12/14/09 - yorktown

In today's excerpt - General George Washington though indispensable to the cause of the American Revolution and a supremely gifted leader showed poor instincts for military strategy throughout the revolutionary war. When the time came for the final decisive battle of in Yorktown, Virginia—the battle that ended the war—Washington's strong preference was to try and retake Manhattan from the British instead. However, the French general who had just been sent to serve under him the seasoned military strategist Comte de Rochambeau—whose government was strained financially and highly eager to end the war—maneuvered things to insure that Washington's army went to Yorktown instead:

"When Washington and Rochambeau met in May 1781 in Weathersfield, Connecticut, to plan that year's last-ditch campaign, they knew few of [American General Nathaniel] Greene's successful activities and nothing of [British General] Cornwallis's decision to march his army into Virginia. Once the pleasantries—a military parade and formal dinner—were out of the way, the two generals and their staffs sat down to talk. The discussions were frank and at times heated. After revealing the financial gift that his country was making to its allies, Rochambeau asked Washington what operations he envisioned for the coming summer. To one's surprise [given his war-long obsession with retaking Manhattan], Washington urged a campaign to take New York, claiming that Clinton [the British general in New York] was weaker than ever, having sent raiders to Virginia and reinforcements to the Carolinas.

"Losing his patience—a French observer later said that Rochambeau treated Washington with 'all the ungraciousness and all the unpleasantness possible'—the French commander earnestly reiterated his objections to focusing on New York. He then proposed a campaign in Virginia. Though unaware of Cornwallis's epic decision, [to march north to Virginia] Rochambeau knew there was a British army of roughly thirty-five hundred men in Virginia. The allies would have numerical superiority. If they could trap the enemy force, the long-awaited victory that could break Great Britain's will to continue might be achieved. But Washington was intransigent. The allies must focus on New York. Washington 'did not conceive the affairs of the south to be such urgency,' the French general subsequently recalled. Given that Rochambeau remained under orders from France to defer to the wishes of the American commander, he consented to march his army from Rhode Island to the periphery of Manhattan, where the allies would prepare for a joint operation to retake New York.

"Washington was delighted. He had prevailed, or so it seemed. The campaign for New York of which he had dreamed for three long years was imminent. After three days of talks, Washington bade farewell and rode back to the Hudson to await the arrival of the French army. But there was something that Rochambeau had not divulged. He had neglected to inform Washington that the French fleet in the Caribbean had been ordered to sail to North America that summer. Immediately following Washington's departure from Weathersfield, Rochambeau sat down at his desk and drafted a crucial letter to the Comte de Grasse, commander of the French fleet. He did not ask him to sail to New York. Instead, Rochambeau urged de Grasse to bring the fleet to the Chesapeake. Unbeknownst to Washington, and in defiance of his wishes, Rochambeau was secretly planning what he believed would be a campaign that was more likely than an attack on New York to produce a decisive outcome. His object was to confront General Washington with a fait accompli.

"As the lush days of spring faded into high summer in 1781, three army commanders ruminated over strategy. Only Washington believed the allies could succeed in a campaign to take New York. Rochambeau and Clinton—both lifelong professional officers—were convinced that the redcoats having had five long years to prepare for the defense of Manhattan and Long Island, could repulse anything the allies threw at them, even a joint land-sea siege and assault. Indeed, Clinton prayed that the allies would attack New York. If their campaign failed, as he was certain it would the will to continue hostilities would surely evaporate in France and America. Great Britain would do very well at the peace conference that followed. In his wildest dreams, Clinton even imagined that Britain might win this war in the event of a failed allied campaign to take New York.

"[Washington yielded to Rochambeau and the American army turned south and went to Virginia where it overwhelmingly defeated Cornwallis and ended the war.]"


John Ferling


The Ascent of George Washington: THe Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon


Bloomsbury Press


Copyright 2009 John Ferling


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