Pope and Emperor

Giulio De’ Medici was the bastard son of Giuliano, Lorenzo the Magnificent’s brother, who had been assassinated by the Pazzi in Florence cathedral forty-five years before. Lorenzo had tracked down the mother and had persuaded her to allow him to bring up the boy as his own. Then, when Lorenzo himself died in 1492, Giulio was placed under the guardianship of his second son, Giovanni. Since the guardian was only three years older than the ward, the two became close friends, and when Giovanni became Pope Leo X one of his first acts was to legitimize his cousin, making him a cardinal and effective ruler of Florence.

Despite their mutual affection, the two could hardly have been more different. Leo was unusually ugly, with a huge head and a fat, red face, but he possessed a charm which many found irresistible. Clement, now forty-eight, was tall and slim; he might have been good-looking but for his thin, tightly compressed lips, haughty expression, and almost perpetual frown. He was pious, conscientious, industrious; but nobody, with the single exception of his friend Benvenuto Cellini, liked him much. Guicciardini went so far as to describe him as “somewhat morose and disagreeable, reputed to be avaricious, far from trustworthy, and naturally disinclined to do a kindness.” Anyone who thought that his election signaled a return to the extravagant and easygoing days of Pope Leo was in for a disappointment.

It might reasonably have been supposed that such a man would prove at least a competent pope. Alas, Clement was nothing of the kind. He was vacillating and irresolute, terrified when called upon to make a decision. He might have been a moderately good major; as a general he was a disaster. Leopold von Ranke, the great German historian, dubbed him the most disastrous of all the popes, which—if one remembers the Papacy in the tenth and eleventh centuries—seems a little unfair; the fact remains that the eleven years of his pontificate saw the worst sack of Rome since the barbarian invasions, the establishment in Germany of Protestantism as a separate religion, and the definitive breakaway of the English Church over Henry VIII’s divorce.

Finding himself, as Hadrian had before him, caught in the whirlpool caused by the rivalry between Charles V and the King of France, Clement dealt with the situation even more clumsily than his predecessor. His first loyalty should clearly have been to the emperor, to whom he largely owed his election; but in 1524 he joined with Venice and Florence in a secret alliance with France, and Francis, with an army of some 20,000, marched back over the Mont-Cenis pass into Italy. In late October he recaptured Milan, then turned south to Pavia, where he spent the winter trying unsuccessfully to divert the Ticino River as a means of taking the city. He was still there four months later when an imperial army arrived. Imperialists and Frenchmen met just outside Pavia, and on Tuesday, February 21, 1525, battle was joined.

The Battle of Pavia proved to be one of the most decisive engagements in European history. It was also the first to prove conclusively the superiority of firearms over pikes. When the fighting was over, the French army had been virtually annihilated; Francis himself had shown, as always, exemplary courage: after his horse had been killed under him, he had continued to fight on foot until at last, overcome by exhaustion, he had been obliged to give himself up. A prisoner, he was sent to Spain, where he remained for a year in not uncomfortable confinement until Charles released him in return for his signature to what was known as the Treaty of Madrid, by which he renounced all claims to Burgundy, Naples, and Milan. When he returned to Paris, however, and the terms of the treaty were made public, there was a general outcry. Pope Clement in particular was aghast: without a French presence in Italy, how could he hope to defend himself against the emperor? Hastily he recruited Milan, Venice, and Florence to form an anti-imperialist league for the defense of a free and independent Italy—and invited France to join. Though the ink was scarcely dry on the Treaty of Madrid, and though he and the pope held widely differing views on Milan—the pope favoring the Sforzas, while Francis wanted the city for himself—on May 15, 1526, the king, with his usual flourish, signed his name.

The League of Cognac, as it was called, introduced an exciting new concept into Italian affairs. Here, for perhaps the first time, was an agreement dedicated to the proposition that Milan, and so by extension all other Italian states, should be free of foreign domination. Liberty was the watchword. It need hardly be said, however, that Charles V did not view the League in quite this light. To him it was a direct and deliberate challenge, and over the next few months relations between himself and the pope steadily deteriorated. Finally, in September, two letters from the emperor were dispatched to Rome. They could hardly have been more outspoken if they had been written by Martin Luther himself. The first, addressed personally to the pope, accused him of failing in his duties toward Christendom, Italy, and even the Holy See. The second, to the cardinals of the Sacred College, went further still. If, it suggested, the pope refused to summon a General Council for the reform of the Church, it was the responsibility of the College to do so without his consent. Here was a clear threat to papal authority. To Pope Clement, indeed, it was tantamount to a declaration of war.

In and around Milan the fighting had hardly ever stopped; there must have been many Milanese who, on waking in the morning, found it difficult to remember whether they owed their allegiance to the Sforzas, the emperor, or the King of France. An imperial army had marched into the city in November 1525 and spent the winter besieging the unfortunate Duke Francesco Maria Sforza in the citadel, and Sforza had finally capitulated on July 15, 1526. The news of his surrender had plunged the pope into black despair. His treasury was empty, he was detested in Rome, and his theoretical ally Francis was not lifting a finger to help him. Meanwhile, the Reformation was gaining ground and the Ottoman threat still loomed. And now, as autumn approached, there were rumors that the emperor was preparing a huge fleet, which would land some 10,000 troops in the Kingdom of Naples—effectively on his own doorstep. More serious still, Clement was aware that there were imperial agents in the city, doing everything they could to stir up trouble against him with the enthusiastic help of a member of his own Sacred College, Cardinal Pompeio Colonna.

For well over two centuries, Rome had been split by the rivalry of two of its oldest families, the Colonna and the Orsini. Both were enormously rich, and both ruled over their immense domains as if they were themselves sovereign states, each with its own cultivated court. Their wealth in turn allowed them to contract advantageous marriages; people still talked of the wedding festivities of Clarice Orsini with Clement’s uncle Lorenzo de’ Medici, the most sumptuous celebrations of the fifteenth century. But the Orsini had long enjoyed what might be called a special relationship with the Papacy, by reason of the fact that all the principal roads leading north out of Rome passed through their territory. Successive popes, therefore, had taken care not to offend them.

This alone was more than enough to antagonize their rivals, whose outstanding representative in the 1520s was Pompeio Colonna. The cardinal had begun life as a soldier and should probably have remained one. He had entered the Church only because of family pressures; never could he have been described as a man of God. Julius II, indeed, who was even less of one, had refused to promote him; it was Leo X who had eventually admitted him to the Sacred College, but any gratitude that he might have felt was certainly not extended to Leo’s cousin. For Clement he cherished a bitter hatred, powerfully fueled by jealousy, and a consequent determination to eliminate him—either by deposition or, if necessary, by death.

In August 1526 Pompeio’s kinsman Vespasiano Colonna came to Rome to negotiate a truce between his own family on the one hand and the pope and the Orsini on the other. Clement, much relieved, disbanded his own troops—whereupon the army of the Colonna instantly attacked the city of Anagni, effectively blocking communications between Rome and Naples. The pope had still not recovered from his surprise or had a chance to remobilize when, at dawn on September 20, that same army smashed through the Gate of St. John Lateran and poured into Rome. At about five that same afternoon, after hours of heavy fighting, Clement fled along the covered passage that Alexander VI had built for just such eventualities, leading from the Vatican to the Castel Sant’Angelo. Meanwhile, the looting and plundering had begun. As one of the secretaries of the Curia reported:

The papal palace was almost completely stripped, even to the bedroom and wardrobe of the Pope. The great and private sacristy of St. Peter’s, that of the palace, the apartments of prelates and members of the household, even the horse stalls were emptied, their doors and windows shattered; chalices, crosses, pastoral staffs, ornaments of great value, all that fell into their hands was carried off as plunder by this rabble.

The mob even broke into the Sistine Chapel, where the Raphael tapestries were torn from the walls. Golden and jeweled chalices, patens, and all manner of ecclesiastical treasures were seized, to a value estimated at 300,000 ducats.

With proper preparations made, a pope could hold out in the Castel Sant’Angelo for months; on this occasion, however, the fortress was completely unprovisioned. Clement had no choice but to make what terms he could. The ensuing negotiations were delicate, but their results were less than satisfactory to Pompeio Colonna, who now realized that his attempted coup had been a failure. Public opinion had swung dramatically against his family. Rome had been plundered, and the Colonna had—rightly—been blamed. In November the cardinal was deprived of all his dignities and benefices, and the leading members of his family suffered similar treatment. Apart from three small fortresses, they had lost all their property in the Papal States.

Clement had survived, but only just. According to another member of the Curia, writing toward the end of November 1526:

The pope sees nothing ahead but ruin: not just his own, for which he cares little, but that of the Apostolic See, of Rome, of his own country, and of the whole of Italy. Moreover, he sees no way of preventing it. He has expended all his own money, all that of his friends, all that of his servants. Our reputation, too, is gone.

He had good reason to be depressed. Strategically he was vulnerable on every side, and the emperor was exploiting his vulnerability to the full. The previous August, the Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent had won one of his greatest victories at Mohács in Hungary. And now there came the news of the defection of Ferrara, whose duke, Alfonso II d’Este, had joined the imperialists. “The Pope,” wrote the Milanese envoy, “seems struck dead. All the attempts of the ambassadors of France, England, and Venice to restore him have been in vain.… He looks like a sick man whom the doctors have given up.” Still his tribulations were not over. On December 12 a Spanish envoy delivered a personal letter from the emperor repeating his demand for a General Council. Early in 1527 it was learned that an imperial army under the Duke of Bourbon was advancing on the Papal States.

Charles, third Duke of Bourbon, was one of the exalted members of the French nobility and the hereditary Constable of France. He should have been fighting for his king, to whom he was distantly related, but Francis’s mother, Louise of Savoy, had contested his inheritance and in a fit of pique he had sold his sword to the emperor. Despite his treachery he was a charismatic figure, admired by all his men for his courage. He never shirked an engagement and could always be found where the fighting was thickest, easily distinguishable by the silver-and-white surcoat he always wore and by his black, white, and yellow standard on which was emblazoned the single word ESPÉRANCE. Now, as he advanced southward from Milan at the head of an army of some 20,000 German and Spanish troops, the citizens of all the towns along his route—Piacenza and Parma, Reggio, Modena, and Bologna—worked frantically on their defenses. They could have saved themselves the trouble: the duke had no intention of wasting time on them. He led his army directly to Rome, drawing it up on the Janiculum Hill immediately outside the city wall, and at four in the morning of May 6, 1527, the attack began.

In the absence of heavy artillery, Bourbon had decided that the walls would have to be scaled, a technique far more difficult and dangerous than that of simply pounding them till they crumbled. He himself was one of the first of the casualties. He had just led a troop of Germans to the foot of the wall and was actually positioning a scaling ladder when he was shot through the chest by an arquebus. (Benvenuto Cellini, who was present, goes a long way toward claiming personal responsibility.) The fall of the unmistakable silver-clad figure was seen by besiegers and besieged alike, and for an hour or so the fate of the siege hung in the balance; then the thought of revenge spurred the Germans and Spaniards on to ever-greater efforts, and between six and seven in the morning the imperial army burst into the city. From that moment on there was little resistance. The Romans rushed from the wall to defend their homes, and many of the papal troops joined the enemy to save their own skins. Only the Swiss Guard and some of the papal militia fought heroically on until they were annihilated.

As the invaders approached the Vatican, the pope was hustled out of St. Peter’s and led for the second time along the covered way to the Castel Sant’Angelo, already thronged with panic-stricken families seeking refuge. Such were the crowds that it was only with the greatest difficulty that the portcullis could be lowered. One cardinal had to be pushed in through a window by his servants; another was pulled up in a basket. Outside, in the Borgo and Trastevere, the soldiers embarked on an orgy of killing. Cardinal Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte, the future Pope Julius III, was hung up by his hair. Almost all the patients in the Hospital of Santo Spirito were massacred; of the orphans of the Pietà, not one was left alive.

The imperial army crossed the Tiber just before midnight, the Germans settling in the Campo de’ Fiori, the Spaniards in Piazza Navona. The sack that followed has been described as “one of the most horrible in recorded history.” The bloodbath that had begun across the river continued unabated: to venture out into the street was to invite almost certain death, and to remain indoors was very little safer; scarcely a single church, palace, or house of any size escaped pillage and devastation. Monasteries were plundered and convents violated, the more attractive nuns being sold in the streets for a giulio apiece. At least two cardinals were dragged through the streets and tortured; one of them, who was well over eighty, subsequently died of his injuries. “Hell,” reported a Venetian eyewitness, “has nothing to compare with the present state of Rome.”

It was four days and four nights before the city had any respite. Only with the arrival on May 10 of Pompeio Colonna and his two brothers, with 8,000 of their men, was a semblance of order restored. By that time virtually every street in the city had been gutted and was strewn with corpses. One captured Spanish sapper later reported that on the north bank of the Tiber alone he and his companions had buried nearly 10,000 and had thrown another 2,000 into the river. Six months later, thanks to widespread starvation and a long epidemic of plague, the population of Rome was less than half what it had been before the siege; much of the city had been left a smoldering shell, littered with bodies lying unburied during the hottest season of the year. Culturally, too, the loss was incalculable. Paintings, sculptures, whole libraries—including that of the Vatican itself—were ravaged and destroyed, the pontifical archives ransacked. The painter Parmigianino was imprisoned, saving his life only by making drawings of his jailers.

The imperial army, meanwhile, had suffered almost as much as the Romans. It, too, was virtually without food; its soldiers, unpaid for months, were totally demoralized, interested only in loot and pillage. Discipline had broken down: Germans and Spaniards were at each other’s throats. Pope Clement, however, had no course open to him but once again to capitulate. The official price he paid was the cities of Ostia, Civitavecchia, Piacenza, and Modena, together with 400,000 ducats, a sum which could be raised only by melting down all the papal tiaras and selling the gold and jewels with which they were encrusted; the actual price was higher still, since the Venetians, in spite of their alliance, had seized Cervia and Ravenna. The Papal States, in which an efficient government had been developing for the first time in history, had crumbled away. Early in December the pope escaped from Rome and traveled in disguise to Orvieto; it was there that he received ambassadors from Henry VIII of England, seeking their master’s release from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. One of them reported:

The Pope lieth in an old palace of the bishops of the city, ruinous and decayed; as we came to his privy chamber we passed three chambers, all naked and unhanged, the roofs fallen down, and, as one can guess, 30 persons—riffraff and others—standing in the chambers for a garnishment. And as for the Pope’s bedchamber, all the apparel in it was not worth 20 nobles … it were better to be in captivity in Rome than here at liberty.

Where the annulment was concerned, the pope—it need hardly be said—dithered; the ambassadors returned disappointed.

Peace, when it came, was the result of negotiations begun during the winter of 1528–1529 between the Emperor Charles’s aunt Margaret of Savoy and her sister-in-law Louise, the mother of King Francis. The two met at Cambrai on July 5, 1529, and the resulting treaty was signed in the first week of August. The Ladies’ Peace, as it came to be called, confirmed Spanish rule in Italy. Francis again renounced all his claims there, receiving in return a promise from Charles not to press the imperial claims to Burgundy, but France’s allies in the League of Cognac were left completely out of the reckoning and were thus obliged to accept the terms that Charles was to impose at the end of the year—terms which included, for Venice, the surrender of all her possessions in South Italy to the Spanish Kingdom of Naples. Francesco Maria Sforza was restored to Milan (though Charles reserved the right to garrison its citadel); the Medici, who had been expelled from Florence in 1527, were also restored (though it took a ten-month siege to effect the restoration); and the island of Malta was given in 1530 as a new home for the Knights of St. John.

It was—to those who felt that the King of France had betrayed them—a shameful settlement. But at least it restored peace to Italy and put an end to the long and unedifying chapter in her history, a chapter which had begun with Charles VIII’s invasion of 1494 and had brought the Italians nothing but devastation and destruction. To seal it all, the emperor now crossed the Alps for the first time, for his imperial coronation. This was no longer an indispensable ceremony; his grandfather Maximilian had done without it altogether, and Charles himself had been nearly ten years on the throne without this final confirmation of his authority. The fact remained, nonetheless, that until the pope had laid the crown on his head his title Holy Roman Emperor was technically unjustified; to one possessing so strong a sense of divine mission, both title and sacrament were important.

Imperial coronations were traditionally performed in Rome. On landing at Genoa, however, in mid-August 1529, Charles received reports of Sultan Süleyman’s steady advance on Vienna and at once decided that a journey so far down the peninsula at such a time would be folly; it would take too long, besides leaving him dangerously cut off in the event of a crisis. Messengers sped to Pope Clement, and it was agreed that in the circumstances the ceremony might be held in Bologna, a considerably more accessible city which still remained firmly under papal control. Even then the uncertainty was not over: while on his way to Bologna in September Charles received an urgent appeal from his brother Ferdinand in Vienna and almost canceled his coronation plans there and then. Only after careful consideration did he decide not to do so. By the time he reached Vienna, either the city would have fallen or the sultan would have retired for the winter; in either event, the small force he had with him in Italy would have been insufficient to tip the scales.

And so, on November 5, 1529, Charles V made his formal entry into Bologna, where, in front of the Basilica of San Petronio, Pope Clement was waiting to receive him. After a brief ceremony of welcome, the two retired to the Palazzo del Podestà across the square, where neighboring apartments had been prepared for them. There was much to be done, many outstanding problems to be discussed and resolved, before the coronation could take place. It was, after all, only two years since papal Rome had been sacked by imperial troops, with Clement himself a virtual prisoner of Charles in the Castel Sant’Angelo; somehow, friendly relations had to be reestablished. Next there were the individual peace treaties to be drawn up with all the Italian ex-enemies of the empire. Only then, when peace had been finally consolidated throughout the peninsula, would Charles feel justified in kneeling before Clement to receive the imperial crown. Coronation Day was fixed for February 24, 1530, and invitations dispatched to all the rulers of Christendom. Charles and Clement had given themselves a little under four months to settle the future of Italy.

Surprisingly, it proved enough. And so the peace was signed, and on the appointed day, in San Petronio, Charles received from the papal hands the sword, orb, scepter, and finally the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. It was the last time in history that a pope was to crown an emperor; on that day the seven-hundred-year-old tradition, which had begun when Pope Leo III had laid the imperial crown on the head of Charlemagne, was brought to an end. The empire was by no means finished, but never again would it be received, even symbolically, from the hands of the Vicar of Christ on Earth.

The Decisive Victory at Yorktown I

Battle of the Chesapeake. The French line (left) and British line (right) do battle.

The mood at Continental army headquarters had brightened as news arrived of what Washington called the “brilliant action” in the southern theater. Britain’s heavy losses, he thought, should “retard or injure” Cornwallis’s “future movements and operations.” All the same, word also arrived in the spring of 1781 that a British force of some two thousand men was sailing south from New York. The American commander did not know whether those troops were to join Benedict Arnold in Virginia or whether they were reinforcements for Cornwallis in the Carolinas.

Washington’s thinking only slowly came into focus during the winter and spring, evolving through many twists and turns, each dictated by what America’s French ally did and did not do. In December, a few weeks before the battle at Cowpens, Washington implored the French to appeal to their Spanish ally to engage in joint naval operations to liberate Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Neither Rochambeau nor the French admirals wanted any part of such a campaign, but when a huge winter storm severely damaged the British fleet in New York, the French in early February hastily dispatched a small squadron to Virginia to seek out and destroy Arnold. Overjoyed, Washington pitched in by ordering Lafayette to march to Virginia with 1,200 men, adding that Arnold was to be executed if captured. This promising endeavor, like so many others in this war, netted nothing. To get Arnold, the fleet had to sail up the Elizabeth River to Portsmouth, but the river was too shallow to accommodate the French vessels, and the allied naval force returned to New England empty-handed. Perhaps embarrassed, the French agreed to try again, and in March, on the day after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, a much larger French squadron reached the Chesapeake Bay—only to discover that its entrance was shielded by a roughly equal number of British warships. A clash ensued. The French got the worst of it and broke off the fight. For a second time in a month, a French fleet turned for New England after failing to achieve its objective. Despite its disappointment, Congress loudly praised the French. It was a step Congress had to take to smooth over ruffled feathers, as a private letter in which Washington complained of French procrastination having ruined both naval enterprises fell into the hands of Tories, who gleefully saw to its publication.

While Washington’s spirits were buoyed in anticipation of a summer campaign to retake New York, Cornwallis at the same moment was in the dark about which way to turn after the events at Guilford Courthouse. His army spent a dreadful night on the battlefield following Nathanael Greene’s retreat. The heavy scent of battle hung over the killing ground, which remained littered with the detritus of the fighting, including scores of bodies. Throughout what seemed to be an endless night, the wounded cried out in despair and agony, and many died. The appalling sights and sounds “exceeded all description,” said one young, inexperienced British officer, who prayed such a “scene of horror and distress … rarely occurs … in a military life.” Cornwallis and his army remained amid the carnage for seventy-two hours, mostly waiting until some of the wounded could be moved. Those incapable of making a long trek were handed over to neighboring Quakers who had offered to care for them. The Quakers also brought milk, eggs, barnyard animals, and candles to the weary, shaken redcoats. Finally, after issuing his customary pronouncement claiming to have won another “compleat victory,” Cornwallis set his army in motion for coastal Wilmington, North Carolina, where it could be replenished from British-held Charleston. It was a horrendous trek, during which still more soldiers died and others had to be left with civilians who agreed to provide care. So tattered were these redcoats that some men were barefoot throughout the interminable march.

Earl Cornwallis, detail of painting by Thomas Gainsborough.

While the army was refitted, Cornwallis spent a month pondering his choices. Although Clinton had ordered him not to leave South Carolina until it was pacified, Cornwallis knew that during the year since Charleston’s fall, he had not come close to subduing the rebellion in the Carolina backcountry. Indeed, campaigning in the hinterland during the past ten months had been worse than fruitless. The army’s presence had only nourished the insurgency. Furthermore, the British had suffered an unsustainable rate of attrition. Despite his public claim of victory, Cornwallis privately acknowledged that “every part of our army was beat repeatedly” in his contests with Greene’s rebel forces. In addition, Cornwallis had so soured on the ministry’s notion that southern Tories would rush to join the British army that he likely would have endorsed the comment of one of his generals who said with disgust that the redcoats would be fortunate to raise one hundred southern Tories in the course of a thousand-mile march. In reality, Tories had turned out in considerable numbers during 1780, but the defeats that the British suffered, beginning with King’s Mountain, had stymied recruiting, so that by the spring of 1781 Cornwallis was convinced, probably correctly, that he could no longer replace his losses with freshly raised Tories in the Carolinas.

For Cornwallis, everything added up to the conclusion that the sole hope of suppressing the rebellion in the Low Country lay in closing the supply routes in the Upper South through which men, arms, and munitions flowed to both the partisans and Greene’s army. While in Wilmington, Cornwallis thought he glimpsed the means of achieving this end. He learned that Clinton had sent an army to Virginia to augment Arnold. This was the army that Washington in March had learned was about to sail south. A 2,000-man force under General William Phillips would bring the total number of British soldiers in Virginia to 3,500. Cornwallis reasoned that if he marched north with his 1,400 men, the British would have a sizable army in the Old Dominion. Should Clinton see fit to further shore up that army, Cornwallis believed he would possess the means of sealing the supply routes and possibly even scoring a pivotal victory. Abandoning the Carolinas would violate Clinton’s orders. However, commanders who were in the field and aware of the situation always had some latitude in determining the proper course to follow. On the other hand, Clinton was the commander of the army, and among royal officials in America, he alone was responsible for formulating Britain’s grand strategy.

Cornwallis had made his decision. He would march into Virginia. He wrote to Clinton that his choice was the “most solid plan” available, the only one that offered hope of being “attended with important consequences.” Given the lag in communications, he knew that he would be in Virginia when his commander in chief finally became aware of what had transpired. Cornwallis had made the most important choice of his military career and perhaps the most fateful decision of this war.

As Cornwallis readied his army to march to Virginia, Washington prepared for his third meeting with Rochambeau during the ten months—the ten inactive months—that the French army had been in the United States. On the cusp of the meeting to plan the campaign of 1781, Washington remarked, “Now or never our deliverance must come.”

The commanders met for two days in May in Wethersfield, Connecticut, in sessions that were tense and acrimonious, even bruising. Happily, Rochambeau revealed that France was bestowing six million livres on the Continental army. (Pointedly, it was to be given to the army, not to Congress.) The friction between the two commanders came over what to do that summer. Washington remained intransigently committed to a campaign to retake New York. Rochambeau was not keen on such an endeavor, as he knew that during their five-year occupation of the city, the British would have stockpiled supplies and erected formidable, perhaps impenetrable, defenses. Certain that an assault on the British lines was unlikely to succeed, Rochambeau felt that the city could be retaken only through a siege operation that could be expected to take a year or longer. If a French fleet arrived to assist, it would never remain that long. Moreover, the rule of thumb in European warfare was that, to be successful, a siege army must possess upwards of a three-to-one numerical superiority over the besieged. With American militia serving only three- to six-month tours of duty, Rochambeau was persuaded that achieving—and sustaining—the requisite manpower superiority was out of the question.

Given these considerations, Rochambeau argued in favor of a Virginia campaign. Neither he nor Washington were aware in May that Cornwallis’s army would also be in Virginia, but Rochambeau felt that the odds of scoring a pivotal victory over the combined forces of Phillips and Arnold were good. Washington—who, according to Rochambeau’s subsequent account, was unable to “conceive the affairs of the south to be of such urgency”—remained inflexible. The two generals argued. According to a witness, Rochambeau treated Washington with “ungraciousness and all the unpleasantness possible.” But Washington would not budge, and Rochambeau’s orders from Versailles were to defer to him. The conference ended with the decision “to make an attempt upon New York.”

Rochambeau had been candid with Washington, though for security reasons the French commander had kept one item under wraps. He had known that the West Indian fleet of comte de Grasse had been ordered to sail to North America sometime that summer. The moment that Washington departed Wethersfield, Rochambeau—despite what he had just agreed to—wrote de Grasse asking him to sail to the Chesapeake, not to New York. A month later, Rochambeau gave the order to march from Rhode Island to New York, and over eighteen mercilessly scorching summer days, the French army slogged westward in great swirling clouds of dust. On July 6, one year almost to the day since disembarking in America, the French soldiers at last united with Washington’s Continentals near White Plains, just north of New York City.

By then, Cornwallis had been in Virginia for nearly six weeks. Greene had neither followed him nor retreated ahead of him back across the Dan. In fact, even before Cornwallis arrived in Wilmington, Greene led 1,300 men into the Low Country, home to 8,000 British troops. Most were garrisoned in Charleston and Savannah, but a quarter or more were posted in scattered and vulnerable backcountry posts. Cornwallis had turned his back on the redcoats in the backcountry. He foresaw that Greene and his “Mountaineers”—Cornwallis’s term for the guerrillas—would “beat in detail” those garrisons, and on this score, the British commander was prescient. Greene took all eight British backcountry outposts within only ninety days. Greene additionally fought two major battles. He lost the first at Hobkirk’s Hill outside Camden, prompting him to memorably remark: “We fight[,] get beat[,] rise and fight again.” He fought next in September at Eutaw Springs, and as at Guilford Courthouse, the British paid a heavy price for winning the contested field. The British lost about 1,125 men in the two engagements.

By late May, around the time that Washington’s meeting with Rochambeau concluded, Clinton learned that Cornwallis had taken his army to Virginia. The British commander was incensed. Clinton understood better than Cornwallis that America’s “exigencies … put it out of her power to continue … the war … much longer,” and that realization led him to cling to a policy of “avoiding all risks,” of holding on to what Britain had recovered and buying time because time was on Britain’s side. In addition, Clinton anticipated a Franco-American attempt to retake New York. That would be the war’s epic battle, and Clinton believed that he would need the forces under Phillips and Arnold when the showdown occurred. Clinton could have recalled the British troops in Virginia in June. At the same moment, he could also have ordered Cornwallis back to South Carolina. But in one of the great mysteries of this war, Clinton did neither of those things. Instead, he sent still more reinforcements to Virginia.

The Virginia that Cornwallis entered was weary of war. During the past twenty-four months, it had suffered devastating coastal raids and damaging enemy forays up the James River. Threats at home and in the Carolinas had led Governor Jefferson and his predecessor, Patrick Henry, to summon the militia to duty on numerous occasions. But 1781 was Virginia’s worst year. Arnold’s destructive raid on Richmond occurred in January. Phillips arrived in the spring with a force that doubled the size of the British army in the Old Dominion, and he was accompanied by a small but powerful fleet.

Phillips wasted no time. During his first week in the state, the British general sent a flotilla of six heavily armed vessels up the Potomac. For fourteen days the expedition—which Washington characterized as a “parcel of plundering Scoundrels”—spread terror, ransacking and burning residences, and destroying shipyards and tobacco warehouses on both the Virginia and Maryland sides of the river. One of the sites it visited was Washington’s Mount Vernon, where the sloop of war the HMS Savage confiscated property and liberated seventeen slaves, though the mansion was left unscathed. Mere hours after that raid, Phillips dispatched yet another force up the James, hoping to do even more damage than Arnold had caused three months earlier. The raid resulted in the destruction of yet more tobacco warehouses and plantations, and the killing of large numbers of horses and cattle, but Phillips’s hope of wreaking further destruction in Richmond was frustrated when Lafayette rushed defenders to the capital city.

No war governor faced greater trials than Jefferson, and by the spring of 1781 he was at his wit’s end. He had been forced to flee from Richmond twice, viciously assailed for his tardy response to Arnold’s arrival at the beginning of the year, and pressured relentlessly for men and materials by Lincoln, then by Gates, and finally by Greene. Jefferson’s frustrations gushed out in his correspondence. He complained to Congress that in the first years of the war, Virginia had sacrificed to dispatch aid to the northern states, but now in its hour of need those states were doing little to assist their southern brethren, even though the “Northern States are safe.” Nor did Jefferson understand Washington’s thinking. Equating the American commander’s obsession with New York with Spain’s fixation on Gibraltar, Jefferson maintained that the Allies should undertake a concerted campaign in the South. If they did so, he predicted, “the face of the Continental War would be totally changed.”

Jefferson’s worries only increased when Cornwallis crossed unopposed into Virginia. On May 20, the day before the Wethersfield conference began, Cornwallis linked up with Phillips’s army and took command in Virginia. Soon, too, Cornwallis found a good location for a naval base, something he would need should Clinton send aid and reinforcements. It was at Yorktown on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers. Situated on a bluff overlooking the York, Cornwallis characterized Yorktown as a “safe defensive” site.

Nor did Cornwallis drag his feet before commencing his hunt for Lafayette. But if Cornwallis thought Lafayette could be induced to fight, he was mistaken. With only a third the number of men that his adversary possessed, Lafayette fell back on the Fabian tactics that had served Washington well when Cornwallis had sought to engage him in 1776. “Was I to fight a Battle I’ll be Cut to pieces,” the young French general confessed to Washington. Lafayette’s plan was to skirmish and retreat, always careful that his militia never faced British cavalry, “whom [the militiamen] fear like they would So Many wild Beasts.” Cornwallis, revitalized by being back in the fray, relished the challenge. “The Boy cannot escape me,” he allegedly declared. But Lafayette did elude him, crossing the South Anna River northwest of Richmond and withdrawing deeper into the state’s interior. Cornwallis stalked his prey for only six days. He had no stomach for another protracted chase that would waste his army and, in all likelihood, end in futility.

Late in May, Cornwallis shifted to a new strategy occasioned by Lafayette’s retreat. As the Continentals withdrew to the north, the southern and western portions of Virginia—the region to which the state had moved nearly all its military stores—had been left nearly defenseless. Magazines dotted the area near Point of Fork, where the Rivanna and Fluvanna Rivers met to form the James. Not only were those precious supplies ripe for the plundering, but also Cornwallis had learned that General Steuben with several hundred men was at Point of Fork removing arms and equipment. Simultaneously, Cornwallis discovered that the Virginia legislature had fled the imperiled capital and was meeting in what was thought to be the secure village of Charlottesville, just a stone’s throw from Monticello, the home of Governor Jefferson. Cornwallis responded by dispatching 500 men under Lieutenant Colonel John Simcoe, commander of the Queen’s Rangers, to the head of the James. He ordered Colonel Tarleton with 250 of his British Legionnaires to ride hard for Charlottesville.

Simcoe failed to bag Steuben’s force, but he captured or destroyed a treasure trove of military hardware. With the enemy in its midst, Virginia lost 2,500 muskets, a “large quantity” of powder, ten artillery pieces, and numerous casks loaded with materials used in making gunpowder. Under Virginia’s warm summer sun, Simcoe roamed the riverbanks for a week, setting the torch to countless hogsheads of tobacco.

Tarleton, meanwhile, set off for Charlottesville on Sunday, June 3, the last full day of Jefferson’s second, and last, term as governor. Sometime that night, Jack Jouett, a Charlottesville native who was enjoying the libation at the Cuckoo Tavern in Louisa, spotted the fast-moving, green-clad Legionnaires as they thundered past his watering hole. Guessing correctly that they were headed for Charlottesville, some twenty-five miles away, Jouett grabbed his horse and rode like the wind—much as Paul Revere had done on another dark night six years before—to warn Jefferson and the legislators. Aware of shortcuts, Jouett outraced the soldiers by a considerable margin. He pounded on Jefferson’s door at four thirty A.M., and a bit later Jouett alerted the legislators.

After posting reliable slaves as lookouts, Jefferson spent his remaining time—probably upwards of an hour—gathering or burning important papers and arranging for his wife and daughters to travel by carriage to a neighboring estate. With the sun peeping through the green summer foliage, Jefferson at last made his getaway, riding Caractacus, reputedly one of the fastest horses in the state, into the dense forest that surrounded his mountaintop lair. Jefferson had probably departed fifteen minutes, possibly thirty, before twenty of Tarleton’s horse soldiers reached the summit of the mountain and stormed into the mansion. A slave who greeted the troopers fibbed that Jefferson had been gone for hours. They believed him. Thinking it a fool’s errand to give pursuit, the soldiers spent nearly a full day at Monticello, apparently doing little else aside from drinking Jefferson’s wine. They liberated no slaves, stole nothing, and “preserved every thing with sacred care,” as Jefferson said later. Most of the legislators got away too. Only seven assemblymen who tarried fell into the hands of the enemy.

Cornwallis, whose zeal for fighting had previously known no bounds, and who had come to Virginia to fight, was largely done. The reinforcements sent by Clinton had raised his strength to 7,000 men, against which Lafayette—who had also been reinforced—commanded some 3,500 Continentals and however many militiamen could be raised. If Clinton’s behavior in tolerating Cornwallis’s presence in Virginia is puzzling, Cornwallis’s inactivity after early June is no less perplexing. Immediately after Simcoe’s and Tarleton’s raids, Cornwallis marched his army eastward to Yorktown, arriving just after the armies of Rochambeau and Washington rendezvoused in White Plains. Once he was in Yorktown, Cornwallis became immobile. He had to have been bewildered by the array of contradictory orders he received from Clinton. In dispatches written over a span of twenty-five days, Clinton first ordered Cornwallis to march his army to Philadelphia. Next, he instructed Cornwallis to stay in Virginia but to send two thousand of his men to New York. Finally, Clinton told Cornwallis to keep all of his men and fortify a base that was accessible to the Royal Navy. Cornwallis had not always followed Clinton’s orders, but he chose to adhere scrupulously to his commander’s last order. Cornwallis settled in at Yorktown. He must have come to the realization that further campaigning in Virginia, and probably throughout the South, would be unavailing unless a much larger British army was committed to the theater. Furthermore, during the summer of 1781 all signs pointed to an imminent—and in all likelihood a climactic—battle for New York. Cornwallis wished to be part of what might be an historic engagement, an epochal battle that future generations might see as even more significant than the fight for Quebec in the Seven Year’s War. With a candor born from the hope that Clinton would summon him to New York, Cornwallis confided that his army in Yorktown was doing little more than guarding “some Acres of an unhealthy swamp” that was “ever liable to become a prey to a foreign” navy. If Cornwallis was hinting, it was to no avail. Clinton left him in Yorktown.

The Decisive Victory at Yorktown II

Siège de Yorktown by Auguste Couder, c. 1836. Rochambeau and Washington giving their last orders before the battle.

When the French army marched into White Plains under a warm July sun, America’s soldiers cheered them. Over the next couple of days, the two armies paraded for one another. Some French observers thought their ally looked “rather good,” but others were alarmed at finding that many of Washington’s troops were barefoot, and that some were too old for the demanding life of a soldier, while others were disquietingly young. Some seemed startled at discovering that numerous African Americans were serving in the Continental army, and one guessed that blacks composed 25 percent of the American soldiery. But one French soldier thought the African Americans were “strong, robust men” who made “a very good appearance.” Still another remarked that a Rhode Island regiment made up largely of blacks was the “most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuver” of all the Continental units.

A couple of weeks before the armies linked up, Rochambeau finally revealed to Washington that de Grasse was bringing his fleet northward. Aware by then that Cornwallis was in Virginia with a large and growing army—it would top out at 8,500 men—Washington grew more flexible. Perhaps a Virginia campaign was preferable to fighting for New York, he said, though he vacillated on the matter. Given the chance that de Grasse would never arrive, the Allied commanders kept their focus on preparations for retaking New York. And they waited. Everything depended on de Grasse. He might be coming to New York. He might be coming to Virginia. He might never leave the Caribbean. Or, he might sail northward, but something—the enemy, a hurricane—might prevent his ever reaching North America. Days passed. Weeks went by without word. Finally, on August 14, the thirty-ninth day after the two allied armies came together, a dispatch rider brought word from de Grasse. His fleet had arrived at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.

Through the spring and summer Clinton’s intelligence had been so good that he, too, was aware that de Grasse planned to come north. Indeed, Clinton had probably known it before Washington. Like his adversaries, however, Clinton did not know de Grasse’s destination. Drawing on the information that he possessed—some of which was erroneous, as is often the case with military intelligence—Clinton and the naval officials in New York made a series of educated guesses. They assumed that de Grasse was most likely to sail for New York. They also believed he would leave some of his warships in the Caribbean and send others to France. As Clinton had requested naval reinforcements from the West Indies, he surmised that the Royal Navy would remain superior in North American waters, even after de Grasse was joined by the French squadron in New England. Some conclusions reached by those in Britain’s high command in New York were mistaken, though the errors were largely due to faulty and incomplete information. In retrospect, Clinton’s most egregious error was not in his judgment about the size of the rival fleets but in his failure to summon Cornwallis’s army to New York. Even so, Clinton’s decision was understandable, if flawed. London had long since embraced a southern strategy and stressed waging aggressive war in the South, and early in the summer Clinton had been reproached by Lord Germain for having paid insufficient attention to the Chesapeake. Furthermore, while Cornwallis might accomplish little in Virginia, his presence at least tied down large numbers of Continentals who otherwise would have joined Washington’s army outside New York.

Soon after de Grasse’s message arrived, Washington ordered Lafayette in Virginia to do all within his power to prevent Cornwallis’s escape from the Peninsula. At about the same moment, the Allied soldiers began crossing from New York into New Jersey. Their commanders had done what they could to convince Clinton that they continued to plan a campaign to retake New York. They built field ovens, essential for a siege army, permitted misleading correspondence to fall into British hands, and for the first days of the march to Virginia, the armies followed the route they would have taken had their intention been to rendezvous with de Grasse at Sandy Hook for a joint attack on New York. Their hope was to forestall until it was too late for Clinton to opt to take his army to Virginia or to call Cornwallis to New York. The Allies’ deception worked, though Clinton’s hand was stayed mostly by his belief that de Grasse would never achieve superiority in the Chesapeake.

The French and American soldiers trudged south under a searing August sun. Crowds of onlookers gathered throughout New Jersey to see the spectacle. Learning from the spectators that the French had given Washington hard currency with which to pay for this operation, the American soldiers somewhere in New Jersey refused to take another step until they were paid a month’s wages, something they had not received in well over a year. Washington paid them and the trek resumed.

The armies were now following the route that Washington had taken in his disconsolate retreat from New York five years before. The gloom of 1776 was gone, however. It had been replaced by an optimism that grew when word arrived during the march that de Grasse’s fleet had successfully linked with the French naval force that had descended from New England. The French squadron would indeed be superior to the Royal fleet. The soldiers marched through Princeton and Trenton. A day later, under a warm blue sky, they began crossing the Delaware River.

Over three days in early September the two armies paraded through Philadelphia, “raising a dust like a smothering snow-storm,” according to one soldier. The last time the Continental army had marched through Philadelphia had been in 1777 when it was en route to Brandywine. Congressman John Adams, who had watched the army’s pass-by on that occasion, had been struck by the soldiers’ lack of precision and absence of jauntiness, and when the last man disappeared from his sight, Adams had fretfully hurried to a church to pray. The mood was different in 1781. The French were not only going into the looming fight alongside the Continentals, but resplendent in their spit and polish white coats faced with green, they also looked like “the perfection … of discipline as soldiers,” according to one member of Congress. James Lovell, Adams’s successor in the Massachusetts delegation, thought the mood among congressmen who had watched the show of arms was one of “high Glee.”

On reaching Wilmington, Washington learned that Cornwallis was in Yorktown and that Lafayette, with more than two thousand Continentals and four thousand Virginia and Maryland militia, was nearby. Washington was reassured about Lafayette’s chances of confining Cornwallis until the Allied armies arrived. Swept with euphoria, Washington, who normally exhibited an implacably grave and reserved manner, suddenly smiled, laughed, and waved his hat, and when Rochambeau arrived, the American commander hugged him with unrestrained passion. An astonished French officer said that Washington had “put aside his character as arbiter of North America and contented himself for the moment with that of a citizen, happy at the good fortune of his country. A child, whose every wish had been gratified, would not have experienced a sensation more lively.” Until Lafayette’s letters arrived, Washington and Rochambeau had only known that their destination was Virginia. Now they knew it was Yorktown.

The French and American soldiers marched to Head of Elk, where some allied units boarded vessels that would rapidly convey them to Virginia. But there were not enough boats for everyone. Telling his Continentals that the “success, or disgrace of our expedition depends absolutely upon the celerity of our movements,” Washington ordered others to “hurry … upon the wind of speed” to Annapolis and Baltimore, where more vessels could be found. By September 26, thirty-eight days after setting out from Dobbs Ferry, the last allied soldier was ashore near Yorktown. Long before then—in fact, while Washington was at Head of Elk—de Grasse, with an overarching superiority of nine warships, had defeated a British fleet in what came to be known as the Battle of the Virginia Capes. Perhaps deservedly called by one historian “the most important … naval engagement of the eighteenth century,” de Grasse was in control of the Chesapeake. Cornwallis could no longer be rescued by sea.

Early in September, well before the first Allied troops debouched onto Virginia soil, Cornwallis discovered that the enemy armies were coming after him. Nearly two additional weeks passed before he learned that de Grasse had slammed shut his seagoing portal to safety. During that crucial stretch, some of Cornwallis’s officers urged him to try to fight through Lafayette’s lines and escape. The British enjoyed a slight numerical advantage, and Cornwallis also had far more regulars under his command than Lafayette possessed. Cornwallis contemplated the advice, though in the end he spurned it. Aside from the crushing humiliation of fleeing Virginia after abandoning the Carolinas, Cornwallis knew that he was safer in Yorktown than on the run. To have to forage for food while dogged by Lafayette—and ultimately by a huge Allied army—was a formula for disaster. Besides, he continued to hope that Clinton would send assistance. After making his decision to stay put in Yorktown, Cornwallis had received word that a relief expedition consisting of four thousand men was being sent and should arrive on October 5.

Alas, for the umpteenth time in this war when speedy British action was essential, it was not forthcoming. The relief expedition’s departure from New York was held up for a month while repairs were made to vessels damaged in the Battle of the Virginia Capes. As September faded into October, Cornwallis found himself alone and under siege.

Under normal circumstances, the Allied commanders might have opted to simply try to starve Cornwallis into submission. However, a protracted siege was not an option. De Grasse promised to remain until the end of October, but no longer, as his orders were to move on in November. The Allies had six weeks to force Cornwallis’s capitulation, and they might not have even that long. Should a great storm churn through the Chesapeake—and hurricanes were not unknown in October—de Grasse’s squadron could be ruined, much as d’Estaing’s had been badly damaged off Rhode Island in 1778. Rochambeau thought it imperative to act with speed, and with every advantage on the side of the Allies, he radiated optimism. The Allies had some nineteen thousand men, more than double the number that Cornwallis commanded, and a third more cannon than the British possessed. From the outset, the confident French commander assured Washington that the outcome was “reducible to calculation.” It was a sentiment shared by the American troops. “[W]e have got [Cornwallis] in a pudding bag,” one exclaimed, while another, as if on a rabbit hunt, boasted that the Allies had “holed him and nothing remained but to dig him out.” From the beginning, General Anthony Wayne believed victory was a “most glorious certainty.”

The cheer within the Allied lines was not misplaced. The beginning of the end for Cornwallis came on October 5. Allied sappers, working at night in “great silence and secrecy,” began digging the first artillery parallels, soon to be the initial home of the Allies’ siege guns. On the American side, Washington struck a few ceremonial blows with a pickax to kick off the work. After four nights, the Allied field guns were in place, the French to the west of Yorktown, the Americans on the east side. When all was ready for the first shot to be fired, Washington once again did the honors in mid-afternoon on October 9. Scuttlebutt had it that the ball he fired tore through a house in town in which several British officers had gathered for mess; supposedly, the redcoat seated at the head of the table had been killed. After that initial shot, all the guns erupted with a mighty blast. Day after day, nearly a hundred guns laid down a thunderous barrage that went on around the clock. Every day approximately 3,600 rounds slammed into Yorktown, a tiny village that could have fit into one little corner of a large city such as Boston or Philadelphia. In no time, every house and building was reduced to rubble and bodies of men and horses littered the landscape. Cornwallis’s soldiers sought shelter in trenches and basements, and the commander himself moved his headquarters into an underground bunker. The artillery in the initial parallel was about 350 yards from nearest British soldier. When the second parallel opened about a week later, the allied gunners were only 150 yards away.

Cornwallis did everything he could to protract the siege, hoping that with time something, anything, might save him and his army. He reduced his men’s rations, then cut them even more. To save his scant supplies, Cornwallis also ordered the slaughter of hundreds of horses, directing that their bodies be dragged down to the York River, and he banished the runaway slaves who had fled to what they thought would be the secure haven provided by the British army. These African Americans had never soldiered, but they had toiled throughout the preceding weeks as cooks, maids, and laborers on behalf of the British army, accompanying it like “a wandering Arabian or Tartar horde,” in the words of a German officer. Some of Cornwallis’ officers condemned his decision as shameless and “harsh,” and others spoke of “herds of Negroes,” many of them “trembling” with fear, setting off across the unfamiliar landscape, running once again in what for most was to be a forlorn quest of their freedom. Cornwallis saw it not only as necessary for the salvation of his army but also as the sole chance these unfortunates had of escaping certain capture by the rebel soldiers.

With the guns now capable of blasting away at almost point-blank range, all that remained to bring the operation to a speedy end was to seize the British redoubts at each end of the Allied lines, steps that would make the steady bombardment fully efficient. The French were assigned responsibility for taking redoubt Number 9 in their sector; the Americans were to take Number 10 in their area. Alexander Hamilton, who was once Washington’s aide but since July had commanded a New York light infantry battalion, beseeched the American commander to put him in charge of the American operation. Doubtless hoping to reward Hamilton for years of service at headquarters, but also wishing to further the young colonel’s postwar political ambitions by giving him the opportunity to win glory, Washington acquiesced. Shortly before the attack, possibly while sitting in a trench redolent with fresh-turned dirt, Hamilton wrote his pregnant bride of ten months: “Five days more the enemy must capitulate … then I fly home to you. Prepare to receive me in your bosom.”

Storming of Redoubt #10

Hamilton had volunteered for a dangerous mission. He was given three infantry battalions numbering about five hundred men, black and white. Hamilton’s force would have a huge numerical superiority, as it was known that only about fifty redcoats were in the redoubt. The attackers carried empty muskets, but their bayonets were in place; as the fighting would be in close quarters, the Continentals might do immense damage to one another if they fired their weapons. Some officers were armed with swords. A few men carried a spontoon. Sappers and miners, armed with axes, were in the van of the assault force; their job was to remove abatis and clear other impediments that the British defenders had installed on the redoubt’s periphery. Hamilton sounded the order to move out into the black night at seven P.M.

Catching sight of the approaching enemy at nearly the last moment, the redcoats laid down a heavy fire with musket and small field guns. The Americans charged full bore, leaping into the redoubt; some rushed in through holes that had been opened during the previous days of shelling. The fight that followed was desperate, a hand-to-hand battle between men who fought like savage animals. Soldiers used their bayonets as knives, their guns as clubs. Some swung axes and some fought with their fists. It was brutal. When it was over and the redoubt was taken, 10 percent of Hamilton’s men were casualties. Three-quarters of the British defenders were dead or wounded. Hamilton was unscathed. On the same night, and at virtually the same moment, the French took redoubt Number 9.

Storming of Redoubt #9

Now, as Hamilton had told his wife, it was almost over. The heavy guns pounded away for two more days, October 16 and 17, before Cornwallis waved a flag of truce. It was the ninth day of the merciless bombardment. About 7 percent of Cornwallis’s men had been killed or wounded, and his situation was nearly hopeless. He wanted to talk. In reality, he wanted to spin out the discussions, stalling for more time, hoping for a miracle. The Allied commanders would not give Cornwallis the luxury of time. They demanded that he agree to surrender the next day or the guns would open up again. That next day, October 18, Cornwallis signed the surrender accord. The terms were tough, nearly identical to those that Clinton had imposed on Lincoln in the American surrender at Charleston, except that this accord provided that the Americans could recover their property from Yorktown—that is, they were entitled to reclaim the slaves they had lost.

At two P.M. on October 19—six and one-half years to the day since someone had fired the first shot of this war on the village Green at Lexington, Massachusetts—Cornwallis’s army formally surrendered in Yorktown, Virginia. The defeated British troops, tired, hungry, and sullen, marched somberly from the utterly destroyed little village to the field of surrender. They passed between a long row of French troops on their left, neatly attired in their white parade uniforms and exhilarated by their victory—and at having survived the siege in which some four hundred of their comrades had been casualties—and a line of bedraggled Americans on their right, equally happy to be among the living at the end of this siege that had left some three hundred Americans dead or wounded. (Ironically, fewer British than Allied soldiers were casualties, though 556 were killed or wounded.) Oddly, the defeated British soldiers were neatly attired, having turned out in newly furnished uniforms. Some observers thought the proud redcoats did not hide their mortification at having to surrender to upstart colonial soldiers. Music from a British army band filled the air. The anecdote later caught on that the musicians played the contemporary favorite “The World Turned Upside Down.” In all likelihood, the story is not true, though it is known that the band—performing with drums draped with black cloth and ebony ribbons dangling from fifes—played sorrowful music throughout much of the ceremony. It was a gorgeous fall day, warm and sunny, and the leaves were hurrying toward the peak of their autumn splendor. Many residents of nearby Williamsburg, frequent victims of British raiders during the past eighteen months, had gleefully come to witness the British capitulation, and not incidentally to search for slaves who during recent months had fled to the presumed safety offered by the redcoats.

In time, the principal officers of the three armies at Yorktown rode to the surrender site. Cornwallis was not to be seen. He remained at his shattered headquarters pleading sickness, though no one then or subsequently believed his professions of indisposition. Cornwallis was more likely humiliated than ill, and he would have been less than human had he not been angry as well. He had been given the nearly impossible task of pacifying a huge region awash with the enemy’s regulars, militia, and partisans, and at least in his judgment he had never possessed adequate manpower for doing the job. Nor was that all. He had been left twisting in the wind in Virginia by Clinton and those around him long after they should have seen that it was reckless to keep large numbers of troops anywhere other than in and around New York. Cornwallis placed the onus of surrendering on Brigadier Charles O’Hara, a British officer for a quarter century who had suffered two serious wounds at Guilford Courthouse.

Washington must have dreamed of this moment a thousand times, but when it at last arrived, he refused to accept the surrender of an officer who held a rank subordinate to his. By rigidly adhering to a European code of martial etiquette, Washington denied himself the delicious ecstasy of accepting the decisive British capitulation. His second in command, General Lincoln, accepted O’Hara’s sword, after which that hearty British officer rode from the field with tears in his eyes. Next, the soldiers who had served under Cornwallis came forward in an orderly manner to lay down their arms. Glum and quiet, these men faced an uncertain future; they now were prisoners of war in the care of an enemy that at times had been unable to properly feed, clothe, and house its own soldiers. A French band belted out upbeat tunes as these drawn and troubled soldiers passed into captivity.

More than eight thousand prisoners were taken at Yorktown, of whom close to 15 percent were Germans. Roughly five hundred men who had soldiered under Cornwallis were not among the prisoners. According to the surrender terms, Cornwallis had been permitted to dispatch one vessel to New York, a ship that was supposed to carry only letters from the soldiers. Cornwallis cheated. Not entirely unexpectedly, he loaded the ship with his Loyalist soldiers and a few Continental army deserters.

No one knows how many African Americans had come to Yorktown with Cornwallis. Upwards of ten thousand slaves in Virginia had fled to the British army, almost all during 1780 and 1781. The runaways had died in droves, mostly of smallpox and typhoid fever. It is possible that some, though no one knows how many, may have had the good fortune to have been shipped to New York or Charleston prior to the siege. Many who came to Yorktown with Cornwallis perished in the course of the siege, mostly from diseases, though some were victims of the Allied shelling.

The victors who entered the rubble-strewn remains of Yorktown found corpses “all over the place,” including the bodies of “an immense number of Negroes” who had died “in the most miserable manner” from smallpox. Meanwhile, many soldiers, hot for booty, were hired by local slave owners to scour the area in search of their runaway chattel. Some Continental army officers joined the search, looking for African Americans they had once owned. General Washington was one who spent some time combing the countryside. He found two of his slaves who had escaped in the raid of the HMS Savage. He sent them back to Mount Vernon and a lifetime of servitude.

In this hour of triumph for a revolution waged for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Washington also found the time to congratulate his army on the victory that had brought “Joy” to “every Breast.”

AUGSBURG (1634–1635)

In September 1634, when an Imperial army began its siege of Augsburg, King Gustavus Adolphus was already dead. His twenty-nine-month spree over the face of Germany had been stopped on the battlefield of Lützen, near Leipzig, in November 1632. Tilly and Pappenheim were also dead—Wallenstein as well, coldly assassinated in February 1634.

Several of the most brilliant generals of the Thirty Years War had thus disappeared halfway through the stretch of those years. It was a conflict that would be the graveyard of many generals and thousands of noblemen from all parts of Europe. How, therefore, could it have been anything but an abattoir for “little people”? In 1635, Louis XIII had taken France into the war, seeking to obstruct German and Spanish Habsburg ambitions by contributing subsidies to the freebooting Swedish army—the chief defender of the Protestant cause in Germany and enemy number one to the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II.

A city of about forty-five thousand people at the beginning of the war, Augsburg had lost more than fifteen thousand inhabitants by the time of the siege, victims of widespread crop failures, dearth, and disease. But it would take a stunted imagination to believe that the survivors had therefore got used to their woes. They had not. They gritted their teeth, fought their way, and showed immense human reserves.

A sharp divide between rich and poor ran through the city, with most of the population—petty craftsmen in the cloth industry—living on the margins of subsistence and tipping over into hunger when crops were poor. They kept an eye on the size of bread loaves, on changes in the weather, and on crop yields. Bread riots in January 1622 had led to the storming and plundering of bakery shops. In fear of serious civil disorder, the city council had taken to making occasional handouts of grain.

Despite the fact that the city was predominantly Protestant, Catholics had enjoyed a certain freedom of worship until the Edict of Restitution (1629) planted anxiety among Protestants by seeming to pose a menace to the property rights of Augsburg’s Lutheran churches. This anxiety was dispelled—only to be replaced by others—when the Swedish army seized the city in April 1632 and introduced a garrison of soldiers. The fist of military authority quickly brought in restrictions against Catholics. On April 23, they were removed from the city council by a Swedish royal order. On May 3, Swedish forces confiscated all arms from “papists.” In July, Catholics were ordered to stay at home until further notice, and anyone pursuing studies with the Order of Jesuits was given two days to get out of Augsburg or face the penalty of death. A few months later, in November, came a decree forbidding Catholics, on pain of death, to attend church, whatever their social condition. In other words, the rich and noble must also beware.

Meanwhile, the Swedes decided to reinforce the walls and defenses of the city by adding ravelins and other outworks. Some four thousand troops arrived on May 15, all to be quartered on citizens. Their wages would be used to pay for food and drink. Three days later, the new bosses began to arm Protestants and to organize all able-bodied men into a militia. In July, to speed up the work on the city’s defenses, they decreed that one person from every household had to go out daily to work on the construction sites. Here was a testament to the hustling ways of Swedish armies in Germany. In action so far away from their native land, Swedish officers knew that most of their soldiers and all their material resources, money or payment in kind included, had to come from wherever they found themselves. And if subsidies came in from abroad, such as from France, so much the better; but subsidies would not suffice to meet the needs of the Swedish-led armies.

The fact that the newly arrived soldiers would be spending their wages in Augsburg did not mean, therefore, that they were bringing in any kind of wealth. On the contrary, what they spent would be coming from increases in local excise taxes, from a new poll tax, from abuses in the system of billeting, and from the plundering of castles, houses, villages, and farms in the outlying districts, including towns as far as Memmingen, about fifty-five miles away. This booty, however, would slowly work against Augsburg’s benefit, because the theft and destruction of rural wealth led to spikes in the price of foodstuffs. The damage to crops and livestock added still more melancholy to the fact that war and bad weather, during the early 1630s, had already slashed the production of cereals in that part of Bavaria and eastern Swabia. So to have six thousand horsemen making a stop in the villages around Augsburg—as happened on May 27, 1632, to be billeted there for nearly a week—simply aggravated the district’s yawning poverty. In short, for two or three years before the siege of 1634–1635, famine, the stealthy destroyer, had been edging its way toward Augsburg, and those in command were turning the city itself into a little garrison state.

The link between hunger and the occupying soldiers is highlighted by a military command of July 26, 1632, which ordered the local peasantry to cut down the thousands of trees, many of them fruit-bearing, that formed a thick circle of greenery outside and around Augsburg. Logistically, their removal would deprive the Catholic enemy of protective cover, while also providing lumber for the work on the city’s defensive perimeters. The bitter resentment of the peasants over the destruction of so many trees was swept aside. They had to do as they were told. And then on January 3, 1633, out went a town cry ordering all refugee peasants to get out of the city. But if any chose to labor on the defensive works around the walls in return for one and a half pounds of bread per day, they were permitted to remain. Eight days later, this order was overruled by the command that all foreign or refugee peasants leave Augsburg at once and go back to their lands. The shrinking food supply was creating anxieties. With four to five thousand soldiers quartered on citizens, the claims on foodstuffs—on grains in particular—had become fierce, now that 20 percent of the city’s population was made up of soldiers.

By April 1633, with the endless to-and-fro of troops, Augsburg’s rural hinterland had lost large numbers of horses and cows to pillaging Swedish troops. Many fields lay fallow. And though the sale of booty in the city had been outlawed, the ordinance was ignored, first of all by army officers. Augsburg’s streets and open spaces teemed with plundered horses and cattle, and with numerous carts and wagons, all loaded with copperware, pewter, bedding, linen, clothing, and heaps of personal items. Much of this spoil, now “selling for wretched, paltry sums,” had belonged to the peasantry. But there was more. Because of the rural violence of soldiers, a large number of peasants, fleeing danger to life and limb, had managed to steal into Augsburg, despite the decrees and town cries against their doing so. They arrived in wagons, carrying their families and all possible foodstuffs; and there they lived, parked in cramped spaces, in horrendous circumstances, straining to survive. Over the coming year or two, many of them would meet death inside or outside the city walls.

No wonder, then, that in the larger picture of southern Germany, military violence in villages provoked peasant uprisings against mercenaries and local officials, such as in upper Austria in 1626 and 1632–1636; in Swabia, Breisgau, and Sundgau in 1632 and 1633; and in Bavaria, closer to Augsburg, in 1633–1634. But all were violently suppressed. One such outburst in Austria ended with the massacre of four hundred women, children, and old people.

The chief chronicler of life in Augsburg in the 1630s was Jakob Wagner, the son of a wealthy merchant. In his early sixties at the time, he was a close observer of daily events and in a position to gauge the growing tensions between soldiers and burghers. Billeting, new taxes, “contributions,” nocturnal guard duty, and the endless toil demanded for defensive works at the city walls had generated angry resentment among the people of Augsburg. The soldiers, in turn, and especially their Swedish commanders, seeing themselves more and more harassed by Imperial troops, were unrelenting in their demands. A mutiny in the Swedish army had erupted late in April 1633, led by officers and caused by the fact that the army had not been paid since 1631. Nor had soldiers received the promised bounties for the famous battles of Breitenfeld (1631) and Lützen (1632). To settle the mutiny, Oxenstierna, the head of Swedish forces in Germany, found a solution in the conveying of conquered territories and lordships, by deed and legal title, to his generals. The generals could then pay their officers, who would seek, in turn, to satisfy the demands of their soldiers. Meanwhile, even before the outbreak of the mutiny, there was no controlling a soldiery which had been invited, in effect, to grab whatever it took to stay alive.

The wages of soldiers in Augsburg thus turn out to have been mostly payment in kind: food, plus loot from outside the city, or anything they could squeeze from the hosts on whom they had been quartered.

By the summer of 1634, in war’s annihilation of rules and civilian supply lines, trade in Augsburg verged on collapsing. Many of the neighboring lands had been stripped of foodstuffs by traversing armies, and certain places had not seen bread in more than a year. Yet taxes and the bullying requests of the soldiers never let up. To satisfy war taxes, citizens were driven to sell assets, and rich merchants began to file for bankruptcy in the looming face of financial destruction. Jakob Wagner records the names and losses of the main bankrupts. Some of the amounts were enormous—in one case, for example, 169,764 florins, and in another 163,909 florins: each sum large enough for the purchase of dozens or even scores of houses in Augsburg. Such losses sufficed to pitch families of patricians into the ranks of the near destitute, for if they depended on returns from investments, those too had come to an end.

Worse was to come. On September 6, 1634, Imperial, Spanish, and Bavarian forces destroyed the Swedish army at Nördlingen. Some of the victorious units were now ordered to take Augsburg. And there, outside the walls, they would harry a city council which had already resolved to make a live-or-die defense at the expense, if need be, of “all their God-given earthly goods.” Croats and other Imperial dragoons rode into the region to plunder any remaining cattle and to set fire to mills, while also killing, in their raids, passing burghers. With the help of other units, they blocked the Lech River on October 3, diverting its waters away from the city. On the fourteenth, local peasants, on higher ground, managed to unblock ditches and to get the waters flowing toward Augsburg again. Fearing that the river would again be cut off and thus disable their graingrinding facilities, the burghers began to construct eighty human- and horse-driven mills.

Inhabitants now turned against the city council. Eager to avoid the death and ruin of a drawn-out siege, the poor favored a negotiated surrender, knowing well that they would be the first to die of hunger. In the clashing of fears and angers, the city was treated to seditious lines and verses. This angry output circulated furtively, or was passed on by word of mouth, in response to an urban council that was determined to crush public opposition to its evangelical stance against the besiegers.

If the city had previously struggled to lay in food reserves, by the end of October it was impossible to bring in anything in quantities because of the tightening blockade. And efforts to cut through the ring of soldiers were punishable—as we have come to expect—by mutilation, death, “merciless beatings,” or even by the tearing down of the houses of smugglers. Food prices leaped. The poor began to plead for work on the city’s line of defenses, asking only for bread as payment, in spite of the fact that those labors had recently been completed. City councillors tried to meet the pleas, making more defense plans, and soon “loaves of bread” were being “cut into pieces every day and distributed among the poor. Now more work was being done for bread than previously for money, and it is a wretched thing to behold.”

Once firewood ran out, soldiers broke into empty houses, stripping them of rafters: wood to be burned for heating and cooking. When they started to come down with dysentery late in the year, they became an even more serious worry for the authorities. But one rule was always axiomatic: Soldiers had to be fed and kept at least minimally contented, for in the end—thus the reasoning—only they could keep Augsburg from the hands of the Imperial forces. Being ready, presumably, to give up their lives at the walls and ramparts, they had to be among the first in line, along with the city’s leading families, for the vanishing stocks of food. The “useless” poor—useless in the economy of any resistance to a long siege—had to be sacrificed. Yet the savage irony was that unless they were cut down by a malady, soldiers were among those who were most likely to survive a siege that ended in a negotiated surrender. Famine, on the contrary, always did away with the poor.

When Siena’s patricians argued, in 1554, that the city was in the survival and honor of its patrician women, not in its physical walls, they were saying, in effect, that lives (some at least) were more important than those walls.

In January 1635, as Augsburg edged toward the limits of its food reserves, the urban council lived in some fear of a popular revolt and even feared that the soldiers, seeking to escape the gnawing spread of famine, might reach a secret agreement with the Imperial besiegers. But the control of the military and civilian bosses held. Indeed, on January 8, they voted unanimously to hold out for their Protestant cause as long as possible. This turned out to be bravado, for twelve days later, in an about-face, the council voted to negotiate “with the Papists,” although even then the evangelicals, supported by the army officers, succeeded in slowing up the pace of negotiations.

Soldiers continued to claim a bread ration of one and a half pounds per day, more than double the ration for civilians. They had no doubt insisted on this, for the public sale of bread had ended by late December. Thereafter, when citizens picked up bread allotments at the few well-guarded bakeries, they sought to steal back home, casting eyes in all directions, to avoid the risk of being assaulted for their bread by soldiers. Pack animals, horses, and pets had disappeared from streets and houses. Eaten. Animal skins had gone the same way. All eatable greenery must also have disappeared before the onset of that icy winter, when the waters of the encircling moat, outside the city walls, froze over. As for eating carrion, some time earlier, the famine-stricken had been seen to gnaw at dead horses rotting in the streets.

The eating of human flesh was inevitable. And the subject now broke into reports and conversation. Grave diggers complained that many bodies were brought to them missing breasts and other fleshy parts. What to make of this was only too obvious. “To his horror … a Swedish soldier who had stolen a woman’s shopping basket discovered flesh from a corpse.” When citizens found that bits of bodies had been cut off, they began to throw the dead into the river. Wagner believed that the desperate countryside was more given to the atrocity of cannibalism than the city. But commenting on its incidence in Augsburg, Johann Georg Mayer, a neighboring village pastor who had found refuge there, hauntingly declared that “the bodies of the living had thus become the graves of the dead.”

In the meantime, some of the poor were also freezing to death.

Why were the city councillors so determined to let the siege go on? What were they hoping for in negotiations that lasted two murderous months? In January and February, many hundreds of people died of hunger in the streets or froze to death. The will to rebel against the council was broken by the enervating effects of famine, and starving civilians were likely to be all but worthless as guardsmen at the walls. The danger of a revolt had passed. Then what about the hope of succor from Swedish forces? That army had been cut to pieces at Nördlingen; its remnants fled north into Saxony and Hesse, pursued or reconnoitered by the Catholic enemy. The siege of Augsburg was a mopping-up operation, around a city expected to fall to the juggernaut of starvation, not to thundering guns or a storming.

Yet the resisting hard men held their course. Lutheran preachers of an evangelical bent stepped up their reassuring words: God would come to the help of this godly city. Wanting a humane capitulation, opponents jumped on this litany but gave it an ironic twist and posed a rhetorical question: Was the council expecting citizens to become brave martyrs?

In view of the thousands of soldiers garrisoned in Augsburg, we must assume that Sweden’s officers had a decisive voice in prolonging the stubborn defense, while at the same time seeking every kind of concession from General Matthias Gallas, the commander of Imperial forces. That the Swedes were able to keep this up for so long was remarkable, for if, as threatened, the city had been taken by storm, the entire garrison could have been put to the sword and only the officers ransomed—a mercy intended to secure the same kind of treatment for captured Imperial officers.

What were Gallas and the Imperial forces getting in return for their lenience? They expected to march into an intact Imperial city and a peaceful situation. Besides, Augsburg was the home of many “papists.” But more concretely, Gallas was perhaps seeking to save the lives of hundreds of his men, who would have perished at the walls and just after scaling them. The sack of Magdeburg was fresh in the German public mind, a thorn now lodged in memory. And since Imperial officers were perfectly aware of the nightmarish conditions inside Augsburg, they would have had no trouble envisaging the consequences of bursting into the city in a wave of violence and blood.

The surrender terms of the Löwenberg agreement, March 22–24, 1635, confirmed the right of the city’s Protestants to practice their faith. But this article, tellingly, had long been on offer. After the Catholic victory at Nördlingen, moderate Protestant princes crossed back to the support of the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II, and this change was soon clinched in the Peace of Prague (May 20). The question therefore has to be raised: Was Augsburg’s fierce resistance to the siege worth the sacrifice of thousands of lives? Army officers and a dominant group of city councillors would perforce have said yes, whereas most residents would have said no.

In fact, the Löwenberg articles show that the officers had good reasons to insist on a stubborn resistance, for the articles throw a mantle of remarkable protection over the Swedish garrison. They authorize the soldiers to leave Augsburg with all their flags, weapons, wagons, and camp followers. They guarantee their safe departure from the city, along with anyone else who chose to leave with them. In addition, the departing soldiers would be allowed to march to their destination, Erfurt, at their own pace, to make stops where they wished, and to carry all their own food and fodder, inasmuch as the entire region lay in a sea of waste and scarcity. But if they managed to pick up any food or forage along the way, there was to be no payment for it. Any soldier who had previously served in the Imperial or Bavarian armies could now go back to them; and any other soldier who wanted to pass to that side was also free to go. There would be an amicable exchange of prisoners. Finally, soldiers forced to remain in Augsburg out of injuries or illness were to be cared for until they could return to their regiments.

There was a certain comradely spirit among soldiers, and sometimes it crossed battle lines. Indeed, that sense of affinity grew stronger during the Thirty Years War, especially when it became the norm, from 1631, to press captured soldiers into the ranks of the winning side. When the Swedish army was shattered at Nördlingen, the victors found that many of their prisoners had previously served in the Imperial army. They were promptly taken back into the Habsburg and Bavarian ranks.

The Swedes had been hands-on witnesses to the effects of starvation, and they had known about the claims concerning cannibalism. Yet when they and the troops under their command left Augsburg, they could say that all things considered, affairs had gone well for them.

The people of the city could say no such thing. In the course of the war, the numbers of their dead climbed grimly. Credited with a population of about forty-five thousand souls at the beginning of the war in 1618, seventeen years later Augsburg had a mere 16,500. The city was still there physically, unlike Magdeburg, but it would have struck merchants and diplomats—travelers who had known it previously—as a specter, a pale eminence.

War went to people, to food, to supplies; it moved inevitably to the points where these abounded. Not surprisingly, then, all European cities and large towns came out of the late middle ages flanked by defensive walls, enabling them to repel marauding armies. The “laws of war”—and they were nothing more than custom—laid it down that a successful siege would be followed by a sack, unless preceded by a negotiated surrender. But a sack was unlikely, unless there had been sustained combat beforehand, as occurred even in Antwerp.

Yet all the unwritten rules could be broken, and a town might be sacked or spared, despite negotiated arrangements or stubborn resistance. The outcome hinged on the condition of the besieging forces and their officers. In the face of fragile, unruly armies, custom itself held a fragile status.

The Use of Mining in Sieges early-13th Century England

Techniques of siege.


Rochester saw one of the few military successes of King John. Rochester 1215, illustration by John Cann.

King John uses mining to win this famous siege

Known to history as `Bad’ King John, the infamous English monarch has gained a reputation for military incompetence, but during the Siege of Rochester Castle he demonstrated a little-known talent for siege warfare. Rebel barons defended the fortress and the siege lasted for two months before surrendering to John. The ­ fighting was ­ fierce and without letup, with the Barnswell Chronicler recording, “Our age has not known a siege so hard-pressed nor so strongly resisted.”

John committed himself totally to retaking the castle and set up his command post on Boley Hill. When his siege engines failed to make an impact on the strong walls, he ordered mining tools to be delivered. On 25 November 1215, he sent an urgent writ to his justiciar to, “Send us with all speed by day and night, forty of the fattest pigs of the sort least good for eating, to bring ­ re beneath the tower.” This meant a mining operation. Pig fat was used to ­ re the mine props that John had positioned beneath the southeast corner of Rochester’s keep, which in turn kept up the undermined foundations. The king’s mine was successful and a whole section of the keep came down, but despite this achievement the rebels retreated further inside the keep and the siege continued. After they were reduced to a diet of horse-flesh and water, the garrison eventually surrendered to John.

Rebel Scum

Throughout this period of conflict in England, the barons looked across the Channel to the powerful and stable royal line in France. In marked contrast to the discontent, conflict and usurpations which had characterised the Anglo-Norman monarchy since 1066 (Gerald of Wales notes that the Plantagenets were `princes who did not succeed one another in regular hereditary order but rather acquired violent domination through an inversion of order by killing and slaughtering their own’), the French had experienced over two hundred years of smooth successions from father to son. Philip Augustus had been on the throne for thirty-five years, and his five immediate predecessors had enjoyed reigns of between twenty-nine and forty-eight years each. He had an adult son, a younger son and two grandsons. The barons might be understandably wary of offering the throne to Philip himself (and besides, he was now fifty years old so possibly not a long-term prospect), but Louis was a younger man, a proven warrior, a prince with a reputation for being moral and just; he came from a dynasty which had a tradition of involving a council of nobles in its decision-making process; he had a claim via the blood of his wife, John’s niece. And on a more practical level, with the might and resources of the French crown behind him, he was likely to be successful. This tipped the balance in his favour against other possible candidates such as King Alexander of Scotland (who was descended from the old Anglo-Saxon kings of England) who did not have the military might to back up a potential claim. And Louis being French had an additional advantage: many of John’s mercenaries were from various regions of France, so having Louis at the head of the campaign might mean that John would be deprived of their services, as he had been in Poitou in 1214. Of further comfort to the barons was the fact that Louis, if and when he became king, would probably not reside in England permanently, thus giving them more scope for their own activities. This was not unusual as Henry II and his predecessors had spent much of their time on the Continent, so there was precedent for a cross-Channel king. All in all, he was the perfect choice. A party of barons headed by Saer de Quincy, the earl of Winchester, Henry de Bohun, the earl of Hereford, and Robert Fitzwalter sailed for France in September 1215.

September was the month in which John was expecting the arrival of the new mercenaries he had engaged from Aquitaine and Flanders; he headed to the Kent coast in anticipation. However, there were storms and heavy seas during that month and instead of the expected ships, waves of drowned corpses washed up on the shores along Kent and Suffolk.

While John was bemoaning his losses on the coast the barons decided to take advantage of his situation by capturing Rochester Castle, which would bar his route back to London. The castellan there had been loyal to John for many years but, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, he opened the gates to the rebels. This irritated John, who moved to assault it; there would now be actual armed conflict on English soil between the king and his subjects. A line had been crossed.

The barons had garrisoned Rochester well: ninety-five knights and forty-five sergeants held it under the leadership of William d’Albini, an able commander. However, as they expected Rochester to hold until the delegation returned from France they had made no back-up plans for reinforcing it and had no second force ready to relieve a siege. John, on the other hand, was prepared for the long haul. He had siege machinery built and remained at Rochester for seven weeks, conducting the operations personally – the longest he had ever spent in one place since his accession to the throne sixteen years earlier. Roger of Wendover tells us: `The siege was prolonged many days owing to the great bravery and boldness of the besieged, who hurled stone for stone, weapon for weapon, from the walls and ramparts on the enemy.’ The keep resisted all attempts at assault so John turned to mining: a tunnel was dug under the wall, held up by wooden posts, then filled with flammable material including the fat of forty pigs which John sent for specially, and set alight. As the timbers burned and collapsed the roof of the mine caved in, bringing one of the four towers of the keep crashing down. The garrison, by this point starving and forced to eat their horses, retreated to the other half of the keep and resisted a little longer but eventually realised it could not hold out and surrendered on 30 November 1215. John’s first inclination was to execute them all, but he was persuaded not to on the basis that similar treatment would then be meted out to royal garrisons by the barons. In the end only one man was hanged, a crossbowman who had previously been in John’s service.


Dover siege reconstruction by Peter Dunn.
Dover Castle siege, 1216, (c1990-2010). Reconstruction drawing of a French siege tower and earth works. Commanding the shortest sea crossing between England and the Continent, Dover Castle was a vital strategic and communication lynch-pin in the empire of the Angevin kings of England. in 1216, The castle successfully resisted a major siege directed personally by Prince Louis of France during his near-successful invasion of England. He had some success breaching the walls, but was unable ultimately to take the castle. Artist Peter Dunn. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Dover Castle, Kent. The siege of 1216. Reconstruction drawing by Peter Dunn (English Heritage Graphics Team) of mining under the North Gate East tower…

The future Louis VIII of France fought a forgotten war for the English crown against John I and Henry III.

A prince of France uses mining as part of an attempted invasion of England.

The Siege of Dover Castle was part of a military campaign by Prince Louis of France to assert control over England. King John had alienated many of his nobles and some of them invited Prince Louis, the son of the King of France, to invade England and rid the country of John’s tyranny. Louis tried to take the strategically vital fortress at Dover to secure the conquest of Kent.

The siege began in July 1216. He used trebuchets, mangonels and siege towers to try and take the castle but then resorted to mining. A Cat was used to protect the miners and Dover’s timber barbican was undermined, enabling Louis’ men to successfully storm the barbican. Louis now tried to press his attack and sent miners to dig beneath the main castle gate. A chronicler recorded, “They mined, so that one of the towers fell, of which there were two.”

Large numbers of Louis’ men managed to enter the castle through this breach but the defenders, who successfully blocked the gap in the defences with timbers, repulsed them. After this failure Louis was forced to strike a truce and he eventually had to abandon the siege and ultimately left England. Dover showed that the potential of siege mining was limited and in this particular case in­fluenced the failure of a determined invasion of England by a foreign power.


Mining was a subterranean response to end a siege if conventional weapons, such as mangonels, battering rams and trebuchets, failed to make an impression on the walls. Towers and keeps were particularly hard to destroy by conventional means, so miners would dig beneath them in order to weaken their foundations. Miners had a very dangerous job, as their digging efforts would initially be in plain sight of the garrison and to begin with they had to rely on the protection of a `Cat’.

The Cat was a covered house placed on wheels with a very strong roof. The besieged garrison would always try to destroy this device, so the Cat was designed to withstand assaults from weapons as varied as heavy stones, beams of wood, hot water, molten lead and spiked poles. Under this portable cover the attacking force would dig beneath the walls. While they worked, the miners would build wooden supports to prop up the tunnel and once they were sure they had dug far enough, brush would be mixed with pig fat and placed near the wooden supports. When all of the ­ flammable material had been placed in the mine, everybody would evacuate the tunnel except for the torchman who would set the place on ‑ fire, before also hurriedly departing. As the wooden supports burned, they would collapse and in theory the stonewalls or towers would collapse with them.

The digging and preparations were hazardous in themselves but miners were also at risk from prematurely collapsing tunnels and counter-mining activities from the enemy garrison. Defending armies attempted to detect miners by using buckets of water in suspected digging areas. When a potential mine was detected, garrisons would start digging their own tunnels to counter the miners’ efforts. If these passageways ever connected then ‑ fierce hand-to-hand ‑ fighting would often ensue, which was especially dangerous in the weakly supported tunnels. Siege mining was definitely not for the faint-hearted.

The Siege

Louis arrived in front of Dover Castle on 25 July 1216. It was an impressive sight and a daunting prospect: huge and well-fortified, it had been much enlarged and improved by Henry II and now comprised a stone keep – 100 feet (30 metres) square and with walls up to 20 feet (6 metres) thick – in its own compound, surrounded by curtain walls broken only by a great twin-towered gatehouse at the north-western tip of the castle enclosure, which was itself protected by a wooden barbican, an additional defensible structure erected in front of it. Inside, Hubert de Burgh had some 140 knights (many of them Flemish or Poitevin), a greater number of sergeants, plenty of weapons and an ample store of supplies. The castle was set high on a hill overlooking the town, which gave the defenders even more of an advantage. To capture it would take a huge investment of time, troops and resources.

Thanks to a remarkably detailed and almost certainly eyewitness account in the History of the Dukes, we are very well informed about the progress of the siege of Dover. When Louis arrived he spent several days with his army billeted in or camping around the town, reconnoitring and planning. Louis accommodated himself in a priory rather than in the tented encampment; he needed a campaign headquarters, and he no doubt thought that he might as well lodge in some comfort as nobody was going anywhere for a while. Then he divided his forces, one part remaining in the town to one side of the fortress and the other moving to the hill in front of the castle gatehouse, which gave him the advantage of higher ground and from where he was able to direct siege operations. Petraries and mangonels were set up to bombard the walls and the gate, but the machines which had succeeded at Winchester and Odiham would be insufficient at Dover.

Before he had set off for the coast Louis had sent a messenger back to France to ask his father for help, and this help duly arrived in the shape of large-scale siege machinery. Philip sent over a device known as Malvoisin or `Evil Neighbour’, which was probably the first appearance of a trebuchet on English soil. A trebuchet acted in a similar way to a petrary, in that it used balance in order to throw stones. However, instead of using traction – men pulling down on ropes in order to fling the other arm of the lever in the air – it used a counterweight. A long wooden beam was pivoted near to one end; the longer side of the beam ended in a sling, in which the projectile was placed, and the shorter end held a large weight, generally a container filled with earth or rocks. A team of men would haul down the sling end in order to lift the counterweight into the air, at which point the beam was fixed and held in place. A stone or other missile was loaded into the sling, and then the beam was released: the counterweight came crashing down and the missile was flung into the air. The advantage of the heavy counterweight was that the trebuchet could throw much bigger stones over a much greater distance than either traction or torsion machines.

Despite what must have been his satisfaction with his new engine of war, Louis did not rely on this alone. His troops were already blockading the landward side of the castle; now his ships, after unloading their cargo, secured the sea outside Dover so the castle was completely cut off from outside aid and could not be either reinforced or reprovisioned.

Louis’s first point of attack was the gatehouse and barbican to the north of the castle enclosure. As well as his stone-throwing machinery he also had his men build a wattle siege-tower (a device which put the besiegers on the same level as the defenders on the wall, meaning they could shoot arrows across at them; alternatively it could be filled with men and then moved closer to the wall, so the besiegers would not need to try and scale it by ladder, which left them open to attack or bombardment from above) and he also set men, under cover of a protective moveable device known as a `cat’, to undermine the walls. As had been demonstrated at Rochester the previous year, mining was an effective strategy, but it was a very slow process as the attackers were only able to use pickaxes and other hand tools against the gigantic stones and their foundations.

The siege was by no means one-sided. While Louis was directing these operations from the field north of the castle, the garrison made frequent sorties, charging out on horseback to kill and wound the attackers in hand-to-hand combat. Louis’s men repulsed them but were unable to inflict many casualties in return as the defenders could retreat back behind their walls. Those inside were also able to use their crossbowmen as snipers, picking off anyone foolish enough to bring himself into range without adequate protection. Louis, who had no doubt been told in his youth of the agonising end of Richard the Lionheart from blood poisoning following a wound inflicted by a crossbow at a siege, was not harmed, although he probably wore his mail armour almost permanently.

The weeks went by, and gradually men began to trickle away from Louis’s force. The count of Holland had taken the cross and now decided that the time was right for his pilgrimage to the Holy Land; some knights felt that their obligatory period of military service was up; some mercenaries thought they were not being paid enough; others were killed by the frequent sorties of the defenders. Committed to staying in one place, Louis for the first time began to lose the initiative in the war, and with it his temper. Roger of Wendover notes that he was `greatly enraged and swore he would not leave the place until the castle was taken and all the garrison hung’.

In the middle of August there was a breakthrough when Louis’s knights made a direct and bloody attack on the barbican which protected the main gate, and were able to capture it; the History of the Dukes tells us that Peter de Craon, who had defended the barbican so well for many weeks, was killed in the attack along with other men. However, although the besiegers were one step closer they were still confronted with the double-towered gatehouse; and, even if they could batter their way through that, the defenders could regroup further by taking refuge in the keep. A long campaign was still on the cards.

Louis continued with the siege, and was heartened by further reinforcements from France: Peter de Dreux, who had left his obligations in Brittany in order to come to the aid of his cousin and companion, and Thomas, the young count of Perche. Perche was a rising star of the French nobility: he had succeeded to his title in 1202 at the age of seven after the death of his father, had fought for King Philip at Bouvines while still in his teens, and now at twenty-one was building a reputation for deeds of arms and chivalry. In an example of how inextricably the men on both sides of the conflict were linked, Perche was a kinsman of John’s most faithful supporter, William Marshal (his great-grandmother and Marshal’s mother were sisters); he also had a tenuous claim to the English throne himself as his maternal grandmother was John’s sister Matilda, but he supported Louis wholeheartedly.

Both nobles had brought knights and men with them, which would help the cause, but the news also came across the Channel that the new pope, Honorius, had confirmed Louis’s sentence of excommunication. It was a bitter blow, but Louis was by now in far too deep to back out from claiming the crown of England even if he had been so inclined. He would push on: once he had subdued the country, captured John and been crowned he would have the leisure to talk properly to the pope, not to mention the power to influence him.

In the meantime, as August turned into September, Dover still needed to be subdued. The miners had been continuing their slow and painstaking work, and now came the breakthrough: one of the towers of the gatehouse was brought crashing down, and Louis and his knights could charge into the breach.

This is what the knights had been waiting for. Trained since boyhood to engage in hand-to-hand combat, they detested having to kick their heels at a siege while miners and engineers held sway. Now they had the chance to throw themselves at the enemy in person, to take out their frustration at the long siege, to hack with their swords and their axes into armour and flesh. But the defenders were just as frustrated, just as fierce, and even more desperate – after all, had Louis not threatened to hang them all once the castle was taken? The normal policy at the time was that if a garrison surrendered they would be allowed to leave unharmed, but that if a castle had to be taken by storm then those inside were liable to be executed. After irritating Louis and thwarting his plans for so many weeks they were unlikely to be treated with clemency if defeated, so they fought back with all their might, filling the gap in the wall with men. Slowly but surely they repulsed the attack, holding the line, pushing the besiegers back and keeping them out long enough for running repairs to be made to the breach, which was shored up with timbers taken from buildings inside the compound. The barricade held. Dover still stood.

The stalemate could not be allowed to go on forever. Force had not worked; starving the garrison out would take too long and Louis needed to be on the move. To stand still for too long, as he well knew, was to lose momentum. Louis agreed a truce with Hubert de Burgh, and his army withdrew from the siege on 14 October 1216.


BREDA 1625

The Surrender of Breda by Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas, 1635.
Map of the siege of Breda by Spinola. J.Blaeu.

In 1621, four years before that achievement, Spain was coming to an end of its twelve years’ truce with the Dutch rebels. Little more than a week into Philip IV’s new monarchy, the hourglass of relative peace ran out. Olivares had never backed the truce; he thought it injured Spanish trading interests and imperial expansion plans; and—one policy somewhat at cross-purposes with another—he believed a renewed war would give the insurgents pause and allow Spain time to work out an honorable way of bringing the interminable conflict to an end. A surge! And then a permanent peace! Meanwhile the southern provinces of the Low Countries had to be defended. Somehow Spain’s integrity depended on it. Defending the Catholic religion and opposing Protestantism were involved. Yet many in both Madrid and Flanders thought that immediate peace should be given a chance instead. The southern provinces had prospered during the truce. The leadership on the spot was not gung ho about a renewed war—neither of the “archdukes” was keen, with Isabella doubtful about its long-term value and Albert, on the point of death, with his thoughts on eternity. Their senior military commander Ambrogio Spinola was a member of a distinguished Genoese banking family. Lack of financial support from the Spanish crown forced him to invest his own funds in providing for the Army of Flanders; he wanted the Dutch to be given a chance to cool off. Unfortunately, the Dutch were once again feeling belligerent and ill-feeling mounted on both sides. The Spanish Council of State took the majority position that refinancing the struggle against the Dutch would be worth it if the conflict preserved Spain’s glory. “A good war in Flanders” would promote peace elsewhere. It would also keep the restless Spanish army busy in the southern Netherlands. The troops needed something to do that would take their minds off their long overdue pay. And of course money would be found to pay for the renewed war, wouldn’t it?

In 1623 Don Fernando Giron, one of Philip’s counsellors, had declared that war in the Netherlands was causing the total ruin of the monarchy. The Council of State in Madrid believed it was the moment for defensive rather than offensive operations against the Dutch, possibly taking heed of the military maxim of the time that “One good towne well defended sufficeth to ruyn a mightie army.” But now in 1625 the clouds momentarily lifted. There were smiles all around and applause as word wafted through the Alcázar that things for a change were going well in the Low Countries; the Army of Flanders was heading for Brabant; this could be the start of the recapture of all the rebel provinces and the collapse of the heretic cause. A victory would herald a new golden age for Spain. The Dutch would be under dire pressure once again. Think of all the money that would be saved! Let’s not think about possible defeat. In any event, Spinola shook off the quagmire mud and first directed his forces toward the town of Grave. This was a feint. The archduchess Isabella, sole governor of the Netherlands since Albert’s death in 1621, had approved an action against a town in Brabant. However, when Breda—“the right eye of Holland” as the prolific court newsletter writer Andres de Mendoza put it—was proposed for the purpose, she and her council thought it might be too hard a nut to crack; it was well fortified; it had been held by the Dutch since the peat-boat assault in 1590 and in recent years had been judged the best-manned garrison in the Dutch defensive ring. But it was at Breda that, taking the offensive, Spinola took aim.

Spinola at this point was already known throughout Europe. His successful siege of Ostend, his capture of towns and fortresses in Cleves-Julich, a German duchy close to the Dutch border, and his consequent control of the Rhine Valley and with it the Spanish Road, all led to him being recognized as the best army commander of the time. In 1618, the year the Thirty Years War broke out, Spinola was invoked along with the celebrated imperial general Bucquoy in an English verse inveighing against the evils of tobacco, a “dear drug” that gallants spent their gold on, but which might make—the author Thomas Pestel suggested, tongue-in-cheek or fingers holding his nose—a useful poison gas:

’Tis our artillery too; and armed this way

Our English scorn Bucquoy and Spinola:

Set but each man unto his mouth a pipe

And—as the Jews gave Jericho a wipe,

Raising a blast of rams’ horns while it fell—

Some ballad on a time, the truth shall tell

How it befell, when we our foes did choke

Like bees, and put them pell-mell to the Smoke.

For the Spanish, in the improving early 1620s, embargoes seemed to be working against the Dutch. The rebels were prevented from entering Iberian ports, while their herring boats were being sunk in the North Sea and their merchant ships blockaded. Prince Maurice had started negotiating with Brussels about a new truce but the talks were stalled. Moreover, there was now peace with England and France—France particularly had its hands full and was sundered by religious conflict. The Spanish army had been expanded to sixty thousand men, causing the Dutch to increase their forces while having difficulty raising taxes to pay for them. A butter tax of four guilders per vat, imposed by the States General in The Hague in June 1624, provoked urban riots; in Haarlem some of the town’s militia—one member of which was the painter Frans Hals—fired on the angry demonstrators.

Spain’s army was cosmopolitan, reflecting the fact that Spain was less a nation than an international organization: a conglomerate of kingdoms, princely territories, duchies, states, colonial possessions. The Spanish army included men of all ages. Some Spanish towns recruited by lottery, taking into the ranks males even in their sixties. Most who volunteered did so to get food and clothing. A common soldier in Don Quixote says, “I was driven to the wars by my necessity. If I had money I would never go.” The Spanish tercios were units of varying size, anywhere between one thousand and five thousand men, and they included—the military historian Geoffrey Parker tells us—boys of sixteen, without hats or shoes. Many recruits never reached the Low Countries; trudging north up the Spanish Road, they vanished in the snow on Mount Cenis, in the forests of the Vosges, and the fields of Luxembourg. Some were criminals or tramps, and some were poor gentry, so-called particulares, gentlemen-rankers who weren’t inhibited by strictures against their participating in manual labor, in trade and warfare. The king of Spain was served by Spaniards, Italians, Burgundians, Germans, Walloons, Flemings, Dutch, and English. For the moment, too, the Army of Flanders was being properly financed, and with the Dutch on the verge of revolt against their own leaders, it seemed to Brussels, if not Madrid, that the chance should be seized. Spinola had his opportunity. On July 21, 1624, he and his army set forth from Brussels as the corn ripened in Flanders fields.

Breda was defended for the United Provinces by a garrison of seven thousand armed men, also of motley origins. Since the turfship assault, the town had been reinforced with fortifications immediately outside the existing stone walls. Among the soldiers who briefly served in the town was a Frenchman, René Descartes, an expert in mathematics. On one occasion in the town’s Grote Markt he got talking to a teacher from Dordrecht and helped him solve a geometry problem. Breda’s people were predominantly Catholic but for 220 years the town had been the seat of the Nassau family, and hence the home of the Orange-Nassau dynasty. This made it a splendid target for the Spaniards: the hometown of the rebel chiefs; the lynchpin in the necklace of towns hung like a chain around Holland, mostly along the rivers, which impeded even if they didn’t prevent the movement of armies. Capturing—recapturing!—Breda would be a coup indeed. What counted most in laying siege to such towns was the ability to get an army together that would be big enough to envelop the town and yet could be sustained with provisions and pay for the duration of the siege. Sources differ about the size of Spinola’s army, Andrés de Mendoza saying it was 23,000 men, and Herman Hugo, Spinola’s Jesuit chaplain, who kept an account of the siege, reckoning 18,000. On the way to the city, Spinola decided to wind up Prince Maurice, who was trying to gain advantage by dithering over the truce talks. Spinola set his troops to ravage the prince’s family lands around Moers, Grave, and Breda.

In August Spinola began to establish his own ring around Breda. His troops camped in the woods and pastures and took over farm cottages; some locals were glad of the rent they were paid. Spinola’s staff officers tried to convince their chief that Breda posed great difficulties with its strong walls and surroundings, which could be readily made inaccessible by inundation. Even Philip IV when he heard about his general’s plans thought it a risky business. Some in the Council of State suggested withdrawing the army if this could be done without sacrificing its honor. But the captain-general—although also mocked by Dutch pamphleteers—went ahead. Spades and wheelbarrows were for the moment the chosen weapons rather than pikes and flintlocks. In less than a month Spinola’s men had created a network of trenches, parapets, moats, pits, redoubts, bastions, batteries, and causeways across swampy ground. The double line of trenches didn’t incorporate “saps,” which would have been needed for wall-breaking cannon, because Spinola intended to take the town by starvation. The siege lines made a slightly irregular circuit of ten leagues, a distance it took three and a half hours to get around.

Prince Maurice, William the Silent’s son, wasn’t in the best of health and at first didn’t grasp the full measure of Spinola’s challenge. Maurice thought Breda was impregnable (although the turfship backed by him thirty years before had surely proved the contrary). Father Hugo believed the Dutchman should have anticipated the Spanish threat and moved his army, camped at Meede only twelve miles from Breda, to occupy the low-lying land around the city. From there he could have resupplied the garrison by boats. But Spinola’s arrival outside Breda forestalled him. Spinola was ready to cope with however long the siege might take. To his men, the Genoese seemed to be everywhere at all times of day and sometimes all night, checking progress of the siege works, riding, walking, skipping meals, taking a nap in a cart or a soldier’s bivouac. He was a hands-on commander. He rode constantly to call on his officers and see how things were in the lines; this kept the soldiery on their toes, never sure when he might turn up. He had a particularly good eye for spots where the enemy might attempt an attack. He seemed to need less sleep than most men and wasn’t bothered by rain and wind. He sometimes went days without a proper meal. Any officer anxious to see him could gain access but he was reserved about his plans. All would be well. His serenity spread confidence through the ranks. His presence made his men think of victory, and therefore plunder. They were still short of half their proper pay. In fact, for a time there seemed to be greater danger of famine among Spinola’s besieging army than in besieged Breda. But Spinola ensured that basic supplies of food and clothing were dispensed using four hundred carts, and he took care discipline and morale were maintained. The siege was soon famous. The nobility of Europe came, as it were on a grand tour, to inspect the operation and some actually to get their hands dirty by cutting turf or heaping up soil for the Spanish siege works. Among Spinola’s notable visitors were the Duke of Bavaria and Prince Ladislaw Sigismund of Poland. During the latter’s visit at the end of September three volleys were fired in his honor by the Spanish artillery, aimed so that the shot passed intentionally over Breda. However, by the arcane rules of sieges the firing of enemy cannon meant that the townsmen of Breda were now exempt from taxes. And the salvoes encouraged the Dutch to reply. A ball from one Dutch gun killed a local Brabant miller with what would now be called friendly fire. The Breda defenders also fired at Spinola’s party as it conducted Prince Ladislaw around the siege works. Later one Dutch cannonball landed on Spinola’s cabin, carrying away the canopy over his field bed and breaking two tables. (The general was out at the time.) On another occasion gunfire struck the bit of his horse’s bridle, leaving the reins useless in Spinola’s hands. Father Hugo wrote, “It is probable that, either Almighty God hath a peculiar care of great Generalls or that, by how much more a man adventureth himself, so much the less danger, for the most part, he incurreth.” Yet actual large-scale fighting was rare. On one occasion in September 1624, during the prince of Poland’s visit, the Dutch made a raid on the Spanish lines and Spinola set up a new headquarters at Terheyden to oppose them, with a small battle ensuing. The Dutch set fire to the church at Oosterhout and Spinola’s troops made a counterattack. Small skirmishes were commoner, and hand-to-hand encounters now and then occurred when patrols or foraging parties ran into one another.

Maurice in his camp at Meede also had foreign visitors. Denmark and Sweden sent men to fight for the Dutch rebels, though they were unable to get into Breda itself to reinforce the garrison. Spinola squeezed the city in such a way that not even a bird could get in or out, said Andrés de Mendoza. The most effective weapon for the Spanish was inaction; then the Dutch had little to do except contemplate their grumbling stomachs. In the course of the siege more than a thousand men in Breda tried to surrender, but Spinola cannily wouldn’t let them. He sent them back into the town, knowing they would do his cause more good by consuming the diminishing provisions there. When one eight-strong group of young French nobles attempted to escape, they were captured and sent back in Spinola’s own carriage. But gradually attitudes hardened. Two peasants caught bringing wheat into Breda were hanged on Spinola’s orders. Looters were tortured with the strappado and strung up on gibbets, although Father Hugo gives the impression that Spinola was far from severe by the standards of the day.

Both sides used water as a weapon. They dammed and diverted rivers and drains, creating flooded fields or causing navigable channels to run dry. Spinola cut the banks of the rivers Mark and Aa in crucial places; he ordered sluices to be opened to allow the tides to rise, shut to enclose a good head of water, and then reopened, with a consequent outrush, when the Dutch were at work trying something similar. Prince Maurice sent one fleet of supply boats but the high tide they expected to carry them to Breda was held back by the wind. The Dutch attempted to raise the water levels by flooding but the Spanish channeled the waters back into the city. After these inundations, a large lake formed over the Vucht polder and Spinola’s men built a causeway, the Black Dike, a mile and a half long, which gave them a secure and dry route across it.

Because it was a time before regular uniforms, with soldiers on both sides wearing the same sorts of clothing, friend and foe were distinguished by scarves. The Dutch troops flaunted scarves of blue and orange, the men of the Army of Flanders wore red scarves. The flag flown by the armies of the king of Spain was the old Burgundian device, Saint Andrew’s emblem, a red cross. Spanish army wagons had their canvas covers marked with such crosses. The siege lines and water wars brought both sides close together. As in other conflicts, proximity sometimes provoked not fighting but impromptu truces: Dutch and Spanish soldiers had shouted conversations and made it clear in one language or other that they would for the moment stop trying to kill one another, putting down their pikes and arquebuses. Once in a while the king of Spain’s men threw bits of cheese and tobacco at the Dutch and the Dutch hurled back crusts of bread, though eventually these became too precious to give away.

It was a mild winter, which helped the Spaniards trying to keep alive in bivouacs out in the countryside. In Breda, food and fuel prices rose rapidly. Spinola’s men intercepted messages passing between the governor, Justin of Nassau, and Prince Maurice and learned that scurvy and cases of plague were appearing; rape oil was running short but the stores of wheat might last till the end of April. The Breda hangman was kept busy killing stray dogs and rats, supposedly to prevent the spread of disease; however, he sold dog meat to many now willing to buy it. The tolling of church bells was proscribed at funerals. About five thousand people, a third of the city’s inhabitants, died during the siege. Meanwhile out in the Spanish siege lines and their fortified camps, the troops were hard-pressed; any animals that moved were fair game; the carcasses of horses were eaten. Wanting food and forage, the Army of Flanders began to steal—“that ancient tollerable theft,” Herman Hugo called it, “winked at of old in soldiers.” Houses in the villages close to the lines were ransacked. Most soldiers had a bag of loot, which, their pay being as uncertain as it was, represented their savings.

The Dutch army seemed more handicapped by the long periods of nothing to do. Prince Maurice appeared to have lost his impetus, and in the final stages of his mounting illness he abandoned the camp at Meede and retired to The Hague. His last words were said to have been, “Is Breda saved?” The new stadtholder prince Frederick Henry, Maurice’s older half brother, who took over the command after Maurice’s death, attempted a breakthrough near Terheyden in May with his English mercenaries. Part of the Army of Flanders was encamped where a small Spanish fort—the Kleine Schans—had been built near the river Mark in the northernmost sector of the siege ring. Most of the king of Spain’s troops were in fact Italians who had made the long march northward up the Spanish Road from Lombardy. Spinola’s men were ready and there was a savage engagement. Father Hugo reported “a great slaughter of the enemy.” The United Provinces’ attacking force lost two hundred or so men, the king’s defenders a mere dozen. Moreover, five hundred of the Dutch army’s horses were captured, having been (said Father Hugo) “carelessly put to grass near their camp.” After that there were bodies to be buried, not difficult in the Brabant ground. Anyone who had a copy of Don Quixote might have read of the roadside meeting of the knight from La Mancha and a young man who was going to the wars. Don Quixote tells him not to be uneasy about possible misfortune. “The worst can be but to Die, and if it be but a good Honourable Death, your Fortune’s made, and you’re certainly happy.… As Terence says, a Soldier makes a better figure Dead in the Field of Battle, than Alive and safe in Flight.”

Spinola kept the pressure on Justin of Nassau, too. Justin was sixty-six and had been the governor of Breda for more than twenty years; he didn’t want to give up what he felt was his city. His mother, Eva Elincx, had been a Breda girl and William the Silent’s mistress between the prince’s first and second marriages. William had acknowledged Justin and raised him with his legitimate children. As a lieutenant admiral in the late 1580s Justin had captured two galleons of the Spanish Armada. Spinola wrote to the governor at Easter (March 30 that year) just before Prince Maurice died, suggesting that he surrender, but Justin politely declined. In May Spinola made further efforts to get the Dutch to treat. His men had captured letters that the new Dutch captain-general prince Frederick Henry had sent on to Justin, and Spinola now forwarded these to the Breda governor, showing him who was in control. Justin then agreed to talks that took place on the last day of May just outside the town. Articles of surrender were discussed, including a pardon for all citizens of Breda for any offenses against the king of Spain committed since 1590, the year of the turfship, more than a generation before. The Dutch were offered 1,200 wagons and sixty boats to carry away their casualties, their sick, and their household goods. Some commentators thought Spinola too generous, but the Genoese general said he regarded it as “a point of wisdom to be merciful rather than severe.”

The articles were agreed upon on June 2 and the surrender took place three days later. The Dutch garrison of just less than 3,500 men marched out of the three gates of the town, colors flying, drums beating, and looking in better shape than those they were surrendering to. As Herman Hugo noted, “They had been better lodged, having had the benefit of good fires; and their bread never failed them till the day they marched away.” Outside the Bosschepoort, Spinola took the salute of the assembled Dutch columns. The Dutch dipped their ensigns respectfully as they passed the Spaniards’ commander. They looked cheerful, grateful to be out in the great world again, and showed no resentment about their situation. Spinola in return saluted the Dutch captains, in particular the gray-haired governor. Justin rode on horseback while his wife and children followed in a carriage. Here he may have performed the symbolic gesture of handing over to Spinola the keys to the city, but this was not made much of until later. The Dutch procession moved off northeastward toward Geertruidenberg, leaving their sick and wounded to be carried away in boats. Taking over the city again, the Spanish forces celebrated. Spinola, we are told, led the rejoicing. Bells were rung from church towers and on June 13 a victory ceremony was held: The weathered hull of the turfship, hauled out by the castle, was burned. Cannons were fired in salutes of triumph. The town records describing the surprise turfship attack were destroyed in bonfires, as though to expunge them from memory. As the news of the surrender spread, Te Deums were sung throughout the empire. Philip IV wrote to say that he was bestowing on Spinola the office of Encomienda Mayor of Castile, a nominally profitable honor somewhat circumscribed just now by the fact that the lucrative income meant to come with the post was mortgaged for the next dozen years.

As high moments go it was splendid; but the moment of glory soon passed. In 1627, less than two years later, the Spanish government again declared bankruptcy; fortunately the bankers of Portugal picked up the baton of debt from the Genoese, and funds aplenty managed to reach the Army of Flanders. That year the king was seriously ill, and when he recovered it was whispered that he had promised to turn over a new leaf. For a while he spent less time hunting and perhaps fewer nights on the town.

Quebec 1775 Part I

British and Canadian forces attacking Arnold’s column in the Sault-au-Matelot painting by C. W. Jefferys

Invasion routes of Montgomery and Arnold.

In 1775, five years before Karl von Clausewitz was born, the Second Continental Congress was already applying the Prussian’s dictum that war is only a continuation of national policy by other means. Early in that session the Congress made two commitments that were to change the colonies’ form of resistance from rebellion to all-out war. The first was to appoint a committee to draw up the organization of a Continental army. Then, on 15 June, George Washington was named “to command all the Continental forces, raised or to be raised, for the defense of American liberty.” At the same time it appointed Washington general in chief of the army, Congress appointed other officers. Four were named major generals: Artemas Ward, Israel Putnam, Charles Lee, and Philip Schuyler.

Washington assumed command of the army when he arrived at Boston on 3 July. By then the action at Bunker Hill had established in everyone’s mind the idea that pitched battles were to be the realities of the future, so Washington set about preparing the army for that type of warfare. That meant instilling discipline, an uphill fight in the face of the conviction so endemic to New Englanders that any man was as good as another. This concept, inspiring as it may have been in a town meeting, had an opposite effect on Washington’s efforts to build a force that would stand up in battle. Organizing a disciplined army occupied Washington’s attention for a long time after his arrival.

Long before the French and Indian War (1754-63), one word had always spelled trouble for the more northern settlements of New England—Canada. From there, for generations, had come the war parties, led or encouraged by the French, that had savaged the frontier and the interior with tomahawk and torch. The treaty of 1763 brought peace, but relief for the colonies was short-lived. The Quebec Act of 1774 that recognized the rights of the Canadian French had an alarming effect on Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, because a provision of the act extended Canada’s boundaries to the Ohio River, thus giving back to Canadians lands already being settled by Americans in regions like the Ohio Valley.

In 1775 the Continental Congress sought a peaceful solution to the threat of British-occupied Canada. On 29 May it appealed in a letter “to the oppressed Inhabitants of Canada” to join “with us in the defense of our common liberty.” Like many such ideal solutions, this one didn’t work. The Canadians turned a deaf ear. There were those in Congress, however, who felt that if the Canadians were of a mind to stay loyal to Britain, they might be more responsive to things like invasion and occupation. For the moment cooler heads prevailed, and on 1 June Congress went so far as to resolve that “no expedition or incursion ought to be undertaken . . . against or into Canada.” The impasse was not to last.

Earlier, on 10 May 1775, Ethan Allen and eighty-three of his Green Mountain Boys, accompanied by a Massachusetts-commissioned colonel named Benedict Arnold, “stormed” half-ruined Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, forcing its commander to surrender its half-invalid garrison to Allen “in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!” Congress did nothing at first to follow up the success. Though Arnold and Allen had their personal differences, both were convinced that Canada was vulnerable to invasion. Arnold made a written report to that effect on 13 June, and ten days later Allen, on the floor of Congress in Philadelphia, presumably agreed. In any case, Congress revised its policy toward Canada on 27 June. General Philip Schuyler was directed “to take possession of St. Johns, Montreal, and . . . other parts of the country.”

Schuyler’s orders sounded more like permission—”if General Schuyler finds it practicable, and that it will not be too disagreeable to the Canadians”—and were in keeping with the lack of a strategy for invasion. Though Congress did not produce a grand strategic plan, it did develop, in piecemeal fashion, two expeditions, each with a logical objective: in the west it was Montreal, in the east Quebec. By taking these two objectives and defeating the weak and scattered British forces, the “fourteenth colony” could be brought to terms. It was not an unsound strategy, and it could have succeeded. That it did not may be attributed mainly to three factors: unexpectedly rough terrain, the forces of nature, and the abilities of General Guy Carleton, governor of Canada and commander of the British forces.

After much delay in preparations, the expedition in the west began on 25 August 1775 when Brigadier General Richard Montgomery, in place of the ailing Schuyler, advanced northward up Lake Champlain. At age thirty-seven Montgomery was a leader possessed of the essential qualities that Schuyler lacked: aggressiveness, decisiveness, personal magnetism, physical and moral courage, and the strength to endure the hardships of a wilderness campaign. He had been born the son of a baronet in Ireland, had been educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and at seventeen had taken up a military career. He had fought with the British army at Louisbourg in 1753, and under Geoffrey Amherst at Ticonderoga, Crown Point, and Montreal. In 1772 he resigned his commission, moved his home to America, settled down as a gentleman farmer near Kings Bridge, New York, and married Janet Livingston, daughter of a prominent New York family. In June 1775 he accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the Continental army, left his young wife on her estate, and went to join Schuyler.

From the outset Montgomery might well have concluded that the luck of the Irish had abandoned him. The expedition consisted of about 1,700 Connecticut and New York militia, untrained, undisciplined, and likely to flee upon hearing the word “ambush”—as they had done on one occasion already. By 16 September, however, Montgomery had reasserted control and headed for Fort Saint Johns, his first objective. This small outpost, together with Chambly, ten miles to the north, commanded the Richelieu River and thus the approaches between Lake Champlain and Sorel on the Saint Lawrence. In spite of its strategic importance, Saint Johns (Saint Jean in French) had been only a frontier outpost with a couple of brick buildings and a storehouse until British General Carleton had reinforced the garrison to a total of 725 regulars and militia and ordered the commander, Major Charles Preston, to construct two redoubts, which made it a formidable fort.

Montgomery moved his makeshift flotilla of a schooner, a sloop, and a collection of “gondolas, bateaux, row-galleys, pirauguas, and canoes” northward past Ile Aux Noix, and disembarked his force to take Saint Johns. He sent out detachments to cut the road to Montreal, twenty-five miles to the north, and to forage.

When Montgomery had assessed the situation, it was clear that his motley force, now reduced by sickness to 1,100 effectives, could not take Saint Johns by assault. He therefore began to entrench, emplacing his two guns and some small mortars. The conditions for the besiegers were difficult. The ground everywhere was swampy and entrenchments quickly filled with knee-deep water. It was early October, and the cold rains were becoming intolerable. In a letter Montgomery wrote that “we have been like half-drowned rats crawling through a swamp.” Supplies, both food and ammunition, were running out. To make things worse, the British in their fort were holding out steadfastly in spite of incoming artillery rounds.

For General Guy Carleton, the reinforcement and fortification of Saint Johns had been his first priority. Earlier, however, he had discovered to his dismay that his French subjects were more neutral than loyal. He had counted on the Quebec Act (which he had sponsored) to win over the French Canadians, but in 1775 he had found them generally unwilling to enlist in the British forces. Moreover, Carleton had sent all but 800 of his regulars to Boston. In June 1775, realizing his precarious position, he declared martial law and began to mobilize all the British and Scots he could muster. He was a competent general as well as an excellent administrator. After strengthening Saint Johns, he personally took over in Montreal and began to rally what forces he could in the west.

By 18 October, when things were looking bleak for the Americans, a near-miracle occurred. The night before, two American bateaux mounting nine-pounder guns had sneaked past the defenses of Chambly and had reported to Montgomery. Montgomery therefore decided to take Chambly, the weaker garrison, first. With their guns in position, Montgomery’s detachment of 50 Americans and 300 Canadian allies was able to surround the fort at Chambly. After a few artillery rounds had penetrated the walls, the British commander surrendered. Among the stores captured were six tons of powder, 6,500 musket cartridges, and 125 muskets. Of no less importance were eighty barrels of flour and 272 barrels of foodstuffs.

The captured stores enabled Montgomery to lift the spirits of his men enough to make the maneuver he needed to push the siege of Saint Johns itself. On 25 October he got a battery of twelve-pounders and lighter artillery into position on a hill that dominated the fort. The British commander, Major Preston, continued to hold out for a while, but Canadian prisoners, released by Montgomery, convinced him that his situation was hopeless. Preston surrendered Saint Johns on 2 November, having held out for fifty-five days. The garrison laid down its arms, and officers and men were paroled; the Canadians went home, and the British regulars were sent to a port where they could sail for England.

Three days later, Montgomery took up his slow march to Montreal, where Carleton awaited him with a tiny force of 150 regulars and militia. On 11 November Montgomery began to surround Montreal by landing a detachment north of it. On the same day Carleton, recognizing the town to be indefensible, set sail down the Saint Lawrence, carrying with him all that he could of the military stores. He almost failed to make it. Near Sorel, adverse winds and American shore batteries brought his little flotilla to bay, and Carleton’s ship, the brigantine Gaspe’e, had to surrender. Carleton escaped in civilian clothes with two of his officers. Montreal was surrendered to Montgomery by its citizens on 13 November.

In late summer of 1775 newly appointed General Washington had come to realize that the western expedition to take Montreal was only half a strategy: Quebec would still command the Saint Lawrence River, gateway to Montreal and inner Canada. Moreover, so he reasoned, an invasion in the east against Quebec, if timed in coordination with that of Montgomery against Montreal, would force Carleton to fight on two fronts, with all the embarrassment that went with it.

Washington soon became convinced that the most promising invasion route was a waterway, specifically up the Kennebec River, thence to the Chaudière River, which emptied into the Saint Lawrence not far from Quebec. Much of the route had been mapped and described in his journal by Captain John Montresor, a British army engineer, in 1761. Montesor’s map turned out to be incomplete, however, and the consequences of relying on it would later prove nearly disastrous. Nevertheless Washington had no alternative, for in 1775 huge areas of the Maine and Canadian wilderness were not mapped at all. Washington was aware of the hazards of the expedition, but he had confidence in the commander he had selected, Benedict Arnold, to whom he offered a commission as a colonel in the Continental army and the command of the eastern expedition to take Quebec. Arnold jumped at the opportunity.

Who was this Benedict Arnold who caught Washington’s eye at the right time? In the first place he was a born leader. One of his soldiers voiced what all believed: “He was our fighting general [at Saratoga]. . . . It was ‘Come on boys!’ twarn’t ‘Go boys.’ He was as brave a man as ever lived.” He had an eye for sizing up a tactical situation, and he was as skillful in planning as he was bold in executing his plans. He was strong-willed, a quality which made him resolute in adversity. In sum, he showed most of the soldierly virtues, and it was mainly the fatal flaws of excessive ambition, hypersensitivity, and love of glory that would eventually bring him to ruin.

In 1775 Arnold, from a well-to-do Connecticut family, was thirty-four years old. He had gone adventuring in the French and Indian War. Later, he settled down in business after selling the family property. As a merchant he had sailed his own ships to the West Indies and Canada, and he later sold horses in Montreal and Quebec. At the outbreak of rebellion he was prosperous, “the possessor of an elegant house, storehouses, wharves, and vessels. . . . Rather a short man, he seemed, but stocky and athletic, and very quick in his movements. Raven-black hair, a high, hot complexion, a long, keen nose, a domineering chin, persuasive, smiling lips, haughty brows, and the boldest eyes man ever saw, completed him” (Justin Smith, Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony). Completed him indeed! Benedict Arnold was not a man easily overlooked. Small wonder that the man and his reputation had come to Washington’s attention.

In August Arnold had already been dealing with Reuben Colburn, a Kennebec boat-builder, to have two hundred bateaux built. On 3 September Washington approved an order for the boats and stores of provisions, and two days later the organization of the expedition was announced in army orders. The detachment was to consist of two battalions of five companies each, the men to be volunteers who should be “active woodsmen well acquainted with batteaus.” That specification was never filled; with the exception of riflemen, the volunteers assigned were from New England regiments which they had joined from their farms. The detachment also included three companies of riflemen: Captain Daniel Morgan’s company of Virginians and two companies from Pennsylvania under Captains Matthew Smith and William Hendricks, 250 riflemen in all. The total strength of Arnold’s force came to about 1,100, counting miscellaneous troops, which included 6 “unattached volunteers,” one of whom was nineteen-year-old Aaron Burr.

One leader among the riflemen had already achieved a reputation for bravery and ability: Captain Dan Morgan, a dyed-in-the-wool product of the frontier wars. Over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, with a solidly muscled body, he was renowned for his strength (exerted in his youth in scores of tavern brawls) and woodcraft, learned the hard way from the Indians. He had been a wagoner in Braddock’s expedition, and the story of his laying out a British officer with his fist for striking him with his sword was a well-known frontier tale. Flogged by the British for that military offense, he bore a bitter hatred for them. The “Old Wagoner,” as Morgan was called, was a natural leader, and his grasp of tactics was phenomenal. He was admired by his men—he could lick any one of them—and they would follow him anywhere. He was further noted for his blunt speech and quick temper, both of which covered a kindly nature and a rough-hewn sense of humor.

When Arnold reached Gardinerston on 22 September, he found to his dismay that the two hundred bateaux—flat-bottomed boats with flared sides and tapered ends, propelled by oars or paddles in deep water and pushed by poles in rough or shallow water—had been hastily made of green lumber. They would be heavy and clumsy craft for portaging, and difficult to handle in white water. But Arnold was stuck with them, and even had to order twenty more. On 25 September the expedition left Fort Western—today’s Augusta, Maine. Arnold divided his force into four divisions. The first division was composed of the three companies of riflemen commanded by Captain Morgan. Morgan’s riflemen were preceded by two scouting parties, led by Lieutenants Steele and Church. The other three divisions followed Morgan’s between 26 and 28 September, departing in numerical order. Arnold went ahead of the main body, and he seems to have been ubiquitous, showing up anywhere his command presence was needed. Thereafter matters developed as follows:

30 September 1775: After passing Fort Halifax the divisions had to make their first portage around Ticonic Falls, shoulder carrying a hundred tons of boats and supplies.

3 October: Main body had to pass through a “chute” of vertical rock banks to get past Showhegan Falls. Bateaux had to be pushed and carried through.

4-8 October: After the passage of the Bombazee Rips (rapids) the divisions faced the dreaded Norridgewock Falls with its three “pitches” each separated by a half mile. The bateaux began to give out. Seams were wrenched open and water poured through the cracks. Colburn and his artificers came up, and “the seams had a fresh calking, and the bottoms were repaired as well as possible.” The provisions casks had also been split open and washed through with water. “The salt had been washed out of the dried fish . . . and all of it had spoiled. The casks of dried peas and biscuit had burst and been lost. . . while the salt beef, cured in hot weather, proved unfit for use.”

9-10 October: Curritunk Falls—cold rains set in.

11-17 October: The Great Carry Place, with its three ponds and four portages. The Kennebec River was left behind. Fierce winds and snow squalls. Ponds choked with roots, forests filled with bogs, men up to their knees. Lieutenants Steele and Church reported in. Steele’s last five men staggered in, starving wretches at life’s end. The divisions reached Bog Brook, which flows into Dead River.

19-24 October: Thirty miles on the Dead River. Unaccountably Greene’s division (commanded by Lt. Col. Christopher Greene, a distant kinsman of Nathanael Green) passed Morgan’s riflemen, who stole their food. On 21-22 October a hurricane-spawned rainstorm turned the river into a raging flood. Whole country under water. Many bateaux lost. A conference was held to determine if march should continue; Arnold’s eloquence and show of determined courage made them decide to go on.

25 October: Enos’s fourth division elected to turn back, and would not yield its flour to Greene’s starving men, who were subsisting on candles mixed in flour gruel. Expedition was reduced to seven hundred men out of original eleven hundred. [Enos was later court-martialed for desertion.]

25-28 October: Height of Land, “prodigious high mountains,” the divide where streams flow north to the Saint Lawrence, south to the Kennebec. South of Lake Megantic, Arnold’s men were betrayed by Montresor’s map, which didn’t show Rush Lake, Spider Lake, or False Mouths of Seven-Mile Stream (Arnold River). They tried to skirt the two lakes and wandered among swamps until they almost perished.

1-3 November: Starving men ate soap, hair grease, boiled moccasins, shot pouches, a company commander’s dog. Men staggered on, supported by their muskets. On 3 November a miracle: a herd of cattle arrived, driven by men dispatched by Arnold, who had gone ahead to scour the country. The cattle were manhandled to slaughter, roasted, torn to bits, and eaten “as a hungry dog would tear a haunch of meat.”

4 November: Reached Sartigan, the wilderness left behind them. Arnold’s provisions, left there for them, gobbled up so fast that men became ill, and three died.

5 November: Left the Chaudière below Saint Mary, headed for Point Levis, across the Saint Lawrence from Quebec.

On 9 November 1775 Canadians at the Saint Lawrence were astounded to see a ragtag column of six hundred survivors hobbling toward the river, “ghosts with firelocks on their shoulders.” As they streamed from the woods they at first spread alarm, though that soon turned into admiration when Canadians learned of the conditions of the heroic march.

Arnold’s march has been compared to Xenophon’s march to the sea and Hannibal’s crossing the Alps. Yet what did this band of heroes find to greet them after enduring such incredible hardships? An indefatigable Arnold was busily rounding up boats, canoes, and scaling ladders so that they could cross the Saint Lawrence—under the very guns of the frigate Lizard, the sloop-of-war Hunter, and four other armed craft—and storm the walls of Quebec!

Hector Cramahé, Carleton’s lieutenant governor and governor of Quebec City, had seen to it that the Point Levis shores of the Saint Lawrence across from Quebec had been swept clean of any boats the Americans might use to cross the river. But Arnold, as usual, was equal to the emergency. His scrounging parties, with the help of friendly Indians, soon assembled a mixed flotilla of about forty canoes and dugouts. By 10 November he was ready to make a night crossing, his only chance to get by the British warships in the river. A heavy gale came up, however, which made the river impassable for Arnold’s light craft, and he had to wait until 9:00 P.M. on the thirteenth for the storm to subside. Then Arnold ferried his men over in shifts, slipping silently past the anchored British ships to land in Wolfe’s Cove, where in 1759 the British General James Wolfe had landed in his successful operation against Quebec. Arnold got all his force across except for 150 men who remained on the Point Levis side until the next night.

Having led his men way up to the Plains of Abraham on the road Wolfe had used sixteen years before, Arnold halted them a mile and a half from the city’s walls. There they took shelter until daylight. Unknown to Arnold, however, the firebrand Allan MacLean had brought eighty of his Royal Highland Emigrants to Quebec and had taken over military command. The garrison was an improvised force of about 1,200 men, including militia and sailors and marines from the ships. The city MacLean had to defend has been described as rising grandly from a majestic river, the vast rock towers high and broad. On the north were plains between the promontory and the Saint Charles River, which flowed into the Saint Lawrence east of town. Along the Saint Lawrence, slopes tapered off from the rocky sides to the river, affording passage to the Lower Town, which was guarded by double palisades and, behind them, a blockhouse. On the south side Cape Diamond rose 300 feet above the river. In the Lower Town itself there were wooden barriers blocking the Sault au Matelot, a narrow street which led to steep passages to the Upper Town. The latter dominated the greater part of the city. It was protected by a 30-foot wall along its whole western and northern sides. There were six bastions with artillery and three main gates: on the north the Palace, in the center Saint John’s, in the south Saint Louis.

Quebec 1775 Part II

Defending Quebec from an American attack.

A 1777 French map depicting the points of action in and around Quebec.

To Arnold and his ragged men the fortress city must have seemed a Gibraltar indeed, but with only about 600 men to do the job, Arnold did not hesitate to summon the city to surrender. Allan MacLean, however, was unimpressed, and both Arnold’s first and second messengers were greeted with an eighteen-pound round shot, the first “splattering the American envoy with dirt,” the second passing just over his head in “a very straight direction.”

Other grim facts faced Arnold. He had no artillery, only five cartridges per man remained, and over 100 muskets were unserviceable. In the light of the situation, he settled for a blockade of the city on its west side. On 18 November the Americans got word that MacLean was planning a sortie with 800 men. A council of war then concluded that even the blockade was no longer practicable. The next day Arnold began withdrawing his whole force to Pointe aux Trembles (Aspen Point) twenty miles upriver, where the men could find shelter. On the same day that the Americans disappeared from the Plains of Abraham (19 November), Guy Carleton entered Quebec to salvoes of saluting cannon.

Two weeks passed before Brigadier General Richard Montgomery, the overall force commander, arrived at Pointe aux Trembles. At nine o’clock on the night of 2 December a boat put out in the dark from the schooner that had just arrived from Montreal. Arnold waited to turn over command to the respected Montgomery. In formal manner he stood in front of a double-ranked honor guard lined up in the foot-deep snow. The flickering light from torches reflected from the snow and lit up the rocky beach. When the bow of the boat rasped across the rocks, commands rang out and Arnold’s detachment snapped to attention and presented arms. Arnold saluted and Montgomery, stepping ashore, returned the salute.

What Arnold’s men saw of their new commander—most of them on the following day—they liked. “Noticeably pock-marked, but well-limbed, tall and handsome, with an air and manner that designated the real soldier,” recorded John Joseph Henry in his journal. Montgomery has been further described as having “a bright, magnetic face, and winning manner.” There is no doubt, too, that his air of command, while not inviting familiarity, was pleasant yet forceful. What is more, Montgomery returned the men’s approbation. In a letter to Schuyler (still in overall command of American forces in Canada) he wrote, “I find Colonel Arnold’s corps an exceeding fine one, inured to fatigue . . . there is a style among them much superior to what I have used to see in this campaign.”

Montgomery had brought with him more than a pleasant manner. In several other craft following his schooner were over 300 men and a supply of ammunition, clothing, and provisions, as well as much-needed artillery. No doubt the greatest morale builder for Arnold’s ragged, half-shod men was the clothing. Montgomery had captured all the winter uniforms of the 7th and 26th British regiments—long white overcoats, heavy leggings, moccasins, and cloth caps with fur tails. With the initial distribution of the clothing Montgomery made a short but effective speech, which was answered with huzzahs.

Montgomery and Arnold wasted no time in returning to Quebec with their reorganized forces. They took up the siege, with Arnold’s positions on the north in the Saint Roche suburbs that had been burned by Mac-Lean as part of his defensive preparations, while Montgomery held the plains between Saint Roche and Cape Diamond. Montgomery then sent a personal letter to Carleton with the standard demand for surrender, this time using a woman as a messenger, with instructions to hand it to no other than the governor himself. But even she failed. He called for a drummer and commanded, “Take that pair of tongs and throw it into the fire.” This done, he sent the woman back to Montgomery.

Ten days later Montgomery tried again, with the same result. Montgomery, however, was not relying on surrender demands; he was busy getting his artillery batteries into position. On the night of 10 December his biggest battery was set up 700 yards from the walls. The frozen ground prohibited entrenching, so gabions were filled with snow, then soaked with water, which froze them into solid walls. But Montgomery’s six- and twelve-pounder guns and howitzers were too light to have an effect on the walls; no more, a Quebecois commented, “than peas would have against a plank.”

Montgomery sat down to evaluate his situation. His conclusions were anything but pleasing. Since he lacked siege artillery, there was no way to breach Quebec’s walls for an assault. He couldn’t dig siege trenches and parallels in the frozen ground. Arnold’s men’s enlistments were up at the end of December, and with the departure of the New England troops would go the bulk of his force. No resupply of ammunition was forthcoming from the colonies, and his Continental paper money was worthless in Canada. Moreover, he couldn’t wait for spring, because it would bring the thaws that would break up the ice in the Saint Lawrence, a sure herald of the coming of British reinforcements.

The realistic Montgomery had long been aware that he could never take Quebec by siege. As early as 4 November he had written Schuyler of his intention to attack the Lower Town. So Montgomery the professional had no trouble in deciding to take Quebec by storm. The other Montgomery, the leader of a motley militia army, was having trouble securing popular approval (that old New England convention) to attack. Many New Englanders held back because of differences between their leaders, mainly between Arnold and Major John Brown. Montgomery took the situation in hand by addressing the men at parade to such obvious effect that their patriotism overcame their reluctance to join in the proposed attack.

Montgomery and Arnold now had to wait for a dark night and snow if his small force, now less than a thousand men, were to succeed in storming the city. The night of 27 December was overcast and snow began to fall. But while the Americans were moving to assembly areas the sky cleared and the moon came out. Montgomery had to call off the attack, and after the weather reports he got more bad news. A Rhode Island sergeant, Stephen Singleton, had deserted and doubtless had carried the plan of attack to the British.

Montgomery revised the methods of attack but retained as the main objective the Lower Town. He added two feints against Quebec’s western walls. His new plan called for two converging attacks on the Lower Town. Arnold would mount a northern attack from the suburbs of Saint Roche, smash through the barriers at the north end of the Lower Town, and link up with Montgomery in or near the street called Sault au Matelot. Montgomery’s attack would move along the shoreline of the Saint Lawrence from Wolfe’s Cove, pass Cape Diamond, break into the Lower Town, and head toward the Sault au Matelot. When the converging forces had linked up, they would make a combined attack to take the Upper Town. The two feints were to be made against Saint John’s gate (Porte Saint Jean) and the Cape Diamond bastion. After the new plan had been confided to senior officers, Montgomery had to continue waiting for his black night with a snowstorm. That night was not long in coming.

Inside the fortress city, Carleton was well aware that the Lower Town was Quebec’s most vulnerable section. He blocked the Sault au Matelot with two formidable log barricades covered by cannon. To protect the Lower Town in the south he erected palisades along the Saint Lawrence shoreline. The inner one was covered by a battery of four three-pounder cannons positioned in a blockhouse made from an old brewery. That little battery was fated to have an effect on the coming battle out of all proportion to its size. Carleton had assigned his forces defensive positions along the walls and inner defenses, using to best advantage his 1,800 men.

Saturday morning, 30 December, was clear and cold, but in the afternoon the sky darkened and a rising wind brought the first snowflakes. By nightfall it was blowing a thick snow that increased with the darkness, drifting to two and three feet. The snowfall was the common signal the American units had been waiting for. At 2:00 A.M. on the last day of the year they began moving to their assembly areas.

In the suburbs of Saint Roche, Benedict Arnold stood in a shed under lantern light, peering over Captain Oswald’s shoulder while he checked off the units as their captains reported in. In the south Richard Montgomery had finished a letter to his wife Janet: “I wish it were well over with all my heart, and I sigh for home like a New Englander.” For a moment this man who loved farm life was back on his land at Kings Bridge. Then the soldier took over; General Montgomery shrugged on his greatcoat and went out in the storm to take command of his 300 men assembling on the Plains of Abraham.

Montgomery caught sight of the brief flare of the rockets fired by Captain Jacob Brown to signal the launching of his feint attack against the Cape Diamond bastion. He led the way down the steep, snow-heaped path that descended from the plains down to Wolfe’s Cove, followed by his three aides: Macpherson, Cheeseman, and Burr. Behind them came Colonel Donald Campbell, the second in command. The storm had become a blizzard whose wind carried the clanging of alarm bells in the city; the rockets had signaled the alarm to the defenders.

The descent of the mile-long path had been harrowing enough in the howling darkness, but the next two miles along the shoreline were even worse. The frozen river had piled up massive heaps of ice slabs that forced the single file of men to detour up against the rocky cliff sides at every turn. The men carrying the clumsy scaling ladders had the hardest time of all because they had to push or pull their ladders over the sharp slabs of ice or around the snow-covered rocks on the steep slopes. And all the way the wind drove the snow into eyes that were straining to find a way in the black night. Under great difficulties, Montgomery passed Cape Diamond; farther on, near a limit called the Prés de Ville, he could see through the driving snow the palisade of the outer barrier.

The carpenters with the advance party quickly hacked and sawed down four posts of the undefended palisade. The general was the first through the opening, followed by his aides. Keeping left against the cliff slope, Montgomery came around a curve to the second palisade. He took a saw from a carpenter and cut through the first two posts himself. Followed by only fifty men, he slipped through the opening and slowly made his way up the narrow street. He reached a point where, peering through the falling snow, he could make out the dim outline of a two-story building about a hundred paces ahead. No guards or sentries were visible. Had they fled along with the defenders of the palisades? He waved his storming party forward, drew his sword, and strode ahead for about fifty paces. Then he broke into a run, the others at his heels. A blinding yellow flash burst from the front of the blockhouse, and a burst of grapeshot killed Montgomery instantly, shot through the head. He lay on his back in the snow, one arm still extended, a dozen men dead behind his body. The storming party had been wiped out; only Aaron Burr and a couple of others had escaped unhurt.

That ended the attack. Colonel Campbell called a council of officers who, it was said, “justified his receding from the attack.” The column turned around, leaving the bodies of Montgomery and the others. It retraced its grim path through the storm back to the Plains of Abraham. No word of Montgomery’s death and the retreat reached Arnold or any of his men until after the battle.

At Saint Roche, Arnold checked off his units, finding only Captain Dearborn’s company unaccounted for. Unwilling to wait any longer, Arnold left orders for Dearborn to catch up, and, clutching a musket, he led his column off in single file at 4:00 A.M. His advance guard consisted of twenty-five men; following them came Captain John Lamb with forty artillerymen dragging a six-pounder gun on a sled. Next came the three rifle companies led, respectively, by Captain Morgan, Lieutenant Steele, and Captain Hendricks. The main body consisted of the New England musketmen, followed by a mixed bag of some forty Canadians and Indians. Arnold’s plan was to attack the first barricade with Lamb’s cannon, then to send the riflemen to flank the barricade on both sides.

Unknown to Arnold, the feint against Saint John’s gate conducted by Colonel Livingston’s poorly motivated Canadians was a fiasco: the men had fled as soon as their fire had been returned by the gate’s defenders. Farther south, Captain Brown’s men did better. They stood their ground, maintaining a rolling fire against the Cape Diamond bastion. As it turned out, however, the feints fooled no one, least of all Carleton.

Arnold’s 600 men trotted along, keeping parallel to the north wall, and were able to pass the Palace gate and a two-gun battery undetected. However, where the advance party came abreast of a row of buildings beyond the battery, a fierce fire of musketry broke out from the walls above them, causing some casualties. There was no way to return the fire, so Arnold pushed on, taking no time to attend to casualties. “Let the dead bury the dead” had been the watchword from the start. So the column simply ran the gauntlet for 600 yards under the galling fire.

When the column reached the quay along the river, it had to thread its way through a network of hawser cables stretching from houses and bollards out to moored ships. After passing those obstacles, Arnold and the advance party entered a narrow street where they were met with “a smart discharge of musketry.” The riflemen took cover against the housefronts and returned the fire. This was the first barricade, which, unknown to them, was only lightly defended.

Arnold, with his usual dash, was everywhere, stopping the useless fusillade against the barrier and organizing the assault to take the barricade. Since Captain Lamb’s cannon had been abandoned back in a snowdrift Arnold decided to lead a frontal assault himself. As he was shouting his commands for men to follow him, he felt a rasp of pain that stopped him in his tracks. A ricocheting bullet had struck his left leg below the knee, torn along the leg bone, and lodged in his Achilles tendon. Though he tried to prop himself up on his musket and shout the men forward, his men, seeing him wounded, held back. As Arnold was being carried to the rear, Morgan came up. Though he was a captain, the field officers turned over the command to him. Later he was to acknowledge modestly that their acclaim “reflected credit on their judgement.”

Morgan shouted for a ladder to assault the barrier just as a two-gun battery opened up on him. The first two volleys were ineffective. Morgan led his men up the first ladder. He was almost over the barricade when a blast from the defenders’ muskets hit the ladder and blew him backward. A bullet went through his cap, another grazed his cheek, and his beard was singed by powder grains. Morgan was back on his feet in a flash; he clambered up the ladder again and flung himself over the top of the barricade. He tumbled to the ground, rolled under the muzzle of a British cannon to dodge the bayonets, and was saved only by Lieutenant Heth and Cadet Porterfield, who had swarmed over the wall behind him. The defenders ran into a house and Morgan followed, dashing around to the rear door. He declared them surrounded and took the surrender of their Captain McCloud.

Morgan and his riflemen pressed on and entered the Sault au Matelot. About two hundred yards down the narrow street they could see the second barricade and the cannon platform behind it. Incredibly, the sally port was open. While the Americans were still staring, they heard shouts of “Vive la liberté!” from windows and doorways; the Québécois in the street were demonstrably friendly. With the citizens sympathetic and the barricade undefended, the way to the Lower Town was open.

Morgan then made his first mistake. In front of the undefended barricade, in the first faint light of day, with the wind whipping snow in their faces, he called a council of war. He was for going on, but his officers counseled against a further advance. Later he would recall, “Here I was overruled by sound judgment and good reasoning.” For one thing, his orders specified that he was to wait for Montgomery. Further, he couldn’t take his 150 prisoners along. They outnumbered his riflemen, and if he released them they could fall back to the first barricade and cut off his retreat. Both Montgomery and the main body must be close behind, and when they all joined forces they could take the Upper Town. So Morgan hesitated and gave in. “I gave up my own opinion, and lost the town”—how simply put, and what a simple truth! He had afforded Carleton, now aware of Montgomery’s disaster, time to dispatch Colonel Caldwell to stop the Americans at the second barricade.

Morgan went back to find the main body. He found Lieutenant Colonel Greene and Major Meigs with 200 men; all of them had been lost in side streets and byways when their guides had failed them. Morgan led them forward to the second barricade, and now, belatedly, decided to advance through the obstacle to the Lower Town. Meanwhile, one of Colonel Caldwell’s officers was massing a detachment behind the second barricade and preparing to sally out and pin down the Americans. That officer, Lieutenant Anderson, debouched from the gate and called on the Americans to surrender. Morgan snatched up a rifle and shot him through the head. After a pause, the fiercest firefight of the battle broke out. As Morgan’s men exchanged fusillades with the Canadians, others packed down mounds of snow on which they could set their ladders. Morgan and his best leaders—Hendricks, Steele, Humphreys, Heth, Greene, and Lamb among them—tried to scale the barrier but were blasted back by a hail of grapeshot and bullets.

Riflemen broke into the lower story of a stone house from which their fire could reach the defenders. The Canadian Colonel Caldwell saw the tactical importance of the house and ordered a detachment to use a captured ladder to get into the upper story before the Americans. The Canadians got inside the second floor and drove the Americans from the house with their bayonets. Other riflemen, firing from windows down the street, drove the gunners from their firing platform. The Canadian musket fire now increased in such intensity that the American toll of casualties rose. The American officers, even Morgan, could no longer exhort their men to come out of the houses and renew the attack.

Morgan ordered the men around him to take cover in the houses while he conferred again with his senior officers. Morgan argued for continuing the fight, but there was an unhesitating consensus for an immediate retreat. Yet even then their fate was being sealed. Carleton, informed that Colonel Caldwell’s Canadians were holding back the Americans, had ordered Captain Laws with 200 men and two fieldpieces to move down from the Palace gate and cut off the American rear from the direction of Sault au Matelot. Although the overzealous Laws charged ahead of his men and became an American prisoner, the rest of his men soon arrived. At a final hasty conference, Morgan urged the commanders to try to cut their way out through Laws’s men, but a majority insisted on holding out in the hope of being relieved by Montgomery.

By this time—sometime after 9:00 A.M.—Laws’s gunners had gotten a nine-pounder in position where it could sweep the street or batter down house walls. While the American officers continued to argue, men began to give up, holding their musket butts out of doors and windows in sign of surrender. Finally Lieutenant Colonel Greene, stepping in, made a formal offer of surrender, and it was accepted. Americans were routed out of houses to be lined up and marched away as prisoners.

But not Dan Morgan. He set his back against a housefront, and with tears of rage and frustration streaming down his face, defied his enemies. Canadians were calling on him to hand over his sword or be shot, while his men were shouting at him, begging him to give up before he was killed. The scene ended when Morgan spotted a man in black among the crowd of onlookers. When Morgan was assured that the man was a priest, he bellowed, “Then I give my sword to you. But not a scoundrel of these cowards shall take it out of my hands.”

The three-hour battle for the Sault au Matelot was over. With its end went all hope of taking Quebec by storm. The American losses were 60 killed or wounded and 426 captured. Among the prisoners were Captain Dearborn’s entire company, which had been cut off while trying to catch up to Arnold’s column and forced to surrender. Carleton’s losses were insignificant: 5 killed and 13 wounded out of his garrison of 1,800.

When one reflects on the failure to take Quebec by storm, it is tempting to play the game of “what if.” What if the gallant Montgomery had not been struck down? What if Arnold had not suffered the wound that removed him from command? What if Morgan had shown the moral courage to match his physical courage in the moment that called for bold decision? It may seem reasonable to hypothesize that a reversal of any of those three misfortunes might have made Canada a fourteenth colony. But after all, the hard reality is that the attack on Quebec turned out to be what Wellington was to say of Waterloo: “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” And that is how Quebec must remain in history—a near thing.

What followed in the months after the failure at Quebec is a dismal tale. An indomitable Arnold held out, trying to keep up the semblance of a siege until he could get the reinforcements he pleaded for. When the reinforcements eventually came, it was the old story of too little too late, never enough at any time to enable Arnold and the commanders who succeeded him to mount an effective offensive. The three generals who followed Arnold in command—Wooster, Thomas, and Sullivan—ranged in performance from mediocre to unfortunate. Then the arrival of General Burgoyne at Quebec in early May 1776 brought Carleton’s forces up to 13,000 men. The American effectives in Canada never numbered over 5,000 at any time, although a total of 8,000 men had been committed at various stages throughout the invasion.

Finally, after further severe reverses, the demoralized remnants of the American army straggled into Crown Point in mid-July 1776. Just ten months after the first expedition had left there to conquer Canada, the invasion of Canada was over.