de Graff, de Grasse and the Siege at Yorktown

Back when I worked for the Senate president in New Hampshire, whenever I had to go down to the governor’s office, which was pretty often, I went down a stairwell with an imposing portrait of Johannes de Graff, the governor of the Dutch colony of St. Eustatius, without ever wondering who he was or how he came to be commemorated on the walls of the New Hampshire State House.

Turns out he was the first foreigner ever to acknowledge the sovreignty of the United States by ordering a salute to the American flag. It was through his colony that the Continental Army was supplied with most of its weapons and ammunition.

Barbara Tuchman explains all this in “The First Salute,” a book which details our country’s debt to de Graff and the Dutch and gives many other interesting insights into that last campaign of the American Revolution.

We all learned that Admiral de Grasse brought the French fleet to Virginia, gained mastery of Chesapeake Bay in a naval battle with a British squadron, and bottled up Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown where Cornwallis was beseiged by Washington and Rochambeau.

Then after less than two months in America, de Grasse sailed away. Thank you, masked man!

Shame on those who have maligned France in recent years. Such base ingratitude! Without that French fleet, and those French siege guns, which they brought down from Rhode Island, and without all those French soldiers, who outnumbered the Americans at Yorktown, the rebellion would have been over.

But how was de Grasse able to do this when Britain had two fleets larger than his, one in the Caribbean, that let him sail right by, and another in New York that came out, fought a minor battle and went home?

Well it’s pretty complicated, but Barbara Tuchman explains it all so even I could understand it. Turns out that nearly all the officers in the British Navy were Whigs who opposed the war in America, so Lord North, George III’s war minister, had to drag all these old royalist cronies out of retirement, like Admiral Howe, who commanded the British Fleet in New York, and this other guy, who commanded the British fleet in the Caribbean.

Now this other guy had a young wife that he wanted to get back to, or else he was sick, or both, I can’t quite recall. Or maybe he had to haul all his ships onto shore to have the barnacles scraped off, which you had to do unless your ships were sheathed in copper, which only certain ones were. The whole thing is quite complicated.

Did you ever wonder why they call certain islands in the Caribbean the Windward Islands and the other ones the Leeward Islands? She explains that, too. It has to do with the Trade Winds. It was easy to go with them and hard to tack against them, and that had a lot to do with strategy and stuff.

She also explains how the portrait of Johannes de Graffe wound up in the New Hampshire State House, but I can’t recall that either, so if you want to find out, you’ll have to read the book.