It’s a cliche of course, but no less true, the statement by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I’m reminded of this for two reasons. First was a quote by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in last week’s Republican debate, “Our troops should not go off and fight a war of independence for another country.”
The second reason, is I just got back from a trip that included a visit to Yorktown Battlefield, part of the Colonial National Historical Park. Most Americans have heard of Yorktown, the place where the British surrendered to Washington and ended the American Revolution.
The past which Americans too often frequently forget in this case, is that the French were instrumental in the victory at Yorktown. In fact, there likely would never have been a battle at Yorktown, had not a French admiral made the decision to make his stand there.
France didn’t simply offer support to our cause. Rather they were partners, the first country to recognize the colonies as separate from England, a move which caused England to declare war on France. The French recognized in our cause and in our resolve, ideals worth fighting for, and were the first to recognize the distinct possiblility that we might actually win. I would also suppose that they knew it would get England’s goat was a bonus.
In 1780, 5,500 French soldiers landed in Rhode Island to assist their American allies in operations against British-controlled New York City. Following the arrival of dispatches from France that included the possibility of support from the French West Indies fleet of the Comte de Grasse, Washington and Rochambeau decided to ask de Grasse for assistance either in besieging New York, or in military operations against a British army operating in Virginia, under the command of Lord Cornwallis. DeGrasse chose the Chesapeake Bay, where Cornwallis had taken command of the army. Cornwallis, at first given confusing orders by his superior officer, Henry Clinton, was eventually ordered to make a defensible deep-water port, which he began to do at Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis’s movements in Virginia were shadowed by a Continental Army force led by the Marquis de Lafayette, another French man, sent south by Washington to harass the British and Loyalist forces there.
The additonal 6,000 French troops now in Rhode Island was a welcome addition for Washington, who had been playing a game of cat and mouse, (mainly mouse), with the British since the beginning of the war. Washington was of a mind to recapture New York City, but the French wanted to move the theatre of operations south. Due to recent success on the part of the colonials in South Carolina against both British and Loyalist troops, Cornwallis was stretched a bit thin. As a result, he was counting on reinforcements which were to come by sea, from a fleet direct by Sir Thomas Graves.
The American and French armies met in White Plains, north of New York City in the summer to debate where to strike. Washington kept pushing for New York City, even though Rochambeau and Washington’s own advisors were against it. Rochambeau refused to overrule Washington, insisting that he had come to serve, not to command. Then the missive from DeGrasse arrived, inviting Washington south for joint festivities against the British.
DeGrasse, the comander of the French fleet made the decision to take the action to Cornwallis in Virgina, and arrived in the Chesapeake Bay at the end of August, 1781, with additional troops, ships and 500,000 silver pesos offered by Spain from Havana, Cuba, to pay the troops and for the expenses of the operations. Spain also provided support for the French merchant ships in the Atlantic, which allowed DeGrasse to bring up his entire fleet, which he positioned for a blockade of Yorktown.
Now convinced that heading south south was the right plan of action, before leaving New York, Washington threw up earthworks, complete with large bread ovens, within site of New York City, to convince the British he was settling in for a long campaign. The ruse worked, and Washington and Rochambeau ducked south.
DeGrasse unloaded his 3,000 soldiers to join up with the Marquis de Lafayette at Williamsburg, Virgina, recently arrived with his 1,200 men, then went back to pick up Washington and Rochambeau’s troops, now heading south. Once in place, the allies had about 17,600 soldiers to pit against Cornwallis and his 8,300 British regulars and German Hessians. Fortunately, the British had been taken in by Washington’s fake lines around New York, and weren’t planning to head south till a desparate plea came from Cornwallis. In New York, General Clinton, Cornwallis’ superior replied that he would send 5,000 men from New York on October 5. When Cornwallis received the message, he knew his goose was cooked, as holding out that long would prove impossible.
The Visitor’s Center at Yorktown Battlefield, part of Colonial National Historical Park is located inside what was the British inner line. It was to this line, which skirts the Visitor’s Center that Cornwallis pulled his troops back upon the arrival of the allies. Washington and Rochambeau immediately took over the abandoned outer British defenses, and used them as a staging area to build their first row of trenches, which were then heavily fortified with Colonial and French guns. On October 9 they opened fire, bombarding the line and the town continuously and by October 11, the British guns had been more or less silenced.
This allowed the allies to build a second line, only 400 yards from the British, and when the sun rose on October 12, the British saw that they could now be fired upon by artillery from almost point blank range. Hampering the completion of this second line however, were two British forts, Redoubts 9 and 10. These two forts were captured on the night of October 14, with the French paying more in blood for control of Redoubts 10, than the Colonials did for Redoubts 9. With the forts captured, the line was completed and Cornwallis saw that to stay meant devastation. On the morning of the 16th, Cornwallis directed an attack on the French center of the allied line, which was easily repulsed, though it did give Cornwallis a reprieve from the bombardment for a few hours. That evening, he attempted to escape from Yorktown by ferrying his troops across the York River in small boats. But after the first wave of troops reached the opposite shore, a violent windstorm erupted and the operation had to be called off.
Cornwallis and the British were now well and truly screwed, and he knew it. And so on October 17, a drummer and a British officer with a white flag appeared at the top of the trenches, to pass notes intended to open the way for a discussion about terms of surrender. On the 18th, the terms were hammered out at the Moore House, now restored and open to the public at Yorktown Battlefield. Then on October 19, the British marched down what is now known as Surrender Road, between rows of Colonial and French soldiers, and laid down their arms, effectively ending the American Revolution, and gaining independence for the 13 colonies.
The area encompassing Yorktown Battlefield is pretty extensive, and to walk to all the sites would easily require a full day. And so for those with a limited amount of time to visit, the driving tour is perhaps the best bet. Covering most of the high points of Yorktown Battlefield, the entire route can be visited in a couple of hours or so. For those with short attention spans or those incapable of looking over a landscape and imagining what took place, the visit is likely to be a disappointment. Yorktown wasn’t a battle filled with heroic charges and massed conflict. There was no colonial equivalent of Pickett’s Charge, and so the number of memorials present at Yorktown pale in comparison to a battlefield such as Gettysburg. There are a number of cannons still in place, in particular the Grand French Battery, and Surrender Field, where the British laid down their arms is unique among American Battlefields, in that the centerpiece of the park is a place of peace, not of war.
The village of Yorktown itself is well worth a walk, at least down its main street, still sporting several colonial-era buildings, some of which were instrumental in the history of the siege of Yorktown. Over 80% of the town’s buildings were destroyed in the occupation and siege, but enough remains to make Yorktown one of the more quaint colonial village in this country. You won’t find souvenir shops lining the street, and in fact, Yorktown is one of the best places I’ve been to wander freely and feel the ability to lose track of the present.
Which isn’t the case unfortunately with the rest of Yorktown Battlefield. Several busy roads cut across the park, and traffic, while not overly busy, is enough to make scurrying from location to location on the driving route a bit hair-raising at times. For those not interested in the driving tour, a stop at the Yorktown Visitor Center will likely do the trick. There’s an informative 15 minute film orientating you and bringing you up to date with the siege of Yorktown, a fairly interesting museum with several items directly related to the battle, and pretty decent shop with books on the southern campaigns, the Revolution in general, and other colonial related merchandise. To enter the historical buildings requires a pass, $10 per adult, good for seven days at both Yorktown and nearby Jamestown, home of the first permanent English settlement in North America.
In the end, the Colonials lost about 125 men, the French 253 and the British 552, killed, wounded and missing. About 8,000 were taken prisoner. Cornwallis reported to General Clinton in New York, “I have the mortification to inform your Excellency that I have been forced to give up the posts of York and Gloucester, and to surrender the troops under my command, by capitulation on the 19th instant, as prisoners of war to the combined forces of America and France.”
And so ended the last major engagement of the American Revolution. By then, after victories at Saratoga, Cowpens, Yorktown and others, the British realized that the Colonials were a force to be reckoned with. And perhaps most importantly, when combined with the French, and the stirrings of support from other European powers, the battle for control of the American colonies couldn’t be won.
Perhaps without French help, the Colonies might have been able to pull out a victory, but I doubt it. The colonies were broke, the army in tatters much of the time, and Britain was simply too strong. And anyway, it doesn’t matter. It’s fun to speculate when it comes to history, but the truth was, the French were there, and were instrumental in securing our independence. That’s something to keep in mind when participating in the curiously American pasttime of slagging the French. In fact, now that a large majority of Americans believe that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was, as the French tried to warn us, a mistake, it might be possible to once and for all put to rest the term Freedom Fries, and return the American chip to its former name – which after all is Thomas Jefferson’s work.
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