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Leading Up to the SIEGE at Yorktown

Lafayette and about 2,000 men had been dogging Lord Cornwallis' 5000 troops throughout Virginia. Minor engagements had done little damage to either side. As Cornwallis took up position in Portsmouth, Virginia, he received word to secure a deep water port. Cornwallis chose Yorktown as the best option.

Meanwhile, George Washington had been idled for almost 2 years just outside of New York City. He was out of money, and his men were running out of patience: they had not been paid. In early July, a contingent of French soldiers under command of General Rochambeau met their American allies for the first time. Although Rochambeau had arrived the previous year, they had been confined to Newport, Rhode Island. Many of his men had become ill and the British naval forces had prevented any movement.

The French, long-time enemies of Great Britain, declared war against the English in 1778. In 1779 they tried to invade England, but that attempt was a complete failure. At the same time, the Americans were seeking an allegiance with France looking for support in the form of money, men and supplies. In the fall of 1779 the French decided to join with the Americans and take the fight to the British in the New World. They would send the much needed armaments for the poor Americans and in return, they would see the defeat of the British and regain their superiority of the seas and colonial posts throughout the world.

In late winter of 1780, a French expeditionary force was sent to the Americans, landing at Rhode Island. General Rochambeau commanded the French contingent, complete with arms, supplies and cash to hand over to General Washington to pay his troops. The French plans called for a second group of supply ships to complete the French force before moving inland and joining up with Washington. As Rochambeau and his men awaited the second wave of supplies, British naval forces arrived and blocked Rochambeau from leaving his position. Rochambeau then learned that there would be no more supplies arriving. By then it was too late to begin any serious engagements. Washington would have to wait till the following spring.

In the meantime, French ships were gathering in the West Indies, safely away from any unplanned naval engagements with the Royal Navy. Although the Royal Navy was a much larger force numerically compared to the French, the British navy was spread thin.

The main role of the British navy was to stop shipping between the Americans and other nations. They also provided logistical support for the British Army, defend British shipping against the plucky American privateers, as well as against the French, Spanish and Netherland navies trying to take advantage of Britains increasing attention to her American colonies. This defense of course, ultimately meant defending Great Britain from an invasion from France, and all the while maintaining Atlantic naval supremacy. Ultimately, Great Britain was incapable of handling all of these responsibilities, culminating in the fall of 1781 when the Americans and French were able to put together a combined land sea assault against a major British position along the Virginia coast.

The French role in supporting the Americans played a decisive role in October 1781 by defeating the British relief fleet that came to the aid of Cornwallis and the army trapped at Yorktown.

France Steps up

In early July 1781, Rochambeau joined Washington and together went over possible plans on how best to engage the British. Together they set out with a small scouting party to view the respective positions of the British in and around New York. After this, they decided an all out attack against New York would be futile. All combined, the French and American forces there totalled about 9,000. The British had about 14,000 along with strong fortifications and the British fleet anchored not far away. Their options were not good.

With summer quickly approaching, it was time for Washington to make a decision. The Washington and Rochambeau had discussed the options before them and Washington was still strongly leaning toward attacking Clinton right here, right now. The other option was to ignore Clinton's fortified positions in New York, move south to the Carolinas and join forces with General Greene in a massive combined force, move north, taking on the British wherever they could. While on the surface, this might seem like a good option, it was fraught with perils.

Supplies in the south had already been largely consumed by both the American and British forces. Feeding a large army on the move became a logistical nightmare.

Washington's other option was mounting an attack against Cornwallis who had been roaming about Virginia creating as much havoc as possible. General Lafayette had been dogging Cornwallis nipping at his heels whenever and wherever he could. The most recent communication made it appear that Cornwallis was moving to the coast, perhaps to a place where he could set up a port for resupply.

For Washington, none of these options were especially appeal ling. If left up to his men, they would prefer to remain where they were rather than go on a forced march south some 500 to 1000 miles. They hadn't been paid and food was in short supply. In fact everything was in short supply.

As Washington and Rochambeau discussed these options, a special messenger had arrived from the Caribbean. Admiral de Grasse of the French Navy, would be moving north with a good number of ships, men and material in August 1781. He would be at their disposal for about 2 months. All he required was to let him know where they wanted him to go.

Rochambeau considered the option of De Grasse attacking the British navy in New York, as well as Virginia. If DeGrasse could secure the Chesapeake, he could prevent Cornwallis from being resupplied. If they acted quickly and with force, they could also prevent Cornwallis' escape from the narrow peninsula between the James and York Rivers. Washington and Rochambeau both agreed that it would be Cornwallis.

When Washington received news that Admiral de Grasse was indeed moving north with a strong naval force, he along with the French Commander Rochambeau committed to a land assault against Cornwallis, who by this time had taken up a position along the York River in the small village of Yorktown.

Washington had to act. Rochambeau convinced Washington that De Grasse could be counted upon to come through on his mission. He was a trustworthy admiral, skilled and capable. Plus the timetable set forth by De Grasse had a limited time frame: he would arrive in early September and he would be heading back to the Caribbean by mid October. For Washington, he appreciated the finite limits De Grasse had set down. It was now or languish on for another year in New York hoping he might gain additional men and supplies to keep his rag-tailed army together.

The Key

The key to Washington's mission was to convince his British foe sitting across the river in New York, was that Washington and his French allies would be soon launching a major attack against Clinton. If Clinton had any inkling that the true target was Cornwallis, Clinton could easily dispatch his naval forces to Virginia instead of holding on to them in New York in preparation for the upcoming attack. Clinton even went so far as to request Cornwallis send additional troops north for the coming siege.

Washington began making plans that everyone, including his own men, would take as preparations for an all out attack on the British in and around New York City. He ordered his subordinates to begin training the men so they would be ready when the orders came. Everything was in preparation and the British spies reported the preparations back to Clinton.

THE SIEGE AT YORKTOWN BEGINS >>