Road to Recognition:
Battle of Yorktown Signals Beginning of the End for British War Effort
[This is an edited and enhanced version of a text published by the US
Army Center for Military History. This enhanced version was originally
published in Hampton Roads Military History (Summer 2001), a quarterly
electronic magazine published in PDF format. The entire Summer 2001 issue
can be downloaded free at: www.TEAMultimedia.com/english/publish/preview.htm]
In the Summer of 1781 the American colonies' fight for independence
hung in the balance. British and American forces stood locked in apparent
equilibrium. As George Washington's army, bolstered by regular French forces,
besieged English Commander in Chief Sir Henry Clinton in New York, time
seemed on the British side. One bold Franco-American gambit could decide
the Revolution - one way or another. But was the risk worth taking?
Campaign for Yorktown 28 September - 19 October 1781
After 1778 the main theater of war had shifted to the South as the British
concentrated on trying to reestablish their control of that area. By 1781
they were convinced that this could not be accomplished while Virginia
continued to serve as a base for American military operations. Hence in
January 1781 Clinton sent the American turncoat, Benedict Arnold, with
British troops to raid up the James River.
By late May the British had accumulated about 7,200 men in Virginia,
including the remnants (1,500) of Sir Charles Cornwallis' force, which
had come up from Wilmington, North Carolina. Cornwallis was given over-all
command of British forces in Virginia and in late May and early June led
them on raids deep into the state. At first he was opposed only by a
numerically greatly inferior force under the Marquis de Lafayette, but in mid-June the later was reinforced by troops under Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne and Baron von Steuben, drillmaster and inspector general of the Continental Army. Cornwallis then turned back to the coast to establish a base at Yorktown from which he could maintain sea communications with Clinton in New York.
Meanwhile, Washington was tentatively preparing his northern army, recently
reinforced by about 4,800 French troops under Lt. Gen. Jean Baptiste de
Rochambeau, for an attack on New York. However, he received confirmation
on 14 August that Adm. Francois de Grasse's fleet had departed the French
West Indies with 3,000 troops aboard and would be available for operations
in the Chesapeake Bay area through mid-October. He therefore finally determined
to go to Virginia with a substantial part of his army, including the French
regulars under Rochambeau. He crossed the Hudson (20-26 August), made a
feint in the direction of New York to hold Clinton in the city, and then
struck southward across New Jersey and Pennsylvania to Maryland.
In the meantime, De Grasse's fleet arrived off Yorktown on 30 August,
debarked 3,000 French regulars to reinforce Lafayette, and on 5 September
fought an indecisive naval engagement off the Virginia Capes with a British
fleet under Adm. Thomas Graves. After several days of maneuvering at sea,
Graves retired temporarily to New York for repairs, leaving the French
in control of Chesapeake Bay.
This permitted Washington and Rochambeau to embark their forces in Maryland
and sail via the Chesapeake and the James River to a point near Williamsburg
(14-24 September). From there an allied army numbering about 15,000 ( 8,845
Americans and 7,800 French) moved forward on 28 September to begin siege
operations against Yorktown.
Finally, after a night attack on 16 October failed to recapture key
defense points, Cornwallis requested an armistice (17 October). He surrendered
his entire command ( about 8,000 men ) on 19 October. In the siege the
British lost 156 killed and 326 wounded; the Americans, 20 killed and 56
wounded; and the French, 52 killed and 134 wounded.
British hopes for victory in America collapsed with Cornwallis' defeat.
Lord North's ministry fell in March 1782 and the new cabinet opened direct
negotiations with the American peace commissioners in Europe that resulted
ultimately in ending the war.
Sir Henry Clinton (1738-1795). British General.
Born and raised in North America, Clinton went to Britain at age 13 to begin a military career. As Major General, he returned to North America in 1775 to serve under Gates and Howe. He led the assault on Charleston (June 1776) which failed because the assigned naval forces could not take Fort Moultrie. Clinton succeeded Howe as commander in chief of British forces in America in May 1778. Evacuated Philadelphia in a fighting retreat to New York, where he remained on the defensive until Spring 1779. Conducted limited offensives that Spring and Summer. Captured Charleston in May 1780 and returned to New
York, leaving Cornwallis with 8,000 men to hold the city and conduct operations in the South.
Clinton's relief force arrived at Yorktown October 24, 1781, five days
after Cornwallis surrender. He was relieved of his command in May 1782,
but promoted to full General in 1790. Governor of Gibraltar from July 1794
until his death on 23 December, 1795.
Benedict Arnold (1741-1801).
American, then British General A businessman and militia officer, Arnold conducted numerous brilliant operations for the Revolutionary Army between 1775 and 1777, earning a Brigadier's rank. Angered at being denied further promotion, Arnold took up covert contact with British authorities. Discovered, he fled to New York in September 1780. Commissioned a Brigadier in the British army, he held a command at Norfolk and conducted raiding operations in Virginia, but departed for England in December 1781.
Marquess Sir Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805)
A professional officer, Cornwallis arrived in America in 1775 after beingpromoted to Major General. Served under Clinton at Charleston (1776). Distinguished himself in several battles and was promoted to Lieutenant General in 1778. As Second in Command to Clinton he assisted in taking Charleston (March 1780) and was left in charge when Clinton returned to New
York. Cornwallis conducted offensive operations in the Carolinas throughout 1780 and early 1781, losing 1/3 of his 8,000 men. Disregarding Clinton's will he entered Virginia, nearly trapping Lafayette at Green Spring, near Jamestown, in July. Cornwallis subsequently occupied Yorktown as a base for further operations. The rest is history (and subject of this article).
Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Motier,
Marquis de La Fayette. (Aka Lafayette). (1757-1834). Major-General
in both the American Revolutionary and French armies Lafayette entered
military service in France at age 14, and was promoted to Captain at age
17. In 1777 he came to America as a volunteer officer without compensation,
and was appointed Major General at age 20. He served with distinction,
and quickly became one of Washington's most trusted aides. In
April 1780 Washington put Lafayette in charge of the Virginia light troops, tasked with opposing Benedict Arnold's raiding operations in that state. In June 1781 he assumed command of American forces in Virginia from the ailing Lt. Gen. von Steuben. The young Marquis, by now also promoted to regular Colonel in the French army, proved sufficient thorn in the British lion's paw to lure Cornwallis into an ill-conceived pursuit which ended at the Battle of Yorktown.
Following the Franco-American victory there Lafayette returned to France
and was promoted to Major General of the French Army in December 1781.
During the French Revolution Lafayette played an ambivalent role: he rescued
the French royal family from the Paris mob in October 1789, but accepted
a promotion to Lieutenant General and Commander of the Jacobite Army of
the center (1791/1792). Following flight from France in 1792, he returned
in 1797 but withdrew from public life until 1815, when he supported Napoleon's
liberal constitution, but pursued the emperor's second abdication.
"Mad" Anthony Wayne (1745-1796). American General
A surveyor, tanner, and colonial legislator, Wayne was commissioned Colonel of the 4th Pennsylvania Battalion in January 1776. Reckless courage in action earned him the nickname "Mad Anthony." Promoted to Brigadier in 1777, Wayne later served under Lafayette in Virginia, and suffered a massive defeat against vastly superior British forces at Green Spring (near
Jamestown) on 6 July 1781. Wayne, promoted to Major General in 1783, went on to distinguish himself fighting Indians on the Northwest Frontier in the 1790's.
Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730-1794)
A former Captain in the Prussian Army and Chamberlain of the Hohenzollern-Hechingen court, Steuben approached Benjamin Franklin, revolutionary American envoy in Paris, seeking a commission. Franklin's famous letter of recommendation (September 1777) to George Washington introduced Steuben as a former Prussian Lieutenant General. Even before
official commissioning as a Major General and Inspector general of the Continental Army (May 1778) Steuben initiated the training program which would transform the rag-tag American militia into a formidable, disciplined army. In 1780 Steuben assumed command of American forces in Virginia. He relinquished this post because of ill health to Lafayette in June 1781, but
commanded one of Washington's three divisions during the Battle of Yorktown. After the war Steuben retired to a farm in New York state, but failed in his business ventures.
Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Count Rochambeau
(1725-1807) Marshall of France
A distinguished professional officer, Rochambeau was appointed commander of the French expeditionary force sent in 1780 to support the American revolutionary army. He reached Rhode Island with 5,500 men in July 1780, and supported Washington's siege of New York in 1781. Recognizing that Cornwallis had maneuvered himself into a trap, Rochambeau encouraged
Washington to move on Yorktown, where his French regulars made a significant contribution to the British defeat.
Returning home in 1783, Rochambeau was appointed commander of the Picardy
(1784-1788) and Alsace (1789) military districts. Promoted to Marshall
of France in 1791, he commanded the Army of the North in 1792, but resigned
after failing to halt the Austrian advance. Retired with honors, Rochambeau
died on his estate ion 10 May 1807.
Count Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse (1722-1788)
Freshly promoted to Rear Admiral (22 May 1781), Grasse sailed that same day from Brest to the West Indies with twenty ships of the line, three frigates and 150 transports. A veteran of Carribean operations, Grasse countered British operations there until sailing north to support Washington, arriving off Yorktown on 30 August, 1781. His defeat of Graves' British relief fleet in the Battle of the Virginia Capes made Washington's and Rochambeau's victory at Yorktown possible. Returning to the Caribbean, Grasse captured St. Kitt's island, but was dfeated and captured by Admiral Rodney during the Battle at the Saints (12 April 1782).
Battle of the Virginia Capes (5 September 1781) Coordinating operations
with Washington and Rochambeau, French Admiral de Grasse arrived in Chesapeake
Bay from the Caribbean on 30 August, 1781, landing 3,000 French soldiers
to bolster Lafayette's force besieging Cornwallis at Yorktown. On 5 September
de Grasse sailed with his twenty-four ships of the line to meet British
Admiral Sir Thomas Graves, whose squadron of 19 ships of the line arrived
too late to block the French fleet. While the ensuing sea battle was a
tactical draw, it was a clear strategic victory for the Franco-American
alliance. Forced to withdraw, Graves could neither reinforce nor evacuate
Cornwallis, while French control of Chesapeake Bay enabled further
reinforcement of Washington at Yorktown.
Baron Thomas Graves (1725-1802) British Admiral
Promoted to Rear Admiral in 1789, Graves served as deputy to Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, commander of the force blockading New England ports in 1780. Graves became squadron commander when Arbuthnot returned to England in 1781.
He failed his mission to relieve Cornwallis (Battle of the Virginia Capes, 5 September 1781) and relinquished his command in November. Not held responsible for his failure, Graves was promoted to Vice Admiral in 1787 and Admiral in 1794, and distinguished himself in combat against the Navy of Jacobite France, for which he received an Irish peerage.