Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, Volume Two
Henry Lee

CHAPTER XXXIV.

A NEW scene now opened upon the American theatre. The expectation announced by the commander in chief to the general in the South, previous to our decampment from the High Hills of Santee, became confirmed in the course of the last month. Admiral count De Barras, the French naval commander on this station, communicated officially to general Washington, the resolution taken by the count De Grasse, commanding the French fleet in the West Indies, of sailing from Cape François, in St. Domingo, for the bay of Chesapeak, on the 3d of August, with a powerful fleet, having on board three thousand land forces. Charmed with the prospect of being enabled at length to act with the vigor congenial with his disposition, Washington hastened his preparations to invest New York, as soon as the expected fleet of his most christian majesty should arrive. Nothing was wanting but one decisive stroke to put an end to the war, which his daily experience of the embarrassments attendant upon all the measures of congress, convinced him was at this time indispensable to our final success. The nation was absolutely wearied out; voluntary enlistments to fill up our ranks, had long since yielded to the enrolment of drafts from the militia for short periods of service, and this last resort had proved very inadequate. Reduced as had been our number of regiments, in consequence of the insufficiency of the annual supply of men, yet they remained incomplete. When Washington took the field in June, his whole force (including the army under La Fayette, the garrison of West-Point, and a detachment of the New York line under brigadier Clinton, posted on the frontier of that state,) amounted to something more than eight thousand. His effective force, ready to act under his immediate orders, is rated at four thousand five hundred. Such was the humble condition of the main army, after the most judicious, active and persevering efforts of the commander in chief throughout the preceding winter and spring, supported by congress, to bring into the field a respectable force.

Diminutive as was our army in size, yet our capacity to subsist it was more so. Occasionally its separation became inevitable, to secure daily food; and therefore we may congratulate ourselves that our ranks were not crowded. The four Eastern states, upon this, as upon many previous urgent occasions, took effectual measures to provide and to transport all the necessary supplies within their reach; these consisted of meat, salt and liquor. Bread was still wanting; and this was procurable only from Pennsylvania and Maryland, so completely exhausted were the two states of New York and New Jersey; having been, from 1776, the continued seat of war.

The wicked and stupid system of coercion had been pushed to its extreme, and was at length necessarily abandoned; having become as unproductive as it had always been irritating. We had no money; as our paper notes (so called) had lost every semblance of coin, except the name, and the credit of the United States had become the general topic of derision.

Tender laws had been enacted to uphold it; but the more we attempted to compel the coy dame, the faster she retired from our embrace. Our credit became extinct; and having nothing but depreciated paper to offer in payment, poverty and distrust overspread the land.

In this distressing crisis congress came to the wise resolution of stopping further emission of paper, and substituted an annual requisition on the states for the means of supporting the war. Even this last resource failed to produce the intended effect, the states neglecting the calls of the federal head. Confusion and disorder had reached its height; and Washington himelf, the last to despond, began to apprehend that we should fail in profiting of the effectual and timely aid proffered by our ally, through our own incapacity and impotence.

Soon after congress adopted the resolution above mentioned, the finances of the nation were committed to the superintendance of an individual;—a wise reform, too long delayed.

Robert Morris, of Philadelphia, a member of congress from Pennsylvania, possessing a mind penetrating and indefatigable,—who had passed from early life through the various grades of commercial pursuits, as distinguished by his enterprise and system, as by the confidence which his probity and punctuality had established,—was happily selected to fill this arduous station.

Compelled by the confusion and want which every where existed, he entered upon the duties of his ofiice sooner than he intended; having on his acceptance stipulated for a limited suspension, with the view of completing satisfactorily the various prerequisite arrangements.

Discarding, therefore, considerations forcibly applying to his own reputation in this threatening conjuncture, he immediately assumed his new station, giving his entire attention to the restoration of credit. Promulgating his determination to meet with punctuality every engagement, he was sought with eagerness by all who had the means of supplying the public wants. The scene changed; to purchase now, as heretofore to sell, was considered the favor bestowed. Faithfully performing his promise, our wants began to disappear, and the military operations no longer were suspended by failure of the necessary means.

To aid his efforts he very soon proposed to congress the formation of a national bank, which expedient was immediately adopted; and this institution became a convenient and powerful engine in his hands, enabling him to smooth the difficulties in his way. Nor was he less sagacious than fortunate in his measures to bring into use the annual contribution of Pennsylvania to the federal treasury, by undertaking to pay for the state the requisitions of congress, on being authorized to receive the taxes imposed by the legislature to meet the demand. This masterly negotiation secured bread to the troops, the last important supply yet wanting, after the patriotic and successful efforts of the four New England states to furnish the other articles.

Strong in his personal credit, and true to his engagements, the superintendant became stronger every day in the public confidence; and unassisted, except by a small portion of a small loan[note 65] granted by the court of Versailles to the United States, this individual citizen gave food and motion to the main army; proving by his conduct, that credit is the offspring of integrity, economy, system and punctuality.

The apprehensions which had retarded for a time the contemplated movements of the army vanishing, Washington crossed from the western to the eastern side of the Hudson river, having previously directed the count de Rochambeau, commanding the French army, to move from Rhode Island. As the count approached the confines of the state of New York, an officer was despatched to him, changing his direction with a view to bring him in timely support of an enterprise on the eve of execution against some of the enemy’s posts on York Island. The French general very cordially and zealously pressed forward to contribute the desired aid; but the projected plan proving abortive, Washington fell back to the North river, where he was joined by the French army at Dobbs’ ferry on the 6th of July.

It having been settled to strike at New York, (in a conference which ensued between the allied generals, soon after the decision of the cabinet of Versailles to co-operate by sea in the course of the following autumn, was known,) all the measures hitherto adopted pointed to this object. Of themselves they were sufficiently significant to attract the attention of sir Henry Clinton; and he accordingly sent orders to lord Cornwallis, to detach a considerable portion of his army to his support. Before this order was executed, sir Henry Clinton received a reinforcement of three thousand men from England, which induced him to counteract his requisition for a part of the army in Virginia, and to direct Cornwallis to place himself safe in some strong post on the Chesapeak during the approaching storm, ready to resume offensive operations as soon as it should blow over. Deficient as Washington was in the presumed strength of his army, and apprized that sir Henry Clinton, although holding in New York only four thousand five hundred regulars (exclusive of his late reinforcement), could augment his force with six thousand of the militia in the city and its environs; he began to turn his attention to a secondary object, lest he might find the first impracticable. The army of Cornwallis was the next in order as in consequence. He therefore advised La Fayette, in Virginia, of the probability of such results; directing him to take his measures in time to prevent Cornwallis’s return to North Carolina, should his lordship, apprehending the intended blow, attempt to avoid it by the abandonment of Virginia.

Washington, now at the head of the allied army, for the first time during the war held a force capable of continued offence.

His effective strength was not more than nineteen thousand;[note 66] but this body might be greatly augmented by the militia of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, as well as by the garrison of West-Point, and by the corps under brigadier Clinton, still on the frontiers of the state. Nor can it be doubted but that he would have received every possible aid to his operations, as the great boon for which he fought came into our possession by the fall of New York. Fixed in his resolution to bring to submission the first or second army of the enemy, he pressed forward his preparations for carrying New York (the object preferred) as soon as the naval co-operation appeared. With this view, he took his measures with the governors of the adjacent states for such auxiliary force as he might require; and he placed his army in convenient positions to act in unison either against New York or Staten Island. The latter was certainly that which claimed primary attention; as its possession by the allies gave a facility to naval co-operation against the city and harbor, as important to a combined effort, as tending to hasten the surrender of the British army.

Sir Henry Clinton was not unmindful of the course selected by his enemy. He strengthened his corps on Staten Island, he strengthened his post at Paulus Hook, and he held in the city a portion of his disposable force ready to reinforce either station which the progress of his adversary might render expedient. Washington, persevering in his decision to bring to his aid the navy of our ally in the commencement of his assault, determined first to possess Staten Island. He therefore drew large bodies of his troops from the east of the Hudson, and pushed all the preliminary preparations for vigorous operations against that island. Connecticut, (always true to her principles,) with the virtuous Trumbull at her head, was ready to fill up with her hardy sons, the chasm in the line of force east of the Hudson; and Washington had so often experienced the zeal and fidelity of that brave and virtuous people, that he did not hesitate in reducing his force opposite to York Island in order to strengthen himself in New Jersey.

This state had been roused to a higher pitch of enthusiasm in our just cause, by the predatory incursions often repeated in the Sound since the expedition of sir Henry Clinton for the relief of Rhode Island. She sent her fat beeves to feed us, and her willing sons to fight by our sides.

Safe on the east of the Hudson, Washington continued to augment his strength on the west.

This course of action was not only adapted to his present object, but was supported by the consideration that if events should compel him to relinquish his design on New York, he would be more conveniently situated to press the destruction of the enemy in Virginia.

In accordance with his original design, the commander in chief continued to increase his means of commencing his operations with the reduction of Staten Island. Magazines of flour had been collected in the vicinity of Springfield, in Jersey; to which place, about the middle of August, the line of that state, with Hazen’s regiment, was detached, to cover the depot, and to hasten the completion of houses and ovens then preparing to supply bread for the troops moving towards the Hudson, for the purpose of crossing into Jersey to the scene of action. The boats destroyed by Simcoe had been replaced; and all others which could be procured were now collected at places convenient to Staten Island, mounted on wheels, ready for instantaneous conveyance, when requisite to transport the army to the intended attack. The last division of the allies crossed the Hudson on the 25th, and assembling in the neighborhood of Paramus, halted, waiting apparently only for the arrival of the French fleet to advance upon Staten Island.

Late communications with admiral count de Barras evincing that the Chesapeak had been selected by the count de Grasse as his point of destination, and the short period allotted by that officer for his continuance on our coast, more and more impressed Washington with the probability that he might be compelled to relinquish his first object, and content hiniself with the second. Therefore, while seriously preparing to strike at New York, he never lost sight of placing himself in the most convenient condition to hasten to Virginia, should he be compelled to abandon that design.

The force to be employed in the South, in the event of such a change in his plan, had now passed the Hudsom, with its van near Springfield,—detached thither, as has been mentioned, for the ostensible purpose of protecting our magazine of flour; but in case Washington decided to turn his arms against Cornwallis, the advance of this corps had the double effect of confirming the apprehensions of sir Henry Clinton as to New York, and of placing it nearer to Virginia. He repeated his orders to La Fayette to take measures to arrest Cornwallis, should he attempt to retreat to the South; and at the same time addressed governor Jefferson, urging him to exert all his powers in preparing certain specified aids of men, provisions, wagons, and implements, which the conjuncture demanded.

Never was a game better played; and the final decision taken by the commander in chief to proceed against Cornwallis, grew out of three considerations, every one of which was weighty. The French admiral preferred the unfortified bay of Chesapeak to the fortified bason ofNew York for co-operation; the time appropriated for the absence of his fleet from the West Indies comported more with undertaking the facile enterprise against lord Cornwallis, than the stubborn operation against New York; and the expected reinforcements of the army had in a great degree failed. When too the situation of the United States was brought into view,—which was thoroughly understood by Washington,—no doubt could remain of the propriety of changing the scene of action from New York to Virginia. Year after year had the hope been indulged of receiving adequate naval aid: at length its approach was certain. To apply it unsuccessfully would be productive of every possible ill; and our debility forbad hazarding such an issue, great as might be the gain. Necessarily, therefore, did the commander in chief relinquish his first object.

This change was communicated to count de Barras, who, keeping his fleet in readiness, sailed on the 25th with his squadron for the Chesapeak, expecting to find there the count de Grasse, having in his care all the heavy ordnance and military stores for the intended operations.

Pursuant to his plan, the count de Grasse left Cape François early in August with twenty-nine sail of the line, taking under convoy a very large fleet of merchantmen, richly laden, destined for Europe. As soon as the French admiral had placed his charge in safety, he steered with twenty-eight sail of the line for the bay of Chesapeak, trusting the fleet of merchantmen to the protection of one of his ships of the line and a few frigates.[note 67]

Although the British admiral in the West Indies, sir G. B. Rodney, had by his activity, courage and success acquired distinguished renown; and although advised by the British ministry of the intended visit of the French fleet to the coast of America; he seems to have neglected or underrated the effect of such an attempt. Led to it probably by the persuasion that de Grasse never would trust the rich fleet in his care across the Atlantic to a single ship of the line and a few frigates; but that he would guard it with an adequate convoy, which would necessarily bring his force to a size within the control of the squadron under admiral Graves, reinforced by that now committed by sir George to admiral Hood, with orders to hasten to the Chesapeak; thus evincing his knowledge of the intention of his adversary. Hood lost not a moment in executing his orders, and with press of sail shaped his course, at the head of fourteen sail of the line, for the bay of Chesapeak, where he arrived on the 25th—the very day count de Barras left Rhode Island, and the last division of the American army, intended to act against Cornwallis, crossed the Hudson.

Finding the Chesapeak empty, he continued along our coast, looking as he passed into the Delaware, which, like the Chesapeak, was unoccupied, and on the 28th arrived at Sandy Hook. Admiral Graves, thus strengthened, although he had with him but five ships of the line fit for service, put to sea on the same day; hoping either to fall in with count de Barras,—of whose departure from Rhode Island he was just apprized,—or with the French West India fleet, before the intended junction could be effected. Most ruinous would have been the consequence had fortune favored his attempt; especially should he have approached de Barras, conducting not only a very inferior squadron, but having in his care all the military supplies requisite for the investiture of the British army in Virginia.

He met with neither. De Barras having very judiciously baffled such object by going far out to sea, and de Grasse having arrived in the Chesapeak on the 30th, long before the British admiral reached the latitude of the capes of Virginia.

As soon as he anchored he was boarded by an officer from La Fayette, announcing his situation and that of the enemy. The count immediately detached four ships of the line to block up York river, and employed some of his frigates in conveying the marquis St. Simon, with the French reinforcement under his orders, up James river for the purpose of joining La Fayette.

On the 5th of September the van of the British fleet appeared off Cape Henry. De Grasse waited only to ascertain its character, doubtful whether it might not be the expected squadron from Rhode Island. Signals unanswered demonstrated that the fleet was British, and every moment brought into view additional strength.

The doubt as to character being removed, the French admiral took his part with decision and gallantry. He slipped cable and put to sea, determined to bring his enemy to battle. This was not declined, although Graves had but nineteen ships of the line to contend against twenty-four.

The opinion of the day was unfavorable to the conduct of the British admiral, reprehending with asperity his mode of entering into battle. Hood with his (the van division) leading handsomely in a compact body, was closing fast with the adverse fleet, when the admiral hoisted the signal to lack, throwing Hood off and putting Drake with the rear division ahead. It was contended that, excelling in seamanship, and inferior in number of ships, he ought to have supported Hood; inasmuch as he would thus have brought on action close in with the coast, which would have lessened the effect of the superior strength to which he was opposed: whereas, by the course adopted, he indulged his adversary in gaining sea room, the object in view, indispensable to the full application of his superior force.

If the suggestion be correct, truly may be ascribed the heavy disaster which ensued to this deviation from the tract of genius. It is thus on sea as well as on land, that nations suffer by not searching for superior talents when they stake themselves on the conduct of an individual.

France and England have for centuries fought by sea and by land. Each preserves its ancient system, improved by experience, adhering however to first principles long established. At sea the French strive to disable the vessel by destroying the masts and rigging. The English, on the contrary, aim at the hull and press into close action, boarding as soon as possible.

The French theory seems to be supported by reason. For by diminishing the means of motion, which appears material, the ship is rendered unfit for effective action and thrown out of line; we are consequently led to conclude that victory ought to follow the French system; but experience, the correcter of human calculations, proves the fallacy of this conclusion.

England has always beaten France at sea, and for a century past a drawn battle upon that element, with equality of force, seems to be the utmost glory attainable by the latter. The English possess an advantage growing out of their extensive commerce, which must ever secure to that nation naval superiority, so long as such a state of commerce shall continue. The British sailor is unequalled in Europe, nor will he be ever matched but by the American seaman, who like him is formed in the same manner.

It is singular but true that the British genius seems latterly more to excel on the water than on the land. Whether this be the result of her insular situation, which points to the ocean as the proper theatre for private and public exertion, or whether it be accident, remains wrapt in doubt; but for a long period there has been a striking disparity in the achievements of her admirals and generals, and this disparity has become more striking during the present war.

Formerly she could boast of her Marlborough, her Peterborough, and her Wolfe: latterly not a single soldier has appeared entitled to the first rank. Yet she abounds in good officers, and her soldiers equal any on earth. Cornwallis stands first in the last age; but his exploits do not place him along the side of Marlborough. Lord Rawdon’s early service gave high promise of future eminence; but he has been permitted to waste his talents in retirement.

France on the other hand shines on land. In every period of her history we find her marshals, consummate in the art of war, sustaining by their genius the splendor of her arms.

It is, perhaps, happy for the human race that neither nation is alike great on both elements, or the civilized world would again be brought under the yoke of one master.[note 68]

Both fleets were now standing on the same tack, the British holding what the sailor’s call the weathergage.[note 69] About four in the afternoon the leading divisions, with a few ships of the centre, bore down upon each other, and fought with that determined courage which rivalry and discipline seldom fail to produce. These were roughly handled, the remainder never exchanging a ball. The approach of night put an end to this partial engagement; which, although the adverse fleets continued for four days near to each other, was not renewed. Drake’s division suffered considerably, so much so as to be deemed incapable of further action until refitted. One ship was so much damaged as to be abandoned and burnt. The French fleet did not suffer equally; and, having the wind for four days after the battle, might have readily reengaged.

Drawing off, de Grasse returned into the bay on the 10th, where he found his squadron from Rhode Island safely moored, with the fleet of transports bearing the battering cannon and other necessary implements of war. Admiral Graves, notwithstanding his crippled condition, approached the capes, when, finding the bay occupied by the whole naval force of the enemy, he bore away for New York.

This battle, like most fought at sea, being indecisive, both sides, as is common in such cases, claimed the victory. The British supported their claim by the acknowledged fact, that the French admiral might at pleasure have renewed the action, and declining to do so, they contended he necessarily admitted his defeat. Whereas the French maintained their title by the equally acknowledged fact, that they fought for the undisturbed possession of the Chesapeak; its possession being necessary to the capture of a British army, the object which brought them to the American coast; and that this possession was yielded by the enemy’s return into port. Nor can a doubt exist, if title to victory rests upon the accomplishment of the end proposed by hazarding battle, that the French admiral’s pretensions upon this occasion are completely supported; and, with his superiority of force, it was scarcely to be expected that a different result could have occurred.

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