Independence at Yorktown: Chance or Destiny?

“Pondering the degree to which accident could overturn the schemes of wise men, Prince Bismarck once concluded that there was a special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States. Indeed there is much to be said for the argument that America has survived and grown strong by a miraculous streak of luck that, at one turning point after another, has directed fortune its way.”So writes OSCAR HANDLIN, Professor of History at Harvard and author of The Uprooted, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1951. This is the first of a series of five articles, each focused on a major event in American history.


IT TAKES an effort of the imagination to look back over the long distance we have come on the way to being a great power. We make our influence felt in the distant corners of the earth; and every act of politics today must take account of American will and interest. It is difficult now to recall that the road to the present was not straight or easy — that it led often by decisive turnings at which our fate was subject to the accidents of chance, to the whims of forgotten foreign statesmen, and to the firmness of certain Americans.

It is well, therefore, to remember how we, a new nation, came into being. Rebellion, war, and diplomacy were the means. But in our success were involved the miscalculations of men, the chances of casual encounters, and even the winds of the unpredictable weather.

The young Americans who dared aspire toward independence in 1776 lacked resources and experience and authority; they faced a powerful empire and a vigorous and resolute king. Although defiance was already a habit with them, it was a hazardous course that the members of the Continental Congress took when they determined to cut the ties that bound them to Britain.

In the next two years, they had frequent occasion to wonder at their own foolhardiness. They had slaved off the first attempts at reconquest. But they had not been able to clear the English away from their coasts. And the uncertain operations of the state and central governments generated no confidence in their permanence or stability.

As the volunteer armies melted away with the fading of the first flush of enthusiasm, as the currency depreciated toward nothingness and the tax yield fell off, increasingly the only hope for success seemed the intervention of some powerful outsider. It was for this reason that American thoughts drifted often to France, where Benjamin Franklin labored to convince the government of Louis XVI that it had a stake in the struggle.

Whether France would intercede or not would be largely the decision of an aristocratic minister of state. Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, had seen long service under the French crown. Born of a branch of the nobility that had distinguished itself in government, he had spent his whole active life in diplomacy, moving from one embassy to another — from Frankfort to Munich, Stockholm, and Constantinople. In 1774 he became Minister of Foreign Affairs for Louis XVI, determined to regain the ground France had lost in the disastrous succession of eighteenth-century wars.

In the polished salons of Versailles the aging courtier would take a step heavy with consequences for the New World. For Vergennes the American Revolution was a lucky chance, an opportunity for retaliation against the overconfident British, now the possessors of so many prized colonies once French. Through spies in England and agents in America he had watched discontent ripple through the seaports and back country from Massachusetts to the Carolinas, and shrewdly hoped to chart his own way through these unpredictable currents. He had cautiously advanced aid to the colonies, encouraging them to keep a disturbing sore alive in the side of his British enemy. But he remained formally a neutral until 1778.

Copyright 1954, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

The Battle of Saratoga the year before had given him a basis for belief that the rebels might actually gain their independence. He did not dare hope that France could win back her old empire; but judicious assistance to the Americans would weaken George III and would attach the new nation in friendship and alliance to Louis XVI. In the early spring he extended formal recognition to the new state and entered into a formal alliance with it. “No event was ever received with more heartfelt joy,” wrote Washington, out of the depths of relief and renewed confidence that the news had brought.

In the alignment of powers against Britain that now took shape, the French played a critical role. Along with themselves, they drew Spain actively into the war. The Netherlands were persuaded to maintain a benevolent neutrality toward the United States until 1780, when they too became belligerents. In the north, Russia and Sweden were encouraged in “armed neutrality,” almost as advantageous to the Americans as open intervention.

Now that France was openly at war with Britain, Vergennes was realist enough to know the magnitude of the task ahead. Not the man to underestimate the power of his opponent, he could envisage all the risks of defeat and was determined to avoid excessive commitments. Cautiously he maneuvered to retain freedom of action, wary, yet alert to every opportunity.

As the indecisive years went by, Vergennes’s caution was justified. The pendulum of fortune swung from one side to the other; and the humiliating defeat that would bring the obdurate George III to terms was as remote as ever. An American army was in existence, and French forces had been of some assistance. But the British held the principal Atlantic cities and there was not much hope of immediately dislodging them.

Furthermore, Vergennes had paid a heavy price for Spanish assistance. The conservative court in Madrid had shied from the idea of encouraging revolutionaries; and only the promise that Gibraltar would be his reward had overcome the caution of the proud Floridablanca, principal minister of the Spanish king. There was not, however, the least likelihood that the British would agree to a peace by which they would lose the great fortress that was the key to the western Mediterranean. To compel her to yield to such terms would prolong the war indefinitely.

Early in 1781, Vergennes therefore imagined that the time had come to end the fighting and to consolidate the gains already made. It was almost six years since the shots fired at Concord, three since the French had become belligerents. The long struggle was bleeding the treasury dry, and Louis XVI was in no position to support an indefinite drain on his purse. Much better to cut the conflict short and to realize limited gains than to hazard all in further combat.

Vergennes’s plan was simple and in accord with the accepted diplomacy of the eighteenth century. The purpose of war was not the unconditional surrender or the total destruction of the enemy, but a moderate improvement of strategic position and whatever accessions of territory were not too expensive. On the battlefields of Europe the great powers were all the time trading corners of the continent. This war’s foe might be the friend of the next; and unrestrained ambition was not only indecent but might provoke the united hostility of all the states committed to keeping power in balance.

The French minister’s reasoning was therefore almost classic in its logic. Let peace be on the basis of the status quo. Let all the struggling powers retain what they then possessed. That would put a halt to further unprofitable expenditures in men and money and at the same time stabilize the advantages already attained.

There seemed every prospect that the war would draw to a close on some such terms as these, subject, of course, to the usual diplomatic haggling over details. This would make not a perfect but a feasible peace, Vergennes reasoned. True, Great Britain would retain New York, Savannah, and the seaports in between, and the United States would lack a proven outlet to the sea except at Boston. But on the other hand, the new nation would have its independence recognized; and it would hold a substantial stretch of territory — more, indeed, than the present needs of its population required. True, also, Spain would not retake Gibraltar; but it would gain both banks of the Mississippi and the whole coast of the Gulf of Mexico. France would weaken England and strengthen its alliance with both the United States and Spain. Yet the terms were not so ruinous as to push Great Britain into unyielding resistance.


VERGENNES, it happened, was somewhat reticent about bringing into the open proposals that were “lacking in delicacy,” since they were far short of the expectations of his allies. It was usual in such situations to spare the sensibilities of all involved; there was no embarrassment if the initial suggestion came from neutral mediators. In this case, the Emperor of Austria and the Empress of Russia were available, and, indeed, in due course they advanced the proposal for peace which had been spelled out for them by Vergennes. All was in proper form, and rationally there seemed no reason why the terms might not be accepted when they were presented in May, 1781.

Rationally! On some questions, however, the Americans refused to be altogether rational. Strangers to diplomacy, they were not disposed to compromise. The Continental Congress had already dispatched a plenipotentiary to keep them informed of the situation and to treat with the powers concerned should peace become possible. It was fortunate that the choice for that role was John Adams, a man not given to compromise of principle or interest.

As a negotiator, Adams had the country lawyer’s zeal for the welfare of his client. His brusque manner, his self-righteousness, and his scarcely concealed reflections upon other men’s virtue often offended those with whom he dealt. As he moved between Versailles and The Hague, his Yankee suspicions of the titled foreigners hardened into a resolve not to let himself be outbargained. Above all, however, he burned with a fierce loyalty to the ideals of the Revolution; even then he was composing the ponderous Defense of the Constitutions of the United States. He would accept no such compromise of those ideals as the mediation proposal involved.

Yet before the superior force of his French ally, what weight did Adams’s objections have? And Franklin, the resident minister in Paris, was older, more temperate, and familiar with European statecraft. His mind absorbed the realities of the situation, and the bird-in-hand argument impressed him. He was likely to fall in with the mediation idea.

Vergennes held all the cards. If Adams was unyielding, Congress could be persuaded to find another envoy. Without French aid, the Americans would be in a poor way indeed. Yet, what would the nation have been had its boundaries been drawn within the limits of Vergennes’s terms? A poor, provincial territory, lacking access to the sea, meager in resources, and hemmed in by powerful unfriendly neighbors on the north, west, and south. Independence would have been in name only; the reality would have remained dependence.

For the moment, George III spared the Americans the necessity of accepting that outcome. The headstrong monarch was enraged by the very suggestion of foreign mediation in a domestic quarrel with his colonies. “I certainly, till drove to the wall, will do what I can to save the empire,” he still insisted. His intransigence, now, made further negotiation futile.

But Vergennes could wait. The logic of events would make London more tractable, and peace would take the form he had sketched. At this critical juncture only some dramatic and altogether unattended news from overseas could have altered the complexion of those events.

The news came from Yorktown.

The early months of 1781 found American military fortunes at their lowest ebb. The Continental treasury was empty, the currency was worthless, supplies were low, and the states no longer bothered to honor requisitions. The army had all but disappeared. As enlistments expired, men drifted back to their farms, their patriotic ardor having waned through the years of dreary fighting. In the depth of winter the flare of mutiny in the Pennsylvania line had brought into the open the resentment of soldiers who found it hard to keep faith alive while they were unpaid, ill-clothed, and often hungry.

In 1781 two clumps of military strength remained. At Newport was a superb French force of 5000 men under General de Rochambeau. They had come the summer before, well equipped and bountifully supplied. But they had thus far done little other than to open the eyes of provincial New Englanders and their daughters to the potentialities of a polite society.

Near West Point, Washington himself directed the American army of scarcely 3500 men. The Virginian had aged markedly since the spring day six years earlier when he had assumed command of the Continental troops in Cambridge. Indeed, he had had a weary time of it, struggling to keep alive the dreams of honor and glory while the nagging details of administration crowded in upon him. Often his thoughts drifted to his Mount Vernon home from which he had been so long absent, while he composed labored letters to Congress explaining the necessities of his situation.

Thus far, failures were as conspicuous as success; and at the opening of the year 1781, Washington was on the verge of despair. The mutiny was a shock, and the prospects for the months ahead gloomy. A man of few intimate friendships, the general grew nervous and irritable. Worried over a near defeat in the South in March, he was driven unfairly to blame Rochambeau in letters that almost caused a break with the French.


THE spring passed without a rift in the clouds of anxiety. In May, Washington saw no prospect of a glorious offensive. To his journal he confided the fear that he would be trapped again in a “bewildered and gloomy defensive” campaign.

With the French, he was faced at this time by two English armies, each larger than his own. Comfortably established in New York City was Sir Henry Clinton in command of at least 14,500 wellequipped men who were being continually reinforced from home. In the South, Lord Charles Cornwallis had gathered his 5000 veterans at Yorktown, which he was fortifying as a base for further operations.

Washington was not overdisturbed at the danger from these forces. Clinton, the ranking British commander, was neither decisive nor vigorous. He had shown a preference for resting in New York and pursuing bands of Continentals through the countryside. Thus far he had displayed neither the ability nor the will to stamp out the rebellion.

But it was altogether another matter to contrive Clinton’s defeat. The Americans could hold on in indefinite stalemate. But they could hardly be expected to destroy forces so superior to their own. And that , of course, had been Vergennes’s reckoning, as he waited that summer for the hints of peace which he had planted to take root.

Washington yearned for victory. The thought of remaining on the defensive revolted him. He therefore set about planning Clinton’s destruction. His plan proceeded from the correct premise that to win he must unite the French and American forces and strike at one of the British armies cut off from the other. But the plan had a flaw which might have proved fatal had the Americans seriously pursued it. Washington’s error was to imagine he could launch a successful attack on New York. However, an unforeseen turn of fortune was to alter the whole design and reorder the future course of the war.

Washington knew that Clinton’s force was larger than any he and Rochambeau together could muster. He knew, too, the strength of Manhattan’s fortifications. But he imagined that he had no alternative. To get at Cornwallis’s smaller army called for a long overland march skirting Clinton’s stronghold — a march in which the French and Americans would be cut off from their bases and would run the risk of an assault by both British armies.

New York, despite the risks, seemed therefore the necessary goal. Early in July, Washington and Rochambeau joined forces at White Plains and prepared to attack.

Now was chance’s first intervention. The advance American detachments sent forward to land secretly upon the island ran into British foraging parties and withdrew. Offered the opportunity for reconsideration by these accidental encounters, the allied generals took more sober stock of their position and reluctantly determined to avoid an engagement that would certainly have proved disastrous.

Their thoughts turned again to Virginia. Perhaps a feint at Yorktown would induce Clinton to reinforce Cornwallis, thus weakening the New York garrison. But the hazards of the move gave them pause.

Long before, Washington had understood that a powerful fleet would give the army mobility. In January, he had sent to Versailles a desperate plea for ships. He had not dared hope that his request would be granted, and since an exchange of letters took five months, he could not afford to wait for a reply. He had been moderately cheered in the late spring by the news that a first-class French fleet under the Comte de Grasse was in the West Indies. But its further moves had then been uncertain.

Early in August, as Washington and Rochambeau lingered indecisively in the vicinity of New York, the long-awaited word came from De Grasse. The French fleet, almost thirty vessels with 3000 additional troops, would sail in the middle of the month for the Chesapeake, prepared to assist in an assault upon Yorktown. The news dispelled every trace of irresolution and brought with it a refreshing certainty of what had to be done. Delighted and relieved, Washington prepared to act.

The pieces of the plan now fell into place. The march to Virginia became feasible when it was clear that supplies could move by sea. A tiny garrison would remain at West Point, while every available man was committed to the gamble of a single decisive campaign. Washington and Rochambeau would steal swiftly across New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, while a small fleet under Admiral Barras brought their artillery down from Newport. In September they would all rendezvous with De Grasse in the Chesapeake.


THE movement by land was quick and secret, undiscovered by Clinton while he could still intervene. Yet ultimately the fate of the expedition depended upon command of the sea. For a brief interval, but long enough, the French controlled the ocean.

Fortune that spring and summer had mocked Admiral Rodney, the British naval commander in the Atlantic. All year, he had engaged the French in a campaign of “strenuous futility”; indecisive petty fights had sapped his energy. A moody, solitary man, disappointed by his failures, his health had broken down. He had been warned that De Grasse was moving northward, but was reluctant to face the bitter weather of the North Atlantic as autumn advanced. Early in August, as the critical moment of the war approached, Rodney determined to return to England with a part of his fleet for a rest. In any naval battle that was to come, the British would therefore be outnumbered by the larger French force. The balance of power at sea had shifted against them.

They would not intercept the French fleet before it reached the shelter of the Chesapeake or had the opportunity to disembark the troops and equipment for Rochambeau’s army. A warning of the danger from De Grasse had indeed been dispatched to Admiral Graves in New York; but the vessel that carried it was lost and never reached port. Not until September 1 did the English ships set sail.

By then De Grasse was safely lodged within the Capes of the Chesapeake ready to greet Graves at his arrival four days later. In the battle that followed, misfortune maintained its attachment to the British. Out manned and outgunned, surprised that the French were already in occupation, Graves let slip an opportunity to attack before the enemy had formed a line of battle. Thereafter he was doomed to failure. In addition, his signaling system went wrong, or was misunderstood by his subordinates, which only added a comic sting to the defeat.

For the time being, the French were masters of the Bay. Within a week Barras’s ships from Newport entered with their precious cargo of artillery, and the armies of Washington and Rochambeau were ferried safely and swiftly from Baltimore and Annapolis to the James near Williamsburg. As September drew to a close, the combined forces were establishing a siege of Yorktown.

Within the beleaguered town, Cornwallis knew soon enough what had happened. A bend in the river cut Yorktown off from a view of the Bay. Yet even from a distance, the naval battle off the Chesapeake must have held Cornwallis’s attention. The news of the French victory made grimly clear his own desperate situation. Just over forty at the time, Cornwallis was only at the beginning of a career that would one day earn him distinction in India and Ireland. He had come to America at the very start, of the war and had served creditably in the southern theater. Largely through the fault of others, he was about to be responsible for the most decisive defeat in British history.

In the first, week of October, the siege settled down to its traditional routine. The French engineers busied themselves mounting the heavy guns, planning trenches, and preparing the apparatus of assault. Occasional sorties and little charges enlivened the long periods of digging and waiting. But mostly it seemed the test would be one of the patience of the attackers against the persistence of the besieged.

Cornwallis was unwilling to surrender. He knew the formidable odds against him and advised Clinton not to attempt to send reinforcements. But there was still a glimmer of hope. Suppose he could break through the trap and escape? Yorktown was surrounded on three sides by the superior forces of the French and Americans. The fourth side was the south bank of the York River.

Cornwallis determined to flee across the river. While the besiegers were still occupied with their digging, he would take his men across in small boats, and then, without baggage or supplies, by forced marches, flee speedily northward to join Clinton. Enough of his army would remain intact to carry on the war.

Late in the night of October 16, the movement began. At midnight, a substantial detachment was across. Then, without warning, a furious storm swept across the river. The boats already over could not come back. Others were carried by the current down the river. For want of a few more hours of calm, of a few more boats, the last hope of escape was gone.

On October 17, Cornwallis offered to surrender.

Surrender at Yorktown removed from the war a substantial portion of the total British armed strength. It also freed a large part of the continent south of New York. Most important, it altered unexpectedly the diplomatic balance upon which Vergennes had counted. Even if the formula proposed by the mediators in the spring were adhered to, it would now have a different meaning. The Americans held far more territory in October than they had six months earlier. However, Yorktown had a wider significance: it was responsible for a shift in control of British politics and, indirectly, gave an entirely new turn to the negotiations then proceeding at Paris.


YORKTOWN did not make George III any friendlier to the Americans. Bitterly, he insisted he would not recognize the independence of the colonies, and threatened abdication as the preferable alternative. His rage, while genuine enough, now concealed the shift to a new policy.

Although this monarch never was known for the display of tact or common sense, he did have a nose for the realities of a situation. Often enough his choleric outbursts were devices to conceal the embarrassment of an unwelcome accommodation. After Yorktown, there was no alternative to independence; and George III quickly knew it. The news discredited the Tories and the king’s friends in power. In the extremity, George summoned back into office the ministers most friendly to the American cause. Rockingham, who had once earlier repealed the Stamp Act, Shelburne, and Fox were thereafter to make British policy.

The new English ministers had no desire to justify the errors of the past. They preferred to restore friendly relations with the rebellious colonies, not only because they sympathized with the cause, but also to emphasize the shortcomings of earlier Tory policy. Even independence was not too high a price for American friendship, particularly since it would be Lord North, the prime minister responsible for the Revolution, who paid the price.

As the implications of Yorktown sank in through the early months of 1782, the British ministers realized peace was imperative. They held 30,000 troops in North America, consuming enormous quantities of supplies. To maintain and reinforce them would be ruinously expensive. There was no assurance that a new campaign would be any more successful than the old. Most critical, every passing day of war confirmed American dependence upon France. Delay might create for England’s traditional enemy a firm friend in the New World.

In March, 1782, therefore, a long series of negotiations looking toward the peace ponderously got under way. The final treaty was not signed for another year. But the essential elements quickly became apparent.

Franklin and Adams were joined in Paris that spring by a third negotiator, John Jay, come up from Spain where he had fruitlessly been representing the United States. Jay was the youngest of the diplomats, rather vain and self-assured, and very conscious of his gentlemanly upbringing. The unlovely Spanish court in Madrid had left him with a permanent distaste for European statesmanship; and even more than Adams, he was dubious as to Vergennes’s intentions.

Jay now uneasily reconsidered the instructions drawn up by the Congress four months before Yorktown. Those instructions reflected a situation that had ceased to exist. The envoys were directed to follow the French minister in all matters; had they literally done as they had been told, they could not long have put off acquiescence in Vergennes’s original terms. Yet Jay knew that they could do better and, by dealing with the British, outwit Vergennes. Old family ties and his interests as a spokesman for the New York merchants drew him also to the idea of an Anglo-American accommodation.

There was already a great coming and going of secret agents between London and Paris. Franklin had been dealing with Richard Oswald, an unofficial representative of the English. But in accordance with the rules of the game and with the terms of the French treaty, the Americans had kept Vergennes informed. Jay now found a pretext for cutting short these conversations, and sent, to London a secret emissary of his own. The word carried to the new English ministers was that the Americans would consider the framing of a separate preliminary treaty, without the French, and that “it was the obvious interest of Britain immediately to cut the cords which tied us to France.”

In November, 1782, the English and Americans agreed upon the terms of settlement that were later written into the treaty of peace. By those terms Franklin, Jay, and Adams secured far more than the most sanguine of them could have dared expect a year earlier. Independence was recognized. The new nation’s boundaries reached west to the Mississippi, and the English agreed to evacuate the ports and posts they still held. The Yankees also retained the fishing privileges in British waters they had once held as British subjects. And the United States was not bound to the necessity of compensating the Tories for their confiscated property.

It was no easy matter to break the news of this agreement to the French. When the word came to him, Vergennes took it in silence. For two weeks, he considered the matter, while the American envoys anxiously awaited an indication of his attitude. No doubt Vergennes was offended at having been out maneuvered; but he was not one to let false pride lead him into headstrong action. His great concern was still to make the best of the unexpected turn in the game.

His reply when it finally came, then, was hardly the bitter protest that might be expected. Reading the moderate note, Franklin knew that the French could be conciliated. In a communication which was a model of tact, the aging Philadelphian admitted that the Americans had perhaps been lacking in bienséance, but insisted it was not through want of regard for French interests. The British, he wrote Vergennes, “flatter themselves they have already divided us”; and that warning, he knew, would be enough to remind the king’s minister it was necessary to accept the logic of the situation created at Yorktown. On this basis the peace was made.

The other powers fared less well as the remaining issues of the war were settled. France got nothing for all its efforts: Spain received the Floridas in return for the surrender of its hopes for Gibraltar; to the Netherlands were restored some colonies earlier taken from them; and Britain was confirmed in the possession of Canada. But the Americans emerged from the treaty negotiations with the lion’s share of the spoils. Although the United States was the weakest of the powers involved, its untrained diplomats had outplayed the professional statesmen of Europe.

More than skill had been responsible. The American envoys had succeeded because they had exploited the situation Yorktown presented. Taking advantage of the British eagerness for peace and Vergennes’s anxiety to end the war, they had played one off against the other, and emerged with a highly advantageous settlement. Yet they left England and France eagerly vying for American friendship.

The turning point at Yorktown was the product of the unexpected wanderings of British foragers along the Jersey shore, of the accidental loss of the English frigates alerting Graves to the presence of the French fleet, of the luck that permitted two separate armies and two separate fleets to converge at the right moment on Yorktown, of the storm that held Cornwallis in the beleaguered town. All these chance events had conspired to make the decisive victory that set to nought Vergennes’s most canny plans. As a result, the nation that came into being in 1783 was not the narrow coastal state the Frenchman had envisaged. It had earned a princely territorial settlement within which it could grow in power in the decades of expansion that lay ahead.