Your RDA of Irony

Taking Liberties With the American Revolution: Part IV

Treason D’Etre

Without D’Estaing, Britain’s best hope of defeating the colonists was through treachery. Since the British pound seemed far more irresistible than the British army, England intended to buy the battles it could not win. For instance, West Point, with its strategic control of the Hudson River, was for sale by its commander, Benedict Arnold. A man of many talents, if few virtues, Arnold felt unappreciated. The Continental Congress had overlooked his victories but not his questionable handling of army funds. The fact that the auditors could never catch him proved how skillful a general he was.

Arnold resented Congress’s inconvenient insistence on honesty, and he found himself looking longingly at the British army, where graft was a time-honored tradition. In 1780, he offered his services – and West Point – to an interested Britain, but Arnold placed a high price on treason. He wanted a suitably aristocratic title, a general’s rank in the British army, and an egotistical amount of money. The British attempted to negotiate a less-exorbitant price. Their envoy, however, failed to even negotiate his way through the American lines; the secret papers, found in his boots, made enlightening reading. The news reached Arnold before the arrest warrant did, and he proved as elusive to capture as to audit. Of course, without the deed to West Point, Arnold was of little value to his British protectors and, for a man who aspired to a title and a fortune, had to settle for a pension.

While relishing a scandal, the French were relieved that the Americans had overcome British treachery; they only hoped to be as fortunate in overcoming American lethargy. France had sent yet another army to America to assist the colonists into battle. The Continental army, however, proved equally adept at evading allies as well as enemies. Thousands of French soldiers landing in Rhode Island should have seemed conspicuous, but two months passed before General Washington acknowledged their presence. Since the French were under Washington’s command, they were obliged to await his orders, and Washington’s order was to wait. The French army was to spend a year contributing to Rhode Island’s tourist trade rather than the war. Washington may have deftly disposed of the French army but not its French general. Count Donatien de Rochaumbeau would not be ignored.

Rochaumbeau was considered a capable soldier although, by the mischance of being French, had never been on a winning side. In dealings with Washington, the Count showed even greater talent for diplomacy: he had subtlety, patience and, of course, the prerequisite charm of an aristocrat. Rochaumbeau needed all that, a year’s time, and even bribery to induce Washington to fight. The allies had a choice of strategies: They could hurl themselves against a larger British army in New York, or attack a British force, one-third their size, in Virginia. The now-animated Washington preferred the more heroic approach; Rochaumbeau preferred to win. With his diplomatic wiles, the Frenchman got the Americans onto the right battlefield.

Lord Charles Cornwallis was the commander of His Majesty’s rather meager army in Virginia. When confronted by an overwhelming allied horde, he did not appreciate it as an opportunity to win a glorious victory and be remembered in iambic pentameter. Cornwallis considered it a good time to rush to the nearest coast, and let the British navy evacuate a very anxious British army. Chesapeake Bay seemed obligingly close; the fleet there, however, was inconveniently French. That was the trap Rochaumbeau had planned. For once, the French fleet had overcome its tendencies to be sunk, lost, or late, and was decisively in the way of the British force at Yorktown. This was to be France’s greatest naval victory, even if it was against an army. Of course, the French navy owed its success to an oversight by the British navy.

Fighting France and John Paul Jones had not been enough of a challenge for the over-achievers of the British navy. With its habit of blowing everyone out of the water, His Majesty’s fleet had managed to get His Majesty into a war with Spain and Holland. Those extra enemies did not bother the royal navy; that just meant more ships to sink, more colonies to sack, and more promotions for its officers. Of course, such appalling arrogance was completely justified. The only failing of the HMS navy was that it could not destroy its enemies quite as quickly as it made them. While the Dutch fleet was mauled off the coast of Holland, and the flotsam of Spain’s navy extended from Gibraltar to Panama, an overlooked French fleet set sail for Chesapeake Bay and Yorktown.

With his army caught between Washington’s forces and the French fleet, General Cornwallis’ strategy was to develop a headache and let his adjutant publicly surrender. His Majesty’s Tory government, however, was not so adroit at shifting blame. The new Whig government could sympathize with anyone wanting to be rid of George III, and it had a plan to end the colonial fiasco. There was to be an immediate truce in America, and Britain would formally concede the colonies’ independence as soon as it finished thrashing France, Spain and Holland. This plan was agreeable to the Americans if not their allies, who continued to lose fleets and colonies for almost another two years. After therapeutic victories at Gibraltar, in India and the Caribbean, Britain finally felt it could lose America without losing face.

To be continued…

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