Trail History

A Revolutionary Route

French map of the route to Yorktown, 1782
French map of the route to Yorktown, 1782. Courtesy of the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

General Rochambeau arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, on 11 July 1780, at the head of an army of some 450 officers and 5,300 men. These troops had crossed the Atlantic on a fleet under the command of Admiral de Ternay consisting of seven ships of the line, two frigates, two smaller warships, and 32 transports, with crews totaling about 7,000 sailors.

Soon after Rochambeau’s arrival, 20 Oneida and Tuscarora Indians, who had fought with the French in the French and Indian War, offered their assistance. Weeks later, a group of Abenaki and Micmac Indians also offered to join the war on the side of the French.

The first meeting of General George Washington and General Rochambeau occurred in September 1780 in Hartford, Connecticut. General Washington proposed a plan to attack British-occupied New York City. However, the late arrival of French forces combined with the lack of funds, food, and supplies of the Continental Army made this plan impossible. The Continental Army wintered in the Hudson Highlands in New York State and in New Jersey The French infantry wintered in Newport, Rhode Island, and Lauzun’s Legion in Lebanon, Connecticut. Lauzun’s Legion was made up of 300 grenadiers, chasseurs, and artillerymen, and 300 hussars. Most troops in the Legion came from German-speaking Europe. In America, the Legion also recruited from among Hessians prisoners of war, German soldiers contracted by the British.

George Washington by James Peale, after Charles Willson Peale
George Washington by James Peale, after Charles Willson Peale, c. 1787-1790. Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park.

Admiral de Ternay died in December 1780. Upon his arrival from France, Admiral de Barras took command of the French fleet in Newport. France sent Admiral de Grasse to the Caribbean in early 1781 with orders to coordinate his activities with General Washington and General Rochambeau.

At their next meeting in Wethersfield, Connecticut, in May 1781, General Washington and General Rochambeau decided to join their forces outside New York City for a possible attack on British forces under General Sir Henry Clinton. In early July, the two armies joined at White Plains in Westchester County, New York.

The French forces sailed from Newport to Providence, Rhode Island in June 1781. General Rochambeau ordered the cavalry of Lauzun’s Legion, who had wintered in Lebanon, Connecticut, to create a screen along the flank closest to the Atlantic, protecting his infantry from attack. The French Army consisted of four regiments: Bourbonnois, Royal Deux-Ponts, Soissonnois, and Saintonge. The regiments left Providence over four days between 18 June and 21 June, 1781; concurrently Lauzun’s Legion departed from its winter quarters.

The movement of the French army was no easy task. In addition to the troops, the wagon train alone consisted of 239 hired wagoners and wagon conductors, 15 (mostly female) cooks, and 210 wagons drawn by some 1,200 oxen.

The 5,300-man French Army joined the 4,000-man Continental Army on 6 July 1781, in Phillipsburg, New York. New York City had been the planned target. However, the Generals recognized the need of a naval component in the attack. The French fleet in Newport under Admiral de Barras was sufficient for troop transport but not strong enough for an attack on the Royal Navy in New York harbor. The French fleet in the Caribbean under Admiral de Grasse was strong enough.

General Washington and General Rochambeau recognized two points of offense were possible: New York City or the Chesapeake Bay. General Rochambeau sent Admiral de Grasse a letter outlining the options, requesting his response. Rochambeau hinted that he thought the Chesapeake Bay offered a greater chance for successful operations against the British while General Washington was holding out hope for an attack on New York City. On 14 August news arrived in White Plains that Admiral de Grasse was headed to the Chesapeake Bay with all the ships and troops he had been able to gather.

The new target were British forces under General Cornwallis in Virginia. There was no time to waste, as Admiral de Grasse had written he would stay in the Chesapeake only until 15 October. The allied army had to move fast.

Meanwhile, Lord Cornwallis had moved from Richmond, Virginia, in May 1781 to Yorktown and Gloucester, Virginia by July. Lafayette and his men had followed him, though General Washington and General Rochambeau did not yet know this when the decision was made to march south. It was up to Lafayette to keep Cornwallis and the British in Yorktown until the allied army could arrive.

Once the decision was made to march to Virginia, allied army staff had four days to prepare. The logistics of finding a route, identifying possible encampments, and securing supplies was urgent. The movement of such a large number of troops was a feat in itself, but this movement also had to be secret so as not to alert the British troops in New York City, who would inform Cornwallis that Washington and Rochambeau were on their march to Virginia. In order to deceive Clinton in New York City, the Continental Army sent 600 men to set up observation posts along the Hudson River to make him think New York City was still the target. The posts would also screen the troops heading south. Some men were left behind to maintain the ruse, building boats and building ovens to bake bread.

On 18 August 1781, the march to Yorktown began. The French Army formed two columns and the Continentals a third, all crossing the Hudson River at King’s Ferry to Stony Point. Once in New Jersey, the Continental Army formed two columns, while the French formed a single column the farthest inland to protect them from British view. Splitting the allied army into multiple columns caused less damage to the roads that were not built to withstand that much use. Additionally, splitting the troops spread the burden of foraging supplies.

Washington’s Life Guard by Pamela Patrick White. Available at www.whitehistoricart.com.
Washington’s Life Guard by Pamela Patrick White. Available at www.whitehistoricart.com.

In early September, the troops paraded before Congress in Philadelphia and the generals received word that Admiral de Grasse had arrived in the Chesapeake. The allied army was still 200 miles away. The troops made it to Head of Elk (Elkton) in Maryland between 6 and 8 September, where the Continental Army was paid with hard currency Washington had borrowed from Rochambeau. Though Washington had hoped for enough transports to take the troops directly to Virginia, only enough were available for 3,000 men.

Between 9 and 12 September, General Washington, General Rochambeau, and other officers visited Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. While the main troops marched, French officers took advantage of sightseeing the battlefields of the war, natural wonders, and other sites. As they were marching south of Baltimore, the troops received word that Admiral de Grasse had sailed on 5 September to meet the British fleet in what is known as the Battle Off the Capes. On 14 September, however, news of Admiral de Grasse’s victory reached the troops.

On 18 September Generals Washington and Rochambeau conferred with Admiral de Grasse on his flagship, the “Ville de Paris.” Between 22 and 25 September, most allied army troops reached Virginia where they joined 3,300 French troops under the marquis de St. Simon which had arrived with Admiral de Grasse.

On 28 September, the allied armies set out for Yorktown, where Cornwallis and the British Army were cornered. The siege was about to begin.

Williamsburg to Yorktown by Pamela Patrick White. Available at www.whitehistoricart.com.
Williamsburg to Yorktown by Pamela Patrick White. Available at www.whitehistoricart.com.