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Washington and His Comrades: Chapter XI

Charles Cornwallis
Surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis

As it was, a storm prevented the crossing to Gloucester. The defenses of Yorktown were weakening and in face of this new discouragement the British leader made up his mind that the end was near. Tarleton and other officers condemned Cornwallis sharply for not persisting in the effort to get away. Cornwallis was a considerate man. “I thought it would have been wanton and inhuman,” he reported later, “to sacrifice the lives of this small body of gallant soldiers.” He had already written to Clinton to say that there would be great risk in trying to send a fleet and army to rescue him. On the 19th of October came the climax. Cornwallis surrendered with some hundreds of sailors and about seven thousand soldiers, of whom two thousand were in hospital. The terms were similar to those which the British had granted at Charleston to General Lincoln, who was now charged with carrying out the surrender. Such is the play of human fortune. At two o’clock in the afternoon the British marched out between two lines, the French on the one side, the Americans on the other, the French in full dress uniform, the Americans in some cases half naked and barefoot. No civilian sightseers were admitted, and there was a respectful silence in the presence of this great humiliation to a proud army. The town itself was a dreadful spectacle with, as a French observer noted, “big holes made by bombs, cannon balls, splinters, barely covered graves, arms and legs of blacks and whites scattered here and there, most of the houses riddled with shot and devoid of window-panes.”

On the very day of surrender Clinton sailed from New York with a rescuing army. Nine days later forty-four British ships were counted off the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. The next day there were none. The great fleet had heard of the surrender and had turned back to New York. Washington urged Grasse to attack New York or Charleston but the French Admiral was anxious to take his fleet back to meet the British menace farther south and he sailed away with all his great array. The waters of the Chesapeake, the scene of one of the decisive events in human history, were deserted by ships of war. Grasse had sailed, however, to meet a stern fate. He was a fine fighting sailor. His men said of him that he was on ordinary days six feet in height but on battle days six feet and six inches. None the less did a few months bring the British a quick revenge on the sea. On April 12, 1782, Rodney met Grasse in a terrible naval battle in the West Indies. Some five thousand in both fleets perished. When night came Grasse was Rodney’s prisoner and Britain had recovered her supremacy on the sea. On returning to France Grasse was tried by court-martial and, though acquitted, he remained in disgrace until he died in 1788, “weary,” as he said, “of the burden of life.” The defeated Cornwallis was not blamed in England. His character commanded wide respect and he lived to play a great part in public life. He became Governor General of India, and was Viceroy of Ireland when its restless union with England was brought about in 1800.

Yorktown settled the issue of the war but did not end it. For more than a year still hostilities continued and, in parts of the South, embittered faction led to more bloodshed. In England the news of Yorktown caused a commotion. When Lord George Germain received the first despatch he drove with one or two colleagues to the Prime Minister’s house in Downing Street. A friend asked Lord George how Lord North had taken the news. “As he would have taken a ball in the breast,” he replied; “for he opened his arms, exclaiming wildly, as he paced up and down the apartment during a few minutes, ‘Oh God! it is all over,’ words which he repeated many times, under emotions of the deepest agitation and distress.” Lord North might well be agitated for the news meant the collapse of a system. The King was at Kew and word was sent to him. That Sunday evening Lord George Germain had a small dinner party and the King’s letter in reply was brought to the table. The guests were curious to know how the King took the news. “The King writes just as he always does,” said Lord George, “except that I observe he has omitted to mark the hour and the minute of his writing with his usual precision.” It needed a heavy shock to disturb the routine of George III. The King hoped no one would think that the bad news “makes the smallest alteration in those principles of my conduct which have directed me in past time.” Lesser men might change in the face of evils; George III was resolved to be changeless and never, never, to yield to the coercion of facts.

Yield, however, he did. The months which followed were months of political commotion in England. For a time the ministry held its majority against the fierce attacks of Burke and Fox. The House of Commons voted that the war must go on. But the heart had gone out of British effort. Everywhere the people were growing restless. Even the ministry acknowledged that the war in America must henceforth be defensive only. In February, 1782, a motion in the House of Commons for peace was lost by only one vote; and in March, in spite of the frantic expostulations of the King, Lord North resigned. The King insisted that at any rate some members of the new ministry must be named by himself and not, as is the British constitutional custom, by the Prime Minister. On this, too, he had to yield; and a Whig ministry, under the Marquis of Rockingham, took office in March, 1782. Rockingham died on the 1st of July, and it was Lord Shelburne, later the Marquis of Lansdowne, under whom the war came to an end. The King meanwhile declared that he would return to Hanover rather than yield the independence of the colonies. Over and over again he had said that no one should hold office in his government who would not pledge himself to keep the Empire entire. But even his obstinacy was broken. On December 5, 1782, he opened Parliament with a speech in which the right of the colonies to independence was acknowledged. “Did I lower my voice when I came to that part of my speech?” George asked afterwards. He might well speak in a subdued tone for he had brought the British Empire to the lowest level in its history.

In America, meanwhile, the glow of victory had given way to weariness and lassitude. Rochambeau with his army remained in Virginia. Washington took his forces back to the lines before New York, sparing what men he could to help Greene in the South. Again came a long period of watching and waiting. Washington, knowing the obstinate determination of the British character, urged Congress to keep up the numbers of the army so as to be prepared for any emergency. Sir Guy Carleton now commanded the British at New York and Washington feared that this capable Irishman might soothe the Americans into a false security. He had to speak sharply, for the people seemed indifferent to further effort and Congress was slack and impotent. The outlook for Washington’s allies in the war darkened, when in April, 1782, Rodney won his crushing victory and carried De Grasse a prisoner to England. France’s ally Spain had been besieging Gibraltar for three years, but in September, 1782, when the great battering- ships specially built for the purpose began a furious bombardment, which was expected to end the siege, the British defenders destroyed every ship, and after that Gibraltar was safe. These events naturally stiffened the backs of the British in negotiating peace. Spain declared that she would never make peace without the surrender of Gibraltar, and she was ready to leave the question of American independence undecided or decided against the colonies if she could only get for herself the terms which she desired. There was a period when France seemed ready to make peace on the basis of dividing the Thirteen States, leaving some of them independent while others should remain under the British King.

Congress was not willing to leave its affairs at Paris in the capable hands of Franklin alone. In 1780 it sent John Adams to Paris, and John Jay and Henry Laurens were also members of the American Commission. The austere Adams disliked and was jealous of Franklin, gay in spite of his years, seemingly indolent and easygoing, always bland and reluctant to say No to any request from his friends, but ever astute in the interests of his country. Adams told Vergennes, the French foreign minister, that the Americans owed nothing to France, that France had entered the war in her own interests, and that her alliance with America had greatly strengthened her position in Europe. France, he added, was really hostile to the colonies, since she was jealously trying to keep them from becoming rich and powerful. Adams dropped hints that America might be compelled to make a separate peace with Britain. When it was proposed that the depreciated continental paper money, largely held in France for purchases there, should be redeemed at the rate of one good dollar for every forty in paper money, Adams declared to the horrified French creditors of the United States that the proposal was fair and just. At the same time Congress was drawing on Franklin in Paris for money to meet its requirements and Franklin was expected to persuade the French treasury to furnish him with what he needed and to an amazing degree succeeded in doing so. The self interest which Washington believed to be the dominant motive in politics was, it is clear, actively at work. In the end the American Commissioners negotiated directly with Great Britain, without asking for the consent of their French allies. On November 30, 1782, articles of peace between Great Britain and the United States were signed. They were, however, not to go into effect until Great Britain and France had agreed upon terms of peace; and it was not until September 3, 1783, that the definite treaty was signed. So far as the United States was concerned Spain was left quite properly to shift for herself.

Thus it was that the war ended. Great Britain had urged especially the case of the Loyalists, the return to them of their property and compensation for their losses. She could not achieve anything. Franklin indeed asked that Americans who had been ruined by the destruction of their property should be compensated by Britain, that Canada should be added to the United States, and that Britain should acknowledge her fault in distressing the colonies. In the end the American Commissioners agreed to ask the individual States to meet the desires of the British negotiators, but both sides understood that the States would do nothing, that the confiscated property would never be returned, that most of the exiled Loyalists would remain exiles, and that Britain herself must compensate them for their losses. This in time she did on a scale inadequate indeed but expressive of a generous intention. The United States retained the great Northwest and the Mississippi became the western frontier, with destiny already whispering that weak and grasping Spain must soon let go of the farther West stretching to the Pacific Ocean. When Great Britain signed peace with France and Spain in January, 1783, Gibraltar was not returned; Spain had to be content with the return of Minorca, and Florida which she had been forced to yield to Britain in 1763. Each side restored its conquests in the West Indies. France, the chief mainstay of the war during its later years, gained from it really nothing beyond the weakening of her ancient enemy. The magnanimity of France, especially towards her exacting American ally, is one of the fine things in the great combat. The huge sum of nearly eight hundred million dollars spent by France in the war was one of the chief factors in the financial crisis which, six years after the signing of the peace, brought on the French Revolution and with it the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy. Politics bring strange bedfellows and they have rarely brought stranger ones than the democracy of young America and the political despotism, linked with idealism, of the ancient monarchy of France.

The British did not evacuate New York until Carleton had gathered there the Loyalists who claimed his protection. These unhappy people made their way to the seaports, often after long and distressing journeys overland. Charleston was the chief rallying place in the South and from there many sad-hearted people sailed away, never to see again their former homes. The British had captured New York in September, 1776, and it was more than seven years later, on November 25, 1783, that the last of the British fleet put to sea. Britain and America had broken forever their political tie and for many years to come embittered memories kept up the alienation.

It was fitting that Washington should bid farewell to his army at New York, the center of his hopes and anxieties during the greater part of the long struggle. On December 4, 1783, his officers met at a tavern to bid him farewell. The tears ran down his cheeks as he parted with these brave and tried men. He shook their hands in silence and, in a fashion still preserved in France, kissed each of them. Then they watched him as he was rowed away in his barge to the New Jersey shore. Congress was now sitting at Annapolis in Maryland and there on December 23, 1783, Washington appeared and gave up finally his command. We are told that the members sat covered to show the sovereignty of the Union, a quaint touch of the thought of the time. The little town made a brave show and “the gallery was filled with a beautiful group of elegant ladies.” With solemn sincerity Washington commended the country to the protection of Almighty God and the army to the special care of Congress. Passion had already subsided for the President of Congress in his reply praised the “magnanimous king and nation” of Great Britain. By the end of the year Washington was at Mount Vernon, hoping now to be able, as he said simply, to make and sell a little flour annually and to repair houses fast going to ruin. He did not foresee the troubled years and the vexing problems which still lay before him. Nor could he, in his modest estimate of himself, know that for a distant posterity his character and his words would have compelling authority. What Washington’s countryman, Motley, said of William of Orange is true of Washington himself: “As long as he lived he was the guiding star of a brave nation and when he died the little children cried in the streets.” But this is not all. To this day in the domestic and foreign affairs of the United States the words of Washington, the policies which he favored, have a living and almost binding force. This attitude of mind is not without its dangers, for nations require to make new adjustments of policy, and the past is only in part the master of the present; but it is the tribute of a grateful nation to the noble character of its chief founder.