Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Trapping Cornwallis
In order to appreciate the great contribution that French soldiers and war ships made in forcing British General Charles Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, we must go back several years.   
“Ever since the rebel victory at Saratoga, in 1777, had convinced France to sign a treaty of alliance with the United States, George Washington had been waiting and praying for French intervention to come soon, but as the weeks and months passed with no sign that help was on the way, his hopes waned.    Fortunately for the patriots, the young French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette, a volunteer who had been serving in Washington’s army, returned to Versailles in 1779 and came back to America a year later with the welcome news that seven French ships of the line, ten to twelve thousand veteran troops led by Comte de Rochambeau, and a war chest of 6 million livres were on the way and should arrive in Rhode Island in June [1780]” (Ketchum 9, 10).
Washington’s army had spent a desperate winter camped at Morristown, New Jersey, “twenty-five miles west of New York City, on high ground protected by the Watchung Mountains, overlooking the roads between New York and Philadelphia.”  When Lafayette rejoined Washington at Morristown, he was appalled at what he witnessed: “‘An Army that is reduced to nothing, that wants provisions, that has not one of the necessary means to make war.’ However prepared for such squalor he may have been by his knowledge of past distress, ‘I confess I had no idea of such an extremity,’ he wrote” Ketchum 10).   Demonstratively, Washington could accomplish nothing without French troops and a large fleet.
Ships carrying Rochambeau’s soldiers were sighted off Newport, Rhode Island, July 11, 1780, the fleet having sailed from Brest May 2.  Washington’s immediate hope was that with considerable French assistance he could attack and defeat British commander-in-chief Henry Clinton’s army, situated in New York City.  The timely arrival of British Admiral Thomas Graves with six ships of the line to augment British Admiral Arbuthnot’s fleet, giving “the British a thirteen-to-eight superiority over the French fleet” (Ketchum 27), thwarted Washington’s plan.
Subsequently, Washington learned that the French ships unloaded at Newport had “carried no arms, no gun-powder, no uniforms for his destitute, half-naked veterans.    Washington’s troops did not have enough horses and wagons to join the French in an operation anytime soon.  … So lackadaisical were the states about providing food for the army that the commander-in-chief was obliged to authorize a program he detested.  Here it was the harvest season, a time of abundance, yet appeals to the states had produced no results worth noting, forcing the General to resort once more to scavenging his own country” every few days moving “his camp, letting the men forage for anything within reach, and when the area was striped clean, move on to another and repeat the process” (Ketchum 28, 29).
Rochambeau wrote to his government that the real strength of Washington’s army was three thousand men and the country’s currency was worthless.  He urged that he be sent troops, ships, and money.  “Washington’s plan for an attack on New York was foolhardy, he observed – preposterous, in fact, and very likely the last gasp of a desperate commander” (Ketchum 31).
Months of inactivity ensued.  A second French fleet at Brest was kept from departing by a British blockade.  On September 24, 1780, Benedict Arnold fled his command at West Point after his communications with the British about turning West Point over to them had been intercepted.  Rewarded by General Clinton with a brigadier general’s commission, Arnold was placed in command of 1,600 troops sent to Virginia in December.
Desperate appeals were made to the French government for immediate, essential assistance.  Lafayette wrote: “With a naval inferiority it is impossible to make war in America.  It is that which prevents us from attacking any point that might be carried with two or three thousand men.  It is that which reduces us to defensive operations, as dangerous as they are humiliating.”  Washington wrote: “If France delays a timely and powerful aid in the critical posture of our affairs it will avail us nothing should she attempt it hereafter.  We are at this hour suspended in the Balance; not from choice but from hard and absolute necessity.”  Rochambeau sent his son to France to plead for assistance.  It was Benjamin Franklin, ambassador to France, however, who succeeded most in persuading the King to renew French assistance.  “Shrewdly, the old man reminded Vergennes that if the English were to recover their former colonies, an opportunity like the present one might not recur, while possession of the vast territory and resources of America would afford the English a broad basis for future greatness, ever expanding commerce, and a supple of seamen and soldiers that would make them ‘the terror of Europe’” (Ketchum 137).
On May 8, 1781, a French frigate docked at Boston carrying the news that Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse had left Brest March 22 with 26 ships of the line, 8 frigates, and 150 transports, their immediate destination believed to be the West Indies.  Aboard the ships were 6 million livres designated to satisfy the needs of Washington’s army.  Washington and Rochambeau set about immediately determining how best to utilize this transfusion of military and naval assets.  Rochambeau wanted to focus on the Chesapeake Bay.  Washington looked upon that operation only as an alternative to attacking New York City.   Rochambeau forthwith sent a dispatch to de Grasse urging that the admiral sail not to New York City but to the Chesapeake Bay where he should expect to be joined by Rochambeau’s and Washington’s combined forces.  Believing that a combined French and American attack on New York was imminent, Clinton ordered General Cornwallis, now in Virginia, to send him all the troops he could spare and to establish a defensive position.  Washington, eventually taking Rochambeau’s viewpoint, sent a trusted officer to the West Indies to find de Grasse and impress upon him the necessity that he sail immediately to the Chesapeake.
Washington and Rochambeau were taking a great risk.  Acting on the assumption that de Grasse would reach the Chesapeake without being intercepted by a large British fleet and that he would be able to place his ships in a position that would prevent Cornwallis’s army’s escape by sea, the two generals would march their armies from Newport and the Hudson Valley all the way into Maryland, transport them by boats to Richmond, march them to the York peninsula, and have them encircle Cornwallis’s forces.   “On June 10 the first brigade of French troops stepped off on what proved to be a 756-mile march to the South” (Ketchum 143).  On August 14, Washington and Rochambeau learned from de Grasse that he was sailing for the Chesapeake.  Once there, “he planned to stay until October 15—no longer—when he would have to return to the West Indies with his troops.  It was clear at once to Rochambeau and Washington that they had a window of opportunity of four or five weeks at most in which to make use of the French fleet—if the British navy did not interfere” (Ketchum 150).  The next day Washington wrote an order for Lafayette, in Virginia, “to position his force in such a way as to prevent Cornwallis from returning to North Carolina” (Ketchum 151).  Rochambeau’s forces joined Washington’s troops at White Plains, New York, August 22, and the combined armies commenced their lengthy journey.  
More than two months earlier, June 12, the Virginia legislature had elected as its new governor Thomas Nelson.  There had been a good deal of informal talk among the legislators at Staunton about establishing a dictator.  Possible candidates had been Patrick Henry, George Washington, Nathaniel Greene, and George Nichols, a young Hanover County representative with considerable military experience.  The talk came to nothing, but the feeling remained that the new governor should be given broader powers to exercise.
The legislature vested Nelson with powers that his predecessor Thomas Jefferson had labored without. “His feelings on receiving the news are not known, but later he remarked that to ‘have declin’d the appointment might have indicated timidity.  I, therefore accepted it with a determination to exert every power that I possess’d to give energy to Government and security to the inhabitants of the State” (Evans 103).
Nelson was given the power, with the consent of the Council, to impress provisions of any kind necessary for supplying the militia and Continental armies.  It gave Nelson the freedom to act immediately at critical moments.  He was empowered to “call out the state militia in such numbers as he saw fit and to send them where their services were required; … to seize loyalists and banish them without jury trial; to redistribute the property of persons who opposed laws for calling up militia …  Additional legislation provided the death penalty for desertion and empowered the governor and Council to lay an embargo on exports from the state, to declare martial law within a twenty-mile radius of the enemy or American camps, and to strengthen militia regulations so that six months might be added to the service of those who failed to appear when originally summoned” (Evans 103, 104).
Nelson could not legally exercise this new power without the consent of the Council, consisting of 8 men elected periodically by the legislature.  During the time Nelson was governor, only four members (the bare minimum required for carrying on business) were able to meet.  They had difficulty meeting regularly.  Frequently, Nelson chose to carry out his legislated powers without the Council’s consent.
“… state officials had little choice but to resort to impressment in order to get the necessary food and equipment.  This frequently involved the threat of force, for Virginia farmers were loath to exchange their produce for vouchers which stated the appraised price and were redeemable at a future date.  The situation was worsened by a long dry spell culminating in a poor harvest.  Even when provisions were acquired a scarcity of wagons made if difficult to get them to the army.  Owners often hid their wagons and refused to transport supplies unless they got protection from impressment and assurance that they would be paid for their services” (Evans 107).
“Assuring that all men eligible for militia duty reported for service when called was much more difficult in areas distant from Richmond, particularly in the western part of the state.  In counties to the west of the mountains, where the Indians were a greater threat than the British and where there were large pockets of Loyalists, the evasion of militia duty in some instances reached the point of virtual insurrection” (Evans 109).
Virginia had reached its lowest point in the Revolution.  Washington regretted that he had not been able to come to his state’s aid.  Nelson’s election had pleased him.  From Dobbs Ferry, New York, on July 25, Washington had written a letter to his step-son, John Parke Custis, praising him for “your choice of a Governor.  He is an honest man, active, spirited, and decided, and will … suit the times as well as any person in the State” (Fitzpatrick XXII, 178).”  Washington’s words would be proven prophetic.
Nelson had placed himself and his militia under General Lafayette’s command.  As governor, he planned to take the field, but would yield to Lafayette’s decisions.  It is interesting to compare the thoughts of these two men concerning their military situation during the summer months.  In a letter to Brigadier-General Morgan, Nelson expressed his reluctance to call out the county militia at “the approach of harvest; but I have my hopes that some capital Blow may be struck time enough to enable the Commander of the Troops to dispense with their services at that time” (Nelson Letters 61).   In a letter to Nelson, Lafayette expressed the opinion that the more reinforcements Virginia sent to General Nathaniel Greene in North Carolina, the better the situation would be for Virginia.  “Whether he [Cornwallis] continues in his present situation, commences fresh ravages in the State, we shall find that to succor General Greene we shall want them [the militia] here [with Greene].  Indeed, it is one way of compelling the enemy to leave us, or at least force him to detach …” (Lafayette V, 380).
The answer to the question of what Lafayette and Nelson should do with Virginia troops – gather them to strike Cornwallis or send them to Greene into the Carolinas –- was answered by General Henry Clinton’s order to Cornwallis to establish a defensive position.  On August 5 Nelson reported to the Virginia House of Delegates in Richmond Cornwallis’s movement from Portsmouth to the York River, where he could command both the York and Gloucester shores.  Lafayette thereupon placed his forces not far below Richmond where he could march either northward or southward, “as their movements should make necessary …” (Nelson Letters 64).
Cornwallis was now camped on the neck of land upon which Washington had warned Nelson five years ago never to place a large detachment of soldiers.  The roles of attacker and defender were now reversed.  If the British had not the sense to see the danger in their position, Washington would not provide them much time to discover it.  He gave Clinton every indication that the movement of his and Rochambeau’s armies was a prelude to an attack on Staten Island.  Clinton was cognizant of the existence of de Grasse’s fleet, rumored to be somewhere in the West Indies.  Would it arrive off New York to participate in a massive attack?  On August 21, the Comte de Barras, commander of the French fleet at Newport, Rhode Island, set sail for Virginia to augment de Grasse’s fleet, “making it superior to anything the British could muster, but even so, questions remained.  The allied generals now knew when and where they would march, but the fiction of an attack on New York had to be maintained lest Clinton assail them while they were on the move, and at a certain moment the British general would know with certainty that they were bound for the South” (Ketchum 158).
On August 27, Washington informed Nelson that he was coming south with American and French troops and to expect the arrival of a French fleet of war ships.  He was concerned about being furnished with sufficient supplies to sustain him through his campaign.  He would need most salted provisions, beef, forage, and the means of transportation.  “Let me entreat your Excellency that every exertion may be made to feed and supply our army …” (Fitzpatrick XXIII 55-56).  Nelson would need to concentrate his activities on procuring the essential food and supplies.   With his own troops present, Washington would have little need of the militia.
On August 30, de Grasse’s fleet, consisting of 28 ships of the line and six frigates with 3,000 land forces, dropped anchor in the mouth of the York River.  Nelson wrote confidently to Governor Lee of Maryland: “In all human Probability, Lord Cornwallis has nearly finished his career, and will shortly receive his reward.”  Nelson then got down to the real purpose of his letter.  He asked for flour, something “with which your State, I imagine, can easily and plentifully furnish me” (Nelson Letters 10, 11).
Nelson had begun a very tedious, frustrating, essential task.  Virginia troops had always been short of supplies.  Now Nelson had to raise supplies and food for Washington’s army.  He sent out various requests to agents in the Virginia counties for specific commodities.  From Smithfield he requested “large supplies of Vegetables and Vinegar;” from Caroline and the adjacent country “all the flour you can procure;” from Isle of Wight and the neighborhood flour, meal, spirits, and vinegar; and from Richmond entrenching tools.  However, by September 12, there was not “a grain of meal in Camp” (Nelson Letters 12, 22-25).  Nelson wrote that he did not know how Virginia could remedy such shortages in time.
On September 2, while Washington’s troops were marching through Philadelphia, Clinton “sent a message to Lord Cornwallis: ‘By intelligence which I have this day received, it would seem that Mr. Washington is moving with an army to the southward, with an appearance of haste, and gives out that he expects the cooperation of a considerable French armament.  Your Lordship, however, may be assured that if this should be the case, I shall endeavour to reinforce your command by all means within the compass of my power …’” (Ketchum 163-164).
On September 5 Nelson placed an embargo on the shipping of all beer, pork, bacon, wheat, Indian corn, peas, and other grains and flours.  Eight days later he would order the roads in the counties of Fairfax, Prince William, Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline, Hanover and New Kent to be put in order for the advance of Washington’s army.  On the same day he asked Governor Burke of North Carolina for salt and beef, and Gloucester County for added salt.  To one state official, Nelson wrote: “‘I think the trust my country has repos’d in me demands that I should stretch my powers to their utmost extent, regardless of the censures of the inconsiderate or any other evil that may result to myself from such a step [and] attain by the strongest methods of compulsion those necessaries which cannot otherwise be procur’d and from the want of which alone we can have any reason to fear that our enterprise will fail’” (Evans 115).
On September 5 a large British fleet appeared off the Virginia capes.
Here is a useful map.
Works cited:
Evens, Emory G.  Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian.  (Charlottesville, Virginia: The University Press of Virginia, 1975).  Print.
Fitzpatrick, John C., ed.  The Writings of George Washington.  (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1933).  XXII.  Print.
Ketchum, Richard M.  Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution.  (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004).  Print.
Lafayette to Nelson, July 29, 1781.  The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (April 1898), V.  Print.
Publications of the Virginia Historical Society, New Series, No. 1.  “Letters of Thomas Nelson, Jr.”  (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1874).  Print.