Revolutionary War Historical Article

The Long March to Yorktown

by Donald N. Moran

With the forthcoming celebration of the Treaty of Alliance, (February 1778) and the establishment of the Washington-Rochambeau National Trail, it was thought that revisiting that historic march from New Windsor, New York and Newport, Rhode Island to Yorktown, would be in order.

The French Army, sent to assist General Washington as a result of the Treaty of Alliance arrived in Newport, Rhode Island on July 10th, 1780. They received a tremendous welcome as depicted in Percy Moran's (1862-1935) painting of the historic event.

 

From July until May of 1781 the 6,000 man French force waited in Newport until the best opportunity to attack the British forces. General George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau met in Wethersfield, Connecticut to decide on the best course of action. At first, Washington was determined to retake New York City, but as events in the Southern Colonies developed it became clear that a better opportunity was rapidly evolving. When word arrived, in May, that Admiral de Grasse and his formidable French fleet would be available to support operations in the South, Washington and the Comte Rochambeau agreed to march on Yorktown, Virginia where General Lord Charles Cornwallis and his army had fortified themselves. Two serious problems confronted them. One was stopping the British Fleet from rescuing Cornwallis by sea, and the other was how the American Army facing Sir Henry Clinton's sizable British force in New York City could prevent it from attacking the allied force when it would be most vulnerable, as it marched south past New York, exposing its flank. Washington set to work and through ingenious efforts convinced Clinton that it was he and the City of New York that would be their targets. This deception is an article unto itself.

Rochambeau hired wagons, teamsters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and support personnel. To insure their loyalty and maintain the secrecy of the march, they were all veterans from the American Army, most classified as invalids, having been wounded and no longer fit for combat. This writer's great, great grandfather, Nicholas P. Bovee, was one of the wheelwrights. He had been shot in the arm twice, tomahawked in the hip, scalped and left for dead outside Fort Stanwix. He survived and after two long years of recuperation, probably was looking forward to retribution for all his suffering.

The French Army marched in four divisions, each division marching one day behind the one at their front. The artillery and supply train were divided among the four divisions.

The march through Rhode Island and Connecticut was easy. Those that kept journals wrote some very interesting and delightful observations.

They commented often about the availability of vegetables, beef, and other edibles. But as soldiers from any era, they most often wrote of the fairer sex. The Count de Clermont-Crevecoeur wrote "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. As for us (he was in the artillery) we profited little from these pleasures, since we always arrived so late."

 For the heavy artillery, the march was extraordinarily difficult. Horses could barely move the guns on the rough tracks Americans called roads. Only the help of local farmers, who loaned or rented their oxen to the French, made it possible for the cannons to be moved.

The condition of the roads and the intense summer heat delayed the artillery and supply wagons so that they did not arrive at the day's encampment until late in the night.

As the French Army marched south, the Americans could not help but admire the fine bearing and sharp uniforms. Accustomed to the tattered uniforms and carefree marching of the American Army, it was delightful to see allies that rivaled the British in pomp and ceremony.

As they marched, the local citizens showered them with gifts, mostly fresh bread, jams, jellies and cheese. They also willingly furnished beverages, cider, buttermilk or rum made locally from cherries.

In order to acquire feed and fodder for the draft animals, foraging parties were dispatched before dawn. On one such mission the French soldiers were delighted to encounter French speaking Americans. They were Huguenots, descendants of those that settled in the New Rochelle area of New York.

One month after starting the long march, rumors spread through the ranks that the attack on New York City would soon begin. Only Washington and Rochambeau and a few staffers, knew they were bypassing New York and heading for Virginia.

To the credit of the French Army, there was very little desertion. The high humidity and extreme heat must have made it tempting. Two men did desert, near Dobbs Ferry. They were promptly captured. One was hanged, the other severely flogged. He was saved from the gallows by the Comte de Deux-Ponts, who interceded, he knew the man had a large family back in France.

The Duc de Lauzun's Legion, which had been patrolling the flank, were exhausted, so much so that they were unable to rendezvous with General Benjamin Lincoln at the appointed time.

The soldiers of the four French regiments conducted themselves with extreme self-control. No civilian reports of pillaging or thefts were recorded.

The Franco-American force waited in no-man's land, just north of New York City, awaiting a communications from Admiral de Grasse, finally, on August 14th, the dispatch arrived advising that he would be in the Chesapeake Bay to support the joint operations in Virginia.

Immediately, both armies started south. Summer storms were terrible. They turned the roads into quagmires. It took six days to march from Phillipsburg to Peekskill, a distance of forty miles.

Crossing of the Hudson River at Kings Ferry was also very slow. There simply were not enough boats, but by ferrying of the armies, day and night, they made the crossing in three days. Some of the French diarists noted it as strange that the British did not send some frigates up the river to prevent the crossing. They were unaware that the British had been taught a severe lesson the year before when Colonel James Livingston, who with some militia and two field pieces inflicted serious damage on their last attempt.

General Washington's deception about the destination was so successful, that the Armies still believed they were going to attack New York City, via New Jersey and Staten Island. It is no wonder that Sir Henry Clinton was still convinced he was the target.

In the south, Cornwallis was being pressured by the Marquis de Lafayette and General Nathaniel Greene and had already requested reinforcements from Clinton. General Clinton, completely deceived, declined, thereby ensuring the outcome of the coming siege.

The armies advanced through New Jersey in three columns, the American light infantry took the route closest to the Hudson River, just in case the subterfuge failed. On the third day, all of the allied armies had arrived in Trenton, on the Delaware River. All but a few of the troops were left along the shores of the Hudson, tending hundreds of campfires. Sir Henry was still convinced he was the target and had missed a once-in-a-lifetime chance to have decimated his opposition.

On August 30th, while marching across New Jersey, a dispatch from the Marquis de Lafayette reported to General Washington that Lord Cornwallis was fortifying the Yorktown peninsula and it appeared that he was going to wait for reinforcements or the British fleet to come and rescue him. The only thing that could un­spring the trap was the failure of Admiral de Grasse. All Washington and Rochambeau could do was to wait for news, and press on to Yorktown.

Washington wrote to Rochambeau: "I shall not have the honor of joining your excellency till we arrive at Princeton, where I will order a dinner to be ready at three o' clock, that we can lodge in Trenton."

Once the Franco-American Army crossed the Delaware River, they found the road to be much improved, and more importantly, flat! The Army had been averaging twelve to fifteen miles a day - - now with the improved conditions they increased their pace to twenty-four miles a day.

Upon arriving in the outskirts of the American Capitol, Philadelphia, the columns slowed down so that the men cleaned up as much as they could. The regimental bands were ordered to play. The French Cavalry, in their resplendent uniforms led the way.

Comte De Chermont­Crevecoeur wrote 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 their country were soon dispelled, for they saw superb men. They could not conceive how, after along 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."

The combined armies passed in review before the President of Congress, Thomas McKean, and the members of the Congress. Washington and Rochambeau flanked the President.

As army marched through Chester a dispatch was received, advising that Admiral de Grasse had broken through the British blockade and landed 3,000 French soldiers at Yorktown under the command of the Marquis de Saint-Simon. Cornwallis was trapped! The entire army seemed to relax, and pick up the pace, they all knew they had work to do.

Thanks to excellent roads and the smell of victory, the armies made good time to a town called the Head of Elk. This was the northernmost point where boats could be used to transport some of the troops. Washington noted in his diary: "Judging it highly expedient to be with the Army in Virginia as soon as possible, I determined to set out for the camp of the Marquis de Lafayette without loss of time". But it appears his desire to see his beloved Mount Vernon overwhelmed him.

Having done everything that he could Washington felt it would be safe to leave the army for a few days.

Before leaving, he wrote orders to a point that one might think he was micro­managing the army.

He sent a set of Orders to Captain William Colfax, then Commanding his personal guard. "Sir: Three or four Trusty men, the Woman of the Guard, the Box of papers, and such parts of my Baggage as will be particularly named to you, with all the cover'd Waggons and such others as the Q. M. Genl. shall direct are to go round by Land to the Army in Virginia. The Guard, Stores, and other Baggage, are to be. embarked on board of some good Vessel (for which you are to apply to Genl. Lincoln in time) and to proceed with the rest of the Transports to the place of debarkation in Virginia. The best security for your liquors and other stores which are liable to be pilfered or otherwise wasted, will be to place them in a situation in the hold where they cannot be got at easily."

 George Washington

 He moved ahead of the army, with a small escort of his guards, set out for his home. Washington had left Mount Vernon in May 1775, and had not been home since then - - six years! Washington, with his ever present servant, Billy, and Aide-de-Camp Colonel David Humphrey sped off, leaving the French and his escort well behind. They rode 60 miles in one day!

 

After he arrived at Mount Vernon, his honored guests, the Comte de Rochambeau and the General Francois-Jean de Beauvoir, Chevalier de Chastellux arrived. Neither gentleman recorded his impressions of Mount Vernon.

On the third day of their stay, word was received that Admiral de Grasse had left his position in Chesapeake Bay and sailed off with his entire fleet. The report also mentioned they could hear the sounds of cannon fire.

As expected, the Royal Navy would make an effort to stop de Grasse. They sent Admiral Sir George Rodney, commander of the British West Indies fleet and Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, who commanded the fleet supporting Sir Henry Clinton in New York and Admiral Thomas Graves' fleet. The combined fleet, numbering 25 ships-of-the-line, sailed to drive French Admiral Francois de Grasse away from Yorktown. De Grasse was joined by Admiral Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, Comte de Barras. The combined French fleet numbered 35 ships-of-the-line. The Royal Navy failed to drive the French fleet off, and returned to New York, badly battered.

 

The rescue attempt of Lord Cornwallis was driven off, sealing his fate. As soon as the naval victory was reported, General Washington and his guests rode to Williamsburg and joined the Marquis de Lafayette and the besieging force.

The main army was still enroute. Part of it was sailing down Chesapeake Bay and a larger portion was marching the two hundred miles via land routes. Again they encountered bad roads. Those troops that had sailed found that they envied the troops moving via land. Not being able to cook aboard the small coastal vessels meant their diet consisted of hardtack and cheese. The fall weather produced several storms and made the journey very rough. It took them eighteen days to make the trip.

When they were met by small French men-of-war, their danger was not over. Cornwallis attempted to disrupt the blockading French fleet by sending seven fire ships down the James River. These ships, bearing down on the moored fleet, were a terrible spectacle. Fortunately, they caused little damage.

Three months after the troops left New Windsor and Newport, they finally arrived at Yorktown. There was no time to rest. Their first assignment was to unload the heavy siege guns brought by Admiral Barras and start the digging of the siege trenches. These trenches would extend the full length of the British position. Artillery batteries would be placed along the allied trenches, blasting the British positions at close range. For the first time in the six years of war Washington had an advantage of numbers and fire power - -he had many more cannons than the defending British. Washington was also opposed to any attempt to storm the impressive British fortifications, it would be too costly. Eventually it would be necessary to storm British redoubts nine and ten, but this was accomplished at night, with minimal casualties.

When one reads the surviving diaries, journals, and letters written by the Allied participants in the Yorktown campaign, it becomes obvious that all knew this could be the final battle, the victory that would lead to peace.

Among those diaries the one kept by Sergeant Joseph Plume Martin, with his dry humor, seemingly summed up the siege. "We prepared to move down and pay our old acquaintance, the British, at Yorktown, a visit. I doubt not but their wish was not to have so many of us come at once as their accommodations were rather scanty. They thought 'the fewer the better cheer'. We thought, 'the more the merrier'. We had come a long way to see them and were unwilling to be put off with excuses".

The outcome of the Siege at Yorktown was not only an Allied victory, but signaled the end of the war and American Independence. It is a certainty that the victory would not have been achieved without the intervention of the French fleet and the help of the French army.

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