Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Closing the Trap
Let us leave temporarily Thomas Nelson’s efforts to support George Washington’s attempt to trap British General Cornwallis and focus on the French naval contributions and British naval and military blunders that led to American and French victory. 
The Battle of the Capes, so vital to George Washington’s victory at Yorktown, commenced September 5.  Luck played a considerable part in the French naval victory.
Here are four useful maps.
British Admiral George Rodney, responsible for neutralizing the French fleet in American waters, prior to returning to London because of ill health, had sent a dispatch to Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot in New York warning him that a large French squadron was heading west across the Atlantic and that “you may be upon your guard.”  By the time the dispatch reached New York, Arthunot had been replaced by Admiral Thomas Graves, a self-important, lackadaisical, obdurate commander.  Ignoring Rodney’s warning, Graves sailed his fleet along the Atlantic coast north of New York in search of a possible French convoy of merchantmen rumored to be transporting to America money, clothing, and military stores, the convoy “escorted by one ship of the line, another armed en flute, and two frigates.  … The admiralty [had] advised Graves that the British Government felt a most serious blow would be struck if the colonies were deprived of these essential succours, and gave orders to the commander of the North American fleet to keep a sharp lookout for the convoy and to determine upon the most likely places to station cruisers for the purpose of intercepting it” (Capes 1).  Graves, therefore, was absent when a second dispatch sent by Rodney, declaring that French Admiral Francois de Grasse was in the West Indies and Graves should take his fleet to Virginia, arrived.  The captain of the sloop of war that had carried the dispatch to New York had thereupon sailed eastward in search for Graves.  Attacked by three Yankee privateers, he was forced to throw the message overboard.
Admiral Samuel Hood, in the West Indies, had thereafter replaced Rodney.  The “energetic Hood—who knew that de Grasse was somewhere in the vicinity, but who was unsure whether he had sailed for the mainland or was still in the Caribbean—headed at once for New York with fourteen warships, determined to join Admiral Graves and seek out de Grasse or [Admiral Comte de] Barras [at Newport, Rhode Island] before they [de Grasse and Barras] could combine forces” (Ketchum 188).  En route he looked in at the Chesapeake Bay and saw only several picket vessels on patrol for General Cornwallis.  De Grasse had left the West Indies almost a week ahead of Hood but had sailed up the American coast past Charleston, where he captured three British ships.  Hood, some distance out in the Atlantic, had sailed past de Grasse without seeing him.  As Hood sped for New York, de Grasse, hugging the coastline, entered Chesapeake Bay with his transports carrying 3,000 soldiers and supplies and thirty warships.
Arriving in New York, Hood discovered that Graves believed that de Grasse had probably gone to Havana to join the Spaniards and Washington and Rochambeau were in motion in the Jerseys to threaten Staten Island.  Hood declared “that no time was to be lost, that they should sail immediately” for Virginia.  That evening Graves received a message that Barras had left Rhode Island and was sailing south.  However, Graves, feeling the need to repair five of his ten warships, delayed leaving for the Chesapeake.  When his fleet departed, he had nineteen ships, carrying nineteen hundred guns.  It never caught sight of Barras’s much slower force, which succeeded to elude him.
The squadron arriving off the Chesapeake on the morning of September 5, the lookout of the lead British ship “called out that he saw a forest of masts in the harbor, about ten miles distant.  The captain didn’t believe him; they must be trees, he said.  It was soon apparent, however, that they were not trees but French ships, and they were putting to sea with decks cleared for action.  De Grasse had twenty-four ships of the line, carrying seventeen hundred guns” (Ketchum 190).
It was the hurricane season along the Virginia capes.  The outcome of the impending battle would be determined substantially by the quirky winds and currents.  Around three o’clock “the French ships were ordered to run full so the entire fleet could produce the heaviest possible fire when they came alongside the British; about an hour later the action began” (Ketchum 190) at a distance of a musket shot.
At five o’clock the wind shifted and de Grasse signaled his captains to lay on canvas and head after the enemy as best they could.  Graves’s squadron, severely punished, took advantage of the wind and kept its distance until sunset when the engagement ended.  On September 6, the wind being feeble, both fleets made repairs.  The following day was also calm.  Repairs continued.  On September 8 the wind shifted and Graves attacked.  De Grasse reacted immediately.  Recognized his peril, Graves ordered his fleet to turn and run before the wind.  By the night of September 8, the two fleets had drifted about a hundred miles to the south to the latitude of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.  No longer seeing the British fleet, de Grasse, fearing “a change in the wind might permit the British fleet to get ahead of him and attack Barras, who was carrying the vitally important siege artillery, signaled his captains to return to the Chesapeake” (Ketchum 191).
“Luck—or Providence—had been with the Americans in every instance that counted.  First of all, Graves never received Rodney’s warning.  Then, inexplicably, the British under Graves failed to attack de Grasse’s ships one by one as they emerged from Chesapeake Bay.  Another stroke of luck was that the lethargic Graves—not the aggressive Rodney-- … was commanding the British squadron.  Yet another was that Barras and his ships made it safely from Rhode Island to Virginia without detection by either Hood or Graves.  In the naval engagement that decided the Yorktown campaign, only one ship was lost, and that was scuttled by the British” (Ketchum 191-192).
Early on, General Cornwallis had had the opportunity to escape the planned allied entrapment.  “At the moment the French fleet appeared on August 31, Cornwallis’s avenue of escape was wide open.  De Grasse had not disembarked any troops, and the army under Washington and Rochambeau was several weeks’ march away….”  Cornwallis, however, stayed put.  ”His best chance of keeping his army intact would have been to attack Lafayette’s weak force …, but at this moment he received Clinton’s promise of relief and opted for inaction, while his soldiers continued working day and night on the outworks …” (Ketchum 204).
“As late as September 8, Cornwallis had no reason to think he would not be relieved and rescued.   French troops [de Grasse]—3,800 of them—had landed.  Lafayette was at Williamsburg, and reportedly the allied armies would arrive soon.  Nevertheless, the British were ready for them and had taken a very strong position just outside town …” (Ketchum 206).
The following day Admiral Graves sent a shocking message to Commanding General Henry Clinton.  He “was sorry to inform the general that ‘the enemy have so great a naval force in the Chesapeake that they are absolute masters of its navigation.’    The French appeared to have suffered, he continued, but his fleet had taken much heavier damage” (Ketchum 206).  On September 14, having received Graves’s message, Clinton held a council of war.  The key questions to be debated and answered were that since Cornwallis’s “garrison could evidently defend the post for at least three weeks, was it advisable to commit a reinforcement of five or six thousand men ‘to the hazards of the sea during our present inferiority and endeavor to relieve Lord Cornwallis at all costs” or “should they await further accounts from Admiral Graves and see how Admiral Robert Digby’s squadron [reportedly to have left England] might affect their chances of success” (Ketchum 207).  After much discussion their decision was to wait for more favorable accounts from Graves or for Digby’s arrival.  “How these senior military officers could possibly imagine that Graves would give them a more favorable account is difficult to imagine, but since Digby had not been sighted and no one knew how many vessels he had with him, surely it would be safe to delay decision until he arrived” (Ketchum 207).  (Digby arrived September 24 with three ships of the line)  On September 17 Clinton held another council of war.  Having been informed by Cornwallis that he had provisions for six weeks, “once again they stalled for time, deciding that any attempt to ‘throw in supplies and reinforcements ought to be deferred until it could be undertaken with less danger than at present.’  … Since an army could not act there alone without the cooperation of the fleet, it would be ‘highly improper to add considerably to the numbers already in Virginia’ until such time as the presence of the fleet became practicable” (Ketchum 208. 209).
On September 16, Cornwallis wrote to Clinton: “‘I am of opinion that you can do me no effectual service but by coming directly to this place’” (Ketchum 208).  “Given the situation in which the possibility of rescue was virtually nil, he [Cornwallis] had only one option, which was to escape at any cost before the arrival of Washington’s [and Rochambeau’s] troops shut the trap.  … Major Alexander Ross, Cornwallis’s aide, persuaded the earl that Clinton’s promise of relief left him no choice but to hold his post.  This was absurd, and Cornwallis had to know it …” (Ketchum 205). 
Having arrived in Virginia September 13 ahead of their armies, Washington and Rochambeau met almost immediately with de Grasse on the admiral’s flag ship.  De Grasse told them that he had been instructed to leave on October 15, “but he would, on his own, stretch that until the end of the month.  That gave Washington almost six weeks in which to force Cornwallis to surrender” (Ketchum 210).  Several days later, having learned that Admiral Digby had arrived in New York, de Grasse informed Washington by messenger “that since the enemy was now nearly equal to him in strength [not so] and it would be imprudent to remain in a position where he could not readily attack them, he would leave several frigates to block the James and two ships at the mouth of the York while he put to sea with the fleet.  ‘I will sail with my forces towards New York,’ he said, ‘and I may possibly do more for the common cause than by remaining here as an idle spectator.  … I shall set sail as soon as the wind permits’” (Ketchum 211-212).  Washington sent Lafayette immediately to meet with de Grasse to attempt to change his mind.  Rochambeau sent a letter to de Grasse via Lafayette.  Before the Frenchman arrived, probably because his officers had expressed their disapproval of his plan, de Grasse recanted his decision.
On September 28, Washington, Rochambeau, and the two allied armies began their march from Williamsburg to the environs of Yorktown.  The French had about 7,800 troops.  The Americans (counting 3,000 Virginia militia commanded by Thomas Nelson) had 8,845.  “Astonishingly, … the roads that the British should have defended foot by foot were uncontested” (Ketchum 214).  The army “formed camp in a great curve extending from York River.  … The French held the left flank while the Americans held the right.  Nelson and his troops, stationed at the extreme right, made up a reserve for Lafayette’s regulars” (Evans 118).  Countering the French and American forces were about 7,200 British soldiers.  The trap was set.
Works cited:
Evans, Emory G.  Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian.  (Charlottesville, Virginia: The University Press of Virginia, 1975).  Print.
Ketchum, Richard M.  Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution.  (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004).  Print.
“Second Naval Battle of the Virginia Capes (1781).”  Net.