Nadir of the American Cause: In the summer of 1780 the American cause seemed to be at as low an ebb as it had been after the New York campaign in 1776 or after the defeats at Ticonderoga and Brandywine in 1777. Defeat in the south was not the only discouraging aspect of patriot affairs. In the north a creeping paralysis had set in as the patriotic enthusiasm of the early war years waned. The Continental currency had virtually depreciated out of existence, and Congress was impotent to pay the soldiers or purchase supplies. At Morristown, New Jersey, in the winter of 1779-8O the army suffered worse hardships than at Valley Forge. Congress could do little but attempt to shift its responsibilities onto the states, giving each the task of providing clothing for its own troops and furnishing certain quotas of specific supplies for the entire Army. The system of “specific supplies” worked not at all. Not only were the states laggard in furnishing supplies, but when they did it was seldom at the time or place they were needed. This breakdown in the supply system was more than even General Greene, as Quartermaster General, could cope with, and in early 1780, under heavy criticism in Congress, he resigned his position.
Under such difficulties, Washington had to struggle to hold even a small Army together. Recruiting of Continentals, difficult to begin with, became almost impossible when the troops could neither be paid nor supplied adequately and had to suffer such winters as those at Morristown. Enlistments and drafts from the militia in 1780 produced not quite half as many men for one year’s service as had enlisted in 1775 for three years or the duration. While recruiting lagged, morale among those men who had enlisted for the longer terms naturally fell. Mutinies in 1780 and 1781 were suppressed only by measures of great severity.
Germain could write confidently to Clinton: “so very contemptible is the rebel force now … that no resistance . . . is to be apprehended that can materially obstruct . . . the speedy suppression of the rebellion . . . the American levies in the King’s service are more in number than the whole of the enlisted troops in the service of the Congress.” The French were unhappy. In the summer of 1780 they occupied the vacated British base at Newport, moving in a naval squadron and 4,000 troops under the command of Lieutenant General the Comte de Rochambeau. Rochambeau immediately warned his government: “Send us troops, ships and money, but do not count on these people nor on their resources, they have neither money nor credit, their forces exist only momentarily, and when they are about to be attacked in their own homes they assemble . . . to defend themselves.” Another French commander thought only one highly placed American traitor was needed to decide the campaign.
Clinton had, in fact, already found his “highly placed traitor” in Benedict Arnold, the hero of the march to Quebec, the naval battle on the lakes, Stanwix, and Saratoga. “Money is this man’s God,” one of his enemies had said of Arnold earlier, and evidently he was correct. Lucrative rewards promised by the British led to Arnold’s treason, though he evidently resented the slights Congress had dealt him, and he justified his act by claiming that the Americans were now fighting for the interests of Catholic France and not their own. Arnold wangled an appointment as commander at West Point and then entered into a plot to deliver this key post to the British. Washington discovered the plot on September 21, 1780, just in time to foil it, though Arnold himself escaped to become a British brigadier.
Arnold’s treason in September 1780 marked the nadir of the patriot cause. In the closing months of 1780, the Americans somehow put together the ingredients for a final and decisive burst of energy in 1781. Congress persuaded Robert Morris, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, to accept a post as Superintendent of Finance, and Colonel Timothy Pickering, an able administrator, to replace Greene as Quartermaster General. Greene, as Washington’s choice, was then named to succeed Gates in command of the Southern Army. General Lincoln, exchanged after Charleston, was appointed Secretary at War and the old board was abolished. Morris took over many of the functions previously performed by unwieldy committees. Working closely with Pickering, he abandoned the old paper money entirely and introduced a new policy of supplying the army by private contracts, using his personal credit as eventual guarantee for payment in gold or silver. It-was an expedient but, for a time at least, it worked.
Greene’s Southern Campaign: It was the frontier militia assembling “when they were about to be attacked in their own homes” who struck the blow that actually marked the turning point in the south. Late in 1780, with Clinton’s reluctant consent, Cornwallis set out on the invasion of North Carolina. He sent Major Patrick Ferguson, who had successfully organized the Tories in the upcountry of South Carolina, to move north simultaneously with his “American Volunteers,” spread the Tory gospel in the North Carolina back country, and join the main army at Charlotte with a maximum number of recruits. Ferguson’s advance northward alarmed the “ova-mountain men” in western North Carolina, southwest Virginia, and what is now east Tennessee. A picked force of mounted militia riflemen gathered on the Catawba River in western North Carolina, set out to find Ferguson, and brought him to bay at King’s Mountain near the border of the two Carolinas on October 7. In a battle of patriot against Tory (Ferguson was the only British soldier present), the patriots’ triumph was complete. Ferguson himself was killed and few of his command escaped death or capture. Some got the same “quarter” Tarleton had given Buford’s men at the Waxhaws.
King’s Mountain was as fatal to Cornwallis’ plans as Bennington had been to those of Burgoyne. The North Carolina Tories, cowed by the fate of their compatriots, gave him lime support. The British commander on October In 1780, began a wretched retreat in the rain back to Winnsboro, South Carolina, with militia harassing his progress. Clinton was forced to divert an expedition of 2,500 men sent to establish a base in Virginia to reinforce Cornwallis.
The frontier militia had turned the tide, but having done so, they returned to their homes. To keep it moving against the British was the task of the new commander, General Greene. When Greene arrived at Charlotte, North Carolina, early in December 1780, he found a command that consisted of 1,500 men fit for duty, only 949 of them Continentals. The army lacked clothing and provisions and had little systematic means of procuring them. Greene decided that he must not engage Cornwallis’ army in battle until he had built up his strength, that he must instead pursue delaying tactics to wear down his stronger opponent. The first thing he did was to take the unorthodox step of dividing his army in the face of a superior force, moving part under his personal command to Cheraw Hill, and sending the rest undo Brigadier General Daniel Morgan west across the Catawba over 100 miles away. It was an intentional violation of the principle of mass. Greene wrote: I am well satisfied with the movement….It makes the most of my inferior force, for it compels my adversary to divide his, and holds him in doubt as to his own line of conduct. He cannot leave Morgan behind him to come at me, or his posts at Ninety-Six and Augusta would be exposed. And he cannot chase Morgan far, or prosecute his views upon Virginia, while I am here with the whole country open before me. I am as near to Charleston as he is, and as near Hillsborough as I was at Charlotte; so that I am in no danger of being cut off from my reinforcements.
Left unsaid was the fact that divided forces could live off the land much easier than one large force and constitute two rallying points for local militia instead of one Greene was, in effect, sacrificing mass to enhance maneuver.
Cornwallis, an aggressive commander, had determined to gamble everything on a renewed invasion of North Carolina. Ignoring Clinton’s warnings, he depleted his Charleston base by bringing almost all his supplies forward. In the face of Greene’s dispositions, Cornwallis divided his army into not two but three parts. He sent a holding force to Camden to contain Green, directed Tarleton with a fast-moving contingent of 1,100 infantry and cavalry to find and crush Morgan, and with the remainder of his army moved cautiously up into North Carolina to cut off any of Morgan’s force that escaped Tarleton.
Tarleton caught up with Morgan on January 17, 1781, west of King’s Mountain at a place called the Cowpens, an open, sparsely forested area six miles from the Broad River. Morgan chose this site to make his stand less by design than necessity, for he had intended to get across the Broad. Nevertheless, on ground seemingly better suited to the action of Regulars, he achieved a little tactical masterpiece, making the most effective use of his heterogeneous force, numerically equal to that of Tarleton but composed of three-fourths militia. Selecting a hill as the center of his position, he placed his Continental infantry on it, deliberately leaving his flanks open. Well out in front of the main line he posted militia riflemen in two lines, instructing the first line to fire two volleys and then fall back on the second, the combined line to fire until the British pressed them, then to fall back to the rear of the Continentals and re-form as a reserve. Behind the hill he placed Lieutenant Colonel William Washington’s cavalry detachment, ready to charge the attacking enemy at the critical moment. Every man in the ranks was informed of the plan of battle and the part he was expected to play in it.
On finding Morgan, Tarleton ordered an immediate attack. His men moved forward in regular formation, were momentarily checked by the militia rifles, but, taking the retreat of the first two lines to be the beginning of a rout, rushed headlong into the steady fire of the Continentals on the hill. When the British were well advanced, the American cavalry struck them on the right flank and the militia, having re-formed, charged out from behind the hill to hit the British left. Caught in a clever double envelopment, the British surrendered after suffering heavy losses. Tarleton managed to escape with only a small force of cavalry he had held in reserve. It was on a small scale, and with certain significant differences, a repetition of the classic double envelopment of the Romans by a Carthaginian army under Hannibal at Cannae in 216 B.C., an event of which Morgan, no reader of books, probably had not the foggiest notion.
Having struck his fatal blow against Tarleton, Morgan still had to move fast to escape Cornwallis. Covering 100 miles and crossing two rivers in five days, he rejoined Greene early in February. Cornwallis by now was too heavily committed to the campaign in North Carolina to withdraw. Hoping to match the swift movement of the Americans, he destroyed all his superfluous supplies, baggage, and wagons and set forth in pursuit of Greene’s army. The American general retreated, through North Carolina, up into southern Virginia, then back into North Carolina again, keeping just far enough in front of his adversary to avoid battle with Cornwallis’ superior force. Finally on March 15, 1781, at Guilford Court House in North Carolina, on ground he had himself chosen, Greene halted and gave battle. By this time he had collected 1,500 Continentals and 3,000 militia to the 1,900 Regulars the British could muster. The British held the field after a hard-fought battle, but suffered casualties of about one-fourth of the force engaged. It was, like Bunker Hill, a Pyrrhic victory. His ranks depleted and his supplies exhausted, Cornwallis withdrew to Wilmington on the coast, and then decided to move northward to join the British forces General Clinton had sent to Virginia.
Greene, his army in better condition than six months earlier, pushed quickly into South Carolina to reduce the British posts in the interior. He fought two battles at Hobkirk’s Hill on April 25, and at Eutaw Springs on September 8–losing both but with approximately the same results as at Guilford Court House. One by one the British interior posts fell to Greene’s army, or to militia and partisans. By October 1781 the British had been forced to withdraw to their port strongholds along the coasts Charleston and Savannah. Greene had lost battles, but won a campaign. In so doing, he paved the way for the greater victory to follow at Yorktown.
Yorktown: The Final Act: As Howe and Burgoyne went their separate ways in 1777, seemingly determined to satisfy only their personal ambitions, so Clinton and Cornwallis in 1781 paved the road to Yorktown by their disagreements and lack of coordination. Clinton was Cornwallis’ superior in this case, but the latter enjoyed the confidence of Germain to an extent that Clinton did not. Clinton, believing that without large reinforcements the British could not operate far from coastal bases, had opposed Cornwallis’ ventures in the interior of the Carolinas, and when Cornwallis came to Virginia he did so without even informing his superior of his intention.
Since 1779 Clinton had sought to paralyze the state of Virginia by conducting raids up its great rivers, arousing the Tories, and establishing a base in the Chesapeake Bay region. He thought this base might eventually be used as a starting point for one arm of a pincers movement against Pennsylvania for which his own idle force in New York would provide the other. A raid conducted in the Hampton Roads area in 1779 was highly successful, but when Clinton sought to follow it up in 1780 the force sent for the purpose had to be diverted to Charleston to bail Cornwallis out after King’s Mountain. Finally in 1781 he got an expedition into Virginia, a contingent of 1,600 under the American traitor, Benedict Arnold. In January Arnold conducted a destructive raid up the James River all the way to Richmond. His presence soon proved to be a magnet drawing forces of both sides to Virginia.
In an effort to trap Arnold, Washington dispatched Lafayette to Virginia with 1,200 of his scarce Continentals and persuaded the French to send a naval squadron from Newport to block Arnold’s escape by sea. The plan went awry when a British fleet drove the French squadron back to Newport and Clinton sent another 600 men to Virginia along with a new commander, Major General William Phillips. Phillips and Arnold continued their devastating raids, which Lafayette was too weak to prevent. Then on May no Cornwallis arrived from Wilmington and took over from Phillips. With additional reinforcements sent by Clinton he was able to field a force of about 7,000 men, approximately a quarter of the British strength in America. Washington sent down an additional reinforcement of 800 Continental, under General Wayne, but even with Virginia militia Lafayette’s force remained greatly outnumbered.
Cornwallis and Clinton were soon working at cross-purposes. Cornwallis proposed to carry out major operations in the interior of Virginia, but Clinton saw as little practical value in this tactic as Cornwallis did in Clinton’s plan to establish a base in Virginia for a pincers movement against Pennsylvania. Cornwallis at first turned to the interior and engaged in a fruitless pursuit of Lafayette north of Richmond. Than, on receiving Clinton’s positive order to return to the coax, establish a base, and return part of his force to New York, Cornwallis moved back down the Virginia peninsula to take up station at Yorktown, a small tobacco port on the York River just off Chesapeake Bay. In the face of
Cornwallis’ insistence that he must keep all his troops with him, Clinton vacillated, reversing his own orders several times and in the end granting Cornwallis’ request. Lafayette and Wayne followed Cornwallis cautiously down the peninsula, lost a skirmish with him at Green Spring near Williamsburg on July 6, and finally took up a position of watchful waiting near Yorktown.
Meanwhile, Washington had been trying to persuade the French to co-operate in a combined land and naval assault on New York in the summer of 1781. Rochambeau brought his 4,000 troops down from Newport in April and placed them under Washington’s command. The prospects were still bleak since the combined Franco-American force numbered but 10,000 against Clinton’s 17,000 in well-fortified positions. Then on August 14 Washington learned that the French Fleet in the West Indies, commanded by Admiral Francois de Grasse, would not come to New York but would arrive in the Chesapeake later in the month and remain there until October 15. He saw immediately that if he could achieve a superior concentration of force on the land side while de Grasse still held the bay he could destroy the British army at Yorktown before Clinton had a chance to relieve it.
The movements that followed illustrate most effectively a successful application of the principles of the offensive, surprise, objective, mass, and maneuver. Even without unified command of Army and Navy forces, Franco-American co-operation this time was excellent. Admiral Louis, Comte de Barras, immediately put out to sea from Newport to join de Grasse. Washington sent orders to Lafayette to contain Cornwallis at Yorktown and then, after making a feint in the direction of New York to deceive Clinton, on August 21 started the major portion of the Franco-American Army on a rapid secret movement to Virginia, via Chesapeake Bay, leaving only 2,000 Americans behind to watch Clinton.
On August 30, while Washington was on the move southward, de Grasse arrived in the Chesapeake with his entire fleet of twenty-four ships of the line and a few days later debarked 3,000 French troops to join Lafayette. Admiral Thomas Graves, the British naval commander in New York, meanwhile had put out to sea in late August with nineteen ships of the line, hoping either to intercept Barras’ squadron or to block de Grasse’s entry into the Chesapeake. He failed to find Barras, and when he arrived off Hampton Roads on September 5 he found de Grasse already in the bay. The French admiral sallied forth to meet Graves and the two fleets fought an indecisive action off the Virginia capes. Yet for all practical purposes the victory lay with the French for, while the fleets maneuvered at sea for days following the battle, Barras’ squadron slipped into the Chesapeake and the French and American troops got past into the James River. Then de Grasse got back into the bay and joined Barras, con
SURRENDER OF CORNWALLIS: fronting Graves with so superior a naval force that he decided to return to New York to refit. When Washington’s army arrived on September 26, the French Fleet was in firm control of the bay, blocking Cornwallis’ sea route of escape. A decisive concentration had been achieved. Counting 3,000 Virginia militia, Washington had a force of about 9,000 Americans and 6,000 French troops with which to conduct the siege. It proceeded in the best traditions of Vauban under the direction of French engineers. Cornwallis obligingly abandoned his forward position on September 30, and on October 6 the first parallel was begun 600 yards from the main British position. Artillery placed along the trench began its destructive work on October 9. By October 11 the zigzag connecting trench had been dug zoo yards forward, and work on the second parallel had begun. Two British redoubts had to be reduced in order to extend the line to the York River. This accomplished, Cornwallis’ only recourse was escape across the river to Gloucester Point where the American line was thinly held. A storm on the night of October 16 frustrated his attempt to do so, leaving him with no hope but relief from New York. Clinton had been considering such relief for days, but he acted too late. On the very day, October 17, that Admiral Graves set sail from New York with a reinforced fleet and 7,000 troops for the relief of Yorktown, Cornwallis began negotiations on terms of surrender. On October 19 his entire army marched out to lay down its arms, the British band playing an old tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.”
So far as active campaigning was concerned, Yorktown ended the war. Both Greene and Washington maintained their armies in position near New York and Charleston for nearly two years more, but the only fighting that occurred was some minor skirmishing in the South. Cornwallis’ defeat led to the overthrow of the British cabinet and the formation of a new government that decided the war in America was lost. With some success, Britain devoted its energies to trying to salvage what it could in the West Indies and in India. The independence for which Americans had fought thus virtually became a reality when Cornwallis’ command marched out of its breached defenses at Yorktown.
The Summing Up: Reasons, Lessons, and Meaning: The American victory in the War of the Revolution was a product of many factors, no one of which can be positively assigned first importance. Washington, looking back on the vicissitudes of eight years, could only explain it as the intervention of “Divine Providence.” American historians in the nineteenth century saw that “Divine Providence” as having been manifested primarily in the character and genius of the modest Commander in Chief himself. Washington’s leadership was clearly one of the principal factors in American success; it seems fair to say that the Revolution could hardly have succeeded without him. Yet in many of the events that led to victory. Bennington, Saratoga, King’s Mountain, and Cowpens, to name but a few of his personal influence was remote.
Today many scholars stress not the astonishment that Washington felt at the victory of a weak and divided confederation of American states over the greatest power of the age, but the practical difficulties the British faced in suppressing the revolt These were indeed great but they do not appear to have been insuperable if one considers military victory alone and not its political consequences. The British forfeited several chances for military victory in 1776-77, and again in 1780 they might have won had they been able to throw 10,000 fresh troops into the American war. American military leaders were more resourceful and imaginative than the British commanders, and they proved quite capable of profiting from British blunders. In addition to Washington, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, Daniel Morgan, and Benedict Arnold showed remarkable military abilities, and of the foreign volunteers Steuben and the young Lafayette were outstanding. The resourcefulness of this extraordinary group of leaders was matched by the dedication of the Continental rank and file to the cause. Only men so dedicated could have endured the hardships of the march to Quebec, the crossing of the Delaware, Valley Forge, Morristown, and Greene’s forced marches in the southern campaign. British and Hessian professionals never showed the same spirit; their virtues were exhibited principally in situations where discipline and training counted most.
The militia, the men who fought battles and then went home, also exhibited this spirit on many occasions. The militiamen have been generally maligned as useless by one school of thought, and glorified by another as the true victors in the war. In any balanced view it must be recognized that their contributions were great, though they would have counted for little without a Continental Army to give the American cause that continued sustenance that only a permanent force in being could give it. It was the ubiquity of the militia that made British victories over the Continentals in the field so meaningless. And the success with which the militia did operate derived from the firm political control the patriots had established over the countryside long before the British were in any position to challenge it if the situation that made the British task so difficult in the first place.
For all these American virtues and British difficulties and mistakes, the Americans still required French aid, money, supplies, and in the last phase military forces to win a decisive and clear-cut military victory. Most of the muskets, bayonets, and cannon used by the Continental Army came from France. The French contested the control of the seas that was so vital to the British, and compelled them to divert forces from the American mainland to other areas. The final stroke at Yorktown, though a product of Washington’s strategic conception, was possible only because of the temporary predominance of French naval power off the American coast and the presence of a French army.
French aid was doubly necessary because the American war effort lacked strong national direction. The Revolution showed conclusively the need for a central government with power to harness the nation’s resources for war. It is not surprising that in 1787 nearly all those who had struggled so long and hard as leaders in the Continental Army or in administrative positions under the Congress were to be found in the ranks of the supporters of a new constitution creating such a central government with a strong executive and the power to “raise armies and navies,” call out the militia, and levy taxes directly to support itself.
Strictly military lessons of the Revolution were more equivocal. Tactical innovations were not radical but they did represent a culmination of the trend, which started during the French and Indian War, toward employment of light troops as skirmishers in conjunction with traditional linear formations. By the end of the war both armies were fighting in this fashion. The Americans strove to develop the same proficiency as the British in regular line-of-battle tactics, while the British adapted to the American terrain and tactics by themselves employing skirmishers and fighting when possible from behind cover. Washington was himself a military conservative, and Steuben’s training program was designed to equip American troops to fight in European fashion with modifications to provide for the increased use of light infantry. The guerrilla tactics that characterized many actions, principally those of the militia, were no product of the design of Washington or his leading subordinates but of circumstances over which they had little control. The American rifle, most useful in guerrilla actions or in the hands of skirmishers, played no decisive role in the Revolution. It was of great value in wooded areas, as at Saratoga and King’s Mountain, but for open-field fighting its slow rate of fire and lack of a bayonet made it inferior to the musket.
Since both militia and Continentals played roles in winning the war, the Revolutionary experience provided ammunition for two diametrically opposed schools of thought on American military policy: the one advocating a large Regular Army, the other reliance on the militia as the bulwark of national defense. The real issue, as Washington fully recognized, was less militia versus Regulars, for he never believed the infant republic needed a large standing army, than the extent to which militia could be trained and organized to form a reliable national reserve. The lesson Washington drew from the Revolution was that the militia should be “well regulated,” that is, trained and organized under uniform national system in all the states and subject to call into national service in war or emergency.
The lesson had far greater implications for the future than any of the tactical changes wrought by the American Revolution. It balanced the rights of freedom and equality, proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, with a corresponding obligation of all citizens for military service to the nation. This concept, which was to find explicit expression in the “nation in arms” during the French Revolution, was also implicit in the American, and it portended the end of eighteenth century limited war, fought by professional armies officered by an aristocratic class. As Steuben so well recognized, American Continentals were not professional soldiers in the European sense, and militia even less so. They were, instead, a people’s army fighting for a cause. In this sense then, the American Revolution began the “democratization of war,” a process that was eventually to lead to national conscription and a new concept of total war for total victory.
The Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War between Great Britain and the United States, recognized American independence and established borders for the new nation. After the British defeat at Yorktown, peace talks in Paris began in April 1782 between Richard Oswarld representing Great Britain and the American Peace Commissioners Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams. The American negotiators were joined by Henry Laurens two days before the preliminary articles of peace were signed on November 30, 1782. The Treaty of Paris, formally ending the war, was not signed until September 3, 1783. The Continental Congress, which was temporarily situated in Annapolis, Maryland, at the time, ratified the Treaty of Paris on January 14, 1784.
THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®
SOURCE: American Military History (United States Army Center of Military History)
CONTRIBUTOR: Frances Thompson