WASHINGTON-ROCHAMBEAU REVOLUTIONARY ROUTE W3R NEWSLETTER NO. 44

August 8, 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.

Knowlton’s Rangers, and the W3R

The date 1776 on the seal of the Army’s intelligence service refers not to the Declaration of Independence but to the formation of Knowlton’s Rangers. In 1776 George Washington picked Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton to command the Continental Army’s first elite secret intelligence unit, known as “Knowlton’s Rangers.” Failures in military intelligence gathering during the early battles on Long Island, NY, convinced Washington that he needed the elite detachment dedicated to field reconnaissance that reported directly to him. Secret ciphers were used to designate geographic locations as well as persons. George Washington himself was identified in secret code as 711. Washington spent more than 10 percent of his military funds on intelligence gathering. Knowlton, who had served in a similar capacity during the French and Indian War, led 150 handpicked volunteers on a variety of secret missions that were far too dangerous for regular troops to conduct. The provisional three-company unit created in the late summer of 1776 at New York City performed with distinction in a light infantry role at the battle of Harlem Heights on 16 September 1776, but Knowlton there suffered a mortal wound. His rangers are considered an historical parent of the modern-day Army Rangers, Special Forces, and Delta Force.

Some rangers like Nathan Hale lived just off the W3R route. The route itself had been a safe passage for smugglers, spies, and the movement of rebel forces. Shortly after the British executed Nathan Hale as a spy, General Washington had Major Benjamin Tallmadge (code name John Bolton) of the 2nd Connecticut Light Dragoons, start an extensive spy ring in New York City. One important female agent known only as “355” infiltrated the British office and spied directly on Major Andre. She warned that the British were about to attack Rochambeau with their fleet immediately after Rochambeau landed. General Washington then had the Continental army prepare to attack New York City to divert the British from the French. Agent “355” was caught and died on a prison ship.

Another highly effective American agent in New York City was the James Rivington, a prominent Tory newspaper publisher. His coffeehouse was a favorite gathering place for the British, and a principal source of information for agent Robert Townsend (code name Samuel Culper, Jr.). Rivington would provide intelligence collected at the tables of loose lipped British officers. The information would be delivered to the American camp before British officers had sobered up. Townsend was never suspected, for during the whole service to the American cause, his Royal Gazette heaped abuse of every kind upon the name of General Washington and the causes of other American patriots.

Rivington’s greatest achievement was acquiring a copy of the Royal Navy’s secret signal book in 1781. That intelligence helped French Admiral de Grasse understand the British naval maneuvers as quickly as the other British ships received their commands. That enabled deGrasse to send reeling the British fleet that had been intended to assist General Cornwallis at Yorktown. Newsletter 33 discusses other aspects of American and British secrecy and intelligence.

A Summary of the Events Commemorating the W3R

1907 publication, Rochambeau, A Commemoration by the Congress of the United States of America of the Services of the French Auxiliary Forces in the War of Independence.

1925, Allan Forbes and Paul F. Cadman in a publication, France and New England announced that an effort was to be made to mark 19 camp sites in Connecticut.

1931, Senate document No. 318, a paper back publication of 54 pages, The Story of the Campaign And Siege of Yorktown The American Revolution.

1937, Special Connecticut Act 285 designated Route 6 as the “Grand Army of the Republic Highway.” One section was also designated the Jonathan Trumbull highway.

1953, Governor of Virginia appointed Charles Parmer to head a Rochambeau Commission with the intention of arranging with other states a uniform marking of the route taken in 1781.

1957, The General Assembly of the State of Connecticut passed House Bill No. 2005, “An Act to have erected markers to designate the sites of camps occupied by the French troops under Rochambeau.” In cooperation with the DAR and SAR, funding led to the Department of Transportation placing 27 plywood signs at or near known campsites in the state. These were later replaced with aluminum signs as required.

1972, Anne S.K. Brown and Howard Rice authored a seminal study of The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783. The two-volume work collected detailed diaries, itineraries, as well as many maps drawn by the French military and other contemporaries. This work remains the primary resource for documentation of Rochambeau’s camps in the United States.

1975, US House of Representatives enacted Concurrent Resolution 225 called upon local communities to recognize the route taken by Rochambeau. No appropriations were provided for the route.

1976, US Senate joined with the House of Representative in passing a resolution that created a “Washington-Rochambeau Historic Route.” No appropriation was provided for the route.

1976, A small, short-lived organization, “Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Route Committee” established itself in New York, intending to raise funds and to erect markers.

1980, The Commonwealth of Virginia designated a “Washington – Rochambeau Highway” for specified portions of the State Highway System between Historic Mount Vernon and the Bicentennial Victory Center in Yorktown. Road markers were installed and are maintained by the state Department of Highways and Transportation. Other SAR, DAR, municipal, and Souvenir Français historic markings were also erected at points along the route.

1981, From October 9-16, hundreds of re-enactors and community representatives, including Rochambeau’s grandson, traced the route from Newport (RI) to Yorktown (VA) to commemorate the march.

1995, State and federal agencies unwittingly propose a highway bisecting French Camp 5. The Inter-Community Historic Resources Committee chaired by Hans DePold documented all the Connecticut camps, using for the first time, modern topographical maps juxtaposed with the French encampment maps. The French Ambassador in Washington and the French Consul General in New York responded and wrote to Governor Rowland and Camp 5 was recognized by the federal agencies and not destroyed. The ICHRC proposed Connecticut legislation to put the route and camps on the National Register of Historic Places.

1996, The state legislation introduced by Representative Pamela Sawyer in 1996, and 1997 was approved in 1998 after ICHRC, SAR, Souvenir Français, and the 2nd Connecticut Light Dragoons addressed the CT legislature’s appropriations committee. The legislation provided $85,000 for the CT portion.

July 4, 1998The Revolutionary Road Newsletter began publication with a goal to put the entire Revolutionary Route in the National Register of Historic Places. It became a committee of correspondence extending across the U.S and Europe.

December 16, 1999, the Washington Rochambeau Revolutionary Route national committee was formed at a meeting at Washington’s headquarters at Newburgh, NY. The objective was the creation of a national historic trail (W3R).

May 16, 2000 at a meeting in Bolton CT, Congressman John Larson decided to sponsor the study bill for the Washington Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail. It became Public Law No: 106-473 that year.

March 14, 2001 at a meeting in Congressman Larson’s Washington office the NPS announced they had begun the legislated study and expect it to be completed by the end of 2003.

Valley Forge Meeting to Establish W3R Committees

A big thank-you to the members of the DAR and SAR who are so active in organizing our southern states. Museum & Collections Director of the Valley Forge Historical Society, Stacey A. Swigart, has reserved a room at Valley Forge for the organizing meeting of 1PM, September 21. The purpose will be to establish state organizations in VA, DE, MD, DC, PA, and possibly NJ.

Robert Reyes has joined us from MD/DC. He is with the SAR and has headed up the Star Spangled Trail. He is helping organize VA, DE, and NJ as well.

Brian A. Aviles reports he has begun the National Park Service W3R study. Brian is in the NPS Boston office.

Mike Williams of impACTLLC reports that preliminary maps of the entire W3R route can now be purchased. They are approximately 20″ wide and 54″ long and cost about $40 each. Also, if we can get a grant or donation, we can now have a preliminary original done for CT. Once an original is produced, the large computer reprints can be obtained for about $40 each. NY maps cost about the same. Let me know if you would be interested in purchasing maps and I will see how it might be facilitated.

Summary Wrap-up of the Wethersfield Plan

The deployment to the Chesapeake (VA) was the second of the two options of the Wethersfield Plan. We have seen that the plan was to first mass the allied forces in the area of White Plains, New York and wait for the French navy and French reinforcements. The military objective was fixed at Wethersfield to be the place where the French naval support arrived. Washington never had to overtly lie to deceive the British or anyone else who had no need to know. We have seen that the original source documents show that a profound secrecy was maintained by Washington stating the two possible targets for the final assault while withholding the probabilities of the events… unless the individual (e.g. Lafayette) had a true need to know. This duality of information was similar in effect to the physical encryption used by the British, which was always misinterpreted by the Americans (NL 33). For the probabilities of the events Washington referred to other sources of information as when he told Lafayette to use his French sources to determine which of the two locations was most probable. For those who had no need to know, Washington’s strategy enabled them to deceive themselves.

Deception has always been essential in warfare, and it has been most effective when the enemy deceived themselves. The Wethersfield plan was the only plan that Washington and Rochambeau mentioned repeatedly with regard to the Franco-American march from Newport to Yorktown. We saw (in NL 43) that the stage was set even before Wethersfield by the decision of the French Ministry that there were insufficient combined American and French resources to insure a victory at New York City. We saw that Rochambeau indicated that only he, Washington, and DeGrasse (whom he informed as quickly as possible right after Wethersfield) knew the probable objective. Further, Rochambeau said that the secret was kept from the military officers (and he specifically states not even Chastellux, his chief aid, was told the objective). Rochambeau states that Chastellux was misinformed and that he (Rochambeau) did not undeceive him. Yet we have also seen that, as a result of the two unilateral French war councils held in Newport, most of the French correctly presumed the military objective was Virginia while most of the Americans (who were unaware of the French decisions) thought the objective was New York City. The clue or cipher to understand the plan was the knowledge of the planned landfall of the French navy. While never completely certain, Washington showed his knowledge of the probable location when he gave Lafayette hints (the first clue on May 31), nine days after Wethersfield. In later letters we saw that Washington and Lafayette refer several times to Washington’s hints and Lafayette for one is exceedingly thankful to be leading the vanguard of the allied army (NL 43).

Here is the chronological order of events in the plan’s logistics.

  • 13 February, 1781, Lauzun records that Washington described an idea whereby Lafayette was to lead an American army to corral a British force in Virginia (Benedict Arnold) while the French fleet anchored in the Chesapeake and Lauzun landed his force, leaving the British with no means of escape. It was an idea remarkably similar to the second movement of the Wethersfield Plan. (NL 40)
  • 9 May, word arrived that the second French division, that was needed if there were to be an attack on NYC, had been disbanded in France. The French War Ministry did not take seriously the request to double the French forces in America. This made NYC a low probability objective and the southern campaign a much higher probability (NL 40)
  • 21 May, Washington received new intelligence from the south. Intercepted papers from the British Minister of War revealed that Cornwallis and the loyalists were instructed to quell the rebels in the south and march North to attack Washington (NL 35).
  • 22 May, 1781, the Wethersfield plan was signed. It contained a strategy to first mass forces near NYC, and then chose a practicable unspecified military objective determined by the location of the arriving French navy. It specifically mentioned a possible movement south. Washington, Rochambeau, and deGrasse had a secret cipher to refer to the Chesapeake as the target. (NL 35)
  • 25 May, the Marquis de Castries, wrote to Lafayette from Versailles, France. Castries told Lafayette that they agreed with Rochambeau that NYC could not be taken, but Virginia was a good prospect. Although written before Washington’s May 31 letter to Lafayette, this letter from France arrived later.
  • 31 May, Washington told Lafayette, who was tracking Cornwallis, that he should stay in Virginia; and should listen to his French sources of intelligence to find out the most probable of the two possible targets (NYC or VA). Since neither Lafayette nor any of the other French or American officers knew the secret cipher for the target, Washington could not tell Lafayette directly that the objective was to stop the advancing British army in Virginia. If the British were not stopped until further north such as at Philadelphia, the Allied Army could easily have been crushed between the two British armies. Washington urged Rochambeau in five letters to begin the march earlier as the southern British army was advancing quickly through the south.
  • 31 May, the first French unilateral war council was held at Newport, RI, and decided to prepare Barras’ navy and the artillery for the specifically stated probable campaign in VA. Lauzun delivered the news in a letter to Washington. A few days later Washington, though unhappy with the exclusion of Americans at the meeting, wrote back that the decision was Rochambeau’s prerogative. (NL 40)
  • 3 June 1781, Lafayette wrote Washington that he understood that based on the 31 May letter, and French intelligence, that Washington’s likely military objective was Virginia (NL 43).
  • 8 June the second unilateral French war council was held in Newport and confirmed preparations for the Chesapeake. Barras delivered the news to Washington and Washington congenially agreed in writing with their decisions. At this point Washington knew Virginia was almost certainly the target. Only a miracle such as 4000 to 8000 fresh French land forces from the Caribbean, a very high tide, a change of French War Office plans, and the availability of American NYC harbor pilots could now make NYC a practicable target.
  • 10 June, units of the French army began the march from Newport after five prodding letters from Washington. Further delays by Rochambeau could have jeopardized the operation by allowing Cornwallis to begin marching to Philadelphia. Instead Cornwallis went to Yorktown anticipating evacuation by the British fleet to reinforce NYC.
  • 11 June, Rochambeau, in the secret cipher, specifically directs de Grasse to take the main French navy to the Chesapeake. On 13 June, Washington decodes the Chesapeake cipher in his copy of Rochambeau’s 11 June letter, and sends a letter back to Rochambeau indicating he is in agreement. (Newsletter 35). The Library of Congress has the letter with a footnote saying Washington’s copy shows that Washington decoded the Chesapeake cipher. By directing DeGrasse to the Chesapeake, liberating NYC was no longer an option. This is before the French troops arrive at NYC. Washington wrote Rochambeau again indicating general agreement and not a single serious point of contention.
  • 29 June, Washington wrote and told Lafayette that based on the Lafayette’s 3 June letter, Lafayette correctly understood the probable military target (Virginia NL43).
  • 5 July, the French army joined with the American army overlooking NYC.
  • 13 July, Washington ordered Lafayette to secure express communication lines between the allied army outside NYC and Virginia (NL 43).
  • 31 July, Washington wrote Lafayette and specifically stated the first part of the Wethersfield plan (the NYC massing of troops and diversion) was near completion and the military view had then shifted to driving the British out of the southern states (NL 43).
  • 2 August, Washington wrote to financier Robert Morris in Philadelphia requisitioning vessels and supplies to be prepared for over-water transportation on the last leg of the deployment to Virginia. The NYC Theater was in its last act. (NL 41).
  • 14 August, DeGrasse’s letter arrived and said he was headed to Virginia. Until that time Washington acted with due diligence trying to raise northern forces and material to justify the NYC objective which the northern states would have preferred. With the take-it-or-leave-it notice that the French Navy was about to arrive in Virginia, Washington could now at last justify (to the northern states) the detachment to the south. With French hard currency he was at last able to once again pay his troops.
  • 15 August, Washington from his headquarters at Dobbs Ferry wrote Lafayette that DeGrasse would soon arrive at Virginia and Washington was sending a detachment (almost the entire army). The British were until then (and some historians still are) fooled by the diversion at New York City.
  • 16 August, General Heath records that he was informed that the battle would be in Virginia. The next day, General Heath was secretly informed he would command the troops that remained at NYC. The next day he received those orders in writing from Washington.
  • 18 August, the first chapter of diversion was closed and the second chapter began with a profoundly secret march to Virginia (NL 41).
  • 19 August, the combined army broke camp and Washington then set up an elaborate deception including imitation bakeries in NJ, mock encampments, and false intelligence to convince the British that the march around NYC was merely repositioning the army to attack through Staten Island (NL 41).
  • 21 August, Lafayette wrote Washington to thank him for ordering him (in the May 31 letter) to remain in Virginia.(NL 43)
  • 25 August, Barras sailed from Newport, and on September 10 he made his junction with deGrasse in the Chesapeake.
  • 19 October, Victory at Yorktown!

For this well planned and executed operation, credit must go to Washington and Rochambeau for their great trust and respect for one another and their ability to communicate without informing any of the officers of their strategy. Two great French fleets and the combined French and American armies, which had been separated by more than fifteen hundred miles of land and sea, converged on Cornwallis in Virginia.

The Parliament of England and their war office had been previously convinced that their southern strategy would quell the American rebellion. All British misconceptions of American lack of resolve were shattered. Finally Parliament’s faith in the reasoning of their own arguments were challenged and overturned. Strong French support had shifted the balance of power away from the mightiest nation on earth for the relief of a new third world country called America.

The fleet under de Grasse had to come up from the West Indies by way of a sea known for devastating hurricanes. The troops made a journey of over six hundred miles, a large part of it through virgin forests, up breakneck hills, through swamps, and over primitive trails. The accuracy with which the forces from distant lands assembled was extraordinary in itself, but added to that is the fact it was done with troops speaking at least eight different native tongues with half of them speaking English only as their second or third language.

But what if Washington and Rochambeau exaggerated or lied and in fact they had no plan? What if the march was only a matter of the chance occurrence of fortune smiling on America and sending good weather, and favorable winds and currents? Or what if in addition, Washington was uninformed, was obsessed with attacking New York City, and that Rochambeau was going to march south to Virginia whether or not Washington came along? That is what some historians claim today. If those revisionist opinions were right, would Congress want to commemorate the W3R with a national historic trail?

From our poll, I think more than 99% of you would agree that if those revisionist opinions were correct, not only would Congress vote down the W3R, but you and I would not bother to support it either. So we logically must ask ourselves what intelligent and committed supporter of the W3R could possibly believe those opinions? For this newsletter to showcase those opinions would not be an indication of diversity or tolerance, but a sign of brain death.