History of War

Great Battles   YORKTOWN

“BRITISH GENERALS HAD BEEN ABLE TO TAKE FOR GRANTED TOTAL SUPERIORITY AT SEA”

Yorktown, the decisive victory of the American War of Independence, has been viewed as a stunning upset. The defeat of the mighty British Army at the hands of the inexperienced Americans is either a miraculous triumph or an abject humiliation, depending on your viewpoint. Yet this was a battle that emphasised the monumental task facing Britain in attempting to subdue a rebellion in colonies nearly 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles) from her own shores, while simultaneously fending off French, Spanish and even Dutch forces.

It was an outnumbered British army that found itself penned in at Yorktown and, more importantly, it was an outmanoeuvred one. It was also, at the critical moment, deprived of support from the Royal Navy, which had previously ruled the waves along the American seaboard, offering both supply and a safe retreat for any British force near the coast.

The southern strategy

French intervention in the war, following the defeat of another British army at Saratoga in 1777, was expected to dramatically tip the scales in America’s favour. The French could provide experienced soldiers, but naval support was far more important – in the first two campaigns of the war, British generals had been able to take for granted total superiority at sea.

But the French had proved unable or unwilling to make a decisive impact in the colonies, preferring instead to concentrate efforts in the West Indies, where lucrative territories seemed ripe for picking off while Britain was distracted with the American war.

The British had therefore been able to regroup after the shock of Saratoga and refocus efforts in the southern colonies, capturing Charleston in May 1780 and then annihilating the last rebel army in the south at Camden the following August. When General Charles, Earl Cornwallis took his army into North Carolina and then Virginia in 1781, it looked like his aggressive leadership might finally subdue the south.

British intentions were to destroy any organised resistance in the southern colonieshands of loyalist forces, while Cornwallis’s army moved on to pacify the next area. It was a promising strategy, but Cornwallis’s army was small – only around 3,000 men – and his insistence on rapid movement meant loyalists were not given enough time to firmly establish themselves before the comforting presence of the redcoats was removed.

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