General Charles O’Hara was a veteran soldier by the time of the American Revolutionary War. He had fought in the Seven Years’ War in Europe and also saw service in Africa before coming to the British colonies in North America in 1778. As second in command to General Charles Cornwallis, he led the counterattack at Guilford Courthouse in March 1781, chasing General Nathanael Greene and his men from the field of battle. Later, with Cornwallis claiming illness, O’Hara led the surrender of the British troops at Yorktown.[i] The day following this surrender O’Hara wrote to the Duke of Grafton stating, “Our Ministers will I hope be now persuaded that America is irretrievably lost….The French talk of attacking Charles Town….America is theirs.”[ii]
This vignette is presented to demonstrate how vital the Franco-American alliance was and how significant the victory at Yorktown was to the final peace treaty with British acknowledgment of American independence. Not only did a veteran general in the British Army think that the colonies were lost after Yorktown, but he believed the French, through their alliance with the Americans, would ultimately control the former British colonies. Still, few Americans, and few Frenchmen, believed that victory at Yorktown meant victory in the overall war. The soldiers captured there (about 7,000 men) represented only about one-fourth of the total British strength in North America.[iii] Comparatively, over 6,000 had been captured at Saratoga four years earlier, and the war continued. A simple shuffling of troops would have replenished those men easily within months. So why, then, was the Franco-American coalition and the victory at Yorktown the final blow cast for American independence?
By the time the war had moved south, the British and the Americans were far from giving up fighting. However, with the French entrance into the war, the British were on the ropes. Even without full French assistance in the North American colonies, the alarm and anxiety caused by now having to protect the West Indies, India, Gibraltar and the other British possessions against the French caused a change in the British manner of thinking about the North American war. The French declaration of war against the British led to eventual American victory.
The final two large battles before Yorktown, at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse, were fought between the Americans under General Greene, and the British under Cornwallis, without French assistance. The Americans were victorious at Cowpens in January, providing a morale boost, and they could at least claim that even though they had lost the field at Guilford Courthouse, they had added twenty-five percent of Cornwallis’s force to the casualty list.[iv] Even though Cornwallis publicly claimed victory, he privately noted that the British “had not a regiment or corps that did not at some time give way.” He also reportedly said in private, “The Americans fought like demons.” After the battle, Greene proclaimed that he thought that is was “out of the enemies power to do us any great injury.”[v] Despite the victories, without French assistance, the Americans struggled to put the final nail in the coffin of the British Army. The war would continue.
The American and British back-and-forth that began in the northern colonies in 1775, continued in the southern colonies in 1781, however, the French entrance now had the British on the ropes. Though the French fleet bungled their way around the American coastline, they made good on their attacks against the British elsewhere, especially in the Caribbean. Still, General Washington wanted for French assistance and cooperation with his army, or, at minimum, communication from the French fleet as to their designs.[vi]
Cornwallis realized the predicament facing him before leaving North Carolina. He knew that leaving Virginia unconquered would provide no security to him in the Carolinas, but should he leave the Carolinas for Virginia, he had not enough men to keep the restless populace subdued.[vii] However, as had happened within the British command throughout the war, communication was lacking. Cornwallis moved toward Virginia to the disappointment of Sir Henry Clinton. Clinton wrote that had Cornwallis informed him of that move, Clinton most certainly who have “endeavored to have stopped” Cornwallis.[viii] But Cornwallis was frustrated by the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics of the Americans, and his inability to defeat the Americans. He and his army chased the Americans through the Carolinas and into Virginia. Cornwallis’s lust for victory and glory partially led to the final defeat of the British in the American colonies.
Cornwallis chose Yorktown because of its defensive nature and access to the sea. Both of these features would assist in his downfall. With French assistance at sea, the Americans could complete the blockade of the British army at Yorktown. In this way, French support was completely necessary for American victory at Yorktown. Without the French fleet off the Virginia coast, the British could have resupplied Cornwallis and his men indefinitely. Clinton could also have decided to disembark Cornwallis’s troops, bringing them back to New York, or some other location, or he could have reinforced them with more men and ordered Cornwallis to break out and attack the Americans. Happily, for the Americans, the French fleet was able to defeat the British fleet in the Chesapeake and blockade the Cornwallis in Yorktown from the sea before assistance could arrive. Washington, in shrewd and cunning fashion, snuck off to Yorktown with a combined Franco-American force. The classic siege which followed the Franco-American arrival outside of Yorktown, combined with the French naval blockade finally forced Cornwallis into submission.
General O’Hara led the somber procession of the British to surrender their arms at Yorktown. Whether to avoid or to insult Washington, O’Hara attempted to surrender Cornwallis’s sword to Rochambeau, but the Frenchman declined, directing O’Hara toward Washington. Washington, as a sign of protocol, or maybe as his own form of insult, passed O’Hara on to General Benjamin Lincoln, one subordinate submitting to another.[ix] Despite the show of fealty by Rochambeau, O’Hara believed the French were the true masters of the victory.
Washington hoped to build on the allied victory and free Charleston and Savannah from British control, but the French Admiral de Grasse informed Washington that his orders were to proceed to the West Indies immediately.[x] Without French help, Washington was not confident that he could take those cities, or New York. Though those were the only British strongholds remaining in the former colonies, the British had about 26,000 men spread across those areas, as well as along the Great Lakes region and Canada.[xi] However, the British Parliament realized that the war was already too costly, and to continue to fight against the Americans, French, and increasingly the Spanish as well, would “jeopardize the very existence of the British Empire.”[xii] The French, though not assisting Washington and the Americans to their liking, nevertheless contributed elsewhere. The end of the war did not come swiftly – it was still two years before the final peace treaty was signed – but there was not another major battle fought between the British and the Americans after Yorktown. The French handled the load.
Babits, Lawrence E. A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Buchanan, John. The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997.
Davis, Burke. The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1962.
Greene, Jerome A. The Guns of Independence: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781. New York: Savas Beatie, 2005.
Ketchum, Richard. Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign that Won the Revolution. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2004.
Savas, Theodore P. and J. David Dameron. A Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution. New York: Savas Beatie LLC, 2006.
[i] Savas, 290, 336.
[ii] Qtd. in Greene, xv.
[iii] Ibid., xvi.
[iv] Savas, 291.
[v] All qtd. in Buchanan, 382.
[vi] Ketchum, 29.
[vii] Davis, 180.
[viii] Ibid., 184.
[ix] Greene, 297.
[x] Ibid., 319.
[xi] Ibid., 323.