"After Yorktown, 1781: the 'War Beyond the Horizon'"

This page is based upon a presentation given to the American Revolution Round Table of the District of Columbia on 4 April 2007 as one of several programs commemorating the 225th Anniversary of the American Revolution.The program was presented by Albert D. McJoynt, a military historian and ARRT member.

There is a need to correct the distorted depiction in most popular American histories that the War for American Independence ended with Yorktown 1781, and that the interval between late 1781 and the signing of a peace treaty in 1783 was merely a period of bickering over peace arrangements. The purpose of this presentation is to explain the course of the war between Yorktown (October 1781) and the start of serious peace negotiations in September 1782. In so doing, we might have a better appreciation of the impact of the entangling alliances that enabled the Yorktown victory of 1781, but created a Global War that instigated continuing the war in places away from Colonial American shores. This presentation will addressed significant events that are not expected to receive attention in the on-going 225th commemoration of the American War for Independence.
Interestingly, Washington and Rochambeau, did not see Cornwallis' surrender as the last major action even in North America. Washington tried to persuade de Grasse to remain in North American waters and to assist with a siege of either Charleston or New York. But de Grasse had been deployed in early 1781 to participate primarily in another major theater of the Global War – the Caribbean. Washington appreciated that his great success at Yorktown had depended upon strategic resource allocations decided in European capitals. Washington had to accept that since 1778 Alliance the war had taken on global dimensions, and evolved into ‘entangling alliances' that prevented a simple resolution in just one theater of operation.
After the Yorktown victory, Washington took his American army back north to keep in check the British at New York. Rochambeau's expeditionary force remained in Virginia in readiness for a possible new British offensive in the Southern Department. To plan any further offensive in North America, Washington had to hope for the return of the French fleet in late summer of 1782, when the naval forces moved out of the West Indies during the July-October hurricane season.
While the decisive military outcome of Yorktown 1781 certainly influenced the course of the broader global war, it could only play a secondary role in the broader, Global context of the war following France allying with the Americans in 1778, Spain allying with France in 1779, and The Netherlands becoming a third enemy of Great Britain in late 1780. All nations involved had overseas possessions and interests that became as important wartime objectives as did the initial cause of American Independence.
The British Parliament's February 1782 declaration "to end offensive war' in the Colonies, did not mean granting the Rebels Independence – a prerequisite for peace prescribed in the American-French 1778 Alliance. Rather, the Parliament's action reflected British recognition that they had to give priority to other strategic operational theaters in the expanding Global arena. In turn, this led to major encounters occurring well away from American shores, and conditions which eventually led to serious negotiations for peace.
A quick overview of the ‘Global War' covering little over a year is challenging for a 45 minute talk. One can only highlight the complex ‘world war' affected by interrelationships of geographically dispersed events of the last years of the war. This was a period when the British Empire had to engage adversaries from the Hudson Bay, in Canada; to the Bay of Bengal, India; and from the North Sea to the northern coast of South America. With the addition of Spain's naval assets, France had sought to force dispersed deployment of the powerful British navy, thus allowing France to take the initiative in geographic regions of its choosing. This strategy allowed for a major offensive in the Caribbean that incidently contributed to the October 1781Yorktown victory, as well as the capture of more British islands in the West Indies from late 1781 to early 1782. Concurrent with the 1781 deployment of the West Indies naval force, the French deployed second naval squadron to the Indian Ocean.
Spain's participation in the war led to an extended Spanish and French siege of Gabraltar (from June 1779 to February 1783). Though Britain sustained Gibraltar with a series of brilliantly led naval relief expeditions, the British lost their Mediterranean position to the east at Minorca (captured by the allies in February 1782). Britain eliminated a Dutch naval threat in the north Sea at the Battle of Dogger Bank (August 1781), and then turned to deal with the French and Spanish naval offensive in the Caribbean.
A British squadron won a significant victory at the famous Battle of the Saintes (12 April 1782), wherein de Grasse was captured along with 7 of his 30 battle ships. The speaker emphasized that the effect of this battle is often exaggerated. While the British naval victory did prevent an immediate invasion of Jamaica, France retained its net gain of West Indian islands taken – a distinct advantage during the later peace negotiations.* By mid May, Commondore Vaudreuil (replacing the captured de Grasse) had reassembled 28 French ships of the line, which along with a small Spanish squadron, was able to protect the French gains in the Lesser Antilles, support the French expedition in America, and conduct some raids against British posts in Canada. In the meantime, the French naval squadron that departed France in early 1781 and went to the Bay of Bengal was led by Admiral Suffren, who contrived with a local Indian Mysore leader to seize two British ports. Interestingly, Suffren prevailed in the last major naval battle of the war on 3 September 1783.*
After the fall of the British Prime Minister North, in March 1782, exploratory talks were opened with the American representatives in Paris, in April 1782. In the same month, The Netherlands recognized the US – the second nation to do so after France in 1778. Though Great Britain could be thankful that in 1782 they had repulsed combined French-Spanish attacks upon Jamaica in the West Indies, and Gibraltar in the western Mediterranean, the strategic posture remained that these possessions were still subject to renewed allied offensives. Great Britain had to face that the year witnessed the loss of some more small islands in the West Indies and one valuable one in the Mediterranean. Further, Suffren's French Naval offensive against British posts along the Coromandel Coast in the Bay of Bengal was gaining momentum, while British intelligence reported a new allied naval squadron being prepared at Cadiz to deploy to the West Indies in another effort to take Jamaica. In effect, the only British success were defensive, while the French and Spanish appeared to remain on the strategic offensive. Faced with mounting challenges, Britain allowed conditions of American Independence to be discussed for the first time in September 1782. This led to ‘Provisional Articles' being signed between British and American representatives in Paris, November 1782. These, eventually led to the 'Definitive' Peace being signed by all parties in September 1783.
This presentation deliberately avoids discussing lengthy, separate peace negotiations. The topic is convoluted due to many injected controversial judgments by authors attempting to explain questionable actions of some of the American participants. The peace negotiations require a separate program.
Hopefully this presentation's truncated review made the case that in 1782, Great Britain was confronted with dire circumstances from an unwanted ‘global war'. Its renowned navy was stretched thin. England was without allies on the Continent – an essential part of its earlier war strategies when confronting France – and was acquiring more adversaries. Continue efforts to crush the American rebellion was placing parts of the British Empire as risk. Peace had to be obtained at the price of granting Independence to the Rebels.

* Points so indicated in the above text are addressed in detail at the following Expédition Particulière Commemorative Cantonment Society webpages:
‘Strategic Assessment of the Battle of the Saintes (12 April 1782)'.
‘West Indies Score Card During the American War for Independence'.
‘Suffren's East India Campaign (1782-1783)'.
World War Context of the American Revolution.
Explaining a ‘Global War' – even just roughly 2-years' span of it – is challenging for a 45 minute talk. It can be only an ‘overview' to provide ‘an appreciation' of the complex ‘world war' that existed in 1781-1782, and a perspective quite different from the popular perception promoted in most American popular histories of a war defined by the parameters of 1776.
For this presentation, the speaker made use of handouts that assisted in concurrently addressing geographic dispersion and chronological relationships of events.
Three of the handouts used can be obtained in Adobe PDF format. These can be downloaded by clicking on the following:
1781-1782 Strategic map.pdf
Global War 1781.pdf
Global War 1782.pdf

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Page posted 16 April 2007; revised 26 December 2007.