Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 22: The Total Incompetency of the Political System; Victory at Yorktown (May to December 1781) - The Life of George Washington
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CHAPTER 22: “The Total Incompetency of the Political System”; Victory at Yorktown (May to December 1781) - John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 
The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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“The Total Incompetency of the Political System”; Victory at Yorktown (May to December 1781)
State of affairs in the beginning of 1781.—Measures of Mr. Morris.—Designs of General Washington against New York.—Rochambeau marches to the North River.—Intelligence from the Count de Grasse.—Plan of operations against Lord Cornwallis.—Naval engagement.—The combined armies march for the Chesapeake.—Yorktown invested.—Surrender of Lord Cornwallis.
1781The total incompetency of the political system which had been adopted by the United States, to their own preservation, became every day more apparent. Each state seemed fearful of doing too much, and of taking upon itself a larger portion of the common burden than was borne by its neighbor.
The requisitions of Congress for men were made too late, and were never completely executed by the states. The regular force drawn, from Pennsylvania to Georgia inclusive, at no time, during this active and interesting campaign, amounted to three thousand effective men. That drawn from New Hampshire to New Jersey inclusive, exhibited, in the month of May, a total of not quite seven thousand, of whom rather more than four thousand might be relied on for action.
The prospects for the campaign were rendered still more unpromising by the failure of supplies. The requisitions made on the states had been neglected to such a degree, as to excite fears that the soldiers must be disbanded from the want of food.
The Quartermaster Department was destitute of funds, and unable to transport provisions or other stores from place to place, but by means of impressment, supported by a military force. This measure had been repeated, especially in New York, until it excited so much irritation, that the commander-in-chief was seriously apprehensive of resistance to his authority.
While in this state of deplorable imbecility, intelligence from every quarter announced increasing dangers.
Information was received, that an expedition was preparing in Canada against Fort Pitt; and it was understood that many, in the country threatened with invasion, were ready to join the British standard. The Indians, too, had entered into formidable combinations, endangering the western frontier in its whole extent.
A correspondence of a criminal nature was discovered between some persons in Albany and in Canada. A letter intercepted by Generals Schuyler and Clinton, stated the disaffection of particular settlements, the provision made in them for an invading army, and their readiness to join it.
This intelligence derived increased interest from the ambiguous conduct of that country which now constitutes Vermont. Early in the war, its inhabitants had declared themselves independent, and had exercised the powers of self-government. The state of New York, however, still continued to assert her claim of sovereignty, and the controversy had become so violent as to justify the most serious apprehensions. The declaration was openly made that, if not admitted into the Union as an independent state, they held themselves at liberty to make a separate peace; and some negotiations for carrying this threat into execution, had been commenced.
Early in May, the Count de Barras,1 who had been appointed to the command of the French fleet on the American coast, arrived in Boston, and brought the long-expected information respecting the naval armament designed to act in the American seas. Twenty ships of the line, to be commanded by the Count de Grasse,2 were destined for the West Indies, twelve of which were to proceed to the continent of America in the month of July.
An interview between General Washington and the Count de Rochambeau immediately took place, in which it was determined to unite the troops of France to those of America on the Hudson, and to proceed against New York.
Though the prospect now opening roused the northern states from that apathy into which they appeared to be sinking, yet, in the month of June when the army took the field at Peekskill, its effective numbers did not exceed five thousand men.
To supply even this army with provisions required greater exertions than had been made. The hope of terminating the war produced these exertions. The legislatures of the New England states took up the subject in earnest, and passed resolutions for raising the necessary supplies. But, till these resolutions could be executed, the embarrassments of the army continued; and there was reason to apprehend, either that the great objects of the campaign must be relinquished for want of provisions, or that coercion must still be used.
New England not furnishing flour, this important article was to be drawn from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The two first states were much exhausted; and the application to Pennsylvania did not promise to be very successful. Respecting this article, therefore, serious fears existed.
These were removed by the activity and exertions of an individual. The management of the finances had been committed to Mr. Robert Morris.3 This gentleman united considerable political talents to a degree of mercantile enterprise, information, and credit, seldom equalled in any country. He had accepted this arduous appointment on the condition of being allowed time to make his arrangements. But the critical state of public affairs furnished irresistible motives for changing his original determination, and entering immediately on the duties of his office. The occasion required that he should bring his private credit in aid of the public resources, and pledge himself extensively, for articles of absolute necessity which could not be otherwise obtained. Condemning the system of violence and of legal fraud which had been too long practised, he sought the gradual restoration of confidence by a punctual and faithful compliance with his engagements. It is in no inconsiderable degree to be attributed to him, that the very active and decisive operations of the campaign were not impeded, perhaps defeated, by a failure of the means for transporting military stores, and feeding the army.
On determining to assume the duties of his office, Mr. Morris laid before Congress the plan of a national bank, whose notes were to be receivable from the respective states as specie. Congress passed an ordinance for the incorporation of this valuable institution.
Important as was this measure to future military operations, a contract with the state of Pennsylvania was of still more immediate utility.
After furnishing flour to relieve the wants of the moment on his private credit, Mr. Morris proposed to assume a compliance with all the specific requisitions made on Pennsylvania, and to rely for reimbursement on the tax imposed by law, to be collected under his authority. This proposition being accepted, supplies which the government was unable to furnish, were raised by an individual.
The American army was joined by the Count de Rochambeau at Dobbs’ ferry, on the 6th of July; and the utmost exertions were made for the grand enterprise against New York. But the execution of this plan depended so much on events, that the attention of General Washington was also directed to other objects.
Early in August, letters from the Marquis de Lafayette announced that a large portion of the troops in Virginia were embarked, and that their destination was believed to be New York. This intelligence induced him to think seriously of southern operations. To conceal from Sir Henry Clinton this eventual change of plan, his arrangements were made secretly, and the preparations for acting against New York were continued. A reinforcement from Europe of near three thousand men had induced Sir Henry Clinton to countermand the orders he had given to Lord Cornwallis to detach a part of the army in Virginia to his aid; and also to direct that nobleman to take a strong position on the Chesapeake, from which he might be enabled to execute the designs meditated against the states lying on that bay, so soon as the storm which threatened for the moment should blow over. In a few days after the arrival of this reinforcement, the Count de Barras gave the interesting information that De Grasse was to have sailed for the Chesapeake on the 3d of August, with from twenty-five to twenty-nine ships of the line, having on board three thousand two hundred soldiers; and that he had made engagements to return to the West Indies by the middle of October.Map
This intelligence decided General Washington in favor of operations to the South; and Lafayette was directed to make such a disposition of his army as should prevent Lord Cornwallis from saving himself by a sudden march to Charleston.
The Count de Grasse arrived in the Chesapeake late in August, with twenty-eight ships of the line and several frigates. At Cape Henry, he found an officer despatched to meet him with the information that Lord Cornwallis was fortifying Yorktown and Gloster Point; and that the Marquis had taken a position on the James river.
In consequence of this information, detachments from the fleet, which lay at anchor within the capes, blocked up the mouth of York river, and conveyed the land forces brought from the West Indies under the Marquis de St. Simon, up the James to join Lafayette, who, on receiving this reinforcement, took post at Williamsburg. On the 25th of August, the Count de Barras sailed from Newport for the Chesapeake.
Admiral Rodney, not suspecting that the whole fleet of De Grasse would come to the United States, supposed that a part of his squadron would be sufficient to maintain an equality in the American seas, and detached Sir Samuel Hood to the continent with only fourteen sail of the line.4 That officer arrived at Sandy Hook on the 28th of August.
Admiral Graves, who had succeeded Arbuthnot, lay in the harbor of New York with seven ships of the line, only five of which were fit for service. On the day that Hood appeared and gave information that De Grasse was probably on the coast, intelligence was also received that De Barras had sailed from Newport. The ships fit for sea were ordered out of the harbor; and Graves proceeded in quest of the French with nineteen sail of the line, hoping to fight their squadrons separately.
September 1781Early in the morning of the 5th of September, the French admiral descried the British squadron, and immediately ordered his fleet, then at anchor just within the Chesapeake, to form the line and put to sea. About four in the afternoon the action commenced between the foremost ships, and continued until sunset. The hostile fleets continued within view of each other until the 10th, when De Grasse returned to his former station, where he found De Barras with the squadron from Newport, and fourteen transports laden with heavy artillery and military stores proper for carrying on a siege. The British admiral, on approaching the capes, perceived a force with which he was unable to contend, and bore away for New York.
General Washington had determined to command the southern expedition in person. All the French, and rather more than two thousand continental troops, were destined for this service.
On the 16th of August, the Jersey line and Hazen’s regiment were ordered to pass the Hudson, and take a position between Springfield and Chatham, in order to excite fears for Staten Island. The whole army was put in motion on the same day, and on the 25th the passage of the river was completed. The march of the army was continued until the 31st, in such a direction as to keep up fears for New York. The letters which had been intercepted by Sir Henry Clinton favored this deception; and so strong was the impression they had made, that he did not suspect the real object of his adversary until it had become too late to obstruct the progress of the allied army towards Virginia. He then determined to make every exertion in his power to relieve Lord Cornwallis; and, in the mean time, to act offensively in the North. An expedition was planned against New London, in Connecticut, and a strong detachment, under the command of General Arnold, was landed on the 6th of September on both sides of the harbor, about three miles from the town.
New London, a seaport town on the west side of the Thames, was defended by fort Trumbull and a redoubt, a small distance below it, and by fort Griswold, opposite to it, on Croton hill. General Arnold advanced with the troops that landed on the west side of the harbor, against the posts on that side, which, being untenable, were evacuated on his approach. Lieutenant-Colonel Eyre, with the troops that landed on the Croton side of the harbor, was ordered to storm fort Griswold, which was defended by a garrison of one hundred and sixty men. On the refusal of Colonel Ledyard to surrender, the British assaulted it on three sides, made a lodgement on the ditch and fraized work, and entered the embrasures with charged bayonets.5 Further resistance being hopeless, the action ceased on the part of the Americans, and Colonel Ledyard delivered his sword to the commanding officer of the assailants. Irritated by the loss sustained in the assault, the British officer on whom the command had devolved, tarnished the glory of victory by the inhuman use he made of it. Instead of respecting, with the generous spirit of a soldier, the gallantry he had subdued, he indulged the vindictive feelings which had been roused by the slaughter of his troops. The sword presented by Colonel Ledyard was plunged into his bosom; and the carnage was continued until the greater part of the garrison was killed or wounded.
In this fierce assault, Colonel Eyre was killed; and Major Montgomery, the second in command, also fell. The total loss of the assailants was not much less than two hundred men. The town, and the stores contained in it, were consumed by fire.
General Washington, having made arrangements for the transportation of his army down the Chesapeake, proceeded in person to Virginia. He reached Williamsburg on the 14th of September; and, accompanied by Rochambeau, Chatelleux, Knox, and Duportail, repaired immediately on board the admiral’s ship, where a plan of co-operation was adjusted, conforming to his wish in every respect, except that the Count de Grasse declined complying with a proposition to station some ships above Yorktown, thinking it too hazardous.
On the 25th of September, the last division of the allied troops arrived; soon after which the preparations for the siege were completed.
York is a small village on the south side of the river which bears that name, where the long peninsula between the York and the James is only eight miles wide. On the opposite shore is Gloucester Point, a piece of land projecting deep into the river. Both these posts were occupied by Lord Cornwallis. The communication between them was commanded by his batteries, and by some ships of war which lay under his guns. The main body of his army was encamped on the open grounds about Yorktown, within a range of outer redoubts and field-works.
On the 28th, the combined army moved by different roads towards Yorktown. About noon the different columns reached their ground, and, after driving in the piquets and some cavalry, encamped for the evening. The next day the right wing, consisting of Americans, occupied the ground east of Beaver Dam creek, while the left wing, consisting of French, was stationed on the west side of that stream. In the course of the night Lord Cornwallis withdrew from his outer lines, which were occupied by the besieging army; and the town on that side was completely invested.
Oct. 1781Two thousand men were stationed on the Gloucester side for the purpose of keeping up a rigorous blockade. On their approaching the lines, a sharp skirmish took place, which terminated unfavorably for the British; after which they remained under cover of their works.
On the night of the 6th of October, the first parallel was commenced within six hundred yards of the British lines. Before the return of daylight disclosed the operation to the garrison, the trenches were in such forwardness as to cover the men. Several batteries were opened; and by the 10th, the fire became so heavy that the besieged withdrew their cannon from the embrasures, and scarcely returned a shot. The shells and red-hot balls6 reached the ships in the harbor, and set fire to the Charon of forty-four guns, and to three large transports, which were entirely consumed. The second parallel was opened on the night of the 11th, within three hundred yards of the British lines. The three succeeding days were devoted to its completion, during which the fire of the garrison, from several new embrasures, became more destructive than at any previous time. The men in the trenches were particularly annoyed by two redoubts, advanced three hundred yards in front of the British works, which flanked the second parallel of the besiegers. Preparations were made on the 14th to carry them by storm. The attack of the one was committed to a detachment of Americans, led by the Marquis de Lafayette, and that of the other to a detachment of French, commanded by the Baron de Viominel. Towards the close of the day, both detachments marched to the assault. Colonel Hamilton7 led the advanced corps of the Americans, and Colonel Laurens turned8 the redoubt at the head of eighty men. The troops rushed to the charge without firing a gun; and, passing over the abatis and palisades, assaulted the works on all sides, and entered them with such rapidity that their loss was inconsiderable. Major Campbell, a captain, and seventeen privates were made prisoners. Eight privates were killed while the assailants were entering the works. They were defended by forty-five privates, besides officers.
The redoubt attacked by the French was defended by a greater number of men; and the resistance, being greater, was not overcome with so little loss. One hundred and twenty men, commanded by a lieutenant-colonel, were in this work, eighteen of whom were killed, and forty-two, including a captain and two subaltern officers, were made prisoners. The assailants lost, in killed and wounded, near one hundred men.
The commander-in-chief was highly gratified with the intrepidity displayed in these assaults; and, in the orders of the succeeding day, expressed in strong terms, his approbation of the judicious dispositions and gallant conduct of both the Baron de Viominel and the Marquis de Lafayette, and the officers and soldiers under their respective command.
During the same night, these redoubts were included in the second parallel.
The situation of Lord Cornwallis was becoming desperate. To suspend a catastrophe which appeared almost inevitable, he resolved on attempting to retard the completion of the second parallel by a vigorous sortie against two batteries which were in the greatest forwardness. A party led by Lieutenant-Colonel Abercrombie attacked them with great impetuosity about four in the morning of the 16th, and carried both with inconsiderable loss; but the guards from the trenches immediately advancing on the assailants, they retreated without effecting any thing of importance.
About four in the afternoon, the besiegers opened several batteries in their second parallel; and it was apparent that the works of the besieged were not in a condition to sustain so tremendous a fire as was to be expected on the succeeding day. In this extremity Lord Cornwallis formed the bold design of forcing his way to New York.
His plan was to leave his sick and baggage behind, and, crossing over in the night to Gloucester shore, to attack De Choisé.9 After cutting to pieces or dispersing the troops under that officer, he intended to mount his infantry on horses, and by forced marches to gain the fords of the great rivers, and forcing his way through the states of Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, to form a junction with the army in New York.
Boats were held in readiness to receive the troops at ten in the morning; and the first embarkation was landed at the point, unperceived, when a violent storm drove the boats down the river. It continued till near daylight, when the boats returned. But the enterprize was necessarily abandoned, and the troops brought back.
In the morning of the 17th, several new batteries were opened in the second parallel which poured in a weight of fire not to be resisted. The place being no longer tenable, Lord Cornwallis beat a parley,10 and proposed a cessation of hostilities for twenty-four hours, that commissioners might meet to settle terms for the surrender of the posts of York and Gloucester. To this letter General Washington returned an immediate answer, declaring his “ardent desire to spare the further effusion of blood, and his readiness to listen to such terms as were admissible;” but as in the present crisis, he could not consent to lose a moment in fruitless negotiations, he desired that, “the proposals of his lordship might be transmitted in writing, for which purpose a suspension of hostilities for two hours should be granted.” The proposals being such as led to the opinion that no difficulty would occur in adjusting the terms, the suspension of hostilities was prolonged for the night. In the mean time, the commander-in-chief drew up such articles as he would be willing to grant, which were transmitted to Lord Cornwallis, accompanied by a declaration that, if he approved them, commissioners might be immediately appointed to digest them into form.
The Viscount de Noailles, and Lieutenant-Colonel Laurens, were met next day by Colonel Dundass and Major Ross; but being unable to adjust the terms of capitulation definitively, only a rough draft of them was prepared, to be submitted to the consideration of the British General. General Washington, determined not to permit any suspense on the part of Lord Cornwallis, immediately directed the rough articles to be fairly transcribed, and sent them to his lordship early the next morning with a letter, expressing his expectation that they would be signed by eleven, and that the garrison would march out by two in the afternoon. Finding all attempts to obtain better terms unavailing, Lord Cornwallis submitted to a necessity no longer to be avoided, and, on the 19th of October, surrendered the posts of Yorktown and Gloucester Point with their garrisons, and the ships in the harbor with their seamen, to the land and naval forces of America and France.
The army, artillery, arms, military-chest, and stores of every description, were surrendered to General Washington; the ships and seamen to the Count de Grasse. The total number of prisoners, excluding seamen, rather exceeded seven thousand. The loss sustained by the garrison during the siege, amounted to five hundred and fifty-two, including six officers.
The allied army, including militia, may be estimated at sixteen thousand men. In the course of the siege, they lost in killed and wounded about three hundred.
The whole army merited great approbation; but, from the nature of the service, the artillerists and engineers were enabled to distinguish themselves particularly. Generals Du Portail and Knox were each promoted to the rank of Major-General; and Colonel Govion and Captain Rochfontaine, of the corps of engineers, were each advanced a grade by brevet. In addition to the officers belonging to those departments, Generals Lincoln, De Lafayette, and Steuben, were particularly mentioned by the commander-in-chief in his orders issued the day after the capitulation; and terms of peculiar warmth were applied to Governor Nelson, who continued in the field during the whole siege, at the head of the militia of Virginia; and also exerted himself greatly to furnish the army with those supplies that the country afforded.11 The highest acknowledgments were made to the Count de Rochambeau; and several other French officers were named with distinction.
The day on which the capitulation of the British army was signed at Yorktown, Sir Henry Clinton sailed from the Hook at the head of seven thousand of his best troops, convoyed by a fleet of twenty-five ships of the line, and appeared off the capes of Virginia on the 24th of October. On receiving unquestionable intelligence that Lord Cornwallis had surrendered, he returned to New York.
The exultation manifested throughout the United States at the capture of this formidable army was equal to the terror it had inspired. Congress expressed their sense of the great event in various resolutions, returning thanks to the commander-in-chief, to the Count de Rochambeau, to the Count de Grasse, to the officers of the allied army generally, and to the corps of artillery and engineers particularly. In addition to these testimonials of gratitude, they resolved that a marble column should be erected at Yorktown, with emblems of the alliance between the United States and his Most Christian Majesty, and inscribed with a succinct narrative of the surrender of Earl Cornwallis to his Excellency General Washington, the commander-in-chief of the combined forces of America and France; to his Excellency the Count de Rochambeau, commanding the auxiliary troops of his Most Christian Majesty in America; and to his Excellency Count de Grasse, commanding-in-chief the naval armament of France in the Chesapeake. Two stand of colors taken in Yorktown were presented to General Washington; two pieces of field ordnance, to the Count de Rochambeau; and application was made to his Most Christian Majesty to permit the Admiral to accept a testimonial of their approbation similar to that presented to the Count de Rochambeau. A proclamation was issued appointing the 13th day of December for general thanksgiving and prayer, on account of this signal interposition of divine providence.
The superiority of the allied force opened a prospect of still further advantages. The remaining posts of the British in the southern states were too weak to be defended against the army which had triumphed over Lord Cornwallis, and must inevitably be surrendered should the fleet co-operate against them. Although the Admiral had explicitly declared his inability to engage in any enterprise subsequent to that against Yorktown, the siege of that place had employed so much less time than he had consented to appropriate to it, that the General cherished the hope of prevailing on him to join in an expedition which must terminate the war. Every argument which might operate on his love of fame, or his desire to promote the interests of the allies, was urged in support of the application, but urged in vain. The Count acknowledged his conviction of the advantages to be expected from the enterprise, but said that “the orders of his court, ulterior projects, and his engagements with the Spaniards, rendered it impossible for him to remain on the coast during the time which would be required for the operation.” As he also declined taking on board the troops designed to reinforce General Greene, preparations were made for their march by land; and Major-General St. Clair, who commanded the detachment, was ordered to take Wilmington in his route, and to gain possession of that post.
Nov. 1781The Count de Grasse, having consented to remain in the bay a few days, for the purpose of covering the transportation of the eastern troops to the head of Elk, they were embarked early in November, under the command of General Lincoln, who was directed to canton them for the winter in New Jersey and New York. The French troops remained in Virginia; the Count de Grasse sailed for the West Indies; and the commander-in-chief proceeded to Philadelphia.
[1. ]Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, Comte de Barras (d. 1800), French admiral in command of the squadron at Newport.
[2. ]François Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse (1722–88), Rear Admiral in the French navy, commander of the French expeditionary fleet in the West Indies and America in 1781–82.
[3. ]Robert Morris (1734–1806) of Pennsylvania, Continental and U.S. Congressman from 1774 to 1778, Pennsylvania Assemblyman from 1778 to 1781, then appointed Superintendent of Finances, an executive office serving at the pleasure of Congress which he held until 1784. Later U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789 to 1795.
[4. ]Admiral George Rodney was in command of the British fleet stationed in the West Indies; Viscount Samuel Hood was Rear Admiral in the British navy, second in command to Rodney.
[5. ]A lodgement is an occupied position; entrance to or exit from a ditch or trench around a fortress might be made more daunting by fraise (fraize), a horizontal (or nearly so) fence projecting from the interior slope of the ditch; embrasures are openings in the wall or parapet of a fortress through which cannon are fired.
[6. ]Shells are projectiles containing a cavity filled with high explosive, and a fuse to produce detonation; red hot balls are cannon balls heated to redness for incendiary purposes.
[7. ]Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804) of New York, Lieutenant Colonel in the Continental army (brevet rank of Colonel); commander of a New York artillery unit he had raised, 1775 to 1777; secretary and aide-de-camp to Washington, 1777 to 1781; early in 1781 he returned to the field. Later co-author of The Federalist Papers, Confederation Congressman, and first Secretary of the Treasury under Washington.
[8. ]A turning movement is a strategic (planned) envelopment that avoids the enemy’s main position and, by attacking its flank or rear, forces it to leave its chosen position (by literally causing it to turn).
[9. ]General de Choisy of the French army, commander of the French and American forces besieging the British units in Gloucester, across the York River from Yorktown.
[10. ]To beat a drum, or sound a trumpet, as a signal for a parley (a conference with the enemy, under a flag of truce).
[11. ]Thomas Nelson, Jr., (1739–89) of Virginia, selected to fill Washington’s vacant seat in the Second Continental Congress in 1775; by 1777 Brigadier General in the Virginia militia. The British raid on the already fleeing Virginia legislature in Charlottesville on June 4, 1781, sent the remaining members to Staunton, where on June 12 they elected Nelson to succeed Governor Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s second one-year term (elected by the legislature) had begun on June 1, 1780, and on June 3, 1781, he exercised his last functions as governor, interpreting his term to have expired even though the legislature (given the British invasion and their subsequent flight) had not elected a successor; he in effect abdicated. Nelson was given emergency powers, and during his six-month term he was virtually a military dictator, struggling to raise supplies and troops for Lafayette’s forces and later the Yorktown campaign.