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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

How the French Duped Washington into Winning the Revolution

By: UnrepentantNewDealer


Hey, I know it's been a long time since I posted last. I have been keeping quite busy this summer, what with a summer class, and work, and getting my wisdom teeth out on Monday and getting my three-year old Dell Inspiron 5150 notebook finally fixed (a long story for another day). Anyway, I might start up a blog of my own at some point along the lines of Akerman's new one, but in the meantime, I do have a brief post of a historical nature, in honor of Independence Day.

We Americans are loath to credit our success to others, but the standard narrative of the American Revolution has finally adapted to place the French role near the center, as it was indeed the crucial element in the 13 colonies' victory over the British Empire. However, the turning point is usually misplaced in most accounts. The battle of Saratoga in October 1777 is usually held to be the turning point of the war, because it was Saratoga that convinced the French court that the Americans could in fact win. It was after Saratoga that the French agreed to sign the Treaty of Alliance with the Continental Congress, in which each side pledged to come to the other's aid if attacked, and to not negotiate a separate peace without the other nation's consent (a mutual defense treaty of a type America did not sign again until the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949.) However, this oversimplifies the rest of the war. Victory was by no means inevitable or even probable after the entry of the French into the war.

First, the French had their own agenda: they were in it, not to help secure our freedom, but to score a victory against their hated long-time nemesis, Great Britain. To that end, they were far more focused on helping themselves to Britain's most valuable colonial possessions, from the Caribbean to Cairo to India, than on helping the insurgents in the Eastern Seaboard colonies in North America. The French attacks on far-flung British outposts around the globe forced the British to divert manpower and resources that otherwise would have gone to the American campaign, thus indirectly helping the rebellious colonists.

Second, the first several Franco-American military endeavors--from the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778 to the ill-fated attempt to reconquer Savannah, Georgia in 1779--were fiascoes. Little wonder the French chose to concentrate their efforts on harrying the British for the prize of the Caribbean sugar isles! Of course, the French were by this point already delivering crucial amounts of weapons and monetary aid, but the Patriots, most particularly Washington, were impatient for French military aid, which they believed was unduly slow in coming.

By the winter of 1780-81, the war was for all intents and purposes at a stalemate. In the north, the British under General Henry Clinton were enjoying the fruits of the occupation of New York City. In the south, Washington had finally found a general who would fight, in the person of Nathanael Greene. Greene had fought General Charles Cornwallis to a standstill in his campaign to reconquer the southern colonies, leading Cornwallis to conclude, at the end of the campaign ending with the battering his men took at Guilford Courthouse, to quit the theater altogether, and to try to split the colonies in half by conquering Virginia. Unfortunately for Cornwallis, his superior officer, General Clinton, overruled him and ordered him to occupy a position along the Virginia coast that could serve as an outpost for a future campaign (and for the overly-cautious Clinton, any campaign in which he did not outnumber his opponents by at least five-to-one, was a campaign to put off until a later date.)

Meanwhile, in New England, Washington sat brooding. His most humiliating defeat had been the loss of New York in 1776 and he was obsessed with winning it back and erasing the shame of the loss. But as he conferred with the French commanders on possibilities for joint action in the 1781 campaign, they had little enthusiasm for Washington's plans for an amphibious assault on New York City. The French General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau had overseen such campaigns before in the Old World, and knew that New York City was so heavily fortified, an attempt to take it would be little more than a suicide mission. In vain did he try to persuade Washington to give up on his unrealistic thoughts of retaking New York, but Washington was determined and kept pestering Rochambeau as to the whereabouts of the French fleet, which he would need to assault New York.

Fortune intervened in the form of the French fleet under Admiral Francois de Grass. De Grass planned to spend the summer pillaging British positions in the Caribbean, but could be available to head north to calmer waters by late August to avoid hurricane season in the Caribbean. Might my fleet be of service to the cause, de Grass asked Rochambeau, and if so, where? Knowing that Cornwallis was bunkered down at Yorktown where he could be forced to surrender if surrounded by land and sea, Rochambeau went behind Washington's back and told de Grass to head for the Chesapeake. He then told Washington that the French fleet would be in the Chesapeake by September and if Washington wanted a decisive victory in 1781, he should lead the Continental Army to Yorktown to cut off Cornwallis' escape.

Now came the moment of truth: Rochambeau had gone behind Washington's back to ensure the French fleet arrived in Virginia rather than New York, thus styming Washington's plans for an assault on New York. Washington could have let the personal slight and insult enrage him to the point of refusing to launch the audacious 500-mile march from Connecticut to Virginia. If he had, the war might very well have been lost right then and there. Each side had battered and bruised the other sufficently that neither had a strong upper hand in 1781, yet each side was at the breaking point, both economically in terms of being able to finance further conflict, as well as in terms of public morale and will to continue the fight. As Washington himself wrote that spring: "We are at the end of our tether.... and now or never our deliverance must come." Whichever side struck the next big blow would strike the knockout blow of the war and bring whole conflict to a swift conclusion.

Given Clinton's predilection for defense and Washington's desire to prove himself and redeem himself for the loss of New York, it seems most likely that Washington would have tried to launch the knock-out blow at New York--and failed. Of course, the French would have already left town, knowing how hopeless Washington's chances would be, even with French help. The alliance would almost certainly have fallen apart right there, and with it, any hope of winning the war. The defeat of Washington's army, coming as a body-blow to an army that had already suffered mass mutinies over pay and equipment the previous winter, would have sounded the death-knell for the Patriot cause. John Adams once estimated that only about 1/3 of the colonists supported the Patriots, and that number was probably even lower by 1781 as the Continental dollar continued its nose-dive into hyperinflation. Absent the American victory at Yorktown, 1781 would almost certainly have seen only one victory: the complete triumph of the British army over the Continental Army at New York. The rest of the war would have but a "mopping-up" action. A King's Pardon would have sufficed to win over the majority of colonists; the King's hangman would have taken care of the rest, as had been the case in earlier revolts in Ireland and India.

A lesser man would have taken such umbrage, and so doomed the cause for which he had given his life. But instead, Washington chose to put aside his displeasure at being misled by those who thought (and in this case, thought correctly) that they knew better, and take the once-in-a-lifetime chance presented by the French fleet being in the Chesapeake. The story of the long campaign that followed--of the spiriting out of Washington's men to the south, all the while leading Clinton to believe the main strike was still coming at New York until it was too late for him to send reinforcements to Cornwallis; the defeat of the British fleet off the Virginia Capes, allowing de Grasse to cut Cornwallis off from the sea; the narrowly-run battles in the redoubts of Yorktown--all of it makes for a thrilling story. However, the pieces for victory had already been set in motion when Rochambeau went behind Washington's back and Washington decided to play the hand he'd been dealt, even though he still preferred his own unworkable plan.

A man more thin-skinned or convinced of his own infallibility, would never have been able to swallow his pride and adopt the plans of others, as Washington did. We value steadfastness in time of war, as indeed we should, but we should never forget that flexibility can be an even more important battlefield virtue. Thus it is that we come to the delicious irony, not merely that we could not have the Revolutionary War without the help of the French, but that we could not have won without the duplicity of the French, or without the courage of a Commander-in-Chief who decided not to take it too personally. The echoes of that decision reverberate down the present day. As we celebrate the heroism of our forefathers, let us also celebrate the heroism (and duplicity) of our allies, without which, all of their sacrifices would have been in vain.

Viva la France!
Viva la America!
Viva la Duplicité!

Primary Source:
Davis, Burke. "The Campaign That Won America: The Story of Yorktown," Eastern Acorn Press, 1970. http://www.iobabooks.com/details.php?dcx=3755181&aid=frg

4 comments:

Rodrigo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Scott said...

Man, you never learn this stuff in school, not even in my AP class. Because the AP exam focuses heavily on the 1800's the entire Revolutionary War was covered in the second or third day of class and of course an emphasis was placed on Saratoga. My teacher was a great teacher, very knowledgeable, but like all teachers she subscribed to what she had been taught and never veered from it.

Michael J. Smith said...

Yeah, I actually only learned it from that book I cite, which I got at the Yorktown giftshop. I'd agree Saratoga was important, but when something is labeled the "turning point", people assume that victory was inevitable after that point, as was the case in WWII after Midway and Stalingrad. In the Revolution, the outcome truly was in doubt until the final battle of the war.

Michael Akerman said...

That was a very good post, made better for a wise dose of brevity (the lack of which is your fatal flaw, commonly, as far as making posts popularly readable goes). Indeed, bravo, Smith! Well conceived and well written.

Also, the comment that was deleted above appeared to be in Spanish or Portuguese. I speak neither.