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Mike Duncan (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to Revolutions, Episode 28, Yorktown.
Today we come to the end of the American War of Independence. What had started in the 1760s as a political conflict over the place of the American colonies within the British Empire had turned into a military conflict that was now dragging into its sixth year. During these years, the leaders of the American Revolution had been consumed almost entirely with the task of running the war, but the victory at Yorktown finally allowed them to return to the questions that had roused them to action in the first place. What are the proper limits of government? What are the rights of the citizens? How do we reconcile the forces of power and liberty so that we can preserve freedom while maintaining stability?
While the war was on, these questions were mostly tabled in the interests of maintaining a united patriotic front, but when the war ended, it came time to figure out what it had all been for. As we will see in the episodes to come, there would turn out to be surprisingly little agreement about what the Revolution was supposed to have meant.
Before we get into it, though, I need to make a few corrections that have been helpfully passed along. Listener Malcolm expressed some surprise that the British would put an 86-year-old admiral in charge of its navy, and he was, of course, right. Admiral Arbuthnot—got the pronunciation now, too—was 68 years old. Not 86. That was just some accidental dyslexia on my part. Listener Dylan points out that Camden, South Carolina isn’t really on the border between the Carolinas, and that’s also true and was badly worded on my part. It’s down about 75 or 80 miles or so, so you know, it’s near the border, but not on the border. Finally, Listener Elizabeth reminds me that the quote about Philadelphia taking Howe rather than Howe taking Philadelphia comes from Benjamin Franklin, not George Washington, which of course it does. I don’t know how I got that wrong, but I did. Especially since there’s an old rhetorical trick where if you don’t know who said something, you can just attribute it to Benjamin Franklin, or also Mark Twain, and no one will ever call you out on it. It even works if you got some pithy quote of your own you want to test out on your friends. You know, I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who said, never trust a man who says that his favorite kind of music is whatever’s on the radio. So thank you guys for keeping me honest.
Okay, so when we left off last time in March 1781, Cornwallis had just quote-unquote won the Battle of Guildford Courthouse. The air quotes are there because the heavy casualties the British suffered not only further pinched Cornwallis’ strategic options, but also badly eroded the morale of his men. Even more than their commander, the rank and file had been suffering through this year in the Carolinas, fighting battles that settled nothing, defending positions that controlled nothing, and all the while getting jumped by gorillas, eating rotten food, and contracting all manner of disease. It was all turning out to be as deadly as it was pointless.
And now their only reward for having driven the Americans from the field at Guildford Courthouse was to find that a quarter of their comrades were dead or wounded. Are we any closer to securing the South than we were yesterday? No. Are we in fact probably even further away than ever? Sure looks like it. On the other side of the lines, General Nathaniel Green was regrouping from the quote-unquote loss at Guildford Courthouse by proposing a bold initiative to plunge into South Carolina and start attacking all those little garrisons Cornwallis had spread across the countryside in the previous year. It was a good idea because it would put Cornwallis in a bind. Or so Green thought.
The British General could either follow the American South and engage in more running battles that would exhaust his men physically and emotionally, or he could stay and try to consolidate his hold on North Carolina, leaving Green to have the run of South Carolina unopposed. But as sound as Green’s reasoning seemed to be, Cornwallis already had a third option in mind. You see, Cornwallis was just as discouraged as his men about their prospects in the Carolinas. The strategy of systematically moving from South to North was proving to be a bust. It had been entirely dependent on a partnership with a loyalist population that had turned out to be neither as plentiful nor as helpful as the British assumed.
But even as the whole war now really started to slip away from the British for good, Cornwallis dreamed up yet another grand strategy to try to salvage the situation. In a letter to Clinton purportedly asking for instructions, Cornwallis laid out what he thought those instructions ought to be. That Cornwallis should abandon the Carolinas, move into Virginia, make a base on the Chesapeake Bay. From that central pivot point, they would then divide and conquer the rebel colonies once and for all. And so, when Green plunged into South Carolina and Cornwallis did not follow, it wasn’t because he was trying to hold North Carolina, but because he was trying to get out of there as quickly as possible.
In the middle of April, 1781, Green put his plan in motion and moved first on the 900 British still garrisoning Camden, South Carolina under the command of Lord Ruddon, who was left as the senior British officer in the state when Cornwallis decided to march away to Virginia.
Green led a column of about 1,500 directly to Camden, while smaller detachments were sent round to lock up the countryside and cut off supplies and communication lines. On April 23, Francis Marion and Light Horse Harry Lee, famous cavalry colonel and father of Robert E. Lee, succeeded in capturing Fort Watson just south of Camden after they constructed a large tower that allowed sharpshooters to fire inside the fort. But Camden proved a tougher nut to crack. The British had built up the defenses since the Americans had last been in the area. Unable to storm the city right away, Green pulled back about a mile to an elevated position called Hobkirks Hill and could only hope to induce the British to come out and fight.
Luckily for Green, Lord Ruddon was both nervous about what would happen when the forces under Marion and Lee linked back up with Green, and he had been tipped off by a deserter that the Americans had no artillery. So if he was going to stop the siege before it began, now was the time to do it. So on the morning of April 25, he led his men out of Camden, skirting the edge of a swamp to hit the hopefully unsuspecting Americans. The Americans were in fact caught by surprise, but the British were then themselves surprised to find that the deserter had been wrong. Green did have himself a nice little battery of artillery.
The British came up in a narrow line, so Green ordered his now scrambling-into-line forces to envelop them while he pasted their center with the heavy guns. The British took a sharp and unexpected beating, but managed to keep themselves composed. Meanwhile, the American regiment, supposedly enveloping the left flank, saw their commander get shot down and then, in a confused attempt to regroup, wound up easy prey for a hard charge by the British that scattered them.
Meanwhile, the American cavalry that had been sent around the other side got bogged down taking some prisoners and never made it back around to the battle in time. So Green was forced to withdraw from the field. But as with Guildford Courthouse, the Battle of Hobkirks Hill was another Pyrrhic victory for the British, with 40 dead and over 200 wounded. With the Americans controlling the surrounding area, Lord Radun recognized that Camden was a lost cause. On May the 9th, he abandoned the city and headed south for Charleston.
After breaking off a detachment to go capture Augusta, Georgia — a mission that went off without a hitch — Green took the rest of his forces west to drive off the 550-man garrison — mostly loyalists — the town of 96 South Carolina. Don’t ask me why it’s called that. There’s apparently a half-dozen different legends to explain it.
Green settled in outside the fortified village on May the 22nd with about a thousand men. But the British fortifications again precluded an immediate attack, so Green had to lay siege. But after a few weeks of digging trenches, news arrived that Radun was personally leading a 2,000-man relief army out of Charleston. Having just been reinforced by the men he had sent to take Augusta, Green decided to mount an attack on 96 on June 18th before the British reinforcements could show up. The attack started well for the Americans, but as they pushed forward, their officers started getting shot up under heavy fire and the men fell back to the safety of their trenches.
With Radun breathing down his neck, Green withdrew back to the relative safety of Charlotte. But as with Camden, the tactical defeat was a strategic victory, as Radun simply collected the loyalists at 96, abandoned the village, and headed back to Charleston. Now the only spot left in South Carolina the British still controlled. If anyone personified the old cliche of losing the battle but winning the war, it was Nathaniel Green in the southern theater of the American Revolutionary War.
Back up in the North, the stalemate that had persisted for the last few years was finally about to break loose, but not without some touch-and-go trouble for General George Washington. Over the winter of 1780-1781, the inevitable finally occurred. Mutiny in the Continental ranks. The amazing thing, of course, is that it had taken this long. The grievances of the soldiers were as many as they were justified. They were badly fed, badly supplied, paid late, and then when they were paid at all, given worthless Continental script.
One of Washington’s great accomplishments—perhaps the great accomplishment—is that he exuded such a force of inspirational leadership that his men had endured without ever taking any fatal steps. Sure, desertion was a daily problem, but not mutiny. Never mutiny.
But on New Year’s Day 1781, 1,200 men from the Pennsylvania line wintering in Morristown, New Jersey had had enough. They revolted against their officers, killing a few in the process, and then they set out for Philadelphia to force the Congress to address their grievances. These guys were loyal patriots, and their rallying cry was actually, we’re not Arnold’s. But enough was enough.
Washington was concerned about confronting them personally, fearful that his aura of authority might be shattered if they did not submit, so he dispatched Mad Anthony Wayne to nip it in the bud. Wayne let the mutineers cross the Delaware River, and then surrounded them. Negotiations produced an agreement that half of these guys would be released from service altogether, and the rest furloughed until spring. But Wayne did identify the ringleaders and ordered them shot, though he was forced to also threaten to shoot the assigned executioners when they hesitated to fire on their own comrades.
Then, almost as soon as this crisis passed, another 200 men from the New Jersey line mutinied. Washington again stayed away personally, but ordered this time that there be no negotiations. This had already gone too far. The 200 mutineers were surrounded and offered no terms. They submitted, and again, the ringleaders were shot.
With the benefit of hindsight, we also now know that these two mutinies were merely preludes to the really big mutiny that will bubble up next week, a mutiny that leads to one of the most dramatic single moments of the whole Revolutionary Era, the moment when the Continental Army did not follow the example of the New Model Army, because Washington refused to be cast as an American Cromwell. The mutinies, though, did highlight the pressing necessity for more loans from the French, and over that same winter Benjamin Franklin managed to not only secure more money, but yet a deeper commitment for military assistance.
So to go back a little bit to catch up with the French, after failing to take Savannah in 1779, the Comte d’Esteigne had sailed home, where he was understandably replaced. In the spring of 1780, a new fleet was dispatched carrying 7,000 land forces that would join with Washington’s army. This army, larger even than the one Washington himself currently led, was commanded by the Comte de Rochambeau.
This fleet landed in Newport, Rhode Island in July 1780—oh, did I mention the British pulled out of Newport at the end of 1779? I didn’t? Man, there’s a lot of moving pieces here. The British moved out of Newport at the end of 1779. So the French landed at Newport, and the army disembarked, but then the British Navy promptly swung in and blockaded the lot of them. With the Navy trapped, Rochambeau refused to leave them unsupported, so the planned link-up with Washington was delayed for the year. Things might have gone on like that indefinitely, but in January 1781, a storm blew through New England that drove the British blockade from its position outside Newport. The French fleet was now free to maneuver, and the French army, under Rochambeau, was free to start making plans for a joint operation with Washington, though both the French army and French Navy maintained their base at Newport.
The timing of the storm was fortuitous, because just a few weeks earlier, Henry Clinton had decided to put the traitor Benedict Arnold to good use, and put him in charge of about 1,500 men. In late December 1780, Arnold led these forces down on a raid of Virginia, surprising the local militias, destroying the supply infrastructure, and temporarily capturing Richmond, the capital. But he didn’t have the manpower to hold it, so Arnold withdrew to the coastal city of Portsmouth, where he holed up and waited for reinforcements.
With the traitor Arnold threatening his home state, Washington dispatched the now-trusted, practically to the point of being a surrogate son, Marquis de Lafayette, down with 1,200 men to shore up the defenses. He also successfully convinced the newly freed French Navy to follow in support. As they sailed, though, the now-regrouped British fleet, under 174-year-old Admiral Arbuthnot, followed. A brief skirmish ensued when both fleets hit Virginia at just about the same time. The French decided to withdraw back to Newport, leaving the British, for the moment, in control of Chesapeake Bay.
While all of this was going on in early 1781, another French fleet, this one bound for the West Indies, set sail under the command of Admiral de Grasse. De Grasse had served with distinction under disdain during the first run through the Caribbean in 1779, and it was expected that he would wage a more vigorous and cooperative campaign than his predecessor had. This second French fleet sailed away from Europe without so much as a hey where are you going from the British Navy. This was mostly because further French and American diplomacy had brought both the Spanish and Dutch into the anti-British alliance.
Neither was technically declaring for the Americans, but they both declared against the British, which for the moment was just as good. These new threats to the home waters turned the British ministry cross-eyed and upside down, so they failed to send any ships to America that might even the balance of power at sea when this second French fleet took off. This meant that as soon as de Grasse sailed into the Caribbean in April 1781, the French – and by extension their American allies – now enjoyed a serious advantage at sea. An advantage that was about to prove decisive.
As the endgame approaches, the next major piece entered its final position, when Clinton sent yet another army into Virginia in April 1781 to continue the devastating raids. After swinging through Portsmouth to pick up Benedict Arnold, this force soon numbered just over 3,000. Baron von Steuben and the local Virginia militia tried to hold their ground, but they were forced back to Richmond. The British pursued, but Lafayette and his continentals linked up with von Steuben just in the nick of time. The British let them have Richmond and went back to raiding, all the while being reinforced until they numbered close to 6,000.
When the British general in charge suddenly dropped dead in May, Arnold found himself the senior officer in charge, a position he held for just about a week, because that’s when Cornwallis and his thousand-plus exhausted men dragged themselves into Petersburg, a strategically important city located on a tributary of the James River. In leaving the Carolinas, Cornwallis was pretty much disobeying orders. But he didn’t really care. Clinton was being incommunicative and indecisive, and obviously failed to recognize just how much the situation in the South had changed.
Not that Clinton sought to discipline Cornwallis, because for the moment, the commander-in-chief was occupied with amping his vacillation up to dizzying speeds. He ordered Cornwallis to pick a spot on Chesapeake Bay and fortify it for use as a permanent base of operations. Then Clinton ordered him to break off whatever forces he didn’t need and send them back up to New York. Okay, but I don’t really want to do that. But then the orders changed, and Cornwallis was to send these troops to Pennsylvania, which that doesn’t seem like – but then the orders changed again, and it was no on second thought do send them to New York.
Cornwallis appears to have endured this vacillation by never actually sending the troops Clinton demanded. He did, however, follow the order to build a fortified base, though not necessarily where he would have liked. Told by Clinton to fortify either Williamsburg or Yorktown, Cornwallis selected Yorktown as the lesser of two evils. It was a decision he would regret for the rest of his life. But for the time being, the British were still mostly ascendant in Virginia, and continued their devastating raids, including the famous moment when Bannister Tarleton nearly captured Thomas Jefferson, who was now governor of Virginia, missing him by just fifteen minutes.
So we all know that the coming siege of Yorktown will end the war, and as Cornwallis settled into Virginia, various American and French leaders started to recognize that he was offering them just such a golden opportunity. But it would appear that the one guy who was absolutely not recognizing this opportunity was George Washington. From the earliest days of the war, Washington had been convinced that in the end it would all come down to New York City. It was one of the reasons he had maintained such a steadfast vigil all these years.
Since 1776, it had been a major base of operations for the British, and since Clinton took over, the central base of the British Army. During New York City was obviously the thing. So after the French fleet was freed from Newport, it seemed to Washington like he was finally circling the drain on this obsession. Then Rochambeau told him that their second French fleet was down in the West Indies and was probably about to come north and help, so it’s all falling into place, right?
But Rochambeau did not really like the look of trying to take New York City, nor did some of Washington’s subordinates, but the general was utterly fixated on the idea and kept pressing Rochambeau to mask the French fleets in New York as soon as possible. In fine French diplomatic fashion, Rochambeau soothed Washington with carefully worded assurances, all the while relaying messages to his French admiral so that Cornwallis was a sitting duck in Virginia and that that would be the target, he just had to talk Washington into it.
There has been some historical debate about this over the years, but Ron Chernow’s recent biography of Washington makes it pretty clear that Washington didn’t get religion on Yorktown until the very last minute. Once he got it, he got it, especially after he was told that Yorktown was where Cornwallis was entrenching because he himself had once warned a subordinate American officer earlier in the war not to dig in at Yorktown because it would be too easy to capture.
Washington’s fixation with New York, though, did pave the way to victory at Yorktown in one important way. It convinced Henry Clinton not to send more reinforcements to Cornwallis because he was convinced Washington was about to hit him. That was because Washington was convinced Washington was about to hit him, if that makes sense. In the end, the decision to pivot to Virginia appears to have been presented to Washington as a fait accompli. In mid-August, Rochambeau told Washington that a thousand apologies, but it seems that Admiral de Grasse has made up his mind to make for Chesapeake Bay. I know, I know, but what can you do?
To his very great credit, though, Washington swallowed this and turned it into one of his great triumphs, the lightning march to Yorktown. Just a few days after receiving the news, he sent parties out to start making it look for all the world like he was about to launch an amphibious attack on Staten Island. Then, Washington broke his men into three columns and marched them at staggered intervals into New Jersey. All of this further convinced Clinton an attack was coming, and he did not realize until way too late that Washington wasn’t coming back. The Americans linked up with the French in Princeton, and were through Philadelphia before Clinton understood what was really going on.
Over the next three weeks, Washington and his army managed to cover 450 miles of not-especially-easy terrain in some pretty rotten heat. It was one of those astonishing bits of logistical genius that Washington seemed to deliver effortlessly, and it gave the Allied American and French forces the head start they needed to squeeze Cornwallis before Clinton could respond.
By the time they were making their final approach, the French fleets had massed at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and run off the outnumbered British fleet, who said, oh wow, there’s a lot of you, see you later. Washington rode ahead to meet with de Grasse and planned the operation, and was somewhat chagrined that de Grasse was only promising to stay until November the 1st. That turned out to be more than enough time. While Washington was on the road, General Greene down in South Carolina finally came down from the hills he had been camped in for the summer and made a march of his own towards Charleston. He was now leading 2,200 men, an equal mix of continentals, militiamen, irregular forces, and just, you know, guys with muskets.
On September the 8th, they surprised the British field army camped at Utah Springs, about 30 miles northwest of Charleston. The surprised British were quickly pushed back in confusion, but instead of holding together and finishing the fight, the Americans — like I say, a pretty uneven mix of characters — decided to plunder the British camp instead. This allowed the British to regroup and come charging back in to drive off the mob of looters. But now that he knew Greene’s army was in the area, there was nothing for Lord Radun to do but pull his forces back into Charleston and wait for further orders. He would still be waiting for those orders when he got the letter that the war was over.
Back up in Virginia, the combined French and American armies, now numbering about 16,000, made the final advance on Yorktown on September the 28th. Cornwallis initially had both an outer and inner line of defense, but he quickly abandoned the outer line and pulled all the troops he had — now somewhere around 8,000 — inside the city. Washington quite rightly deferred to his French allies, who were well-trained in the arts of siegecraft.
Digging began immediately for the steady advance of parallels. Through the first week of October, the Americans and French dug towards the city, then the artillery got set up and the shelling began, making life absolutely miserable for everyone inside Yorktown. During these days, Cornwallis seemed curiously inactive. He had set up shop in a grotto that served as a natural bunker, and was simply enduring the shelling. What was going through his mind we’ll never know, but he might have been expecting reinforcements from Clinton to come bail him out, but those reinforcements would never come.
On October the 14th, the second parallel was completed, and the Americans launched a night raid on some British positions. Morale inside Yorktown was now gone. Cornwallis had one available option now, and that was to ferry his men across the James River and maybe make a run for it. But after he put the first thousand men across, a storm kicked up and put a stop to it. Cornwallis now saw the writing on the wall, and the next day he sent an emissary over to Washington to talk terms. Cornwallis asked to be allowed to surrender with full military honors, but Washington replied that the British would receive the same honors the American troops at Charleston had been allowed. Which is to say, no honors at all.
At 11 AM on the morning of October 19th, 1781, 8,000 British marched out of Yorktown through a double line of American and French troops. As the British marched, they tried to focus all their attention on the French line and pretend like the Americans weren’t even there, until the Continental Band started playing Yankee Doodle Dandy to get their attention. Then in another calculated snub, Cornwallis himself refused to come in person, sending a subordinate along to surrender his sword.
Recognizing a slap in the face when he saw it, Washington refused to take the sword and directed one of his own subordinates to go pick it up. It was a bitter peace that was made that day. But it was a peace. Now of course, the victory at Yorktown did not necessarily have to end the war. Clinton was still up in New York, the Navy was still out there, and it was technically possible that the British could just send over more troops and more ships. That’s certainly what King George III wanted to do. But the reaction of Lord North to news of the surrender pretty much summed it up. Oh God, he said, it’s all over.
It was hopeless to try to carry on, and everyone knew it. The time had come to concede the war, settle the thing, and move on. Next week, we will discuss what it would mean to settle the thing. A formal peace treaty would have to be brokered between Britain and her now former colonies. Last of the British troops would have to be removed. And then of course the Americans would have to figure out what to do with their newfound independence.
- Nathanael Greene
- Benjamin Franklin
- George Washington
- Mark Twain
- Francis Marion
- Henry Lee III
- Robert E. Lee
- Henry Clinton (British Army officer, born 1730)
- Benedict Arnold
- Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette
- Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben
- Thomas Jefferson
- Ron Chernow
- George III
- Banastre Tarleton
- Anthony Wayne
Lord Cornwallis was trapped in Yorktown in October 1781. His surrender ended the American War of Independence.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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