While we were in France last summer, a friend — Laurence Chatel de Brancion — gave us a copy of her new book, La Fayette: Rêver la gloire.
Laurence is a historian who has been studying the life and times of Gilbert de Lafayette, upon whom her book — co-authored with Patrick Villiers — is focused.
Every schoolboy in the US knows the basic story of the US revolt against Britain. The Boston Tea Party…Paul Revere and the Minutemen…the Declaration of Independence…Valley Forge…
As for how the war ended, speaking for ourselves, we know the war effectively ended with the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. And we give thanks to the French, whom Ben Franklin had courted for years in Paris, for ‘coming to our aid.’
The French fleet, under Lafayette’s command, arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, cut off the British from their supply lines, and forced them to surrender. That’s why American troops, landing at Le Havre, France, in 1917, announced: ‘Lafayette, we are here!’
That is the shorthand version. But history is always written by victors. And it is always full of lies.
It is mythmaking…giving people a narrative that helps them feel as though they have something in common, some reason to salute their heroes of the past, and some reason to listen to presidential debates.
When the war against Iraq was launched by George W. Bush, the French refused to participate. Americans branded the French ‘cowards’. A joke circulated that the French army knew only two words — surrender and collaborate.
‘How many French died in the First World War?’ asked the patriotic Americans. ‘Not enough,’ came the answer.
The role of the French in American Independence
Laurence’s book, however, reminds us that without the French, there would be no United States of America. We see that:
- The colonists could not win their war against Britain.
- The important contest was between the French and the British; the French won.
Americans themselves were divided; some were in favour of the Revolution, others were not.
Among the telling details in the book are these:
The ‘rebel’, ‘insurgent’ or ‘terrorist’ army of the colonials got far too little support from the Americans themselves. General Washington’s men were starving and half naked at Valley Forge.
Historians estimate that one in five white people in Colonial America was opposed to independence. Laurence’s account of the Battle of Yorktown tells us that there were as many as 9,000 ‘loyalists’ on the British side.
We have not found support for that number elsewhere. But if it is true, more Americans fought against the Revolution at Yorktown than for it.
‘You notice something strange about that painting?’ asked the guide at the State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, when we took a tour on a recent visit there.
Before him was a very large tableau, a painting of the Battle of Yorktown.
‘You see British troops. And you see German troops. And French troops. But there are almost no American troops. That’s because there weren’t many Americans there.’
We can’t vouch for the accuracy of the Virginia State Capitol tour guides. But most historians agree that there were more foreigners in the battle than Americans.
Washington’s Continental Army played a supporting role. The French — the Comte de Rochambeau and the Comte de Grasse — were calling the shots.
And though it wasn’t always exactly clear where the money to buy ships, arms, ammunitions and food for the Continental Army was coming from, funds needed at critical moments came from the French nobility, not America’s yeoman villagers and farmers. Lafayette — one of the richest men in France — came forward with his own money to help the insurgents out at Valley Forge.
And it was François-Joseph Paul, the Comte de Grasse — arriving with 29 warships and 300,000 silver pesos raised in Havana — who made the final victory possible.
The winning strategy
It was also the Comte de Grasse, not Washington, who figured out the winning strategy. The British lieutenant general, Charles Cornwallis, had planted himself on a narrow peninsula in Northern Virginia.
He could defend himself easily on the landward side. But his back was exposed to the sea. This, he believed, posed no problem because the British fleet dominated the coast.
The French admiral de Grasse, however, spotted an opportunity. If his ships could get control of Chesapeake Bay, he could blockade the city of Yorktown. Cornwallis would be cut off by American/French forces on land, and deprived of supplies from the sea by the French fleet.
He proposed the plan to Washington, who was sceptical. De Grasse then simply announced that that was what he was going to do. Washington followed.
Once the strategy was set, a joint French/American force feigned a move against New York, and then slipped away and quietly headed south of the Potomac. Some floated down the Chesapeake. Others marched along the shore.
On 2–3 September, the American troops mutinied. They said they would not leave Maryland until they were paid. Again, the French saved the situation. The Comte de Rochambeau loaned Washington the money to pay them.
When the troops finally arrived in Yorktown at the end of September 1781, they closed off Cornwallis’s escape route. This was the real test. But it was not a fight between the Americans and the English; it was a battle between a motley crew of regulars, militia and mercenaries — with American loyalists supporting British troops and Hessians on one side…and American insurgents and French troops on the other.
But the battle on land would be nothing without a victory at sea. If the British fleet could break the French on the Chesapeake, the whole campaign would be a waste of time.
The decisive naval battle came on 5 September. 29 French ships fought 19 English ships. The English were decisively defeated and forced back to New England for repairs. The French blockade held.
After that, it was just a matter of time. Cornwallis was running out of supplies. He could not break out on land because his retreat route was blocked by the American/French army, much of it under the command of the dashing young French general, the Marquis de Lafayette, whose marble face can be found in the rotunda of the aforementioned Virginia State Capitol facing a statue of General Washington.
In early October, Cornwallis was under attack from land and sea…with artillery blasting his defences from both directions.
On 19 October, the British raised the white flag.
When the battle was over, twice as many French as Americans had been killed. And the French intervention had been so expensive, it practically bankrupted the Bourbons.
Out of money, Louis XVI was forced to call a ‘parlement’ of the people’s representatives to approve new tax measures. This, of course, got out of hand, and the French Revolution resulted; Louis lost his head.
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