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The New American Nation
If men were angels,there would be no need of government.
In the spring of 1781, General George Washington heard alarming reports--later proven to be true--that Charles Gravier, the Comte de Vergennes and King Louis XVI's foreign minister, was planning to end the war with Great Britain by abandoning the American ally and convening a peace conference of European powers friendly to France that would leave the British in possession of land they now occupied--the modern Midwest--thus blocking any westward expansion by the rebellious colonists. French withdrawal from the war would sound the death knell of American independence. Instead of the arrival of a great French fleet as promised, there would come to America only transports to take King Louis's white-coated regulars home. After them King George III's commissioners would probably appear to administer the oath of allegiance to a conquered people, and to take "Mr." Washington along with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and other signers of the Declaration of Independence, to London, there to stand trial for treason.
This plan, contained in a secret memorandum to himself drawn up by Vergennes, was never made public at the time, although Vergennes had sounded out the British on the proposal and received enthusiastic support. With Washington, it had the effect of making him yearn more desperately for a single decisive victory that would destroy the British Crown's will to continue the war. So on May 21 in Wethersfield, Connecticut, he met with General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, the Comte deRochambeau, to plan a summer campaign.
In spite of the Vergennes plan, of which Rochambeau was unaware, the promise of the great French West Indian fleet for use against the British had not been withdrawn. Both Washington and Rochambeau expected it to appear under the Comte Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse, and the American commander wanted desperately to use it in a campaign against New York City held by General Sir Henry Clinton. New York was an obsession with Washington. He had been defeated in and around there three times: on Long Island, in the city itself and at White Plains. Each time, he had saved his army--truly notable feats of generalship, much as successful withdrawals do not excite the public--and would continue to do so throughout five years of defeat and retreat brightened only by such rallies as the brilliant raids on Trenton and Princeton. In May of 1781 it seemed to Washington that his time for vengeance had come, for between them he and the French general commanded 16,600 men: 8,800 Americans and 7,800 French. With de Grasse's powerful fleet this should be enough to overwhelm Clinton.
But then Washington and Rochambeau made an armed reconnaissance of Sir Henry Clinton's New York defenses, finding to their dismay that they were much too strong to be stormed. Their dejection turned to joy, however, when on August 14 they received the electrifying news that de Grasse was enroute to the Chesapeake with twenty-eight big ships and three thousand men!
The Chesapeake! Lord Charles Cornwallis's southern army was there! General Nathanael Greene and the aroused Patriots of the Carolinas had disabused His Lordship of his conviction that he could win the South for King George III. Hastening north to Virginia, with Greene snapping at his heels, he had halted in the little tobacco-trading port of Yorktown, and there taken up a defensive position expecting reinforcements from Clinton in New York and a rescuing British fleet under Sir Samuel Graves.
George Washington now forgot the New York operation and prepared to march south, first notifying the Marquis de Lafayette to keep Cornwallis cornered in Yorktown. Next, efforts were made to convince Clinton that New York was still the Franco-American objective. Staten Island was made to appear the staging area for an assault. Roads toward it were improved. A party of French in nearby Chatham, New Jersey, began making bake ovens as though for a siege. Leaving three thousand men above New York, Washington sent two thousand across the Hudson into New Jersey. The French followed. A leisurely march toward Chatham began. On August 29 the troops were making for Morristown--then New Brunswick--and Clinton still believed them bound for Chatham.
But on the next day the Americans and French began marching briskly south toward Chesapeake Bay and Yorktown.
All the way down to the Head of Elk in Maryland, Washington pondered the question: Where is de Grasse? He had not heard from him since receipt of that letter in mid-August. He had no way of knowing that de Grasse had met and defeated the British rescuing fleet.
Washington still had had no word as his Americans--mostly Continentals with about three thousand militia--reached the Head of Elk and began embarking in boats for Williamsburg on the James. The French followed. As Rochambeau and his elegant aides neared the landing on the Virginia shore they saw a strong, tall figure in blue and buff waving his big hat wildly, and almost capering for joy. Rochambeau stepped ashore and a beaming George Washington rushed up to embrace him. Then French hats went soaring into the air, for Washington had informed them that de Grasse had met the British fleet off the Capes, driving it back to New York, that he now held the Chesapeake, completely cutting off Cornwallis, and had already put ashore three thousand more French regulars under the Marquis Saint-Simon. As one of Washington's generals was to write of Cornwallis: ". . . we have got him handsomely in a pudding bag."
They had indeed. When Cornwallis learned that Admiral Graves had sailed back to New York, he was so distressed that he shortened his front by abandoning a formidable outer work that might have delayed his enemy for at least a week. On September 30 Washington was delighted to find this position empty. Because all these works but the battery were enclosed, they were immediately useful against Yorktown, and the battery was enclosed that night. Meanwhile on the morning of October 1 the French drove in the pickets at the Fusilier's Redoubt near the river.
Five days later work was begun on the first of Washington's parallels about six hundred yards from the lower end of the town. The trench was to run down to the water's edge. Diggers toiled throughout the night, sweating profusely in that moist heat which had already spread sickness through both camps. Heavy guns were dragged into place, and on October 9 a French battery on the left opened up. Then the American battery on the right began blasting, with Washington firing the first shot, and a British frigate on the York was driven to the Gloucester shore.
On the next night two bigger batteries began roaring. The French set another frigate hopelessly afire, and two transports were destroyed. In all, fifty-two guns were battering the town, and Cornwallis wrote ominously to Clinton: "We have lost about seventy of our men and many of our works are considerably damaged: with such works on disadvantageous ground, against so powerful an attack we cannot hope to make a very long resistance. P.S. 5 p.m. Since my letter was written (at 12m.) we have lost thirty men . . . We continue to lose men very fast."
Clinton and the admirals, meanwhile, had only belatedly begun another rescue operation. But the limitations of New York's dockyards made the work of refitting proceed with agonizing slowness. It was hoped to be ready by October 5, then the 8th . . . the 12th . . . But the 12th passed and the fleet still had not sailed. Clinton was beside himself. At last, on October 17, seven thousand troops were embarked and the ships began dropping down Sandy Hook--only to be forced to wait two more days for favorable winds and tides. In the meantime, some sixteen thousand French and Americans drew ever closer to Cornwallis's beleaguered seven thousand, and a second parallel only three hundred yards away from Yorktown was begun by Baron von Steuben and his engineers.
As the trench approached the river edge, its builders were raked by fire from two British redoubts close to the water. Washington decided to storm them. The French took the left in a stirring charge, climbing the parapet with cries of "Vive le Roi!" and forcing its garrison of Hessians and British to throw down their arms.
Alexander Hamilton led the Americans against the one on the right. Now grown fond of the bayonet, the Patriots went at it with unloaded muskets, clawing their way through the abatis, crossing the ditch and leaping over the parapets. From all the British lines came a storm of shells and musket balls. Washington, watching the assault, was cautioned by his aide: "Sir, you are too much exposed here. Had you not better step a little back?"
"Colonel Cobb," Washington replied gravely, "if you are afraid, you have liberty to step back."
And so both redoubts were won, the second parallel was extended down to the river and the second nail driven into the British coffin. On the morning of October 16, Cornwallis sent out a force of 350 men to capture and destroy the batteries in the second parallel. In a brave charge, the British succeeded in entering both positions and in spiking some guns, but they were eventually driven back and the guns restored to service.