Naval Superiority

The French General Who Outfoxed George Washington—and Helped Him Save America

The Revolutionary War’s most important strategic decision wasn’t made by an American.

Siege of Yorktown

Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

“France is America’s oldest ally. A lot of people don’t know that,” President Donald Trump said in Paris, on Bastille Day. “France helped us secure our independence, a lot of people forget.”

There’s much more to that story of course (I’ve just written a book about it!). American history and mythology generally don’t portray Yorktown as a French-invented, French-run affair. But in a major sense it was. To achieve the victory, General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau (yes, that’s all one name) had to outfox General George Washington.

The Franco-American alliance was more than two years old, in July 1780, when the Rochambeau-led Expédition Particulière arrived in Rhode Island with 5,500 troops, some long-range cannon, and a relatively small fleet. The alliance had already had two large military disasters, at Newport in 1778 and at Savannah in 1779. Rochambeau wasn’t sure what he could accomplish either, having been forced to leave behind a good chunk of his army and ships, and being burdened with a set of instructions from Louis XVI, dictated by Lafayette, that in unequivocal language put him under the command of General Washington and made the French troops and ships no more than auxiliaries of the Americans.

Washington had dreamed of this moment, and of having naval superiority over Great Britain. He had long believed that the only way to end the war was to capture a significant British stronghold and army, and for several years he had been fixated on New York as the most likely target for such an attack. Now, with the French fleet, it could be achieved! But to Rochambeau, an attack on New York seemed difficult and dangerous, as likely to end in the capture of his and Washington’s armies as in the capture of British commander Henry Clinton’s. In Rochambeau’s view, he didn’t have enough ships and men to assure himself and Washington of victory.

Washington and Rochambeau first met in Hartford on Sept. 20, 1780, at the home of Washington’s former commissary general and longtime supporter, Jeremiah Wadsworth. To this conference, Washington brought an eight-page plan for the attack on New York. Rochambeau came with a neatly written series of 10 questions, with space on the sheets to record Washington’s answers. The French queries were an elegant, Socratic trap. By answering the first one honestly, Washington would be led, inexorably and through his own logic, to the only possible conclusion, the one chosen ahead of time by Rochambeau.

So Washington was asked whether naval superiority was essential to a big victory over a target defended by the British Navy. When he responded truthfully, “There can be no decisive enterprise against the maritime establishments of the English in this country, without a constant naval superiority,” his fate was sealed because the French fleet was not yet strong enough. After the 10 questions had been answered, Rochambeau insisted that there would be no attack on New York in 1780, and none until Louis XVI dispatched more troops and a larger fleet to America. And he was able to induce Washington to co-sign a letter to the king to that effect. It was the only real product of the conference.

Eight months later, on May 21, 1781, came the Washington-Rochambeau conference at Wethersfield. In American lore, this is where and when the leaders jointly decided to attack Yorktown. But that’s a myth.

The critical exchange: Rochambeau asked: If and when the new and larger French fleet arrived from the Caribbean, “What are the operations that we might have to view at that Epocha?”

Washington’s response: “Should the West India Fleet arrive upon this Coast—the force thus Combined may either proceed in operation against New York, or may be directed against the enemy in some other quarter, as circumstance may dictate.”

He cautioned that New York was preferable to Virginia because the latter was such a long march away. The next day, Washington rote in his diary that he had “Fixed with Count Rochambeau” to proceed with a campaign against New York, to begin once the French had transferred to the Hudson River to join his Continentals. He added, almost as an afterthought, that he had agreed to “extend our views Southward as circumstances and a naval superiority might render more necessary & eligible.”

In late July, when Rochambeau did move to the Hudson River, just below Peekskill, where his forces encamped next to Washington’s, the French left behind in Rhode Island the resident fleet and the largest of the cannon, which they believed would be wrecked if dragged over Connecticut’s roads. The cannon would have to be brought by ship to whatever target. To my mind—although no documents say so—the abandoning of the cannon argues that Rochambeau had already decided they would soon be transferred by ship to the Yorktown peninsula.

Indeed, by mid-July Rochambeau had made a significant end-run around Washington’s cherished objective. He, and his new Newport fleet commander, de Barras, and the French plenipotentiary at Philadelphia, La Luzerne, had all sent word to Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse, then in the Caribbean, that the best target in America was the large British force on the relatively exposed Yorktown peninsula, where it could not long survive without naval reinforcement.

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Around that time, aboard the majestic Ville de Paris at Cap-Français, Haiti, de Grasse was meeting with Captain Francisco de Saavedra, a former theology student who had become Spain’s New World forces strategist. They laid out a two-punch plan for ridding the hemisphere of the British. The first blow would be against Yorktown, the second, once de Grasse had returned to the Caribbean and in conjunction with the Spanish fleet there, would be against Jamaica. To enable de Grasse to depart for northern waters, Saavedra committed the Spanish fleet to act as guardian for the French-controlled islands in the Caribbean. As Saavedra put it in his diary, they “could not waste the most decisive opportunity of the war,” to take the Cornwallis army while it was at its most vulnerable.

The Revolutionary War’s most important strategic decision, to take the fight to the British at Yorktown, was made not by Americans but by French and Spanish military men, 1,200 miles away in a harbor in Haiti.

As de Grasse set out for the Yorktown peninsula, he sent ahead a letter to Rochambeau. Forwarded to the Hudson by de Barras, it reached Rochambeau and Washington on Aug. 14. It said that de Grasse was en route to the Yorktown peninsula, “the spot which seemed to be indicated by you, M. le comte, and by MM Washington de la Luzerne and de Barras as the surest to effect the good which you propose.”

Washington was, to say the least, disappointed, but wasted no time in demonstrating his leadership by directing his energies to coordinating the arrival and supply of six different Franco-American forces at Yorktown: his army, Rochambeau’s, the fleets of de Grasse and de Barras, and two smaller American forces under the Marquis de Lafayette and the Baron von Steuben. Rochambeau went along quite willingly and, so far as we can tell from the memoirs of his aides, without gloating.

Before Rochambeau and Washington’s armies arrived at Yorktown, the battle was essentially won by de Grasse, whose fleet outmaneuvered the British and then, along with de Barras’s, occupied Chesapeake Bay. That forced the British fleet to return to New York, leaving Cornwallis and his army utterly exposed.

It was for this moment that Washington had been waiting for six years, and that President Trump would celebrate, 236 years later—because from then on, as the French might say, Cornwallis’s surrender was a fait accompli.

Tom Shachtman is the author of How the French Saved America: Soldiers, Sailors, Diplomats, Louis XVI, and the Success of a Revolution, just published by St. Martin’s Press.