The Patriot Resource - American Revolution

Battle of Yorktown
Battle of Yorktown

In May 1781, Admiral Comte de Barras arrived in Newport, Rhode Island to take command of the blockaded fleet there, but more importantly, he brought word that Admiral Comte de Grasse was on his way to the West Indies with the long awaited French fleet. On May 22, 1781, General George Washington met with Lt. General Comte de Rochambeau at Wethersfield, Connecticut where they made plans for combined operations. Because de Barras refused to bring his fleet anywhere near New York, Washington and Rochambeau decided to operate against New York City, while de Barras would move his fleet to the safety of Boston.

The situation in May 1781 was that Lt. General Henry Clinton controlled New York City with about 10,000 troops, while General Washington had about 3,500 men in the Hudson Highlands. The French flee under Admiral de Barras was trapped in Newport with roughly 4,000 French troops. The Marquis de Lafayette was in Virginia opposing British raiding parties, some of which were commanded by Benedict Arnold. Maj. General Nathanael Greene was doing what he could to contain Lt. General Charles Cornwallis in the Carolinas. However, the threat remained that Cornwallis would be able to move into Virginia.

In fact, General Cornwallis had decided to move north into Virginia, but not because General Greene could not contain him. On the contrary, Greene had done so well that Cornwallis simply wanted out of the region because of the frustrations that it brought him. Following the capture of Charleston, South Carolina on May 12, 1780, General Clinton had returned north leaving Cornwallis behind with only one directive: Cornwallis was free to carry out whatever backcountry operations that he saw fit as long as he maintained control of the important ports in Charleston and Savannah, Georgia.

At first, General Cornwallis had no problems with that order, his troops had swept through the South Carolina backcountry and virtually controlled the Southern colonies following his victory over the 'Hero of Saratoga', Maj. General Horatio Gates at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina on August 16, 1780. However, his northward momentum stalled in fall 1780 with the defeat of his screening force at the Battle of King's Mountain, South Carolina on October 7, 1780 and with the constant harassment of his supply lines and garrisons by militia leaders such as Elijah Clarke, Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens and Thomas Sumter.

The situation in the Carolinas got worse for Cornwallis following the arrival of the new Southern Department Commander General Greene on December 3, 1780. Cornwallis' cavalry and mounted troops were decimated by Brig. General Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina on January 17, 1781. In the ensuing chase, Cornwallis had burned his baggage trains in a vain attempt to catch Greene during the 'Race to the Dan River' on the North Carolina-Virgina border. On March 15, 1781, he had held the field at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina against Greene, but suffered huge losses in doing so.

After nursing his struggling forces for two months, General Cornwallis decided to abandon the Carolinas, move up through Virginia, join up with General Clinton at New York and crush the Continental main army under General Washington. Washington and Rochambeau had only been conducting their operations around New York City for two weeks when they learned that Cornwallis was in Virginia. Cornwallis arrived in Petersburg, Virginia, on May 20, 1781.

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