Give Credit Where Due

Among my more innocent pleasures is noting odd historical coincidences, such as Genl Burgoyne surrendering at Saratoga on this day in 1777, and Genl Cornwallis enjoying the same experience on the same day in 1781 at Yorktown.

What is interesting about the two campaigns is that Saratoga was a result of the British failure to achieve strategic coordination and concentration of forces, and Yorktown was the product of a truly amazing feat of coordination not only between widely separate forces, but also between allies as well as between branches of service – two separate fleets of the French navy, the Continental army, and the French army. 

Genl Burgoyne’s expedition from Canada to and down the Hudson came to grief because a three-prong offensive turned into a single-prong. The western branch of the offensive under Lt. Col. St. Leger, coming down the Mohawk, came to grief, fighting a bloody battle at Oriskany and then losing most of his Indian allies after fighting at Ft. Stanwix. The support that Burgoyne had anticipated coming upriver from New York City never materialized. And he was largely stranded in what was then still largely wilderness, with no adequate water transport. More to the point, while Burgoyne was hemorrhaging men through repeated skirmishing with the Americans, their strength was growing, as militia reinforcements continuously joined up. In the end Burgoyne was effectively pinned in place. He couldn’t go forward; he couldn’t go back; and he was running out of supplies. He had the distinction of being the first British commander to lose an entire army to the rebels. 

Fast forward four years. Cornwallis, the southern British commander, was on the Chesapeake after raiding, skirmishing, and plundering about Virginia. Clinton sends from New York orders to pick a deep-water port, fortify himself there, and send whatever troops he could spare north to New York. Washington is outside New York, with some French in company, and additional French in Newport, Rhode Island. He finds out he is going to have the support of the French fleet, which is headed north from the Caribbean. What if, he decides, he can steal a march on the British and get his army to Virginia before the British can either reinforce or slip away? If the French can hold off the Royal Navy long enough, and deny both relief and escape to Cornwallis, Washington can substantially lessen if not remove outright the British southern threat. 

In what has to be one of the lesser-known American strategic coups, Washington and the French make it work. Washington does the old march-through-the-countryside, shuck-n-jive routine to confuse Clinton about what he’s going to do. The French fleet from Newport loads up their troops and supplies and swings wide into the Atlantic and down to the Chesapeake. Washington and his army then hoof it from New York all the way down to Yorktown to join up with Lafayette and the French just arrived from Rhode Island. 

Cornwallis, in receipt of a letter from Clinton during the period that Washington is on the march and which promises reinforcements, stands pat, and does not attempt to fight his way out of Yorktown. 

The final nail in the coffin is driven home by the French fleet under the Comte de Grasse. He’d actually lost the race to the Chesapeake to Adm. Saml Hood. Hood got there first, found the place bereft of Frenchmen, and sailed on north to New York to join up with Adm. Graves. De Grasse arrives in Virginia a few days later, and sets up watch on the mouth of the bay. When Graves arrives, the French pull off one of their comparatively few fleet victories, and draw Graves ever farther out to sea. While the two combat fleets crawl away from shore, the French fleet from Newport arrives and debarks its troops. Washington arrives a few days later and the major southern British army is now bottled up, unable to fight its way out, with its back to deep water, and a hostile fleet commanding its sea lines of communication. There’s quite a bit of fighting, but without command of the sea approaches the British can do nothing to stave off the inevitable, and on October 17, 1781, four years to the day after Burgoyne’s surrender, Cornwallis asks for terms. The actual surrender takes place two days later. 

To put a bit of perspective on Washington’s achievement, even twenty years later a trip from New York to the Potomac was an agony of rutted wagon trails through woods, broken axles, overturned carriages, lodging little and mean. It took well over a week for a traveller in peacetime. Washington moved a poorly-fed, poorly-shod, poorly-paid army over the distance in a month. The strategic coordination occurred with no telecommunications and across hundreds of miles of wilderness and ocean. And every commander – at least on the American side – played his party just exactly right, doing precisely what was necessary under the circumstances of the moment to maximize the strategic position of the allies. It really is an amazing story. The American luck held just long enough, in just the right place, to snag a second British army. 

Yes, it was lucky (the French didn’t often best the Royal Navy), but in point of fact the strategic vision of it was largely Washington’s. He gets high marks for his never-say-die maintenance of the cause, but usually gets scouted as commanding general. With the Yorktown campaign he proved he had the strategic chops as well.


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