WASHINGTON-ROCHAMBEAU REVOLUTIONARY ROUTE W3R NEWSLETTER NO. 43

June 20, 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.

Meeting to Establish W3R Committees

In preparation for the formation of state W3R committees in PA, DE, MD, DC, and possibly VA, I would appreciate it if you live in any of those areas, that you send your name, address, and e-mail address so that I could forward your names to the respective organizers in those states. That way you will be informed of state activities. The next W3R meeting is expected to be at Valley Forge. W3R people news this month:

  • Project engineer Brian A. Aviles will be working with Larry Gall on the W3R project.
  • Whitney Moran will be coordinating the W3R project activities for Congressman John Larson.
  • Historian Stephanie Cupler will be leading the DAR’s W3R effort in Maryland.
  • DC SAR member and Star Spangled Trail advocate, Robert Reyes, will be calling the W3R organization meeting for Maryland and Washington, DC.

Washington and Lafayette in Virginia, Part 2

We will now have a glimpse of the situation in Virginia where the Continental army had to continually run so as not to be over run by the advancing southern British army lead by General Cornwallis.

The concerns of Lafayette were the natural consequences of the profound secrecy Washington and Rochambeau maintained to avoid the prospect of a miscarriage of the Wethersfield Plan. These letters show the stage had been set by the French even before the Wethersfield Conference. The French war ministry decided that it was too risky for their navy to try to cross the sandbar at the entrance of the harbor of New York City. The French ministry did not take seriously Rochambeau’s request for doubling the French force (NL 40). The French ministry had agreed with Rochambeau that New York City was not a practicable military objective. Washington was told that by Rochambeau, the American representatives were told that in France, and Lafayette was informed in a letter from Versailles. Immediately after the Wethersfield Conference, a French war council lead by Rochambeau unilaterally met twice in Newport, and DeGrasse was directed to the Chesapeake Bay. First the duc de Lauzun and then Barass were sent to inform Washington of the council conclusions (NL 40).

As Rochambeau said in his memoirs, after the Wethersfield Conference Washington, DeGrasse, and Rochambeau knew the true destination of the major offensive was to be in the south. Rochambeau also mentioned that Washington would have preferred to liberate New York City were it not for the French navy not being able to clear the city harbor sand bar, and were it not for the low odds of defeating the well fortified larger northern British army. Only the low probability of much of the northern British army being detached to the southern colonies could improve the practicability of an allied army assault on NY City without French naval support. History records the opposite occurred and New York City was reinforced.

Lafayette’s letters confirm the timing of the two parts of the Wethersfield Plan: 1) consolidate forces diverting attention to NYC and then, 2) advance on the southern British army. We will see that Rochambeau’s memoir was correct, Washington knew the conditions of French support at the May 1781 Wethersfield conference. The decision was not entirely up to the field commanders Washington and Rochambeau. The French war ministry decided it would not support a New York Offensive even before the meeting in Wethersfield, and Washington seeing Cornwallis advancing on his home state of Virginia was an eager participant in the southern operation. He was in full command of the diversion at New York City (NL41) and planned well in advance for the southern offensive. Washington began hinting of the plan to march south in his May 31, 1781 letter to Lafayette. We will see that the NYC diversion worked so well that both Lafayette and Cornwallis worried they would be left out of the action. We will see how Washington continues to hint in his letters that Lafayette is where the action would be and how finally Lafayette profusely thanks Washington for having kept him in command in Virginia.

If we strip away the everyday details, these letters reveal a warrior father-son relationship where the son tries very hard to please his father, and the father tries to provide the best opportunities for his son. Lafayette did not immediately understand that his position in Virginia was the most desirable position any warrior son could have hope for. Lafayette was leading the vanguard of the Grand Army of the Republic, but initially did not know it. Compared with the Royal army lead by General Cornwallis, Lafayette’s force was so weak they could not even stand and fight; they had no choice but to run each time they were threatened. See newsletters 38 and 42 for more on Lafayette.

May 24, 1781, Lafayette to George Washington

“My dear General,
I ardently wish my conduct will meet with your approbation.” “Was I any ways equal to the enemy, I would be extremely happy in my present command- but I am not strong enough even to get beaten. My dear General, let me hear some times from you. Your letters are a great happiness to your affectionate friend, Lafayette. My respects if you please to Mrs. Washington and compliments to the family.”

Washington’s staff was virtually his family. Washington supported Lafayette’s troops with those of Baron von Steuben, General Greene, and General Anthony Wayne, and had promised to send the Pennsylvanians as well. In the next letter, Washington mentions the Wethersfield conference as the place the plans were drafted, calling first for the joining of the armies at New York. Washington knew the French navy could not clear the New York harbor sand bars so the reference to the command of the water was a hint that the first objective was only NYC until the French navy arrived at Virginia. But Washington had no secret cipher to say that, so he refers Lafayette to his European contacts who we will see were involved in the decisions. Washington maintained secrecy by stressing the best attributes of the least probable military action and by emphasizing only the disadvantages of the most probable action. Washington then used the French war ministry as the cipher to allow Lafayette to determine the ultimate (most probable) military objective. We saw in Newsletter 41 that of necessity New York City had to seem to be the primary objective if the Wethersfield Plan was to succeed.

31 May, George Washington to Lafayette.

“My dear Marqs,
I have just returned from Wethersfield (the Wethersfield Conference May 22)…Rochambeau was only attended by Chevr. Chastellux. Generals Knox and Duportail were with me.” “Upon a full consideration of our affairs in every point of view- an attempt upon New York …was deemed preferable to a southern operation as we had not the command of the water.” I take it for granted that your last dispatches inform you fully of European affairs and that you can judge from them of the probability of such an event as I have mentioned taking place. As you have no cipher by which I can write to you in safety, and my letters have been frequently intercepted of late I restrain myself from mentioning many matters I wish to communicate to you.” “It would be unnecessary for you to be here at present…”

At that time, the British intercepted a letter from Washington, and one from Chastellux (discussed in Newsletter 35). British General Clinton was fooled by the letters and immediately wrote to Cornwallis requesting reinforcements and heavy guns brought to New York from VA. Clinton also abandoned a planned expedition against Philadelphia. Meanwhile the French War Ministry at Versailles wrote to Lafayette (May 25, as Washington indicated they would) that New York City was not to be attacked and that because the American republican form of government was unsuited to secrecy an American representative was given no details of the true plan. Here is the letter from France obviously showing that the French government knew the plan before the final agreement at the Wethersfield Conference, but did not trust the American government could keep any secrets.

25 May, 1781, Castries (French war ministry) to Lafayette

“He (Colonel Laurens, no details as to who he is) would have liked to know more positively than I could let him, what navel forces the king would employ… Moreover, the republican constitution is so unsuited to secrecy that it is dangerous to inform him with too much precision of the dispositions we intend to make.” “Like your French general (Rochambeau), I thought New York, because of the layout and the forces defending it, would be an objective that would require stronger forces than those you could use to attack it… I hope you will move toward him (Cornwallis), because it is from the south that you have something to fear.”

Lafayette, alas, deduced that the French and American armies would join him in Virginia. At the same time the British thought the attack would be at New York. Washington’s cryptic letters served their purpose of keeping the mission a secret but unintentionally fooled Generals Clinton and Cornwallis who intercepted and read some of them. In fact many current historians remain unintentionally fooled. Rochambeau points this out in his memoirs that Washington never intended to have his letters intercepted to purposely deceive the British. Rochambeau’s memoirs record the plan,

“the island of New York, to which the combined army should then approach as near as possible (no attack), and there wait until we should hear from M. de Grasse (his arrival in the Chesapeake), to whom a frigate was to be immediately dispatched. General Washington wrote immediately the result of this (Wethersfield) conference to General Sullivan, a member of Congress. His letters were intercepted; it is believed, and all the papers repeated the report, that he spoke in those letters of the projected attack on the New York islands, with a view only to mislead the enemy’s general, and that, consequently, he was very glad that the letters had fallen into the hands of the latter. There is no need of such fictions to convey the glory of this great man to posterity. His wish was really then to attack New York; and we should have carried the plan into execution if the enemy had continued to draft troops from its (New York) garrison, and if the French navy could have been brought to our assistance (entered NY Harbor).”

Clearly this next letter shows that in early June, Lafayette interpreted the 31 May letter from General Washington and Castries letter to mean New York was not a practicable military objective.

3 June, 1781 Lafayette to Washington

“My dear General
I heartily wish, my dear General, my conduct may be approved of particularly by you.” “Your presence, my dear General, would do a great deal. Should these detachments be increased by three or four thousand and the French army come this way, leaving one of your generals at Rhode Island, and two or three in the Jerseys, you might be on the offensive in this quarter, and there could be a southern army in Carolina. Your presence would do immense good but I would wish you to have a large force. General Washington before he first personally appears must be strong enough to hope success. Adieu, my dear general, with the highest respect and most tender affection, I have the honor to be yours.” Lafayette “If you persist in the idea to come this way you may depend upon about 3000 militia in the field relieved every two months. Your presence will induce them to turn out with great spirit.”

Washington then advised Lafayette not to be hasty and attempt any risky action, but from the dates you can see their letters cross.

4 June, 1781 Washington to Lafayette

“No rational person will condemn you for not fighting with the odds against you and while so much is depending upon it. But all will censure a rash step if it is not attended with success.”

It was at this time that Washington asked Rochambeau if his French officers would be willing to serve under Lafayette. The Duke de Lauzun was willing, but the rest were reluctant, or even threatened they would quit the army. Lauzun reported that in his diary.

June 18, 1781 Lafayette to Washington

“My Dear General
I heartily wish, my dear general, our movements may meet with your approbation. In spite of every obstacle thrown in our way I shall collect our forces to a point- 800 light infantry, 700 Pennsylvanians, 50 dragoons, 900 riflemen 2000 militia, and 400 new levies (recruits).”

In the next letter Washington indicated to Lafayette that Lafayette had interpreted the Wethersfield Plan correctly. The joined army would indeed march south. Note this means that the march to the south was determined at Wethersfield just as Rochambeau said in his memoirs (NL 35). This is long before modern revisionists would have us believe.

29 June, 1781 Washington to Lafayette

“You are acquainted with our general plan. Particulars I dare not enter into until I am assured from yourself that there is no danger of my letters falling among those clouds of light troops which you tell me in your last, surround Lord Cornwallis’s army.”

Lafayette writes more of how he creates an illusion of an army.

8 July, 1781 Lafayette to Washington

“It has been a great secret that our army was not superior and was generally inferior to the enemy in numbers. Our regulars did not exceed 1500. The enemy had 4000 regulars, 800 of whom mounted. They thought we had 8000 men.”

At this time the French massed their forces above New York City. Lafayette was now in direct communication with Cornwallis and learned that the British were taking the threat of an attack on NYC so seriously that Lafayette himself began to wonder if the attack would really be in Virginia. The American and French armies had accomplished most of the first part of the Wethersfield Plan and were then to prepare for the march to Virginia. Washington gives important orders for preparations and logistic support of the march to Virginia.

13 July 1781 Washington to Lafayette from headquarters at Dobbs’s Ferry

“I shall shortly have occasion to communicate matters of very great importance to you, so much so, that I will send a confidential officer on purpose to you. You will in the mean time endeavor to draw together as respectable a body of Continental troops as you possibly can and take every measure to augment your Cavalry.” “In the present state of affairs it is of the utmost importance that a communication by a chain of expresses be opened between this army and that in Virginia.” “You will also endeavor to establish such a communication with the coast as to be able to know whether any troops are detached by sea from Lord Cornwallis’s army.”

Unfortunately, Lafayette did not receive this letter until after he sent a burst of three letters (in one day) to Washington indicating his concerns that the action might be at New York after all. Had Lafayette received this letter in a timely manner he would not have doubted that Washington was preparing to march south. Washington’s letter ordered Lafayette to set up lines of intelligence and logistic support. Meanwhile the profound secrecy of the plans caused Lafayette to express his doubts.

20 July 1781 Lafayette to Washington, three letters in one-day showing Lafayette’s doubts.

“No accounts from the north ward, no letter from headquarters- I am utterly a stranger to every thing that passes outside of Virginia…” “In a word, my dear General, I am home sick and if I can’t go to headquarters wish at least to hear from there.” “I think your diversion (massing troops at NYC) has been of more use to this state than my maneuvers.” “May it be possible, my dear General, that in case a part of the British troops go to New York I may be allowed to join the combined armies.” “Lord Cornwallis is every day inquiring about my going to the Grand Army- which, he says, must soon be the case. This induces me to think they believe you are in earnest in your preparations (at NYC).”

It is clear that the strong British suspicion of an attack at NYC made Lafayette wonder if the British could be right. But the arrival of Washington’s 13 July letter once again sets Lafayette’s mind at ease.

30 July, 1781 Lafayette to Washington

“Your letter of the 13th is just come in hand. The moment a perfect intelligence can be got.” “There is a chain of expresses, but I will see that it is more properly conducted.”

Again, in this next letter Washington mentioned the Wethersfield conference was the place where the two part plan to consolidate the army and march south were settled. Again, in the next letter, Washington tells Lafayette that Lafayette should stay where the action will be.

31 July, Washington to Lafayette

“I am convinced that your desire to be in this army arises principally from a wish to be actively useful. You will not therefore regret your stay in Virginia…” “I think we have already effected one part of the plan of campaign settled at Wethersfield (Wethersfield Plan)” “Our views must now be turned towards endeavoring to expel them totally from those (southern) states…” “In my letter to General Greene, which I beg the favor of you to forward, I have hinted nothing of what I have said to you, for fear of a miscarriage.” …you will oblige me by communicating the part of this letter which relates to my expectation of being able to transport part of this army to the southward, should the operation against New York be declined.” “I wish, as I have mentioned in my last, to send a confidential person to you to explain at large what I have so distantly hinted,”

Now the letters get down to discussing military strategies in Virginia and on the Chesapeake Bay.

31 July, Lafayette to Washington

“Should a French fleet now come to Hampton Road, the British would, I think, be ours.” “I am literally following your excellency’s instructions, and shall continue to do so to the best of my power.”

On 2 August, Washington wrote to Morris in Philadelphia requisitioning vessels and supplies to be prepared for water transportation on the last leg of the deployment to Virginia. The NYC theater is in its last act. (NL 41).

6 August Lafayette to Washington

“York (Yorktown) is surrounded by the river and a morass. The entrance is but narrow. There is however a commanding hill.” “I am still more anxious, if possible, to receive the private communications that have been announced.”

In this next letter, Lafayette indicates he understands the general plan but would still like confidential personal confirmation to remove all doubts.

11 August Lafayette to Washington

“Be sure, my dear General, that the pleasure of being with you will make me happy in any command you will think proper to give- but for the present am with you of opinion I had better remain in Virginia” “I have pretty much understood you, my dear General, but would be happy in a more minuted detail which I am sensible cannot be intrusted to letters. Would not Gouvion be a very proper ambassador.” “But to return to operations in Virginia I will tell you that Lord Cornwallis is entrenching at York and Gloucester. The sooner we disturb him the better. But unless our maritime friends (French navy) give us help we cannot much venture below.”

We now finally arrive at the time when some erroneously say Washington decided to march to Virginia. Note however that the tone of Washington’s letters doesn’t change. That is because since May 22, 1781 the plan has been in place, only the maneuvers have changed as the forces assembled in their appointed places and at their appointed times.

15 August Washington to Lafayette from headquarters at Dobbs’s Ferry.

“The Concord frigate is arrived at Newport from Count de Grasse. He was to leave St. Domingo the 3rd. of this month with a fleet of between 25 and 29 sail of the line and a considerable body of land forces” “under these cirumstances..you will immediately take such position as will best enable you to prevent their (Cornwallis’) retreat thro’ North Carolina.” “In the mean time I have to recommend a continuation of that prudence and good conduct which you have manifested thro’ the whole of your campaign: you will be particularly careful to conceal the expected arrival of the count,” “You will take measures for opening a communication with Count de Grasse the moment he arrives,”

Secure express communications were then in place between the Grand Army of the Republic and Virginia. The next letter shows Lafayette realizes that from the start, Washington kept him in Virginia as the vanguard for the planned military operation, the most decisive victory of the American Revolutionary War. Lafayette’s joy, appreciation, and gratitude burst forth in this letter.

21 August, Lafayette to Washington

“Maryland ought to be early called upon. Water transportation will I hope ease our difficulties.” “In the present state of affairs, my dear General, I hope you will come yourself to Virginia, and that if the French army moves this way, I will have at last the satisfaction of beholding you myself at the head of the combined armies.” “Adieu, my dear General, I heartily thank you for having ordered me to remain in Virginia and to your goodness to me owing the most beautiful prospect that I may ever behold.”

I will end these correspondences with the letter Washington wrote that very same day disclosing the allied army was officially moving south.

21 August, Washington to Lafayette

“The troops destined for the southern quarter are now in motion. The American detachment is already on the West Side of the Hudson. The French will reach the ferry this day. Our march will be continued with all the dispatch that our circumstances will admit.” “..It will be of great importance towards the success of our present enterprise that the enemy on the arrival of the (French) fleet, should not have it in their power to effect their retreat.”

Knowledgeable historians know all the observations of New York fortifications, and most obviously the late August observations from New Jersey and Staten Island, were part of the diversion which eye witnesses described in NL 41. We see that Washington had been planning every move to Virginia from at least May 30 when he wrote to Lafayette (NL 43), and from May 22 according to Rochambeau (NL 35).