January 6, 2019

Nathaniel Philbrick’s book about Yorktown and the close of the Revolutionary War reminds us that its pivitol battle was between foreign powers on the Chesapeake.

Societies are bound together by a set of commonly held beliefs, often myths, and Nathaniel Philbrick's works of nonfiction peel away a number of American standards to give a fuller picture of the events that formed our nation. 

Take, for example, the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. We are taught from an early age that these settlers were pious souls in search of religious freedom who, in November of that year, stepped onto a barren shore in Cape Cod. Befriended by Native Americans after half of them died that winter, the generosity they received enabled them to survive and prosper the following year, and from that bounty they celebrated the First Thanksgiving with their new benefactors.

Philbrick rounds out the story of the Pilgrim's relationship with Native Americans in Mayflower, his history of the early years of European settlement of New England. Massachusetts legalized slavery in 1641, and a large number of Indians became domestic servants. Beyond that, Mayflower includes a description of another ship with flower in its name, Seaflower. She sailed away from New England fifty-six years after the Pilgrims stepped ashore, only her cargo was 180 Native Americans being forcibly relocated to plantations in the Caribbean. 

From 1675 to 1678, King Philip’s War ravaged New England as the original inhabitants fought with the encroaching settlers for supremacy. According to Brown Professor Linford D. Fisher, "New England colonies routinely shipped Native Americans as slaves to Barbados, Bermuda, Jamaica, the Azores, Spain and Tangiers in North Africa." Seaflower was one of several vessels engaged in the removal trade, her papers bearing a certificate from Josiah Winslow, Governor of the Plymouth Colony, condemning the cargo as “heathen malefactors” to be punished with perpetual slavery. 

Since Mayflower, Philbrick has written three books on the Revolutionary War, his most recent being In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown

The title is ironic for Philbrick.  Yes, his book chronicles this Founding Father's final year keeping the thirteen former colonies together during the Revolutionary War, but its real focus is on the players who determined its final outcome--the French and Spanish who outsmarted the British to bring the War to a close. In fact, the Revolution's decisive engagement, the Battle of the Capes, was one in which neither Washington nor his army participated.

     The Battle of the Capes

By 1780, America’s five-year war with Britain was not going well. Not only did the former colonies seldom come out on top in military engagements, the British navy had nearly complete control of American sea lanes, making transport of American forces and materiel by water difficult. France had formally sided with the Americans in 1778, but had yet to bring its forces to bear along the Eastern Seaboard.  What was of value in the New World were the plantations and other holdings of Europeans in the Caribbean, and that is where the French spent their time. 

Things changed in the fall of 1780. Three back-to-back hurricanes tore through the Islands, including one packing winds exceeding 200 mph that killed thousands, destroyed massive numbers of buildings and smashed ships. The French decided that before the hurricane season arrived the following year, it would be a good idea to have the fleet positioned elsewhere.

At that time, Washington was imploring the French to bring a fleet and soldiers to New York where a decisive battle could be fought that would close the war. The French demurred, saying forces should be concentrated on more vulnerable areas. Washington may have been a genius, but he had little sway with his ally. It was their military, not Washington, who was setting the strategy. The former thirteen colonies had no effective government nor way of levying taxes to support either an army or a navy. Moreover, by 1781, the American army had dwindled to 8,000 soldiers, most of whom had never been paid. There was a belief that it was only a matter of time before the Revolution collapsed, something that Washington feared was imminent.

Coming to Washington's rescue were poor choices and sloppy execution by British leaders who were constantly quibbling with one another. Their most egregious blunder was the decision to build a deepwater port in Virginia at Yorktown and then concentrate Britain's southern army on the narrow peninsula between the York and James Rivers. Once it was clear the British were moving in that direction, the French saw their opportunity. General Rochambeau, commander of the French land forces, told Washington that with the French fleet sailing north in August, both armies should move to the Chesapeake where dozens of warships would be anchoring. Washington had little say in the matter, but he was beginning to have misgivings about an attack on New York. His challenge was moving an unpaid army 500 miles in the heat of the summer through Tidewater swamps.

                                            Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau

It was at this point that I found Philbrick’s account particularly fascinating.  

To win its independence, America needed European powers. To defeat Britain on the Eastern Seaboard, France needed Spain to protect its interests in the Caribbean. To advance its interests in that same area, Spain needed France because Britain had the largest fleet of the three, and it could only be challenged if France and Spain combined forces. Recently, Spain had won back British-occupied Pensacola in west Florida with French help, and it now wanted to move against Jamaica which Britain had taken away from Spain a century earlier. 

The French had their own issues and ambitions. Rochambeau had informed Admiral de Grasse, commander of the French fleet in the Caribbean, that “the Americans are at the end of their resources, that Washington will not have half of the troops he is reckoned to have.” De Grasse was told that before he sailed to the Chesapeake, he would need to bring aboard as many French troops as possible. That was a problem because de Grasse was charged with protecting the French plantations on Haiti, the richest sugar producing island in the Caribbean. He also had to provide cover for a French merchant convoy bound for Europe. To complicate matters further, Rochambeau told de Grasse that not only had the American army run out of money, his army was low on funds and the admiral needed to find the necessary cash from sources in the Caribbean. 

                                                               François Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse

To move things along, Spain sent a thirty-four year old envoy, Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, to the Caribbean. Philbrick describes him as the consummate fixer, someone intelligent, tactful and decisive who had been given enormous discretionary powers in financial matters. Philbrick also points out, "His name has been virtually lost to American history, but no one short of Washington and de Grasse, it could be argued, would do more to make the Yorktown campaign a success than Francisco Saavedra."

Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis

For all these reasons, de Grasse was delighted when Saavedra stepped aboard his flagship at Cap Francois in Haiti. Fortunately, France had already proved its good faith by assisting Spain in the successful campaign against Pensacola. Rochambeau now pledged to Saavedra that France would support Spain later in the fall in attacking the British possession of Jamaica but he needed help immediately with the campaign further north. Saavedra told de Grasse that four Spanish ships of the line would be assigned to protect France’s holdings in Haiti and urged him to take as many soldiers and ships as possible to the Chesapeake. Regarding the issue of money. Saavedra said that he would go to Havana to raise the cash de Grasse needed and then catch up with the French fleet north of Cuba to deliver it. 

Arriving in that port, Saavedra took only six hours to raise 1.2 million livres from local businessmen, an amount equal to about $6 million today. The lenders knew Spain would make good on the loans as well as pay interest because another treasure ship would be arriving soon from Mexico. 

When Rochambeau got word that the livres were on their way to the Chesapeake, he advanced the American government enough money to pay their troops. For many of them, it was the first compensation they had received while serving in the army.  Thus, the trade in plunder from the Aztec, Mayan and other New World empires kept the American army moving towards Yorktown.

De Grasse reached the Chesapeake with his 37 ships late in August. As he was offloading the troops, the British fleet appeared, and soon the Battle of the Capes was underway. The ships were stretched from Cape Henry to Cape Charles at the mouth of the Bay, and they blasted away at each other for two hours before the sun set. At the end of the engagement, the British ships were more damaged than the French, and the two fleets drifted out to sea, the British licking their wounds shadowed by the French.

A few days later, the British attempted to reenter the Chesapeake, but were surprised to discover that while they were dithering offshore, a second French fleet had slipped into the Bay ahead of them. Not wanting to engage in more battles with this superior force, the British sailed off to New York for repairs leaving Cornwallis trapped on the peninsula. Within a matter of days, the French mounted a standard siege operation using the 8,000 French and 8,000 Americans troops to capture the 9,000 British troops in the Yorktown fortifications with relatively little loss of life. The surrender knocked the wind out of the British war effort, and a peace treaty was signed two years later.

Philbrick’s narrative of the naval Battle of the Capes reads like a thriller. His personal stories throughout the book provide unique perspectives as well. For example, grog was what the British navy used to fortify its sailors, but the French started the day "with a brandylike liquor known as tafia." The problem was that it was kept deep in a ship's interior, and when clerks took a lantern down below to pump out the daily allotment, it had a nasty tendancy to ignite the cask, engulfing a ship in flames. While Saavedra and de Grasse were meeting at Cap Francois, French sailors were frantically trying to pull such a ship away from the fleet which burned so intensely that its cannons began discharging into the town "which according to the officer, 'received her whole broadside.'" A few days later, another ship suffered the same fate. It's a wonder the fleet maintained its strength!

After the Yorktown surrender, Washington invited both the British and French generals to a dinner. The elegantly dressed Europeans got along famously while both looked down their noses at the American peasants. Philbrick points out that ten years later, the same forces at work in the former colonies would tear French society apart. “More than a few of the French officers who chose to ignore their American allies that evening were destined to lose their exquisitely coifed heads to the guillotine.”

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