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Celebrating A Decisive Franco-American Victory

[ Posted Tuesday, October 19th, 2021 – 15:02 UTC ]

[Program Note: When I sat down to write today's article, what was foremost in my mind was the former president proving again what an absolutely miserable excuse for a human being he truly is, but I resisted the urge to write about it or him (I'm not even going to provide a link to the story, in fact). Anyone who marks the passing of an American patriot and soldier by making it all about himself doesn't deserve even the scorn that is currently being heaped upon him -- he deserves nothing short of being ignored, instead. So I thought I'd write about another patriotic military subject, seeing what day it is on the calendar.]


Today marks the 240th anniversary of the United States of America taking its place at the world's table of nations. No, it's not the Fourth of July or even the ratification of the Constitution, but instead today is the day that British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, Virginia. This was the pivotal moment in the Revolutionary War when the British began negotiating with the United States instead of continuing the attempt to militarily crush the rebellion in the colonies. It was also the last significant battle fought in the American Revolution. Although the Treaty of Paris wasn't signed for two more years, this was really the point where we won the war, to put it another way. And that's certainly worth celebrating.

Without devolving into a blow-by-blow description of the battle, Yorktown was the culmination of some very good luck for the American side. Right when we sorely needed it. From James Michener's novel Chesapeake comes a rather eye-opening description of where the Revolution stood before the siege of Yorktown:

In that year [1781] the English army, consolidated at last under a succession of daring generals, began to chew the south apart. Victory upon victory crushed General Washington's lieutenants in Georgia and South Carolina, and it became clear that a few colonial farmers, no matter how brave, were no match for hundreds of well-trained English regulars supported by large guns.

And when General Cornwallis began ravaging Virginia, and Admiral Rodney assembled a fleet of battleships in the Caribbean, ready to invade the Chesapeake, it seemed obvious that the revolution was doomed. New York lay in English hands; Philadelphia was neutralized; Boston and Newport were powerless to send support, and no major port along the Atlantic was open to American vessels, even if any had succeeded in penetrating the blockade.

Men had begun to openly talk of defeat and started calculating among themselves what kind of terms they might be able to wheedle from the victorious English.

Adding to our good luck was the tangible participation of the French in the war. Generals Lafayette and Rochambeau and their troops were instrumental in reversing the Continental Army's fortunes. After an agonizing strategic choice, General Washington led his forces to join up with the French to attack the British at Yorktown, where a fortified deep-water port was being set up by Cornwallis to provide a safe harbor (literally) for the incoming British troops and supplies.

I have previously written about the truly decisive battle of the Revolution, which was a naval exchange in which no American actually participated. The Battle of the Chesapeake (or the Battle of the Virginia Capes, take your pick) was fought by a French fleet who had faced their own agonizing choice. Moving up from the Caribbean, Admiral Compte de Grasse could have either attempted to break the British blockade of New York City or of the Chesapeake. While sailing north, he feinted towards New York but moved his ships instead to the Chesapeake Bay.

When he arrived, he landed and sent his crew out to forage for supplies and to give them some shore leave. Which is precisely when the British fleet arrived. Instead of doing the intelligent thing (immediately surrendering), de Grasse instead cut anchor and sent his fleet on a mad dash for open ocean. The British admiral could easily have destroyed the French fleet while they were anchored and really should have been able to destroy them at the mouth of the Chesapeake. But luck prevailed. The French not only made it to the open sea, but they wore the British fleet down so much in the battle which followed that the British essentially were forced to cede the Chesapeake to the French fleet. Again, I have written about this in much greater detail, for anyone who is interested.

The French naval victory was decisive. It meant the British were trapped in Yorktown, with no hope of resupply or escape. They couldn't retreat, because the only way to do so was by water. And those waters were now dominated by the French. It also meant that the French were able to land and unload heavy cannons, which aided the besieging forces.

The British army was surrounded, by land or by sea. They had a limited number of supplies. So Washington and the French forces just outwaited them and gradually wore them down. A month and a half later, Cornwallis was forced to surrender, as the American lines got closer and closer to his defenses while he faced regular artillery bombardment.

On the world stage, this surrender was as significant as the American military leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban. It was that order of magnitude -- a world superpower being humiliated and giving up in defeat to a fighting force that no one in their right mind would have bet on to be the ultimate victors. It was the Mudville Nine beating the New York Yankees, to use a sports metaphor.

The American myth holds that the British army band played the song "The World Turn'd Upside Down" as the British army formally surrendered to the Americans and the French. It's a great story because it symbolizes the monumental shift in the world's power structure which was taking place.

A lot of it was luck. And an immense amount of it was the strength of the French fighting forces, on both land and sea. George Washington didn't personally win this battle, to put it as politely as possible. But our side did win, in the end. And the world was indeed turned upside down.

We are less than five years away from celebrating America's 250th birthday, but if the Battle of Yorktown hadn't been won by the American side, the Declaration of Independence might have been nothing more than an obscure footnote in history from a failed revolution. I mean, how much do any of us know today about Bacon's Rebellion or the Whiskey Rebellion? The winners get to write the history books, and Yorktown was what made the United States the winner. The British began seriously negotiating independence immediately afterwards, and two years later peace was achieved.

So today, I am marking the 240th anniversary of the surrender of General Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown. Because that is really when the United States of America did earn its place at the table of the world's nation's. And that's something worth celebrating indeed.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


6 Comments on “Celebrating A Decisive Franco-American Victory”

  1. [1] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    Very nice commentary. Vive la France, and 'Lafayette, we are here'.

    I would only add my understanding that the American lines did not get "closer and closer" to Cornwallis' position by themselves. Washington did not just "outwait" the British, he advanced his siege by a series of bombardments combined with attacks by his army on defended lines. This gave the American soldiers some motivation for staying with the army and doing some fighting, and allowed some staff officers like Hamilton to get some combat experience.

    I was told once that Governor Nelson of Virginia, nominally a distant ancestor of mine, was with the American forces and directed the bombardment of Yorktown. Supposedly he said something like, "See that house over there? It is certainly the British headquarters as it is the best place in town - it's my townhouse. Open fire." Legendarily the house still stands, with some damage to its structure attributed to the American cannon fire.

  2. [2] 
    andygaus wrote:

    Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" was published in 1776 and contains an economic analysis of how fighting a war on the other side of the ocean affected the British economy. As you might imagine, the effects were disastrous.

  3. [3] 
    andygaus wrote:

    What is less worth celebrating is what happened on October 25th: General Washington issued an order to round up all the Black people who quite sensibly had gone over to the side of freedom, namely, the British, and to return them to slavery. Read it on "The Yorktown Tragedy." I'm amazed that in all these years I never heard about that till now.

  4. [4] 
    SF Bear wrote:

    4 andygaus - The story of Yorktown has always been available, the facts you point out about Washington's behavior are not newly discovered. The racist behavior of our founding fathers has always been known and the fact that the very structure of our country was the result of accommodating the interest of slavery has been available to anyone to see. What is surprising to me is that it has taken all this time for our country to openly confront our sordid past. The question I ask is after almost 300 years: Why Now?

  5. [5] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Bear [5]

    What's the point in "confronting our sordid past"?

    The question seems to imply that we do not have a "sordid" present, and do not anticipate having a "sordid future".

    I question the validity of either of those presumptions.

  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    i daresay we're a bit less sordid than we used to be

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