George Washington rode south with his army in a very poor mood. He wrote to Layayette:
“I am distressed beyond expression to know what is become of the Count de Grasse, and for fear that the English Fleet, by occupying the Chesapeake, shall shatter our flattering prospects in that quarter….My Dear Marquis, if you get any thing New from any quarter, send it I pray you on the Spur of Speed.”
On September 5th as he stood on the banks of the Delaware River a rider brought him a message. De Grassi had anchored in the Chesapeake with 28 warships! He was bringing 3,000 troops ashore. One can only imagine Washington’s joy at this moment! Cornwallis would be caught in a trap with nowhere to go.
But Admiral Graves and Admiral Hood had also heard about de Grassi’s arrival and quickly provisioned and headed south. On September 5th, the same day that Washington was getting the news, they reached de Grassi and the battle began.
De Grassi was caught at anchor with thousands of troops ashore but he cut his anchors and headed out to do battle with the British. He was short handed but he was not a sitting target. And while the two fleets were staking out their positions with each other another Frenchman, Admiral de Barras, arrived from sea with eight more battleships. Now the French total was 36. The English had 19 and de Grassi’s men promptly let cannonballs fly into the rigging of some of those. The battle itself was short and after sustaining a few losses the British realizing they were outnumbered headed back to New York. They would remain in control of that city for several years until the peace agreement between the two countries was worked out.
General Cornwallis was caught in the squeeze. After a few losses he too realized the futility of his position and gave up the fight. But he could not sail away! At least he could not do so until he had surrendered and sent his sword to Washington along with his apologies perhaps for missing such a wonderful occasion. He was ill.
No doubt. Prior to the battle George Washington paid a visit to Admiral de Grasse. He had his first view of the French fleet in rows far into the distance and out of sight. There were negotations and the two forces marched to Yorktown together.
It is difficult to understand or relate to these distant events and a world almost beyond our imagining. Transportation was by horse or sail. The only heat on cold nights was provided by fire just as it had been since cavemen tried to ruled the world or at least survive and find dinner. Communications that would determine the course of history depended on a horse.
So when Beth and I arrived at Cape Henry and saw the statue of de Grasse it was almost like touching an ancient symbol. We were transported to a different world. There is a naval base nearby and jets fly over this area many times per day as de Grassi looks out to sea. I wonder what he would think if he could see them hurry past at hundreds of miles per hour.
He would probably be as amazed as Washington or Lafayette. These courageous men might be surprised by modern technology but they would quickly come to terms with it as they did with events in battle. And they could derive some satisfaction in realizing the major role they had taken in creating a modern and freedom loving world on both sides of the Atlantic.