by Dana Stefanelli, Assistant Editor
August 23, 2019
The decisive and final major battle of the Revolutionary War was fought at Yorktown, Va., in September 1781. Just a year earlier, however, the prospect of a conclusive American victory in a southern state might have been deemed unthinkable. For one thing, most of the war’s major engagements had been contested in the mid-Atlantic states and New England; for another, the major military actions previously undertaken in the South—at Savannah, Charleston, and Camden—had ranked among the greatest American losses of the war. Also, George Washington and much of America’s political leadership remained focused on reclaiming New York City, which had served as British headquarters during most of the war. So, when and why did Washington begin to contemplate shifting his major operations to the southern theater?
Circumstances might suggest that Washington adopted a southern strategy during the summer of 1781. At that time, British general Cornwallis’s retreat to Virginia’s Lower Peninsula coincided with the expected availability of a combined French fleet under Admiral De Grasse, making a major French-American land-sea operation possible—and an allied victory plausible. But evidence indicates that the American commander in chief had been weighing southern prospects by late 1780. Washington’s correspondence with Lafayette in November and December of that year shows that he was seriously considering a way to combine forces with the French and Spanish in a strategic shift southward. At the end of November 1780, Lafayette traveled to Philadelphia to act as an unofficial liaison between Washington and Congress. Ostensibly, Lafayette was there to lobby for supplies for the Southern Army. However, his correspondence with Washington demonstrates an ulterior motive, one connected to a southern campaign.
“I shall on My Arrival at philadelphia write You how Matters are Going upon which I will Build My private schemes,” Lafayette wrote to Washington shortly before leaving for Philadelphia.1 A subsequent letter from Lafayette to Washington indicates that when Lafayette said “private,” he meant a “secret” plan, rather than one he had dreamed up on his own: “however Acquainted I May be with your intentions, I thought upon the whole that I Should Better wait for your approbation Before I present any opinion of yours to the Spanish or French Generals.”2
Lafayette was right to be concerned about prematurely or presumptuously contacting European leaders, but it was the potential French and Spanish involvement that helps explain why Washington began considering an expanded southern strategy at this point in the war. Spain had entered the war in 1779 as an ally of France, but not of the United States. The Spanish remained concerned about the security of their American colonies, and hopeful they might take Florida back from the British. Similarly, the French wanted an American victory, but they remained concerned about the security of their Caribbean territories. Washington hoped the proximity of these imperial holdings to the southern theater might facilitate a joint operation. Lafayette brought up the possibility with La Luzerne, the French minister to the United States, outlining a series of maneuvers with obvious similarities to the future Yorktown campaign. Lafayette proposed that the French “take four thousand men, leaving Some and the Militia at Rhode island—We Could on our part Muster two Thousand Americans” and join with Spanish and French naval forces to aid Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Greene’s efforts in the South.3
There were significant challenges to implementing plans along these lines. As Lafayette told Washington, he and the French minister shared the “opinion That Unless a formal Application and a plan of Campaign are propos’d to Them, They will Not send Theyr Ships to us.”4 An official request probably meant some kind of approval from Congress, a body with many members interested in dislodging the British from New York City, or at least in keeping the Continental army encamped around the city as a buffer between British forces and congressional constituencies. A letter from Gouverneur Morris to Washington in late November 1780 provides a glimpse into the somewhat fanciful views of congressmen on the conduct of the war. Morris predicted quick victory could be achieved with a two-pronged assault on New York. “What would be the Effects of a brilliant Stroke at the close of the Campaign I need not <hi>nt,” Morris wrote.5 Inconveniently, his plan called for 10,000 men that Washington did not have.
The complicated strategic considerations highlight the challenges Washington faced as commander in chief. Supply and manpower shortages, the not-necessarily-complementary goals of America’s allies, the local and regional concerns of American politicians, and the difficulties coordinating disparate forces over great distances all made it difficult to determine the course of action most likely to lead to victory. Washington’s willingness to consider a wide range of strategic possibilities in 1780, however, made it easier to embrace an advantageous opportunity when it arose in 1781.
1. “To George Washington from Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, 28 November 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed August 14, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-04093.
2. “To George Washington from Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, 5 December 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed August 14, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-04129.
5. “To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris, 28 November 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed August 14, 1019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-04095.