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
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:
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.
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
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.
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
(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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
[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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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
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.
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).]
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.
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.
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
Washington received Lafayette's 3 June dispatch that Cornwallis' forces
were somewhere between Richmond and Fredericksburg, in Virginia.
Washington responded to Rochambeau, with his own reply to de Grasse.
Rochambeau began the French army's march from Newport to join with Washington's
American army at Philipsburg, New York.
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
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.
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.]
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.
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.
Washington recorded in his diary his preparation of a report to de Grasse.
Washington and Rochambeau conducted an active reconnaissance of British defenses
at New York.
Duportail submitted his pessimistic assessment of an allied attempt to
besiege the British defenses of New York City.
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.]
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.