I guess I should first ask, was it possible for the British to win? And if so, and Cornwallis could be reinforced or evacuated, how would the outcome of the war be changed?
A British victory there would have postponed the inevitable. A flashy naval victory wouldn’t change the facts that the Crown’s relationship with (and influence over) the colonies had been irreparably damaged, that the war was deeply unpopular in Britain, and that the land war was still formation tactics vs. guerilla tactics on the enemy’s home ground.
I doubt it would have made much difference at all. Recall that Cornwallis was already defeated and in retreat. The British were attempting to evacuate an army that was already about to get out of Dodge.
Chronologically speaking, the Battle was 3/4 of the way through a war that was pretty much decided. As Horatio pointed out, the Revolutionary War was not a battle over territory (nor the seas, for that matter). It was a fight for legitimacy in the eyes of the population. On this point, the British were already pretty much beaten. They just didn’t have enough Loyalists remaining in the colonies to effectively translate those victories into widespread popularity.
Washington had spent the last six years not winning, but never really ‘losing,’ either. His strategy of not-losing was effective in that it tired the British and sapped their resources. Defeating a French fleet would have been a tactical victory and a setback for the Colonies, but it would not have had much impact on the strategic calculus.
And a minor tactical victory at that. Britain certainly could have won the Battle of Chesapeake - they were moderately outgunned and operating on poor intelligence, but they had a couple of opportunities.
But just evacuating Cornwallis would still have been a heavy psychological blow and a strategic defeat. The ‘Southern Strategy’ was going poorly and evacuating an army that had been not been faring all that well in the field would still have been tantamount to a significant military defeat, just not as crushing of one.
I do believe Britain could have won a military victory in the colonies. But it would probably would have had to come very early. Like Battle of Long Island early. If Howe had not carelessly allowed Washington to slip away and had comprehensively annhilated the early Continental army( instead of just mauling it badly ), it most likely would have broken the back of the rebellion. After that early period success became steadily less and less likely( maybe if Burgoyne had not gotten beaten as bad as he did at Saratoga and if Howe had eliminated Washington at Brandywine instead of just mauling him again, that might have been another opening ).
French officially joining the war was crucial.
The cost of the war to France was pretty bad and the aftereffects lasted a long time. (And they got little out of it directly.) It eventually lead to the French Revolution.
So if the active war dragged on longer it’s possible that the French crown would have fallen while the war was still going on, leading to France withdrawing from the war and the US losing significant support.
Would a turn at Yorktown have made the difference? Not likely, but it would have been closer.
“If the guerilla isn’t losing, he’s winning. If you’re not winning, you’re losing.” (Col. David Hackworth)
This is the way that it was taught to me in school. I have since learned that it’s not entirely true.
Guerilla tactics were used, but their use and importance has been overemphasized, most likely out of a sense of patriotism. It’s basically pitting American ingenuity against British might.
The truth is that George Washington got his ass kicked up and down the battlefields until after he came out of Valley Forge. What he did in Valley Forge (in addition to starving and freezing to death) was get his troops trained in proper military tactics and discipline, with a lot of help from the French and Prussians.
Prior to Valley Forge, Washington’s troops would hide behind trees and such, like you’d expect a modern army to do. With the weapons of the time, that was not the best strategy. To counter this, the British would use lines. A huge line marches forward, and encounters a small pocket of Washington’s troops. The troops are overwhelmed, since it’s a small group against the entire British line, so the troops break and run. And the line advances. It reaches the next pocket of Washington’s soldiers, and again, it’s a small pocket against the entire British line, so those troops also break and run. And so on and so on. Things changed in the Civil War (as Pickett found out the hard way), but prior to that, fighting in lines wasn’t as stupid as we in modern times often think that they were.
Baron Friedrich von Steuben (and others) trained Washington’s troops in proper discipline, proper conventional warfare tactics at the time, and very importantly, proper bayonet fighting. We tend to think of bayonets as last-ditch weapons, which is how they are used today, but in the days of smooth bore muskets, bayonets played a huge role on the battlefield, usually accounting for roughly a third of all battlefield casualties. Muskets look a lot like a modern rifle, but they weren’t used like a modern rifle. Their slow rate of fire and reloading made them much different weapons than what we have today.
After Valley Forge, Washington’s troops could finally go toe-to-toe with the British.
Guerilla tactics were important during the Revolutionary War, but so were conventional tactics. But focusing on conventional tactics means giving credit to a lot of French and Prussian folks, so history books don’t like to focus on that. I think modern history books are getting better and more accurate, though, at least compared to the books that I learned from.
It also should be mentioned that the British really didn’t consider us to be very important. The British could have easily doubled or tripled the size of the army fighting against the colonists, but sending troops to squish the rebellion in the 13 colonies would leave other more valuable (to the British) lands vulnerable, and the British didn’t want to risk losing those lands to the French and Spanish.
A much more accurate way of describing the Revolutionary War is a combination of guerilla tactics and conventional warfare, and a whole lot of foreign help, fighting against someone who really didn’t think we were all that important.
In the long run, as Horatio Hellpop said, loss of the American colonies was pretty much inevitable, no matter how many resources the British chose to throw at it.
French were already pushing out peace feelers before Yorktown and Congress was beyond bankrupt. Without Yorktown, North ministry might have survived and continued the war.
Yeah, you stiffed us quite badly there (in much the same way y’all’d stiffed the British when they’d helped you against us in the French & Indian War. Nobody ever learns anything…).
Still, we got to fuck with the Brits, so totally worth it :D.
Hypotheticals are better suited for IMHO. Moving.
IMHO a victory at Saratoga may have changed the outcome of the war; or the capture of Washington and his army at any point. But the AR was a war that in the end was going to come down to boots on the ground rather than ships at “sea”.
Admiral Nelson would later prove it indeed possible to defeat a numerically superior fleet from windward, so it could have been done in the Chesapeake as well. Perhaps malaise and exhaustion at that point in a long war contributed to British caution in the battle, but the do-or-die aggression we would later see from Nelson was absent here.
One British ship, the Terrible, was scuttled (intentionally sunk by her own side to prevent capture by the enemy) after the battle, but one contemporary source maintained even this was unnecessary and claimed the ship could have been saved. The whole affair reeks of defeatism on the part of the British.
I agree with Tamerlane here, if the Howe brothers had been just slightly competent, they would have captured Washington and his troops (the largest army Washington commanded during the war), Cornwallis would have made a lightning calvary strike on Philadelphia to capture the Continental Congress, and the war would have been effectively over (except for a few dozen hangings and/or exile).
Once Washington learned to keep his an ‘army in being’ and got it trained (Baron Friedrich Von Stueben is one of my personal heroes of the Revolution), it was just a matter of wearing out the British economy and will. France was the final tipping point; England was much more worried about a continental European power than a troublesome colony.
ETA: And as to the opening piece; the only thing Cornwallis could have done on evacuation would be to return to New York, which was the only major ground held by the British at that time (some other coastal cities too; but not much inside the colonies). Which simply would have kept things at the status quo.
The problem he had was maintaining his army in being. Enlistments in 1781 were few and far between. The Continental Congress was broke. Some of the Colonial troops present at Yorktown had even refused to march to Virginia until paid (and not in what they considered to be worthless Colonial scrip); fortunately the French had hard currency to give to Washington. The majority of Washington’s force opposing Cornwallis weren’t even colonials. They were French troops.
It’s not for nothing that Washington said "We are at the end of our tether, and that now or never our deliverance must come” in April of 1781. All three major players were close to exhaustion.
You would still be spelling colour correctly.
Well, I think a little worse for the British than the previous status quo: they would have been defeated and forced back to New York with their tail between their legs. Materially, not much different, but psychologically and propaganda-wise, a moderate setback. Even that kind of setback might have been enough to get the British to peace talks; after all, they’d already had one of their armies surrender at Saratoga, so they didn’t need the Yorktown surrender to prove it was possible.