September 7, 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 to a higher level, the quality of heritage preservation all along the route. This newsletter tries to represent the point of view of the honest and truthful patriots who respected Washington and Rochambeau, the ones who if alive would be working with us to honor them with a W3R National Historic Trail. Today we look to the SAR, the DAR, and the SOC as the arbiters of that standard.
The Profound Secrecy Preparing for the March
A cloak of secrecy had descended over the march; one so profound that most American officers had no idea the ultimate objective was to expel the enemy from the South. And although many of the French officers expected they would be going to the South, few had any idea Washington was implementing the plan. If the destination or purpose had been known, Washington said the enemy would have taken action to defeat its purpose. We will see that just as today the most informed officers realized how little they knew, while the most ignorant thought they knew everything. Today the Library of Congress makes it possible for us to know the truth. Today we have the benefit of knowing that Rochambeau, Washington, and very quickly thereafter, de Grasse knew the objective of the march… and then on the American side, Lafayette and Robert Morris were informed in advance. General Knox certainly could have deduced the truth since he moved the light artillery. Perhaps future research will disclose several others who were also informed before August 14 when the decision was made to end the New York enterprise and march south. The New York enterprise never got beyond reconnaissance, probing, preparation, and posturing. Washington’s actions transitioned smoothly to the southern objective as deGrasse neared his appointed landfall at the Chesapeake Bay.
Interestingly, Washington never did send an officer to Lafayette to directly confirm the southern objective that Lafayette had correctly deduced, after Washington’s first hint in his letter of May 31 (NL 43). So when we read their letters we must wonder if there was a single other American or French officer who Washington could send. The less perceptive of the French officers had deceived themselves just as the enemy did; thinking Washington was obsessed with liberating New York City. This newsletter shows how Washington worked secretly behind the scenes to prepare for and implement the march to the South.
Washington showed “due diligence” to give the enthusiastic New England governors every opportunity to deliver on their promises of men and means to take New York City. That established the first pretext for marching to the Chesapeake because it convinced Americans of what the French had already concluded… the allied army had insufficient resources to liberate New York City. Washington was getting much of his funding directly from the northern states. By giving the Governors every possible opportunity to provide a force sufficient to take New York, he convinced them that insufficient funds and manpower from those states made it unlikely that New York could be taken. His diary shoes us how he accomplished that without informing the enemy, and once that was done Washington was able to quickly refocus the army on the South when the appropriate moment arrived.
In this newsletter we will see that initially, the first objective of the Wethersfield plan (the enterprise at New York) perfectly met the conditions of the second objective (expel the enemy from the south). Washington needed boats to ferry the army quickly across the Hudson River and it also served the New York enterprise because it continued the deception of the enemy even while the troops passed around New York marching to the South.
Washington had grown to rely on individuals who would supply the American army on credit. One was the General Schuyler, who Washington put in charge of creating a flotilla of ferry craft to move the army quickly across the wide Hudson River. June 13 was the first action taken in preparation for the march south, but it was professed to be an action that supported the NYC enterprise. Once any New York enterprise action interfered with the southern objective, Washington shut down the conflicting parts of the NY enterprise. The first time that occurred was when Washington realized it did not make sense to bring cannon up from Philadelphia for a ruse at NYC when they would only have to carry it back down again. Washington records the point when the southern objective first took precedence on June 20.
Another private citizen, Robert Morris, helped Washington on several occasions. On August 2, Washington asked Morris to assemble a much larger flotilla, to carry the allied army quickly through the Chesapeake waterways to their positions surrounding Cornwallis at Yorktown. This action was solely for the march to the South and the letter indicated Washington knew the enterprise at New York would be ended before August 20. The Americans desperately needed foreign currency. Critical loans from France were on their way to the American government, but even so, Congress did not pay General Schuyler until four months later. With no pay, the northern troops were still willing to serve to protect their families and farms. Loans from the French army’s own silver made it possible to pay the American troops so that they were willing to fight anywhere. All the loans were eventually paid back to France with interest.
It took the French several months to plan their march from Newport to New York City. It took the French five days to cross the narrow Connecticut River by ferry. But with Washington’s preparations while waiting for the French navy to arrive in the Chesapeake, the larger combined army crossed a much wider Hudson River in three days. It had to be done quickly because the British navy could attack at any time. Where did Washington get more than 200 large boats to ferry the army across the Hudson River? According to his diary, Washington began conscripting men to repair and build the craft on the Hudson River just three weeks after the Wethersfield Conference.
13th. June To facilitate the building, and repairing of Boats, a number of Carpenters was ordered from the line of the army to the Q. M. G. to aid the artificers of his department in this important business and Major Darby with a Captain 5 Subs & 6 Sergts. and 100 Rank & file were drawn from the army in order to collect and take care of the public Boats.” General Schuyler agreed to superintend the construction of 100 boats at Albany for an estimated price of less than $40 per vessel. Schuyler met most of the expenses from his own resources and was not reimbursed by Congress until October.
The June 20 entry in Washington’s diary shows Washington was adamant that it was not practicable to attack at New York. We know from the French letters that Washington had read that the French navy, army, and War Ministry had all determined that New York could be no more than a diversion. Preparing for a siege with no hope of “men or means” was Washington’s adroit way of saying the preparations for the attack on New York were a ruse. Lack of sufficient American forces was developed as one reason (or pretext) for Washington to move the army south. He then mentioned his preparation for the march to the South. He ended the first diary paragraph by reiterating that he had neither the men nor adequate means for liberating New York City. That was everything Rochambeau wanted to hear from Washington that day… the Wethersfield Plan was still on track.
June 20th. Count de Rochambeau having called upon me, in the name of Count de Barras, for a definitive plan of Campaign, that he might communicate it to the Count de Grasse– I could not but acknowledge, that the uncertainties under which we labour–the few Men who have joined (either as recruits for the Continental Battns. or Militia) & the ignorance in which I am kept by some of the States on whom I mostly depended –especially Massachusetts from whose Govt. I have not received a line since I addressed him from Weathersfield. the 23d. of May last–rendered it impracticable for me to do more than to prepare, first, for the enterprize against New York as agreed to at Weathersfield and secondly for the relief of the Southern States if after all my efforts, & earnest application to these States it should be found at the arrivl. of Count de Grasse that I had neither men, nor means adequate to the first object. To give this opinion I was further induced from the uncertainty with respect to the time of the arrival of the French Fleet & whether Land Troops would come in it or not as had been earnestly requested by me & inforced by the Minister of France.
Then Washington wrote a final paragraph that tells us that the enterprise against NY was beginning to interfere with the second phase of the Wethersfield Plan, the relief of the South. Washington decided to tell General Knox to stop bringing military supplies north.
The uncertainty of sufficient aids, of Men & Means from the States to whom application had been made, and the discouraging prospects before me of having my requisitions complied with–added to an unwillingness to incur any expence that could be avoided induced me to desire Genl. Knox to suspend the Transport of the heavy Cannon & Stores from Philadelphia lest we should have them to carry back again or be encumbd with them in the field.
On July 31 Washington told Lafayette the New York objective of the Wethersfield plan was basically completed and he then focused on the march to the Chesapeake. He instructs Lafayette not to tell General Green of the secret plan to move south.
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.”
On August 1, Washington’s ferryboats were completed. Most held forty men and were propelled by oars. He recounted in his diary how the northern states had not delivered sufficient men and means for a New York enterprise. Washington had established the pretext for executing the second objective of the Wethersfield plan. We notice with interest that Washington and Rochambeau had no purpose planned for these boats other than to move the army around New York.
August 1st. By this date all my Boats were ready–viz.–One hundred New ones at Albany and the like number at Wappings Creek; besides old ones which have been repaired. My heavy ordnance & Stores from the Eastward had also come on to the North Rivr (Hudson River), and every thing would have been in perfect readiness to commense the operation against New York, if the States had furnished their quotas of men agreeably to my requisitions but so far have they been from complying with these that of the first, not more than half the number asked of them have joined the Army; and of 6200 of the latter pointedly & timously called for to be with the Army by the 15th. of last Month, only 176 had arrived from Connecticut…
Washington’s then said he saw no grounds for continuing the diversion at New York City.
Thus circumstanced, and having little more than general assurances of getting the succours called for and energetic Laws & resolves or Laws & resolves energetically executed, to depend upon–with little appearance of their fulfillment, I could scarce see a ground upon which. to continue my preparations against New York–especially as there was much reason to believe that part (at least) of the Troops in Virginia were recalled to reinforce New York and therefore I turned my views more seriously (than I had before done) to an operation to the Southward and, in consequence, sent to make enquiry, indirectly, of the principal Merchants to the Eastward what number, & in what time, Transports could be provided to convey a force to the Southward…
The very next day, August 2, 1781, Washington secretly requested that Robert Morris assemble the Chesapeake flotilla needed to quickly surround Cornwallis with the Franco-American army. Washington, expecting deGrasse to arrive asks that the requisition list be ready by August 20th. New York was indeed reinforced, as Washington expected but not with troops from Yorktown. These actions prove that any report that infers Washington was obsessed with a siege of New York, or that he did nothing until August 14, is lacking truth and competence.
“The expectation of the pleasure of seeing you has prevented me hither from making a communication of most important and interesting nature. But circumstances will not admit further delay, and I must trust it to paper. It seems reduced almost to a certainty that the enemy will reinforce New York with part of their troops from Virginia. In that case the attempt against the former must be laid aside, as it will not be within our power to draw together a force sufficient to justify the undertaking. The detachment which the enemy will probably leave in Virginia seems the next object to engage our attention, and which will be a very practicable one, should we obtain a naval superiority, of which I am not without hopes, and be able to carry a body of men suddenly round by water. The principal difficulty which occurs, is obtaining transports at the moment they may be wanted for if they are taken up beforehand, the use for which they are designed cannot be concealed, and the enemy will make arrangements to defeat the plan. What I would like you to inform yourself of without making direct inquirery, is what number of tons shipping could be obtained in Philadelphia at any time between this and the 20th of this month and whether there could also be obtained at the same time a few deep water sloops and schooners to carry horses. The number of double decker vessels which may be wanted of 200 tons and upwards, will not exceed thirty. I shall be glad if you answer as soon as possible, because if it is favorable I can direct certain preparations to be made in Philadelphia and at other convenient places, without incurring any suspicions. There certainly can be no danger of not obtaining flour in Philadelphia and as you seem to have doubtless process salt meats there, I shall direct all that to the commissar to be collected at points from whence it may be shipped upon the shortest notice. You will alas oblige me by giving me your opinion of the number of vessels which might be obtained at Baltimore or other places in the Chesapeake in the time before mentioned and thereabouts. I have the honor etc, etc… Washington
The Comte de Clermont-Crèvecoeur wrote that in the army, only Washington and Rochambeau knew the plans, “On 14 August we received letters… that deGrasse was departing on 3 August… so we expected him to arrive any day.” “The whole army was convinced that the siege of New York was certain. We shall soon see that our general’s plans were quite different.”
Finally, the moment Washington had been preparing for arrived. Washington listed his pretexts for an end to the diversion at New York (the idea, ruse) and began a number of carefully planned deceptions to cover the first days of the deployment of the army to the south.
14th (August). Received dispatches from the Count de Barras announcing the intended departure of the Count de Grasse from Cape Francois with between 25 & 29 Sail of the line & 3200 land Troops on the 3d. Instant for Chesapeake bay and the anxiety of the latter to have every thing in the most perfect readiness to commence our operations in the moment of his arrival as he should be under a necessity from particular engagements with the Spaniards to be in the West Indies by the Middle of October. Matters having now come to a crisis and a decisive plan to be determined on–I was obliged, from the Shortness of Count de Grasses premised stay on this Coast–the apparent disinclination in their Naval Officers to force the harbour of New York and the feeble compliance of the States to my requisitions for Men, hitherto, & little prospect of greater exertion in future, to give up all idea of attacking New York; & instead thereof to remove the French Troops & a detachment from the American Army to the Head of Elk to be transported to Virginia for the purpose of cooperating with the force from the West Indies against the Troops in that State. -W
The Comte de Clermont-Crèvecoeur also wrote about the fact that the British did not harass the crossing of the Hudson River, “Doubtless they had their reasons, and we ours, and it is certain they could not have suspected the latter because except for Generals Washington and Rochambeau, no one knew our plans.”
Louis-Alexandre Berthier describes the crossing of the Hudson River. It is clear that Washington’s leadership never wavered either in the planning of the march or in its execution.
22 August. The General (Washington) ordered me to bring up the artillery to the ferry and begin loading it aboard and take it across immediately to the opposite bank… The energy of our soldiers, as well as the Americans who ran the ferry boats, was such that we crossed the river, which is 2 miles wide there, in eight hours without the slightest accident. General Washington was impatient to get all the troops across the river. He sent me back to tell the Comte de Rochambeau to send his army up as quickly as possible.
25 August. I remained at the ferry to supervise the crossing of the wagons and camped there until midnight of the 25th, when the last vehicle crossed the river.
Many of the ferryboats were hauled through New Jersey to deceive the British who expected they would be deployed to attack NYC from New Jersey or Staten Island.
The truth about Washington’s secret preparations for the march to the Chesapeake is far more interesting than the demeaning and belittling fiction revisionists produce today. I believe, as I hope you do that if after 200 years, we are finally going to honor Washington and Rochambeau for the first time with a National Historic trail, then their accomplishments must be documented truthfully. When I say that to the revisionists they retort that their, “statements are from source documents, they are the truth!” What they fail to understand is that many ignorant, untruthful, and even malicious things have been said by all sides and documented in source documents. Source documents that were written in ignorance or with malice in the past are not magically transformed into truth today. They still represent ignorance and malice. Whine doesn’t improve with age.
Dr. Thatcher described General Washington
Dr. Thatcher was a regiment surgeon from Massachusetts. Here is his diagnosis.
“The personal appearance of our commander-in- chief is that of the perfect gentleman and accomplished warrior. He is remarkably tall, full six feet, erect and well proportioned. The strength and proportion of his joints and muscles appear to be commensurate with the preeminent powers of his mind. The serenity of his countenance, and majestic gracefulness of his deportment, impart a strong impression of that dignity and grandeur which are his peculiar characteristics, and no one can stand in his presence without feeling the ascendancy of his mind, and associating with his countenance the idea of wisdom, philanthropy, magnanimity, and patriotism. There is a fine symmetry in the features of his face, indicative of a benign and dignified spirit.
His nose is strait, and his eyes inclined to blue. He wears his hair in a becoming cue, and from his forehead it is turned back and powdered in a manner which adds to the military air of his appearance. He displays a native gravity, but devoid of all appearance of ostentation. His uniform dress is a blue coat, with two brilliant epaulettes, buff-colored under-clothes, and a three-cornered hat, with a black cockade. He is constantly equipped with an elegant small-sword, boots and spurs, in readiness to mount his noble charger. There is not in the present age, perhaps, another man so eminently qualified to discharge the arduous duties of the exalted station he is called to sustain, amidst difficulties which to others would appear insurmountable, nor could any man have more at command the veneration and regard of the officers and soldiers of our army, even after defeat and misfortune. This is the illustrious chief whom a kind Providence has decreed as the instrument to conduct our country to peace and to independence.
Chevalier de Pontiband described Washington
Chevalier de Pontiband was an aide to la Fayette and was given the rank of major.
“The Marquis de la Fayette presented me to the commander-in-chief. Washington was intended by nature for a great position,- his appearance alone gave confidence to the timid, and imposed respect on the bold. He possessed also those external advantages which a man born to command should have; tall stature, a noble face, gentleness in his glance, amenity in his language, simplicity in his gestures and expressions. A calm, firm bearing harmonizes perfectly with these attributes.
Vioménil to Washington, Boston, December 18, 1782
It was at Providence, RI, as the French army returned and prepared to head for Boston, General Rochambeau turned over his command to Baron de Vioménil. The Baron wrote to Washington before returning to France.
The veneration with which this army has been imbued for you since the first instant it was presented to you by Count Rochambeau, its confidence in your talents, the wisdom of your orders, the ineffaceable memories of your kindness, of your attentions, and of the examples you have given us when danger was near, and the approval, regrets, and wishes with which you have so generously now honored our departure, are reasons enough to make us bound in duty to say that there is not a single general or officer in the army which has just been entrusted to me who is not more deeply moved rather than flattered by your praise. There is not one among us who does not regret infinitely that the secrecy attending our departure has prevented us from keeping our agreement to be presented again to you by Count Rochambeau, that we might pay you our respects, thank you, and let you see our faces, beaming with appreciation. Having thus conveyed the general sentiments of all of us towards you, I beg you to permit me to take this occasion to assure you again that every sentiment I have expressed for my comrades will be as lasting as the very deep respect with which I am, Your Excellency’s very humble and obedient servant, Vioménil