YORKTOWN | The End of the Beginning

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American Commanders

The American Continental Army was made up of most civilians who may have had some previous military training. For most of the war of revolution, the army had little or no formal training. George Washington knew he had problems with training and he sought out men, regardless of where they trained, to help.

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General George Washington

American Commander George Washington

On August 20, 1781, George Washington began moving American and French forces south from New York to join Lafayette's American troops and engage Cornwallis at Yorktown. As supreme commander, he was responsible for coordinating the American and French wings of the army, as well as strategy and logistics. It was Washington's strategy that had gotten him in troubles in the past. Washington could hand the logistics of getting men and material from here to there, it was his strategic planning that caused problems. Nevertheless, his immediate subordinates and his troops adored the man. He was a genuine leader of men facing extreme dangers and hardships. Given the lack of support Washington received from congress, it is a miracle that Washington could hold the Continental Army together.

In early 1781 Washington was facing a dire situation. He was in an almost no win position. His army in the south had been decimated by superior British forces. His army in the north where he was in direct control, had been sitting idle for the last couple years. He had neither the men or supplies to mount a successful assault against the British holding New York City. The long promised support from the French allies had failed to materialize yet. Plus, one of his top generals had become a traitor and tried to hand over the American fort at West Point. So enraged was Washington at Benedict Arnold's treason, that he sent some 3,000 men under the command of the young, self-proclaimed volunteer French general, Marquis de Lafayette, to try and capture Arnold who was thought to be in Virginia.

Congress had promised him help, but there had been little. Congress had told him that the French were going to help with money, arms and men, but so far, there had been little of that too. The winter of 1780 had been an especially hard winter, colder and harsher than anything on record. His men were starving and freezing. In January 1781, Washington lost six regiments of Pennsylvania militia when they mutinied for lack of basic supplies and pay.

 

After the victory at Yorktown, Washington took part of the Continental troops and returned to New York. Washington and the Continental Army then kept a watch over British forces in New York City as the diplomats negotiated an end to the war. On December 23, 1783, the day the last British troops left New York, Washington returned his commission to Congress and (temporarily) retired from public life.

Marquis Lafayette

Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette

The idea of freedom and liberty so moved the 19 year old Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette in early 1777, that he bought a ship and sailed for America to take part in the American Revolution. Offering to serve at his own expense. He had contracted with the American commissioner to France to become a major general in the Continental army upon his arrival in America. However, upon his arrival in Philadelphia Lafayette found his commission invalid. Rather than fight the bureaucracy, he volunteered to work George Washington's staff where he quickly became close friends with the general. A few months later the bureaucracy of Congress would approve Lafayette's commission.

He received a leg wound in the Battle of Brandywine. After recovering from this wound Washington gave him command of the Virginia army. In January 1779, Lafayette was granted a leave of absence and sailed back to France where he helped lay the groundwork for a French expeditionary force to come to America. It was his efforts that helped convince the older, more experienced Rochambeau to lead the force in America.

In April 1780, Lafayette returned to America to resume his command of the Virginia army. When Washington learned that Benedict Arnold was thought to be in Virginia, commanding some 1000 British soldiers, he requested Lafayette to do his best in capturing the traitor. While leading the search in Virginia, Lafayette encountered the British General Cornwallis who had taken over the British plan of destroying America's breadbasket in Virginia.

Lafayette, although he had many fewer men, was able to dog Cornwallis throughout the summer months of 1781. When command the Continental forces in Virginia in 1781. Lafayette became one of three division commanders in the American army during the Yorktown campaign.

After Cornwallis' surrender in October, Lafayette returned to France and went on to serve in the French army. He also continued to advance American interests in France by assisting the U.S. minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, with several economic and political matters.

In 1824, Lafayette returned to the United States for a year long triumphant tour that included a stop at Yorktown. It was reported that Lafayette was met by "demonstrations of frenzied enthusiasm without precedent or parallel in American history."