Yorktown was indeed the battle that won the Revolutionary War. But how many know of the battle that won the battle? Seven weeks before Earl Cornwallis surrendered his sword, the French Navy had made that a fait accompli in a brief but profoundly important clash with the British off Cape Henry.
In Stan Freberg’s famous 1961 song-and-dance satire of early American history, “Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America (Vol. 1),” the comedian imagines that the American Revolution is won by a forefather of the painter Norman Rockwell. Yes, Norman Rockwell. Facing General Charles Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, the rebels are down to three men: George Washington, his aide and “Rockwell, the skinny kid with the pipe.” Yet they do not surrender; they conspire instead to have Rockwell paint an army-a giant mural, that is, showing thousands of snarling Continentals poised for the attack. They unveil the painting at dawn, accompanied by a deafening soundtrack of battle sounds (anachronism is Freberg’s middle name), and the scheme works; a foppish Cornwallis trots out waving the white flag, shouting over the recorded gunfire, “I say, stop all that dreadful shooting! We surrender!”
If you were to catch Freberg in a serious moment, he might admit that no such ruse was necessary for the Franco-American victory in Yorktown, a small deep-water port on the York River side of Virginia’s Peninsula. By late September of 1781 General Washington, critically supported by the French, had firmly trapped Cornwallis’s 7,000-man army in Yorktown. For the British, with no prospect of escape by water and facing the siege artillery and muskets of some 17,000 French and American troops, it quickly became a matter “reducible to calculation,” as Washington put it. And indeed the math zeroed out quickly; on Oct. 19, the once-unstoppable British general surrendered and, though he did not know it that day, brought six years of war to an end. Britain’s will to continue, already faltering, would not survive the news from Yorktown. It was the war’s last major battle; two years later, on Sept. 3, 1783, Britain formally conceded independence to the American colonies.
That’s the synopsis, anyway-a reasonably clean echo of the standard abstract that has found its way into the encyclopedias, history books and doctoral theses of the last two centuries. And like many synopses that have gone before it, it relegates the most crucial aspect of the whole campaign to a passing phrase: with no prospect of escape by water. True to form, it fails to mention that the siege of Yorktown had actually been won seven weeks before Cornwallis’s surrender-on Sept. 5, 1781-in a brief and seemingly inconclusive British-French naval clash off Virginia’s Cape Henry.
The victory at Yorktown was a stunning and rapid reversal of fortunes, considering the state of affairs just months earlier. In the summer of 1781 Washington’s main army was as ragged and underfed as ever, hunkered down outside New York, waiting in vain for an opportunity to oust General Henry Clinton’s much larger force of redcoats and Hessians; the French intervention had so far been a bust; the Carolinas had all but fallen to the enemy; and the famous turncoat Benedict Arnold, by then a British General, had plundered the James River valley from Portsmouth to Richmond.
Yet, while none of the rebel strategists knew it at the time, a golden opportunity was taking shape in Virginia, and its name was Charles, second Earl Cornwallis. After participating in the capture of Charleston, S.C., in the spring of 1780, Cornwallis had spent the following year campaigning through the Carolinas with mixed success. His tactics were military, but his strategy was largely political: to drum up loyalist support by crushing as much of the scattered American force as he could get his hands on. The campaign started well enough, with a bloody and convincing rout of General Horatio Gates’s army in Camden, S.C. But after that things went less swimmingly for Cornwallis. He was stung by the Americans at the battles of King’s Mountain and Hannah’s Cowpens, and then lost nearly a third of his army in a Pyrrhic victory at Guilford Courthouse, which gained him only a patch of North Carolina wilderness.
After falling back to Wilmington, N.C., Cornwallis decided to move north into Virginia, rationalizing that it was healthier country for his troops (“the amount of sickness in all the ranks of the army was positively alarming,” he wrote of his time in North Carolina) and that, more important, it was the lightly defended breadbasket of the rebellion and therefore the ideal place to strike a hard blow. “I cannot help expressing my wishes the Chesapeake may become the seat of war,” he wrote to General Clinton from Wilmington in early April of 1781, “even, if necessary, at the expense of abandoning New York. Until Virginia is in a manner subdued, our hold on the Carolinas must be difficult if not precarious.”
Clinton, still certain that Washington was preparing an attack on New York (and he was), strongly disagreed, though he said nothing to Cornwallis at the time-claiming later that he had no reason to believe the earl would act on his growing “obsession” with Virginia. And when Cornwallis did act, moving into Virginia in late April, Clinton still failed to exert his authority-saying only that he would have tried to stop Cornwallis, had he known in advance. “It may have been a failure of command nerve on Clinton’s part,” writes Harold A. Larrabee in his 1964 book on the subject, Decision at the Chesapeake, “or it may have been the result of a growing awareness that Cornwallis had [the support of Lord George Germain, Britain’s secretary of state for American affairs].” That suspicion was confirmed, Larrabee says, when Germain wrote Clinton to say he was “pleased to find Lord Cornwallis’s opinion entirely coincides with mine of the great importance of pushing the war on the side of Virginia with all the force that can be spared. . . .”
Long before Clinton received that letter, however, a far more threatening matter had come to his attention. On June 5, the British had intercepted a letter from Washington to General Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, who had been given the unenviable job of hampering Cornwallis’s much larger army in Virginia and who had been urging Washington to consider a more concerted effort in that state. The letter made it clear to the young French general-and to the British, as luck would have it-that Washington’s preference for an assault on New York had prevailed in a recent council of war, and that Lafayette would for the time being be left to his own meager devices against Cornwallis.
The intelligence had a profound effect on all that followed; Clinton, “freshly alarmed” about an attack on New York, dashed off orders to Cornwallis, says Larrabee, telling him to send “as many men as he could spare . . . to reinforce the threatened garrison in New York.” Although these orders were rescinded in July, after Clinton received Germain’s unequivocal instructions to prosecute the war in the South, they nevertheless had the effect of turning Cornwallis’s attention away from plunder and toward the Chesapeake-first to ship reinforcements to New York and then, when that became moot, as a matter of long-standing intention. Cornwallis had planned from the beginning to establish a naval base on the Bay, and now Clinton, for broader strategic reasons, was asking for the same thing. So, with this new mindset, Cornwallis made his way toward the water, ultimately settling on the reasonably defensible twin harbors of Yorktown and Gloucester, facing each other across a narrow bend in the lower York River.
It must be said that Cornwallis went to Yorktown very much on his own volition; he was not “chased” there by Lafayette, as many accounts suggest. Only on a good day that summer did the 24-year-old French marquis have a force more than half the size of Cornwallis’s. Even after he was joined by the small armies of generals Anthony Wayne and Friedrich von Steuben in mid-June, for a total of 5,000 men, Lafayette could only spar defensively with Cornwallis and keep him from plundering at will. So it was “as if by enchantment,” in Lafayette’s words, that Cornwallis wound up in Yorktown on Aug. 1, 1781.
The British general was not enchanted, of course; from a military standpoint he was behaving quite sensibly. He could not expect his campaign to last long without a naval supply link, and that meant setting up shop on the water. There was only one flaw in his thinking: the assumption that British ships could get to wherever he established a base. It was a reasonable assumption; until this point in the war, the Royal Navy had gone more or less wherever it pleased in the colonies. But the assumption did not take into account that on Aug. 3, before Cornwallis had even found a good writing desk in Yorktown, a vast French fleet was weighing anchor in Havana, headed for the Chesapeake.
French Rear Admiral Francois J. P. de Grasse, aboard the awe-inspiring 98-gun three-decker Ville de Paris, the largest and most powerful warship of its time, had sailed l’Armee Navale from France to the West Indies in the spring of 1781. With 27 heavy warships (“ships of the line,” so called because they had 60 or more guns), De Grasse’s primary mission was to join with Spanish forces there and then do what he could to reduce British control of the islands. But he also had explicit permission from the French government to take a portion of his fleet to North America “to sweep the coast and co-operate in any undertaking which may be projected by the French and American generals.”
Those generals were indeed keen to project an undertaking, though it was not Washington who steered De Grasse in the direction of the Bay; it was General Jean Baptiste de Rochambeau, Washington’s right-hand Frenchman in the stunted northern campaign. “There are two points at which an offensive may be made against the enemy: Chesapeake Bay and New York,” Rochambeau wrote to De Grasse in late May. “The southwesterly winds and the state of distress in Virginia will probably make you prefer the Chesapeake, and it will be there where we think you may be able to render the greatest service.” He was using the word “we” a bit loosely. At the time, Washington still favored an attack on New York, and he no doubt would have said so had he written the letter himself. But, luckily, he had not-and by late August Rochambeau’s instinct had taken on the color of clairvoyance: the Bay was indeed where De Grasse would “render the greatest service.”
When Washington at last felt confident that De Grasse was on his way, and that a large enough force might in fact be able to trap Cornwallis, he was quick to adopt a new plan. He and Rochambeau would bring the bulk of their armies from the north, marching them to the top of the Bay and then putting them on ships for the trip down to the Peninsula, to join Lafayette. A small French fleet in Newport, R.I., under the command of Admiral Saint-Laurent de Barras, would bring artillery, as well as food for the troops. De Grasse would bring his huge fleet up from the islands, with additional French troops and as much money as he could pull together for Washington-whose soldiers in some cases hadn’t been paid for more than a year. After dropping off the men and money, De Grasse would station his fleet at the mouth of the Chesapeake, allowing De Barras’s entry but blocking British ships-leaving Cornwallis with no way out. It was a daring plan, entirely dependent on good timing. In the end, however, bad timing on the British side played a greater role.
The Battle of the Capes, writes John A. Tilley in The American Revolution, 1775–1783-An Encyclopedia, was “an exercise in muddled strategic thinking, unoriginal tactics, bad communications and destructive personality conflicts.” And all of that, except for a small share of the muddled thinking, belonged to the British-as did every bit of the bad luck. By most accounts, the most damaging strategic error is laid at the feet of Admiral George Rodney, commander of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels in the Leeward Islands, who had been skirmishing with De Grasse for most of the spring. It was no secret to the British that De Grasse was bound for North America-and Rodney had communicated that more than once to his counterparts in New York, assuring them they could “depend on the squadron in America being reinforced [by him], should the enemy bend their forces that way.” But here was Rodney’s error: he assumed that De Grasse would take only part of his fleet to America-no more than 14 or 15 ships of the line, leaving the rest to escort the summer trade convoy to Europe. And when De Grasse made his move on Aug. 5, Rodney (in failing health and bound for England) sent his second in command, Admiral Samuel Hood, in pursuit with only 14 ships of the line.
Not knowing that De Grasse would first make a fundraising stop in Havana, Hood dashed straight to the Chesapeake, arriving there five days ahead of the French. He found no enemy in the Bay and pressed on to New York, pausing only to reconnoiter the Delaware Bay. Known for his impatience, Hood seemed to be the only British player at the moment with a sustained sense of urgency; in New York he urged Clinton and Admiral Thomas Graves, commander of the British fleet there, to merge the two squadrons and send them out immediately in search of De Grasse. Graves promised to be under way the next day, but it wasn’t until three days later, Sept. 1, that the combined fleet of 19 line ships headed south under Graves’s command, with Hood and Admiral Francis S. Drake (nephew of the famous sea dog) serving as division commanders. “The only intelligence Graves had of his enemies as he sailed southward,” writes W.J. Wood in Battles of the Revolutionary War, 1775–1781, “was that De Grasse and De Barras [who had left Newport, R.I. a week earlier] were at sea. He must have felt sure, however, that somewhere in or around the Chesapeake Bay the two French admirals would try to affect a rendezvous.”
Had they managed to do so before the British arrived on the morning of Sept. 5, Graves might truly have choked on his biscuit as the French fleet came into view. As it was, he was outnumbered 24 to 19, and outgunned by an even greater ratio. Working to Graves’s advantage, on the other hand, was the fact that most of De Grasse’s ships were undermanned; over 3,000 sailors (about 20 percent of the fleet’s personnel) had either been sent ashore for routine reprovisioning chores or were helping ferry army troops to Jamestown. Graves also had the weather gauge-he was upwind of the enemy, that is, a genuine offensive advantage in the days of square-riggers. Furthermore, De Grasse was caught on an incoming tide, which, combined with the swirling currents and a less-than-ideal wind (north-northeast) kept him pinned in Lynnhaven Roads for some three hours. The French fleet’s exit from the Bay, when the tide finally turned and De Grasse hoisted the signal, was quite literally a mad scramble.
It was at this moment that Graves could first be accused of “unimaginative tactics.” The first five French ships to get clear of Cape Henry had done so in such a rush that they were now dangerously removed from the rest of the fleet. “The [French] van was offering itself up for destruction,” Tilley writes, suggesting, as many others have, that a more aggressive British admiral might have abandoned his tidy battle line and pounced on the vulnerable French ships. But, as Larrabee puts it: “No such idea entered Graves’s mind at the critical moment. His own later explanation of his tactics . . . reads like a condensed version of the [Royal Navy] Fighting Instructions as the admiral understood them: ‘My aim was to get close, to form parallel, and attack altogether. . . . I therefore came to the same tack as the enemy, and lay with the main topsail to the mast dressing the line and pressing toward the enemy, until I thought the enemy’s van were so much advanced as to offer the moment for successful action.’ “
Graves was indeed so intent on a proper “line ahead” engagement that after wearing the fleet (simultaneously jibing) onto the port tack, with the idea of eventually coming parallel to the French, he actually hove to “in order to let ye Center of Enemy’s Ships come a Brest of us,” according to an entry in the log of his own ship, the London. “To the astonishment of the whole fleet,” says a British account quoted by Larrabee, “the French center were permitted without molestation to bear down to support their van.” Despite this implied criticism from his contemporaries, it is unfair to suggest that Graves was an unusually cautious commander. Unimaginative perhaps, but imagination was not necessarily a naval virtue in those days. Graves was simply adhering to the Navy’s hidebound Fighting Instructions, which left little room for clever departures from the cardinal tactic: line up alongside the enemy (virtually all of a warship’s cannons pointed abeam, through gun ports in the lower decks) and let him have it. And if Graves did have any creative impulses, they were likely quashed by the memory of Admiral John Byng-who, after violating the rules in a 1757 battle with the French, became the most severe example of the Royal Navy’s intolerance on the subject. He was shot.
Still, by this point in the developing battle, the impatient Admiral Hood was fit to be tied; not only had the necessary jibe put his division in the rear, but Graves’s decision to heave to and wait for the French had served also to increase the angle of the British approach. And, from Hood’s perspective, things would only get worse when the forward divisions came within shooting distance. Graves, unable to bring the fleet parallel but also unwilling to lose the offensive edge, finally ran up the signal to “bear down and engage close” at about 4 p.m. Yet, according to Hood and several other officers, Graves continued to fly the line-ahead flag, a contradiction that allegedly paralyzed many of the rearward captains-who no doubt also remembered the unfortunate Byng and were not inclined to ignore a line-ahead order. Hood and company later insisted that the confusing double signal flew for an hour and a half, while Graves claimed it was just a matter of minutes. The ships’ ambiguous logs only cloud the issue. But, for whatever reason, Hood’s division did in fact hang back until it was far too late to be of any use.
As tempting as it is to speculate about the battle’s outcome if Hood had been involved, it may be more prudent to guess that it would not have made a difference-if the clash between the two vans is any indication. The forward British ships (among which there seemed to be no signal confusion) promptly obeyed the order to bear down and engage, spurred on perhaps by Graves’s own aggressive lunge in the London. But the windward position, while giving the British greater maneuverability, proved to be a costly “advantage.” Not only did it require the first move-approaching the enemy bow first, momentarily exposing them to deadly broadsides-but it also made life easier for their “spar-wrecking” foes. “[The French] aimed almost invariably at the masts and rigging of the enemy vessels in order to cripple them, while the British practice was to fire at the hull in the hope of sinking their opponent,” says Larrabee. “In the Chesapeake engagement this tendency of the French to aim high was accentuated, says [historian Robert Beatson], ‘by their firing from the weather side, while the British ships, on the contrary, fired from the low or lee side.’ “
The effect was immediate; while the French ships suffered their share of damage, the British van was literally cut to pieces. The French 74-gun Pluton’s first volley devastated the Shrewsbury, shredding her masts and rigging, killing 14 crewmen and ripping the leg off of her captain, Mark Robinson. Twelve more men were killed and a total of 46 were wounded before the Shrewsbury was forced to pull back. “All her masts, yards and sails were so [damaged],” wrote Graves in his report to the Admiralty, “that by evening she was unable to keep in line, and [later] made the signal of distress.” The British Intrepid was also badly mauled-as were, to lesser degrees, the Ajax, Terrible, Montagu and Admiral Drake’s division flagship Princessa. Four French ships (the Pluton, Reflechi, Caton and Diademe) were severely battered in the first hour and a half-the latter two disabled, in fact. But as daylight waned, the French center began to close in, threatening to finish off the crippled British van. Graves, still with no rear division and only part of his center involved, wisely chose to disengage, hauling down the battle signal at 6:30 p.m. Casualty figures vary, of course, but according to W. J. Wood, the total French casualties came to 209, compared to 336 for the British. But the damage to ships-the type of damage, specifically-was still more lopsided, according to Page Smith, author of A New Age Now Begins (1976): “The French strategy of directing fire at masts, riggings and upper works of the enemy had proved successful. It was easier to patch a riddled hull than to replace the delicate and complicated rigging of a sailing ship.”
Most likely, that is precisely what kept Graves from renewing the battle the next day, or at all, as it turned out. “Six of Graves’s ships were, for the time being, effectively out of action,” writes Wood. “Shrewsbury, Montagu and Intrepid [had been incapacitated]; Princessa was laboring along with her topmast about to topple; and Terrible was taking on so much water that it was doubtful she could ever be counted on for battle. Ajax was remaining afloat only with ‘double pumping.’ “ The damage to De Grasse’s fleet was not nearly so debilitating, says Larrabee: “The two or three partially crippled French vessels were able to make repairs at sea so effectively that it appeared to the British [the next day] that ‘they had received very little damage.’ “ Nevertheless, De Grasse was also reluctant to renew the fight as the fleets drifted south until Sept. 9-when if finally occurred to De Grasse (belatedly, by his own admission) that he should return to the Chesapeake. “It is what we ought to have been doing since the battle,” he wrote in his journal that day, “that is, our very best to get back into that bay [and] recover our ships, barges and boats. . . . Perhaps we would also find the squadron of M. de Barras.” Returning to the Bay the next morning, he did in fact find De Barras, who had avoided the British by veering out to sea.
On Sept. 10 Graves too came to his senses about the Chesapeake, and he followed De Grasse there. But, a day late and now many cannons short, he was in no position to challenge the expanded French fleet. After a council of war aboard the London, according to Larrabee, the British admirals unwittingly wrote Cornwallis’s figurative death warrant: “Upon this state of the position of the enemy, the present condition of the British fleet, the season of the year so near the equinox, and the impracticality of giving any effectual succor to General Earl Cornwallis, it was resolved, that the British squadron . . . should proceed with all dispatch to New York.”
Graves and company returned to the Chesapeake in October with a larger fleet, carrying 7,000 troops and an optimistic plan to break through the French blockade, but they arrived far too late-a week after Cornwallis’s surrender. On Oct. 29, seeing that a challenge of the blockade would be both difficult and pointless, the British once again retired to New York. “They were too late,” wrote one young French officer in his
diary. “The fowl had been eaten.”
Indeed it had. The opportunistic French and Americans had pulled off a complex land-sea campaign that many historians consider unprecedented in scope. And American history had taken its sharpest turn-not in the bunkers around Yorktown, but at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.