History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution/Chapter XX
In the first moments of victory, the mind is generally elate with the expectation of applause, and the prospect of additional fame. This was exemplified in the conduct of Lord Cornwallis when the retreating Americans had turned their faces from the field at Guilford, and left him to publish proclamations, invitations, and pardon to the inhabitants of the south. The scepter of mercy was held out to them, on condition that they were sufficiently humbled to become the obedient subjects of those who had destroyed their liberty, their property, and the lives of their friends, to obtain inglorious conquest, and arbitrary dominion.
He was a man of understanding and sagacity, though not so thoroughly acquainted with the natural feelings of mankind as to escape a disappointment from the conduct of the Carolinians. They revolted at the idea of seeing one American state after another subdued and laid low at the feet of foreign conquerors. Many, whose minds had been held in a neutral state previous to this period, now repaired with great precipitation to the congressional officers and enlisted under their banners for the defense of their native country.
Lord Cornwallis, after the action at Guilford and the retreat of General Greene, lost no time in expediting his previous plans of military arrangements; and, consistently with his own character, he soon moved to endeavor to prosecute them with success. He had reason to calculate that when he had finished a long and fatiguing march which lay before him, that he should meet General Phillips in Virginia, with a large body of troops, and by their junction impede all resistance, and reestablish the authority of their master in that rebellious state. Instead of a completion of these expectations, he had when he arrived there only to witness a fresh instance of the uncertainty of human hope, followed by a train of new disappointments.
The British commander immediately hastened by the most convenient route to Wilmington, and from thence to Petersburg. Innumerable difficulties had attended Lord Cornwallis and his army in his march from Guilford to Wilmington; but in his judgment, the march was absolutely necessary. Such was the situation and distress of the troops and so great were the sufferings of the sick and wounded that he had no option left after they had decamped from the field of battle and moved to Cross Creek. The army was obliged to pass a long way through a perfect desert where there were neither provisions for their subsistence nor water sufficient to carry the mills, even could they have procured a supply of corn. At the same time, he had reason to expect that the whole country east of the Santee and Pendee would be in arms against them, notwithstanding his previous proclamation and promise of pardon, on his leaving Guilford.
He wrote Sir Henry Clinton, after his arrival at Wilmington, that he had reason to suppose many who had taken part in the rebellion had been convinced of their error and were desirous to return to their duty and allegiance; that he had promised them pardon, with few exceptions, on the surrendering of themselves, their arms, and ammunition; and that they should be permitted to return home, on giving a military parole; that their persons and properties should be protected from violence; and, as soon as possible, that they should be restored to all the privileges of legal and constitutional government.
These specious promises had little effect on the alienated inhabitants. No allurements could induce them to join heartily in assisting the British commander to subjugate their native land. Their defection daily increased; and a more thorough aversion to the designs and the authority of the British government almost universally appeared. This, His Lordship himself attested. He observed afterwards in a letter to Sir Henry Clinton that "after the complete victory at Guilford, his numbers did not increase, though he had stayed two days near the field of action." His Lordship acknowledged that though he had marched through the part of the country where he had reason to suppose he had the most friends, he found himself equally disappointed and mortified. He observed that "Many of the inhabitants rode into camp, shook me by the hand, said they were glad to see me, and to hear that we had beaten Greene, and then rode home again; for I could not get a hundred men in all the Regulators' country to stay with me, even as militia." [See Lord Cornwallis's letter to Sir Henry Clinton, April 10, 1780.]
This must have been a very unpleasant prelude to His Lordship's march through a forlorn wilderness, interspersed with deep rivers, which must greatly impede an army encumbered with sick and wounded, who were, many of them, obliged to travel in wagons, while all were scantily provided with clothes, shoes, or provisions. But notwithstanding all impediments, they reached Wilmington April 7.
There, the commander found new sources of anxiety. He felt his apprehensions increased on account of the situation of Lord Rawdon, on whom the command had devolved when Lord Cornwallis left Guilford. He had left with him only 900 mean; but whatever dangers his little army might be exposed to from the pursuit of General Greene, which was now ascertained it was impossible for Lord Cornwallis to tread back his steps to their assistance. These considerations determined His Lordship to take the advantage of General Greene's having left the back part of Virginia open, to march immediately into that state.
As he had received express in junctions from Sir Henry Clinton, to leave the Carolinas as soon as possible and repair to Virginia to the aid of General Phillips. It was his opinion, that his own movements were not optional. This officer had been sent forward to the Chesapeake with a reinforcement, in order to support the measures Sir Henry Clinton had, early in the preceding winter, adopted, and for a time had entrusted General Arnold to prosecute.
Previous to Lord Cornwallis's removal from Wilmington, he wrote General Phillips that he was in great distress at the reflection that General Greene had taken the advantage of his absence and had marched towards South Carolina; that he had endeavored to warn Lord Rawdon of this danger; but that he had reason to think his dispatches had been intercepted. He observed that "the mountaineers and militia had poured into the back parts of that province; and he much feared that Lord Rawdon's posts would be so distant from each other and his troops so scattered as to put him into the greatest danger of being beat in detail; and that the worst of consequences might happen to most of the troops out of Charleston. By a direct move towards Camden, I cannot get there time enough to relive Lord Rawdon; and should he have fallen, my army would be exposed to the utmost dangers, from the great rivers I should have to pass, the exhausted state of the country, the numerous militia, the almost universal spirit of revolt which prevails in South Carolina, and the strength of Greene's army, whose continentals alone are almost as numerous as I am."
His Lordship seemed, however, determined to make a feint in favor of Lord Rawdon by moving towards Hillsborough; Yet he did not seem to expect much advantage could result therefrom. His situation was such that he appeared embarrassed in his decisions. Nor could he easily determine, under the difficulty of existing circumstances, what line of conduct would best promote the general cause in which he was engaged. In Lord Cornwallis's letter to General Phillips, from which an extract is given above, dated Wilmington, April 24, 1781, he informed him that an attempt to march from thence to Virginia was exceedingly hazardous; and that many unforeseen difficulties might render it totally impracticable; that he should, however, endeavor to surmount them, and, as soon as possible, attempt to march on to Roanoke. In the mean time, he cautioned General Phillips to take no steps that might expose the army with him to ruin, if in any event their junction should be retarded. He urged him to transmit the earliest intelligence from time to time, until circumstances should admit of his meeting him at Petersburg.
General Washington, soon after Arnold's embarkation from New York, had ordered a detachment of continental troops, under the command of the Marquis de la Fayette, to follow, to watch the motions, and, if possible, to defeat the sanguinary purposes of this newly converted agent to execute the designs of their enemies and waste the blood of his countryman.
A French squadron had lately arrived at Rhode Island, a part of which, it was expected, would soon repair to the Chesapeake, under and able and experience naval commander, the Count de Barras. High expectations were formed by every class of Americans that the assistance of France this year would be sufficient to enable the armies of the United States to counteract, if not to defeat, the designs of the British commanders in their several departments.
Sir Henry Clinton, apprised of these circumstances, and very apprehensive for the safety of his friends in Virginia, judged it necessary there should be no further delay in sending a more respectable force to that quarter to strengthen the hands of General Arnold. Arnold had, on his first arrival in Virginia, landed at Westover and marched to Richmond, destroying all before him, with little or no opposition. He had assisted in his marauding exploits by Colonel Simcoe, who marched from Richmond to Westham, and there destroyed one of the finest foundries for cannon in all America. They burnt, plundered, and destroyed everything before them as they moved. Yet Sir Henry Clinton was convinced that their numbers were not sufficient to facilitate his wishes and subdue the state, without a more strong and respectable force. In consequence of this determination, he had ordered Major General Phillips, with 4000 men, to repair immediately to Virginia to succor Arnold. He likewise had directed Lord Cornwallis to form a junction with General Phillips, as soon as the affairs of Carolina would admit of his transferring his command there, and leaving that state. By some expressions in the order, it seemed to e left discretionary with His Lordship to move when and where he thought proper;. Yet in consequence of this call and the reasons annexed thereto, he thought himself obligated to hasten his march to meet General Phillips, according to the directions of Sir Henry Clinton.
Lord Cornwallis, notwithstanding all the discouraging circumstances which he had encountered and which at times still seemed to increase before him, did not lose sight of the objects of conquest, victory, and glory, to be acquired in Virginia. So prone is man to anticipate the completion of his own wishes that he continues to cherish them even after probabilities cease to exist. Thus the confidence of His Lordship had in the military abilities of Lord Rawdon, the repeated defeat of General Greene, and the broken state of his army, from the frequent instances of flight and desertion, still flattered him with ideas that the Carolinas might yet be subdued.
These considerations induced him to hasten his march toward the state of Virginia. His troops were indeed in a miserable condition for a march of 300 miles, in a hostile country, where they could not avail themselves of its produce, however necessary for their subsistence, without being impeded by skirmishing parties. Both the cavalry and infantry were in a very destitute situation, with regard to forage, provisions, and clothing; but these were not impediments sufficient to stop the progress of veteran troops, with an able commander at their head. They began their march on April 25 and arrived at Petersburg on May 20.
The route from Guilford to Wilmington, and from Wilmington to Petersburg as attended with unusual fatigue and difficulty. Yet Lord Cornwallis moved with cheerfulness and alacrity, supported by the sanguine expectation and pleasing idea of triumph in the reduction of Virginia, in addition to the conquest of the Carolinas. Groundless as were these expectations, His Lordship, at the time, flattered himself that the work of subduing the Carolinas was nearly finished and that they should soon only have to take measures for retaining in obedience those turbulent and refractory states. But when he had completed his march and arrived the destined spot, that opened to his imagination new scenes of glory and victory, he found, on every side, embarrassments that he had not contemplated, and disappointments that wounded both his personal feelings as a friend, and his military pride as an officer.
He met at Petersburg the melancholy tidings of the death of General Phillips, from whose acknowledged military talents an experience, he had reason to expect advice and assistance in every exigency. This brave and judicious officer, who had so often staked his life in the field of battle, fell a victim to sickness. Lord Cornwallis had no opinion of Arnold. He despised him as a man or an officer, and hated his as a traitor. He wrote to Sir Henry Clinton that he experience had made him less sanguine; and that more arrangements were necessary for so important an expedition as the present, than had ever occurred to General Arnold. To this, His Lordship added many other expressions of contempt and disgust, for the new favorite of the British commander in chief.
It is not strange that many officers among the gallant troops of Great Britain, men of name an distinction should be much chagrined at the rank given to and the confidence placed in this unprincipled minimum.
Before his death it had appeared, that Major General Phillips, who had formerly suffered by the bravery of Arnold and his associates, was manifestly pique at the attention paid to his advice and the anxiety shown by Sir Henry Clinton for his safety. Phillips had but recently obtained his liberty after the Convention of Saratoga. Exchanged for General Lincoln, this expedition to Virginia was his first command of any magnitude, after his release. He found in the ordered received from General Clinton some mortifying expressions and a letter that accompanied them contained still more. Clinton had indiscreetly intimated therein to General Philips that "the security of Arnold and his troops at Elizabeth River was the principal object of Phillips's expedition to Virginia." For this expression, General Clinton found himself afterwards obliged to apologize. It was deemed grossly affrontive to a high spirited officer of the rank, merits, and military abilities possessed by General Phillips.
From the circumstances already related, it appears clearly that Lord Cornwallis's route from Charleston to Virginia was long, hazardous, and fatiguing. He had not traversed less than 1100 or 1200 miles when he reached Cobham on James River, including the necessary circuitous marches he was obliged to make to avoid rivers, rapids, mountains, and other impediments to ease or expedition in traveling.
From this place, he wrote some of his most desponding and discontented letters to General Clinton. He found the British troops scattered in small detachments an posted at a distance from each other in various parts of the country. He observed to Sir Henry Clinton, "One maxim appears to me to be absolutely necessary for the safe and honorable conduct of this war -- which is, that we should have as few posts as possible; and that wherever the King's troops are, they should be in respectable force. By the vigorous exertions of the present governors of America, large bodies of men are soon collected; and I have too often observed that when a storm threatens, our friends disappear."
Before Lord Cornwallis left Cobham, he observed in a letter to General Clinton that "he wished to call his attention to the inutility of a stand at an offensive post that could have no influence on the war that still existed in Carolina and that only gave them a few acres of unhealthy swamp in Virginia, liable at any time to become a prey to the enemy, without any superiority of force." [Lord Cornwallis's letter from Cobham, James River.]
From his first arrival in Virginia, he had declined acting with General Arnold; but he was not long mortified with the sight or the society of a man he so much detested. He did not reach Petersburg until May 20, and in the beginning of June, he was relieve from an associate so disagreeable to the feeling of a man of honor, by Arnold's return to New York.
Sir Henry Clinton had various reasons for the recall of this officer. These he did not announce; but he doubtless through that from his constitutional boldness and the desperate situation in which he would be found if defeated by the Americans, that Arnold would be a useful agent if New York should be seriously attacked. But the principal design appeared soon after to be that of employing him in a business for which he was peculiarly calculated; the surprise, the plundering, and the burning of plantations and defenseless towns on the sea coast of the state of Connecticut and other places.
The unexpected and much lamented death of General Phillips and the recall of General Arnold, a man held odious by Cornwallis in every point of view, left his Lordship the sole responsibility for events in Virginia; and perhaps the movements and termination of the campaign there were conducted with as much judgment, ability, and military skill as could have been exhibited by any officer involved in similar difficulties and embarrassments.
It was not many weeks after Lord Cornwallis arrived in Virginia before the intelligence he received from the southward filled him with the most serious and alarming apprehensions for the safety of Lord Rawdon. He found by the most authenticated accounts that General Greene had taken the advantage of his absence and had moved with all possible expedition toward the environs of Charleston; that success had attended his maneuvers in various instances; and that Lord Rawdon had a frequently been disappointed in his systems. To return, and follow him, was impracticable; though, in his opinion, the Carolinas were in the utmost danger of being lost to Great Britain. Yet the work assigned him in Virginia, required the talents and the vigilance of the ablest commander.
On his arrival in that state, he found the Americans in high spirits, and their troops strongly posted on the most convenient ground. He found that General Arnold had done little to facilitate the conquest of Virginia. He had indeed burnt several houses, destroyed some stores, and murdered many of the inhabitants; but no consistent plan of conquest appeared to have been either arranged or executed. His Lordship also felt heavily the death of General Phillips, from whom he expected much information and advice, in the critical emergencies that opened upon him the farther he advanced.
The orders of General Clinton were peremptory, and to Cornwallis appeared inscrutable; and in addition to the list of perplexities and disappointments that daily thickened upon him, he received orders from Sir Henry Clinton to send on a part of his troops for the defense of New York, which he still apprehended would soon be attacked by the combined armies of France and America.
Thus, embarrassed on every fide, his own systems deranged, his judgment slighted, and his opinions disregarded by the commander in chief, His Lordship as evidently chagrined. Yet he lost not the vigilance or activity of an officer of distinguished valor; and soon made an effort to concentrate this troops, and to place the main body of his army in the posts he judged best calculated for defense. In this he differed widely in opinion from Sir Henry Clinton; but finally took his stand at Yorktown, in obedience to the orders of the commander in chief.
The Marquis de la Fayette had not been idle before the arrival of Lord Cornwallis; and afterwards aided by the judgment and experience of the Baron de Steuben, who arrived in the month of June, he kept the British troops in play for some time. But the number of his troops was inconsiderable, and most of them militia men. They were easily routed in detached bodies by the more experienced partisans who opposed them. Besides many officers of superior name and character, in the train of Lord Cornwallis, he was attended with very many who had no higher description of talent, than what was necessary for sudden and bold invasion of the weak and defenseless, without any relentings, or compassionate feelings toward the victims who fell into their hands. In a war like the present, they had many opportunities of indulging their propensities, and exhibiting those talents.
The violent and cruel vigilance of Colonel Tarleton is already too well known to require any comment. Among other British partisans of notoriety, was a Colonel Hamilton, who had distinguished himself for his activity and his severity, from Georgia to Virginia. Not less active than either of the above, was a Colonel Simcoe, more remarkable for intrigue, stratagem, and surprise than for the cool operations of the commander of magnanimity. The courage which is accompanies by humanity is a virtue; but bravery that pushes through all dangers to destroy is barbarous, is savage, is brutal.
These were the principal officers at the time, that headed the detachments in most of the marauding parties that infested the state of Virginia. Simcoe had distinguished himself in this way through the Jerseys, until taken prisoner by the Americans. When he recovered his liberty, he pursued the game; and became so perfect in the art of coup de main that in one of this excursions in Virginia, he eluded event the vigilance of the Baron Steuben, so far as to oblige him to remove with precipitation from an advantageous post, not without considerable loss.
Lord Cornwallis himself detailed some of the heroic feats of this trio in a letter to Sir Henry Clinton, dated Williamsburg, June 30. The principal design of His Lordship as by their movements to prevent the junction of General Wayne, who was marching through Maryland to the assistance of the Marquis de la Fayette. He pushed his light troops over a river in haste in order to effect this, if possible. Finding it impractical, and that in spite of all his efforts General Wayne had made good his march and reached his intended post, he took the advantage of the Marquis's passing the Rappahannock, and detached Lieutenant Colonels Simcoe and Tarleton to disturb the Assembly of the state, then sitting at Charlotteville. The result of this excursion was the capture of several of the members of the Assembly, and the waste of the continental stores in that quarter. They destroyed at Charlotteville and on their return 1000 stand of arms, 500 barrels of powder, and a large quantity of other military accouterments and provisions.
The Baron Steuben had his station at this time, at the point of Fork. He was surprised and obliged to retreat after a short rencounter. Simcoe followed and used every exertion to attack his rear guard. Not effecting this, he destroyed, as usual, all the continental stores which lay in their way. There, and in places adjacent, the Americans lost 3000 or 4000 stand of arms and a large quantity of powder and other store. The Baron had with him in this affray about 800 men, mostly militia.
After this, Lord Cornwallis moved himself to Williamsburg. There he gave fully and freely to Sir Henry Clinton, his opinion of the only mode of effecting the security of South and the reduction of North Carolina, which he found was expected from him both in England and America. He observed that, in his judgment, "until Virginia was subdued, they could not reduce North Carolina or have any certain hold of the back country of South Carolina; the want of navigation rendering it impossible to maintain a sufficient army in either of those provinces at a considerable distance from the coast; and the men and riches of Virginia furnishing ample supplies to the rebel southern army. I will not say much in praise of the militia of the southern colonies; but the list of British officers and soldiers killed and wounded by them since last June, proves but too fatally that they are not wholly contemptible." [See Lord Cornwallis's letter to General Clinton, dated Williamsburg, June 30, 1781.]
It appears from all the correspondence and conferences between Sir Henry Clinton, General Phillips, and other officers, that the British commander in chief had seriously contemplated an excursion to Philadelphia. He intimated in one of his letters to General Phillips, not long before his death, that they probably had more friends who would cooperate with them in the state of Pennsylvania than either in Maryland or Virginia. He seems to have been led to this opinion by the representations of a Colonel Rankin. He urged this as an experiment that would redound much to the advantage of Lord Cornwallis's operations in Virginia. General Clinton clearly discovered that he had a predilection, himself, in favor of the project. He asked the advice of the Generals Phillips and Arnold on the subject, after he had appeared to be predetermined to make the experiment.
When it was disclosed to Lord Cornwallis by General Phillips's letters falling into his hands, he did not hesitate to remonstrate against drawing off 4000 men from Virginia for service in the Delaware, in this critical exigency of affairs in all the more southern colonies. He observed in the same letter from which an extract is given above that Sir Henry Clinton, being charged with the weight of the whole American war, his opinions, of course, were less partial, and were directed to all its parts; and that to those opinions it was his duty implicitly to submit.
He then adds that "Being in the place of General Phillips, I thought myself called upon by you to give my opinion on the attempt on Philadelphia. Having experienced much disappointment on that head, I own I would cautiously engage in measures, depending materially for their success on the active assistance from the country; and I thought the attempt on Philadelphia would do more harm than good to the cause of Britain; because, supposing it practical to get possession of the town, (which, besides other obstacles, if the redoubts are kept up, would not be easy) we could not hope to arrive without their having had sufficient warning of our approach to enable them to secure specie, and the greatest part of their valuable public stores, by means of their boats and shipping."
The difficulty in discriminating friends from foes in Philadelphia, the improbability that they could continue long there if they succeeded, the stronger necessity for all the troops that could be spared from New York to act in Virginia, and the hazard that would attend an attack on Philadelphia were circumstances that induced Lord Cornwallis very judiciously to portray them in his letters to Sir Henry Clinton, as an object where the balance of the risk far outweighed any promise of advantage.
It may easily be supposed that those free opinions and advice, which he considered as obtruded, could not be very acceptable to the commander in chief at New York. More especially, as it as evident there had long existed heart burnings and jealousies between Sir Henry Clinton and Lord Cornwallis. These were heightened by the warm altercations between them, with regard to the most convenient and advantageous posts for defense, as well as the arrangements for offensive operations.
The encampment of the Marquis de la Fayette was at this time about 18 or 20 miles from Williamsburg. He had with him about 2000 men. This was a number far too short for any offensive movements against such a strong and forcible British army as was then posted in Virginia. He was in impatient expectation of reinforcements, which he had now reason to conclude as certain, from the junction of the American and French troops commanded by the Count de Rochambeau. But the Marquis was obliged to act again, before there was time for his relief by the arrival of his friends.
Lord Cornwallis endeavored before the middle of July to cross James River and pass his army to Portsmouth. The Marquis de la Fayette sent forward the Pennsylvania line, with some other detachments, to impede their passage. This brought on a smart engagement, which terminated with considerable loss on both sides. The approach of evening, with other disadvantageous circumstances, obliged the Americans to retreat, leaving the few cannon they had with them behind. The darkness of the night prevented a pursuit. The next day the British passed the river; but not without some difficulty from its width, which was about three miles.
The Marquis de la Fayette, through the difficulties which he had to encounter in Virginia, had on all occasions conducted with more valor, caution, prudence, and judgment than could have been expected from so young an officer. When the Baron de Steuben joined him in the month of June, he had few men under his command, expect the militia, whose numbers were indeterminate, and the time of their continuance in service always uncertain. Yet much generalship and military address had been shown on various occasions, both by the young hero and the aged veteran. They, through all the summer, opposed the vigilance and superior force of Lord Cornwallis, with great courage and dexterity.
Lord Cornwallis had made several judicious attempts to surprise the Marquis with his little armament, consisting, as His Lordship occasionally observed, "mostly of unarmed peasantry." But wary and brave, his ability and judgment had supplied the deficiencies, and balanced the weakness of his detachment; and before the arrival of the Generals Washington and Rochambeau, the Marquis de la Fayette had rendered very essential service to the American cause by his valor and firmness in the state of Virginia.
Lord Cornwallis had been but a few days at Portsmouth before he received a letter from Sir Henry Clinton, censuring him in direct terms for attempting to pass James River, and taking his stand at Portsmouth, though he had before recommended this to General Philips, as a convenient post. He observed that he had flattered himself, until he had the honor to receive His Lordship's letter of July 8, "that upon reconsidering the general purport of our correspondence, and General Phillips's papers in your possession, you would at least have waited for a line from me in answer to your letter of the 30th ultimo, before you finally determined upon so serious and mortifying a move as the repassing James River and retiring your army to Portsmouth. And I was the more induced to hope that this would have been the case as we both seemed to agree in our opinion of the propriety of taking a healthy station on the neck between the York and James Rivers, for the purpose of covering a proper harbor for our line of battle ships."
Through all his correspondence, orders, commands, countermands, and indecision, during the present summer, no man ever appeared more embarrassed, or more totally at a loss how to arrange his military maneuvers than did General Clinton. He appeared at time to consider the reduction of Virginia as a primary object, and that it was of the highest importance that Lord Cornwallis should be there strengthened and supported both by sea and land. At other periods, he treated the operations there in so light a manner that his ideas could not be comprehended even by so intelligent an officer as Lord Cornwallis.
It was not more than three or four weeks previous to the date of the above letter that Sir Henry Clinton had pressed His Lordship, as if in a sudden fright, to send him 2000 troops to aid in the defense of New York; and, as if under some panic-struck influence, he said, "The sooner they are sent, the better; unless Your Lordship may have adopted my plan to move to Baltimore or the Delaware Neck and put yourself in a way to cooperate with us; but even in that case, you can spare us something, I suppose. From all the letters I have seen, I am of opinion, if circumstances of provisions, stores, etc., turn out as they wish, that the enemy will certainly attack this post. As for men for such an object, in this (circumstanced as they suppose it to be) it cannot be doubted that they can raise a sufficient number."
Sir Henry Clinton had found by an intercepted letter that there were 8000 men collected at West Point, and that others were coming in very fast. He informed Cornwallis that he had certain intelligence that Admiral Barras had sailed from Rhode Island; that many circumstances had put it beyond a doubt that the design was to form a junction between him and General Washington, and that they meditated an attempt on the post at New York.
It is needless to detail much more of the correspondence of the British officers acting at this time in America. Their characters are sufficiently elucidated, not only by their own letters, but by subsequent transactions. It is enough to observe that by the correspondence of the general officers, afterwards published in England, it clearly appears that they did not harmonize in opinion. Their councils at this time were confused, and their plans indecisive.
Yet it is worthy of notice that distrust, dissension, and vilification were kept up equally between some of the British naval commanders and Sir Henry Clinton. In one of his confidential letters, he complained that "all opportunities of advantage were impeded or lost by the slowness and obstinacy of the Admiral." He observed that "his strange conduct had, if possible, been more inscrutable than ever. At one time, he declared he was immediately going home. At another, he had sworn he know nothing of his recall.
In a secret and confidential letter to General Phillips, Sir Henry Clinton assured him that "if he was not better satisfied by the next post, relative to the recall of Admiral Graves, he should probably leave the management of him solely to Lord Cornwallis." [See General Clinton's vindicatory letters.] In this letter he censured His Lordship in direct terms for leaving the Carolinas but half subdued to pursue the chimerical project of doubtful conquests in Virginia. He asserted that his invitation, not his commands to His Lordship, to come to the Chesapeake was on the supposition that everything was settled in the Carolinas, agreeably to the wishes of administration and the designs of the government of England.
Sure of the confidence of General Phillips, Sir Henry Clinton expressed the utmost astonishment that "with nine British battalions, a legion of infantry, a detachment of yaughers, five Hessian and several provincial battalions, some American light horse, and large detachments of artillery and dragoons, that Lord Cornwallis should yet pretend that he wanted forces sufficient for the most solid operation in Virginia." [General Clinton's letter to Major General Phillips, April 1781, printed in England with his other letters.]
He sneered at His Lordship's idea, that it was impossible to act with his army in Carolina, without the assistance of friends. This reflection alluded to a letter received by him, in which Lord Cornwallis observed that the royal cause had few friends in that country, and that when a storm threatened, even those few disappeared. An historian had observed that "Chofroes relinquished the Cochian war in the just persuasion that it is impossible to hold a distant country against the wishes and efforts of its inhabitants." [Gibbon on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.] His Lordship might probably be of the same opinion. This opinion was justified by hi own experience, in too many mortifying instances for the tranquility of a man of his sensibility.
It has been above observed that by the sudden death of General Phillips, all these letters fell into the hands of Lord Cornwallis, with several others of the same style and tenor. This circumstance greatly aggravated the dissension and disgust between the commander officers in New York and Virginia. Yet, notwithstanding the implied censure or reproach which they contained, in most of Sir Henry Clinton's letters afterwards to Lord Cornwallis, he had written with great complaisance, and had express the highest confidence in His Lordship's abilities and judgment. But the breach became irreconcilable.
Through the whole business, Lord Cornwallis constantly affirmed that his force was insufficient even for defensive operations. He took the liberty to intimate to Sir Henry Clinton that notwithstanding there had been a call for a part of his troops for the defense of New York, that he had never been under any apprehensions for the safety of that city. With the same freedom, he remonstrated against a plan that had been meditated by the commander in chief at New York, for an attack on the city of Philadelphia.
His Lordship asserted with some degree of warmth that it appeared to him highly imprudent that any par of his army should be detached for that or any other purpose. But he observed further that in his subordinate situation, unacquainted with the instructions of administration, ignorant of the forces under the command of His Excellency General Clinton, and without the power of making arrangements, he could only offer his opinion: that plans of execution must come from himself, who had the materials for forming as well as the power of executing.
These remonstrances had little weight with the British commander in chief. It appears through all their correspondence that these gentlemen differed very widely in opinion with regard to the modes of action, the numbers necessary for effective execution, the best posts for defense, and indeed in the general plan of all their operations. However, Sir Henry Clinton still kept up the idea of supporting the war in Virginia, and of aiding Lord Cornwallis to the utmost, notwithstanding he had sent an order to draw off a par of his troops.
After he was thoroughly alarmed at the hazardous situation of the commander in Virginia, he relinquished his chimerical project of attacking Philadelphia; he countermanded the orders for drawing off a considerable part of the troops; and endeavored to hasten on a small squadron of British ships then lying at Sandy Hook. He flattered himself that a few ships under the flag of Britain might intercept the fleet and interrupt the designs of Admiral Barras, who had sailed from Rhode Island; or retard a still more important object, the arrival of the Count de Graffe in the Chesapeake, where he was hourly expected. He made some other ineffectual efforts for the relief of the British army, which was soon after cooped up by a large French fleet that arrived within the Capes.
The dissension, discord, and division of opinion among the British officers was not all that occasioned the fatal delay of strengthening Lord Cornwallis in Virginia; it may be ascribed more to that atmosphere of doubt in which Sir Henry Clinton was involved. Irresolute measures are ever the result of a confusion of ideas. The vast object of reducing such a wide extended country, and setting the wheels of operation in motion, so as to work with equal facility from Georgia to Virginia, from Virginia to the north, and from Canada to the eastern extreme, was too wide an extent for the compass of his ability.
His mind seemed for a time to be plunged in a chaos, uncertain where to begin, in the complicated difficulties of his official duties, or where to set the strongest materials of his machinery to work in all its parts, in a manner that would produce a complete system of conquest through the United States. There was no deficiency of courage, ardor, or fidelity to their master, among the officers of the Crown, however dissentient in opinion with regard to the modes of execution. But these dissensions prevented that ready cooperation in action which is necessary both to defeat the designs of their enemies and to complete their own systems by judicious and prompt decision, and the immediate execution of well-digested plans.
The movements of the continental and French army had alarmed Sir Henry Clinton to such a degree that he long persisted in his determination of recalling a part of the troops from Virginia for the immediate defense of New York. He informed Lord Cornwallis that General Washington had with him 8000 or 10,000 men, besides the French battalions; and observed that everyone acquainted with the disposition of the inhabitants east of the Hudson must be sensible in what manner their appearance would affect the numerous and warlike militia of the New England states.
Sir Henry Clinton, doubtful of the farther success of Lord Cornwallis, apprehensive of an immediate assault on New York, and reasonably calculating the numbers in array against him as very far superior to his own, lost sight for a time of the dangerous situation of Lord Cornwallis and the army in Virginia. To complete the agitation of his mind, he was now trembling for his sinking reputation, which had been severely attacked in England. From these circumstances, his despondency was nearly equal to his irresolution. Yet, apparent necessity awakened his energy for the defense of the city of New York; and every possible step was taken to meet the combined troops in a manner becoming a British veteran commander.
Lord Cornwallis, with very different ideas, was parrying the attacks of the Americans then in Virginia, and preparing, as far as possible, for the resistance of stronger bodies of enemies. He was persuaded that General Washington and the Count de Rochambeau, aided by a powerful French fleet, had deeper laid system and were on the point of disclosing designs of higher magnitude and more important consequences than had ever been apprehended by Sir Henry Clinton.
The variety of smaller skirmishes, retreats, reprisals, and unexpected rencounters, that took place on the different rivers and posts in Virginia may at present be left to advert more particularly to the difficulties of Lord Cornwallis had to contend with and the dangers he had to combat, previous to the decision of his fortune in that quarter. He had for a time taken his stand at Portsmouth, but he left that station as soon as possible; and according to orders from the commander in chief, concentrated his forces at Yorktown and Gloucester, towards the close of summer, much against his own judgment.
We have seen that by the indecisions of General Clinton, the delay of reinforcements both by land and sea, and the general defection and disgust of the Virginians to any appearance of the authority of the Crown of Britain, there were causes sufficient to discourage an officer who was ambitious to act with vigor and promptitude. But these were far from comprising the whole of the gloomy prospect which lay before Lord Cornwallis. He had the highest reason to expect the approach of General Washington, accompanied by the experienced and renowned Rochambeau. At the same time, he had well grounded expectations of a French fleet in the Chesapeake to counteract any naval operations on the part of Britain. This combination of dangers, added to the inconvenient and indispensable post His Lordship was impelled to take, reduced him to the most perplexed and embarrassed state of mind. Yet he supported himself with firmness and magnanimity, until new and inextricable difficulties led him to despair of the success of the campaign. This was apparent by the tenor of his letters, as well as by his general deportment, for some time previous to the catastrophe of the fatal day, which reduced a nobleman of the first rank, an officer of the highest military fame and pride, to the condition of a prisoner.