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Washington and His Comrades: Chapter XI


The critical stroke of the war was near. In the South, after General Greene superseded Gates in the command, the tide of war began to turn. Cornwallis now had to fight a better general than Gates. Greene arrived at Charlotte, North Carolina, in December. He found an army badly equipped, wretchedly clothed, and confronted by a greatly superior force. He had, however, some excellent officers, and he did not scorn, as Gates, with the stiff military traditions of a regular soldier, had scorned, the aid of guerrilla leaders like Marion and Sumter. Serving with Greene was General Daniel Morgan, the enterprising and resourceful Virginia rifleman, who had fought valorously at Quebec, at Saratoga, and later in Virginia. Steuben was busy in Virginia holding the British in check and keeping open the line of communication with the North. The mobility and diversity of the American forces puzzled Cornwallis. When he marched from Camden into North Carolina he hoped to draw Greene into a battle and to crush him as he had crushed Gates. He sent Tarleton with a smaller force to strike a deadly blow at Morgan who was threatening the British garrisons at the points in the interior farther south. There was no more capable leader than Tarleton; he had won many victories; but now came his day of defeat. On January 17, 1781, he met Morgan at the Cowpens, about thirty miles west from King’s Mountain. Morgan, not quite sure of the discipline of his men, stood with his back to a broad river so that retreat was impossible. Tarleton had marched nearly all night over bad roads; but, confident in the superiority of his weary and hungry veterans, he advanced to the attack at daybreak. The result was a complete disaster. Tarleton himself barely got away with two hundred and seventy men and left behind nearly nine hundred casualties and prisoners.

Cornwallis had lost one-third of his effective army. There was nothing for him to do but to take his loss and still to press on northward in the hope that the more southerly inland posts could take care of themselves. In the early spring of 1781, when heavy rains were making the roads difficult and the rivers almost impassable, Greene was luring Cornwallis northward and Cornwallis was chasing Greene. At Hillsborough, in the northwest corner of North Carolina, Cornwallis issued a proclamation saying that the colony was once more under the authority of the King and inviting the Loyalists, bullied and oppressed during nearly six years, to come out openly on the royal side. On the 15th of March Greene took a stand and offered battle at Guilford Court House. In the early afternoon, after a march of twelve miles without food, Cornwallis, with less than two thousand men, attacked Greene’s force of about four thousand. By evening the British held the field and had captured Greene’s guns. But they had lost heavily and they were two hundred miles from their base. Their friends were timid, and in fact few, and their numerous enemies were filled with passionate resolution.

Cornwallis now wrote to urge Clinton to come to his aid. Abandon New York, he said; bring the whole British force into Virginia and end the war by one smashing stroke; that would be better than sticking to salt pork in New York and sending only enough men to Virginia to steal tobacco. Cornwallis could not remain where he was, far from the sea. Go back to Camden he would not after a victory, and thus seem to admit a defeat. So he decided to risk all and go forward. By hard marching he led his army down the Cape Fear River to Wilmington on the sea, and there he arrived on the 9th of April. Greene, however, simply would not do what Cornwallis wished–stay in the north to be beaten by a second smashing blow. He did what Cornwallis would not do; he marched back into the South and disturbed the British dream that now the country was held securely. It mattered little that, after this, the British won minor victories. Lord Rawdon, still holding Camden, defeated Greene on the 25th of April at Hobkirk’s Hill. None the less did Rawdon find his position untenable and he, too, was forced to march to the sea, which he reached at a point near Charleston. Augusta, the capital of Georgia, fell to the Americans on the 5th of June and the operations of the summer went decisively in their favor. The last battle in the field of the farther South was fought on the 8th of September at Eutaw Springs, about fifty miles northwest of Charleston. The British held their position and thus could claim a victory. But it was fruitless. They had been forced steadily to withdraw. All the boasted fabric of royal government in the South had come down with a crash and the Tories who had supported it were having evil days.

While these events were happening farther south, Cornwallis himself, without waiting for word from Clinton in New York, had adopted his own policy and marched from Wilmington northward into Virginia. Benedict Arnold was now in Virginia doing what mischief he could to his former friends. In January he burned the little town of Richmond, destined in the years to come to be a great center in another civil war. Some twenty miles south from Richmond lay in a strong position Petersburg, later also to be drenched with blood shed in civil strife. Arnold was already at Petersburg when Cornwallis arrived on the 20th of May. He was now in high spirits. He did not yet realize the extent of the failure farther south. Virginia he believed to be half loyalist at heart. The negroes would, he thought, turn against their masters when they knew that the British were strong enough to defend them. Above all he had a finely disciplined army of five thousand men. Cornwallis was the more confident when he knew by whom he was opposed. In April Washington had placed La Fayette in charge of the defense of Virginia, and not only was La Fayette young and untried in such a command but he had at first only three thousand badly-trained men to confront the formidable British general. Cornwallis said cheerily that “the boy” was certainly now his prey and began the task of catching him.

An exciting chase followed. La Fayette did some good work. It was impossible, with his inferior force, to fight Cornwallis, but he could tire him out by drawing him into long marches. When Cornwallis advanced to attack La Fayette at Richmond, La Fayette was not there but had slipped away and was able to use rivers and mountains for his defense. Cornwallis had more than one string to his bow. The legislature of Virginia was sitting at Charlottesville, lying in the interior nearly a hundred miles northwest from Richmond, and Cornwallis conceived the daring plan of raiding Charlottesville, capturing the Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, and, at one stroke, shattering the civil administration. Tarleton was the man for such an enterprise of hard riding and bold fighting and he nearly succeeded. Jefferson indeed escaped by rapid flight but Tarleton took the town, burned the public records, and captured ammunition and arms. But he really effected little. La Fayette was still unconquered. His army was growing and the British were finding that Virginia, like New England, was definitely against them.

At New York, meanwhile, Clinton was in a dilemma. He was dismayed at the news of the march of Cornwallis to Virginia. Cornwallis had been so long practically independent in the South that he assumed not only the right to shape his own policy but adopted a certain tartness in his despatches to Clinton, his superior. When now, in this tone, he urged Clinton to abandon New York and join him Clinton’s answer on the 26th of June was a definite order to occupy some port in Virginia easily reached from the sea, to make it secure, and to send to New York reinforcements. The French army at Newport was beginning to move towards New York and Clinton had intercepted letters from Washington to La Fayette revealing a serious design to make an attack with the aid of the French fleet. Such was the game which fortune was playing with the British generals. Each desired the other to abandon his own plans and to come to his aid. They were agreed, however, that some strong point must be held in Virginia as a naval base, and on the 2d of August Cornwallis established this base at Yorktown, at the mouth of the York River, a mile wide where it flows into Chesapeake Bay. His cannon could command the whole width of the river and keep in safety ships anchored above the town. Yorktown lay about half way between New York and Charleston and from here a fleet could readily carry a military force to any needed point on the sea. La Fayette with a growing army closed in on Yorktown, and Cornwallis, almost before he knew it, was besieged with no hope of rescue except by a fleet.

Then it was that from the sea, the restless and mysterious sea, came the final decision. Man seems so much the sport of circumstance that apparent trifles, remote from his consciousness, appear at times to determine his fate; it is a commonplace of romance that a pretty face or a stray bullet has altered the destiny not merely of families but of nations. And now, in the American Revolution, it was not forts on the Hudson, nor maneuvers in the South, that were to decide the issue, but the presence of a few more French warships than the British could muster at a given spot and time. Washington had urged in January that France should plan to have at least temporary naval superiority in American waters, in accordance with Rochambeau’s principle, “Nothing without naval supremacy.” Washington wished to concentrate against New York, but the French were of a different mind, believing that the great effort should be made in Chesapeake Bay. There the British could have no defenses like those at New York, and the French fleet, which was stationed in the West Indies, could reach more readily than New York a point in the South.

Early in May Rochambeau knew that a French fleet was coming to his aid but not yet did he know where the stroke should be made. It was clear, however, that there was nothing for the French to do at Newport, and, by the beginning of June, Rochambeau prepared to set his army in motion. The first step was to join Washington on the Hudson and at any rate alarm Clinton as to an imminent attack on New York and hold him to that spot. After nearly a year of idleness the French soldiers were delighted that now at last there was to be an active movement. The long march from Newport to New York began. In glowing June, amid the beauties of nature, now overcome by intense heat and obliged to march at two o’clock in the morning, now drenched by heavy rains, the French plodded on, and joined their American comrades along the Hudson early in July.

By the 14th of August Washington knew two things–that a great French fleet under the Comte de Grasse had sailed for the Chesapeake and that the British army had reached Yorktown. Soon the two allied armies, both lying on the east side of the Hudson, moved southward. On the 20th of August the Americans began to cross the river at King’s Ferry, eight miles below Peekskill. Washington had to leave the greater part of his army before New York, and his meager force of some two thousand was soon over the river in spite of torrential rains. By the 24th of August the French, too, had crossed with some four thousand men and with their heavy equipment. The British made no move. Clinton was, however, watching these operations nervously. The united armies marched down the right bank of the Hudson so rapidly that they had to leave useful effects behind and some grumbled at the privation. Clinton thought his enemy might still attack New York from the New Jersey shore. He knew that near Staten Island the Americans were building great bakeries as if to feed an army besieging New York. Suddenly on the 29th of August the armies turned away from New York southwestward across New Jersey, and still only the two leaders knew whither they were bound.

American patriotism has liked to dwell on this last great march of Washington. To him this was familiar country; it was here that he had harassed Clinton on the march from Philadelphia to New York three long years before. The French marched on the right at the rate of about fifteen miles a day. The country was beautiful and the roads were good. Autumn had come and the air was bracing. The peaches hung ripe on the trees. The Dutch farmers who, four years earlier, had been plaintive about the pillage by the Hessians, now seemed prosperous enough and brought abundance of provisions to the army. They had just gathered their harvest. The armies passed through Princeton, with its fine college, numbering as many as fifty students; then on to Trenton, and across the Delaware to Philadelphia, which the vanguard reached on the 3d of September.

There were gala scenes in Philadelphia. Twenty thousand people witnessed a review of the French army. To one of the French officers the city seemed “immense” with its seventy-two streets all “in a straight line.” The shops appeared to be equal to those of Paris and there were pretty women well dressed in the French fashion. The Quaker city forgot its old suspicion of the French and their Catholic religion. Luzerne, the French Minister, gave a great banquet on the evening of the 5th of September. Eighty guests took their places at table and as they sat down good news arrived. As yet few knew the destination of the army but now Luzerne read momentous tidings and the secret was out: twenty-eight French ships of the line had arrived in Chesapeake Bay; an army of three thousand men had already disembarked and was in touch with the army of La Fayette; Washington and Rochambeau were bound for Yorktown to attack Cornwallis. Great was the joy; in the streets the soldiers and the people shouted and sang and humorists, mounted on chairs, delivered in advance mock funeral orations on Cornwallis.

It was planned that the army should march the fifty miles to Elkton, at the head of Chesapeake Bay, and there take boat to Yorktown, two hundred miles to the south at the other end of the Bay. But there were not ships enough. Washington had asked the people of influence in the neighborhood to help him to gather transports but few of them responded. A deadly apathy in regard to the war seems to have fallen upon many parts of the country. The Bay now in control of the French fleet was quite safe for unarmed ships. Half the Americans and some of the French embarked and the rest continued on foot. There was need of haste, and the troops marched on to Baltimore and beyond at the rate of twenty miles a day, over roads often bad and across rivers sometimes unbridged. At Baltimore some further regiments were taken on board transports and most of them made the final stages of the journey by water. Some there were, however, and among them the Vicomte de Noailles, brother-in-law of La Fayette, who tramped on foot the whole seven hundred and fifty-six miles from Newport to Yorktown. Washington himself left the army at Elkton and rode on with Rochambeau, making about sixty miles a day. Mount Vernon lay on the way and here Washington paused for two or three days. It was the first time he had seen it since he set out on May 4, 1775, to attend the Continental Congress at Philadelphia, little dreaming then of himself as chief leader in a long war. Now he pressed on to join La Fayette. By the end of the month an army of sixteen thousand men, of whom about one-half were French, was besieging Cornwallis with seven thousand men in Yorktown.

Heart-stirring events had happened while the armies were marching to the South. The Comte de Grasse, with his great fleet, arrived at the entrance to the Chesapeake on the 30th of August while the British fleet under Admiral Graves still lay at New York. Grasse, now the pivot upon which everything turned, was the French admiral in the West Indies. Taking advantage of a lull in operations he had slipped away with his whole fleet, to make his stroke and be back again before his absence had caused great loss. It was a risky enterprise, but a wise leader takes risks. He intended to be back in the West Indies before the end of October.

It was not easy for the British to realize that they could be outmatched on the sea. Rodney had sent word from the West Indies that ten ships were the limit of Grasse’s numbers and that even fourteen British ships would be adequate to meet him. A British fleet, numbering nineteen ships of the line, commanded by Admiral Graves, left New York on the 31st of August and five days later stood off the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. On the mainland across the Bay lay Yorktown, the one point now held by the British on that great stretch of coast. When Graves arrived he had an unpleasant surprise. The strength of the French had been well concealed. There to confront him lay twenty-four enemy ships. The situation was even worse, for the French fleet from Newport was on its way to join Grasse.

On the afternoon of the 5th of September, the day of the great rejoicing in Philadelphia, there was a spectacle of surpassing interest off Cape Henry, at the mouth of the Bay. The two great fleets joined battle, under sail, and poured their fire into each other. When night came the British had about three hundred and fifty casualties and the French about two hundred. There was no brilliant leadership on either side. One of Graves’s largest ships, the Terrible, was so crippled that he burnt her, and several others were badly damaged. Admiral Hood, one of Graves’s officers, says that if his leader had turned suddenly and anchored his ships across the mouth of the Bay, the French Admiral with his fleet outside would probably have sailed away and left the British fleet in possession. As it was the two fleets lay at sea in sight of each other for four days. On the morning of the tenth the squadron from Newport under Barras arrived and increased Grasse’s ships to thirty-six. Against such odds Graves could do nothing. He lingered near the mouth of the Chesapeake for a few days still and then sailed away to New York to refit. At the most critical hour of the whole war a British fleet, crippled and spiritless, was hurrying to a protecting port and the fleurs-de-lis waved unchallenged on the American coast. The action of Graves spelled the doom of Cornwallis. The most potent fleet ever gathered in those waters cut him off from rescue by sea.

Yorktown fronted on the York River with a deep ravine and swamps at the back of the town. From the land it could on the west side be approached by a road leading over marshes and easily defended, and on the east side by solid ground about half a mile wide now protected by redoubts and entrenchments with an outer and an inner parallel. Could Cornwallis hold out? At New York, no longer in any danger, there was still a keen desire to rescue him. By the end of September he received word from Clinton that reinforcements had arrived from England and that, with a fleet of twenty-six ships of the line carrying five thousand troops, he hoped to sail on the 5th of October to the rescue of Yorktown. There was delay. Later Clinton wrote that on the basis of assurances from Admiral Graves he hoped to get away on the twelfth. A British officer in New York describes the hopes with which the populace watched these preparations. The fleet, however, did not sail until the 19th of October. A speaker in Congress at the time said that the British Admiral should certainly hang for this delay.

On the 5th of October, for some reason unexplained, Cornwallis abandoned the outer parallel and withdrew behind the inner one. This left him in Yorktown a space so narrow that nearly every part of it could be swept by enemy artillery. By the 11th of October shells were dropping incessantly from a distance of only three hundred yards, and before this powerful fire the earthworks crumbled. On the fourteenth the French and Americans carried by storm two redoubts on the second parallel. The redoubtable Tarleton was in Yorktown, and he says that day and night there was acute danger to any one showing himself and that every gun was dismounted as soon as seen. He was for evacuating the place and marching away, whither he hardly knew. Cornwallis still held Gloucester, on the opposite side of the York River, and he now planned to cross to that place with his best troops, leaving behind his sick and wounded. He would try to reach Philadelphia by the route over which Washington had just ridden. The feat was not impossible. Washington would have had a stern chase in following Cornwallis, who might have been able to live off the country. Clinton could help by attacking Philadelphia, which was almost defenseless.