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"Alternate History: Washington defeated at Yorktown" Topic


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648 hits since 28 Mar 2017
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Haitiansoldier28 Mar 2017 5:46 p.m. PST

Having just read The Guns of Independence, I have become much more interested in Yorktown. I don't do alternate history much, but this one popped into my head today: If Cornwallis had launched an attack from Yorktown and defeated the Americans in battle, and supposing said defeat resulted in the French sailing back to the Caribbean, would the British still have won the war?
Had Washington been defeated at Yorktown, would he have gone back to New York or continued south into the Carolinas to link up with Greene and continue the fight against the British in 1782? Or is it possible he would have surrendered after his defeat at Yorktown?

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP28 Mar 2017 8:11 p.m. PST

I think the affair at Gloucester Point was a gesture that Honour required.
It was on the other side of a broad river. The only reason to game this is to have the insanely colorful Lauzun's Legion Hussars (with Lancers!) fight the dashing British Legion, who have the handsomest Loyalist uniform.
Ok. Tarleton wins. Then what? 90% of the army is still on the wrong side of a broad river.
No. the battle was fought because Honour required it.
Cornwallis was doomed. He was vastly outnumbered and under siege from a professional army, with those pesky Yankees lending an eager hand.

I do not see your scenario as likely.

Personal logo Ironwolf Supporting Member of TMP28 Mar 2017 8:51 p.m. PST

If Washington was alive he would have continued the fight. Washington knew as long as he could keep an army in the field. Then the war was not over, but if he was captured or surrendered. Unless there was a deal on the table, what are his chances he would be hanged?

A fiction book called Liberty 1784 by Robert Conroy is a good what if read.

Personal logo Parzival Supporting Member of TMP28 Mar 2017 9:28 p.m. PST

Winston and Ironwolf are both correct.
Cornwallis was never going to win that fight. He was bottled up, and the Royal Navy couldn't help him. He had already been defeated strategically at that point. So your proposed alternate result is an impossible one.

However, if we decide that by some miracle Cornwallis managed to beat back the American & French assaults, and the Royal Navy reached him to resupply or (the more likely result) withdraw his forces, so what? Washington would have simply pulled back and planned to confront Cornwallis elsewhere. By this stage, the victory for the Patriots was well on the way; they had a significant ally who could bloody the British all over the world, they had the political upswing in the populace of America, they had a much better source of supplies and training and men for a sustainable conflict, and the pols back in England were getting thoroughly sick of the whole affair. Meanwhile, the Brits were down to hopscotching Cornwallis's troops from coastal city to coastal city, where Washington would undoubtably bottle them up yet again. The southern campaign was over and lost for Cornwallis, there was no British presence in New England, or really anywhere else, and no other force on its way. Cornwallis was metaphorically down to moving his king around the chessboard with a lone pawn or two in support, while Washington had just spawned a second queen. Yorktown was just the corner Cornwallis couldn't get out of. The mate was inevitable. Two or three moves more wouldn't have made any difference.

vtsaogames29 Mar 2017 3:53 a.m. PST

The only real chance of British victory wasn't on the battlefield. The bottom had come out of the colonial economy due to the British blockade. If the British could avoid military defeat the Continental army might have come apart under strain of no supplies, no pay, etc. It almost did. Note the various mutinies in the last years of the war, the Newburgh conspiracy, etc. But Cornwallis at Yorktown was a done deal.
It was very rare for a besieged force to win by itself. It usually required a relief force. The naval Battle of the Capes removed any chance of relief or escape.

One of the effects of the French partnership was that the French forces bought up all the flour when they were around. Farmers and merchants much preferred being paid in gold rather than Continental bills that were not backed up by taxation.

Ferd4523129 Mar 2017 6:28 a.m. PST

I still go to Greene, We fight,get beat, rise and fight again" H

Bill N29 Mar 2017 8:14 a.m. PST

The British army entered Yorktown worn out, short on supplies and ravaged by disease. Cornwallis had probably forfeited the good will of the slave community by abandoning so many sick escaped slaves at Portsmouth. Cornwallis's army was not in southeast Virginia because La Fayette had driven him there. By the end of the siege his army had run out of powder and food. If Cornwallis had broken out of Yorktown, his army would have had to fight a running retreat from which only a small portion of the army MIGHT have escaped. His best hope was to have the siege broken by the Royal Navy carrying supplies and reinforcements.

In a counterfactual world we can ignore many of these limitations. If Cornwallis's army was well supplied and in good health, breaking up the Franco-American siege lines would have meant that Cornwallis could have outlasted the French fleet. Maintaining a field army in Virginia probably made no sense when Greene had already recovered most of the Carolinas. However troops could have been shifted south, giving the British enough power to reconquer Georgia and hold it in the peace. They could also have shifted troops to the West Indies.

historygamer29 Mar 2017 8:47 a.m. PST

Only way that could have happened, historically:

1. The Royal Navy wins the Second Battle of the Capes.

2. Clinton lands a relief force. Does it land at Yorktown, or somewhere else behind the Allied Lines?

The focus of the Crown was still on saving their holdings in the Caribbean, not the colonies – just trying to outlast them there (go the 15 rounds). Not much of a strategy.

The Crown Army was still inadequate to take to the field in any more than one operation – and New York would be weakened while Clinton was gone, making it vulnerable to attack.

oldnorthstate29 Mar 2017 1:24 p.m. PST

I'm going to disagree slightly with what appears to be the consensus…Cornwallis could have escaped in August but by September his fate was sealed as long as Clinton sat on his hands in New York. But that is the point, once Clinton figured out what Washington was up to and he knew it very early in the American/French move south, he could have done several things…he could have moved south behind Washington, cutting his lines of communication back to his supply bases in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and to Congress. This might have forced Washington to turn to fight or at the worst further delayed the move south.

If Washington ignored Clinton's move south, with the 14,000 men Clinton had available he could have moved to destroy the American supply bases throughout the upper colonies. He could have even tried to capture West Point. Yes, Cornwallis would have still been toast but the British position, in a war which was to drag on for another two years, would have been altered in their favor.

With Washington and the French in Virginia New York was never in danger, no matter where Clinton marched.

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