page 1 of 2
In 1778, the French entered the war on America's side. Victory seemed closer than ever. Then a strange thing happened: the war slowed down. The British turned their attention to the South, where the American forces were weaker. Washington's frustrations with Congress increased. His army lacked troops and supplies, and, at one point in August 1779, it even lacked gunpowder. Congress was unwilling to tax its struggling colonies to fund the Continental Army, so the war ground nearly to a halt. Aside from several victories against Indians on the frontier, not much happened. The French were coming, but they took a long time to arrive.
Finally, in July of 1780, the French Army landed in Rhode Island, led by General Comte de Rochambeau. Washington wanted to invade New York City, where Clinton's army was camped, but he realized he could not attack until a second group of French soldiers arrived. While waiting, Washington experienced one of his greatest disappointments: Benedict Arnold, the talented soldier who had helped the Americans win at Saratoga, defected to the British side. This did not significantly affect the war's outcome, but Arnold's treachery shocked and saddened Washington.
In August of 1781 Washington and de Rochambeau learned the French navy would soon arrive off the coast of Virginia. They decided to march there in order to trap the British General Charles Cornwallis, who had camped his army at Yorktown on Chesapeake Bay. It was a brilliant surprise: Washington led the French and American troops in a siege of Yorktown, pinning Cornwallis against the ocean. British ships tried to rescue Cornwallis but were turned away by the French navy. Cornwallis had no choice but to surrender his entire army. This crushing defeat for the British effectively ended the war. Britain was finally ready to grant America independence and negotiate peace.
It wasn't as simple as that, however. Though the British and American sides began negations soon after Yorktown, it wasn't until two years later that the Treaty of Paris was signed, spelling out the terms of peace. In the meantime Washington remained in control of the army, ready to fight again if necessary. The soldiers were restless. They wanted to go home and enjoy the fruits of victory, see their families, and tend to their neglected homes. Washington yearned for this as well. He urged the troops to stay patient, but some talked of mutiny. In March of 1783 several officers circulated a paper calling for the army to march on Congress. Congress owed them pay and a pension, which they wanted immediately. Washington was determined not to let the military threaten civilian government, and he stopped the rebellion in its tracks.
Soon after, word of an agreement with Britain came. Now America was finally independent. Washington's job as commander was over. Few people seem to have expected him to quit, however. He was the most powerful person in America by far, commanding the devotion of his army and the support of the people. He could have become a dictator, possibly even crown himself king. Many people expected him to, and many more were eager to see him do it.
The world was shocked and amazed, therefore, when on December 23, 1783, Washington resigned his command of the Continental Army. Leaders and statesmen across Europe hailed him as the greatest man of his generation. They called him the symbol of republican virtue: a private citizen who served his country when called and returned to private life when his duty was done. It was nearly unique in the history of the world for someone with so much power to willingly give it up. But he did. Washington returned to Mount Vernon, ready to enjoy his retirement.
Take a Study Break!