Modern history


The Critical Moment

ADMIRAL Count de Grasse, by virtue of his appointment to bring naval aid to America, was now a key figure in the American war. When in March, 1781, he sailed with a great fleet from France for the West Indies, on the first leg of his journey to meet Washington for the all-important joint action that was to be Washington’s final stroke, the departure of his great fleet from Brest made news in the maritime community. Word soon reached the British that an important intervention was on the way. The challenge, coming geographically from the West Indies, put it up to Rodney to intercept the massive fleet before it reached America to alter the balance of power in the war. Confrontation between the two admirals, Rodney and de Grasse, rose in prospect before both. Their lookouts, clinging to the swaying crow’s nests, peered anxiously over the glimmering water to identify any mark on the horizon that could mean a mast, and warn of coming junction.

When de Grasse reached Martinique on April 28, he found Hood cruising to leeward of the island with an inferior force of seventeen ships of the line and five frigates, on instructions to intercept the French and blockade Fort Royal to prevent four French warships coming out to join de Grasse and to prevent him from entering and taking possession of the “noblest and best” port of the area, as Rodney called it. Besides gaining the key harbor, de Grasse would there be able to join the aggressive Governor of Martinique, the Marquis de Bouillé, and combine with his land forces in attack on one or more of the British-held islands.

When sighted from Hood’s mastheads, the French were to windward, apparently heading north. Unsure of what they would do during the night, Hood elected to come to a standstill until morning, with the unfortunate result that his ships were at the mercy of the wind and had by dawn been blown to leeward and drifted so far downwind as to become becalmed. While Hood was collecting them, the enemy reappeared with his convoy pressed close inshore and his battleships to seaward. As both fleets were forming their lines of battle, the French convoy slipped into Fort Royal. At long range the battleships opened fire. De Grasse kept his distance, endeavoring to draw his opponent away until the convoy was safely in port. His broadsides inflicted heavy damage and casualties. Two of Hood’s ships suffered holes below the waterline and, after pumping continuously for 24 hours, could no longer keep station; others had shattered masts and were in no condition to fight. Before dark, the main topmast of the Intrepid came crashing down, and theRussell, with water gaining on the pumps, was in dangerous condition and ordered to St. Eustatius, where she brought news of the battle with its cost of 37 killed and 125 wounded. By nightfall of the second day, the fleets were seventy miles from Fort Royal and Hood decided to quit. By next evening the fleets had lost sight of each other, but the French were inside Fort Royal. In the exchange of ex post facto accusations, which had now become habitual with the British, Hood and his partisans blamed the result on Rodney for not allowing Hood to cruise to windward at the outset, but the clear fact was that de Grasse had outmaneuvered and outfought Hood.

Rodney, increasingly ill and irritable, held his fleet at Barbados to take on desperately needed water and the fresh vegetables that warded off scurvy. Of no great importance itself, Barbados, easternmost of the Windward chain and nearest to Europe, was the island longest in British possession, fertile and well-cultivated and reputed producer of the finest rum. In the midst of the victualing, an alert was brought to Rodney that French troops were invading Tobago 200 miles to the south. A relief force was sent with a regiment of volunteers only to find that Tobago had surrendered before they arrived. The whole French fleet was sighted heading north during the afternoon. In a critical moment of decision-making, Rodney rejected the temptation to chase, lest he be drawn to leeward where he would be unable to come to the relief of defenseless Barbados if it were attacked. He showed lights during the night in the hope of luring de Grasse to fight the next day, but the French Admiral had other plans. The consequence of Rodney’s failure to pursue was that de Grasse was not halted, and reached America according to plan.

Since Rodney was deeply conscious of the seriousness of French naval intervention in America, his failure to give priority to stopping de Grasse was partly due to his need to go home for medical treatment and partly to his belief that Hood would do as well. Especially it was due to the fact that the Admiralty itself gave the matter no priority, reflecting, in turn, the absence of any coherent strategy on the part of the government.

These operations occupied the month of May and early June, 1781. After taking Tobago, de Grasse returned his fleet to Fort Royal, the splendid harbor of Martinique, where he could assemble ships from surrounding islands and take on water, wood, cattle and other provisions for the campaign in America. In July he moved to Cap-Frančais, the port of Haiti-Santo Domingo, called for its elegance “the Paris of the Isles.” In its ample roadstead, capable of harboring 400 ships, de Grasse found waiting for him the thirty American pilots he had asked for to take him into the Chesapeake. Also waiting for him were Rochambeau’s letters from Wethersfield stating frankly the “grave crisis” in American affairs and advocating his own preference for a “grand stroke” at the Chesapeake. A letter from de Barras at Newport came in the same mail, saying, “The most necessary article needed here is money.” The letters, and others from the several French envoys, all emphasized the dangerous military situation in the South and the need for aid as quickly as possible. Undiscouraged, de Grasse together with a Captain Charitte of his squadron promptly offered to pledge their private property and plantations on Santo Domingo as security to the inhabitants for loan to the Crown of 300,000 piasters (equivalent to Spanish dollars) to float the expedition. Although the value of the properties pledged “greatly surpassed” the proposed loan, the government rejected the offer, to de Grasse’s resentment. He did not sulk, but instead paid with his own money for fifteen merchant ships to carry his provisions. His commitment was total.

Here at Cap-Frančais, de Grasse came to two decisions that were to be critical to the military outcome of the American Revolution—first, to take his whole fleet, rather than dividing it; and second, to take it to the Chesapeake. With a negotiating talent equal to his combative spirit, he obtained the Spaniards’ agreement that, as they planned no action in the West Indies, they could hold the Antilles without French help, leaving him free to take all his ships with him to America. To employ the whole fleet on the mission to America, which to the shortsighted—who are always the majority—was secondary in value to the West Indies, was a decision of great boldness and risk. It meant abandoning the duty of convoying the current French trade back to Europe, inviting censure for disregarding the vested interests of merchants. It was the act of a man who had either lost his heart to the venture in liberty or had a more farsighted view than most Europeans of what America would become. History had given de Grasse the task of carrying forward the Americans to completion of their break with Britain. He seemed to know it, to feel as if appointed to it, to have listened, even as a foreigner, to the call by the Declaration of Independence for a pledge of lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the cause. A great imperative imparts a wonderful impulse to the spirit. It touched even the Spanish governor of Santo Domingo, who agreed to release to de Grasse’s force of Saint-Simon’s three regiments of 2,500 which had been lent for Spanish use. Spain may have disliked the cause of liberty, but she disliked the British even more.

On July 28, de Grasse wrote the conclusive letter that was to reach Rochambeau and Washington on August 14, informing them that he was coming with 25 or 26 ships, bringing three regiments, and would leave on August 3 for Chesapeake Bay. Speeding directly by the Concorde, this letter did not pass through diplomatic channels to be read and copied by agents in English pay. In the early 20th century, the American Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson objected to establishment of a “Black Chamber,” on the ground that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” In the 18th century, the practice was customary. Foreign ministries maintained regular clerks who, through long familiarity, learned the codes, and read and copied the correspondence of officials of foreign countries. Although the English were soon made aware that a French fleet was on the way to aid the Colonies, they did not know in what strength or to what destination.

Rodney learned of Hood’s encounter with de Grasse when the damaged Russell crept into St. Eustatius. Leaving the plunder still in legal limbo and the English traitors still not brought to justice, Rodney sailed at once to join Hood at Antigua, a British island and naval base in the chain north of Martinique, from which he could protect Barbados, where he expected a French strike. The three chief actors in the conflict that was advancing upon the North American coast were now collected in the Leeward Islands—de Grasse bent on reaching the goal, Rodney and Hood assigned to stop him. With Hood’s flagship and others of his squadron out of action, and with de Grasse’s additional ships from Fort Royal, the French now had 24 warships to the British eighteen,* a surplus that ordinarily advised against challenge—the more so as the French were to windward, leaving the British, if they were caught to leeward, helpless to come to the aid of defenseless Barbados, which might then be taken by assault. As commander of the Leewards, Rodney felt that British honor and interest, as well as his own, must not suffer the loss of another island. Moreover, because there were 2,000 French prisoners on the island, an attempt to free them could be expected. When Rodney arrived at Barbados, he found the British flag still flying; Ste. Lucie, where de Grasse with land forces from Martinique had struck next, had successfully repelled the invaders with the aid of shore batteries, which the defenders, with surprising enterprise, had reinforced with the more useful guns of a dismantled ship.

Mortified by the surrender of Tobago, Rodney brimmed with intention “to lower French pride,” as he wrote in his dispatches, provided “they give me a proper opportunity.” They did not oblige. When he sighted the French at sunset on June 5, Rodney drew near enough to count a fleet of 29 sail—24 of the line and five frigates—against his own twenty as now counted. Under the necessity of holding his fleet in readiness to defend the islands and protect incoming convoys from Britain and Ireland, he decided not to engage. Suckled like all English seamen on the doctrine not to open combat without the wind, he stationed frigates to keep watch. Early in July, one of them cruising off Martinique was able to capture a frigate of a French convoy coming out of Fort Royal and to learn from the master that he belonged to a fleet commanded by Count de Grasse, that it consisted of 25 sail of the line and nearly 200 merchant ships collected from the different French islands and that it was reportedly bound for Santo Domingo. Rodney sent a warning notice to Admiral Graves in New York, now commander of British naval forces in America, saying that a French fleet of 28* of the line had appeared at Martinique and that “a part” of the fleet is reported to be destined for North America. He believes it will sail “in a short time,” though he cannot learn whether it will call on the way at Cap-Frančais in Santo Domingo. “I shall keep as good a lookout as possible on their motions by which my own shall be regulated,” he wrote. He added that Admiral Hood, with 14 sail of the line and 5 frigates, will be ordered to follow the French to the coast of Virginia and proceed along the coast to the Capes of the Delaware, and from thence to Sandy Hook to place himself under Graves’s orders. Graves should station cruisers at the Capes of the Delaware to keep watch for Hood, he told him, “so that they may combine their forces to intercept the French who are coming from the West Indies.” He adds that Graves may depend upon his squadron being reinforced, “should the enemy bend their forces that way.” To Germain in London, Rodney promises to “watch the enemy like a lynx” and to Arbuthnot in New York he promises to “send you every reinforcement in my power.” His expectation and plan, as he specifically describes it in a separate letter to the Earl of Carlisle at this time, was not to allow the enemy [de Grasse] to take advantage “of superiority on the coast of America,” but rather for Hood “to arrive on that coast before the French squadron from Cape Frančois” and to effect a junction with the English already there [namely, with Graves] “to defeat the enemy and all their projects.” At the same time, Rodney sent a convoy of five liners and five frigates to accompany the trade to Jamaica, with orders to Sir Peter Parker, the commander there, to dispatch the ships at once to North America where, together with Hood’s, they would give the British in America a clear naval superiority and provide Graves with the promised reinforcement. Rodney assumed, as did everyone else, that de Grasse would divide his fleet. Sir Peter Parker, for whatever reason, did not carry out his orders.

Rodney took French intervention more seriously, telling Hood that if he saw the French ships, to “please acquaint me thereof with all the despatch possible … this being of the utmost importance.” Appearing to have been the only one who realized in advance how definitive de Grasse’s intervention might be, he felt he must go himself in pursuit, and before leaving on August 1, he wrote to his wife, “The enemy when they leave these seas will go to America. Wherever they go I will watch their motions and certainly attack them if they give me a proper opportunity. The fate of England may depend upon the event.”

The warning notice to Graves, and his other dispatches of the same days, show Rodney in possession of the whole picture, identifying the place, the problem and a plan of appropriate action. Dealing with slower minds, Rodney was not content to leave Graves with anything less than precise instructions. In a supplementary despatch of July 31, he put his finger on just what might be expected. Repeating the intelligence he had learned that de Grasse was sailing for America, he added that he had sent Hood to the Capes of Virginia, “where I am persuaded the French intend making their grand effort” (italics added). This was no magic vision. Rodney had learned of the pilots who had joined de Grasse at Cap-Frančais, and he drew the natural inference (not always a normal practice) that if de Grasse had asked for pilots for the Chesapeake, that was doubtless where he intended to go.

Unfortunately for the British, Rodney’s warning notice to Graves went undelivered, in one of those quirks of war that inspired Clausewitz a century later to make it a basic principle that all war plans should be formed in expectation of the unexpected. The warning to Graves was sent by England’s Swallow, with less speed than a frigate, not nimble enough to evade capture by three American privateers on Long Island Sound, leaving Graves unalerted to the approach of de Grasse. The anonymous privateers should have a niche in the history books. Hood too sent a warning letter which was also captured at sea, with the result that Graves knew neither of the English help nor the French menace that was on the way. When Hood arrived in New York Bay on August 28, he rowed over from his ship to Long Island the same day to confer with Admiral Graves, without result. They did not combine forces to sail into Chesapeake Bay in order to be ahead of de Grasse, as Rodney had planned. Although they agreed at their conference to sail in combined force for the Bay, they stayed in place for three days doing nothing. Even had they moved promptly, they could not have been in time to fill the Bay with British ships before de Grasse arrived there on August 30. It would have taken Graves, who was anchored inside New York harbor, the usual three days to come out across the bar at Sandy Hook. The fact is they did not move at all until August 31, but stayed where they were to wait for events.

Rodney’s plan to establish naval superiority on the Virginia coast either by the Hood-Graves combined forces or by the ships of Sir Peter Parker disintegrated, as the best-laid plans will when human agency is deficient. Graves, as he was to show, was never in a hurry, and Hood was not venturesome in America, no matter what Nelson said of him later.

Here was a situation in which the contingency was foreseen and the correct preventive prescribed, yet not taken. The question of English refusal to see their opportunities becomes insistent. Were they in a do-nothing trance because they were caught in a war they did not know how to win? Pessimism is a primary source of passivity.

As the only one of the English who took seriously and had long taken seriously the threat of active French intervention in America, why did Rodney not attempt, together with Hood, to intercept the French when they were in his own territory in the Leeward Islands, instead of leaving them to be intercepted after they had already reached America? This was the moment of vacuum. Rodney’s non-pursuit was not due to a desire to stay in St. Eustatius in order to take in as much as possible of the plunder, as his accusers, then and now, have charged. All that had been taken care of, as far as it was possible for him to do so; his booty from St. Eustatius had already sailed for England in Hotham’s convoy in March. Why did he not send frigates on reconnaissance to ascertain precisely where de Grasse had gone after he left Fort Royal, how many ships he was taking and a more exact date of his departure than “in a short time”? With that information, the combined forces of Rodney and Hood could very likely have crippled or stopped de Grasse before he crossed the Atlantic.

Rodney did not make that attempt because he felt his primary duty was to keep his ships at hand to defend the islands, because the time needed for repair of Hood’s crippled ships left him with inferior numbers and, most of all, because his physical miseries drained the spirit of enterprise that normally would have carried him to seek out and destroy the French in his own vicinity. A negative mission lacks the propelling impulse of a positive one. He made no search and found no combat. He determined nevertheless that he must join Hood in pursuit of de Grasse, with the lingering hope that in the sea air of a northward voyage his illness would recede. His orders to Hood to sail in search of de Grasse were issued on July 25. Sixteen days followed of repair and provisioning before Hood was ready to depart. In the interim, Rodney, in the severity of his ailment, felt that he could at last take his promised leave to go home for treatment of his stricture. (The word “prostate” was not then in use for the condition.) After signing orders on July 25 for Hood to pursue de Grasse, Rodney followed on August 1 accompanied by Dr. Blane, the fleet physician, with the hope that after leaving the torrid zone he would be well enough to continue on to America, resuming his place as an active admiral. In case of combat, he took with him the Gibraltar and the Triumph, two of the larger liners, both in need of repairs, and the frigate Pegasus, which he hoped, if his health permitted, would carry him on to America.

His condition did not improve on the voyage as he had hoped, and when he passed the latitude of the Bermudas with no relief, he realized he must make for home. As a result, the two warships he had with him were not present to add to the British naval force which was soon to contest naval superiority with the French fleet in American waters. To Carlisle he describes his distress, when about to proceed to America “with a force sufficient to curb or defeat” His Majesty’s enemies, “to be deprived of that honour by a severe distemper which reduced me so much as to render me incapable of taking charge of the fleet destined for that service.” He returned to England on September 19.

Apart from rejoining his family, his homecoming was not entirely joyous, for sixty-four legal actions had been entered against him by St. Eustatius and St. Kitts merchants, and the political Opposition were prowling on the heels of Burke and Fox in readiness for parliamentary attack in a chorus of condemnation. Hints of a coming peerage receded* under the cloud of disfavor, and when on his arrival he hurried to Windsor Castle to request an audience with George III to present his case, he was put off to another day. Worse was the news that Hotham’s convoy, with the bulk of the produce of St. Eustatius, had been captured by the French, causing a storm of abuse to fall upon the much-abused Sandwich for failure to provide adequate ships to protect the homecoming treasure.

To the public, Rodney still emitted rays of glory for the relief of Gibraltar and the Moonlight Battle. Dockyard workers cheered him at Plymouth and garlands were hung at the door of his house in London. He hastened to Bath to submit to the untender mercies of 18th century surgery for his condition. For the next month (September–October), while he was in surgery and recovery, he was entirely out of affairs while the terminal crisis was reaching its climax in America.

The surgeon, Sir Caesar Hawkins, appears to have had a good result and to have “cured his patient,” according to Rodney’s biographer, although on November 4 Rodney himself writes to Jackson of the Admiralty Board that “my complaint has been and still continues.” His spirit, in spite of the “misery of a surgical operation,” was as ardent as ever. The government, once so neglectful, was now eager for his services. In November he was offered the post of Vice-Admiral of Great Britain, with promise of the 90-gun three-decker Formidable as his flagship. He accepted at once, though his friends found him thin and ill but “determined to serve again.” Sandwich wrote him letters virtually pleading with him to rejoin, insisting, “Our loss will be great if we are deprived of your assistance.”

This raises a question: if he was so invaluable, why did the Admiralty not give him leave to come home for treatment of a “severe stricture … so serious and painful that I must soon return home” when he first asked, on March 2? Treated at that time, he instead of Graves, future loser in the crucial Battle of the Bay, might have been employed in America. Hood later generously acknowledged, referring to Rodney, that if “that Admiral had led His Majesty’s squadron from the West Indies to this coast, the fifth of September [date of the Battle of the Bay] would I think have been a glorious day for Britain.”

Judging by Rodney’s sensational victory over de Grasse a year later, in the Battle of the Saints, Hood was probably right. Rodney would certainly not have made such a muddle out of the Battle of the Bay as to lose its control to the French. If the British had held the Bay, they would, or might, have rescued Cornwallis, in which case Washington’s last chance would have failed; mediation by Catherine the Great might have been the only recourse, and under Imperial Russian influence, with Britain in the opposite corner, American independence and a constitution would have been unlikely to emerge. Rodney’s own judgment of the Battle of the Bay was unequivocal. “In my poor opinion,” he wrote to Jackson on October 19, “the French have gained a most important victory, and nothing can save America.” He was right on both counts. The day he wrote the letter was the day of Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, though it would not be known for another month in London.

In the West Indies during July, de Grasse completed his preparations for the campaign, except for the last necessity of money. The loan he had hoped to raise from the inhabitants of Santo Domingo having been thwarted, he turned to another local Spanish source, the population of Cuba. By speedy frigate he sent a letter to the Governor of Havana explaining his need for a sum equivalent of 1.2 million livres. While official Spain was not eager for the success of the American rebels for fear of its effect on her own colonies, the population of Havana, remembering the assault on their city by the British less than twenty years before, were glad of the opportunity to retaliate. By popular subscription, the money for de Grasse is said to have been raised in less than 48 hours, with the help of Cuban ladies who contributed their diamonds, and was promptly delivered to his flagship. Less romantically, Tornquist states that “Cuba” issued a cash order for 700,000 piasters, which was delivered in cash in five hours. On August 5, 1781, missing his expected departure date by only two days, de Grasse sailed from Cap-Frančais for America and Chesapeake Bay with the money, the three Saint-Simon regiments and all 28 ships of his fleet.

To escape British notice, de Grasse took a difficult and little-used route through the Bahama Channel between Cuba and the Bahamas, a course of many obstacles which made for slow sailing. In spite of the American pressure for haste, his choice of the Bahama Channel proved wise—or lucky. Admiral Hood left Antigua on August 10, only five days behind de Grasse, failed to find him on the wide ocean and, because he took the most direct route for the American coast, arrived in America five days ahead of him. When he looked into Chesapeake Bay, he saw no sign of foreign sail, for de Grasse was still beating his way up from the Bahamas. By relieving the British of anxiety about the advent of de Grasse and confirming them in the belief that if he was coming at all, he was coming to New York, the mischance of missing him at this point was more significant than a physical clash.

Hood dutifully went on to a conference on August 28 with Graves and Clinton. The attention of neither was focused on the coming of de Grasse. Rumors of a French fleet coming to the American coast from the West Indies were probably the work, Graves assured Clinton, of a “heated imagination” or, insofar as mention was found in intercepted French letters, it was French “gasconading,” the favorite word for any French statement, threat or promise. Hood certainly knew it was more than that, having himself only recently seen action against de Grasse in the West Indies. He knew the size of the French fleet and, with any strategic sense, could have judged, as Rodney did, its destination, and though junior to Graves in rank Hood might have made a strong case for their sailing together to maintain control of Chesapeake Bay before the French occupied it. Had they done so, they would have changed the course of the war, but Hood did not argue for it, owing no doubt to the mischance of finding no enemy in the Bay when he first looked in. Judging by his subsequent inaction in the developing crisis over the rescue of Cornwallis, he seems to have caught the contagion of paralysis from the moment he set foot in America.

Clinton shared the complacency of Graves and Hood, having been assured by Lord Germain that he had nothing to fear from de Grasse because Rodney with a superior fleet was keeping careful watch of his motions. Old Admiral Arbuthnot, before his retirement, had suggested to Graves that it was quite impossible for Rodney, “be his vigilance ever so great,” to send reinforcements to America in time enough “to be here before them,” and that de Grasse, if he came, would have superiority in American waters, endangering Cornwallis in his vulnerable position on the Chesapeake. The prospect envisioned by the weary eyes was to come true to the letter, but the old man was gone at last and the New Yorkers felt no need to worry about the southern theater, which they saw as secondary. Their worry was for their own position, for everyone was certain that the French fleet, if it came, would be coming to New York. What Graves and Clinton feared was a descent by de Barras’ French squadron from Newport to join with de Grasse and gain supremacy over British sea power in America. Why did Graves never venture to neutralize de Barras by an attack at Newport instead of waiting passively for attack at New York? “Throughout the course of the war,” de Lauzun writes, in the nearest he ever came to critical thinking about war, “the English seemed to be stricken with blindness.… They refused to seize the most obvious and most golden opportunities.” He cites the occasion still to come; when the Rochambeau army would leave Newport to join Washington for the final campaign, “the British then had only to attack the French fleet off Rhode Island to destroy it. This never occurred to them.” In fact it did occur to them, but Graves, fearing to be outnumbered, would never agree to the venture.

On the day when Hood, at the end of his fruitless pursuit of de Grasse, came into New York, report arrived from Newport that de Barras had in fact sailed, destination unknown. When tested, the British blockade of Newport, which was maintained at Gardiners Island fifty miles away, not surprisingly had proved less than solid. All the New Yorkers’ fears revived, although the scene of action they envisaged and the scene de Barras had in mind were not the same. Obsessed with their own position, the English thought he was coming to join some action against New York. In fact, de Barras was bringing forward the transports and siege train in support of the Franco—American march to Virginia, of which Clinton and Graves were sublimely ignorant.

Washington’s allies were coming. His planned junction with them would be a last chance. Since the exciting prospect raised at Saratoga, the French, who had put large expectations in the abasement of Britain that American success would cause, had been disappointed by the weakness of the American military effort. Instead of an aggressive ally, they were tied to a dependent client, unable to establish a strong government and requiring transfusions of men-at-arms and money to keep its war effort alive. The war, like all wars, was proving more expensive for the Bourbons than planned. Since the alliance, France had advanced to the Americans over 100 million livres, about $25 million, in loans, supplies and gifts, and before it was over the cost of the American war for France would amount, by some estimates, to 1.5 billion livres, an historic sum that was virtually to bankrupt the French national budget and require the summoning of the Estates General in 1789 that led to the arrest of the King and the sequence of eruptions that became the French Revolution. The Americans were notified that the French government had already spent more than “Congress had a right to expect from the friendship of their ally.” Vergennes made it clear that no more troops or ships or infusions of money would be forthcoming after 1781. This time, Washington knew, the Allied reinforcement must be made effective. But to march an army of sufficient strength for a major American role to meet the French in Virginia was not a project to be organized on air. It had to be fed, shod and supported by field guns.

In the American wilderness of want, the first angel to appear to revive offensive capacity was Robert Morris, richest of the merchants who had profiteered from the war and who in 1781 was elected by Congress to the post of Superintendent of Finance. In its abiding fear of centralized power, so like the Dutch, Congress for five years had avoided the submission of finances to a single governor. Only in 1781, when the state was sliding toward a collapse of credit, did it admit the necessity of a financial director. Morris, whose opinion of mankind grew worse “from my experience of them,” and who believed that public office exposed an honest man to envy and jealousy and to the “malicious attacks of every dirty scoundrel that deals in the murther of reputations,” nevertheless accepted the post and, by virtue of the funds he generated, did as much as anyone at this hour to preserve the fight for independence. The rich have their uses; although assumed to be knaves, they can prove to be pillars of the state like anyone else. Virtue and patriotism are not a prerogative of the humble. Through the influence of his personal credit, Morris obtained contributions from the various states, reduced government spending, laid the foundations for a national bank and persuaded a group of Philadelphia bankers to make a substantial loan in cash. Altogether, he borrowed from Rochambeau and from the Phil adelphia businessmen a total of $40,000, which provided the ragged half-fed Continentals with their first touch of hard cash since enlistment, cut down desertions and even brought in recruits. More than that, the money enabled Washington to move to the offensive.

On August 14, Washington received, like a burst of fireworks in the dark, a letter from de Grasse to Rochambeau, written from the West Indies, to say he was coming with 28 ships and 3,000 soldiers to the Chesapeake. Without fussing further over his lost dream of regaining New York to make an end of the war, Washington at once set about preparing a campaign at the Chesapeake to make an end of Cornwallis.

He wasted no time in a judicious balancing of pros and cons that often prolongs the taking of difficult decisions, for if he were to meet de Grasse’s demand for “immediate cooperation” upon his expected arrival of September 13, he had only a month to select and prepare troops for the campaign, provision the line of march to cover a distance that over local roads amounted to about 500 miles, arrange for boats to meet him at river points for transportation and provide for local food supply to keep his army alive when they reached their goal. Rochambeau’s army, which had already marched 200 miles from Newport to join him at White Plains in the first week of June, also had to be prepared. The venture was a long chance and a formidable operation. To bring off a long trek in heat to a disliked destination with troops in an uncertain temper, with a mixed army of French and Yankees with opportunity for antipathies and quarrels, and a chance of attack on the flank by Clinton’s forces, was to place ultimate reliance on very long odds. To make good the “decisive stroke,” the army after a month on the road must meet the French fleet after its ocean crossing in the hour of its arrival, after each had traveled an obstacle course of perils and mischances that could spoil the timing and ruin the plan. Exact timing was required in order that they should not meet the enemy with divided forces, nor by a separate arrival give him warning to escape. The longest chance was whether Cornwallis would stay where he was in position to be trapped; otherwise the great effort would go for nothing. This worry was very much on Washington’s mind. He wrote to Lafayette to make sure that he did not allow Cornwallis to move back into North Carolina, and to keep him informed of all the enemy’s movements.

Still the problem remained of how the joint armies were to be fed when they had dug in at Yorktown for a siege. Fifteen hundred barrels of salt beef, originally brought in with Rochambeau, were stored at Newport, which would supply the need, but the beef, too, de Barras had refused to transport. He was sulking because the appointment of de Grasse over his head had lost him the independent command he had expected to hold, permitting him to adventure off Newfoundland, promising prizes, just as Hood had been deprived of prizes from the aborted expedition against Surinam and Curačao. Now the urgent pleading of Washington and Rochambeau persuaded de Barras to change his mind and agree to transport the salt beef down the coast along with the siege guns, too heavy for overland transport, when de Grasse should have cleared the way.

To fight at the Chesapeake required a firm and daring decision grounded in a sense of no alternative, a recognition that this was the last resort. Washington was not a man to reduce himself to a miasma of hesitations. He made up his mind on the very day of receiving de Grasse’s letter. “I was obliged,” he wrote in his diary for that day, “from the shortness of Count de Grasses promised stay on this coast, the apparent disinclination in their Naval officers [of the French] to force the harbour of New York, and the feeble compliance” of his own country to his request for recruits and the “little prospect of greater exertion in the future, to give up all idea of attacking New York; and instead to remove the French troops and a detachment from the American Army to Virginia.” He was the more willing to give up New York because the military probe of Clinton’s defenses led by the Duc de Lauzun in July had shown them to be very strong and requiring a greater assault than Washington could dispose.

The American troops, for too long orphans of the battle, unkempt, underfed and unpaid while Congress rode in carriages and dined at well-laid tables, would not march without pay. Here the lubricant of Morris’ and the French funds overcame the obstacle. It put coins into empty pockets and restored the Quartermaster to business. Food would not be the problem it had been before. An army moving from place to place each day would not be the devouring incubus that a stationary force quartered on one spot through a long winter must be, consuming every last ounce of pork and grain to the destitution and alienation of the countryside. Washington was now able to store supplies of meat, flour and rum along the line of march. French silver and the credit of the Philadelphia bankers put the army in motion, but it needed de Grasse’s unhindered crossing of the Atlantic, bringing him to his planned junction with the Americans, to keep the Revolution on its feet and supply the necessary strength for an offensive. By itself, the American army was too small and riddled by every deficiency to have kept the field alone in 1781. Congress had no reserves. At the same time, British capacity was unequal to successful offensive action at this stage. Without the coming of the French fleet to precipitate a crisis, Britain and the Colonies would have floundered into some miserable compromise, for private sentiment on both sides was ready for mediation. Already in England stocks rose six percent in two days when news spread in March, 1781, that the Emperor and Empress of Russia had offered mediation and that all parties had accepted and that Sir Joseph Yorke was to depart, as Walpole reported to Mann, on the “wings of winds to Vienna to conclude the peace.” The stock market sadly sank back when the rumor proved unfounded and Sir Joseph stayed home. The same rumor of Russian mediation excited hopes in America, too, for war weariness was present in many places. Again, in September, the British were cheered by a rumor that the King had employed Yorke to seek a separate peace with Holland, removing Britain from at least one war. The Whigs, though in favor of peace, carped at the supposed overture, complaining, according to Walpole, that “it was the contemptible conduct of the court, to bully itself into war, and then meanly solicit a peace underhand.” This rumor, too, proved without substance. In all the flutter of peace talk, a public desire to be done with war, and a readiness to compromise through mediation, was revealed. Pursuing the gleam of the “successful battle” and the “decisive stroke,” the generals in the field, as always, played a stronger hand, perhaps fortunately, for a compromise would have produced no United States of America and given no impulse to the development of a democratic age. The West Indies held the determining event on the night of June 5, 1781, when Rodney chose defense of Barbados over pursuit of de Grasse.

*Fleet numbers are often inexact, depending on whether frigates are counted and on liners that may join or leave the main body.

*The number is variously reported at various times by various observers. As near as can be made definite, de Grasse’s fleet numbered 26–28 liners plus some extra frigates and armed merchantmen.

*To be later bestowed, in 1782, at the lowest rung of the peerage, a mere barony, after his victory in the Battle of the Saints.

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