Guns of Independence:
The Siege of Yorktown, 1781
by Jerome A. Greene
Foreword reprinted with permission of Savas Beatie LLC:
On October 19, 1781, he had handed over his sword and the garrison at Yorktown to General Benjamin Lincoln. The following day, a despondent General Charles O'Hara informed Augustus Henry Fitzroy, third Duke of Grafton and holder of the Lord Privy Seal in the administration of Lord North, of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis and his army:
The Public account will inform you of the surrender of the Posts of York and Gloucester ; with their Garrisons, to the combined Forces of France and America . Our Ministers will I hope be now persuaded that America is irretrievably lost, an event I have repeatedly told your Grace would certainly happen. The French talk of attacking Charles Town, altho' they must be too well acquainted with this Country to conceive any further Conquests necessary-America is theirs-.
Not only was America now French, for that is what O'Hara's "theirs" implies, but British fortunes appeared bleak all over the Western hemisphere:
I think it very likely that Messr. Rochambeau, with the French Garrison of Rhode Island that were employ'd in the reduction of this Place, will sail with Messr. D'Grass to the West Indies, and take our few remaining Windward and Leeward West India Island Possessions; Or possibly to assist Spain in the Reduction of Jamaica.
For Charles O'Hara, the illegitimate son of James O'Hara, second Lord Tyrawley, the end of British power in the New World was close at hand. With the army "dispersed with very few Officers all over the Continent," and the Royal Navy about to "sink into the most contemptible State," the remaining British possessions were about to fall into French and Spanish hands like dominoes. The conquests of 75 years of successful warfare around the globe would soon be lost. Gone would be the spoils of Queen Anne's War (also known as the War of the Spanish Succession) brought about by the Peace of Utrecht of 1715; the gains of the War of the Austrian Succession (known as King George's War in the colonies) that the Peace of Aachen had confirmed in 1748; and the vast territorial acquisitions of the triumphal Seven Years' War (the French and Indian War) concluded by the Peace of Paris in 1763.
General George Washington would have been surprised at the lament in O'Hara's missive. As far as Washington was concerned, Cornwallis's surrender was merely "an interesting event that may be productive of much good if properly improved." Few, if any, of the American and French soldiers present at Yorktown , from the Commander in Chief to the lowliest private, considered the war to be won outright with the surrender of Cornwallis. The troops taken prisoner at Yorktown constituted only about one-quarter of the British land forces operating on the American mainland. Perhaps more important to the Allied cause was the impending departure of the fleets of de Grasse and Barras. Their absence would erase the temporary naval superiority that had made the victory at Yorktown possible. Before the Royal Navy could again control North American waters, Washington hoped to make the Yorktown victory "productive" with an attack on Charleston or Savannah , or even New York , the biggest prize of them all. Although he urged Admiral de Grasse and the comte de Rochambeau to adopt his plan, de Grasse-who had already stayed longer in American waters than he had originally planned-would have none of it. In early November 1781, the French fleet sailed out of Chesapeake Bay , never to return.
Despite O'Hara's dire predictions, all was not lost. The ministry of Lord North in London realized the colonies were beyond retrieving and would be independent. On the North American mainland, the tides of war could not be changed. But North and his royal master King George III were determined to stem the tide of war in the West Indies, at Gibraltar, in Africa, in India , and wherever else the will of Parliament was still law. Despite the devastating loss at Yorktown , Britain still had the means with which to wage a powerful global defense: her navy. Within this global context the naval Battle of the Capes of September 5, 1781-which had sealed Cornwallis's fate-turned out to be a blessing in disguise. If Admiral Graves had been able to slip or fight his way into the Chesapeake Bay with his 19 ships of the line, he would also have been caught in the trap that had netted Cornwallis. Once Admiral de Barras had joined his forces to those of de Grasse, the French fleet numbered more than 30 ships of the line-almost twice the force under Graves' command. But the British Navy emerged from the siege of Yorktown intact, allowing Admiral Sir George Bridges Rodney to score a decisive victory over de Grasse in the Battle of the Saintes on April 12, 1782.
What had begun as a rebellion-a family quarrel of sorts-at Lexington and Concord in 1775 had become a world war with the involvement of France, first clandestinely in 1776, and then openly with the signing of the treaties of Amity and Friendship and of Military Alliance in February 1778. At Yorktown in 1781, France 's crucial aid had solved the family quarrel. The United States was anxious to make peace. France , as O'Hara and the British ministry rightly feared, was not quite ready to come to terms with Britain . For Louis XVI and the comte de Vergennes, his Foreign Minister, the war on the American mainland was never more than a secondary theater of operations. As far as Versailles was concerned, the war was not being fought over Britain 's American colonies or for large territorial gains in the New World . The goal of the war France was waging across the globe with Britain was not the dismemberment of the British Empire, as O'Hara feared, or even the humiliation of a fellow monarch in London . Rather, it was to redress the balance of power in Europe and around the world that had been so rudely upset by Britain in 1763.
Within the global balance of power of 1781, the Caribbean islands, first and foremost Jamaica , were incomparably more valuable to the British crown than the American mainland. While France in its alliance with Spain continued to outnumber the British in the Caribbean, the Battle of the Saintes ensured that, for the time being, Jamaica would remain in King George's realm. Despite the outstanding efforts and daring seamanship of Admiral Pierre-André de Suffren de Saint-Tropez , India - the primary source of much of Britain 's wealth in the nineteenth century- remained British as well. When peace finally arrived in 1783, Britain could congratulate herself for only losing those parts of her Empire that were most closely connected to her in language, culture, and traditions, and whose economy was closely intertwined with her own. Few observers shared the intuition of the Count de Aranda, Spanish Ambassador to France , about the historic world consequences of the events that had taken place in North America . Reflecting upon the Peace of Paris that gave the colonies their independence, he wrote to Louis XVI in 1783, that in America , "[a] federal republic is born a pygmy but a day will come when it will be a giant, a colossus, formidable for this country."
Since its birth at Yorktown, this "colossus" has indeed become formidable, not only for France and Spain but for the world as a whole. It is nigh impossible to overestimate the world-historical consequences of the events that took place at Yorktown in 1781. Yet, more than 120 years have passed since Henry P. Johnston's Yorktown Campaign was first published in 1881. Seventy years have gone by since Colonel H. L. Landers' Virginia Campaign rolled off the press in 1931. It has been more than four decades since Thomas Fleming's Beat the Last Drum (1963) and nearly that long since Burke Davis' Campaign that Won America (1970) were made available. The fact that all of these titles, except Landers' government-sponsored study, are still in print is ample evidence of the need for an updated study reexamining one of the most consequential sieges and victories in military history.
Coming as it does on the eve of the 225th anniversary of this momentous victory in October 2006, Jerome A. Greene's The Guns of Independence : The Siege of Yorktown , 1781 meets that need admirably. Drawing upon decades of historical research that began almost 30 years ago with a historic resource study and historic structure report for the Colonial National Historical Park at Yorktown in 1976, Greene's study sheds new light on those crucial weeks of October 1781.
An expert at explaining the minutiae of the siege in a clear and understandable manner, Greene paints a vivid picture of the culmination of the campaign of 1781. Drawing upon the accounts of eyewitnesses and contemporaries from all sides of the battle-American, British, French, and German alike-the book is a highly readable account of the battle that, for all practical purposes, ended the Revolutionary War. Greene's wide range of primary sources is complemented by his in-depth knowledge of the secondary literature necessary to produce this outstanding work of scholarship.
But The Guns of Independence is much more than another (albeit highly necessary) historical account of the siege. In providing minute detail about the technicalities and procedures of a siege, the book addresses issues and answers questions nearly every other book leaves unanswered. Finally, it is also a veritable guide to the battlefield that almost begs the reader to go to Yorktown and survey the battlefield with the book in hand. Greene provides readers with the tool they need to walk in the footsteps of General Washington, of the marquis de Lafayette, the comte de Rochambeau, and of Lord Cornwallis; to stand where Colonels the marquis de Montmorency-Laval, Christian de Deux-Ponts, Elias Dayton, and Goose Van Schaick had stood; to storm Redoubts No. 9 and No. 10 with Alexander Hamilton, Jeremiah Olney, and William de Deux-Ponts; to encounter Duncan McPherson and von Seybothen; to meet Johann Ewald, Banistre Tarleton, the duc de Lauzun, and George Weedon; and finally, to dig trenches where Privates Joseph Plum Martin, Georg Daniel Flohr, and thousands of other men-American, French, or British-had dug their trenches, fought, were wounded, celebrated victory, lamented defeat, or were buried more than two centuries ago. To read Greene's book is to look out over the Chesapeake Bay and imagine the veritable forest of masts that once rose from the decks of the French fleet that held Lord Cornwallis and his army captive and without which, the victory at Yorktown would not, could not, have been won.
Jerry Greene and his publisher are to be congratulated on a fine book that will become required reading for anyone interested in the siege of Yorktown and the victory that won America her independence.
Robert A. Selig, Ph.D.
(Author of Hussars in Lebanon! A Connecticut Town and Lauzun's Legion during the American Revolution)
Holland , MI
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