THE War of the Revolution flickered out at Yorktown, on the nineteenth of October, 1781, almost as casually and unexpectedly as it had flamed up at Lexington and Concord, an even six and a half years before. Within three months of that sudden collapse, George III, still was predicting that he would win. In May, George Washington was drawing a long face at "the gloomy and bewildered prospect" of a campaign that was destined to crown his patience with the laurel of the victor. Only the coming of a French fleet could change the outlook, and Washington dismissed that good fortune as "too contingent" to be counted on. Yet that was what happened, and that was what brought the war to a close.
The French are as bold on the land as the British on the sea and as irresolute on the sea as their neighbors are on land. For three years the navy of France had been worrying the British navy, harrying British commerce and wearing down the British nation to the breaking point, but always steering clear of a decisive engagement.
British shipping had been harried by American privateers also—some two thousand of these were commissioned in the course of the war—and marine insurance in London had been forced to a new high mark. At the same time, the pride and prestige of the mistress of the seas had suffered from the sensational raids of John Paul Jones in an old trading tub, the Bonhomme Richard, which captured a brand-new frigate, the Serapis, right under the nose of Britannia.
George III, after the Tea Party, had jauntily started out to fight the one town of Boston, and he had brought almost the whole world down upon him. Spain had jumped into the war, recaptured Florida from England and made what trouble she could elsewhere. Holland had defied the British embargo on trading with America until she found herself at open war with England. Neutral nations generally grew weary of interference with commerce in a long-drawn-out warfare, and ultimately nearly all of them banded together in a league of armed neutrality.
But, without the coöperation of the French navy, the Americans could not drive England from their shore. France sent over an army, under Count Rochambeau, in 1780. But it was as helpless as the Continental army. It had dined, wined and danced at Newport a year, when a joint appeal from Washington and Rochambeau induced Admiral de Grasse to bring up his fleet from the West Indies.
The British had not struck a blow anywhere in the north for three years. They had turned to the far south instead, and they won four small battles—Camden, Guilford, Hobkirk's Hill and Eutaw Springs—against two that the Americans won in that southern field at King's Mountain and the Cowpens. But they lost every campaign none the less, with backwoodsmen in buckskins, under Morgan, Marion, Sumter and Pickens, compelling them to return to the shelter of their ships.
The British commander, Lord Cornwallis, finally gave up the conquest of the Carolinas as a bad job, in the spring of 1781, when he entered upon the still more hopeless tasks of subjugating Virginia. After chasing the Americans, under the elusive Lafayette, to and fro across the Old Dominion, he had to fall back, as the British always must, to some base of supplies on the coast, and he fortified Yorktown for that purpose.
Up came de Grasse and down came Washington and Rochambeau, pausing by the way at Mt. Vernon to give its master his first glimpse of home in six years.
Cornwallis was caught between the French fleet behind him and the Franco-American army in front of him, where six thousand or seven thousand Continentals, nine thousand or ten thousand French and a lot of Virginia militia pressed upon his trenches. After waiting weeks for the British fleet to come to his rescue, he ran up the white flag on the very day that the tardy ships were sailing from New York.
All the cherished amenities of war, save one, were observed at Yorktown. Victor and vanquished banqueted together and toasted each other. But the ancient prerogative of a surrendered army to have its bands blare in mocking bravado some patriotic tune of the captor was denied to the British. They had refused, at the capture of Charleston, to let General Lincoln's soldiers jeer them with God Save the King or Rule Britannia. Now they, in turn, were refused the one poor consolation of stepping out to Yankee Doodle. Instead they emerged from their battered trap—seven thousand two hundred and forty-seven soldiers and eight hundred and forty sailors—and stacked their arms to the old English air of The World Turned Upside Down.
So it really was—the world of English politics. "O! God, it is all over," groaned Lord North, as he tramped the floor of No. 10 Downing Street, from whose historic walls George Washington, in a frame, now overlooks the scene of the agony that his victory at Yorktown inflicted upon a prime minister.
Almost alone, the King shut his eyes to the fact that it was all over. The war would go on again, he was sure, "when men are a little recovered from the shock."
But ever since Saratoga England had stumbled on without any heart in the fight. After Yorktown, even the King's henchmen flinched from risking their political heads in asking the country to carry any longer the staggering burden of taxation, only that the monarch might throw more good money after bad. Between the Boston Port Bill in 1774 and Yorktown in 1781, British consols had fallen from 89 to 54, and the price of those national securities was the thermometer that registered the temperature of British public opinion on the war. The war in America was, indeed, all over, and the formal peace was delayed until 1783 only on account of some naval fighting and diplomatic jockeying between the British and the Franco-Spanish allies.
The war only dissolved the political bands which had connected one people with another, as the Declaration of Independence said, and the crowning victory at Yorktown only enabled that people to assume a separate and equal station among the powers of the earth.
The American people were not born of the Revolution. The Revolution was born of them. Not the soldiers' tent, but the log cabin of the settler was their birthplace. Peace and Opportunity were their parents, who bred them, not to the sword and the spear, but to the plowshare and the pruning hook. That is what this unique and great event in the progress of mankind has meant to the world;—the rise of an unmartial nation, where the masses of men, women and children, freed from the fetters of militarism and caste, might have a more even chance in the race of life.
James Morgan, The Birth of the American People, 1930