Date posted: December 29th 2016
Book Title: Washington - A Life (Part 2) (continued)
That whole year (1781), Washington had been begging the French navy to attack New York, but Count de’ Grasse and Count Rochambeau were not having it.
It became pretty obvious that Rochambeau and de’ Grasse were ignoring all of Washington’s suggestions about New York. They just flat out thought it was a bad idea, and it wasn’t until August that these three stubborn old men came to an agreement… Yorktown!
Washington and Rochambeau moved their fifteen thousand troops (including our beloved Hamilton and Lafayette) from the Hudson area to Virginia, where they waited for Admiral de Grasse—whose Navi arrived at the Chesapeake bay in September, with twenty eight ships and thirty‑five hundred troops. The expectations were high and the spirit was strong.
There is one thing about Yorktown that Washington noticed years earlier when looking for places to build a fort in Virginia. It a peninsula, and anybody defending it could get easily trapped if the enemy decided to close the narrow access. For this reason Washington did not build a fort there, but the British were not as clever.
The Continental Army advanced, and battle was like a chess game in which almost every move was anticipated. This we owe to the French—they definitely knew what they were doing—in fact, Rochambeau said the Americans had no idea how to execute a siege. On October 9th, when the two sides aligned in parallel, face to face for the first time, the French let Washington fire the first cannonball of the day. They later found out this cannonball landed right at the dinner table where a bunch of British generals were having breakfast, killing the one at the head of the table1. The attacks went on for days. And finally on October 19th the British surrendered. That night, silence fell over Yorktown and a meteor shower adorned the skies.
Ok, allow me to digress... I googled this, and it is true, the Orionid meteor shower from Halley’s Comet happens around that time of the year. This means that when the Americans won the most important battle of the Revolution, even the skies were celebrating! This made me ask myself, “why is this battle not the most iconic date to celebrate American freedom?” Tradition and history chose to celebrate the 4th of July instead—an instance that was immediately followed by the New York disaster2. On the 4th of July 1776, the war was barely starting and it started off pretty fucking bad!
Why not celebrate the victory of Yorktown as the birth of the United States? The moment where Americans crossed the gates of victory, and even better, the sky was celebrating with shooting stars! In my opinion, October 19th should be the day to celebrate American greatness. October 19th, the day “the world turned upside down”3 and the greatest navy in the world was crushed by a bunch of barefoot poor souls! (and some really classy french soldiers). I know, I know, the 4th of July is quite the event, but when people run a Marathon, do they celebrate when they tell their friends they will run it? Or when they cross the finish line?
Alright enough of that, let’s go back to the story.
The next morning was probably the greatest day Washington ever had. He chose his favorite horse “Old Nelson” to oversee the battlefield and ride among the victorious troops. They forced the British soldiers to walk up a hill, pile up their weapons, and walk back through a double column formation of American soldiers staring at them. It was a glorious moment for the Continental Army, and although Washington dreamed of this decisive victory to have happened in New York, it was more than good enough.
They had won the war... England was defeated at last! They say when King George III found about this battle, he said “that’s it! It's all over now!”. And the entire royal navy was ordered to return to England, defeated...
It took the British a couple of months to get the troops out of the US. And it wasn't until November 30th 1782 (over a year after Yorktown) that a preliminary peace treaty was signed in Paris giving the United States of America recognition of independence internationally. The real peace treaty was signed on September 3rd of 1783.
Washington had won. After this terrible rollercoaster of emotions, the United States of America could claim to be a free and independent country.
Now as far as Washington himself goes, well, for eight years he had been as vigorous as a 20‑year‑old. But the following year, it was almost like they flipped a switch on his biological clock. He aged significantly over the course of a couple months and the world was forever to remember him as that old guy in the dollar bill. Which is a shame, because that picture doesn’t depict who he really was: An extremely energetic General who would not yield even in the most dreary of conditions. A commander who inspired malnourished and sad soldiers to ride by his side and fight for freedom no matter the cost. A hero who would never give in, despite almost all hope being lost. That is the real George Washington!
Now, before I close this part, let me show you what the graph looks like if we use dates:
Eight years of war… eight years in which the events that crumbled the spirit the most were:
While the most important victories were:
Overall Washington lost more battles than he won, but Benjamin Franklin summed it up perfectly when he told an English friend that “an american planter was chosen by us to command our troops, this man sent home to you five of your best generals, baffled, their heads bare of laurels, disgraced even in the opinion of their employers”...
Had George Washington failed, how many years do you think would have gone by before another attempt to revolt against the crown was done? 2, 5, 10, 25? And would that have delayed other revolutions? Keep in mind the french revolution happened about 10 years later, and the latin american revolutions started 30 years later, but all of these were basically inspired by the American Revolution. Please answer in the comments below, or tweet about it using #washingtonpart2question
Alright, this concludes the second part of George’s life. Click here to watch him execute all the power he gained during the war in the most masterful way possible.
Thank you guys so much for reading, and don't forget to read more. But don't read books to say you did. Read them consciously! And write about them, for it is the only way for them to stay solid in the mind.