Everything Honorable and Glorious: George Washington’s Maritime World

Brumidi Cornwallis Yorktown surrender_edited

Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown (Viking, 2018).

George Washington was supposed to be an admiral. Not just any admiral — he was going to be an officer in the global maritime power that dominated the world’s oceans, the British Royal Navy. When he was 14, about the right age for a young man in the colonies to determine what he was going to do with his life, George packed his bags to head to sea. His older brother Lawrence had served as a company commander in the British infantry regiment raised in the colonies and served under the British commander of Jamaica Station, Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, during the Siege of Cartagena in 1741. The regiment then fought through expeditionary operations on the coast of Cuba at Guantanamo Bay and in Panama. After the survivors returned to Virginia, Lawrence named the family estate after his favorite commander. The name stuck. As young George approached adulthood, a Royal Navy ship arrived in the Chesapeake and Lawrence used the connections from his service to obtain his younger brother an appointment as a midshipman in the Royal Navy.

Bestselling author and National Book Award recipient Nathaniel Philbrick shares this anecdote early in his new book In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown. It’s a detail of the founding father’s past of which few Americans, even few historians, are aware. Only the intercession of Mary Ball Washington, George’s mother and Lawrence’s stepmother, kept George from the high seas. A day or two before he was to head south down the Rappahannock River to rendezvous with his maritime destiny, Mary broke down in tears and begged her son not to go and to disappoint the older brother who was something of a hero to the young man. George gave in and unpacked his bags.

Philbrick’s new book, the third in his recent sequence of titles about the American Revolution, offers a view of Washington that is different from most of the histories of the American commander-in-chief. The anecdote about his appointment as a midshipman joins scenes of him piloting a schooner through a squall on the Hudson River and stories from his French counterparts about his views of the maritime world. As Philbrick’s narrative of the events leading to the siege at Yorktown unfolds, it becomes clear that the “genius” he’s referring to in the subtitle of the book is George Washington’s understanding of, and appreciation for, sea power. In the Hurricane’s Eye is about Washington’s realization that, as he famously wrote to his dear friend the Marquis de Lafayette, “It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that with out a Decisive Naval force we can do nothing definitive. and with it every thing honourable and glorious.”

Many popular histories of the American Revolution detail the battles and politics ashore with only sparing nods to the maritime dimensions of the conflict. However, it was sea power that allowed Britain to maintain superiority throughout so much of the conflict. Time and again, when British troops found themselves in trouble, they marched to the sea where the Royal Navy supported them either with reinforcement and logistics, or by easily effecting a withdrawal. Even in the very beginning, at Bunker Hill, sea power allowed the British to maintain control as long as they did. Washington recognized this early on. Throughout the war, while he quibbled about supplies of cannon and pay for his troops, he saw that unless the Americans could break the stranglehold of British naval power they would never win their independence. While most American military leaders thought little of the maritime elements of the war, Philbrick shows readers how it seemed to be constantly on Washington’s mind. Despite the dominance of armies in our understanding of the Revolution, the Civil War, and even in our recognition of World War I’s centenary, understanding American military history, from its very beginning, requires a balanced appreciation of events both ashore and at sea.

The trouble with sea power in the American Revolution was that the Continental Navy experienced very little success. Even John Paul Jones’ famous victory over HMS Serapis was a strategic failure, because despite the capture of the British heavy frigate, the convoy that was the real target was able to escape. Because of the Continental Navy’s struggles, In the Hurricane’s Eye describes how the focus of Washington’s thinking on sea power shifted to the French Navy.

While the 1778 Treaty of Alliance sent the Comte de Rochambeau and French troops to American shores, for Washington, the French fleet was the most important part of the alliance. In this regard, Philbrick’s descriptions mirror the analysis of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who focused on the French role in his writing over a century ago. The most important naval battle of the American Revolution was the Battle of the Virginia Capes and there wasn’t a single American present. The reality of American victory in the revolution was that it depended on international partnership at sea as much as it did on the military skill and tenacity of the plucky American militiaman ashore.

The value of partnerships and alliances has been the subject of military and strategic discussions throughout history, and recent months have been no exception. We often see the Franco-American alliance through the rosy lens of Washington’s paternal relationship with the Marquis de Lafayette. But Philbrick’s narrative of Washington’s tension with Rochambeau and the various French naval commanders demonstrates that partnerships also create obstacles and frustration. The personality foibles of the individual commanders, French disdain for the amateur background of most American forces, and a notional chain of command that nobody seemed to honor all got in the way of truly coordinated efforts in the first two years of the alliance.

As the summer of 1781 approached, Washington attempted to plan a combined Franco-American attack on the British stronghold at New York. But despite Washington’s treaty-granted position as commander-in-chief of the allied forces, Rochambeau regularly cancelled meetings or refused to coordinate. When he did finally show up to a meeting, he suggested a move into the Chesapeake rather than the assault on New York Washington had been trying to plan. He gave the commander-in-chief no reason or explanation for his suggestion, but instead seemed to simply assert his better judgment as a power move.

The sticking point was that the French fleet commanded by the Comte de Barras was too small to engage the Royal Navy on its own. Instead, he required a fleet dispatched from France under the command of the Comte de Grasse. Washington understood this key maritime reality and expected the French would send more ships to the North American coast. But instead, in 1779 they sailed to the West Indies, where France had valuable colonies and its own national interests under attack. In an illustration of how alliances are built on unequal relationships and how the states that join them almost never have exactly the same objectives, the operations of the French fleet caused endless frustration for Washington.

As the French slow-rolled the Americans, waiting for de Grasse to move north from the Caribbean, they continued to advocate a southern strategy in direct conflict with Washington’s plans. Push came to a shove, and Washington finally ordered the French to join him in New York to prepare for an assault on Manhattan. Philbrick relates how Rochambeau’s memoirs paint Washington as stubborn and unable to see the strategic advantage of moving into the Chesapeake. Washington, on the other hand, realized that with General Charles Cornwallis and his troops ranging through the Tidewater, the arrival of a large French force would just cause him to retreat toward Charleston and escape. For almost three years, the French had failed to establish command of the sea off of the rebellious colonies, and Washington had begun to doubt whether they ever would. Both sides fumed at each other.

And then, of course, there were the lies. Rochambeau was aware of de Grasse’s activities in the Caribbean, and knew the French fleet didn’t plan to head north until late 1781, despite telling Washington that he was as in the dark as the Americans. The French general also sent word to de Grasse that he thought the Chesapeake would be a more effective destination for the fleet, directly countering the commander-in-chief’s plans.

Then everything changed. Cornwallis encamped his British force in Yorktown, Virginia, at the end of a long peninsula in order to meet up with the Royal Navy for resupply and reinforcement. De Grasse’s fleet, with financial support from the Spanish at Havana, headed north early to avoid hurricane season. In a case of what historians call contingency and the other readers would label luck or timing, Cornwallis had placed himself in a dangerous position at the same moment the French fleet was headed north toward his position. Suddenly Rochambeau’s continued focus on the Chesapeake started to make sense.

Philbrick’s claim of Washington’s genius is twofold. First, it was his understanding of the importance of the maritime elements of the conflict, and second, it was the ability to change his mind and adapt his strategy when the conditions shifted. As conditions in Virginia began to change, Washington’s opinion did as well. Philbrick explains that at the end of July, the commander-in-chief wrote to Lafayette to say it was “more than probable” that he would be headed to meet the Frenchman, who was already chasing Cornwallis. The rest, as they say, and as Philbrick deftly describes through the book, is history. A history of partnership, but also one of lies, distrust, competing national priorities, and sometimes caustic personal relationships. In short, a history of the reality of the oft-lauded panacea of maritime partnerships and alliances.

Operations in the southern Chesapeake, with the arrival of the combined land force and the French naval force, also demonstrated the complicated joint nature of American success in the War for Independence. Even once the Americans and French got on the same page regarding the overall importance of the Yorktown campaign, fissures developed — not along national lines this time, but between the ground forces and de Grasse’s naval considerations. Anchored at Lynnhaven, just inside the Chesapeake Bay, de Grasse was expecting the arrival of the British Fleet from New York. From a naval perspective, he should have been preparing his crews for battle and organizing how his ships would leave the anchorage for a fight. Instead, he was fending off the continuous demand from the ground commanders to land the 3,000 troops and artillery that he was carrying aboard his fleet. Even though Cornwallis was already cornered and could not escape, Rochambeau, Washington, and particularly Lafayette were impatient to begin the battle. But they wanted de Grasse’s maritime reinforcements before they engaged.

De Grasse gave in, ordering his crews to prepare for the long trip up the James River to land near the gathered Franco-American army. His junior officers, who in a fleet engagement would command the gun batteries of his ships of the line, instead manned the boats to command the landing operations. His experienced non-commissioned officers took up their positions as coxswains of the boats rather than readying their warships for battle. The landing force departed for their rendezvous with Washington’s troops, leaving the fleet undermanned and without many of its experienced leaders.

They nearly missed the arrival of the British fleet entirely. With all of their attention focused on preparing for the landing and the complicated embarkation of 3,000 troops and cannon, the French had few ships scouting beyond the mouth of the Chesapeake. Once they spotted the enemy, the French decks were still cluttered with the equipment of amphibious operations and not cleared for battle. Without much of a plan to speak of, de Grasse ordered his captains to head for the British as fast as they could. A mad race began as anchor cables were cut and the shorthanded crews who were left scrambled to put their ships in order.

Philbrick’s narrative of the Battle of the Chesapeake is clear and exciting, helped by several good charts to help readers envision the opposing fleets. It demonstrates that the French strategic victory over the British was the result of a tactical draw. It was a victory only because it led the British to turn around and head back for New York rather than relieve Cornwallis. It was as much the result of luck and daring as it was skill or combat superiority, and it was not decisive as a naval battle even though we often look back on it as key to the campaign which would lead to American independence. Indeed, despite how we celebrate Yorktown today, the war continued to drag on even after Cornwallis surrendered. But if de Grasse had ignored the land component commanders and prepared for the fight instead of splitting his force, the result might have been the real destruction of British maritime power on the American coast. The British people were already restless for peace and King George III was facing calls for negotiations from Parliament. Destruction of the British fleet might have brought the British directly to the negotiating table and secured independence even earlier.

Clear, vivid, and often revealing, In the Hurricane’s Eye returns the maritime elements of American victory in the Revolution to center stage. His ability to find instructive quotations from the primary sources and the small details that introduce verisimilitude has been well-established in his writing on American history, and this new book does not disappoint. Scholars of the American Revolution may quibble about some elements of his interpretation, or lament the “sources” discussion at the back of the book rather than the use of notes, but the book is a brisk and engaging read that offers a great deal to both military historians and general readers.

Today, we hear of the rise of great power competition and the challenge of navigating a multipolar world as if they are new. But, the very rise of the United States was a product of great power competition. While Americans focus on their own small portion of the conflict, the war for American independence became a global war between Britain, France, and Spain. And the causes, conduct, and consequences of the Quasi War, Barbary Wars, and War of 1812, which followed in the succeeding decades, were also shaped by the United States defending its interests amid great power competition. Balancing joint concepts of military power to maximize capability and the likelihood of success, and managing difficulties inherent to alliances and partnerships were just as vital at America’s founding and for the early republic as they are in the contemporary world. As Philbrick told a group of Naval Academy Midshipmen when he visited Annapolis this past autumn, Americans can glean great wisdom from their nation’s maritime past if they are willing to do the work of studying it in depth, seeing it as more than a talking point or a fun bedtime story of adventure on the sea.


BJ Armstrong is a Senior Editor with War on the Rocks and holds a PhD in War Studies from King’s College London. His third book, Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy, is forthcoming from the University of Oklahoma Press in April. Opinions expressed in his article are offered in his personal and academic capacity, and do not reflect the positions of policies of the U.S. Naval Academy, Department of Defense, or any other agency.

Image: history.house.gov