia, where the Potomac, Rappahannock, York and James rivers all remained navigable for a hundred miles inland. On April 27, Cornwallis’ 1,600-man army pulled out of Wilmington. Destination: Petersburg, Virginia.

New York State of Mind

That spring most of the Continental army was bivouacked at New Windsor, 70 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. The British had driven the Continentals from Manhattan in the fall of 1776, and ever since, the American army’s commander in chief had been plotting his return.

Although he had never achieved his youthful ambition of becoming an officer in the British army, Washington had rubbed shoulders with numerous military leaders during the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and imbibed their infatuation with the grand assault that obliterates the enemy’s principal army. He formulated nearly a dozen assaults on New York Island, but not one of them ever actually reached the execution stage. Most of Washington’s generals contended that the best way to defeat the mother country’s massive military establishment was to remain on defense, bogging the British down in an unwinnable war of attrition.

Early in 1781, Washington learned that a vast French flotilla — 28 ships of the line — was headed across the Atlantic to reinforce the smaller French squadron already riding at anchor off Newport, Rhode Island. Confident that the combined French fleet, commanded by the Comte de Grasse, would gain control of New York Harbor, Washington prepared to execute his long-cherished plan to retake the city.

Southern Interests

Washington also kept an eye on the southern theater, and his interest intensified in January 1781 when the traitor Benedict Arnold, who had become a British general, established a beachhead in Virginia. Fervent in both exhibiting and demanding loyalty, Washington was determined to capture and hang the former confidant who had plotted his capture as a prize for the British.

The Royal Navy had stationed a small fleet at the eastern tip of Long Island, essentially tying down the French warships anchored off Rhode Island. In February 1781, a storm knocked out part of Britain’s Long Island squadron, giving Washington an opportunity to bag the traitor in Virginia. He persuaded Charles-René-Dominique Sochet Destouches, who commanded France’s Rhode Island squadron, to send it south toward Arnold’s army in the Chesapeake Bay. For his own part, Washington dispatched the Marquis de Lafayette overland toward Virginia at the head of 1,200 light infantry.

By the time the light infantry reached Baltimore, many men had deserted. In a letter to Washington, Lafayette noted that one captured deserter would be executed as part of the “shame I endeavored to throw on desertion.” But the 23-year-old Lafayette also acted on complaints of worn-out shirts and shoes by asking the women of Baltimore to sew his men new shirts. (Moving fast, Lafayette’s men had left behind most of the women who normally performed such essential services.) Everyone knew where Lafayette got that idea: The previous year, Esther Reed, a recent English immigrant to Philadelphia, had organized a national campaign to raise money, purchase cloth and sew shirts for Continental soldiers. Lafayette purchased supplies from Baltimore merchants, with a promise to cover the debt if the army did not.

Meanwhile sailors in Britain’s Long Island squadron had repaired their ships, headed south and barred the French fleet from the Chesapeake Bay. Washington decided to leave Lafayette’s force in Virginia for the time being, but he had no intention of marching the rest of his army south. He was still bent on capturing Fortress New York.

Washington was excited at the bright prospect of finally capturing British commander in chief Gen. Henry Clinton along with his headquarters army, and he said so in hopeful letters home. But the Continental army’s financial straits compelled him to use regular mail, and the British captured his letters and learned of his designs on Manhattan.

In June, Clinton ordered Cornwallis, who by then had superseded Arnold in Virginia, to send nearly half of his soldiers back north to help defend New York. Besides, Clinton told Cornwallis, he wanted to leave as few troops as possible to face the Virginia summer, which he described as an “unhealthy climate at this season of the year.”

Cornwallis did not want to give up such a large portion of his force, and he warned that doing so would force him to move his remaining Virginia troops to Portsmouth, in the swampy, sickly region near the mouth of the James River. But orders were orders, so his troops began crossing to the south side of the James. Destination: Portsmouth.

An Ambush

Cornwallis’ crossing provided an opportunity to Lafayette — or so Lafayette thought. “A negroe and a dragoon” appeared in Lafayette’s camp early on July 6. The two men, who seem to have identified themselves as deserters from the British army, brought the stunning news that most of Cornwallis’ troops had crossed the James, leaving only a small — and thus vulnerable — contingent on the north bank.

But then “a negroe with a knapsack on his back” brought Lafayette conflicting information. Cornwallis had only created the appearance of leaving a vulnerable contingent north of the river.

Thus, Lafayette’s decision about whether to attack the enemy came down to which Black man to believe. Always eager, just like Washington, to take the offensive, the young marquis sided with the man who had urged him forward — perhaps because his testimony was backed up by that white dragoon.

Lafayette sided with the wrong men, for he had sent his army directly into an ambush. The July 6 Battle of Green Spring was Cornwallis’ last victory in America.

The triumphant British then completed their crossing of the James and headed east. Lafayette continued to dog Cornwallis, determined to “Give His Lordship the Disgrace of a Retreat.” More than egos were involved. Catherine the Great of Russia was trying to broker a peace deal between the British and their rebel colonists, and the customary arrangement was for both belligerents to retain the land on which they stood. If Lafayette could give the impression of having reconquered Virginia, the patriots could retain all or most of the state in the impending peace talks.

The British soldiers ordered north by Clinton had already reached Portsmouth and begun their embarkation when Cornwallis learned that Clinton had countermanded his previous command. Not wanting to bear the responsibility of ceding most of Virginia to the rebels by confining Cornwallis’ force to Portsmouth, Clinton had decided to allow his subordinate to keep his army intact.

Clinton asked only that Cornwallis move his troops to a healthier location. Agreeing, Cornwallis chose Yorktown.

Persuasive French Allies

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.

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