Monday, December 14, 2009 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

"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
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 Washington,
Bloomsbury, Copyright 2009 by John Ferling,
pp. 209-211.


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