Oct. 19, 2011
President Reagans excellent sense of American history was demonstrated again in 1981.
He hosted French president Francois Mitterrand in Virginia to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown. Relations withFrance were not the best in 1981, but Reagan was determined to remind Americans of our historic debt to the country that provided the necessary aid to theUnited States in our fight forIndependence from Britain.
Reagan used many such occasionsincluding his own Inaugural Addressto revive the civic spirit of the country. We had been so beaten down over the previous 15 years that many feared for the survival of our nation. Some had taken to calling the depressed public mood a malaise. Reagan knew and proceeded to demonstrate that there was nothing wrong withAmerica that some strong leadership could not cure.
How necessary was French aid in the Revolution? The Comte de Rochambeau, commanding 5,000 French troops, persuaded Gen.Washington not to attempt an assault on the heavily-fortified British encampment in New York City. Instead, Rochambeau urged Washington to coordinate his movements with those of French Admiral de Grasse.
The French navy was about to achieve a most rare thing in the eighteenth century: area command of the sea over the all-powerful Royal Navy.
When Admiral de Grasse defeated the British squadron at the Battle of the Capes on 5 September 1781, the stage was set for a classic entrapment. The British commander in the South, Lord Cornwallis, was hemmed in on Virginias York Peninsula.
Aided powerfully by those French troops,Washington hastened South to spring the trap. Quickly, French engineers directed American soldiers in building siege works. Every night, the Franco-American forces moved closer and closer to the entrapped British in Yorktown.Virginia patriot Thomas Nelsons own brick house was in the occupied town. He selflessly encouraged the Continental Army to bombard his home. Nelson knew what our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor really meant.
Failing to escape to the Gloucester side of the York River, Lord Cornwallis had no choice but to surrender. Because one of Cornwallis commanders, Banastre Tarleton, had bayoneted Americans as they tried to surrender in the South, and because the Americans had been denied the full honors of war when they surrendered Charleston,South Carolina, in 1780,Washingtonsternly refused to give his defeated foes full military honors.
At the surrender ceremony on this day in 1781, the British and Hessian troops marched out of their encampment to lay down their arms. Many of the redcoat regulars were in tears, so humiliated did they feel in losing to the despised Yankees and the even more hated French. Some of them broke their muskets and bashed in their drum heads as they laid them down.
Pleading illness, Cornwallis sent his second-in-command to surrender his sword to his enemies. When Gen. OHara approached the allies line, he first offered Cornwallis sword to Gen. Rochambeau. It was a studied insult to the Yankees. The Yankees outnumbered the French at Yorktown, but not by much.
Rochambeau declined, nodding to Gen.Washington. When the hapless OHara offered his commanders sword to Washington, he was again rebuffed. His Excellency was a stickler for military protocol. As Commanding General, he could not accept a sword of surrender from a subordinate British officer. So,Washington, in turn, nodded to Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, the man who had suffered the indignity of surrendering at Charleston.
The British bands played The World Turned Upside Down.
Washington was no vengeful man. He had no desire of humble his British enemies. Victory at Yorktown was enough to secure American Independence. When word of the defeat reached London, the British Prime Minister, Lord North, wailed: O God, its all over! And, after two long years of negotiations, so it was. Later, with a wink,Washington would point out his favorite hunting dog, named Cornwallis.
I had the honor years ago of marching out of Benjamin Lincoln Hall at the Coast Guard Training Center in Yorktown, and onto the battlefield. My Officer Candidate Class took part in Yorktown Day ceremonies. In the crisp fall air, on that golden Virginia afternoon, there was something unforgettable about the smell of black powder from the cannon and the sound of fifes and drums as they played Yankee Doodle. American and French flags snapped in the autumn breeze.
My favorite portrait of President Obama is the one produced on a New Yorker Magazine cover for his inauguration in 2009. It was a respectful reminder that all presidents are measured against the high standards established by that first indispensable man.
When candidate Barack Obama went to Berlin in 2008, he proclaimed himself a citizen of the world. No previous American president has found it necessary to be anything more than a citizen of the Great Republic. None of us should wish to be less.