The World Turned Upside Down



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.

6 Responses to “The World Turned Upside Down”

  1. urbino Says:

    Pulling two threads together:

    “In 1776,” wrote historian David Hackett Fischer in “Washington’s Crossing,” “American leaders believed it was not enough to win the war. They also had to win in a way that was consistent with the values of their society and the principles of their cause. One of their greatest achievements … was to manage the war in a manner that was true to the expanding humanitarian ideals of the American Revolution.”

    Gen. Washington expressly forbade the torture of prisoners. More here.

  2. Whitney Says:

    I used to loathe history classes. Now I don’t know why. This is really interesting stuff, Cap’n. Joe loves military, particularly Naval, history, and I think maybe it’s time I read some of the many books he has on the subject.


  3. captmidknight Says:

    JU said:
    Pulling two threads together:
    “In 1776,” wrote historian David Hackett Fischer in “Washington’s Crossing,” “American leaders believed it was not enough to win the war. They also had to win in a way that was consistent with the values of their society and the principles of their cause. One of their greatest achievements … was to manage the war in a manner that was true to the expanding humanitarian ideals of the American Revolution.”
    Gen. Washington expressly forbade the torture of prisoners.
    Absolutely true. George Washington is one of the few major players in early American history who actually seems to measure up, in real life, to his reputation. He was truly an honest, humble and honorable man, and I can’t imagine him ever mistreating prisoners – although just subjecting them to the same conditions his own troops endured would have seemed like torture to many.

    “American leaders believed it was not enough to win the war. They also had to win in a way that was consistent with the values of their society and the principles of their cause.”

    Also true, for the most part. Certainly most of the “Founding Fathers” were idealists, but that noble sentiment also had its dark side. In the book I mentioned, Fleming describes a faction of “True Believers” led by Arthur and Richard Henry Lee, Samuel Adams and others who caused some serious trouble. They believed that self interest was incompatible with patriotism.
    Pardon a few quotes from Fleming’s book:

    “Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, summed up this radical philosophy by dividing whigs (liberals) into six classes. Only one was worthy of respect: the true whig who had not a smidgen of self interest in his patriotic heart. True whigs were the apostles and guardians of public virtue, which Samuel Adams considered America’s chief asset in the struggle with Great Britain.” The Perils of Peace, p52

    This faction in congress saw the behavior of businessmen like Robert Morris and Silas Deane who, in addition to organizing shipments of vitally needed supplies and loans of hard currency from France and other European sources, also traded for their own personal accounts, as almost traitorous, in spite of the fact that their personal trading, besides putting money in their pocket, invariably benefitted “The Cause” as well. Even though they did great service to the country in a time of desperate need, the “true whigs” felt that their motives were not sufficiently pure.

    In addition to attempting to destroy the reputations of Morris and Deane in America, the “true whigs” actions also undercut the foreign diplomatic effort personified by Benjamin Franklin, the Ambassador to France. They saw Franklin as a decadent old fool who spent all his time basking in his huge popularity and “partying” on the Paris social circuit. They simply didn’t understand – or want to admit – as Franklin, a long time “man of the world” did, that this was just the way you did business in Louie XVI’s kingdom. At the time, Franklin was, far and away, the most famous American in the world, and his social contacts and personal relationships within the French court had, almost singlehandedly kept the revolution afloat for the past few years.

    One of the Lee-Adams party in congress’ favorite expressions was “Militia Diplomacy,” which Fleming describes as “… part of their dangerously wrong conviction that militia, part time soldiers called out in emergencies, were superior to Washington’s trained regulars. The militia supposedly had more “spirit.” Fleming goes on to describe how they believed “Militia Diplomacy” should work.

    “A militia diplomat did not proceed in the dignified, restrained style of European envoys. Instead, he invaded a nation’s capitol without warning, proffering a treaty of commerce with America – if a recognition of independence was forthcoming.” Perils of Peace p 53.

    They believed that their superior moral position should open every door, and their philosophical descendants are still with us today – on the left as well as the right.

    George Washington, on the other hand, although as much an idealist as the rest, was also a realist – thank God.

  4. captmidknight Says:

    Whitney said:
    “I used to loathe history classes. Now I don’t know why.”
    Probably because the history texts you had in school were full of pertinent facts and unbelievably dull writing – at least that was my experience. Of course, the fact that I could always think of something else to do besides study may also have been a factor.
    We are lucky that, in the past few decades, authors have come along who are not only excellent historians, but good writers as well. Many of the true stories in history are much more interesting and exciting than most of the stuff Hollywood makes up. It just takes a good story teller to make it come alive.
    Some of the recent folks, in addition to Thomas Fleming, author of the book on Yorktown and the aftermath which I’ve quoted, who have proven that professional historians can also tell a heck of a good story include, IMHO:

    Shelby Foote – Civil War
    Steven Ambrose – American History, World War II
    David McCollough – John Adams biography
    Colleen McCullough – Historical fiction series on Julius Caesar and ancient Rome
    Steven Pressfield – Historical fiction on ancient Greece
    Ken Burns – Documentaries on the Civil War and World War II

    I’m sure JU, Michael, and others can add to the list.

  5. urbino Says:

    I agree with Cap’n that story is the key. It’s the key not just to making history interesting, but to its meaning. Story is all history is. It’s the story we tell ourselves about our past to make sense of our present and give direction to our future.

    If it’s not doing that, it’s not doing anything. It’s just names and dates; no wonder it’s boring.

  6. michaellasley Says:

    Great stuff, Capt.

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