Saturday, August 20, 2011

This Day in Revolutionary War History (Washington Ties Vise Around Redcoats)

August 20, 1781—George Washington, having kept his army alive through a cautious-to-a-fault strategy that won him the nickname of the “American Fabius,” now saw the opening he wanted to strike the decisive blow he had vainly sought for six years against the British Army. Hearing that a naval fleet under the command of America’s ally France had proceeded to Chesapeake Bay, he began marching his troops south from New York down to Yorktown, Va., to trap Charles Lord Cornwallis.

Over the course of the American Revolution, Washington had gained a force of detractors large enough to rival his ragtag army. The cause of their carping: that the general had not dealt a crushing blow to the redcoats, and that the tall Virginian might have looked like a general, but he didn’t lead—or win—like one.

These critics had a point—up to a point. In fact, as far as tactics were concerned, Washington was not the best battlefield commander among the Americans. (That distinction, ironically enough, probably belonged to Benedict Arnold.)


But he was anything but the timid figure his critics believed. On the contrary, hard experience against the numerically superior, better trained British Army had taught him to rein in his own instinct for action lest he expose his forces to a battle of annihilation. He had to pick his spots—at Trenton, at Princeton, at Monmouth—and keep his army alive and in the field until King George’s ministers tired of the struggle of funding an army and navy across the ocean.


(I just realized that some of my readers might not be familiar with the term "American Fabius," though many of you might recognize a sideways allusion to it in a 30 Rock episode called "The Fabian Strategy." Washington's strategy, as implied by my last paragraph, was to avoid a pitched battle and wear down the enemy through attrition, as the ancient Roman general Fabius did against Hannibal.)

The course of action Washington was executing now--a campaign in Virginia--was not what he had planned in talking to Comte de Rochambeau, the general designated by the French to coordinate movements with American forces against Britain in the New World. Perhaps partly driven to avenge his crushing defeat by Sir William Howe in New York five years earlier, Washington had expected another campaign in that city, this time against Sir Henry Clinton.

But Washington, despite initial mistakes in the war, now demonstrated a flexibility and suppleness of mind that not only astonished his critics but that, more important, had gone missing from his British counterparts. Washington’s second in command, Nathanael Greene, had not defeated Cornwallis outright, but he had harassed the commander of the British army in the South enough so that his forces were considerably whittled down.

Before the battle of Princeton, Cornwallis, bypassing an opportunity to attack Washington, had bragged that he would “bag the fox in the morning.” Not only had “the fox” won that engagement, in a surprise attack on Cornwallis’ rear guard, but this time he was ready to take out the general in the kind of siege warfare that the British had long counted as a strength.

When you come to Wethersfield, Conn., as I did several years ago, you’ll likely be told that Washington and Rochambeau “planned the Yorktown campaign” when they met in May 1781 at the Webb House.

Not quite so: For the first few weeks after the meeting, Washington and the Frenchman plotted a campaign against Clinton in New York. The British general became even more convinced this would occur after a communication from Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette in Virginia mentioned this intention.

But the Wethersfield meeting--the second such conference between Washington and Rochambeau--increased the two commanders’ comfort level with each other, so the American was prepared to listen and consider seriously a question from the Frenchman: If a naval reenforcement were to appear for the main French fleet, then proceeding to the West Indies, how did Washington think it should be used: in New York or Virginia?

As biographer Douglass Southall Freeman described the seeds of a future strategy planted in Washington’s mind at this point, it all sounds something like three-dimensional chess, “the solution of a complicated equation of at least five factors: the margin of superiority the Admiral [Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse] would possess, the duration of his stay in American waters, the number of troops he brought with him, the reenforcement of the British meantime, and the successful activity of the States to make the Continentals numerically effective and mobile.”

By mid-August, Washington received some electrifying news: de Grasse was not only heading toward Yorktown, but he had 29 warships with more than three thousand troops. But the French fleet would have to leave by mid-October, forcing Washington to abandon the New York campaign in favor of concentrating American and French forces at Yorktown.

By the 20th, Washington and his 2,500 men American soldiers were on the move to Virginia, with Rochambeau following not far behind him.

Despite a language barrier and a history of distrust between American colonials and the French in North America dating back for more than 100 years, Washington and Rochambeau had learned to cooperate with, respect and trust each other. It was the exact opposite situation with Clinton and his subordinate Cornwallis, who, over the last several years, had come to dislike each other. Cornwallis had used the distance from his chief to conduct a largely independent campaign in the South.

Cornwallis, warned by his engineers that Yorktown was not the most opportune place to station troops, had compounded his difficulties by being dilatory in fortifying his works there. By the time he learned that Washington and Rochambeau’s forces would be bolstered not only by additional troops, but by French naval power, he was caught in Washington’s vise.

When the siege of Yorktown began on September 28, Cornwallis was facing a combined American-French force of 16,000, along with de Grasse cutting off any escape route by the sea. Less than three weeks later, the British general surrendered.

A persistent legend has it that the music played by the British band “The World Turned Upside Down.” If so, it could not have been more appropriate, for in the last engagement of the war, the greatest empire in the war at that point had lost the most important part of its overseas colonies to an undermanned, ill-clothed, ill-fed army kept alive by the indomitable will of its commander.

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