Washington retreats from Yorktown

The two wars between Britain and the United States may not have been very large as wars go, but they can be counted on to heat up the atmosphere wherever they are introduced into conversation. Well, let’s have a bit of heat.

Actually, if the alternate history I’m suggesting here worked out logically, George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau would never have been at Yorktown in October 1781. The victory over Lord Cornwallis at the siege of Yorktown was actually decided on September 5th between French Admiral de Grasse and the English Admiral Thomas Graves off Cape Henry.

I’m sure many of historical what-ifs have been investigated for the Virginia campaign and the siege of Yorktown that year, but I wonder if any of them took place at the opposite end of Chesapeake Bay. The British forces had a lengthy history of combined operations even before the War of American Independence, but they rarely got it together this time. The Federal tactics of the Civil War and the British successes in the War of 1812 indicate how the cooperation of land and sea forces could dominate Chesapeake Bay. To achieve this success in 1781 required a better admiral than Thomas Graves.

On September 5th, Washington’s army was still in the vicinity of Philadelphia, having not yet boarded de Grasse’s transports to ferry them down to Williamsburg. Admiral Graves’ fleet, sent south from New York to counter the French fleet that had arrived from the West Indies surprised the French at anchor near the mouth of the bay at ten in the morning. De Grasse was in a difficult situation and ordered his ships to slip their anchors rather than waste time raising them. The French warships then had to beat out of the bay against both tide and an offshore wind as the British van under Admiral Hood came closer.

Hood saw the tactical advantage of attacking the French as they tacked out past Cape Henry in no particular order and proposed the plan to Graves. Graves was no Nelson, and rather than assent to something so novel ordered his fleet to mark time until the French line was ordered enough that he could sail his own line of battle against them. This he did and instead of smashing the French piecemeal, succeeded in getting his own ships so badly mauled that he never pressed the attack home and ultimately fled back to New York for repairs.

That left the way open for the well supplied French and American troops to be assembled and invest Cornwallis at Yorktown.

What if Hood had crippled the major part of de Grasse’s fleet at Cape Henry and the French had been obliged to retreat from Chesapeake Bay? Firstly, would Washington ever have left Delaware to embark for Williamsburg if he’d known the British now controlled the bay? If he hadn’t been informed in time, and embarked, what would have been the chances of his army being sent to the bottom of the bay if the Royal Navy had intercepted the transports? What if he and his army had made it to Williamsburg only to find that it was now Cornwallis with the supples, the naval support, and the reinforcements to go after him?

Clearly George Washington is the prime candidate for being the protagonist of this story. Either trying to rescue his troop transports from the Royal Navy frigates, or trying to assemble some coherent defence of Virginia against a now-ascendant Cornwallis – or even more contrafactual, constructing defences to prevent the British from coming to the head of Chesapeake Bay and threatening to advance on Philadelphia. Perhaps this alternate history could be even more exciting than the actual rolling up of the abandoned and disillusioned Cornwallis at Yorktown.

This could even work into a series, because historians recognize that American independence would have never been abandoned and would have been pursued again even if the present war was lost. What would the Brits have done with Washington – exiled him to St Helena? What secret movements in the colonies would have kept the dream alive? What about the rest of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence; what plots would they have worked on from their exiles in Paris? Would those American exiles and their army have returned from France in 1805 at Napoleon’s behest to weaken an overstretched Britain beyond breaking point? The world we know today could have been very different.

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