Battle of Yorktown
“Now or never our deliverance must come”
“We are at the end of our tether, and now or never our deliverance must come”, wrote a discouraged George Washington in April 1781. The rebellion was in its seventh long year. The terrible strains of the conflict continued to crush the agrarian-based economy and a population ravaged by a nightmarish smallpox epidemic. Continental currency continued to hyper-inflate, and finally collapsed in May 1781. The Council in Philadelphia began to publish the month-to-month rates of currency to specie, and weary consumers then multiplied the official rate by three. At the time of its demise in the spring before Yorktown, the currency to specie ratio was officially 175 to one, or 525 to one, according to the informal calculations of the public. A procession was held in Philadelphia to spiritedly mark its collapse, with people marching with dollars in their hats as paper plumes. An unhappy dog trotted alongside, tarred and pasted with the worthless paper.
As he planned for the Yorktown campaign, Washington was desperate for hard specie to pay the troops. He wrote to Robert Morris, “I must entreat you, if possible, to procure one months pay in specie for the detachment under my command. Part of the troops have not been paid anything for a long time past and have upon several occasions shown marks of great discontent,” an understated reference to the mutinies and general unrest that were occurring among the troops.
“You may depend upon this amount”
The most decisive naval battle of the American Revolution was fought under French commanders with French ships and French sailors and marines. On March 22, 1781, Rear Admiral Francois Josef Paul, comte de Grasse, sailed for the Caribbean with an armada of over twenty ships of the line, leading a convoy of French merchant vessels that numbered 150. He also ferried infantry reinforcements for Rochambeau. His command ship was the Ville de Paris, reportedly the largest warship on the eighteenth-century seas. A gift of the people of Paris to the Americans, the Ville de Paris was an imposing vessel of 110 guns on three gun decks. Admiral de Grasse’s mission was to reinforce the French possessions in the West Indies, and then to turn his actions towards the North American theater. His fleet sighted land in Martinique on April 28, a remarkably swift transatlantic crossing for a fleet of this size. He stated his orders from the French court in a heartening message to the worried Rochambeau, “His Majesty has entrusted me with the command of the naval force destined for North America. The force which I command is sufficient to fulfill the offensive plans…of the Allied powers to secure an honorable peace.”
At this point in the summer of 1781, the French war chest in North America was also in dramatic straits. A shipment of gold was due to arrive in Boston sometime in the early fall, but with the dangers and unpredictability of overland transport, Rochambeau knew that he could not depend on these funds for the Virginia campaign. He wrote to de Grasse on June 6, 1781, stating that his funds were insufficient to maintain his army longer than August 20, and he felt that it was impossible to secure the needed gold or silver specie at any price. Rochambeau also corresponded as to the condition of the Continental Army, “I should not conceal from you, M. l’Amiral, that these people are at the very end of the resources or that Washington will not have at his disposal half of the number of troops he counted upon having. While he is secretive on this subject I believe that at present he has not more than 6,000 men all told.”
De Grasse turned to the Spanish for assistance, who had been aiding the French with cash financing in their battles against the British in the West Indies. Francisco de Saavedra de Sangronis was a central figure who assisted de Grasse in raising the funds through a dramatic, last minute collection of silver and gold from private citizens in Havana, Cuba.
After receiving the funds, de Grasse proceeded to speed his fleet to the north. Spy ships prowled the waters of the West Indies and de Grasse feared that the British had some knowledge of his mission. Realizing that he was critically pressed for time to reach Yorktown, the Admiral made the decision to take the fleet with its precious cargo through the old Bahamian Channel, “the famous dreaded channel, where no French fleet had ever passed.”
A fretful General Washington and his staff waited for news of de Grasse. The army planned to march in to Philadelphia on September 2. Washington, determined that the weary men should look as presentable as possible, ordered that flour from precious rations be distributed, so that the men with wigs could powder them. While Washington paced anxiously, de Grasse had arrived in the Chesapeake Bay and wrote to Rochambeau on August 30 aboard the Ville de Paris. De Grasse noted his “great pleasure” in arriving at the Chesapeake Bay, and that he had departed on August 3rd from Santo Domingo. He wrote that it had been necessary to stop in Havana for the 1.2 million livres. He also noted that he was ferrying the 3,200 reinforcements that Rochambeau had also requested.
The reaction of the normally reserved Washington to de Grasses arrival underscores the importance with which the Commander in Chief viewed the naval reinforcements. Washington was spotted by a bemused Rochambeau as “waving his hat at me with demonstrative gestures of the greatest joy. When I rode up to him, he explained that he had just received a dispatch … informing him that de Grasse had arrived.”
The arrival of de Grasse, with its timing decidedly impacted by the speed of the collection of specie from Havana, was harrowingly close for eighteenth-century military maneuvers. On September 1, British Admiral Thomas Graves sailed from New York for the Chesapeake with a fleet of nineteen ships, and in the dawn light of September 5, Graves sighted the Chesapeake capes. De Grasses men too were on the lookout in that early morning, but for the French ships of de Barras that were supposed to be heading south to join them. The French in de Grasses fleet soon realized that the oncoming ships plowing across the seas were British, and sprinkled the decks with sand to soak the blood that would be splattered in the morning battle. De Grasse would enter this battle with his entire fleet, as insisted upon by Saavedra, and had at least five more ships-of-the-line than Graves.
The battle raged throughout the day and into the night. Wood shattered, canvas sails ripped, cannons balls screamed, and the cries of wounded and dying rolled across the blue and white waves of smoldering seas. Finally, both sides halted to count their casualties and briefly mourn their dead. Repairing their ships on September 6th, the fight resumed the next day, and by now the dueling navies had drifted south from the Chesapeake to the vicinity of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
By the 9th, de Grasse had turned back towards the Chesapeake, fearing that the British would do the same, as Commodore Louis Antonione de Bougainville wrote, “I am very much afraid that the British might try to get to the Chesapeake … ahead of us.” Their fears were unfounded, however, and there to greet them in the calm waters of the Bay were the reinforcements of de Barras. De Grasse now had thirty-five ships of the line, and would be able to hold the Chesapeake Bay and major rivers for the siege and land battle of Yorktown to unfold.
A council of war was held by the British navy, and Admirals Graves and Hood concluded that given “the position of the enemy, the present condition of the British fleet and the impracticability of giving any effectual succour to General Earl Cornwallis … it was resolved the British squadron should proceed with all dispatch to New York.” The British ships withdrew, leaving Cornwallis and his army to defend themselves against the combined American and French forces. News of the defeat of his navy at the Chesapeake Capes reached a shocked King George in London, and he confided to the Earl of Sandwich in a decidedly different tone than his pronouncements of September 1780, “I nearly think the empire ruined … this cruel event is too recent for me to be as yet able to say more.”
For a copy of this article with footnotes (remember those?), please click here Battle of Yorktown Citations.