Archive for October 19th, 2007

The World Turned Upside Down

October 19, 2007


I don’t mean to kill off the current thread or hijack the subject with another post so soon. There is probably a lot more that folks would like to say about the subject of torture and whether Bush and his administration are weak and/or stupid, so please feel free to continue there as well. It’s just that today is a very historically significant day and it only comes around once a year, so I didn’t want to let it pass without mentioning it.


Two hundred and twenty-six years ago today, Charles O’Hara, the illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish nobleman, and Benjamin Lincoln, a small time Massachusetts politician, met in a field outside a small tobacco port in Virginia and formalized one of the most important events in American history. If you don’t recognize these men, you’re not alone. I wouldn’t have either before I recently began reading a book by Thomas Fleming titled The Perils of Peace.

Brigadier General Charles O’Hara was the second in command of a 7,700 man British army led by General Lord Charles Cornwallis who were, at the time, trapped in a small village on the Virginia peninsula called Yorktown by the combined forces of the Continental Army under George Washington, , French troops under Lt. General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, and a French Fleet under Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse – a little over 29,000 Frenchmen and about 9,000 Americans.

After agreeing to the surrender terms, Cornwallis was unwilling to appear in person, and so sent out his subordinate to do the humiliating deed. On arriving at the appointed place, O’Hara ask for Comte Rochambeau – an act recognized by everyone present as an attempt to snub the Americans, even in defeat. The Frenchman, to his credit, immediately pointed to Washington – who was difficult to miss since at 6’2″, he towered over most of the Europeans, especially on his large white horse – as the overall commander. O’Hara rode over and explained that Lord Cornwallis was “indisposed.” Washington, neatly sidestepping the insult, replied that, in that case, it would be only proper for O’Hara to surrender to Washington’s own 2nd in command, General Lincoln. So it came about that one of the most import victory in the history of American arms was officially presided over by two valiant but essentially unknown soldiers, while the more famous ones watched.

In many history books, this event is presented as the end of the war, and they then go on to other things like the Constitution and such, assuming that, after Yorktown, American independence was a foregone conclusion. The fact is that Yorktown, as important as it was, settled nothing. The British still had 16,000 men and a fleet in New York, also occupied the ports of Charleston and Savannah, and King George III who controlled the British Parliament through his political cronies and appointees, was still adamantly opposed to any suggestion of independence for his North American “Colonies.”

As for those “Colonies,” they were almost at the end of their tether, and the victory at Yorktown came just in time. The individual “States” were at odds over all sorts of things; the Continental Army hadn’t been paid since anyone could remember, and was marching in rags; the Congress under the new Articles of Confederation was virtually powerless and often even lacked a quorum to conduct business; it’s money was more valuable as toilet paper; and the Treasury was deeply in debt and essentially bankrupt.

The following story illustrates the fiscal situation in the country:

The courier General Washington sent to Congress in Philadelphia with the official news of Cornwallis’ surrender arrived at the capitol at 3:00am on October 24th, after traveling almost constantly for four days. After hearing his report, the President of Congress and several delegates found him a room nearby, since he was worn out, sick, and almost asleep on his feet. Unfortunately, the courier, Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman, one of Washington’s military aides, had no money, having not been paid like the rest of the army. Since he was on official business, the government should have picked up the bill, but there was – literally – not enough money in the National Treasury to cover a night or two in a Philadelphia boarding house. In the end, several of the delegates covered the expense out of their own pockets.

After Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, it actually took several months of diplomatic and political intrigue on both sides of the Atlantic, and finally, the fall of King George’s party from power in Parliament and the rise of a government actually willing to talk about American independence before anything like peace talks began. Meanwhile, the New American nation held on by it’s political, financial, and military fingernails.

The more I read about those times, the more miraculous I find it that we aren’t all today still speaking British and driving on the wrong side of the road.