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Posted on Jul 24, 2006 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

Walk Where They Fought: Path to Victory!

By Barnet Schecter and Robert A. Selig

The Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route

For most of the Revolutionary War, the six years from June 1775 to May 1781, both George Washington and his opponents in the British high command believed New York – the city at the mouth of the strategically vital Hudson River – was the key to victory. After the British captured New York in 1776, the Americans remained bent on eventually retaking the city, thereby winning the war and their new country’s independence. Even after British commanders shifted their principal military operations to the southern colonies, New York City continued to represent the British army’s military center of gravity.

For example, when Charleston, South Carolina, fell to the British in 1780, British commander in chief General Sir Henry Clinton hurried back to protect his principal base, New York, from an expected Franco-American attack, delegating prosecution of the war in the South to his subordinate, General Charles Lord Cornwallis. However, when Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse arrived suddenly in the West Indies with his powerful French fleet in 1781, he made possible a strategic target of opportunity too tempting to resist.


De Grasse offered to help American and French forces trap Cornwallis’ army on Virginia’s Yorktown peninsula instead of continuing to wait for some future opportunity that would make an allied attack on Manhattan feasible. The result of these fortuitous circumstances was an epic 600-mile march through nine states, from Rhode Island to Virginia, which set in motion a daring strategy to concentrate French and American forces around Chesapeake Bay and achieve the pivotal allied victory at Yorktown. For Washington, the Yorktown victory came none too soon.

The End of Our Tether

“It may be declared in a word that we are at the end of our tether, and that now or never our deliverance must come,” George Washington wrote to John Laurens on April 9, 1781. For nearly three years, the Continental Army waited – and starved – in its camps outside New York, while the well-equipped British forces enjoyed the relative comfort of the city. Despite the rags that barely covered his troops, Washington managed to keep up the appearance of posing a serious threat and kept Clinton on edge. By the late spring of 1781, however, only 6,500 Continentals were present and fit for duty on the Hudson – no match for Clinton’s 14,500 regulars.

This painting by John Trumbull shows the surrender of British Gen.
Charles Lord Cornwallis’ forces following their defeat at
Yorktown. Cornwallis claimed he was too sick to attend
the ceremony.

On May 6, a new infusion of French aid promised to give Washington his badly needed breakthrough. A single French vessel reached Boston, carrying good news from France: De Grasse was en route from Brest to the West Indies with a powerful fleet. Distracted by developments in the Mediterranean, the British neglected to blockade de Grasse, an error that would prove costly.

Washington conferred with Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau at Wethersfield, Connecticut, on May 21-23 to learn the particulars and to formulate a plan for renewed joint operations in America. Rochambeau, who arrived at Newport a year earlier with an expeditionary force of 5,500 French troops, got along well with Washington.

At Wethersfield they agreed in the short term to combine their infantry and attack New York City, while leaving enough French troops and American militia at Newport with Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, comte de Barras to protect the precious assortment of heavy siege artillery collected there.
As for de Grasse, the allies agreed to urge him, through the French minister in America, to come to the American coast, but the decision of where he should meet them could not be made until they knew the size of his fleet and where it would best offset British naval strength.

Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau
and his expeditionary force of 5,500 men had been inactive
for almost a year when he and Washington agreed to
combine their infantry and set out for the Virginia coast.

On June 13, Rochambeau forwarded to Washington a letter from de Grasse confirming what Congress had heard unofficially: The admiral had reached the West Indies with a fleet of 28 ships and would bring them to America in mid-July; however, he did not say how long he would stay or where on the Atlantic seaboard he would arrive. Such a large fleet would tip the scales in the allies’ favor, making New York, Charleston or the Chesapeake Bay good candidates for joint operations. Washington realized that the allied troops on land had to be ready to adapt quickly if de Grasse chose the South as the next theater of operations, even if it meant a long and arduous overland march from New York to Virginia or South Carolina.

With de Grasse’s French fleet poised to strike and Rochambeau’s French army prepared to join with his own forces for combat action, Washington now knew that he had a little more rope at the end of that tether.

Adm. Francois Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse led his fleet
of 28 ships from the West Indies to the Chesapeake Bay,
sealing off Yorktown and setting the stage for a great American
and French victory.

[continued on next page]

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1 Comment

  1. Can you please edit your comment under the picture of the Artillery above Section 9. These are not British uniforms, but Continental Artillery; they have light blue field pieces (a color established by BG Knox) the yellow hat trim of artillery (lasted up though the War of 1812) , and the black faced with red coats of the Ist Continental Artillery.

    I have been in the Artillery since 1975 and can send you references if you need them.

    Thank you,

    Ralph S. Siegrist
    Rear Det Commander
    1-108th FA BN