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.
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About the Author
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.
Read an Excerpt
Victory at Yorktown
The Campaign that Won the Revolution
By Richard M. Ketchum
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2004 Richard M. Ketchum
All rights reserved.
SO MUCH IS AT STAKE
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.
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Table of Contents
List of Maps,
1. So Much Is at Stake,
2. France Will Turn the Tide,
3. So Hellish a Plot,
4. Beware the Back Water Men,
5. A Little Persevering and Determined Army,
6. Our Deliverance Must Come,
7. A Partial Engagement,
8. Prepare to Hear the Worst,
9. I Propose a Cessation of Hostilities,
10. The Hand of Heaven Displayed,
11. I Now Take Leave of You,
Also by Richard M. Ketchum,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Mr. Ketchum gives an excellent account of the campaigns in the southern states and then he carries through with the events leading to the Battle at Yorktown and the succeeding two years after Cornwallis¿s surrender. Ketchum, also gives the reader an analysis of why events developed as they did. The author¿s writing style is terrific. The battles and the events flow very well from one chapter to the next. I was able to follow the story, and it kept my interest throughout the book. The one fault I did find was that the book could have used a few more descriptive maps. I found myself doing numerous rereads just so I could figure out where I was located in any one particular state. Overall, the book gave me an excellent well-rounded education on the campaign to and including Yorktown.
What many people find disturbing about the general populace today is its lack of knowledge of our country¿s past. Certainly an understanding of how our country came to be is essential for us to be clear-sighted citizens.The historical information that Victory at Yorktown provides is targeted for adult readers more than it is people of high school age. Reading the book and appreciating its content requires a discipline not found among a majority people of high school age, in my opinion. Accurate historical fiction would be much more appropriate for adolescent readers.If the reader is patient, if he reads each chapter after a sufficient time has elapsed to allow him to return refreshed, he will be rewarded.The book takes up the narrative of the military struggle between American and British forces in 1780, five years after redcoat soldiers and Massachusetts militiamen had fired at each other at Lexington and Concord. Ketchum must set the stage for what is to follow, a difficult task because he has much to cover. I found the first two chapters and chapter 4 rather dull, due mainly to the fact that Ketchum had to present diverse information, I wanting him to focus on two, three, or four aspects. Thereafter, the chapters became more concise with the last chapter being perhaps his best.I took away from this book a better appreciation of the extreme hardships suffered by those who served their states and their united cause, the absolute necessity of France¿s assistance, George Washington¿s indefatigability, integrity, and willingness to take chances, and the Continental Congress¿s utter incapacity to govern. My awareness of the amazing incompetency of the British military leaders and the extreme obduracy of George III was reinforced. I appreciated as well the role that chance played in the outcome of events, be it who individually lived or died or what broad opportunities were successfully or not successfully utilized. If no other conclusion stays with the reader, the one that should remain is that our forefathers were extremely fortunate to have won their independence. I wish most Americans today had that appreciation.
Ketcham delivers another fine study of an important campaign of the American Revolution. Ketchum's narratives seem to develop greater complexity with each succeeding book. Ketcham begins with the mutinous American army of 1780 in the Morristown winter-starved, ragged, and on the verge of disintegration, as well as the inept and weak care of the Continental army by Congress. He also relates the arrival of the French Navy and Army at Newport, and how, in many ways, these forces, together with additional naval units under De Grasse make possible the Virginia campaign of 1781. The story takes us up to the Newburgh conspiracy in 1782, and Washington's farewell at Fraunces Tavern. Other key elements in the story are, Lafayette's mission to secure money from a tottering French monarchy, Benedict Arnold's treason and subsequent campaign in Virginia as a British commander, Nathaniel Greene's campaign in the Carolina's and, of course, Washington's relationship with Rochambeau.
Mr. Ketchum gives an excellent account of the campaigns in the southern states and then he carries through with the events leading to the Battle at Yorktown and the succeeding two years after Cornwallis's surrender. Ketchum, also gives the reader an analysis of why events developed as they did. The author's writing style is terrific. The battles and the events flow very well from one chapter to the next. I was able to follow the story, and it kept my interest throughout the book. The one fault I did find was that the book could have used a few more descriptive maps. I found myself doing numerous rereads just so I could figure out where I was located in any one particular state. Overall, the book gave me an excellent well-rounded education on the campaign to and including Yorktown.
I have enjoyed Richard Ketchum's books for a long time and was eagerly looking forward to this one--a kind of companion to his relatively recent one on the battle of Saratoga (and even his earlier works on Bunker Hill and the campaign of 1776). However, this book is far below what I was hoping for. Instead of his usual verve and talent for clear exposition, this one is a bit muddled, with some odd rearranging of the chronology in describing events that leaves the reader wondering what exactly happened when. It is also more an attempt at the history of the whole revolution from 1779 to the final end of the war, but while some episodes are given full treatment, others which may be just as important are covered quickly and incompletely. In general, while useful to someone who has no background in the subject, the book may prove useful. But anyone looking for a deeper and richer understanding of the last years of the American Revolution will be disappointed.