A surprise tactical move by the pride of the French royal navy trapped 8,000 British soldiers and sailors on the Virginia Peninsula, brought down a government in London—and helped win the American Revolution.
When news of the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781 reached London, Lord North, the prime minister, exclaimed: “Oh God, it is all over! It is all over!” Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis had surrendered 7,252 officers and men, 840 seamen, 214 pieces of artillery, 7,320 small arms, 457 horses and 40 vessels. It was a huge loss, even for the greatest military power in the world. North resigned, and after protracted negotiations, Great Britain signed the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, recognizing the independence of the United States of America.
In reflecting on the amazing events leading to Yorktown, one is struck by the improbability, the near miraculous quality of it all, and it seems clear that the lion’s share of credit belongs to the French admiral whose intervention made the critical difference. General George Washington’s written report to the president of Congress affirms as much:
I wish it were within my power to express to Congress how much I feel myself indebted to the Count de Grasse and the Officers of the Fleet under his Command for the distinguished Aid and Support which have been afforded by them, between whom and the Army, the most happy concurrence of Sentiments and Views have subsisted and from whom every possible Cooperation has been experienced.
In 1781 Jean-Paul Francois, Count de Grasse, Marquis de Tilly, had just been promoted to Lieutenant General des Armees Navales, the equivalent of rear admiral. At 59, de Grasse looked back over a long, successful career with the French royal navy, much of it spent fighting the British. He was highly regarded for seamanship, courage and daring, but could claim few friends among his fellow officers. He was devoted to King Louis XVI, and his connections at the Court of Versailles no doubt caused some envy.
Now in command of 28 men-at-war and 200 merchantmen— the largest French fleet ever assembled—de Grasse set sail from Brest on March 22, 1781. His orders were to escort the merchantmen to the Caribbean, protect French interests there and coordinate with the respresentatives of Spain, which, as an ally, had been promised French help in taking Jamaica from the British. The orders, signed on March 7 by navy minister Charles de Castries, also contained this provision: “Towards winter detach or lead part of your fleet, as you see fit, to the American coast, coordinating with the American and French ground generals to help them achieve their objectives.”
For the sailors waving goodbye on that brisk March afternoon, there was little thought of the struggle underway between the 13 Colonies and Britain, or of the alliance France had formed with the Americans. They hoped to capture British ships and property in the West Indies and obtain a small but significant share of the proceeds, following the practice of the day. De Grasse’s prime motivation was to serve his king by defeating the British at sea.
France’s alliance with the American Colonies, so skillfully negotiated by Ben Franklin three years earlier, had not gone well. In spite of the investment of French troops and treasure, the rebellion against Britain had drifted into a dreary stalemate with neither side able to muster the will or means to achieve a decisive victory. In late 1780, the Continental Congress sent a mission to Paris urgently requesting more troops and money. The result was a grudging grant of 6 million livres (about $45 million in today’s money) and a warning that there would be no more aid. There was a feeling within the French government, particularly on the part of Count Vergennes, the powerful foreign minister, that the Colonies were not doing enough and that Washington, as commander in chief, was insufficiently aggressive.
The French cash helped meet back pay and equipment needs of the ragged Continental Army, but it was not enough to tilt the balance. Washington was deeply disappointed. In April 1781, when de Grasse’s fleet was already heading south in the Atlantic, he wrote in his diary, “In a word—instead of having everything in readiness to take the Field, we have nothing, and instead of having the prospect of a glorious offensive campaign before us, we have a bewildered and gloomy defensive one.”
Accompanying de Grasse’s fleet on its journey south was a peripheral squadron intended to join Admiral Count de Barras’ North American Division of eight warships based at Newport, R.I. This flotilla carried recruits to augment the four regiments (about 4,000 men) commanded by Count Rochambeau. It also carried a secret message to Rochambeau from de Grasse, announcing his intention to sail to America and asking that pilots familiar with the Chesapeake Bay be sent to him at Cap Francais (now Cap Haitien) in Santo Domingo. De Grasse warned Rochambeau that his engagement in American waters could last no more than six weeks.
The flotilla eluded the British naval blockade of Newport, and the letter safely reached Rochambeau on April 25. It was immediately copied to Washington. While lacking specifics, de Grasse’s letter stimulated changes in allied strategic thinking. The American and French forces had agreed to launch a joint attack on New York, a plan that was dear to Washington and supported by Rochambeau, more from loyalty than enthusiasm. However, Washington had not totally ruled out attacking Cornwallis in Virginia. The arrival of de Grasse’s letter coincided with reports from the Marquis de Lafayette, who was in command of a small French/American force in Virginia, that Cornwallis was consolidating his troops on the narrow peninsula between the James and York rivers.
On April 29, de Grasse encountered a large British squadron under Admiral Sir Samuel Hood off the French island of Martinique. With his greater numbers, de Grasse got the better of the British, sending Hood’s squadron limping back to Barbados. Four French warships awaited de Grasse at Fort Royal and, after provisioning there, the strengthened French fleet set sail for Santo Domingo, arriving at Cap Francais on July 15. The day before, the French frigate Concorde had arrived from Newport with secret dispatches from Rochambeau and de Barras. Also on board were the American pilots de Grasse had requested.
Rochambeau’s message, a response to de Grasse’s letter of April 5, described the grim status of the Continental Army and pleaded not only for ships but also for troops and money. Rochambeau enclosed the minutes of the May 22 allied war council held at Wethersfield, Conn., which, after weighing both the New York and Virginia objectives, concluded in favor of New York.
The next day, July 16, as he sat alone in his cabin on Ville de Paris at Cap Francais pondering the dispatches from America, de Grasse made a momentous decision. Ignoring the conclusion of the war council at Wethersfield and liberally, almost recklessly, stretching his orders, he resolved to take his entire fleet to the Chesapeake and to do so immediately. Moreover, he would do his utmost to bring along the requested troops and money. His action would leave French possessions in the islands unprotected—a bold gamble, and a move the British never anticipated.
Arranging troops and money at Santo Domingo was not easy. The only troops available were the three French regiments (about 3,000 men) commanded by the Marquis de St. Simon that had been placed under Spanish authority to assist in capturing Jamaica. These well-trained and equipped troops were among the best in the world. Even though the Spanish were hardly fond of the Americans, de Grasse managed to persuade the governor of Santo Domingo to “lend” him the regiments for the intervention in Virginia, which he promised would be brief.
To obtain the needed cash, de Grasse first approached merchants at Cap Francais, offering to pledge personal assets, the value of which well exceeded the amount sought. To his chagrin, this proposal was declined. He subsequently arranged to borrow 1.2 million livres (about $9 million today) from merchants in Cuba, sending the frigate Aigrette ahead to Havana to pick up the coin. To avoid delay, Aigrette was instructed to rendezvous with the fleet at sea. So strong was de Grasse’s commitment that he paid for ship supplies at Cap Francais with his personal funds.
On July 28, de Grasse sent a message to Rochambeau in Newport via Concorde that he would depart Cap Francais on August 3 with 28 ships of the line and three regiments of infantry. His destination was the Chesapeake.
This letter reached Rochambeau and Washington on August 14, and changed everything. Now the military objective, suddenly and without equivocation, was Cornwallis in Virginia. The allied commanders urgently devised plans to march 6,000 troops to the Chesapeake, and sought to disguise this change from the British as long as possible. Fortunately, the New York commander, General Sir Henry Clinton, remained convinced that the city was the allies’ true target.
On August 5, two days behind schedule, the French fleet was ready to set sail. Shrewdly, de Grasse decided to take the Bahamas Channel—the passage between Cuba and the Bahamas—to the Chesapeake. This route was slower and more hazardous, especially during the hurricane season, but it was less likely to reveal his fleet to the British. Further ensuring secrecy, the French captured all four enemy vessels that came into view.
On learning that a French fleet had left Cap Francais heading west, but not knowing its strength or destination, the British Atlantic commander, Admiral Sir George Rodney, ordered Admiral Hood to take his squadron of 12 warships via the most direct route from the Caribbean to the Chesapeake. Rodney also dispatched a warning to Admiral Thomas Graves in New York, but the ship carrying it was captured by an American privateer.
De Grasse reached the Chesapeake on August 30 with ships, crew and the three regiments, all in good condition. Hood’s squadron had arrived three days earlier. Seeing no sign of the French, Hood assumed de Grasse was already headed for New York and proceeded there immediately to join forces with Graves’ squadron of 12 warships. The British remained serenely confident, never imagining that de Grasse’s entire fleet of 28 warships was anchored some 400 miles to the south.
De Grasse established contact with Lafayette and immediately sent transports to disembark St. Simon’s regiments on the north side of the James River. Aware that Cornwallis was rapidly strengthening his fortifications around Yorktown, and eager for a quick victory, the French admiral proposed an immediate attack without waiting for allied troops to arrive from the north. With St. Simon’s three regiments, the French and American troops under Lafayette, and the sailors and marines who could be spared from the fleet, they could put together a force of almost 7,000. With the support of heavy naval guns, this might be enough to defeat Cornwallis, who was thought to have about 6,000 troops at Yorktown. St. Simon agreed with this plan, but Lafayette vigorously argued for patience. Washington and Rochambeau would arrive soon with 6,000 troops, virtually assuring success with fewer casualties. The young French commander prevailed.
Meanwhile, Washington and Rochambeau stopped in Philadelphia on their march south. No word had been received from de Grasse since his letter of July 28 from Cap Francais. So many things could have gone wrong. A sea battle, a storm, a move by Cornwallis, even a lengthy delay, could have rendered fruitless the considerable effort and expense of moving the 6,000-man allied army to Virginia. On September 2, Washington wrote plaintively to Lafayette:
I am distressed beyond expression to know what is become of the Count de Grasse, and for fear that the English Fleet, by occupying the Chesapeake, shall shatter our flattering prospects in that quarter….My Dear Marquis, if you get any thing New from any quarter, send it I pray you on the Spur of Speed.
On September 5, at Chester, Pa., Washington stood on the banks of the Delaware River awaiting Rochambeau, who was crossing the river by ferry. At that moment a dust- covered courier galloped up to the general with a dispatch from de Grasse. The admiral had anchored in the Chesapeake with 28 warships, was disembarking 3,000 troops and was already in contact with Lafayette. Suddenly, incredibly, the key elements of the trap planned for Cornwallis had fallen into place. Washington was overjoyed.
In New York, Admirals Graves and Hood, having learned of de Grasse’s arrival in the Chesapeake, hurriedly provisioned 19 of their 24 warships and headed south, still not knowing the full strength of the French fleet. At about 10:30 a.m. on September 5, French frigates on lookout at the mouth of the bay signaled the approach of the British fleet. De Grasse, well aware of the vulnerability of stationary ships, ordered his captains immediately to cut anchor chains and head for the open sea. The hurried departure of his warships left 90 officers and 1,200 sailors ashore. This meant that, although de Grasse had the advantage in cannons— 1,800 to 1,400—many of his guns were unmanned.
It was not until noon that the French ships, sailing against the wind, struggled in poor battle order past Cape Henry into the open sea. But the British failed to attack when they had the greatest advantage, perhaps because of a misunderstanding between Graves and Hood, who had scant regard for each other. Around 4:30 p.m., the French forward squadron, under Louis Antoine de Bougainville, closed aggressively on the British middle and unleashed a vicious cannon attack. Both fleets were soon heavily engaged. When the firing ceased at sunset, the French emerged in a much stronger position. They had fatally disabled the British ship Terrible, and seriously damaged three others while only one French warship, Diademe, received major injuries.
After three days of maneuvering, with only intermittent cannon fire, the French slipped out of sight to return to the Chesapeake while the British sank Terrible and took the rest of their fleet back to New York for repairs. It was not a knockout blow, but what has become known as the Battle of the Capes was a French victory of enormous strategic significance. By achieving total naval control of the Chesapeake, the French blocked all supply and escape routes by sea for Cornwallis at Yorktown.
While the two fleets were stalking each other east of Cape Henry, Admiral de Barras, who had evaded the British by staying well out to sea, quietly glided his squadron of eight warships into the Chesapeake. The combined French fleet now totaled 36 ships of the line, giving it overwhelming superiority.
Washington learned of de Grasse’s victory on September 15, shortly after arriving at his new headquarters in Williamsburg, and immediately requested a meeting. Responding promptly and graciously, de Grasse made available to Washington, Rochambeau and their staffs the luxury schooner Queen Charlotte, recently captured from the British. They embarked without delay. On September 20, as Charlotte approached Ville de Paris, Washington received the 13-gun salute normally accorded a Marechal de France. From the commanding height of the Ville de Paris’ quarterdeck, Washington had his first view of the entire French fleet, three straight rows of warships riding at anchor as far as the eye could see—a reassuring sight for the weary general.
Following the initial ceremonies, Washington, Rochambeau, Lafayette and staff adjourned to the admiral’s cabin. Washington shrewdly had prepared a list of 20 questions, in both French and English, for what was likely to be a difficult negotiation. The first issue was de Grasse’s insistence on leaving by October 15, in only 31⁄2 weeks. Following some friendly give and take, de Grasse consented to stay until the end of October, but no longer. And then he would have to take with him the three infantry regiments borrowed from the Spanish. To help accelerate the assault, de Grasse agreed to make available 2,000 sailors and marines as well as some heavy cannons.
On September 28, the combined armies of France and America marched to their assigned positions around Yorktown to launch the ground attack. They were 16,000 strong, of which about 9,000 were French soldiers, sailors and marines. Opposing them were some 7,000 British manning the barricades at Yorktown and the small garrison on the opposite side of the York River at Gloucester. Allied artillery, including new French mortars and siege guns, began a continuous pounding on the two main redoubts dominating the British trench network. In a coordinated night bayonet attack, the first redoubt was taken by a squad of French volunteers and the second successfully stormed by Americans led by Colonel Alexander Hamilton. With his trench defenses compromised and continuous bombardment inflicting heavy casualties, Cornwallis wrote Clinton in New York on October 14, advising against sending reinforcements because of the high risk.
The next night, Cornwallis launched a desperate effort to break the siege. Using small boats, he sought to transport most of his troops across the York to Gloucester Point, leaving some 2,000 sick and wounded behind with a small detachment to look after them and to assist in their surrender. The breakout failed when a storm forced the boats to return to Yorktown.
Then, on the morning of October 17, allied infantry in the trenches were startled by a drumbeat and the appearance of two crimson-clad figures on the parapet. Next to the drummer stood an officer waving a white flag. The latter was promptly blindfolded and escorted to Washington’s headquarters where the commander in chief was handed a note:
I propose a cessation of hostilities for twenty four hours and that two officers may be appointed by each side to meet at Mr. Moore’s house to settle terms of surrender of the posts of York and Gloucester.
I have the honour to be, etc.,
Two days later, the surrender ceremony took place outside Yorktown. Alleging illness, Cornwallis did not attend, and his sword was presented to Washington by his deputy, Brig. Gen. Charles O’Hara. Suffering from a genuine stomach ailment, de Grasse was represented by Admiral de Barras.
De Grasse’s courageous decision on July 16 to take the entire French fleet to the Chesapeake was surely the single most important event leading to victory at Yorktown. He exceeded his orders, and he knew that failure, or even serious losses, would have brought an inglorious end to his naval career. He decided to wager everything—his reputation, personal assets and honor— on achieving success in Virginia. He won, and so did America.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.