Today, the Lafayette Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin remembers the arrival of Count De Grasse in the Chesapeake Bay on August 31, 1781.
Count de Grasse, Rochambeau and Lafayette played important roles in the defeat of the British 235 years ago.
From The National Magazine, a Monthly Journal of American History of December 1892, an excerpt of the article “French Aid in the American Revolution:”
At this time (1780) after more than four years of fighting, the American cause was in a critical condition.
Great had been the disasters in the South. Having suffered great loss in their attempt to recover Savannah, as just related, Lincoln had surrendered his army at Charleston.
Gates had been ignominiously defeated at Camden, S. C. The South was being laid waste by the British, and many Americans were deserting.
Even Washington began to feel that without foreign aid, the cause was almost hopeless.
In February, 1779, Gen. Lafayette on leave of absence, had returned to France with the commission from Congress making Benjamin Franklin sole plenipotentiary at the Court of France.
Through Lafayette’s influence added to that of Franklin, the ministry was induced to send an auxiliary corps of troops to cooperate with Gen. Washington.
Accordingly, there arrived at Newport, July 10th, 1780, seven ships of the line and three frigates in command of Admiral Ternay, with a force of 6,000 men, under command of Count Rochambeau.
The whole force was placed at the disposal of Washington, and thus all friction between French and American officers was avoided.
It was Washington’s plan to take possession of New York with the aid of the French troops, but the English fleet having been powerfully re-enforced about this time, the French Admiral was unable to cooperate, but remained blockaded in Narragansett Bay by the British squadron, and Rochambeau kept his forces in Rhode Island so as to be ready to assist Adm. Ternay if necessary.
If the second installment of troops from France had arrived, all this might have been changed, but it never came, but remained in the harbor of Brest blockaded by a British fleet of thirty-two sail.
Rochambeau’s army was therefore obliged to remain idle in Rhode Island for a whole year, and the brilliant scheme of capturing New York had to be abandoned.
The year 1780 was a disastrous one, made all the more so by the discovery of Benedict Arnold’s treachery, followed by the conviction and execution of Major Andre — the British spy — an event which brought sadness to the heart of friend and foe alike.
In the following year, hope dawned upon the Americans. Gen. Greene by a series of brilliant maneuvers in the South, had completely outgeneraled Cornwallis, drawing him entirely out of the Carolinas.
Equally baffled by Lafayette in Virginia, Cornwallis in vain tried to bring on a decisive engagement and at length was forced to post himself at Yorktown, closely watched by Lafayette from Barren Hill.
In the meantime, Washington anxiously awaiting the arrival of another French fleet, under Count de Grasse, was watching Clinton in New York.
If this fleet should arrive in the Hudson, he had planned with Rochambeau to attack the city, but on learning that it would arrive in the Chesapeake, he determined to march the combined armies south and entrap Cornwallis in Virginia.
Disguising his ultimate intention from Clinton, Washington threatened New York to such an extent that Clinton called on Cornwallis for aid.
Leaving Heath at West Point with 4,000 men and Lord Sterling at Saratoga, Washington marched down the Hudson as if menacing New York, but suddenly turned towards New Jersey and thence by forced marches led the allied hosts through Philadelphia and into Virginia.
August 31st, 1781, Count de Grasse’s large fleet arrived in the Chesapeake, having come directly from the West Indies after capturing the Island of Tobago from the English.
This fleet brought Washington an additional reinforcement of 3,500 men.
The British Admiral Graves, having been made aware of the threatened danger, made sail from New York, and attacked the French fleet at the mouth of the Chesapeake, but after a conflict of about two hours, withdrew, leaving the French squadron in possession of the harbor.
Cornwallis was thus cut off from escape by sea.
Lafayette prevented his escape by land.
On the arrival of the combined armies, Cornwallis underwent a regular siege at Yorktown.
The French and American troops vied with each other in valor and were rewarded for their labors in the capitulation of Cornwallis Oct. 19th 1781, when 8,000 men laid down their arms and the vessels lying at Yorktown and Gloucester were given up.
In this closing contest of the Revolution the French assistance was invaluable.
Hitherto all efforts to cooperate successfully with the allies had been frustrated.
The expected help from Estaing had amounted to nothing.
His unaccountable conduct at Newport in drawing off all his forces to Boston just as they were most wanted, almost broke up the confidence of the Americans in the sincerity of the French in attempting to aid them.
The disastrous affair at Savannah followed.
Washington had also in vain attempted a combined action on New York owing to the insufficiency of the French force.
At Yorktown however, the long dreamt of plan was magnificently accomplished by a master stroke of genius in taking advantage of circumstances and in marching an army over four hundred miles to accomplish the object.
It is useless to say how the war would have terminated without the alliance of Rochambeau’s and De Grasse’s trained forces.
The very presence of these well disciplined troops inspired courage in the hearts of the Americans.
In war, every advantage must be taken and it is no discredit to the ability or genius of Washington, that he obtained victory for his country with the aid of foreign soldiers.
The Lafayette Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows between an image of Rochambeau arriving in Rhode Island and a full length portrait of Count de Grasse.
Note: Lafayette Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin images courtesy of the US Mint.