By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University
Cornwallis could not afford a disaster like the one at Cowpens. He could afford still less to sit where he was. What did Nathanael Greene do to reverse Cornwallis’s plan to head for the coast and to force the British to keep swinging inland through North Carolina?
Cornwallis’s Trashed Plans
Desperate to shake off Greene, Cornwallis struck the Continentals at Guildford Courthouse on March 15. The British scored a technical victory by capturing four American cannons, but, in the process, Cornwallis sustained twice as many casualties as Nathanael Greene, with little hope of replacing them. Cornwallis circled down to Wilmington on the coast in April but found that he could not stay there. The French Navy prevented the landing of the supplies he relied upon. Cornwallis’s best hope was to strike northward again into Virginia and to link hands with British forces at the Chesapeake under Major General William Phillips.
Cornwallis’s Next Step
Cornwallis forced his way into Virginia and joined Phillips’s troops, establishing a supply base at Yorktown on the James River Peninsula. Instead of being Cornwallis’s great opportunity to be re-supplied and renew his campaign, it turned out to be Washington’s great opportunity to make sure that Cornwallis would have no further campaigns.
In June 1781, the French Army, which had been promised to America, arrived in Rhode Island, then moved over to New York City to join Washington. Taking advantage of French warships to blockade the Chesapeake Bay, Washington left a small force to keep an eye on Sir Henry Clinton in New York and marched the remainder of the combined French-American army of 16,000 men overland to Virginia. Washington trapped Cornwallis at Yorktown and, after three weeks of siege, Cornwallis surrendered.
Learn more about the resolution declaring independence in 1776.
Costly Warfare for Britain
British troops were in Charleston, Savannah, and New York City, but after Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, there were none to spare for offensive operations anywhere in North America, nor was Lord North’s government in London in a position to offer Sir Henry Clinton any more troops to replace those lost at Yorktown.
By 1782, the war was costing Britain 20 million pounds a year to wage. The loss of trade with America caused exports in Britain to fall by 18 percent. Woolen exports plummeted from approximately ₤900,000 in 1772 to only ₤58,000 in 1776, that was the toll the war was taking on the British economy. Bankruptcies in British finance increased by 200 percent between 1772 and 1778. On February 27, 1782, Parliament voted to suspend the war by a slim margin of 234 to 215. A month later, Lord North resigned as Prime Minister.
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Hefty Cost of Independence for America
An interim government, under the Marquis of Rockingham, lasted only until his death in June, when he was followed by William Petty, the second Earl of Shelburne. In turn, Lord Shelburne opened communications with Benjamin Franklin in Paris, and by November, a provisional agreement recognizing American independence was okayed, followed by a formal peace treaty in Paris on September 3, 1783. The war did a lot of damage to the British as well as the American economy. During the war, American shipping, which was at the same time regulated and protected by the British Navy, now became the target of its former protectors, both the navy and British privateers.
American merchants lost the privileges they had enjoyed as British subjects while trading in Europe. At home, the simple wastage of war in South Carolina alone ran up to ₤3 million. Slaves and indentured servants deserted to the British in droves. Five thousand Georgia slaves sought refuge in Savannah after it was captured by the British. Twenty thousand South Carolina slaves sought British protection in Charleston. Thomas Jefferson lost 30 slaves to a British raiding party in Virginia.
Learn more about the diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin persuading France to ally with the United States.
Economic Setback for America
American currency had collapsed and by 1782, Congress and the states together issued 440 million dollars in paper money, scarcely worth more than newsprint. Between 1777 and 1780, prices in some regions in America went up between 190 and 500 percent. Overall, per capita income in America fell by four percent between 1774 and 1790, equivalent to the Great Depression.
Deranged American Politics
American politics was as deranged by the war as its economy. Thousands of loyalists were imprisoned by the Continental Congress or forced to flee after retreating British armies. The disappearance of the loyalists wiped out a significant segment of the old colonial elite. In their places, the new state constitutions, adopted by state after state, undertook dramatic experiments in popular government. Philadelphia’s Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, complained that the new Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, which handed out the vote to adult males regardless of property holding, “was called a democracy when a mobocracy, in my opinion, would be more proper. All our laws breathe the spirit of town meetings and porter shops.”
One French officer was shocked to find that, among his allies, a locksmith, cobbler, or merchant may become a member of Congress, and the Americans were proud of it. The Articles of Confederation, which were gutted, took two years to move through Congress, and then an additional three years to be ratified by the states. The Articles of Confederation did not come into effect as the first American Constitution until March 1781, only seven months before Washington accepted Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown.
Learn more about the ramshackle nature of the Articles of Confederation.
Political Chaos in America
Defeating the British Empire seemed easier than getting Americans to agree on politics. The Treaty of Paris legally recognized the independent existence of the United States of America and ceded to it not only Britain’s claims on the 13 colonies but to all the western lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. Benjamin Franklin, as part of the negotiating team for the treaty, suggested to Lord Shelburne that the British add Canada to the session as a goodwill gesture, which went nowhere. The ineptitude of Congress and the political chaos in the states set a number of Washington’s officers to think that the Continental Army should take matters in hand and make Washington the first king of America, which could bring order to things.
Washington’s Great Virtue
Washington’s army was demobilized peacefully, and he resigned his commission in December 1783, returning to Mount Vernon and the life of a gentleman planter. All this was done without the slightest effort to grab the power. Washington rode back into private life, setting an example of virtuous Whig republicanism, and saving the neck of the Confederation in the process.
Common Questions about the American Revolution
Cornwallis forced his way into Virginia, joined Phillips’s troops, and established a supply base at Yorktown on the James River Peninsula. It turned out to be Washington’s great opportunity to make sure that Cornwallis would have no further campaigns. Taking advantage of French warships to blockade the Chesapeake Bay, Washington left a small force to keep an eye on Sir Henry Clinton in New York and trapped Cornwallis at Yorktown. Cornwallis surrendered after three weeks of siege.
After Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, there were no British troops to spare for offensive operations anywhere in North America, nor was Lord North’s government in London in any position to offer Sir Henry Clinton any more troops to replace those lost at Yorktown.
Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia along with his troops.