Chapter 21 – Yorktown and de Grasse | France in the Revolution


    About the author

    James Breck Perkins headshot.
    James Breck Perkins

    James Breck Perkins (1847–1910) was an American historian notable for his works on French history. Educated at the University of Rochester, he initially practiced law before shifting to writing and public service. Perkins is best known for his comprehensive studies on the French Regency period, particularly in “France Under the Regency,” which examined Philippe d’Orléans’ governance post-Louis XIV. His other significant works include “France Under Louis XV” and “France in the American Revolution.”



      When compliments had been exchanged with due formality, plans for the campaign were discussed, and de Grasse agreed to furnish assistance as Washington desired except in one respect. Washington was anxious that ships should be sent up the James River above Yorktown to cut off the possibility of Cornwallis’s retreat, but to this plan the admiral would not agree (Doniol, v, 554.) As Cornwallis made no effort to escape, the failure to guard this avenue of retreat was unimportant.

      It had been announced that the French fleet must leave the American coast by October 15, and this was now less than a month off; but de Grasse agreed that the period should be extended to the first of November. Even then the time for the reduction of a well defended town was brief, and the siege had to be pushed with vigor if it was to be successful. No matter what progress had been made on land, so soon as the French fleet sailed away, Yorktown could be relieved by water and the chance of capturing Cornwallis’s army would be lost.

      The return of the generals was delayed by the bad weather which is common on this roadstead. A violent and contrary wind came up, and not until the 22d were Washington and his associates able to get back to Williamsburg.

      Cornwallis, meanwhile, hoped for relief, and the allies feared that a new English fleet might appear and destroy de Grasse’s ascendancy. Admiral Digby had not yet been heard from, and the size of his fleet was multiplied by the fears of his opponents. De Grasse felt that he must prepare for the arrival of the English admiral, and the preparations that he desired to make brought dismay to the generals at Yorktown.

      On September 24 he wrote them that he must sail out of the bay in order to meet Digby, but he would leave behind the forces under Saint-Simon. “If I am forced by the winds, or as the result of a contest, not to come back, have the goodness to send the regiments to Martinique on the boats left in the river.” (De Grasse to Rochambeau, Sept. 24, 1781; Doniol, v, 544.) This sudden announcement brought consternation. If de Grasse’s fleet were driven to the West Indies by foul weather or ill fortune, it would be the end of the great plan for the capture of Cornwallis’s army. Washington and Rochambeau were appalled at the possibility (Doniol, v, 545; Writings of Washington, Sparks’s ed., viii, 163-165), and yet they could not interfere in movements which de Grasse thought were required for the safety of his fleet. Fortunately, the matter was not brought to a decision. The fleet under Digby did not appear at all, and de Grasse remained quietly in the bay, shutting off all relief from the besieged city.

      During the time that the armies were assembling it was possible for Cornwallis to avoid his fate, if he had broken through La Fayette’s forces and made his escape southward; but either because he did not realize his peril or deemed the effort dangerous, he did not attempt it.

      The only hope of escape after the siege began lay in its prolongation. The Comte de Grasse had extended his stay somewhat and doubtless would have been reluctant to sail away when success seemed near at hand; but the operations in the West Indies, really so much less important, he regarded as his chief mission, and he was certain to sail from Chesapeake Bay before the winter began.

      The allies pressed their work with vigor, and the besieged made a feeble defense. On the 30th the exterior fortifications were abandoned, and for a week the French and Americans labored zealously in preparing fascines and trenches. On the 6th of October the trenches were sufficiently completed to cover the men, and on the 9th the batteries opened fire on the English forces before Yorktown.

      On October 12 the second parallel was begun. The work was carried on vigorously under officers familiar with siege operations, and it progressed the more rapidly because the English made little attempt to check it. On the 14th Washington made a note of the casualties down to that day, which showed how slight had been the resistance, and also showed the preponderant part taken by our allies in what Cromwell would have called the “Great Deliverance.” The Americans had lost twenty-three killed and sixty-five wounded. The French loss also was small, but it was more than twice that of the American army, and consisted of fifty-two killed and one hundred and thirty-four wounded (Writings of Washington, Sparks’s ed., viii, 181.)

      Each army praised the conduct of its associates and with good cause. The Americans, said Rochambeau, showed a courage and an emulation which never allowed them to lag behind their allies, though these were more familiar with the operations of a siege. The French had the advantage of more experience in such matters, and exhibited equal courage and zeal. The operations were singularly free from bickerings and heart-burnings. All cooperated amicably, and there was no wrangling over the praise to be awarded. Washington and Rochambeau displayed moderation and judgment, and their example furnished a model for others to follow. The joint operations against Newport in 1778 had been attended with disputes and ended in reproach; the fact that Sullivan commanded the Americans at Newport and Washington at Yorktown accounted for the difference in the spirit displayed as well as in the result accomplished.

      On October 9 the allies were ready to begin an active bombardment, and on the 17th Cornwallis sent a flag of truce to consider terms of surrender. Two weeks remained of the time de Grasse had agreed to stay when the English general began to parley; only seventeen days had passed since the siege formally began. The importance of the victory was only exceeded by its ease; the English army was mild in resistance and prompt in surrender, and yet the disparity in numbers was less than in many a siege which has been long and stubbornly contested. The allied army contained about 15,000 men, and 7157 laid down their arms (H. P. Johnston, The Yorktown Campaign, etc., 165, 195.)

      The ease of the victory seems to have been regretted by some who loved war for the fighting there was in it. “I have wrott to you twice during the siege,” says an ally whose zeal for our liberty surpassed his mastery of our grammar. “I hope my letters are arrived safe into your hands. Our successes have not, indeed, costed very dear to us. However, we must not measure our glory by the dangers we run to obtain it, but by their utility. Cornwallys, the Southern Lyon, has been very tame to us.” (Marquis de Fleury, Oct. 31, 1781.)

      It was for Washington to fix the terms of the surrender; those which he imposed were not severe, but they were humiliating. The English were forced to march in solemn parade before their victors and stack their arms. The English had insisted on similar terms when Lincoln surrendered at Charleston. They could not now complain, but they did not relish the requirements. It was undoubtedly a relief to British sensibilities that a large portion of the army to which they surrendered was composed of French. The French were hereditary enemies, they were the regular troops of an ancient monarchy, and they could be regarded as professionals in the art of war; it was less humiliating to yield to them than to American soldiers whom they stigmatized as rebels and despised as irregulars.

      Washington signed the articles of capitulation for the Americans, Rochambeau and Barras for their French allies, and Cornwallis and Thomas Symonds for the English. On October 19 the momentous ceremony took place. The English desired to surrender to their French opponents and not to their rebellious subjects; but no desire for spectacular triumph induced Rochambeau to disregard the strictest observance of the proprieties. One of the French visitors has described the scene at the surrender. The lines of the allied army extended for more than a mile; the Americans holding the right. The youth of many of the American troops, their lack of uniforms, their dirty and torn clothes, made the French appear to advantage; for they, notwithstanding their long march and the fatigue of the siege, preserved a neat and warlike aspect. All were surprised by the good condition of the English troops. They had not suffered sufficiently from the siege to injure their health or their looks. The English soldiers were all smartly dressed in new clothes, but this, says our writer, seemed to humiliate them the more, as they contrasted themselves with their American opponents. They dared not lift their eyes upon their conquerors, he declares. The English officers were polite enough to salute the least important French officer, but they would not condescend to salute Americans even of the highest rank (Abbe Robin, Nouveau Voyage, etc. [1782 ed.], 140, 141.)

      Notwithstanding the completeness of the victory, it was not supposed that the English would abandon their endeavors to reduce the colonists to subjection. “It is not in the character of the English to yield so easily,” Vergennes wrote La Fayette; “you must expect great efforts on their part to recover what they have lost”; and he bade the marquis to excite the Americans to greater exertions, in order that they might retain the advantage which had been gained (Vergennes to La Fayette, Dec. 1, 1781; Doniol, iv, 688.)

      Washington had the same expectations, and he was, therefore, the more anxious to utilize still further the assistance which had already secured so great a victory. De Grasse had originally written that by October 15 he must sail for the West Indies, but he agreed to remain until November in order that the capture of Yorktown might be assured. On the 19th day of October, the English army surrendered, and Washington, stimulated by the success of this joint action of army and navy, wished to make new endeavors. On the day Cornwallis surrendered he wrote de Grasse, suggesting a further expedition for the capture of Charleston. The capture of that city, he said, would be certain, and would destroy the enemy’s last hope of continuing the war. The proposition was gilded with alluring suggestions. “It will depend upon your excellency, therefore,” wrote Washington, “to terminate the war, and enable the allies to dictate the law in a treaty. A campaign so glorious and so fertile in consequences could be reserved only for the Count de Grasse.” (Washington to Count de Grasse, Oct. 20,1781; Writings of Washington, Sparks’s ed., viii, 186.)

      These compliments, however adroit, did not accomplish their aim. The date had already passed on which de Grasse intended to sail for the West Indies, and he would not further delay his return. Washington had contemplated the possibility of this, and he suggested another and less ambitious scheme. If de Grasse did not find the expedition against Charleston practicable, he might convey a body of soldiers to Wilmington, who would capture that town and thus render valuable assistance to General Greene in his campaign in the Carolinas. To this plan de Grasse at first gave his consent. The orders of his court and his engagements with the Spanish, so he wrote, rendered it impossible for him to remain for the expedition against Charleston, but he would transport two thousand troops to Wilmington, provided they sailed by November 1, or as soon as possible thereafter (Doniol, iv, 694.)

      But before the expedition could be prepared, de Grasse withdrew his offer. The matter of his return to the West Indies might be too much delayed. The undertaking was abandoned, and the troops sent to reinforce Greene had to make their way by land. Though disappointed in his hopes of further aid at present, Washington fully expected the cooperation of de Grasse in the following campaign.

      On November 4 the French fleet sailed out of Chesapeake Bay (Operations of the French Fleet, etc. [Bradford Club Publications, no. 3], 88, 164.) De Grasse left the scene of triumph behind him and sailed away to defeat and disgrace.

      The vicissitudes of the war in the West Indies did not affect the interests of the American colonists, but they deserve some brief mention. As a result of the assistance given the United States, France found herself involved in hostilities in Europe, the East Indies, and the Western Main; the sun never set on the contest which had grown out of the protest of American colonists against taxation.

      Exultant over the great success of the Virginia campaign, de Grasse set sail for the West Indies. There was the field to which he was specially bidden to devote his energies; his interference in North America had been regarded as an interlude, and he now returned to the contest with Great Britain for the West Indian islands. After a stormy passage of three weeks, the fleet reached Martinique, and during the winter months it achieved some small successes. There were a few unimportant engagements, but not until the spring did the decisive action take place. On April 12, 1782, near some West Indian islands known as “The Saints,” the fleet under de Grasse engaged the English under Rodney in what one of the French officers pronounced the hottest and most terrible, and also the most disastrous, of sea-fights since the invention of gunpowder.

      The English had the advantage in numbers: they had about forty ships of the line and over twenty-six hundred cannon, while the French mustered thirty-three ships of the line and about two thousand cannon. More important to the English than this preponderance of ships and cannon was their superiority in the officers who commanded them. In the weary investigations which followed this disastrous day, it was decided that de Grasse was not deserving of censure, and also, on the other hand, despite his accusations, that his commands were not disobeyed by disloyal subordinates. If he was guilty of no grave mistake, he showed no military genius; but it is without question that some of his officers were disaffected and viewed with pleasure the defeat of their commander. Possibly the desire for personal distinction was stronger with the French than with the English; certainly disappointment in this respect seemed to bring more harmful results; some of de Grasse’s captains were discontented and they managed their ships with an inefficiency that came perilously close to disloyalty.

      The battle of the 12th was brought on because an ill-managed vessel, after running into several other ships, was at last left unmasted at the mercy of the enemy. Some English boats started to capture the luckless Zele, the French fleet formed for action to protect her, and the engagement began. The manoeuvres of the French have been severely criticized, and of every blunder Rodney took advantage. The Comte de Grasse showed abundant courage but little skill; his ship was in the thickest of the fight until her ammunition was exhausted and she was forced to surrender; the flagship of the admiral fell into the hands of the enemy, – a disgrace which had attended few French defeats. The crew fought with desperation, if not with judgment; rigging was gone as well as rudder, the masts were ready to fall and the ship to sink, when the flag was at last pulled down. Critics at Paris said it would have been more glorious to blow up the flagship than to allow her to be taken. But de Grasse’s friends justly replied that even an admiral had no right to blow up his crew in order to save his own honor. Before he surrendered, the admiral signalled the other ships to save themselves as best they could; at half-past seven the battle was over.

      The French had lost three thousand men and five ships. To add to the horrors of the fight, the sharks that abound in those waters followed its progress, in search of food; over a thousand of them, it is said, were close by the ships, watching for the bodies that were constantly thrown over. What was left of the French fleet found refuge at Cap Francois, and their last degradation was in seeing ten Spanish ships come out to protect their entrance into the harbor (Operations of the French Fleet, etc. [Bradford Club Publications, no. 3], 120-126, 176-178. Capt. A, T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1889), 481-504.)

      The credit which de Grasse won at Yorktown was wholly obscured by the defeat of his fleet at “The Saints.” The capture of Yorktown assured the independence of the United States; but its importance was hardly appreciated at the time; no one realized how great a power the United States was to become, or what weight attached to the victory by which its existence was assured. While the French had taken an important part in the capture of Cornwallis’s army, after all they acted as auxiliaries, and it seemed an American rather than a French victory.

      On the other hand, the defeat which de Grasse had sustained at “The Saints” was one of the most disastrous in the disastrous history of the French navy. His fleet was practically destroyed; the admiral’s ship was sunk and the admiral himself captured. Nothing could be more irretrievable. It is not strange, therefore, that, when de Grasse was finally released from captivity and returned to Paris, he met with a chilly reception from King and court. He insisted upon a court-martial, and it was accorded to him. After long and tedious investigation he was exonerated from blame, but he remained a disgraced man, and he was never again assigned to active service. He married for a third time and married unwisely. His wife brought him social reproach and domestic infelicity. Honors were heaped upon Rochambeau, who had taken part in the Yorktown expedition; but though de Grasse’s cooperation had assured the success of the enterprise, he received no marks of royal approval; subsequent disasters had obscured the recollection of prior service. In January, 1788, he died. Washington wrote to Rochambeau regretting his death, but he added: “Yet his death is not, perhaps, so much to be deplored as his latter days were to be pitied. It seemed as if an unfortunate and unrelenting destiny pursued him, to destroy the enjoyment of all earthly comfort. The disastrous battle of the 12th of April, the loss of favor with his King, and the subsequent connection in marriage with an unworthy woman, were sufficient to have made him weary of the burden of life.” (Writings of Washington, Ford’s ad., xi, 259.)

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