After Yorktown


The siege of Yorktown ended with the surrender of a second British army, marking effective British defeat.

During the uncertain period immediately after Yorktown, Washington was doing his best to keep up America’s guard. He did not have the luxury of assuming that Britain had had enough of the war. He had to prepare for the worst. He worried that the euphoria generated everywhere by the Yorktown victory would cause patriots to forget a war was still on. As far as he was concerned, Yorktown was only one battle. King George had not given up. The British army and navy were still on American soil.

He told Governor Trumbull that thinking the victory ended the war was “a delusive hope.” To General Greene he confided, “I am apprehensive that the states, elated by the late success, and taking it for granted that Great Britain will no longer support so losing a contest, will relax in their preparations for the next campaign.”

Washington was taking nothing for granted. Before leaving camp at Williamsburg, he divided his army, sending part of it south, under Major General St. Clair, to reinforce Greene, and the remainder north. New Jersey men went to Morristown, while two regiments from New York, under General James Clinton, went to Pompton, and the rest marched back to the Hudson and settled at New Windsor, close to Newburgh.

On November 5 Washington finally left Williamsburg. He planned to remain for a time in Virginia, tending to personal business—consoling Martha for the loss of her son Jacky Custis; dealing with his difficult mother, Mary; and getting brought up to date on affairs at Mount Vernon, where he arrived on November 13 for a few days’ rest.

Of course, official business was always on his mind. He was very unhappy—even though he knew it was coming—when de Grasse stood out from Chesapeake Bay on November 4 and sailed for the Caribbean. Washington tried his best to get him to stay a little longer and attack Charleston or Wilmington, but de Grasse had commitments to the Spanish he could not put aside. At least Washington had the satisfaction of knowing that a little over a week after de Grasse left, Hood sailed back to the Caribbean with eighteen sail of the line, dramatically lessening the probability of any major British move in North America before spring. Washington asked de Grasse if he would return in 1782 for a possible attack on New York or Charleston, and de Grasse promised that he would ask his government.

On November 15 Washington wrote to Lafayette about the absolute necessity of naval superiority for the spring campaign. He lamented the inability of the allies to make a joint attack on Charleston after Yorktown, which he was convinced would have ended the war. He hoped Lafayette’s growing influence in Paris would result in orders to de Grasse to bring a huge fleet to America the following year.

After a few days at home, Washington left Mount Vernon with Martha on November 20 and traveled to Philadelphia, arriving six days later. He spent the next four months in the capital, trying to harden the country for the tough road ahead. It wasn’t easy, nor did he expect it would be. Probably the most difficult problem he faced was finding money. He worked closely with finance superintendent Robert Morris to find a revenue stream. While searching, they needed to create the appearance of solvency so that they could carry on the war.

The basic problem they faced was whether the states were going to support a central government with the power to tax—in other words, whether or not there was going to be a United States of America. The states had not yet decided. At the moment, they were jealously guarding their right to raise money and refusing Congress any power to do so, while at the same time failing to send badly needed funds to Philadelphia. Governor Clinton, in particular, acted at times as if New York were an independent country.

If the states refused to grant Congress the power to raise any revenue, even on imports, the central government could not function. Rhode Island vetoed an impost duty that was proposed and put to a vote. The state assembly in Providence, led by John Brown, a prominent trader who made a fortune during the war, voted unanimously to reject a duty on imports. Virginia later did the same for ideological reasons, under the influence of Arthur Lee and Richard Henry Lee, who did not want a strong central government.

Neither Washington nor Morris let the matter rest. As Washington always had in the past, he carried on and tried, now with Morris’s indispensable help, to find a way to keep the army together. If Congress had no way to raise money, it would have to be borrowed from France or Holland. Both countries ultimately came through, although obviously this method of funding—with the Americans refusing to tax themselves—was not going to continue. Morris employed a number of other expedients, but without the ability to tax they were bound to be short-lived.

During his time in Philadelphia, Washington approved a plan to capture Prince William Henry, George III’s son and third in line to the British throne. The seventeen-year-old was serving in New York as a midshipman aboard Admiral Digby’s flagship, Prince George, and staying in the city with Digby. Washington planned to take them both.

The arrival of the prince on September 24 had been a complete surprise to everyone. Loyalists were quick to believe that his presence meant the British intended to stay, no matter what happened at Yorktown. A feeling of euphoria spread among them, something they hadn’t felt for some time. They had been afraid of what was happening to Cornwallis, afraid that Britain might desert them if things went badly. De Grasse had already beaten Graves, and Cornwallis was in grave danger. Clinton, Graves, Digby, and Hood were frantically trying to cobble together a task force to rescue him.

In spite of the tense atmosphere, Loyalists celebrated the only royal to ever have visited New York or, indeed, America. Many felt that had the king himself come much earlier—even before the Tea Party—his presence would have made a significant difference in people’s attitudes, and perhaps his own. The young prince’s visit became more important to Loyalists than anything else.

Colonel Matthias Ogden of New Jersey proposed the plan to capture His Royal Highness, and Washington approved it on March 28, 1782. Attempting to capture high-ranking people was a common practice, which is why Generals Washington and Clinton always had a substantial guard around them. Seizing the king’s son, however, was very different. It had the potential to create an enormous backlash in London and throughout England. Whether Washington realized the complications that might develop if he were successful isn’t known. He was enthusiastic about the enterprise. He told Ogden, “In case of success, you will, as soon as you get … [the prisoners] to a place of safety [in New Jersey], treat them with all possible respect; but you are to delay no time in conveying them to Congress, and reporting your proceedings with a copy of these orders.”

As things turned out, Ogden was forced to cancel the plot. General Clinton had gotten wind that something was up, although he did not know quite what. He probably thought that an attempt was going to be made on him. Guards were dramatically increased around him, Digby, and the prince. What would have happened had the mission succeeded can only be guessed at, but certainly it would have caused an uproar in England that might have given the king enough renewed political support to prolong the war, bringing about a result just the opposite of what Washington intended. Approving Colonel Ogden’s daring proposal was not one of the commander in chief’s better decisions.

Washington left Philadelphia on March 23 with Martha and arrived seven days later at Newburgh, New York, the army’s winter quarters on the Hudson, fourteen miles above West Point. After dealing with politicians in Philadelphia, they must have felt some relief to be rejoining the army for the spring campaign. To be sure, the problems Washington faced in Newburgh were great, but not as infuriating and frustrating as those in the capital. Yet the state of the army was certainly troubling. The long winter was almost over; the men had suffered through cold, deprivation, and lack of pay once more. Last winter their legitimate grievances had produced heartrending mutinies. Washington was apprehensive about the mood of the troops now, knowing that he did not even have back pay to offer them.

He did have hope, however. By now it was clear—even to Washington—that Yorktown had had a much bigger impact on the British than he had originally thought. The king had been unable to brush off the defeat as a temporary setback. Fundamental changes were taking place in London. Washington wrote to General Greene on March 18 about the encouraging signs. “By late advices from Europe, and from the declaration of the British ministers themselves,” he told him, “it appears that they have done with all thoughts of an excursive war, and that they mean to send but small, if any further reinforcements to America.” Washington began thinking that the British would relinquish all their posts except New York and concentrate their forces there. To what end was unclear.

His optimism soon faded, however, when he heard of Admiral Rodney’s stunning victory over de Grasse on April 12 at the Battle of the Saintes. Britain was now celebrating another classic victory by a great naval hero. Rodney was the man of the hour again. He had never been blamed for what had happened in America. People generally accepted poor health as a perfectly good excuse for his not having been at Chesapeake Bay. His failure to stop de Grasse in the Caribbean before the French fleet ever got to America was never mentioned.

Lord Sandwich was receiving plaudits for his appointment of Rodney. In the late fall of 1781, when Sandwich realized that the French were planning a major campaign in the Caribbean after hurricane season, he had plucked Rodney from retirement and sent him into action once more.

Jamaica was obviously a target of the French, and the other sugar islands were as well. Losing both America and Jamaica would be intolerable. Another major defeat would have certainly cost Sandwich his job as first lord of the Admiralty, which, at the time, he had been trying hard to keep. It was in desperation that he had sent for Rodney—who was at Bath tending to his gout and a stone, the same ailments that had plagued him for years, and that plagued most old sailors. The first lord had urged—begged would be a better word—him to take command of the Leeward Islands station once more and counter de Grasse. The king helped by having a personal interview with Rodney.

Sandwich had been indifferent the previous year when Rodney had made his request to come home for health reasons, even if it meant he would not be going to America. It did not seem to matter to Sandwich in 1781 which admiral led the fleet in America. Now, regardless of Rodney’s health concerns, Sandwich pressured him to undertake an assignment that would have taxed any admiral at any age.

Rodney responded immediately, his ailments seeming to be of no concern, and on January 8, 1782, he stood out from Plymouth with a powerful squadron, reaching St. Lucia in the middle of February. He quickly discovered that the enterprising de Grasse had already taken St. Eustatius, St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat, and Demerara. Rodney had arrived just in time.

Hood was already at St. Lucia, and his fleet, combined with Rodney’s, gave them thirty-six sail of the line. De Grasse had thirty-five. After refurbishing his ships, Rodney was ready, and when de Grasse departed Fort Royal Bay on April 8 Rodney was right after him, standing out from St. Lucia, thirty miles away. De Grasse, who had a large convoy to look after, would have preferred avoiding combat at the moment, but Rodney was determined to fight.

He did not get the full-scale battle he wanted until the twelfth, off Les Saintes, a tiny group of islands between the southern end of Guadeloupe and the northern end of Dominica. At the end of that unforgettable day, Rodney had defeated the French decisively. De Grasse and his Ville de Paris surrendered, along with four other sail of the line. The rest of the French fleet, some twenty-five battleships, got away. Hood, who was Rodney’s second throughout, wanted to chase them, but Rodney, who had been maneuvering and fighting for four days, had had enough. Hood, not unexpectedly, was highly critical of standing down at this point. He insisted that twenty more enemy battleships could have been captured. “I am very confident,” he wrote later, “we should have had twenty sail of the enemy’s ships before dark…. Why he [Rodney] should bring the fleet to because the Ville de Paris was taken, I cannot reconcile.”

In spite of Hood’s criticism, Rodney’s victory was a great triumph that had far-reaching effects, one of them being the end of any French naval support for Washington in 1782. To what degree the victory would change Britain’s approach to the American war and peace negotiations remained to be seen. At a minimum, it would stiffen London’s attitude and soften Vergennes’.

Rodney’s stunning success inevitably led to conjecture about what would have happened had he been in command of the British fleet at the decisive battle off Cape Henry, Virginia, on September 5, 1781. It was widely believed that even with a numerically smaller fleet, Rodney would have won, and that that would have changed everything. Even Hood believed that Rodney would have been victorious. Of course, at the Saintes, Rodney had a numerical advantage, which he would not have had at the Chesapeake, although he would have had at least one more ship than Graves did.

Actually, during the decisive part of the battle off the Saintes—between noon and seven o’clock on the evening of the twelfth—Rodney had a six-ship advantage, thirty-six to thirty. It was not his six-ship advantage that brought victory, however, but rather a fortunate shift in wind direction and Rodney’s using it to break the French line, which was moving in the opposite direction from his, into three disorganized groupings that made the French center especially vulnerable. A numerical advantage, a fortunate shift of wind, and unorthodox tactics won the day.

Rodney would certainly have had to improvise in order to beat de Grasse off Virginia, and there’s no doubt that he would have done so. He probably would have begun with Barras, dealing with him before tackling de Grasse. It’s hard to imagine Rodney not doing whatever he had to, regardless of tradition or outmoded rules of engagement, to win.

Rodney’s behavior before, during, and after the Battle of the Saintes was more evidence that his anger at Clinton’s inexplicable conduct in New York during September of 1780 was actually what made him decide to go home the following year and let Admirals Graves and Hood handle de Grasse and the French fleet. It’s hard not to conclude that when Sandwich called him to go back to the Caribbean to deal with de Grasse in the late fall of 1781, he jumped at the chance, regardless of his ailments, because he had a guilty conscience about having avoided de Grasse and the Chesapeake earlier in the year.

Before Washington received news of the Saintes, he was aware of Parliament’s momentous decision not to pursue offensive war in America, but he did not know if he could trust the hopeful trend after Rodney’s victory. The British could change their minds. He was receiving newspapers from London and had an idea of parliamentary sentiment; still, he could not be sure. On June 24, 1782, he wrote to Rochambeau, who had kept his army in Virginia after Yorktown, proposing a meeting to discuss the implications of de Grasse’s defeat. Obviously there would be no joint campaign in 1782. Both sides were in a defensive mode, waiting on events, especially the results of impending peace negotiations in Paris.


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