The War for America: 1775-1783

By Piers Mackesy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXIV
THE ANATOMY OF DISASTER

1. Washington and Clinton

It was on 8 May that the Comte de Rochambeau learnt that his son and Admiral Barras had landed at Boston with the instructions for the year from France. Barras had come to assume the command of the squadron at Rhode Island, for Ternay had died in the winter. The two commanders could now look forward to the arrival of a superior fleet from the West Indies to wrest the initiative from the British. It was not before time. For the past two years the war in the north had been sunk in torpor. Washington had few men and no funds; and indifference and war-weariness were spreading. A victory was wanted; but as Washington had said, 'no land force can act decisively unless accompanied by a maritime superiority'.

On. 21 May Rochambeau conferred with Washington at Wethersfield in Connecticut. They had before them intercepted despatches which revealed the British government's intention to consolidate from the south and drive Washington behind the Hudson. Rochambeau favoured a campaign in the south; but Washington held to his view that New York was still the place to strike, and obtained agreement. The French troops would march for the Hudson to serve under his command. Washington hesitated to leave the fleet at Newport without the troops' protection, and wanted it to retire to the safety of Boston; but with some difficulty Barras persuaded him that it should remain at the strategic point at Rhode Island from which it could swoop on the English lodgments.

Rochambeau's corps set out on its march through the hills of western Connecticut, and joined Washington near New York early in July. But it was soon plain that the British position was too strong to be carried. On the 21st Washington threw forward a strong screen of troops and made a thorough reconnaissance with the French generals. What they saw was discouraging. The defences looked strong, and Clinton had as many men in them as the combined forces of Washington and Rochambeau. Without command of the sea they could do nothing: the course of the campaign must depend on de Grasse's fleet. To him Rochambeau appealed after the Wethersfield Conference. The Americans, he wrote, were at the end of their resources, and de Grasse must bring four or five thousand troops from the West Indies to operate in the Chesapeake or force a passage

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