Washington's Dispatch to de Grasse
Concerning the Yorktown Campaign Decision

This page presents Washington's 17 August 1781, personal reply to de Grasse's 28 July message (The first notification Washington received, on 14 August, that the French fleet was destined for the Cheaspeake rather than the New York area.) Washington prepared this dispatch at his Phillipsburg (NY) camp and gave it to Duportail to hand carry to Virginia. It was personally delivered on 2 September, aboard the Ville de Paris -- de Grasse's flagship. [Source: pp.108-109, Thayer's Yorktown: Campaign of Strategic Options: taken from Fitzpatrick, ed., Writings of Geroge Washington, vol.23, pp.6-11.]
The dispatch gives an explicit description of Washington's strategic perspectives of the forthcoming operations -- that would be known as the 'Yorktown Campaign'. Washington's reply reflects the American general's change of immediate strategic objective (New York), as well as his awareness that it was not certain as far as finding a worthwhile British objective once the allied navy and land armies converged on the Virginia coast.
"Sir, In consequence of the dispatches received from your Excellency by the Frigate La Concorde it had been judged expedient to give up for the present the enterprise against New York and to turn our attention towards the South, with a view, if we should not be able to attempt Charles town itself, to recover and secure the States of Virginia, North Carolina and the Country of South Carolina and Georgia. We may add a further inducement for giving up the first mentioned enterprise, which is the arrival of a reinforcement of near 3000 Hessian Recruits. For this purpose we have determined to remove the whole of the French Army and as large a detachment of the American as can be spared, to Chesapeak, to meet your Exlency there.
"      The following appear to us the principal Cases which will present themselves, and upon which we shall be obliged ultimately to form our plans. We have therfore stated them, with a few short observations upon each. Your Excellency will be pleased to revolve them in your own mind and prepare your own opinion by the time we shall have the pleasure of meeting you in Virginia.
"      1st What shall be done of the Enemy should be found with the greater part of their force in Virginia upon the arrival of the French Fleet?
"      2d Should only a detachment be found there?
"      3d Should the British force be totally withdrawn from there?
"      Upon the first, it appears to us that we ought, without loss of time, to attack the enemy with our United Force.
"      Upon the second, it appears proper to destine such part of our force as will be amply sufficient to reduce the enemys detachment, and then determine what use shall be made of the remainder, and here two things present themselves for our considerations. the enemy will either have sent the greater part of their forces, from Virginia, to New York or to Charles town. If to New York, (which is the least probable under present circumstances) Charles town will have but a moderate Garrison and it may be possible to attack it to advantage. If to Charles town, Then the Enemy will be so superior to General Greene, that they will be able to regian the whole of the State of south Carolina and of consequence, Georgia. We therfore think that in this last case a force as least should be detached to South Carolina as will enable us to keep the field and confine the enemy in or near to Charles town.
"      In the third case which we stated, we mean that of supposing the enemy should have totally evacuated Virginia. It appears to us necessary to make a solid establishment at protsmouth, or any other place if more proper, in order to render a Fleet in Chesapeak Bay entirely secure, and to employ the remainder of out land force and such Vessels as may be proper for the service as has been explained in the preceding Article. That is, either in the siege of Charles town, if the Garrison shall be found sufficiently weak to warrant the attempt, or to cover and secure the Country should it be found otherwise.
"      Returning back to the enterprise agt. New York will depend upon a number of circumstances, the discussion of which we will leave untill we have the happiness of a conference with your Excellency. We have only to observe that the execution of all or any of the plans which we have proposed, go upon a supposition of a decided Naval superioroty; except that of marching a reinforcement into south Carolina.
"      We would beg leave to take up so much of your Excellency's time, as to point out to you the vast importance of Charles town and what advantages the enemy derive from the possession of it. It is the Centre of their power in the south. By holding it, they preserve a dangerous influence throughout the whole State, as it is the only port and the only place from whence the people can procure those Articles of foreign produce which are essential to their support, and it in great measure serves to cover and keep in subjection the State fo Gerogia. From thence, the enemy can also establish small posts in North Carolina. And of they maintain a post in Chesapeak, they keep up the appearance of possessing 400 Miles upon the Coast and of consequence have a pretext for setting up claims which may be very detrimental to the interests of America in European Councils.
"      We are not sufficiently acquainted with the position of Charles town, neither it is necessary at this time, to enter into a detail of the proper mode of attacking it, or of the probability which we should have of succeeding. For these will refer your Excellency to Brigadier Genl. du Portail Commander of the Corps of Engineers in the service of the United States, who will have the honor of presenting this. That Gentleman having been in Charles town as principal Engineer during the greater part of the seige, and in the Environs of it as a prisoner of War a considerable time afterwards, had opportunity of making very full observations, which he judiciously improved.
"      A variety of cases different from those we have stated may occur. It is for this reason that we have thought proper to send General du Portail to your Excellency. He is fully acquainted with every circumstance of our Affairs in this quarter, and we recommend him to your Excellency as an Officer upon whose Abilities and in whose integrity you may place the fullest confidence.
"      We would observe to your Excellency that it will be very essential to the dispatch of the business in contemplation for you to send up to Elk River at the Head of Chesapeak Bay all your Frigates, Transports and Vessels proper for the conveyance of the French and American Troops down the Bay. We shall endeavour to have as many as can be found in Baltimore and other ports secured, but we have reason to believe they will be very few. We have the honor etc."
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Page created 17 August 2001; modified 16 August 2009.