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Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution

Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution

by Richard M. Ketchum

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From "the finest historian of the American Revolution" comes the definitive account of the battle and unlikely triumph that led to American independence (Douglas Brinkley)

In 1780, during the Revolutionary War, George Washington's army lay idle for want of supplies, food, and money. All hope seemed lost until a powerful French force landed at Newport


From "the finest historian of the American Revolution" comes the definitive account of the battle and unlikely triumph that led to American independence (Douglas Brinkley)

In 1780, during the Revolutionary War, George Washington's army lay idle for want of supplies, food, and money. All hope seemed lost until a powerful French force landed at Newport in July. Then, under Washington's directives, Nathanael Greene began a series of hit-and-run operations against the British. The damage the guerrilla fighters inflicted would help drive the enemy to Yorktown, where Greene and Lafayette would trap them before Washington and Rochambeau, supported by the French fleet, arrived to deliver the coup de grâce.

Richard M. Ketchum illuminates, for the first time, the strategies and heroic personalities--American and French--that led to the surprise victory, only the second major battle the Americans would win in almost seven horrific years. Relying on good fortune, daring, and sheer determination never to give up, American and French fighters--many of whom walked from Newport and New York to Virginia--brought about that rarest of military operations: a race against time and distance, on land and at sea. Ketchum brings to life the gripping and inspirational story of how the rebels defeated the world's finest army against all odds.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Historian Ketchum's latest book focuses on the latter half of the Revolutionary War, culminating in Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown. Ketchum (Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill) shows the importance of the year 1780 in turning the tide of the war. Washington's situation was hampered by the lack of food and supplies, mutinies within the ranks, and the defection of Benedict Arnold. Then, after years of negotiation, the long-hoped-for French assistance arrived in the form of troops and naval support. This intervention, combined with luck and, on the part of the British, numerous strategic errors, an astonishing lack of communication, and the personal animosity between Clinton and Cornwallis, led to the colonists' victory at Yorktown. Ketchum examines the challenges faced by the Franco-American alliance, including communication, cultural differences, and differing military strategies. In typical Ketchum style, he brings the characters and events to life with quotations, interesting anecdotes, choice vignettes, and vivid descriptions of battles. Recommended for most libraries.-Robert Flatley, Kutztown Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A nicely paced and richly detailed account of the final months of the American Revolution. In 1780, writes noted historian Ketchum (Divided Loyalties, 2002, etc.), victory was very far from certain for the insurgent Americans. The revolutionary army had gone unpaid for months and years, food and supplies and arms were in constantly short supply, and a brutal winter had taken a vicious toll on the men in the field. France had been promising intervention since signing a treaty of alliance in 1777, but so battered was his force, George Washington feared, that "when the French finally did arrive, they would immediately see the desperate condition of the Continental Army and the helplessness of America, and sail away." He had good cause to worry, for certain French officials had been putting in the word to Louis XVI that the best course of action was to let the English and Americans "exhaust themselves reciprocally" and then take the continent for France. But French troops and fleets finally did come, providing the citizens of Philadelphia with a splendid parade before taking to the field. Washington's tiny army-a French officer estimated its strength at only 3,000-rallied, thwarted Benedict Arnold's plan to turn West Point over to the British, and began a long campaign of harrying Lord Cornwallis's army in the south, gathering reinforcements as they pummeled the enemy. Ketchum capably reconstructs these dramatic events, giving equal weight to large historical currents and the small accidents of personality alike; on the latter, for instance, he reveals that Cornwallis would forever hold a grudge against his superior officer, Sir Henry Clinton, for failing to break the siege of Yorktown,inasmuch as "nothing but the hopes of relief would have induced me to attempt its defense." Ketchum delivers a few surprises as well, revealing, for one thing, that the desperate British once seeded the plantations of Tidewater Virginia with smallpox-infected slaves "as instruments of germ warfare." Solid Revolutionary War scholarship. Agent: Carl Brandt/Brandt & Hochman

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Victory at Yorktown

The Campaign that Won the Revolution

By Richard M. Ketchum

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2004 Richard M. Ketchum
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7953-9



Five years had passed since that momentous third Wednesday in April of 1775 — a day of sudden violence that began in the gray half-light of dawn, with young William Diamond frantically beating his drum as church bells from every nearby town clanged madly, calling the Mas-sachusetts militia to arms. Who fired first was never known, but when a couple of gunshots rang out, some two hundred tired, anxious British regulars opened up with a ragged volley at four- or fivescore equally nervous farmers assembled on Lexington green, and King George's regulars and his American colonists had been fighting ever since.

Now it was 1780, and the Revolution that had begun in 1775 was expiring for lack of support. George Washington, the harried commander in chief of what passed for the military forces of the United States, was pleading with Congress for a draft that would produce a Continental Army of 22,680, with 17,320 militiamen to supplement them, but the likelihood of anything like an additional 40,000 men joining up was preposterous, as the General knew, given the unwillingness of the states to come up with their quotas.

At most, the Continental Army garrisoned at West Point was estimated to number 9,000 men, but the reality was that only 3,278 of them reported fit for duty — meaning that they had shoes and clothing and were reasonably healthy. Out of a population of 2.5 million people, fewer than 1 percent were willing to join the regular army fighting for their country's independence.

Except for those troops who were in the Highlands of the Hudson River and soldiers in the southern states, the main army had spent the past winter in Morristown, New Jersey, twenty-five miles west of New York City, on high ground protected by the Watchung Mountains, overlooking the roads between New York and Philadelphia. Here the army's season of greatest discontent had begun on January 3 with a blizzard — a storm so terrible that "no man could endure its violence many minutes without danger of his life," according to Surgeon James Thacher, who watched helplessly as four feet of snow piled up in as many days, covering the tents and burying the men like sheep. A contemporary recorded twenty-seven more snowfalls that awful winter, with weather so frigid in the succeeding months that the Hudson River froze solid from Manhattan to Paulus Hook and the snow remained on the ground until May, surpassing anything the oldest inhabitants could recall. When spring finally came, some of the General's infantry companies could muster only four or five men, with the average complement about fifteen. One of his generals reported that he had officers who were embarrassed to come out of their huts; they were almost naked. Worst of all was the number of men suffering from hunger. At one time Private Joseph Plumb Martin, a Connecticut Yankee, had nothing whatever to eat for four days and nights, except some black birch bark he gnawed off a stick of wood, and after seeing several men roast their old shoes and eat them he heard that some of the officers had killed a favorite little dog for a meal. Other officers put themselves on a diet of bread and water so their men could have what meat there was.

In May the situation had come to a head when troops of the 4th and 8th Regiments of the Connecticut regulars mutinied; they had not been paid for five months, they had had neither meat nor bread for ten days, they were angry, mortally weary of suffering, and they decided to quit and go home. Fortunately, the mutiny produced little violence beyond a few scuffles and an apparently accidental bayonet wound suffered by Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs, after which some quick-thinking officers ordered other Connecticut regiments to parade at once without their arms. After they turned out, guards took stations between them and their huts so they could not retrieve their muskets. At that, the men of the 4th and 8th didn't quite know what to do and, still fuming, stalked back to their camps, where their officers appealed to them to remain calm. As they did so, soldiers of a Pennsylvania brigade surrounded the Connecticut camps, but when officers huddled to decide what should be done next, they wisely determined to withdraw the Pennsylvania troops — the risk was too great that those men, too, might join the mutiny.

As Washington knew, the only money available to pay these men was virtually worthless Continental currency, but he figured that food was a more important need just now and appealed yet again to Commissary General Ephraim Blaine, who was doing his level best to find some meat. That gentleman had his own problems prying money out of the Congress: "I am loaded with debt," he told the General, "and have not had a shilling this two months." This meant that the troops would continue to plunder the surrounding neighborhood for food, but there was no helping it and Washington's officers were as disgusted as he was. Major General Nathanael Greene grumbled that "a country overflowing with plenty [is] now suffering an army employed for the defense of everything dear and valuable to perish for lack of food," and Colonel Samuel Webb cried out in frustration, "I damn my country for lack of gratitude!"

Ever since the rebel victory at Saratoga, in 1777, had convinced France to sign a treaty of alliance with the United States, George Washington had been waiting and praying for French intervention to come soon, but as the weeks and months passed with no sign that help was on the way, his hopes waned. The situation suited many a Francophobe in America, like the New York attorney and loyalist William Smith, Jr., who wrote, "I dread France — She will be guided only by motives of Interest — No Promises will bind her — She will percieve it more advantageous to her Ambition to ferment animosities than hastily to plunge into a War — She will decieve both Parties that her ends may be achieved at our Expence."

Fortunately for the patriots, the young French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette, a volunteer who had been serving in Washington's army, returned to Versailles in 1779 and came back to America a year later with the welcome news that seven French ships of the line, ten to twelve thousand veteran troops led by Comte de Rochambeau, and a war chest of 6 million livres were on the way and should arrive in Rhode Island in June. Even more encouraging to Washington, who believed that the key to victory in this war was to recapture New York from the British, the French had orders to join the American forces in an attack on that city. But what of the rebels who were to fight alongside the French? When Lafayette rejoined Washington in Morristown, he was appalled to find "An Army that is reduced to nothing, that wants provisions, that has not one of the necessary means to make war." However prepared for such squalor he may have been by his knowledge of past distress, "I confess I had no idea of such an extremity," he wrote.

Washington was mortified to think that when the French finally did arrive, they would immediately see the desperate condition of the Continental Army and the helplessness of America, and sail away. Were they to arrive today, he warned the governors of the states, and "find that we have but a handful of men in the field," they would surely doubt that "we had any serious intentions to prosecute measures with vigor." In February, New York was the only state that had met its quota, and the deficiency of men in the ranks was reckoned at 14,436. By July 4, the fourth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the General's best estimate of new recruits who had come into camp was, at most, thirty men. He had no alternative but to appeal repeatedly to the states: "The exigency is so pressing that we ought to multiply our efforts to give new activity and dispatch to our measures," he wrote, "levying and forwarding the men, providing the supplies of every sort required. ... So much is at stake, so much to be hoped, so much to be lost, that we shall be unexcusable if we do not employ all our zeal and all our exertion."

The plight of the army was so bad that Lieutenant Colonel Ebenezer Huntington, who was clothed in rags and had not been paid for more than six months, wrote in a rage to his brother in Connecticut, hoping to shame his relatives into sending aid.

The rascally stupidity which now prevails in the country at large is beyond all descriptions. ... Why don't you reinforce your army, feed them, clothe and pay them? ... [Do] not suffer yourselves to be duped into the thought that the French will relieve you and fight your battles ... they will not serve week after week without meat, without clothing, and paid in filthy rags.

I despise my countrymen. I wish I could say I was not born in America. I once gloried in it, but am now ashamed of it ... and all this for my cowardly countrymen who flinch at the very time when their exertions are wanted and hold their purse strings as though they would damn the world rather than part with a dollar to their Army.

* * *

FIVE YEARS OF unbelievably harsh circumstances had taught George Washington he must be patient, must never stop trying, and the wonder of it all was his capacity for resilience — his ability to bounce back again and again from shattered hopes and bitter disappointment, too many defeats, too few victories. Several disgruntled officers and certain New England members of Congress saw in that record confirmation that the General lacked ability, and they made every effort to discredit him and have him replaced. Generals Horatio Gates and Charles Lee — both former British officers who had joined the rebels — were continually scheming to undercut the commander in chief and (so each one hoped) succeed him. On top of these ugly rivalries, the Congress seemed incapable of providing Washington's men with even the barest necessities. As the General put it, "... the history of the war is a history of false hopes and temporary expedients."

Until recently Congress had borne the financial burden of the conflict, doing so by printing paper money that was not backed by hard currency. Finally, the reckoning had come, the Continental money was now utterly worthless, and Congress decided to make the states responsible for raising funds, since they had the power to tax the citizens and Congress did not. The idea was that each state would pay its own line, as its regular forces were called, and provide soldiers with the necessities. Seeing at once where this would lead, Washington protested, in words that foreshadowed later arguments for a constitution of the United States.

Unless the states were willing to let their representatives in Congress speak and act for them, he said, and unless Congress was given absolute power to wage the war, "we are attempting an impossibility and very soon shall become (if it is not already the case) a many-headed monster, a heterogeneous mass, that never will or can steer to the same point."

At no time in the long history of the war, Washington warned, has dissatisfaction been "so general and so alarming." The only glue that held the army together was the soldiers' extraordinary patriotism, but now some officers were resigning while the men in the ranks — who had no such option — "murmur, brood over their discontent, and have lately shown a disposition to enter into seditious combinations." There were limits to men's endurance, he told Congress, and observed that if the Connecticut regiments had marched off, as they had in mind to do, there would have been no stopping the rest of the army from following.

To these worries were added personal frustrations. His wife, Martha, had bravely joined him in camp recently, but their landlady continued to occupy two of the four downstairs rooms while the second floor was still unfinished for lack of boards. The Washingtons had no kitchen of their own, their servants were all suffering from bad colds, and, worst of all, the General's favorite horse was laid up, another was still gaunt from the previous winter, his mare was in foal, and his reaction to a substitute animal sent him by a Virginia neighbor was to accept it "as men take their wives, for better or worse, and if he should prove a jade and go limping on, I must do as they are obliged to do: submit to the bargain."

Further thwarting the General was the knowledge that if his own army were not so weak, the British commander in chief, General Sir Henry Clinton, would never have dared sail from New York with an expeditionary force consisting of most of the British fleet under Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, plus as many as 8,000 troops, to besiege Charleston, South Carolina. Clinton had left behind some 11,000 soldiers, two-thirds of them Hessians and the others Tories, and while it was tempting to think they were vulnerable to attack, Washington knew he could accomplish nothing without a French fleet and many more soldiers to bolster his own feeble ranks in New Jersey and the Hudson Valley — 2,800 of whose three-year enlistments would be up at the end of May.

* * *

ONCE FRANCE HAD decided to ally itself actively with the United States, the entire complexion of America's war began to change, and for no one was this more significant than George Washington. Until now, everyone fighting on the rebel side had been directly or indirectly under his command, and his only involvement with sea power was to wish that a European enemy of Britain would bring it to his aid.

The French alliance called for a fresh approach to strategy and tactics. The Continental Army would be fighting alongside troops who neither spoke their language nor were directly subject to Washington's orders. And who could say how the introduction of France's warships would affect the existing equation? While England's sea power was superior to that of France, the former country also had to reckon with Spain, whose navy when combined with that of the French could tip the scales.

Since protection of the homeland was of paramount importance to the English, they decided to keep their main fleet in European waters unless an enemy squadron was detached to the West Indies or America, but only after assuring themselves that the ships were definitely bound for North America could they dispatch a detachment in pursuit. That meant, of course, that the French, sailing first, were more likely to have the advantage and beat the English across the Atlantic. But there were inherent uncertainties, one being control of the waters of the West Indies, where French and British each had valuable properties. This was the real center of the Atlantic trade, where the naval forces of England, France, and other European powers were on the prowl and where the best-laid plans could be undone in the blink of an eye.

European diplomacy in the eighteenth century was a mirror image of Niccolò Machiavelli's theory of practical statecraft. The end justified the means, and the end, as often as not, was the aggrandizement of the various monarchs and nobles. Not surprisingly, Europe's capitals swarmed with spies, who were a continuing problem for the more naive American envoys. Beginning in 1763, the goal of France's foreign policy was revenge — revenge for the humiliation it had suffered at the hands of England during the Seven Years' War. Crushed militarily and stripped of its colonies by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France lost its position as the first nation of Europe and was reduced to the unprecedented position of a second-rate power.

Since the French king Louis XV and his foreign policy had been largely in the hands of his mistress, Madame de Pompadour, from 1745 until her death in 1764, she deserved much of the blame for bringing on the Seven Years' War, so disastrous for France. One of her favorites was Duc Étienne François de Choiseul, who managed the foreign affairs portfolio through the Seven Years' War and obtained the best terms possible (meager as they were) at the peace table. It was Choiseul who perceived in Britain's disgruntled colonies a likely tool for humbling France's enemy across the Channel. In 1768 the monarch's amours again played a hand in the nation's diplomacy. That year the king took another mistress — one Marie Jeanne Bécu, who had until then performed the same services for Chevalier Jean du Barry while presiding over his gambling house. (It was a complicated life Madame du Barry led. She caught the eye of Louis XV and became his paramour while married to her former lover's brother, Comte Guillaume du Barry. In 1770 she dismissed Choiseul, and she retired from the court when the king died in 1774.)


Excerpted from Victory at Yorktown by Richard M. Ketchum. Copyright © 2004 Richard M. Ketchum. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Richard M. Ketchum (1922-2012) graduated from Yale University and commanded a subchaser in the South Atlantic during World War II. As director of book publishing at American Heritage Publishing Company for twenty years, he edited many of that firm's volumes, including The American Heritage Book of the Revolution and The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, which received a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation. Ketchum was the cofounder and editor of Blair&Ketchum's Country Journal, a monthly magazine about rural life. He and his wife lived on a sheep farm in Vermont. He is the author of theRevolutionary War classics Decisive Day and The Winter Soldiers.
Richard M. Ketchum (1922-2012) is the author of the Revolutionary War classics Decisive Day: The Battle of Bunker Hill; The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton; the award-winning New York Times Notable Book Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War; and, most recently, Divided Loyalties: How the American Revolution Came to New York. He lived in Vermont.

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