Wednesday, October 19, 2011

230th Anniversary of the Siege of Yorktown

The Siege of Yorktown, the final major battle of the American War of Independence, came to an end 230 years ago today with the Articles of Capitulation being signed on October 19, 1781. In a formal ceremony, British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his sword to American General George Washington.

I do not know what Cornwallis said to Washington on that occasion, but he might have pointed out that the British won most of the battles of the war; to which Washington might have replied that they had lost the last one.

Washington himself had been technically defeated in battle again and again. In my view, his true talent as a field commander was his ability to recognize it when he had blundered into a dangerous situation in battle and then to admit his mistake to the extent that he always organized an orderly retreat so as to save his army for another day. At least twice, junior British officers tried to prod their generals into pursuing the rebel army and destroying it, but the generals always seemed to notice that it was tea time and so they broke off the pursuit until the next day, by which time Washington was always long gone.

The British war effort during the War of Independence was rather dreadful. The high command in London consisted of Lord George Germain. If you look in a dictionary for the term “upper class twit” there should be a picture of Germain. If he could not develop an effective strategy for the war, he was at least supposed to manage communication between the generals in the field, but he failed even at that, never telling one general that another general needed his help, so that the war was completely uncoordinated. After this sort of incompetence led to the American victory at Saratoga, New York in 1777, the French decided to send actual military aid in the form not only of money and weapons but troops and ships as well.

So it was that in the fall of 1781 there were fifty-one French ships, including thirty-three war ships, off the coast of the American colonies and converging on the Chesapeake Bay. Meanwhile, the British, having just sent a fleet home to England from the Caribbean, had only nineteen war ships in the vicinity. On September 5, the French won a sea battle off the coast of Virginia. It became clear to Cornwallis that the British were not going to relieve his army at Yorktown, leading to his surrender the following month.

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