WASHINGTON-ROCHAMBEAU REVOLUTIONARY ROUTE W3R NEWSLETTER NO. 41

April 18, 2001

Our goal is the creation of the Washington Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, National Historic Trail, that passes through Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and the elevation of the quality of heritage preservation all along the route to a higher level.

SAR Completes Roster of W3R Representatives

John Dickie is the Virginia SAR W3R Committee representative. Great news! Jim McCafferty, Chairman Maryland SAR W3R Committee reports, “With you (John) coming on board I believe all of the former colonies have SAR Chairmen for the W3R project.”

The New York Theater (1781, Off Broadway)

Washington was a proven master of campaign illusion and surprise at Trenton and Princeton. He then in July of 1781, made New York City a theater of war, sans le guerre. So adept were his preparations, so profound the secrecy, that the French troops who thought it highly probable they were going to Virginia, and the Continental troops who thought they were about to attack NYC, were baffled. It was as though they were part of a theatrical illusion.

“Those who hoped we were going to Virginia begin to fear they have been deceived; the roads below here have been repaired towards New York; orders have also been given to repair those on the other side towards Staten Island, and even to build ovens there . . . What to believe! This resembles the scenes at a theatre; the interest and uncertainty of the spectators constantly increase.” (Abbe Claude Robin, Nouveau Voyage dans L’Amerique Septentrionale, en L’Annee 1781)

William Heath wrote, “The first movement was entirely consistent with an attack upon New York, and did not enlighten Clinton as to Washington’s plans.” “On August 19 the entire French army, about five thousand men, and two thousand American troops marched to King’s Ferry and prepared to cross the Hudson.” “The remainder of the American forces, some three thousand men, were left under General Heath. His duty was important and difficult; he was, so long as possible, to keep up the illusion that a strong force was before New York.”

Dr Thacher wrote, “Our situation reminds me of some theatrical exhibition, where the interest and expectations of the spectators are continually increasing, and where curiosity is wrought to the highest, point. Our destination has been for some time matter of perplexing doubt and uncertainty; bets have run high on one side that we were to occupy the ground marked out on the Jersey shore, to aid in the siege of New York, and on the other, that we are stealing a march on the enemy, and are actually destined to Virginia, in pursuit of the army under Lord Cornwallis.”

“All the ferry-boats that could be impressed in the cause were kept busy. The weather was fine and the sight was an imposing one. A large number of boats were constantly crossing, bearing French soldiers arrayed in full military attire.” (Dubourg’s Journal, Aug. 19-22)

Washington monitored the crossing of the Hudson River from Verplanck’s Point. The plans were working perfectly, and Washington, like a great director, savored each scene. One of the officers seeing Washington at the point, wrote he was, “manifestly elated at the spectacle; he seemed to see a better destiny arising as he watched the French army embarking on this expedition,” (Blanchard’s Journal; Johnston, The Yorktown Campaign).

It made simple good military sense to appear to be marching against NYC so the French army could safely move past NYC. We saw from the first business item of the Wethersfield Conference that the ships under Barras could not safely transport the French army and the artillery to the Chesapeake. They had to march. At first, Dr Thacher, Surgeon in the Massachusetts regiment, did not understand why the French and Americans were not themselves attacked by the royal army.

“To our officers, the inactivity of the royal army in New York is truly unaccountable: they might, without risking a great deal, harass our army on its march, and subject us to irreparable injury;”

But then after the army safely passed NYC, Dr. Thacher understood Washington’s strategy. “The great secret respecting our late preparations and movements can now be explained. It was a judiciously concerted stratagem, calculated to menace and alarm Sir Henry Clinton for the safety of the garrison of New York, and induce him to recall a part of his troops from Virginia, for his own defense; The deception has proved completely successful; (3000 fresh Hessian troops from Europe were diverted to NYC). His Excellency General Washington, having succeeded in a masterly piece of generalship, has now the satisfaction of leaving his adversary to ruminate on his own mortifying situation, and to anticipate the perilous fate which awaits his friend, Lord Cornwallis, in a different quarter.”

And so we clearly see that New York City always had to be the first objective, whether it was a true military objective or just a deception to get past General Clinton’s army. In either case, the Wethersfield Plan’s first movement to mass the armies above NYC made complete sense. Like chess masters, Washington and Rochambeau were following a strategy born at the Wethersfield Conference and leading to a checkmate in Virginia. Like poet warriors and artists they obscured the situation just enough to let the imaginations of friend and foe race ahead before their armies, to fill the countryside with suspense, and to fill the enemy with misdirection.