One thing Lord Sackville loved was huntin' and shootin'. Never mind that he was the king's chief minister for the American colonies then in revolt. A man still has a right to go for a few birds, don't he? To exercise the hounds if nothing else.

So Lord Sackville put on his shooting jacket and headed for the field. Somebody gave him an urgent letter -- something to do with those dratted colonies -- Clinton or somebody.

He stuffed it in his pocket, had a fine day in the field and forgot the letter. Some days later he went shooting again, put on his old jacket and there by golly was the urgent document.

Meanwhile, the British commander, Clinton, with the main British force at New York, was supposed to be responding to Cornwallis' plea for fresh troops to bolster his 7,000 men at Yorktown, then facing defeat by 20,000 American and French troops.

Clinton sent reinforcements too late. Cornwallis had been forced to surrender before they arrived. There had been some terrible delay.

The Sackvilles, a prominent British family ever since their cousin Queen Elizabeth I advanced them, have always felt a bit touchy about Yorktown.

One of Sackville's descendants, Nigel Nicolson, was up at Leesburg last week, promoting efforts to refurbish the garden at Oatlands, which has nothing to do with the revolution but explains Nicolson's presence in Virginia. His home is at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent.

He confessed, even with some relish, the story about the letter in the shooting jacket.

"We have always known," he said, "that it was our ancestor who lost the colonies for us by ignoring that letter."

Well, these things happen. God knows, a fellow can't remember everything. You'd think people would understand that.

As ceremonies at Yorktown ended, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the battle that ensured American independence, President Reagan and President Mitterrand of France were the chief dignitaries yesterday. At similar ceremonies earlier in our history, President Chester Arthur (1881) and President Herbert Hoover (1931) presided.

In 1931 things did not go so well. The French sent officials of high rank. They should have been treated with the utmost deference and honor. The American cause, after all, could not have been won without their help in 1781.

But yo-yos in the American government of 1931 managed to botch everything. The Germans, who had extremely little to do with American victory, were fawned over and the French were not given their due honor. They threatened to pick up their luggage and sail home insulted. An enchanting and unfortunately little known monograph by Rudolph Winnacker of Washington describes in detail the understandable French huff at Yorktown in 1931.

Some of us here in 1981 therefore, lose no opportunity of rushing up to anything looking remotely French and saying:

"Bonjour monsieur. Merci mille fois que vous etes venus. Notre republique encore une fois. Vive la France."

The grammar may be off, but the French get the point and respond enthusiastically in their strange beautiful tongue. We think they are saying they are glad to be here. In any case, they have not roared off in a huff.