The Yorktown Campaign
Arnold and Cornwallis in Virginia.—When Benedict Arnold joined the British, he was rewarded with a brigadier-general's commission and sent to Virginia to cut off Greene's retreat if Cornwallis succeeded in driving that astute commander out of the Carolinas. Arnold marched up the James River and burned Richmond, but when the Virginia militia gathered in large numbers, he retreated to Portsmouth, where Lafayette, who had been sent to command in Virginia, held him in check. In the spring of 1781 Cornwallis transferred his forces to Petersburg, and Arnold was sent to Connecticut to conduct a campaign of rapine. Reinforcements were sent from New York and with an army of over seven thousand men Cornwallis began the conquest of Virginia, but he received no Loyalist support and he failed to crush the forces of Lafayette. After several weeks of ineffectual campaigning, he retired to Yorktown where he established himself behind strong fortifications.
Rodney and De Grasse in the West Indies.—The safety of Cornwallis's army depended upon the control of the sea. Since the beginning of the war the British had kept the sea lanes open. Time and again the fleet had enabled them to win victories or to extricate themselves from dangerous positions. Washington realized this and the burden of his letters to Franklin was the necessity of naval superiority. Vergennes made every effort to equip an overwhelming fleet and in March, 1781, a great armament under De Grasse sailed for the West Indies. And none too soon did they arrive, for Rodney was carrying all before him. In January he had been reinforced by eight ships of the line under Hood and on February 3 the British fleet captured St. Eustatius. This was followed by the seizure of St. Martin and Saba. On April 28 De Grasse arrived at Martinique and on the following day he fought an indecisive action with Hood. An attempt on St. Lucia failed but soon afterward he captured Tobago. He then repaired to Martinique where he received despatches from Washington which determined him to sail for the Chesapeake.
Washington's plans.—When the news reached Washington that De Grasse had left France, he conferred with Rochambeau. Together they drew up a despatch to the French admiral in which they gave him his choice of coöperating with the land forces against New York or of sailing to the Chesapeake. When De Grasse received the despatch, he determined to strike at Cornwallis. On August 14 Washington received his reply and he immediately formulated a masterly plan of action. He decided to move Rochambeau's force and a portion of the continental army to Virginia, leaving General Heath with several New England regiments at West Point. Letters were written with the express intention that they should be intercepted by the British. These and the sudden activity of American engineers in constructing extensive works near Sandy Hook convinced Clinton that he had better sit tight behind his defences.
De Grasse and Graves.—On August 30 De Grasse arrived in the Chesapeake and on September 5 a fleet of nineteen British vessels under Admiral Graves appeared off Cape Henry. The fleets engaged and Graves's fleet was so badly crippled that it was forced to return to New York. Unmolested, a fleet of transports from Rhode Island carrying supplies and siege guns, and convoyed by eight war vessels, sailed into the Chesapeake. At the crucial moment the British had lost control of the seas.
The assembling of the army.—On August 20 the allied army began the passage of the Hudson, but not until they were near Philadelphia were the officers informed of their destination. At the Head of Elk Washington learned that De Grasse had arrived and that he had brought three thousand French infantry from the West Indies. After the allied army reached Williamsburg, it was reinforced by the troops under Lafayette, by the West Indian contingent, and by thirty-five hundred Virginia militia. With an army of sixteen thousand men and the greatest fleet that had ever assembled in American waters, Washington was in a position to win an overwhelming victory.
Yorktown.—The siege of Yorktown began on September 28. Earthworks were thrown up within six hundred yards of the British lines and on October 9 a terrific bombardment began. Five days later two outlying works were carried by storm and at short range the allied artillery did fearful execution. On the sixteenth a British counter-attack failed and on the following day an attempt to escape across the river was frustrated. When this failed the British commander knew that his fate was sealed. On October 19 Cornwallis surrendered and seven thousand soldiers became prisoners of war.
The last struggle in the West Indies.—Yorktown was the last important event on the mainland, but the fighting continued in the West Indies. On January 11, 1782, De Grasse captured St. Christopher and on the twentieth took Nevis. After receiving reinforcements, he planned the conquest of Jamaica, but the arrival of twelve ships from England so strengthened the British fleet that the project was not carried out. On April 12 Rodney defeated De Grasse in a final engagement off Dominica, an event which profoundly influenced the peace negotiations.
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