On 19th October 1781 the War of the American Revolution ended, to all intents and purposes, when General Cornwallis surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown. However, the American rebels needed a substantial amount of help from the French before this was possible.
The war had been fought for six years, during which the British had always been able to rely on their command of the sea to switch troops relatively rapidly from north to south and vice versa. Without a fleet, the Americans were reduced to forced marches on land, which was a slow and exhausting process.
However, the rebels had a powerful ally, namely France, which did have a fleet that could be used strategically to help the Americans. It was the use of this fleet that turned the tide (pardon the pun) at Yorktown.
Washington’s troops were at New York while the British were in Virginia. However, the French, under Admiral de Grasse, were in the West Indies and offered to sail north towards Chesapeake Bay. If the British could be isolated there, without support from the sea, there was every chance that they could be defeated.
Washington therefore led a joint American/French army south from New York at the same time that the French fleet was moving north. Another American force, under General Lafayette, also moved towards Virginia. When the French fleet, which was carrying 3,000 extra troops and siege artillery, drove off a British fleet near Chesapeake Bay, the way was open for an assault on Yorktown.
It did not take long for General Cornwallis to realise that his position was hopeless, and he duly surrendered.
The fact remains, despite all the subsequent hype and flag-waving, that without a substantial amount of French help, Washington would not have been able to drive the British out of North America. Not only did he depend on the timely intervention of French naval power, but his own army at Yorktown was around 50% French.
The American Revolution was seen by France as a way of getting their own back for defeat in the Seven Years War, and American independence was therefore a side issue as far as they were concerned. Victory at Yorktown was revenge for defeat at Montreal and in India, where the British had imposed their imperial will.
Even so, it does seem unlikely that the Revolutionary War would have resulted in British victory had it continued for much longer. History has shown that it is very difficult for a colonial power to maintain its grip when the people in the colony in question are determined to break away. The Americans were convinced that the time was right for them to be independent, and the British were foolish to try to stand in their way. Whether all the reasons advanced by the colonists for so doing really stand up to scrutiny is another matter (“No taxation without representation” for example), but independence would have come soon enough.
However, I wonder how much credit is given in school classes in the United States today to the essential part played in the American Revolution by France under King Louis XVI, who would soon lose his head after resisting the revolutionary fervour of his own people?
© John Welford