Naval Resources and the British Defeat at Yorktown, 1781

By Richard Middleton, published February 2014


Although most of the blame for the disaster at Yorktown fell on the generals, the role of the navy was equally crucial. Had the fleet converged on Chesapeake Bay in sufficient numbers, the army of Lord Cornwallis would have been rescued and the war perhaps ended differently. Responsibility for this failure has never been adequately explained though the station officers across the Atlantic, Admirals Rodney, Parker and Graves, have all been criticised along with their political masters. This article suggests that the fleet commanders did their best to deal with a difficult situation, lacking as they did sufficient ships and information. It was these factors that permitted the French to assemble a much superior force in the summer of 1781 at a critical moment in the American war. For this situation the first Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, and the prime minister, Lord North, must bear primary responsibility, having allowed a dangerous inferiority to develop in the size of the fleet due to a lack of new construction, especially of ships of the line. This article suggests, accordingly, that Yorktown was a disaster waiting to happen, given the inadequate resources deployed by Britain between 1775 and 1782.

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Filed under: Atlantic | American Revolution
Subjects include: Administration | Battles & Tactics | Biography | Strategy & Diplomacy

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