The circumstances that forced the surrender of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown are familiar enough. The British were trapped on a peninsula, Washington’s Continental Army preventing a land escape, a large French fleet preventing their escape by sea. Pounded by artillery and short on supplies, Cornwallis had no choice but to surrender his army. Afterward, the British Army ceased offensive actions and began peace negotiations premised on recognizing the independence of the American Colonies.
What is less familiar is that a similar set of circumstances nearly came into existence three years earlier, off Sandy Hook, New Jersey in July 1778. The British Army was completing its evacuation from Philadelphia and withdrawal across New Jersey. Washington’s Continentals had engaged them successfully at the Battle of Monmouth (June 28), but did not deter them from their larger objective of heading for Sandy Hook, where Admiral Richard Howe’s fleet prepared to ferry them across to safety in New York. The vanguard of General Henry Clinton’s Army reached the Navesink Highlands (on the New Jersey Shore facing New York) on July 1. From there, it was only a mile to Horseshoe Bay on the Sandy Hook Peninsula, the closest deep water anchorage.
The Monmouth campaign had been hard for the British. The battlefield deaths and the humiliation of giving up the battlefield and leaving 44 wounded behind at Freehold was only one reason. The long, hot, tedious march led to a high number of desertions during the campaign, estimated by one deserting British soldier, Thomas Sullivan, to be 1500 men (though other estimates are lower).
The Navesink/Sandy Hook encampment was no better. The German officer, Johann Ewald, reported: “We were so terribly bitten by the mosquitoes and other kinds of vermin that we could not open our eyes from the swelling on our faces. Many men were made almost unrecognizable, and our bodies looked like those people who have suddenly been attacked by measles or small pox.” The miserable Monmouth campaign finally ended for the British on July 5, when the last of the British Army marched down to Sandy Hook and boarded transports for New York.
As this was occurring, a large French fleet under Count Henri D’Estaing was heading for America. The French fleet included 14 ships-of-the-line and frigates (the largest of which carried 90 and 80 guns), making it much more powerful than the British fleet at New York (9 ships, none of which carried more than 64 guns). The French reached American waters on July 5, off the Delmarva Peninsula. They quickly headed north to Delaware Bay in hopes of trapping the British transports leaving Philadelphia, but the British had cleared the Delaware on June 28. D’Estaing then headed for the mouth of New York harbor, but didn’t arrive there until July 11, a week too late to trap the British Army.
On their arrival, the French considered crossing into New York Harbor and engaging the British in a full out battle for New York. But two circumstances conspired against them. First, local pilots convinced Admiral D’Estaing that the tricky channels at the entrance of New York Harbor were too shallow for the largest French ships-of-the-line. So if the French crossed into the harbor, they would do so without their largest ships. Second, the British scrambled to line up their ships and quickly erected, according to British naval chaplain Thomas O’Bierne, “a battery of two howitzers and three 18 pounders” on the tip of Sandy Hook. This created a line of fire that would expose the French ships to significant risk during their single-file entry into the harbor. Ultimately, the French determined that they had lost their prey in New Jersey. After loading on fresh supplies, they departed for Rhode Island on July 22.
Of course, the Sandy Hook naval stand-off and the Yorktown campaign were not identical. Clinton’s army in New Jersey in 1778 and was larger and less isolated than Cornwallis’s army in Virginia in 1781. Nonetheless, the first chance for the Franco-American allies to thoroughly defeat the main body of the British Army was lost by a handful of days in July 1778. The precarious British position was not lost on the British stationed at Sandy Hook. O’Bierne noted that “had the French squadron arrived a few days sooner, or had the evacuation of Philadelphia been deferred a few days later, the whole force of Great Britain on that side of the Atlantic must have been annihilated.” Another British observer noted with a little exaggeration, “had Count D’Estaing arrived but one day sooner, it is probable that the whole army must have surrendered.” A comparable opportunity for the allies would not occur again until Yorktown, three years and three months later.[Featured image at top: In this map (see full version), French map-makers illustrate the narrow channel into New York Harbor. The narrowness of this channel may have ultimately dissuaded the French from attacking a weaker British fleet in July 1778. Source: Library of Congress]
George C. Daughan, If by Sea: Forging the American Navy from the Revolution to the War of 1812, (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 174-5.
Brendan Morrissey, Monmouth Courthouse 1778: The Last Great Battle in the North (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2004), 77-8.
Thomas Sullivan, Journal of Operations in the American War, unpublished manuscript, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA, 407, 417.
Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 136-7.
Thomas O’Bierne, Candid and Impartial Narrative of the Fleet under Lord Howe, (New York: Arno, 1969), 3, 8-15.