by Richard M. Dorson
Following the failure of the British attempt in the winter of 1777-1778 to crush the American armies in New York and Pennsylvania, the scenes of battle shift southward.
The Southern states had virtually escaped the impact of war in its first four years. Now General Henry Clinton, permanently established in New York, began to probe the one untested region of rebelling states with expeditionary forces. If England should not conquer her colonies, she might at any rate detach four rich prizes in Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. Great wealth, in tobacco, slaves and well-watered land, lay in the South. Many prosperous planters tended toward Loyalism, through fear or natural Anglophilism. A small white population (Georgia had only seventeen thousand whites), especially laggard in raising Continentals, indicated weakness.
The flourishing seaports of Savannah and Charleston promptly attracted the British strategists. Savannah fell easily in the closing days of 1778, and General Lincoln handed over Charleston to Clinton after a four months’ siege on May 12, 1780 in a crushing and costly defeat.
Two months later another major disaster overcame the patriots, when General Gates, given command of Continental troops who had been marching to relieve Charleston, fled at the head of his broken army from Cornwallis at Camden.
And in October, 1780, and January, 1781, British forces under General Leslie and the traitor Arnold pillaged an inert Virginia, who all the energies of Governors Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson could not bestir. The British blueprints for Southern conquest seemed on the verge of realization.
Unpredictably, the fortunes of Cornwallis began to dip after Camden, and a little more than a year later he yielded up his army to Washington and Lafayette in a mortal defeat. Various factors account for the renewal of American energies. As had happened in every theater of war, farmer-patriots sprang up from the countryside to grapple with the invader. Tarleton’s butchery of Virginia militia at Waxhaws, an action praised by Cornwallis; the severe military rule imposed on South Carolina; and the groveling collaboration of rich planters with the British conquerors — all stung the back-country and “overmountain” men into sharp reprisal.
Converging swiftly through the woods and swamps on some Tory or redcoat post, they struck audaciously and melted away, unhindered by baggage trains and supply problems. The nucleus of a new Continental Army led by clever Nathanael Greene began marching south to harry Cornwallis, with militia gathering around him on the way.
Cornwallis and his men fell prey to what had become a general British ailment, the desire for loot and plunder, rather than military objectives, and the Southern campaign dwindled into a series of petty raids, all further inflaming the patriots. Contrary to Clinton’s planning, Cornwallis turned north for the rich pickings in Virginia, a state where the British possessed no strategic port. And slowly French power came into play, as supplies of louis d’or arrived in Philadelphia, and the French army At Newport and navy in the West Indies for once began to mesh with the Americans.
The elements for a gigantic coup had taken form, and the fortunes of war gave them substance. Clinton expected an attack on New York, and false dispatches that fell into his hands confirmed his suspicion. Instead of sending aid to Cornwallis, he requested aid. Washington himself favored the New York enterprise, and in that respect Clinton guessed right, but French pressure had changed Washington’s mind. De Grasse was willing to take off a couple of weeks from his West Indies prizetaking during the hurricane season, but he saw no future in attacking a British fleet in New York harbor, when he could sail into empty Virginia waters.
It happened that Admiral Hood looked in at Chesapeake Bay on way from the West Indies to New York, where he arrived on August 28, 1781 and saw nothing of his French foe. But De Grasse dropped anchor in the Bay on August 30th, and by that narrow margin the French enjoyed undisputed mastery of the Chesapeake. Both the British army and the British navy had been fooled, and when Washington and Lafayette marched south from Philadelphia to join Greene, the jaws of the trap closed neatly. Bottled in the cul-de-sac of the Yorktown peninsula by an enemy twice his number, Cornwallis speedily capitulated, and the ships Clinton sent tardily to his relief turned back to New York on hearing the news.
By luck, by clever coordination, and by a boldness in seizing on the Earl’s mistakes, the Americans with their French allies captured a second British army. The King had lost his colonies.