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Reflections on a Battlefield Staff Ride

Dwight D. Eisenhower was fond of saying that he found plans useless but planning indispensable. This mindset is comparable to that of General George Washington if you consider events leading up to the 1781 siege of Yorktown, Virginia. The cataclysmic events of that battle added to the British Government’s conviction that the fight to keep the American colonies under the rule of the British Parliament was beyond winning. With this in mind, Combined Logistics Captains Career Course (CLC3) class 08–004 visited Yorktown to reflect on the clash between the forces of the British and Washington’s American patriots in the fall of 1781.

The story illustrates strategic opportunism supported by logistics planning excellence. It features coalition and joint warfare, with the accompanying strategic maneuvers of political superpowers. Most interesting to the military theorist, it shows how a force can unwittingly be the architect of its own demise through complacency, arrogance, and failure to apply the fundamental principles of war. We witnessed how Washington’s forces seized the initiative and tightened their grip around the British from the land and sea before dealing a decisive blow. Yorktown provides a great lesson in the use of the commander’s most powerful tool—risk.


In May 1781, the British field commander, Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis, received his order from General Sir Henry Clinton in New York to establish a deep-sea port; Cornwallis chose Yorktown. From the reconstructed breastworks, one can see the fields of fire available to the British and their colonial allies and the advantages offered by the depth of their defenses for internal lines of maneuver and sustainment. To Cornwallis, the Royal Navy’s mastery of the sea was a foregone conclusion. Given his limited knowledge of the activities of the French Fleet under the command of Rear Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, this seemed a fair supposition.

CLC3 students were afforded a great insight into the assumptions, lack of information, and poor intelligence that put Cornwallis on the path to an ignominious surrender. Our scene was set by Dr. Steve Anders, Army Quartermaster Center and School historian, at the National Park Service’s visitor center. The landscape has not changed markedly since 1781, and one can still see the advantages Yorktown offers the defender. Superb replica guns illustrate the cumbersome nature of an 18th century defensive force and its inherent logistics challenges. Dragging 5-ton artillery pieces up precipices is not for the work shy. However, the artillery location provided the British reassurance of a strong position. Had the decisionmaking processes we apply today been used, British commanders might have been comforted by flank protection from a powerful navy, an enemy engaged hundreds of miles away in New York, recent tactical victory over the local insurgency, and time to recuperate their soldiers in anticipation of the arrival of reinforcements.

British Occupation of Yorktown

Having established their position in July, the British made a lackluster effort to consolidate their position throughout August. This left the CLC3 students pondering: Why the apathy? This was a force of well-equipped, seasoned, professional soldiers with a healthy respect for their opponent, having suffered recent casualties to the significant detriment of their combat power. Given the apparent complacency with which Cornwallis and his leaders approached the business of constructing fortifications, our students were left with one simple deduction—the British Army was oblivious to the activities of their enemy.

Underestimating your opponent is a chronic condition of the weary soldier. Cornwallis faced a formidable adversary. As noted by Robert Middlekauff in his book, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789, Washington’s impressive eye for detail and reputation for thorough administration were legendary and the lynchpin of his success as a military planner. Washington was a thorough logistician and gifted strategist. Like Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant 80 years later, Washington planned his strategic move from New York 450 miles south in extraordinary detail. (The magnitude of the planning task was not lost on the CLC3 students, who themselves had undertaken the planning of a move over similar distances for their tactical logistics exercise.) Like Grant, to reduce his logistics footprint, Washington used carefully selected routes and achieved an operating tempo that concentrated his combat force just where and when he needed it. With his loyal French subordinate Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, Washington personally supervised the discharge of the stocks from shipping along the James River, enabling them to bring to bear a formidable weight of firepower. The fact that Cornwallis appeared blithely ignorant to these maneuvers until far too late remains a mystery.

Throughout the day, students were reminded of the logistics horsepower that laid the foundation for General Washington’s success.

The Battle of the Virginia Capes

During the staff ride, the students were able to consider what effect decisions made far from the field of conflict had on the tactical situation. A French fleet under Rear Admiral De Grasse had sailed, unchecked, from Brest in March 1781. This fleet arrived in April and was ostensibly fixed in Martinique to defend vital French interests in the prized West Indies. Here was a lesson in the importance of empowering commanders. The rear admiral recognized the opportunity, understood the political intent, grasped the magnitude of the situation, and exploited opportunity by sailing north despite colossal risk.

The CLC3 students wondered whether the decisionmaking processes used by the Army today would have helped or hindered the British in selecting this course of action. De Grasse was risking French global interests by leaving his post to support Washington. He was seeking to link with forces that were struggling to survive, let alone triumph, and he was challenging the world’s most formidable maritime force. Would today’s military commanders, given a mass of information and the counsel of staff who would explain these extenuating circumstances, have ventured from the protection of Martinique? Fortunately for those who cherish the independence of the United States, De Grasse was not thus impaired and followed his destiny. The ensuing naval Battle of the Virginia Capes, which was fought between 5 and 13 September 1781, was lost by the British.

Why Cornwallis Surrendered When He Did

Meanwhile, back at Yorktown, Cornwallis, who could hear the naval guns, was about to come under heavy bombardment and be outnumbered and hemmed in on all sides by a disciplined and suitably sustained force. Imagine his feelings when, instead of seeing the red and white of Her Majesty’s Royal Naval ensign, he saw the unpleasant sight of the archenemy’s battle fleet sailing up the Chesapeake Bay. It should have been time to surrender.

At this point in the story, Dr. Anders gave our aspiring company commanders the chance to speculate on how they would respond to the challenge, given these local difficulties. Our students first had to come to terms with the bewildering issue of Cornwallis’s withdrawal. Before any contact with the enemy and for no apparent reason, he withdrew from his outer perimeter of defenses. Examination of Cornwallis’s previous performance in the colonies offers no clue to explain this bewildering tactical maneuver. He had conducted himself with distinction as a battalion commander in the Seven Years War. He respected his opponents and understood their competencies. To unravel this conundrum, we looked at Cornwallis’s background.

Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, was on record as being sympathetic to the colonists’ cause. His voting record in the House of Lords illustrated that he felt the American call for independent government was a worthy cause. However, having taken a break from military service and being a loyal servant to the Crown as well as friend of King George III, he had accepted a commission as a major general to help quell the insurrection in the colonies.

He had applied his extensive military talents to destructive effect. Despite extending his lines of supply that stretched back to the sea from deep in the American hinterland, he had managed to sustain his force and claim a series of victories. We found him in Yorktown, after 3 months on campaign and having been hounded by American insurgents in the Carolinas, with a seriously degraded force in dire need of recuperation (reset). The CLC3 captains had to ask themselves if they would be equally susceptible to the state of mind that led to complacency. How would they deal with the situation? Thoughts were shared on deception, concentration, breakout, subterfuge, and negotiation. Ultimately, they agreed that sacrificing the depth of one’s defense was an inexplicable maneuver. It may have reduced the human toll of the battle, but it certainly hastened the end of the siege and, in turn, the end of the Revolutionary War.

Perhaps Cornwallis had in mind the approach explained by Sir Winston Churchill, writing in The London Magazine on the French and German conflagration at Verdun in 1916, when he said, “Meeting an artillery attack is like catching a cricket ball. Shock is dissipated by drawing back the hands. A little ‘give,’ a little suppleness, and the violence of impact is vastly reduced.” There is no written evidence to support a theory that Cornwallis’s orders to withdraw were executed prematurely, but it does offer some explanation.

The Moral Component of Fighting Power

Applying a 21st-century mindset to try to make sense of 18-century attitudes is intriguing. We are helped by a plentiful supply of letters and historical journals that serve to illustrate, compare, and contrast states of mind on the Yorktown battlefield. One of the more flamboyant characters used by Dr. Anders to develop our discussions on the nature of leaders was Alexander Hamilton. A battalion commander at the age of 24, Hamilton went on to be a successful Secretary of the Treasury, but he made his mark on the battlefields around Yorktown. Hamilton seemed to have an insatiable appetite for glory. He made it known to his commanders, in thought, word, and deed, that he was the man to lead the assault, any assault; he just wanted to confront the enemy. Students learned how he ordered a company to the top of a parapet in view and range of the enemy to conduct close-order drill. This display of obedience, courage, and professional excellence must have been as perplexing to the British as it was to the soldiers who were subject to the order. The CLC3 students had the chance to see just how close the enemy’s guns were positioned and marvel at the fact that this bravado attracted no fire from the British. The incident reinforced the fighting spirit of a force whose morale was firmly in the ascent. Hamilton’s famous charge, immortalized in later Revolutionary War art, provided him the glory he sought.

How did the environment in which these soldiers found themselves influence their will to fight? What lessons were the students able to draw from the attitudes of the forces engaged in this bloody contest? Witnessing how a mighty fighting force was subdued was a profound lesson to all. The officers were able to see how ordinary soldiers with a noble cause achieved extraordinary victories. Competent commanders, courageous comrades, and the support of loyal allies all resulted in an ignominious defeat for the British.

A multitude of sources are available for determining how to execute a staff ride. Many authors endeavor to provide a neat rubric that the busy planner can use. However, the most thorough preparation is worthless without passion. Steve Anders brings to his teaching a passion that, in turn, overcomes the inevitable limits in resources. Our students were able to reflect on how the principles that govern success or failure in military operations today resonate profoundly with the past—how command decisions do not follow set patterns, how resource constraints may not necessarily prove a weakness, and how selfless leadership breeds confidence, loyalty, and sacrifice.

Phase IV of CLC3 is the culmination of a 6-month investment in the professional development of Army captains, their Marine Corps comrades in arms, and their international brethren. In Phase IV, students have a chance to put into practice critical reasoning; share their understanding of the complexity, ambiguity, volatility, and uncertainty of the battlespace; and enjoy rare insights to American history.

Staff rides are not just for Soldiers. Our era of joint, multinational, and multiagency operations indicates that civilian staff can benefit from the dialog, inquiry, and thought that accompany the staff ride. Our rides provide the opportunity to honor past heroes, contribute to national understanding, and uncover neglected history.

Major Adrian C. Clark, Royal Logistics Corps, is the British exchange officer at the Army Logistics Management College at Fort Lee, Virginia, and the director of instruction for the Combined Logistics Captains Career Course. He was commissioned at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

The author would like to thank Dr. Steve Anders, historian for the Quartermaster Center and School at Fort Lee, and Dr. Christopher Stowe, historian to the Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for their patient and thoughtful editorial observations.