October 29, 2000

Editor Hans DePold, Bolton Town Historian


This newsletter is to provide a means for keeping historians, re-enactors, and other interested people aware of the activity to create a national historic trail, the WRRR. Rochambeau’s French army defined the route when they marched from Newport to Yorktown and back to Boston. The goal is to encourage creation of a National Historic Trail with the registration of the entire route that passes through Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and to raise to a higher level the quality of heritage preservation all along the route.

HR4794 Passed Both Houses of Congress

On Monday October 23 the WRRR study bill HR4794 passed unanimously under suspended House rules and on Friday October 27 it passed in the Senate. It now goes for signature to President Bill Clinton. In mid October the White House Millennium Council designated the WRRR as a Millennium Trail and we received a certificate signed by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. So I would say the chances are good that President Clinton will sign HR4794. Bravo Zulu!

Special thanks goes to Congressman John Larson who introduced the bill, to Senator Joseph Lieberman who introduced the companion bill to the Senate, and to Senator Christopher Dodd who apparently helped expedite Senate passage in the closing days of the 106th Congress. And special thanks also goes to each of you who took the time to write and ask for the support of your legislators and to Holly Canevari who worked for Congressman Larson on the bill. Every Congressman along the WRRR cosponsored the bill. As our many reenactor compatriots say… huzzah, huzzah, huzzah.

The Wethersfield Conference Plan

At the Webb House in Wethersfield on July 3, 2000, Congressman John Larson made the announcement that the federal legislation for the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route had been introduced. That was the site where both Washington and Rochambeau said they agreed on the plan for their joint operation against the British southern army. And so in May of 1781 began action on the plan by which a desperate and destitute American people won their independence from the strongest nation in the world, and in so doing seemingly turned the world upside down.

The World Turned Upside Down
If ponies rode men and grass ate cows,
And cats were chased into holes by the mouse,
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down.

To honor Washington and Rochambeau with a national historic trail we should take them at their word in their private diaries, journals, and memoirs, least through omissions we lose sight of their military prowess and leadership ability. In a desert whipped by spin and political correctness, Generals Washington and Rochambeau are an oasis of truth. In a world of push and shove it comes down to you and me standing firm and insisting on the simple historical truth. The evidence shows that Washington and Rochambeau were trustworthy and reliable when they said they decided on their plan at the Wethersfield Conference. Rochambeau went further to say and that in the sequel of events we can see their plan. Like a team of chess masters, they had agreed on two strategies and planned several moves in advance.

This newsletter shows that:

  • There was one two-stage conditional plan for the combat use of the combined French and American armies.

  • Both Washington and Rochambeau unequivocally say the plan was agreed upon at Wethersfield CT Conference in May 1781.

  • Rochambeau indicated that none of the allied staff fully understood the plan; only Washington, Rochambeau, and DeGrasse knew the true objective of the plan. This profound secrecy was not a unique occurrence. It was repeated when the allies began moving south.

  • At the Wethersfield Conference, Rochambeau and Washington knew Cornwallis was bringing the British southern army to the north.

  • Washington and Rochambeau both indicated the two-stage plan was to threaten the British occupation of NY City and attack the British southern army when the French fleet provided a necessary but brief period of local naval superiority.

  • The first order of business at the Wethersfield Conference was a discussion of transporting the entire French army to the Chesapeake Bay area.

  • Washington said he believed it was immoral to engage the British without using available heavy artillery. Rochambeau brought the artillery 3000 miles from France and knew it was indispensable.
  • Yet there is no consideration given to bringing the heavy artillery to New York. This was evidence that Rochambeau did not exaggerate when he said no attack was planned on NYC, only the threat of attack.

  • At the Wethersfield Conference and at every meeting held as the allied army approached and passed by NYC, Washington and Rochambeau reviewed the list of requirements that had to be met to make the allies competent of success. For that period NY City was logically at the top of every list. But once the allies reached New Jersey, NYC fell off the list until July 1782.

  • Immediately after the Wethersfield Conference Rochambeau wrote to Admiral DeGrasse of the plan and Washington read that letter and wrote that he basically agreed with what Rochambeau said to DeGrasse. Based on that letter Admiral DeGrasse focused entirely on Virginia.

  • While Washington always recognized the great importance of threatening the British in NYC he also always included the reference to the Virginia plan.

All quotes are directly from the writings of Washington and Rochambeau with the exception of a text (Ref A) by TheodoreThayer, “Yorktown: _Campaign of Strategic Options, Philadelphia, 1975. Like chess masters, Washington and Rochambeau were not always successful on every move, but considered contingencies so that they were prepared to take advantage of opportunities that arose.

The General Plan Devised at Wethersfield

While at the Wethersfield Conference, captured letters from the British minister of war, Lord Germaine, were delivered to Washington. The letters revealed that General Cornwallis was under orders to drive Washington’s army north of the Hudson River. That meant the British southern army was on its way north and had to be dealt with.

The Wethersfield Conference summary dated May 23, 1781 gives the first item of business as the discussion of sending the troops to the Chesapeake. But transport by ship was too risky without naval superiority so they knew they would have to march past NY City, to get to the Chesapeake Bay.

1st.”Rochambeau: The project to transport the entire French army to Chesapeake Bay in Barras’ squadron. Washington: However desirable such an event might have been, the reasons now assigned by the Count de Barras are sufficient to prove its impracticability.”

Washington considered it immoral not to use available heavy artillery. If as Rochambeau said, the plan was only to threaten an attack on NYC, then the heavy artillery could be sent somewhere safe until needed for the southern operation. That is exactly what they decided at Wethersfield.

4th “Rochambeau: If Rhode Island be evacuated what disposition should be made of the heavy artillery and stores that are too heavy to move easily? Washington: It now being determined that the Fleet (Admiral Barras) shall embrace the first opportunity of going round to the Harbour of Boston it is to be wished that the heavy Artillery and spare Stores should be sent round also.”

The siege guns were brought 3000 miles from France and yet would not be brought to the North River for a NYC offensive. It was now evident that there would be no attack at NYC only threatening maneuvers. The sequel shows that the siege guns were held at port for later deployment to the Chesapeake Bay.

5th “Rochambeau: In event of a French naval reenforcement from the West Indies, what operations will be undertaken by the combined allied forces?

Washington: Should the West India Fleet arrive upon the Coast; the force thus combined may either proceed in the operation against New Yk. or may be directed against the enemy in some other quarter, as circumstances shall dictate.”

Here Washington stated he agreed that the French navy had the two possible objectives. The other referenced quarter was the southern operation Washington wrote about in his diary. Washington unequivocally stated that at Wethersfield, they agreed on a plan for the campaign and it involved NY and VA.

General Washington wrote in his diary: May 22nd 1781.

“Fixed with Count de Rochambeau upon a plan of Campaign–in Substance as follows. That the French Land force should March to the North River & there, in conjunction with the American, to commence an operation against New York or to extend our views to the Southward as circumstances and a Naval superiority might render more necessary & eligible.”

In his first mention of the Wethersfield Conference plan and in every other reference to it, Washington includes both the NYC operation and the southern operation (Ref A, pg. 32). Both operations have conditions that must be met to be practicable. Rochambeau knew an attack on NYC was not feasible, but threatening NYC was a practicable maneuver. He knew because he had tried for a year and finally even sent his son to France to request the second half of the promised French army. King Louis XVI instead had disbanded the French troops that had been left behind and would send no more. Siege guns, a strong naval presence, and eight thousand more French troops were necessary conditions to take NYC… and Rochambeau knew at the Wethersfield Conference that no more troops were coming from France. Rochambeau unequivocally wrote in his memoirs that the NYC operation was only a deception:

“But what completely deceived the English general, was a confidential letter written by the Chevalier de Chatellus to the French representative at Congress, where in he boasted of having artfully succeeded in bringing round my opinion to concur with that of General Washington; stating, at the same time, that the siege of the island of New York had been at length determined upon, and that our two armies were on the march for that city, and that orders had been sent on to M. de Grasse to come with his fleet and force his way over the bar of Sandyhook to the mouth of the harbour of New York.”

Next Rochambeau says he didn’t even tell Chatellus the real plan. None of the staff officers were confidants in the plan. Only Washington, Rochambeau, and DeGrasse (who was told by letter with a cypher code) knew the whole plan.

“The English officer who had charge of every branch of the spying department sent me a copy of the intercepted missive and, by so doing, his intention had not been most assuredly to set my wits at ease. I sent for the Chevalier de Chatellus; showed him the letter, and then threw it in the fire, and left him a prey to his own remorse. Of course, I did not endeavour to undeceive him, and, in the sequel, we shall see to what extent this general officer had been made the confidant of the real project which I proposed to the Count de Grasse when I returned to Newport.”

Rochambeau states the plan (project) was made at Wethersfield and he wrote of it to DeGrasse upon his return to Newport. Rochambeau said in his memoirs that in the sequel (or what transpired) we see the real plan. After the Wethersfield Conference, Rochambeau gave the campaign plan to Admiral De Grasse as follows: (English transcript of Rochambeau’s 11 June 1781 letter to de Grasse.)

“The second council of war which he had ordered, on the safety of the squadron, was held the 8th and I left on the 10th to come here where I am going to gather as many recruits as I can from the convoy, (with) the money, and leave in 5 or 6 days to go and join the General, and try by threatening New York with him to create a diversion for the benefit of Virginia.”

Rochambeau specifically said they planned to threaten, not attack NYC, and then specifically said the intent of the threat was to create a diversion of British troops from the southern objective in Virginia. That is entirely consistent with his memoirs. Next in a secret cypher he gives DeGrasse the southern objective.

“… that is therefore of the utmost importance that you take on board as many troops as you can, that 4 or 5 thousand men would not be too many, either to help us to destroy their establishment in Portsmouth in Virginia near Hampton Roads, where until now they have always kept 1,500 men while the others operate in the countryside, and all their flotillas with which they go out in the rivers to harass poor M. de Lafayette in a most unfortunate manner;”

Rochambeau finally presents the impracticable objective that DeGrasse immediately recognizes as a military ruse and ignores.

“Finally, to help us afterward to lay siege to Brooklyn, assuming that we would be able to establish ourselves with 8,000 men on this point of Long Island, and to keep 5 or 6 thousand on the River of the North to cut off King Bridge.”

But DeGrasse also knew that the second half of Rochambeau’s army had been disbanded in France. DeGrasse was fortunate to obtain just 3000 from the West Indies garrisons, not the required 8000 troop invasion force, so DeGrasse correctly ignored NYC altogether. The important Chesapeake objective was written in cypher code, and history confirmed that it was the only objective DeGrasse considered.

Washington read Rochambeau’s letter to Admiral DeGrasse and wrote to Rochambeau stating his agreement with the plan in the letter. But first he reminded Rochambeau (for a fifth time) of the importance of first marching to the North River to threaten NYC and create a diversion in favor of the allied southern strategy to stop Cornwallis. George Washington to Jean B. Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, June 13, 1781:

“I am so fully convinced that your Excellency will make no unnecessary delay in your march, that I have only occasion to repeat my former request, that it may be commenced as soon as circumstances will admit. My last accounts from the Marquis de la Fayette were of the 3d. of June. The British Army, in very considerable force, were then between Richmond and Fredericksburg; their destination was uncertain, but from their superiority they were at full liberty to go wherever they pleased. The inclosed Copy of a letter from the president of Congress to me will give your Excellency the latest intelligence from South Carolina.”

Next Washington stated he agreed with the plan sent to DeGrasse which he had decoded (see the notes in the congressional source document).

“Your requisitions to the Count De Grasse, go to every thing I could wish. You cannot, in my opinion, too strongly urge the necessity of bringing a Body of Troops with him, more especially, as I am very dubious whether our force can be drawn together by the time he proposes to be here.”

Washington was clearly concerned that it might not be possible to combine armies and confront Cornwallis by the time the French navy arrived. Without the French navy the only immediate and practicable objective was the consolidation of the allied army at the North River, or stage 1 of their plan. However Washington notes that the arrival of the French fleet made stage 2 of the plan practicable and equally advisable.

“Your Excellency will be pleased to recollect that New York was looked upon by us as the only practicable object under present circumstances; but should we be able to secure a naval superiority, we may perhaps find others more practicable and equally advisable.”

Specific Requirements of The Wethersfield Plan:

Stage 1 was quite straight forward. First and foremost, consolidate the allied army at the North River, threaten NYC, and create a diversion for the benefit of the southern strategy. Stage 1 also included defining the conditions to be met for stage 2, primarily the coordination with the French fleet sent from the West Indies. Thayer in reference A, page 32 says, “At Wethersfield, Washington had made it clear the alternatives of NY or a VA campaign must be continuously weighed.” Washington enumerates the requirements of the southern strategy many times. The American army was owed back pay, barely clothed, often without meat and basic food supplies, and often subject to mutiny and desertion. Rochambeau knew that the French could only supply a few thousand more troops from garrisons in the West Indies, but Washington was not sure how many Americans would volunteer to march south. In May of 1781 even Rochambeau did not know how bad the situation was. The British thought there were about 12000 American troops facing NYC, Rochambeau thought there were probably only 6000, but in reality the French reported there were fewer than 3000 Americans when the French army joined them at the North River (the Hudson).

The British had Admiral Arbuthnot based at NYC, and British Admirals Rodney and Hood along the coast anticipating Admiral DeGrasse. Therefore French naval superiority could only be briefly maintained on the coast, but away from NYC. The French ship ran deeper in the water than those of the British ships. In 1778 French Admiral d’Estaing made soundings of the NYC harbor entrance and found that fully loaded French ships would not clear the sand bar. Therefore a fully loaded French invasion force would not risk entering the NY harbor. However the British did not know of those problems so including a NYC invasion option had the effect of keeping the British navy and the northern army near NYC. Making the threatened NYC invasion option follow the activity in Virginia convinced the British that NYC might yet be attacked.

The most dangerous area of the WRRR march to the Chesapeake Bay was in the vicinity of New York City. There the combined French and American army was most vulnerable as it was strung out. It was necessary for Washington and Rochambeau to create the ruse that their army was massing for an attack, while in fact they slipped farther south to Virginia.

French artificers hurriedly built their ovens at Chatham to bake shadow bread for the shadow army Washington and Rochambeau left to threaten New York City. Wood was collected to keep campfires burning at night so that the British in New York City could see the combined might of the faux allied army assembled for attack. British General Clinton reacted as expected. Thinking an attack on NY City immanent, no British troops went out to engage the allies. It was far more prudent for the British to just wait behind their fortifications.

It was reported that Washington and Rochambeau planned and then maintained a profound silence of secrecy (Ref A, pg. 43). The Franco-American army proceeded southward under such deep secrecy, that only Washington and Rochambeau knew the destination. For days, the highest officers knew no more than the newest recruits did, until the army headed towards the Delaware River and Virginia. We learn from this that Washington and Rochambeau could communicate without their officers, and that both were skilled at foiling the enemy. Only when the allies passed Philadelphia did General Clinton receive word that he had been wrestling with Washington’s shadow. Considering that Rochambeau was intelligent, a well educated count, had fought the English for 34 years, and had already spent a year in America discussing the possible strategies in English and in French, better historians do not doubt that Rochambeau could communicate with Washington.

Washington once again began talking about that NYC option after the victory at Yorktown, in his July 19, 1782 letter. But he proposed a threat, not a plausible military action.

Washington Threatened the British Occupying Army at New York City

A year after the Conference at Wethersfield, after the victory at Yorktown, George Washington, on July 19, 1782, wrote about a discussion with the Comte de Rochambeau. In order to pressure the British to withdraw from Charleston and agree to peace terms, Washington concluded that it was necessary to resume the original position at the North River. General Washington proposed the allied army return north and threaten NYC again. In doing so, he states his deepest thoughts about the ruse he used over and over again to throw the British off balance.

“New York, in my judgment, has ever been, and ought to be, the primary object of our Arms. Charles Town, for certain political considerations may come in as the second. But as the first will be very difficult, if at all practicable, without a decided Naval superiority; and the second morally impossible, unless our Siege artillery, Ordnance and other heavy Stores, could be transported by Water, we are reduced to the alternative of threatening New York, to prevent them from detaching; or, to Enterprise an offensive operation, into the Bowels of Canada.”

Washington knew the benefit of threatening NYC. He once again asked Rochambeau to mobilize the French army for a northern push of undisclosed destiny. Again it had the desired effects. The strong northern arm of the British army withdrew into its shell, the British force was withdraw from Charleston for consolidation. Again the ambiguity of the situation raised in the minds of the British of the possibility of impending military disaster and disgrace. We learned that without siege guns, Washington considered an attack not just poor military strategy, but immoral. The unnecessary American bloodshed that would ensue without the artillery would be unconscionable. Washington sent the French army to return and wrote:

“For either of these purposes, or indeed for the better, and more effectual cover of the Country, a junction of the two Armies on the No. River is necessary. For these reasons… I have advised Count de Rochambeau to continue (by slow and easy movements) his March to the No. River.”

The reason for the return of the French army was once again to push the British off balance by threatening NYC. Washington tells us that when he says primary objective, the practicable military objective could very well be something entirely different. Always Washington and Rochambeau weigh their army’s “competency” to meet their military objectives.

Washington wrote to Rochambeau, November 12, 1782 about the apparent success of return march of the French.

“Sir: I had the honor of receiving your Excellency’s letter from Bolton [Conn.] in due time. The packet for the Minister of France which accompanied it was forwarded immediately. We have no intelligence of the actual evacuation of Charles Town, but from some circumstances which have appeared in the New York Paper of the 5th. instant, I think it probable that that event has taken place.”

In summary

Stage 1 of the plan was to:
1) Mass 6000 to 8000 French and American troops at the North River to threaten attack on NYC.
2) Attack in VA followed by a threatened attack at NYC with a landing of 8000 French and West Indies troops at Brooklyn NY. These conditions for a NY attack were known to be extremely improbable due to the lack of heavy artillery, lack of sufficient additional French troops, and the inability of the French ships of deep draft to clear the NYC harbor sand bar.

Stage 2 of the plan was to:

3) Have DeGrasse gain naval superiority of the coast near the advancing British southern army to cut off British supplies, reinforcements, and evacuation routes.
4) Slip away with the allied army on a slow march to attack Cornwallis later in the cooler season at the point to which he had advanced.
5) Have Admiral Barras bring the heavy artillery by ship to bombard General Cornwallis.

The wind and weather were working against Washington & Rochambeau. At the beginning of the march it was too hot to go south, and Washington wrote several times that he expected to have difficulty with troop morale for such a march. But waiting for the cooler weather of the fall also brought the hurricane season and French naval superiority would end abruptly. Washington and Rochambeau had carefully considered the weather in their plans.

The French resolved every obstacle that Washington listed in the southern strategy. French silver and equipment solved the problem of the American troop morale on the march to VA. DeGrasse came later in cooler weather for the VA conflagration. Finally, when Washington reached Chester on the Chesapeake it became clear that the chess masters were about to declare checkmate on Cornwallis. Washington’s joy could hardly be contained.

“I have never seen a man moved by greater or more sincere joy,” said the Duc de Lauzun. Author James L. Stokesbury writes, “When Rochambeau and his staff arrived, they were astounded to find the dignified American commander jumping up and down, waving his hat, and grinning like a small boy!”

Then on October 9, 1781, General Cornwallis was astounded to find himself being shelled by heavy artillery and he sought refuge in a cave. On October 19 he surrendered.

It is clear that Washington and Rochambeau were truthful, rational, and consistent in what they said at the time of the American Revolution and in their diaries and memoirs. Both leaders unequivocally stated they developed their plan at the Wethersfield Conference. Both worked assiduously to make each stage of the plan a success. Now we need to insist that the Wethersfield Conference plan be correctly portrayed. The patriots stood their ground against the British army and the loyalists. Like them we must stand our ground, unbowed so that Washington and Rochambeau are rightfully honored with the WRRR National Historic Trail, for their military prowess and leadership skills.