YORKTOWN CAMPAIGN DECISION

 

This webpage addresses two controversies surrounding the decision of the Franco-American forces to undertake the Yorktown Campaign of 1781: 

(1) Was the Yorktown Campaign planned as early as 22 May 1781? What was the 'real Wethersfield plan'? [Part I] 

(2) How much was the Yorktown Campaign Rochambeau's idea as compared to that of Washington's? [Part II] 

There is considerable overlap in addressing the two issues. Much of what relates to the second part will be covered in reviewing the first part. 

 
PART I: THE FIRST CONTROVERSY ['The Wethersfield Plan']
The appearance of such swift and remarkably successful combined/joint operations has encouraged some to envision the 'Yorktown Campaign' of 1781 as a long-laid scheme. Nothing could be more implausible as evident when a series of aspects are examined. This examination will be in six sections: 
A:  LAUNCHING of an IMPLAUSIBLE LEGEND
B:  UNDERSTANDING ALLIED COMMANDERS' DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES
C:  WETHERSFIELD CONFERENCE DESCRIBED
D:  EVENTS and WRITTEN EXCHANGES BETWEEN MID MAY and EARLY AUGUST 1781, and RELEVANT POST-WAR MATERIAL in 1788 and 1808.
E:  THE LEGEND IS EMBELLISHED
F:  IMPACT on COMMEMORATION SITES
 
 
Section A: LAUNCHING of an IMPLAUSIBLE LEGEND 

A remark in Rochambeau's memoirs, written late in his life, helped launch a myth. This is taken by some to argue that the 'Yorktown plan' was agreed to at the Wethersfield meeting (22 May 1781) between Washington and Rochambeau. The assumption that the remark supports such a thesis takes Rochambeau's text out of proper context. The proper context is best observed by examining many documents written by Rochambeau and Washington contemporary with events from May through August of 1781. 

An examination of the sequence of events that led to the conditions in the summer of 1781 in Virginia attest to the evolving, unplanned developments. Specifically and certainly not known on 22 May at the Wethersfield meeting between Rochambeau and Washington were: 

  • That there would be a significant British military target in Virginia that warranted diverting the combined armies in the north -- and thereby leaving much of the northeast vulnerable to the large British army positioned at New York City. 
  • That there would be the arrival of a significant French naval fleet along the Virginia coast at the moment a British army would have placed itself in a vulnerable position at a port town in the Chesapeake Bay where it would be effectively denied escape via water routes. 
  • Further, that this foregoing disposition of the British army in Virginia, would be constricted from withdrawing inland by the added presence of a significant French land force which was brought by the French fleet to aide the otherwise small American army that had faced the British in Virginia for over a month. 
The evidence of contemporary documents confirms that the Wethersfield Conference unquestionably decided upon New York City as the main objective -- as was Washington's preference. However, due to Rochambeau's concerns and preferences, there was acknowledgment made at the conference that a southern initiative was an optional strategy. While not knowing of any specifics, the allied commanders recognized that circumstances could develop where an operation to the south might be advantageous.
       Prior to May 1781, the only 'plan' to deal with the southern area in Virginia was to support Lafayette, who had been deployed earlier in 1781 to confront, with a contingent of French regulars, general Arnold. The French regulars were never supplied, and Arnold was reinforced with more British under Phillips. The first item considered at the May Wethersfield Conference was for the French army to be taken to the Chesapeake Bay by the small French naval squadron under de Barras. However, de Barras had already deemed such a deployment impracticable, as his squadron was inferior in size to what the British navy could assemble in the area. As the Wethersfield conference was taking place, Cornwallis was entering Virginia, and assuming command of a much larger British force in that theater. Cornwallis' arrival in Virginia was not known to either Washington or Rochambeau at the Wethersfield Conference. 
 
Section B: UNDERSTANDING the ALLIED COMMANDERS' DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

Washington did hold a stalwart focus on besieging the British at NYC. Washington's reasons for focusing on New York were largely influenced by his knowing how politically symbolic the objective was for the American cause. He may also have felt a little 'I shall return' aspects having met there his humiliating defeat early in the war. However, Washington knew that such an operation required naval support, which only the French navy could provide. When he finally had some hope of such naval support, he also had to confront an immense inadequacy of numbers in his combined [American and French] land forces to undertake such a siege against the very formidable British position in New York City. He noted in his writings at the time of the Wethersfield conference [mid May 1781] that there were conceivable circumstances which could make a southern initiative possible. There is evidence at the time, and as he would say in later accounts, he maintained a flexible outlook as to either north (New York City) or south (Charleston or Virginia Chesapeake area). The fact that Washington held firm -- until circumstances dictated otherwise -- toward New York as an objective evidences sound military leadership.
       In contrast to Washington's natural orientation and instincts, Rochambeau's experience was that of the eighteenth century, professional European, military commander. By mid May 1781, he was very aware that his available force was fixed -- there would not be an additional division of French troops deployed from France to bring his expedition up to the strength as planned in early 1781. Rochambeau did not see much benefit in undertaking a costly siege of a well fortified and well manned enemy position. He instinctively looked for an opportunity to have a low-risk battlefield victory, and knew that such was often obtained by quick movements to engage a smaller enemy force. He saw the stalemate in the north, and noted a more dynamic situation taking place in the south. In particular, dispatches from Lafayette, kept the allied high command in the north reasonably appraised of developments in Virginia. As it turned out, those developments evolved into an opportunity by early August. Washington was equally aware of the activities in Virginia that summer; however, he had to have convincing reasons to abandon his earlier conceived, prime objective of New York.
       There is the appearance of Rochambeau's possible manipulation of dispatches that went to de Grasse, and thereby may have influenced the French admiral's decision to go to the Chesapeake. There is little debate that it was de Grasse's decision which effectively launched a large scale operation in Virginia. Was there more? Was Washington threatened with Rochambeau feeling obligated to march south, even before Washington fully re-committed himself in the 'crisis' following the receipt on 14 August of de Grasse's dispatch, announcing the admiral's decision? This might not ever be satisfactorily answered.
       It was in late July that Washington's chief engineer conveyed to the American commander the unhappy assessment of the hopelessness in besieging New York. It was is early August that Washington learned of Cornwallis' position in the Tidewater of Virginia. Then in mid August, Washington was informed of de Grasse's decision to go to the Chesapeake. There is evidence that Rochambeau played a significant role in persuading the French admiral, de Grasse, to deploy to the Chesapeake. However, it is clear that decision was for de Grasse to make, and the French admiral committed himself in late July. While there is also some suggestion that Rochambeau may have been pushing to go south on his own, it was Washington's decision to refocus allied land armies' priorities on the southern operation -- the 'Yorktown Campaign'. [The theme as to which commander may be most responsible for devising the campaign is addressed more in Part II of this webpage.] Regardless of the reasons, the operation that launched the Yorktown Campaign for the allied land armies was decided by Washington on 14 August. The campaign unfolded rapidly and was complemented by an array of independent events that meshed so perfectly as to hide from the casual observer [then and in later years] how almost miraculous it was. 

This page attempts to present a disciplined approach toward examining the formulation of the Yorktown Campaign: 

  • First only the main participants' [Washington's and Rochambeau's] direct statements are to be given priority. Comments of others are to be considered only to put in context the remarks of Washington and Rochambeau. 
  • Plausibility and feasibility of claims are to be judged in context of the chronological sequence of events 
Let Washington and Rochambeau 'speak for themselves'. There is no need of others' perceptions as to what Rochambeau and Washington meant, or to describe the reactions of these two competently articulate commanders, who left considerable written documentation both contemporary with, and subsequent to, the events of 1781. This webpage emphasizes primarily the recorded accounts of the participants in the Wethersfield Conference. There is no need to chase down the enormous rumors and speculations, even of noted contemporaries, as they were not part of any suggested, legendary, 'close-secret plan' decided in 22 May. The concern is with the context (chronological sequence being very important) of each account. 
        If there is a hypothesis that the two commanders meant opposite what they were writing in May through July 1781, then such a theory can be entertained, but only with some discipline -- not emotional analysis. A disciplined approach must give high priority as to what was conceivable, feasible and plausible in context of the chronological sequence of events. Next, a discipline assessment requires considering what was plausible in terms of military and naval preferences and practices. And in this case, when it comes to suggestions of close-held secrets between two individuals, there is a need to consider the plausibility how such is done if neither speaks the other's language. 
 
Section C: WETHERSFIELD CONFERENCE DESCRIBED 

Washington suggested the village of Wethersfield, Connecticut, for a conference requested by Rochambeau. The day was to be May 21. However, as Rochambeau and his party were about to leave Newport, British vessels appeared off of Newport and forced de Barras to remain behind with his small naval squadron.
        Accompanying Rochambeau to Wethersfield was a French general officer who spoke English, the marquis de Chastellux. Washington was accompanied by his chief engineer and French volunteer in the American service, Brigadier Louis le Bègue Duportail; and his chief of artillery Henry Knox. Besides these, there is not a certain account of who else attended, or may have been present at all times with the two allied commanders.
        Few French or American eyewitness accounts of the Wethersfield Conference have survived. None of Rochambeau's seven aides who left diaries, journals, or letters -- his son (le vicomte de Rochambeau), Baron Closen, Axel von Fersen, Mathieu Dumas, Cromot du Bourg, the marquis du Bouchet, and the comte de Lauberdière -- mention Wethersfield on their itineraries. Chastellux does not mention it in his famous journal, but he did write a controversial dispatch that briefly referenced the conference; it will be discussed later. On the American side, few of the papers of Jonathan Trumbull Jr., Washington's private secretary, or of Brigadier Louis le Bègue Duportail seem to have survived, and neither the papers of Henry Knox nor those of Alexander Hamilton contain any information as to the discussions at Wethersfield. We are primarily dependent upon: 


(1) The original minutes of the conference that survive in the Rochambeau papers in the Paul Mellon Collection at the University of Virginia. 

(2) The diary entry of George Washington on the day of the conference at Wethersfield, 22 May 1781. 

(3) Rochambeau's 'after action report' written immediately after the victory at Yorktown, October 1781. 

(4) Washington's assessment of the military situation stated in his 17 August 1781 dispatch to de Grasse. 

(5) Washington's 31 July 1788 letter responding to a question from Noah Webster asking about rumors concerning a planned attack against New York versus the eventual Yorktown objective. 

(6) Extracts from comte de Rochambeau's Memoirs [published 1808] pertaining to the issue of allied strategy agreed upon at the Wethersfield Conference of 22 May 1781 and the formulation of the allied campaign to besiege Yorktown. 

These documents need to be examined in chronological context and will be specifically addressed in the following section. 

 
Section D: EVENTS and WRITTEN EXCHANGES BETWEEN MID MAY and EARLY AUGUST 1781,and RELEVANT POST-WAR MATERIAL in 1788 and 1808. 
22 May 1781 
During Wethersfield Conference generals Washington and Rochambeau exchanged views in the form of written queries. The main question to be considered was where the summer campaign should take place. The exchange addressed the possibility of a French fleet coming to assist the allied land armies. Rochambeau suggested that Virginia offered the best hope for a successful campaign, while Washington stressed the advantages of an attack on the British in New York City. The result of this conference was reduced to writing and a copy retained by Washington and Rochambeau. Washington's copy, in English, bearing the signatures of both commanders, is in the Washington Papers, Library of Congress, under date May 23, 1781. It is printed in Ford's Writings of Washington, vol.9, p.251, with Rochambeau's propositions condensed. The final issue is addressed in the exchange given below: 
Rochambeau. -- Should the squadron from the West Indies arrive in these seas, an event that will probably be announced by a frigate beforehand, what operations will General Washington have in view after a union of he French army with his own?
Washington. -- The enemy, by several detachment from New York, having reduced their forces at that post to less than one half of the number which they had at the time of the former conference at Hartford in September last, it is thought advisable to form a junction of the French and American armies upon the North River as soon as possible, and move down to the vicinity of New York, to be ready to take advantage of any opportunity which the weakness of the enemy may afford. Should the West India fleet arrive upon the coast, the force thus combined may either proceed in operations against New York or may be directed against the enemy in some other quarter, as circumstances shall dictate. The great waste of men, which we have found from experience in the long marches to the southern States, the advanced season in which such a march must be commenced, and the difficulties and expense of land transportation thither, with other considerations too well known to Count DE ROCHAMBEAU to need detailing, point out the preference which an operation against New York seems to have in the present circumstances over an attempt to send a force to the southward. 
Above text is from Rochambeau. A Commemoration by the Congress of the United States of the Services of the French Auxiliary Forces in the War of the American Independence, edited by D.B. Randolph Keim (Washington, DC, 1907), pp. 381-384. 

Practically all historians accept these reported conclusions as the real agreement of the allied commanders. However, the revisionists' theory is that this summary of the minutes is a deception to hide the real objective, which they claim was to undertake a march to the south after conducting a feint upon New York City. 

22 May 
Washington recorded in his diary: 
"22nd. Fixed with Count de Rochambeau upon a plan of Campaign--in Substance as follows. That the French Land force (except 200 Men) should March so soon as the Squadron could Sail for Boston--to the North River & there, in conjunction with the American, to commence an operation against New York (which in the present reduced State of the Garrison it was thought would fall, unless relieved; the doing which wd. enfeeble their Southern operations, and in either case be productive of capital advantages) or to extend our views to the Southward as circumstances and a Naval superiority might render more necessary & eligable. The aid which would be given to such an operation in this quarter--the tardiness with which the Regiments would be filled for any other--the insurmountable difficulty & expence of Land transportation--the waste of Men in long marches (especially where there is a disinclination to the Service--objections to the climate &ca.) with other reasons too numerous to detail, induced to this opinion. The heavy Stores & Baggage of the French Army were to be deposited at Providence under Guard of 200 Men (before mentioned) & Newport Harbour & Works were to be secured by 500 Militia." 
[John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. The Diaries of George Washington 1748-1799, vol. 2, 1771-1785 (Boston, 1925), pp. 217-218.] 

The revisionists are challenged to declare that Washington is practicing deception in his diary entry. They refuse to see his statements here as reflecting the sentiments reported in the conference summary. Rather, the revisionist assert that the actions toward New York city are a feint. The drawing of British forces from the south is seen as the first part of the grand plan; the second part would be to conduct a southern campaign. The revisionists do not see gathering of the allied armies north on the Hudson River, above New York City as a 'productive' corollary part of a major allied effort against the British defenses in the city. 

26 May 1781 
Washington recorded in his diary that he received a letter from John Laurens, US Minister from the United States of America at the Court of Versailles, informing Washington "... that a Fleet of 20 Sail of the Line was on its departure for the West Indies 12 of which were to proceed to this Coast where it was probable they might arrive in the Month of July." [This entry is from p.219-20, John Fitzpatrick's The Diaries of George Washington 1748-1799, vol.2 (1771-1785)] Rochambeau had been instructed by the French Ministry not to provide this information yet to Washington. 
27 May 
Rochambeau, from Newport, RI, sent a dispatch to the French minister to the US, le chevalier de la Luzerne, in Philadelphia. The purpose was to report the results of the Wethersfield Conference of 22 May. His dispatch included an encoded cover letter, stating that New York was the main allied objective, and an encoded copy of the conference's proceedings stating the same objective. This dispatch fell into British hands on 3 June, but had to be deciphered in London. It did not get back to Clinton until 2 August. 

[Archival evidence of the letter exists as the British drafted, decoded French text. This is what was sent to Clinton, who could read French. The decoded letter is catalogued in the Shelburne Papers in the Clements Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, under: "Shelburne 35/66: Rochambeau to Luzerne, May 27, 1781. Enclosing a report of the conference with de Barras and Washington at Wethersfield. 2 pp. Deciphered copy." And "Shelburne 35/66: The Wethersfield Conference, May 16-23, 1781. 8 pp. Deciphered copy." ] 
28 May 
Washington entered in his diary that he directed his Commanding Officer of Artillery, Major General Knox, and the chief Engineer, Major General Louis le Bègue Duportail [French military engineer who served with the American army in 1777] "to give their want for the intended operation against New York." 
Entry is from p.220, John Fitzpatrick's The Diaries of George Washington 1748-1799, vol.2 (1771-1785). It should be noted that both of these officers were at the Wethersfield Conference. 
28 May 
Rochambeau prepared a summary of the Wethersfield Conference in a dispatch to de Grasse. On 31 May Rochambeau added a post-script to this dispatch, which had not yet been sent. It would not depart aboard the French frigate Concorde until June 20 --- after 11 June, when Rochambeau received a 19 March dated dispatch from de Grasse. The allied commanders' responses are addressed later in this sequence. 
23-31 May 
Washington's sent letters reporting the main outcome of the Wethersfield Conference to la Luzerne on 23 May, to Congress on 27 May, to General Sultan on 29 May, and to Lafayette on 31 May. Rochambeau prepared an encoded dispatch to la Luzerne on May 27 which reported on the Wethersfield Conference. 
31 May 
Rochambeau held a 'council of war' aboard de Barras' flagship, Duc de Bourgogne in Newport harbor. Contrary to what was agreed at Wethersfield as well as instructions from the French ministry, Rochambeau and Barras decided to keep the French naval squadron at Newport. From reading the council's report, it appears that a reconsideration of naval operations -- including an assessment of the prevailing winds -- suggested that Newport, rather than Boston, would best serve Barras' future junction with Rochambeau and de Grasse. 
1 June 
Chastellux sent a dispatch to la Luzerne that only briefly addressed the results of Wethersfield Conference. This letter was intercepted by British patrols on June 3. Clinton sent Rochambeau the original with a note "that he ought to be on guard against his associates." The original letter was burned by Rochambeau after he confronted Chastellux about it. An article by Randolph G. Adams, "The Burned Letter of Chastellux" in Franco-American Pamphlet Series Number 7, New York 1935, pp.3-7. reviews the contents of two British copies of the letter found in files of British officials. One in Clinton's files and the other in the Earl of Shelburne's files. They are very much alike, with only minor differences. Both have some blanks, probably due illegible words in the original document. 
3 June 
The 23 May though 1 June dispatches just cited above were intercepted by the British. The interception of these dispatches are the core of much of the legend that views these documents as deliberate acts of deception to mislead the British general Clinton as to the 'true' military objective agreed upon by Washington and Rochambeau at Wethersfield. 
3 June 
Washington sent a written comment on the intercepted dispatches to Rochambeau. Washington's letter to Rochambeau assured that the enemy would get "no material information from my letters" [in Washington, Writings vol 22. p.155.]. This is a rather strange message to send to another who is supposed to be in on the deception! 
Aside from the key documents that directly reference what was agreed at the Wethersfield Conference, there are several other contemporary written exchanges between Washington, Rochambeau, de Grasse, and Lafayette as events unfolded prior to August 1781. Such exchanges allow an assessment of what was the status of the commanders' shared understandings as to the intended courses of actions. These documents were not being written so as to address possible later confusion by historians as to what was specifically agreed at the 22 May conference. In stead, the various authors often referred to 'plans' and 'projects' and courses of action entirely out of context of a 22 May understanding. It is these -- at least some, as they all need not be covered to make the point -- that will be addressed in the next series of references. 

Washington exchanged several dispatches with Lafayette, who was in Virginia conducting a frustrating defensive operation against larger British forces. Lafayette was informed of the results of the Wethersfield Conference, confirming New York as the primary objective in Washington's 31 May dispatch, which was intercepted. Washington evidently considered the message important enough to re-send a few weeks later. Again, a strange act if the original was merely a deception. However, the nature of Lafayette being at the very 'eye of the storm' which would later descend upon a little tobacco port town in Virginia, makes some of the dispatches suspect of conveying hidden meanings, suggesting a 'pre-planned Yorktown Campaign' before August 1781. For that reason, Lafayette's dispatches with Washington need to be noted.
        This extensive exchange of correspondence is covered in Stanley J. Idzerda's Lafayette In the Age of The American Revolution, Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790. Volume IV, 'April 1, 1781-December 23, 1781'; Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1981. There is not room to address each letter in this page. It is worth noting some observations made by the editor, Idzerda, of these published letters. 

  • On p.2 of the editor's introduction to Part I the following: "Washington and Rochambeau were meeting at Wethersfield, Connecticut, where they agreed on a plan to relieve Greene by an attack on New York. The threat of attack would force Clinton to recall troops from the South for the city's defense." 
  • On p.134, editor's foot note to 25 May letter from Marquis de Castries (French Minister of the Navy) to Lafayette. In reference to de Castries stating that Rochambeau preferred a southern operations versus one against New York, Idzerda's note (number 3) states: "During a conference with Washington in May 31, Rochambeau changed his mind about the feasibility of an attack on New York and agreed to a joint [combined] French-American expedition against the city. See Washington to Lafayette, May 31, 1781" 
  • On p.226, Idzerda states: "Washington and Rochambeau's plans and those of the French naval commanders were gradually formulated and revealed to him [Lafayette]. By the last ten days of August Lafayette knew that a French fleet and troops were coming to close ... [upon Cornwallis]" 

        In assessing the military situation in Virginia, it is important to review of the dynamics, the flow and progression, of Lafayette's Virginia Campaign (1781), which is addressed at a separate webpage, the link to which is given at the end of this page. It should be noted that until around the first of August, events in Virginia presented an uncertain 'military target' that would be worthy of Washington giving up his New York venture. 

4 June 
Washington noted in his diary the receipt of Lafayette's dispatch, dated 25 May, informing of the junction of Cornwallis with Arnold at Petersburg, Virginia [pp.223-4, John Fitzpatrick's The Diaries of George Washington 1748-1799, vol.2 (1771-1785).] 
In the afternoon, Washington recorded that he received news of the 30 May 'council of war' decision. [p.224, John Fitzpatrick's The Diaries of George Washington 1748-1799, vol.2 (1771-1785).] 
7 June 
Washington and Rochambeau learned of de Grasse's arrival in the Caribbean from a newspaper account. De Grasse had departed Brest on 22 March 1781. He was enroute to the West Indies with 20 ships of the line, three frigates and 156 transport, where he would be under his own independent command. He would coordinate his naval operations with equal authority to effect joint/combined operations and campaigns with the two allied army commanders in North America. 
10 June 
The French frigate le Sagittaire arrived at Boston harbor with a 29 March dispatch from de Grasse. This was the first correspondence from de Grasse to reach Rochambeau, and confirmation that his fleet was on its way. De Grasse informed Rochambeau of the fleets expected arrival at Santo Domingo by the end of June, and that he could be in American waters by mid July at the earliest. However, de Grasse stated that he needed to know the campaign plans for 1781 and asked for American pilots. 
Rochambeau, at Newport received de Grasse's 29 March dispatch. De Grasse's request to know what were the allied army plans initiated separate responses from the army commanders. 
11-12 June 
Rochambeau, at Newport (RI) prepared a dispatch to de Grasse. He sent a copy of his draft to de Grasse, along with a memo, to Washington at New Windsor (NY). 
11 June 
Washington received Lafayette's 3 June dispatch that Cornwallis' forces were somewhere between Richmond and Fredericksburg, in Virginia. 
13 June 
Washington responded to Rochambeau, with his own reply to de Grasse. 
18 June 
Rochambeau began the French army's march from Newport to join with Washington's American army at Philipsburg, New York. 
20 June 
The frigate Concorde sailed from Newport with Rochambeau's 11 June reply to de Grasse. Though it had aboard seven New York area coastal pilots, and a copy of la Luzerne's 20 May letter to Rochambeau as well as la Luzerne's 4 June letter to de Grasse, it did not have Washington's 13 June dispatch to de Grasse. 
Rochambeau received Washington's 13 dated June dispatch to go to de Grasse, as the French army was on march and away from Newport. Rochambeau reported to Washington that he regretted that Washington's dispatch arrived too late to send with his reply to de Grasse -- but would go with the next ship. 
6 July 
French troops established camp in the vicinity of Philipsburg, New York, and along side the camp of the Continental Army. Together, the allied camps covered a large area between Dobb's Ferry, on the left [east] bank of the Hudson [the 'North River'] and White Plains to the east. 
15 July 
Washington's letter to Richard Henry Lee contains a vague statement that he [Washington] is "perswaded" that his intercepted messages a month earlier "occasioned the retrograde movement of Lord Cornwallis, and will be the means of bringing part of his force to New York. to the accomplishment of one part of my plan." This statement is often cited as suggesting Washington had a two phase plan, with the first phase being [to draw troops from the south], and the second part being a march to the south. Such an interpretation ignores Washington's statement a few lines earlier that described his 'two parts': "...the fall of New York, or withdraw [sic] of Troops from Virginia..."

[ Fitzpatrick's edited Writings, pp.382-384. In particular passages on p.384.] 
16 July 
De Grasse anchored at Le Cap Franšais in St Domingue, where the Concorde was waiting with Rochambeau's dispatches dated 28 May through 11 June. (The frigate carrying the dispatches did not leave Newport until 20 June.) This was the French admiral's first knowledge of the Franco-American military plans in North America. 
20 July 
Washington and Rochambeau were located near one another in the Philipsburg and White Plains area, north of New York city. They held a meeting at Dobbs Ferry. Washington recorded some of the communications in his diary. 
21 July 
Washington recorded in his diary his preparation of a report to de Grasse. 
21-23 July 
Washington and Rochambeau conducted an active reconnaissance of British defenses at New York. 
27 July 
Duportail submitted his pessimistic assessment of an allied attempt to besiege the British defenses of New York City. 
28 July 
De Grasse prepared his dispatch to Rochambeau and Washington. It announced his decision to go to the Chesapeake. There is no mention of the town of York. He asked that the allied army commanders make "the best of the time" that the French fleet will be available.

[Source: p.107, Thayer's Yorktown: Campaign of Strategic Options: taken from H.L. Landers, The Virginia Campaign and the Blockade and Siege of Yorktown, 1781 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931, pp.155-57.] 
1 August 
Washington expressed his thoughts in his diary. 
"Thus circumstanced, and having little more than general assurances of getting the succours called for and energetic Laws and Resolves energetically executed, to depend upon, with little appearance of their fulfilment, I could scarce see a ground upon wch. 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 view more seriously (than I had before done) to an operation to the Southward and, in consequence, sent to make inquiry, indirectly, of the principal Merchants to the Eastward what number, and what time, Transports could be provided to convey a force to the Southward 
[Fitzpatrick, ed. The Diaries of George Washington 1748-1799, vol.2, 1771-1785, pp.248-9.]

Though accepting the inadequacies of the allied armies to attempt a siege of the British at New York City, Washington appeared to be delaying a firm decision to divert from the original objective until he knew of the point of de Grasse's arrival and what he brought in additional French military forces.  

2 August 
Acting upon the thoughts he expressed in his diary the day before, Washington wrote (from Dobbs Ferry, NY) to Robert Morris (in Philadelphia). Based upon the "almost ... certainty" that the British in New York will be reinforced, further increasing the unfavorable imbalance of forces, the planned allied siege of the British in the city "must be laid aside." Washington, therefore, considers what "seems the next objective:" a "detachment which the enemy will probably leave in Virginia." Anticpating this change in campaign objectives, Washington seeks Robert Morris' assistance to obtain water transport and related logistical arrangements to accomplish the strategic movement of the allied forces from the north to Virginia.
        Washington's words fall short of announcing a final decision. A key element is the anticpated arrival of the French fleet, with which the allies could "obtain a naval superiority ... to carry a body of men suddenly round by water." The implication of the scheme is that the point of arrival of the anticipated French fleet would be in the northern waters of the colonies. The fatigue of an overland march would be avoided by possibly transporting the forces on vessels from Philadelphia to a location in Virginia. Of course, there was no certainly of Cornwallis still being in Virginia, and no awarness yet that the town of York would be the geographical objective.  
11 August 
Rochambeau received de Grasse's 28 July letter. 
14, 15, and 16 August 
Washington received de Grasse's 28 July letter on 14 August, and over a period of three days recorded a series of decisions in his diary. These decisions form the initial structure of the Yorktown Campaign; and can be examined by clicking on the button bar below.
 

17 August 
Washington's sent a dispatch to de Grasse that was personally carried south by Duportail and hand delivered to the admiral aboard his flagship, the Ville de Paris, on 2 September. In this, Washington expressed his change of strategic direction from New York to the south, and gave his assessment of options as to specific courses of actions the allied commanders might have to decide.

[Source: pp.108-109, Thayer's Yorktown: Campaign of Strategic Options: taken from Fitzpatrick, ed., Writings of George Washington, vol.23, pp.6-11.] 
From mid August until the surrender of the British at Yorktown in mid October 1781, there is no dispute about developments. This was the period that defined the military operations covered in the Yorktown Campaign webpage. [Link is given at the end of this page.] However, there was to follow some documents by the main participants that reflect upon the debate. 
October-November 1781 
Rochambeau wrote his Mémoire de la Guerre en Amérique, his field report on the campaign. The report, probably begun in October, was transmitted to Versailles in November. In this he affirms that New York was the primary allied objective. 
While Rochambeau's 1781 report on the Yorktown Campaign should have put an end to the legend, its contents were not broadly known by many who were attracted to the rumor. There were many at the time who speculated and perpetuated the myth of the Yorktown Campaign having been conceived at Wethersfield -- some even suggested earlier. Eventually, Rochambeau and Washington addressed these assertions in post war documents. 
1788 
Noah Webster put the question directly to Washington in a 14 July 1788 letter asking if the "... preparations made at the time for attacking New York were merely a feint." Washington, responded in a 31 July 1788 letter letter from Mount Vernon. Washington emphasizes that: 
"... that the point of attack was not absolutely agreed upon, because it would be easy for the Count de Grasse in good time before his departure from the West Indies to give notice by express at what place he could most conveniently first touch to receive advices, ..." 
[In Col. H.L. Landers' The Virginia Campaign and the Blockade and Siege of Yorktown 1781 (Washington, DC, 1931), p.136. ]

In his letter, Washington is not precise as to when he decided that New York was not possible. His letter makes a strong point that New York "was not absolutely agreed upon." However, Washington follows such a statement [in his first paragraph] by explaining that the decision would rest largely upon where de Grasse decided to go when he departed from the West Indies. As de Grasse would not make such a decision until late July, and Washington would not learn of that decision until 14 August. The letter confirms that Washington had not removed New York as an option prior to 14 August, and that Virginia was certainly not secretly decided upon on 22 May at Wethersfield. 
1808 
Rochambeau addressed the legend in his Memoirs. A careful reading of his text clearly makes a distinction between 'the real plan' being the one that he [Rochambeau] proposed to, and that was generally followed by, de Grasse; and this is in contrast to the plan that Chastellux truly understood to have been agreed upon at Wethersfield. However, when the specific documents to which Rochambeau refers in his Memoirs are examined, the general's recollection is a little astray. Chastellux's letter actually said very little about the Wethersfield Conference, and just barely hints to New York as the objective. Whereas, it was Rochambeau's intercepted encoded 27 May letter to la Luzerne, when deciphered and returned to Clinton in New York in early August, that provided the most convincing statement of the original allied plan to besiege New York City. Neither dispatch was being deceptive.
Of most significance is that in the all of the writings by both Rochambeau and Washington for many years after the war, neither ever refer to having a secret code or scheme that was not shared by their close, senior staffs. Neither claimed that their late May intercepted dispatches were deceptions. Washington re-sent his 31 May letter with the summary of the Wethersfield Conference to Lafayette to ensure the marquis received it. Rochambeau encoded his letter to la Luzerne. The method of preparing the document and the important addressee make it implausible as a deception. This silence on such a strategic deception contrasts markedly with the frequently expressed pride that both generals declared as to their tactical deceptions executed upon the beginning of their march south in late August. The legend of the deceptive dispatches in May through July, to hide the decision made at Wethersfield, is from the imagination of individuals who were not present at the 22 May 1781 conference. 
 
Section E: THE LEGEND IS EMBELLISHED

Here is noted the theories constructed so as to explain away the written evidence. Proponents of the legend suggest and argue that: 1. Secret, individual exchanges took place between Washington and Rochambeau, though neither knew the other's language. 2. Coded inferences were made in dispatches of Washington and Rochambeau, so that the text did not mean what was being stated. 3. Misleading, non encoded dispatches were sent by Washington and Rochambeau that described the false objectives decided upon at Wethersfield. 

In arguments to support the legend, the proponents focus on such words as 'plan', 'project' and similar expressions used in various dispatches or diary entries by the commanders. Proponents of the legend take such words out of context to assert that these terms describe the scheme agreed upon at Wethersfield on 22 May 1781.
        Proponents of the legend, of course, have ample examples of writings of contemporaries -- many senior officers, most not -- who perpetuate the rumor of Yorktown being the secret objective decided at Wethersfield. In truth, the real objective agreed upon was known only by the few participants at the conference: Washington, Rochambeau, Knox, Chastellux, and Duportail. The latter two being essential as translators for the senior commanders. The expressions, views, and perceptions of many who did not have direct involvement at Wethersfield cannot hold up against the sufficient amount of contrary evidence in the written documents of the real participants of the conference.
        In all, historians have to take in to account not only the writings of the participants in the Wethersfield Conference, but they must recognize the logical implications of the sequence of events that surrounded the period between mid May and early August 1781. This, alone, should destroy the myth that Yorktown and Cornwallis were on the agenda at Wethersfield in 22 May 1781. 

There should be no need to respond to various emotional arguments suggesting that the Yorktown campaign was part of a course of military action agreed to at Wethersfield in May 1781. There is no need to defend the scholarship or patriotism of the many historians who state that New York was Washington's principal objective at Wethersfield. Any 'revisionism' is entirely that of the legend that Yorktown was the agreed objective at Wethersfield. In this light, it might be worth examining a brief review of the views expressed by recognized historians on the development of the Yorktown Campaign phase of the American Revolution. To do so, click on the following button. 

 
Section F: IMPACT on COMMEMORATION SITES

One might ask what we are to take of the inscription on the sign outside the Webb House, Wethersfield, Connecticut, that says: "Here Washington and Rochambeau Planned The Campaign Ending At Yorktown 1781."?
        Of course, there are other similar comments, and they are not all limited to Wethersfield. There is almost no event concerning the French and American alliance, starting with the early 1781 decision at Versailles, outside of Paris, to deploy Rochambeau's expedition, that could not make that claim. It all ended up at Yorktown, though at many of these landmark occasions, there was no thought of the town of York. It was not a significant military objective until occupied by Cornwallis on 1 and 2 August 1781.
        Such statements do not claim that the Campaign of Yorktown was planned at Versailles or at Wethersfield, -- though a casual inspection might encourage such belief if one were already led by misunderstandings and even misinformation. But many significant events occurred at locations that should be commemorated for their role in the overall progress that -- as far as allied military operations are addressed -- ended at Yorktown
        A disciplined examination of the role the Wethersfield Conference had in the evolving military and naval operations of 1781 in North America does not diminish the importance of the Webb House. The structure's importance does not require accepting the legend or myth that a specific campaign to besiege Yorktown 4 to 5 months later was designed there in May of 1781. The Webb House, along with many other locations where we may still honor the epic success of the Franco-American military achievement in 1781, holds the utmost status as a commemorative landmark of the Washington-Rochambeau march that led to Yorktown. At minimum, it was the Wethersfield Conference where the two allied commanders identified and explored their strategic options, and adopted a flexible perspective toward their forthcoming combined military endeavors. Wethersfield laid the ground work that permitted the rapid response to implementing the Yorktown Campaign that was definitely decided upon 14 August 1781. 

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PART II: THE SECOND CONTROVERSY [ How much was the Yorktown Campaign Rochambeau's idea as compared to that of Washington's?] 

This is an old controversy which has been around a long time. Under examination, it is exposed as a false debate, as both commanders contributed to the formation of the allied plan -- or more accurately, to a series of decisions that eventually led to the Yorktown Campaign. Both Washington and Rochambeau executed their respective rolls with remarkable initiative and effectiveness. Their different preferences are explained in the foregoing Part One. It is a fundamental basis for also addressing this second controversy, which is sparked, in part, by comments made in the journals of some of Rochambeau's staff officers who recorded their observations and opinions some years after the main events. 
        In some respects, this controversy overlaps the first controversy, in that much is made of Rochambeau's early preference to undertake a southern campaign/operation, versus pursuing a siege of New York City. Perpetrators of this thesis emphasize Washington's intense focus on New York City. Washington's concentrated attention toward this very important commercial, political, and military objective, where was also located the senior commander of the British forces in American, was seen by some as a preoccupation or stubbornness. 
        However, Washington's focus was sound military judgment, and the so- called 'better alternatives' did not emerge until after May 1781. It took over two months for all the necessary 'circumstances' [so often mentioned in Washington's contemporary writings] to develop that warranted serious consideration of an alternative to New York. In many of his communiqués Washington recognized the possible alternative to the south. His focus on New York was essential for a military leader to hold his immediate objective in mind [not to signal doubt to those around him] unless convinced he must do otherwise.
        There were several factors that had to change to make the southern objective in Virginia a more viable objective. Turning to such an objective -- taking his main army south and away from New York, had risks. Importantly, such an operation left many northern rebel-held positions uncovered and vulnerable to an attack from New York. It gambled on the British force in Virginia to remain in its vulnerable location, that the British commander would not extricate himself promptly, and that the French naval force would prevail over a British fleet. Given the record of both Cornwallis' earlier performances and that of French-British naval engagements, these were no small gambles.
        These considerations were reflected in Washington's 17 August dispatch that was hand delivered by Duportail to de Grasse on 2 September. In this, Washington demonstrated his awareness of a breath of options and that the scenery was subject to change. The evidence in this remarkable document should prevail over the array of indirect observations reported by many who were not privy directly to the decisions. Many who perceive Washington should have embraced the southern movement of his army sooner, overlook the sequence of events as is the case of those who are mislead in the first controversy discussed in Part One.
        Statements that "the French forced" Washington's hand appear to be too strong. The few days it took Washington to decide this significant strategic reorientation and the robust and energetic directions he quickly sent out to execute the remarkable march do not describe stubbornness. When he decided to go south, Washington exhibited the same single-minded concentration required of a senior commander that he had when he focused on New York City.

Probably the most explicit description of Washington's strategic perspectives on the eve of the operations that would be known as the 'Yorktown Campaign', is in his 17 August 1781 dispatch to the French admiral de Grasse. This can be viewed by clicking on the button bar below.

 
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Return to webpage of The Yorktown Campaign (1781). 

Return to webpage of Lafayette's Virginia Campaign (1781). 

This page created 29 August 2001; revised 7 August 2009.