Revolutionary War Historical Article
The Washington - Rochambeau Trail
By Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the November 2000 Edition of the Liberty Tree and Valley Compatriot Newsletter
A great deal of effort and money is being expended to create what has been officially named "The Washington-Rochambeau Trail". This is the route taken by General George Washington from the Hudson Highlands in New York and General, the Comte de Rochambeau from Newport, Rhode Island on their march to Yorktown and the defeat of General, Lord Charles Cornwallis and a British Army trapped in I Virginia. This effort is being' met with unbelievable success with all the involved local communities, the States, the Federal Government and organizations like ours. Locations that were involved are being identified, marked, and designated "Historic Sites".
THE MARCH TO VICTORY - THE FRENCH
The decision to leave the siege lines surrounding New York City ( Manhattan Island), and march on Lord Charles Cornwallis, encampment at Yorktown, Virginia, was one of the most brilliant strategic moves of the entire war. The American Army was stationed in the Hudson Highlands in the siege lines above Manhattan, while the French Army, under the command of the Comte de Rochambeau, with 6,000 French Regulars, was based at Newport, Rhode Island.
This march, of over 550 miles, with the threat of a British sortie from New York against the flank, was an incredible achievement.
The two Armies had to march on roads not worthy to be called roads. They had to march through swamps, ford numerous bridgeless rivers and risk an attack against their flank by the British Army in New York.
From the summer of 1780, the French Army had been waiting in Newport for an opportunity to attack the British. In May, a communication was received from Admiral De Grasse, that his fleet and some 3,000 additional French soldiers were coming up from the Caribbean to support whatever action was determined by General Washington and the Comte Rochambeau. On June 9th, 1781, the French Army broke camp at Newport, and moved to Providence. On the 18th, they started their march to Yorktown and into history.
The Legion of the Duc de Lauzun and the Light Infantry were ordered to march on a route south of the main army to prevent an attack by the British, who still had control of Long Island Sound. Neither General Washington nor Comte de Rochambeau were sure whether Sir Henry Clinton would consider himself their target and take a defensive posture, or go on the offensive.
Rochambeau divided his army into four divisions and moved across central Connecticut, each one day behind the division in front of them. The artillery was divided among the four divisions and a convoy of supply wagons was likewise divided.
In the beginning, marching through Rhode Island and Connecticut was relatively easy. The journals kept by several officers noted the beauty of the countryside and the warmth of the people. One such diary reported "the band played outside the camp and we danced on the green". The artillery, the last to arrive, and having dragged, pulled and manhandled the big guns over the roads, was far more fatigued than the infantry but still made the same observations. The Count of Clermont-Crevecoeur noted: "Enchanted to find charming young ladies in our midst. Our Generals and Colonels had the musicians play each evening and invited the girls to dance. Thus we relaxed from the fatigues of the day ".
From what is now Middlebury to Newtown the going was absolutely horrendous. The horses could not drag the heavy cannons. The American teamsters, hired by the French, commandeered oxen from the local farmers. This helped, but the going was still tough.
Once the French reached Westchester County, New York, they skirmished with Colonel Oliver De Lancey, the Loyalist leader. But, it was not the Loyalist that presented the worse obstacles, it was the roads. Captain Louis-Alexandre Berthier, another French diarist, wrote of taking a work party of two hundred men to repair the roads near Peekskill. They worked from midnight until ten in the morning to make the road passable.
As the French Army marched across the countryside, the Americans lined the roads to view the splendidly uniformed troops. They freely gave fresh bread, jams, jellies and cheese. Several diaries noted that to quench the thirst of the troops, the colonists provided abundant amounts of cider, buttermilk and a rum, which was made from distilled cherries.
A month after leaving Providence, Rhode Island, July 24th, the French arrived at Phillipsburg (near present day Tarrytown). Major General Benjamin Lincoln with 800 crack American Troops launched a surprise attack against the British outpost at Kings Bridge, and raided Fort Tryon and Knyphausen. These attacks absolutely convinced Sir Henry Clinton that the combined American/ French Army was about to fall upon New York. He was so convinced of this that he refused to send reinforcements to Lord Cornwallis, who had lost much of his Army in the battles of Kings Mountain, Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse and other engagements, thus setting the stage for the final American victory.
There were very few negative incidents among the French soldiers on this march. No recorded complaints by the local colonists, and only one record of desertion. Two French soldiers deserted near Dobbs Ferry. They were recaptured, and one was hung, the other pardoned.
Washington and Rochambeau sat watching the British fortifications at New York until August 14th, when word was received from Admiral de Grasse that he was heading north and would attack Chesapeake Bay - Yorktown.
It took six days for the French Army to march the forty miles from Phillipsburg to Peekskill. It rained in torrents, and turned all the roads into quagmires. The supply wagons and all important Artillery could hardly be moved.
There were too few boats to ferry the Armies across the Hudson. The going was extremely slow. Some of the French officers wondered why the powerful British Fleet did not send frigates up the Hudson to stop the crossing. Washington could have answered that question. The British had learned that the Americans use of fireboats and the devastating affects of shore based artillery made such a venture extremely dangerous and doomed to failure.
Spreading disinformation to foster the fear of an imminent attack on New York, Washington spread the rumors that the combined armies were heading for Staten Island in New York Harbor. The Americans went so far as to set up phony encampments on the New Jersey shore, to further convince Clinton that he was still the target.
Washington and Rochambeau's forces marched on the roads near the Watchung Mountains. For three days the British spies reported that both Armies and French Admiral De Grasse seemed to be heading for a point on the lower Hudson River. On the afternoon of the third day, the main Armies headed for Princeton, leaving only a small force to maintain the deception.
The march across the Jerseys was much easier then that of the march in New England. The roads were better and the summer heat had given way to milder weather of the fall. It was not until Clinton received word that the Allied Armies were approaching Philadelphia that he realized that Yorktown was their destination, and even then he was still afraid it was a diversion and he was still the target.
As the French Army entered Philadelphia, it spruced up, and marched smartly through the streets of the American Capitol. The Comte Clermount-Creveceur noted in his diary: "The streets and the line-of-march were crowded with people who were absolutely: amazed to see such a fine army, The prejudices the British had aroused in them against our country were soon dispelled, for they saw superb men, They could not conceive how, after a long and tiring march over frightful roads, we could be in such good condition, or how we could have brought so much artillery in our train".
For two days there were reviews of the troops and other celebrations in Philadelphia giving the soldiers a chance to rest. The roads between Philadelphia and the Head of the Elk, where some of the army would board ships, were excellent. The Armies were about to march 25 miles a day, instead of the 5 to 10 miles a day they made in route to Philadelphia.
George Washington took advantage of being so close to his beloved Mount Vernon and rode down to his 'farm' for the first time in five years. While there the Comte de Rochambeau joined him.
Since only small craft could navigate the waters near Head of the Elk, the majority of the troops were marched to Annapolis or Baltimore, where they boarded ships for the two hundred mile trip to the Yorktown area.
Those troops that had boarded vessels at the Head of the Elk, had a terrible trip down the bay. It took eighteen days to travel the 200 miles. These vessels were so small there were no facilities for cooking, so the men lived on cheese and biscuits the whole time. Those troops that marched to Baltimore and Annapolis to board their ships made the trip in five days and from the surviving reports enjoyed the restful cruise.
On September 26th, 1781, almost three months after they departed Providence, Rhode Island, the bulk of the Allied Armies landed on the shores of the James River.
While all this was going on, Sir Henry Clinton ordered the British fleet to sail from New York and rescue the trapped Lord Cornwallis and his army. The British fleet encountered Admiral De Grasse's fleet on September 5th, at the Chesapeake Capes and a fierce sea battle ensued. It was indecisive, but the French inflicted a great deal of damage on the British, causing them to break off the action and limp back to New York. The rescue effort failed.
With his fate all but sealed, Lord Cornwallis dug in for the siege he knew was coming. Still hoping for either rescue or reinforcements, Cornwallis would hold out for another month, finally surrendering on October 21st, 1781.