When I taught the Revolution as part of an American History course, I always focused on events in New England and the mid-Atlantic. The Stamp Act (1765), Boston Massacre (1770), Boston Tea Party (1773), First Continental Congress (1774), Paul Revere and William Dawes rides, Lexington & Concord, Fort Ticonderoga, Second Continental Congress, Bunker Hill (1775), British sail out of Boston and the action moves to New York, Declaration of Independence, Battle of Long Island, Washington escapes across New Jersey into Bucks County, Battle of Trenton (1776), then Princeton, Battle of Brandywine, Saratoga, British occupy Philadelphia, Valley Forge (1777), British abandon Philadelphia (it’s 1778). There were other battles in the South and West but the real action seemed to happen in Boston, New York and Pennsylvania. Then in 1781, Cornwallis surrenders in Yorktown, Virginia. What happened?
Part of the missing story is found in Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Hurricane’s Eye: the genius of George Washington and the victory at Yorktown.” Philbrick is a favorite author. He is from Nantucket and I first read was “Away Offshore: Nantucket Island and it’s People.” I’ve also read “Mayflower,” “Why Read Moby Dick,” “Abram’s Eye: the Native American legacy on Nantucket Island,” and “In the Heart of the Sea” (the story of the ship Essex, inspiration for Melville’s “Moby Dick”). I saw Philbrick speak on Nantucket several times.
So what happened between 1778 when the British leave Philadelphia and Yorktown, the battle that ended the war. The simple answer was the French. In 1778, Franklin ended successful negotiations and the French became allies in the American war for independence. We’ve all heard of the young Lafayette. But far less of the role played by the French Navy.
I’m amazed at the historical detail in “In the Hurricane’s Eye.” There are about 40 pages of notes and a 20 page bibliography. Philbrick deals with the main issues, when will the full French fleet arrive and where will they take on the British? Washington was hoping for a New York engagement, much of the British fleet and Clinton was there. The French wanted the Chesapeake where Cornwallis had an army. The French prevailed.
Philbrick documents the movements of armies and fleets. There are a number of encounters before the final assault on Cornwallis at Yorktown. We learn naval tactics, the number of cannons, different types of ships, and the strategy of each side, the relationship between Washington and Rochambeau, the French commander.
Yorktown is located at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay where the York and James rivers empty into the bay, then ocean. The French were able to control entrance into the Bay; American and French forces conducted a siege. Cornwallis realized it was the end and surrendered after 21 days. The thirteen colonies would become the United States. Washington would become its first President under the Constitution.
And the French? They had 28 ships in the Bay. And their ground forces may have been about 10,000, more than the Americans. If I taught the Revolution again, I think I’d need to revise my story. I can thank the research of Nathaniel Philbrick.