George Washington , Clinton, Cornwallis, Lord George Germain, Comte de Rochambeau, Comte de Grasse, Yorktown and Treaty of Paris

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 28th, 2012

Politics 101

British Sea Power allowed the British to Remain in a Hostile Land for the Eight Years of the Revolutionary War

The American Revolutionary War began in April of 1775 with the Battles of Lexington and Concord.  For years following these battles George Washington yearned to meet the British in a grand battle and defeat them.  What he got instead was a lot of smaller battles that sent him in retreat.  For despite fighting on the far side of an ocean the British had a large professional army.  A vast merchant marine to supply them whatever they needed.  And the world’s preeminent navy.  The Royal Navy.

That sea power allowed the British to remain in a hostile land for the following 7 years.  Allowed them to remain in New York.  Allowed them to take the war to the South unopposed.  It allowed them to move armies.  And supply armies.  As well as control the world’s sea lanes to maintain their commerce.  The Royal Navy tipped the balance of power well to the side of the British.  And perhaps it was their undoing as well.  Trusting that their naval superiority would always be there.

British generals Clinton (superior in rank and resting comfortably in New York) and Cornwallis (junior in rank and chasing American armies in the South) did not see eye to eye.  Their boss, Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the American Department, didn’t help matters.  It was his job to suppress the American rebellion.  But he didn’t understand the country.  Or the people.  Thinking of America in European terms.  He thought the Americans were no match for a professional European army assembled on the field of battle.  And he was right.  But the Americans didn’t fight the war like Europeans.  Which proved to be a great disadvantage for the British.

With the French Fleet heading to Chesapeake Bay Washington Scrapped his Plan to Attack New York

General Burgoyne had a grand strategy to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies.  A three-pronged attack that required General Howe (who preceded Clinton) coming up from New York.  Germain approved the plan.  And two of the three prongs proceeded accordingly.  East through the Mohawk Valley.  And south down the upper Hudson valley.  Howe was to come up the Lower Hudson valley and meet the other two prongs around Albany.  But Germain did not order Howe to do so.  So Howe didn’t.  Executing his own plans in Pennsylvania.  Which led to Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga (1777).  And the entry of France into the War (on the condition that the Americans would not make a separate peace with the British).  The Spanish later (allied to the French).  The Dutch, too.  And an armed neutrality of the other powers who did not want to partake in the war and would not submit to the advances of the Royal Navy on the high seas.  Making it difficult to blockade arms and supplies from reaching the Americans.

The first Franco-American actions proved disappointing.  In fact a lot of public sentiment turned against the French.  Especially after they abandoned an offensive action in Rhode Island.  Leaving the Americans to retreat again.  Then Cornwallis moved north.  Toward Virginia.  And there was another window for French cooperation after some action in the West Indies.  And there was a French Army in Newport, Rhode Island, commanded by Comte de Rochambeau, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War.  So he knew a thing or two about fighting the British.  These forces arrived after Clinton pulled his forces out and returned them to New York.  Which is where Washington wanted to attack with this Franco-American force.

Washington and Rochambeau drew up some plans.  The French fleet coming from the West Indies commanded by Comte de Grasse was to support the attack.  However, this was the battle Clinton was waiting for.  And he was ready for it.  Washington tested the New York defenses and found them formidable.  And there was a British fleet in New York Harbor.  Then he got a letter from De Grasse.  Rochambeau had left him some freedom in his orders.  Instead of going to New York he was heading to the Chesapeake Bay.  Where Cornwallis’ army was.  It wasn’t New York but it was still a British army.  And he would have a large French fleet in support.  Washington soon scrapped his New York plans.  And looked to Virginia instead.   

Cornwallis and Burgoyne lost their Armies because the British never Coordinated their Forces in a Unified Plan

Quickly and quietly the Franco-American force moved from around New York towards Virginia.  They were across the Delaware River before Clinton knew where they were going.  Or what they planned to do.  They kept Admiral Graves in the dark as well.  Who kept his British fleet around New York.  Waiting to support the army when the Americans and French launched their attack on New York.  By the time they figured out what Washington and the Franco-America force were up to it was too late.  The French fleet beat them to the Chesapeake Bay.  The superior French fleet repelled the smaller British fleet which returned to New York.  Leaving Cornwallis on his own.  As he faced an enemy that outnumbered him more than two to one.  A force that numbered 5,700 professional Continentals and 7,000 professional French troops.  As well as 3,100 militia.

Cornwallis was entrenched in Yorktown.  With Banastre Tarleton (of Waxhaw Massacre fame) across the York River in Gloucester.  As Cornwallis looked out at the gathering force against him laying siege to his army he saw the French on his right.  And the Americans on his left.  Their trenches slowly moving closer to his.  Across the York the French were closing in on Tarleton.  Soon the American artillery was within effective range.  And George Washington lit the first fuse.  It was over in less than a month.  And included a bayonet charge led by America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.  Recognizing the seriousness of Cornwallis’ position Clinton sent a fleet to help lift the siege.  But by the time it arrived Cornwallis had already surrendered.

Cornwallis lost his army for the same reason Burgoyne lost his army at Saratoga.  Lord Germain.  Who failed to coordinate his generals in the American Department.  While the Americans did.  For most of the war the British had the superior army and the superior navy.  Yet they could not win.  Because these superior forces were never coordinated together in a unified plan.  Opposition in Parliament forced Germain out of office after the fall of Yorktown.  And called for the resignation of the Prime Minister.  Lord North.  Which he gave.  A first for a British Prime Minister.  The new government would end the war with the Americans with the Treaty of Paris (1783).  Where the Americans did very well.  And conducted separate peace treaties with the Spanish and the Dutch.  As well as the French.  Which the French were not pleased with.  And they did not do as well as the Americans in the peace.  Worse, they would find themselves in their own revolution within a decade.  The American Revolution being a major cause of the French Revolution.  By saddling France with an enormous war debt.  And filling their people with the spirit of liberty.

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