Victory at Yorktown, page 1
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List of Maps
1. So Much Is at Stake
2. France Will Turn the Tide
3. So Hellish a Plot
4. Beware the Back Water Men
5. A Little Persevering and Determined Army
6. Our Deliverance Must Come
7. A Partial Engagement
8. Prepare to Hear the Worst
9. I Propose a Cessation of Hostilities
10. The Hand of Heaven Displayed
11. I Now Take Leave of You
Also by Richard M. Ketchum
About the Author
This book is dedicated to our grandchildren
Derek and Ethan Murrow
Dylan, Diana, Ben, Bray, and Fred Ketchum
with the hope that they may find
the story of America’s past
as captivating as I have.
The Road to Yorktown
War in the South, 1780–1781
The Siege of Yorktown, October 1781
George Washington’s life mask by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1785.
(Morgan Library, Dept. of Drawings and Prints. Accession no. AZ151)
He was the American Revolution, this man whose life mask reveals so much about his character.
When the fighting erupted at Lexington and Concord, it was not yet a war for independence—not even a war, for that matter, but a sure sign that the ugly dispute between the colonies and Great Britain had reached incendiary proportions.
Less than two months later, on June 15, 1775, the Congress of sixty-four delegates from twelve colonies (Georgia’s representatives were not present) unanimously elected the quiet, reserved Virginia planter “to command all the Continental forces raised or to be raised for the defense of American liberty.” As grand as that sounded, it meant merely that he was to take charge of a ragtag collection of farmers and tradesmen who made up a volunteer “army” surrounding the British troops in Boston. From that moment on, for more than eight years, George Washington was the commander in chief of the Continental Army, known as His Excellency, or more often as the General, the capital letter signifying that, while there might be other generals, he was someone special.
The Virginian, who was selected in part because he was not a New Englander and therefore might unite colonies whose history was one of rivalry and distrust, had been slow to conclude that armed resistance to Great Britain was necessary or in the best interest of the colonies. After he passed that milestone, Washington still had little faith that he was capable of the immense task that had been entrusted to him. He admitted to a conviction of his “own incapacity and want of experience in the conduct of so momentous a concern.” Nor was he reluctant to reveal these doubts in public. In his acceptance speech to Congress he declared, “Lest some unlucky event should happen, unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered, by every gentleman in the room, that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.” He was a proud man, ever conscious of what his peers thought of him, so anxious that nothing mar his reputation that the possibility of failure in the top command haunted him.
After all, he had never commanded more than a relative handful of men, had little experience or background in the tactics of warfare, far less in designing strategy. Yet here he was, responsible for using the Continental Army in a manner that would do the most damage to one of the best fighting forces in the world. He never had an adequate number of troops, nor access to a navy that might contain or at least frustrate the enemy. And most of the time he lacked the money to pay his men, buy the food for their survival, or purchase the clothing, shoes, and blankets to keep them even marginally comfortable.
Congress did not vote to go to war with the mother country. The members simply elected George Washington to command the armed forces and then resolved to “maintain and assist him, and adhere to him … with their lives and fortunes.…” They left it to him to wage war if that was what it took for “the maintenance and preservation of American liberty.” Washington knew, as did most of his colleagues, what all of them risked by waging war against their king and country and what the penalties for treason were, and he recalled later that soldiers and congressmen alike chose independence “with halters about their necks.”
As a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress, he socialized regularly with other representatives, was reserved but eminently companionable, laughing at jokes, proposing toasts, amusing his companions with comments on the foibles of mankind, enjoying with relish an evening of dancing. He practiced the advice he once gave to his nephew: “Be courteous to all but intimate with few; and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence; true friendship is a plant of slow growth.…”
In meetings he generally said little but absorbed everything that was discussed and occasionally summed it up for his colleagues. Thomas Jefferson served with Washington in the Virginia House of Burgesses and with Benjamin Franklin in the Congress, and as he put it, “I never heard either of them speak ten minutes at a time, nor to any but the main point which was to decide the question. They laid their shoulders to the great points, knowing that the little ones would follow of themselves.”
Later, a French officer observed that the General’s face was frequently grave or serious, but never stern, and usually became “softened by the most gracious and amiable smile. He is affable and converses with his officers familiarly and gaily.” As John Adams’s wife, Abigail, described him so aptly, he “has a dignity which forbids familiarity, mixed with an easy affability which creates love and reverence.”
Along with his other qualities, George Washington had the look of a leader. He stood a head taller than most of his contemporaries, and he was an imposing figure, whose large bones, hands, feet, and thighs gave the impression of great physical strength. The life mask of him made by Jean-Antoine Houdon in 1785 captured his features so faithfully that it was, according to the French sculptor, “the most perfect reproduction of Washington’s own face.” As the painter Gilbert Stuart put it, the “features in his face [were] totally different from what I had observed in any other human being. The sockets of his eyes, for instance, were larger than what I had ever met before, and the upper part of the nose broader.” His face, which bore a trace of smallpox scars, was usually sunburned, his hair reddish brown, the eyes gray-blue. What everyone also noticed was the astonishing grace with which this big man walked, with a stride that was fluid and quiet, as he had learned to travel through the wilderness.
He was accused at times of indecisiveness, and there was something to the charge, but Washington was a farmer and surveyor, who had learned through years of experience that results do not come overnight and that patience and time are required for goals to be achieved. In fact, one of his noblest assets was self-discipline, which was responsible for his astounding patience and composure under the most trying circumstances imaginable.
Some of his darkest moments came during the retreat across the Jerseys after the disastrous loss of New York, but gradually he began to take h
He asked more of his men than most commanders would, or did, and those men were willing to suffer terrible hardships partly because they believed in the cause they were fighting for and partly because the man who led them did more than lead; he inspired. He took risks in battle that terrified his aides while making his men love him all the more. Through all the years of disappointment and suffering—when the army was plagued with desertions for lack of food and clothing and pay, when Congress proved incapable of providing the army with more men* or the essentials for survival—Washington never quit, never lost his dedication to freedom, never ceased to believe in the possibility of victory.
Mostly he presided over defeats, but thanks to a boundless reservoir of optimism he never despaired for long. He was a man of deep moral principles, with a profound belief that Providence was an active participant in what he and his army were engaged in doing. Happily for the confederacy of states, Washington never forgot that he served at the pleasure of the citizens who purported to run the country. To the end of the war he was an unreconstructed civilian serving somewhat reluctantly in uniform.
He could so easily have taken a different road, one that led to a military dictatorship, but he believed in the supremacy of civilian rule and deferred time and again to the oversight of Congress, even when that body did its best to shirk responsibility. The fact that the army was the only effective force in the struggle for the country’s survival and its independence, and that Washington was at the very center of that fight, made him more than an important personage; he became the very soul of the Revolution.
Washington was not a great general in the usual sense of the phrase. As the Prince de Broglie, who came to America with the French army, realized, “to award him the title of a truly great soldier, it will, I believe, be necessary to see him at the head of a larger army, with more means at his command and on more equal terms with the enemy.” Yet his situation was unlike that of an Alexander or a Napoleon; it was a war in which the American armies consistently lost most of their battles, a war that was more often than not guerrilla combat, with the rebels all too often fighting under unequal odds, fighting under conditions that demanded unorthodox solutions.
To the great good fortune of the American states and the future of their patchwork country, in George Washington they had found a leader of unsurpassed persistence, with a will to win that simply would not be turned aside, a man whose one goal remained the same for more than half a decade: victory.
From the time Washington took charge of the New Englanders who encircled General Thomas Gage’s army in Boston, until 1781, when many of those same Yankees, and others who had been with him at the very beginning, surrounded the redcoats at Yorktown, in Virginia, he took a leave from the army only once—from the evening of September 9 to dawn on the 12th—when he returned to his beloved Mount Vernon for the first time, and then it was to entertain the French generals Rochambeau and Chastellux and their staffs.
After six years of fighting and indescribable suffering, George Washington’s Continental Army left the Northeast for the first time and headed south toward Yorktown, on a mission that would demand every ounce of that army’s remaining stamina and resolve, plus a great dose of luck and timely assistance from the “Providence” so often mentioned by the commander in chief.
George Washington had never won a major battle, but on this occasion he had an unparalleled opportunity. In addition to his Continental veterans he commanded a superb French army sent here by King Louis XVI, and he hoped to receive the support of a French fleet. How he used these forces could determine whether the war would drag on or whether America would at long last achieve its independence.
SO MUCH IS AT STAKE
Five years had passed since that momentous third Wednesday in April of 1775—a day of sudden violence that began in the gray half-light of dawn, with young William Diamond frantically beating his drum as church bells from every nearby town clanged madly, calling the Mas-sachusetts militia to arms. Who fired first was never known, but when a couple of gunshots rang out, some two hundred tired, anxious British regulars opened up with a ragged volley at four- or fivescore equally nervous farmers assembled on Lexington green, and King George’s regulars and his American colonists had been fighting ever since.
Now it was 1780, and the Revolution that had begun in 1775 was expiring for lack of support. George Washington, the harried commander in chief of what passed for the military forces of the United States, was pleading with Congress for a draft that would produce a Continental Army of 22,680, with 17,320 militiamen to supplement them, but the likelihood of anything like an additional 40,000 men joining up was preposterous, as the General knew, given the unwillingness of the states to come up with their quotas.
At most, the Continental Army garrisoned at West Point was estimated to number 9,000 men, but the reality was that only 3,278 of them reported fit for duty—meaning that they had shoes and clothing and were reasonably healthy. Out of a population of 2.5 million people, fewer than 1 percent were willing to join the regular army fighting for their country’s independence.
Except for those troops who were in the Highlands of the Hudson River and soldiers in the southern states, the main army had spent the past winter in Morristown, New Jersey, twenty-five miles west of New York City, on high ground protected by the Watchung Mountains, overlooking the roads between New York and Philadelphia. Here the army’s season of greatest discontent had begun on January 3 with a blizzard—a storm so terrible that “no man could endure its violence many minutes without danger of his life,” according to Surgeon James Thacher, who watched helplessly as four feet of snow piled up in as many days, covering the tents and burying the men like sheep. A contemporary recorded twenty-seven more snowfalls that awful winter, with weather so frigid in the succeeding months that the Hudson River froze solid from Manhattan to Paulus Hook and the snow remained on the ground until May, surpassing anything the oldest inhabitants could recall. When spring finally came, some of the General’s infantry companies could muster only four or five men, with the average complement about fifteen. One of his generals reported that he had officers who were embarrassed to come out of their huts; they were almost naked. Worst of all was the number of men suffering from hunger. At one time Private Joseph Plumb Martin, a Connecticut Yankee, had nothing whatever to eat for four days and nights, except some black birch bark he gnawed off a stick of wood, and after seeing several men roast their old shoes and eat them he heard that some of the officers had killed a favorite little dog for a meal. Other officers put themselves on a diet of bread and water so their men could have what meat there was.
In May the situation had come to a head when troops of the 4th and 8th Regiments of the Connecticut regulars mutinied; they had not been paid for five months, they had had neither meat nor bread for ten days, they were angry, mortally weary of suffering, and they decided to quit and go home. Fortunately, the mutiny produced little violence beyond a few scuffles and an apparently accidental bayonet wound suffered by Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs, after which some quick-thinking officers ordered other Connecticut regiments to parade at once without their arms. After they turned out, guards took stations between them and their huts so they could not retrieve their muskets. At that, the men of the 4th and 8th didn’t quite know what to do and, still fuming, stalked back to their camps, where their officers appealed to them to remain calm. As they did so, soldiers of a Pennsylvania brigade surrounded the Connecticut camps, but when officers huddled to decide what should be done next, they wisely determined to withdraw the Pennsylvania troops—the risk was too great that those men, too,
As Washington knew, the only money available to pay these men was virtually worthless Continental currency, but he figured that food was a more important need just now and appealed yet again to Commissary General Ephraim Blaine, who was doing his level best to find some meat. That gentleman had his own problems prying money out of the Congress: “I am loaded with debt,” he told the General, “and have not had a shilling this two months.” This meant that the troops would continue to plunder the surrounding neighborhood for food, but there was no helping it and Washington’s officers were as disgusted as he was. Major General Nathanael Greene grumbled that “a country overflowing with plenty [is] now suffering an army employed for the defense of everything dear and valuable to perish for lack of food,” and Colonel Samuel Webb cried out in frustration, “I damn my country for lack of gratitude!”
Ever since the rebel victory at Saratoga, in 1777, had convinced France to sign a treaty of alliance with the United States, George Washington had been waiting and praying for French intervention to come soon, but as the weeks and months passed with no sign that help was on the way, his hopes waned. The situation suited many a Francophobe in America, like the New York attorney and loyalist William Smith, Jr., who wrote, “I dread France—She will be guided only by motives of Interest—No Promises will bind her—She will percieve it more advantageous to her Ambition to ferment animosities than hastily to plunge into a War—She will decieve both Parties that her ends may be achieved at our Expence.”
Fortunately for the patriots, the young French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette, a volunteer who had been serving in Washington’s army, returned to Versailles in 1779 and came back to America a year later with the welcome news that seven French ships of the line, ten to twelve thousand veteran troops led by Comte de Rochambeau, and a war chest of 6 million livres were on the way and should arrive in Rhode Island in June. Even more encouraging to Washington, who believed that the key to victory in this war was to recapture New York from the British, the French had orders to join the American forces in an attack on that city. But what of the rebels who were to fight alongside the French? When Lafayette rejoined Washington in Morristown, he was appalled to find “An Army that is reduced to nothing, that wants provisions, that has not one of the necessary means to make war.” However prepared for such squalor he may have been by his knowledge of past distress, “I confess I had no idea of such an extremity,” he wrote.