Gen. George Washington had lost more battles than he had won. Two of the armies he established to deal with the British in Georgia and the Carolinas had been wiped out.
But Washington always seemed to find a way. Whether it was his Christmas victory at the Battle of Trenton or paying the soldiers out of his own pocket, the general was always able to pull out a miracle.
The same was true in the South, where Washington sent Gen. Nathanael Greene and Gen. Daniel Morgan to command the third Southern Continental Army.
Joined at times by the Overmountain Men from East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, Greene and Morgan scored major victories at the Battle of Kings Mountain and the Battle of Cowpens and inflicted a serious bloodletting on the British at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.
THINGS TURN TO STALEMATE
As 1780 dragged on, Washington faced off against the British forces in New York City under the command of Gen. Henry Clinton while the British forces in the South, under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis, moved to establish a deep water port at Yorktown, Virginia, and a smaller British force under the command of Gen. Benedict Arnold — yes, that Benedict Arnold — captured Richmond.
To make matters worse, the Continental Congress had once again failed to pay the soldiers.
With our very liberty at stake, Washington needed another miracle if he was to win the war.
And that miracle was getting off ships in Rhode Island.
WELCOME THE FRENCH
As early as 1775, France had secretly supported the American Revolution by shipping supplies to the Continental Army. As the alliance grew, the French began sending officers to train the Americans in the science of artillery, siege craft and infantry tactics.
But now, at this critical time in the revolution, France went all in on the side of the Americans.
Six thousand French soldiers under the command of Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, unloaded in Rhode Island and were causing trouble for the British while moving toward Gen. Washington.
In 1781, Rochambeau met with him in Connecticut to form an overall strategy against the British. And Rochambeau had news for Washington.
Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse was on the way with the French fleet and more soldiers. What’s more, de Grasse had stopped in Havana, Cuba, and picked up 500,000 silver pesos to pay the soldiers of the Continental Army and purchase extra supplies. With this information, Washington and Rochambeau formed a plan.
Washington would let word leak out that the two armies were going to attack New York. Each army would then march in that direction to reinforce that impression before turning and marching toward Virginia while a small force stayed behind to keep up the ruse.
CIRCLING THE BRITISH IN VIRGINIA
The first problem would be to deal with the British soldiers formerly under the command of Benedict Arnold, who had been transferred back to Clinton in New York, and were now under the command of Col. Banastre Tarleton.
Tarleton’s cavalry and infantry guarded one of Cornwallis’ flanks and kept his escape route on the north side of the York River open. In addition, these forces would be able to forage for food to keep the British in Yorktown fed.
A detachment of French marines and cavalry under the command of Duc de Luzun joined up with Virginia militia and a few Continental regulars to seek out Tarleton.
The two sides ran into each other unexpectedly, and the combined French and American forces drove Tarleton’s forces into Gloucester and trapped them on the banks of the York River, where they could see the British at Yorktown but do nothing to help them.
It would become known as the Battle of the Hook, and it was the first victory for the French and American alliance in the Yorktown campaign.
FRENCH VICTORY AT SEA
Both the French and British fleets were racing toward Yorktown with the French reaching Chesapeake Bay first. When the British fleet arrived, de Grasse sailed out to meet them. The two fleets pounded at each other for more than two hours before the British broke off and retreated with de Grasse chasing and continuing to harass them to allow a second fleet of French ships to bring in soldiers, supplies and siege equipment.
After eight days, de Grasse returned to the Chesapeake Bay and resumed his blockade position. The Royal Navy had been soundly beaten, and the French and American alliance had its second victory of the Yorktown campaign.
CLOSING THE CIRCLE
With the north side of the York River as well as the Chesapeake Bay blocked, that left only one way for Cornwallis to leave. And now Washington and Rochambeau arrived with their forces and surrounded the British by digging trench works 2,000 yards long. The French dug on the left and the Americans on the right. The French dug a second trench to fire on British ships trapped at anchor in Yorktown when the French fleet arrived.
On Oct. 9, the French and American cannons opened fire with Washington himself firing the first American cannon. The bombardment destroyed the ships at anchor and quickly drove in the British outer defenses except for two strongpoints known as redoubts number 9 and 10.
Not only did these two redoubts prevent Washington from completing a second line of trenches, but they were keys to the overall British defense of Yorktown.
ASSAULTING THE REDOUBTS
By Oct. 14, the second line of trenches was dug to within 140 yards of the two redoubts and the time had come to storm them.
French officers felt the task should be handled by their veteran soldiers, but the Americans, perhaps feeling a sting to their pride, insisted that they should be the ones to storm the redoubts.
Washington ordered that the French, 400 troops under the command of Lt. Col. Wilhelm von Zweibrucken, would attack redoubt 9 while the American force, 400 troops under the command of Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton, would attack redoubt 10.
Hamilton told the French that the Americans would attack with unloaded muskets, using bayonets only.
The two forces advanced under the cover of darkness and when the signal was given they charged, the Americans with unloaded muskets as promised.
The Americans were lucky. Many of the obstacles at redoubt 10 had been destroyed by an earlier cannonade, so they reached the crest quickly and made good use of the bayonet in a sharp clash of hand-to-hand fighting.
The French found the defenses at redoubt 9 fully intact and used axes to cut their way through while under heavy fire from the British.
The Americans captured redoubt 10 first and Hamilton sent a message not to Washington, but to Zweibrucken and the French forces at redoubt 9 stating, “We have our redoubt, do you have yours?”
Moments later the French took redoubt 9.
Washington had cannon in the redoubts firing on Yorktown by morning, and the end was in sight.
The British made one attempt to take back the redoubts but were repulsed.
On Oct.17, a drummer boy followed by an officer waving a white flag appeared on the British lines. The next day a meeting was held at the home of Augustine Moore and terms were agreed upon.
The articles of capitulation were signed on October 19, and at 2 p.m. the American and French lined the road out of Yorktown, and the British marched out to what is now called Surrender Field, where they laid down their arms.
Just like that, one-fourth of the British forces in North America were gone.
A fleet of British ships with reinforcements from Clinton in New York arrived five days later.
Learning of the surrender from some escapees picked up along the shore, and seeing the French fleet in the bay, the British fleet returned to New York to give Clinton the news.
Washington returned to New York as well to face Clinton again.
But there would be no battle.
When news of Cornwallis’ surrender reached England, Prime Minister Lord North is reported to have exclaimed, “Oh God, it’s all over.”
Parliament voted that the war was now too costly and any effort to continue fighting would be considered treason.
On Sept. 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, officially ending the war. The United States was now a free and independent country.
So this Fourth of July, while you’re celebrating our independence, remember not only the farmer who picked up the musket and the statesman who picked up the pen, but also the French, who sacrificed not only treasure, but blood to help us gain our liberties.
Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]