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Who won and who lost the Revolutionary War?

  • At the Yorktown Battlefield - operated by the National Park Service, a Park Ranger speaks to visitors at the earthwork ramparts of the British defenses. The British dug the trench and used the earth to form the earthen defenses for their artillery…
    At the Yorktown Battlefield - operated by the National Park Service, a Park Ranger speaks to visitors at the earthwork ramparts of the British defenses. The British dug the trench and used the earth to form the earthen defenses for their artillery. The French and Continentals laid siege to the British position from the fields to the right of the photograph.
Published November 21. 2009 09:00AM

As is often the case, those that win at war, lose at peace. So it was for France during the American Revolutionary War.

In the 1700s, the European powers battled for control of colonies throughout the world. Britain and France fought for domination of North America. When the colonies revolted from Britain, France provided weapons, military expertise, ships and ultimately, an army.

The French and the Continentals defeated the British-only to find the new United States preferred trading with an English-speaking enemy over a French-speaking friend-a friend nearly bankrupt and on the road to revolution because it aided the fledgling country.

The American colonies gained independence from Britain following the defeat of British General Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown, a battle engineered and largely fought by the French.

Yorktown, Virginia, now a tourist destination as part of the Williamsburg Triangle that includes Williamsburg and Jamestown, is home to two historic attractions that retell the 1781 Siege of Yorktown: the Yorktown Battlefield - operated by the National Park Service, and the Yorktown Victory Center-a museum and historic recreation of colonial Yorktown. There is also Yorktown itself which fronts on the York River, the deep water estuary of the Chesapeake Bay that served to frame the battle.

The key players-for the French were: Lieutenant General Comte de Rochambeau and Admiral François-Joseph De Grasse; for the Colonists: George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette; and for the British: General Charles Cornwallis and Admiral Thomas Graves.

The war between Britain and France in North America began when the Seven Years War overflowed into the New World, where it became known as the French and Indian War. When the war began in 1754, Britain had established 13 colonies along the Atlantic coast. France claimed lands in Canada and the American interior, with a major outpost, Fort Duquesne, at current-day Pittsburgh.

What had started as a European War, escalated into the first world war after George Washington surrendered a regiment of Virginia militia to the French at Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754. Not understanding French, Washington signed a document of surrender accepting that he had ordered an assassination of a French diplomat at the earlier Battle of Jumonville Glen.

The French and British hostilities ended in 1763 with a series of land exchanges known as the Treaty of Paris. Over the following years, the French and the British continued as rivals.

The cost of the Seven Years War had so impoverished the British treasury that a series of taxes were imposed so that the colonies would pay their fair share for their defense.

Within months of declaring independence from Britain, the fledgling American nation sent Benjamin Franklin to France to ask for arms. France, at first provided covert support supplying weapons, accompanying ships, and sending French General Marquis de Lafayette as General George Washington's aid-de-camp.

France formally entered the war in 1778. The principal battles between France and Britain were on the sea in the English Channel and at sea and on land at Yorktown.

In 1780, the French Commander, the Comte de Rochambeau landed in Rhode Island with 6,000 French soldiers with the intention of aiding an Americans assault on the British at New York City. Anticipating an attack, the British under Cornwallis assembled their southern army at the port of Yorktown Virginia where the British fleet could quickly sail the troops to New York.

Rochambeau devised a plan wherein French ships under Admiral de Grasse would force the British ships from the Chesapeake and then form a blockade on the York River-preventing an escape for Cornwallis' army of 9,000 troops.

Washington ordered Lafayette with 3,000 American troops to skirmish with Cornwallis to hold him at Yorktown as he marched with 3,000 troops and Rochambeau marched his 6,000 French troops toward the battlefield.

When the armies were fully established on September 28, 1781, Washington had command of an army of 7,800 French, 3,100 Militia, and 8,000 Continentals.

Rochambeau, a veteran of 14 previous siege operations, surrounded the British and pummeled them with artillery.

British gunner, Bartholomew James, wrote, "In fifty-two minutes after my arrival in the hornwork the enemy silenced the three left guns by closing the embrasures, shortly after which they dismounted a twelve-pounder, knocked off the muzzles of two eighteens, and for the last hour and a half left me with one eighteen-pounder with a part of its muzzle also shot away, with which I kept up a fire until it was also rendered useless."

With the York River blockaded, the British attempted to escape in small boats. The first wave made it across but bad weather disrupted further attempts-and the British were trapped.

Washington and the French captured redoubts protecting each end of the British positions, making it possible to position their artillery so that the British defense was hopeless.

By the eighth day of the siege, the French and Americans had fired 15,000 artillery shots and were continuing, firing 50 shots per hour while the remaining British weapons were able to only return six shots per hour.

Trapped between American and French forces on land and the French fleet on the sea, Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781. This was the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War.

The Americans and the French each signed independent treaties with Britain. The British and Americans signed the Treaty of Paris. Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands adjusted their domains in the Caribbean and Africa by signing the Treaties of Versailles. Britain, rather than France, became the United States' major trading partner.

France left the war in great debt-which ultimately lead to its own revolution.

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