The triumph of perseverance

Victory At Yorktown:  The Campaign That Won The Revolution by Richard M. Ketchum, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 350 pages.  Index, maps, Notes, Principal Character bios.  $27.50.

'A surprising number of these men had six years of punishing, bloody warfare behind them; six years of hardship and suffering, hunger and tedium, no pay, and unparalleled neglect by their government and fellow Americans... some of these men standing under the hot Virginia sun were survivors of the fights at Concord and Bunker Hill, had suffered bitter defeat with Arnold and Montgomery before Quebec, had been part of the humiliating loss of New York and the retreat across New Jersey, and endured the killing winters of Morristown and Valley Forge.  They had experienced the glorious and all too rare victories of Trenton and Princeton and Saratoga... Yet somehow, they had endured to participate in and savor this glorious moment.'   

That glorious moment, victory at Yorktown, occurred October 19, 1781 when Major General Charles, Earl Cornwallis surrendered his forces to General George Washington.

With this book, award—winning, veteran Revolutionary War historian, Richard M. Ketchum, puts the capstone on his series about the campaigns waged for American independence.  (See Saratoga:  Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War; Divided Loyalties:  How The American Revolution Came To New York, for a start.)

As with his other volumes, the author presents his readers with a masterful combination of superb story telling, informed insight, social, political and military anecdotes, broad brush strokes and deft detail work from a comprehensively researched palette, all combined in a dramatically compelling portrait of the climactic battle of the Revolutionary War.

This story begins a year before the French and American armies, accompanied by the French fleet, converge on British forces at the York Peninsula. Most of Washington's army, about 4,000 strong, was encamped in Morristown, New Jersey.  The forces of his counterpart, General Sir Henry Clinton, numbering 10,000, were quartered in and around New York.  Both generals had troops in the Southern theater, where Cornwallis had just defeated the American Gen. Horatio Gates at Camden.

Washington knew he could not act decisively against Clinton without the backing of the French fleet. He was greatly heartened when, finally, it appeared off Newport, Rhode Island, disembarking troop reinforcements in July 1780. He could now plan offensive operations with his French ally.  Before meeting them, he and his staff drew up a number of plans: an attack in the south against Charleston and Savannah, capturing New York, or a winter campaign against the British in Canada.   

General Washington and French commander Comte de Rochambeau did not meet until September, the latter preferring the former's plan for seizing New York. But as far as the Count was concerned, there would be no more campaigning in 1780.  To his friend, James Duane, Washington wrote:  'We could only combine possible plans on the supposition of possible events and engage mutually to do everything in our powers against the next campaign.'  The American commander—in—chief maintained his preference for capturing New York until August 1781, when a concatenation of events, especially news of the impending arrival of de Grasse's fleet, not to mention Greene's success in the South, made Yorktown the cynosure of his strategic attention.   

From the outset, the author makes it clear that, in terms of the American Revolution, George Washington was the indispensable man.

The man selected by the 64—man Congress June 15, 1775 to 'command all the Continental forces raised or to be raised for the defense of American liberty' was, as the author describes him, 'someone special.'  The big, 6'2' Virginian was a planter, farmer, superb horseman, surveyor, veteran of frontier warfare and the House of Burgesses. Contemporaries described him as a companionable man who laughed at jokes and liked to dance. Washington followed the advice he gave to his nephew: 'Be courteous to all but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence; true friendship is a plant of slow growth.'

Summing up his personality, Abigail Adams said:  'He has a dignity which forbids familiarity, mixed with an easy affability which creates love and reverence.'  It also commanded the love, respect and admiration of the men who followed him through defeats, disappointments, retreats and privation.

The author tells us that while Washington was accused, perhaps justly at times, of indecision, his being a farmer and surveyor imbued him with patience, knowing that it and time are required to achieve goals; that his patience was rooted in that 'noblest asset' self—discipline.

Equally noble were Washington's 'deep moral principles (his) belief that Providence was an active participant in what he and his army were engaged in doing.'

Lack of pay and support from fellow Americans was a continuing problem for the Continental army, that patriotic minority willing to put their lives on the line.  Fewer than one percent of the population joined the regular Army to fight for independence. The state militias fell far short of the numbers Washington had expected. These patriotic few were more than willing to serve, but of course they expected recompense for their service.  It was not forthcoming from the states. Neither were the basic necessities of food and clothing.  As John Adams later put it:  'We were about one—third Tories, and one—third timid, and one—third true blue.' 

From that one—third came the army Washington led.  Finally, a very reluctant commander—in—chief was forced to order his men to forage upon the land and property of fellow Americans for their own subsistence.  It wasn't until 1784 that John Adams was able to secure a loan from Holland so that the American army could be paid.

In terms of his own staff and commanders, Washington was very fortunate.  They included Alexander Hamilton, intelligence chief Benjamin Tallmadge and trusted aide, Tench Tilghman.  Big Major General Henry Knox, his artillery commander and later, secretary of war, was responsible for establishing West Point.  The combination of his guns and those of the French spelled doom for the British at Yorktown. 

Not to be forgotten: Washington's most able foreign officers, the Marquis de Lafayette and Prussian drillmaster, Baron Friedrich Wilhelmon Steuben.

Ketchum tells us that Washington considered Nathaniel Greene his best general.  For that reason, he selected Greene to replace the feckless Gates as Southern theater commander.  It was an inspired choice.  So was Greene's selection of the barrel—chested Virginia frontiersman, Daniel Morgan to command his left flank at the crucial South Carolina battle of Cowpens.  Morgan served with the Virginia Rangers during the French—Indian Wars and led an elite unit of riflemen that helped ensure victory at Saratoga.

In the South, Greene had the invaluable military assistance of small groups of irregulars.  Many of these 'over—mountain' or 'back water' men came from North Carolina and were commanded by the likes of Colonels Isaac Shelby and John 'Nolichucky Jack' Sevier.  Others were frontiersmen from the Watauga settlements in what is now Tennessee.  Then there was the legendary 'Swamp Fox' Francis Marion and his South Carolina guerrilla brigade.  The lesser—known Andrew Pickens also led guerrillas from that state.

Brigadier General 'Mad Anthony' Wayne, a tanner by trade, veteran of pre—war battles, was in charge of Pennsylvania's fighters.

Henry 'Light Horse Harry' Lee, father of Robert E., led a Virginia cavalry brigade that Greene sent to work with Marion's guerrillas.

Lt. Col. John Eager Howard commanded the veteran Maryland and Delaware Continental army regulars.

They all combined their efforts to defeat Cornwallis's forces and hand them a final, pyrrhic victory at Eutaw Springs, after which he was ordered Yorktown. 

Victory at Yorktown, while unattainable without French military assistance, especially those ships under Admiral de Grasse, was also, as we learn, made possible by constant bickering between British commanders.  Clinton argued with his naval counterpart; Cornwallis argued with Clinton; each tried to convince their boss in Britain, Lord North, that he had a better grasp of the situation.  Most galling for Cornwallis was Clinton's oft—repeated, unkept promise of more troops.

Ketchum spices his compelling narrative with fascinating vignettes such as Washington's plan to capture General Clinton and an equally daring scheme to kidnap the traitorous Benedict Arnold and bring him back to stand trial.  The latter was almost carried out successfully by the courageous Sergeant Major John Champe, hand—picked for the mission by fellow Virginian, Col. Light Horse Harry Lee. It was no easy task convincing the British that he, Champe, was a true deserter, and then to get himself assigned to Arnold's command. But he did it.  An unexpected incident at the crucial moment destroyed the kidnap plan.  As bold as he was on that mission, Champe's escape from his British unit and making it back to friendly lines was also praiseworthy. 

As the reader of this book will discover, intelligence operations on the British and American sides were active and effective.  There was little activity of any importance that was not known in advance. 

But no amount of intelligence could have prevented the final outcome.  And though Yorktown marked America's victory over British forces in the Revolutionary War, Gen. Clinton still had his army in New York.  They didn't evacuate until November, 1783.  Afterwards, General George Washington and his army marched through the city.  Those 'true blue' few wore union cockades on their left breasts and laurel sprigs in their hats.  Upon reaching the Battery, they 'halted, broke ranks and sat down on the grass to wait for the British to withdraw.'

Ketchum tells us about a woman who witnessed that scene, a New Yorker used to British troops in their perfect uniforms, who was astonished seeing the victorious Americans: 'Ill—clad and weather—beaten (they) made a forlorn appearance; but they were our troops and as I looked at them and thought upon all they had done and suffered for us, my heart and my eyes were full, and I admired and gloried in them the more...'

And so should we admire them all the more, and from their campaigning, their final victory, understand the necessity of patience and perseverance when waging wars of independence, whether here or in Iraq.

John B. Dwyer is a military historian