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.