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French Commanders at Yorktown

Americans cannot claim that they won their independence alone; it was only through the assistance of the French army and French navy that made it possible. George Washington had been bogged down for almost 2 years without making any progress. His men had not been paid. Their ranks bore little resemblance to an organized army.

In 1780 a contingent of French navy vessels, soldiers and arms arrived in Newport, Rhode Island. Although they would remain bottled up here for a year, their presence alone caused the British to alter their plans. No longer was the conflict in the colonies just a matter of mopping up the dissidents and restoring order, it had become part of a much larger war with France. In fact, it was more of a world war than just an American Revolution.

Of the French contingent in the New World were 2 men: General Rochambeau of the French Army, and Admiral de Grasse of the French Navy. Together these two men and the forces they commanded were able to secure a decisive victory for George Washington at the centuries old sea port of Yorktown. That battle not only shortened the war in the America's greatly, but insured that the United States of America would become a new nation.


Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau

De Rochambeau was a French nobleman and general who was the commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force which came to help the American Continental Army. Thanks to his efforts and his leadership abilities, he is considered to be one of the Founding Fathers of the United States for his decisive role in winning the Revolutionary War and securing American independence.


François Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse

Arguably the most famous of the French naval leaders in the American Revolution. His fame was won as victor of the Battle of the Virginia Capes, where his fleet of 24 French ships of the line drove off the 19 British ships under Admiral Graves in early September 1781, thus isolating the British forces of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

While the French navy had never really bested the Royal Navy in the past, good fortune was with De Grasse. Early that year, the British had captured a Dutch island in the West Indies securing a large amount of wealth that at the time was worth about 3,000,000 pounds. Instead of just guarding the wealth, the British admiralty sent it back to England under the protection of 4 ships of the line. This gave the advantage to the French Navy.

Rochambeau, after apprising the situation first hand in New York, decided the best plan of attack would be to attack Yorktown. He sent word to De Grasse of these plans and gave him the option of either engaging the Royal Navy in and around New York, or off the coast of Virginia. Rochambeau gave his suggestion that Virginia might be the better option because of favorable winds often associated with that area. He also let it be known that if the British navy was not present in and around Virginia and yet remained in New York, it was only a 2 day sail.

DeGrasse made the decision of sailing to Virginia with intentions of engaging the British navy there if possible and set sail on August 5, 1781, heading north to the Chesapeake. Under his command were 28 ships of the line, plus supporting frigates, all loaded with 3000 soldiers, 100 artillery men, their guns and 100 dragoons and a full compliment of sailors. After leaving De Grasse dispatched a frigate to stop in Havana to pick up additional funds that Rochambeau had requested. He also sent a frigate in advance of the main fleet with word for Rochambeau that DeGrasse's main forces were on their way to the Chesapeake, however, they could stay no later than October 15.

De Grasse's victory off the Capes demonstrates the importance of the French navy for American independence. It was de Grasse's fleet that kept the Royal Navy from making contact with Cornwallis when it sailed out to meet the British challenge on September 5, 1781. There was no Continental Navy that could have stopped Graves, Hood, and Drake: in 1781, the Royal Navy had about 140 ships of the line, the French had 67 capital ships, Spain had 58, the Dutch 19. The United States had none.