Survey of Opinions of
'Knowledgable Historians'
Concerning the Yorktown Campaign Decision

This page presents a survey of the views expressed by some of the more recognized historians on the Yorktown Campaign phase of the American Revolution. In particular, the extractions of these 'knowledgable historians' relate to plans agreed at Wethersfield in regards to the campaign later in the year that led to the allied siege of Yorktown.
Boatner, Mark Mayo III. Encyclopedia of the AMERICAN REVOLUTION, Bicentennial Edition. David McKay, NY, 1974.

[Under a section titled: 'The Wethersfield Conference, 22 May '81']

"Rochambeau cordially agreed that the proposed plan [by Washington for combined operations against N.Y.C.] was the best possible for the time being. But what might be done later, Rochambeau asked, if naval reinforcements from the West Indies happened to become available? (It is important to note that Rochambeau did not at this time inform Washington that De Grasse actually was under orders to effect this [allied] cooperation. It is therefore incorrect to say, as many writers have, that the 'Wethersfield Plan' visualized the strategy of the Yorktown Campaign. ...) Washington's restrained reply was that with effective French naval support the strategic possibilities would be almost unlimited. It was decided at Wethersfield that De Grasse should be asked to come north as soon as possible."
[Author describes the strategic circumstances in late July 1781. The situation followed the failure of the Newport-based French naval squadron's two small expeditions to the Chesapeake in Virginia; the failure of the French and American armies combined operations against British posts on the north end of Manhattan Island; and the 21-25 July reconnaissance-in-force personally conducted by the allied commanders of the British defenses at New York City.]
"Allied plans now hung on word from De Grasse. There was still no suspicion that the closing scene of the American Revolution would be enacted at a place called Yorktown, ..."

Martin, James Kirby and Mark Edward Lender. A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789. Harlan Davidson, Arlington Heights, Illinois, 1982.

At the May 1781 Wethersfield meeting ..,

"The American commander pushed for full-scale action against New York. Rochambeau countered with news that a large French fleet might be available to support their combined armies; he favored moving against the British force in Virginia, with the fleet, should it arrive from the West Indies, blocking off any escape route through the Bay. Not knowing that Cornwallis was on his way north, Washington stuck with his New York plan, even though he saw the advantage of a concerted campaign in his native state, should the proper elements blend together."

Peckham, Howeard H. The War for Independence, a Military History. University of Chicago, Illinois, 1958.

At the May Wethersfield Conference, Washington "demurred" is taking up on Rochambeau's suggestion of a combined operation in Virginia. Neither of the allied commanders knew of Cornwallis' entry into the state.

Returning to New Windsor, "Washington set about completing plans for a joint attack on New York City. He wrote to Lafayette on May 31 of the decision." This was captured and read by Clinton 3 days later.


"When Washington learned of this move [Cornwallis' move toward Portsmouth, VA, in early July] he perceived inviting possibilities of Grasse should enter the Chesapeake Bay. But the tempting concentration of British forces on a peninsula could not last, Washington thought; surely Cornwallis would send part of his troops to New York and take another part back to Charleston. Meanwhile, Washington would examine Clinton's defenses by a reconnaissance in force, which he executed on July 22-23 along the Harlem River front. It left him undecided between Virginia and New York City for operations; there were still too many 'ifs' in both situations."

Palmer, Dave Richard. The Way of the Fox, American Strategy in the War for America 1775-1783. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1975.

[This work is not too scholarly and has some inacuracies in telling of the pre-Yorktown Virginia operations -- eg.: Steuben was not 'sent' by Washington to join Lafayette. Steuben was already in VA when Lafayette arrived!]

p.173 In May, Washington and Rochambeau met at Wethersfield.
"Their talks, then were in the context of possible naval support, not probable assiatance. Washington, disappointed so often, refused to build plans predicated on a fleet that might never show up. He and the French commander agreed on an offensive, with the target being either New York City of enemy forces in the South."

Author states that "Unfortunately, historians have no certain method for screening spurious messages from the real, of discerning between plan and coverplan."

The author reflects that it may have been possible that both or either Washington or Rochambeau had thought of Virginia over New York, but he provides no evidence of such, either way. However, the author is more convincing in describing that Washington had "flexible intentions", as evidence in his 13 July letter to Lafayette.

Johnston, Henry P. The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis, New York, 1881.


"The claim, sometimes loosely asserted, that the campaign which ended in the splendid combination at Yorktown was conceived and arranged four month before at this [Wethersfield, 22 May 1781] conference, cannot be sustained. That campaign was a development, not an inspiration. It presents Washington, not as a prophet, but as a general who conducted his movements upon the truest military principles. For it is to be observed, that at the time of the conference in question information was wanting upon two principal points. Although, from intercepted letters, suspicion may have been entertained that Cornwallis would sooner of later make his appearance in Virginia, there was not certainly in the matter, and intelligence of his actual invasion of the State did not arrive until two weeks after Washington and Rochambeau had returned to their respective armies. No definite campaign could thus have been devised against his Lordship. Furthermore, uncertainty existed in regard to the co- operation of a French naval armament to neutralize of overcome that of the enemy. It was known that a powerful fleet, under Admiral de Grasse, had recently sailed from France for her colonies in the West Indies, but Washington was ignorant of its future movements, or in case it had been ordered to the American coast, of the time it might be expected. Much as he hoped for its [French naval] assistance, he [Washington] could base no projects upon it at Wethersfield -- none, certainly, involving immediate co-operation."

Chidsey, Donald Barr. Victory at Yorktown, New York, 1962.

p. 93
"They did decided, there in Wethersfield, that New York City was the logical place to hit, provided that De Grasse sailed that far north."

Selby, John. The Road to Yorktown, New York, 1976.

"The Yorktown campaign opened on 14 August, when Washington received dispatches telling him that Admiral de Grasse had set sail from the West Indies with a substantial fleet and 3,200 troops."

Thayer, Theodire. Yorktown: Campaign of Strategic Options , Philadelphia, 1975.


"At Wethersfield, Washington and Rochambeau first considered the possibility of having de Barras transport the French army to Virginia where General Phillips [with Arnold] had been causing so much destruction. Rochambeau apparently favored this. With Lafayette's army joined by his own, it seemed possible to trap Phillips, which was appealing to the French commander. That Cornwallis was about to join the British forces in Virginia was not known at Wethersfield.... The question, however, of using the French army in Virginia was soon dropped... Following Washington's logic, Rochambeau agreed that the French army should join the Americans on the Hudson for a joint offensive against New York."
"In his Memoires, written long after the campaign in America, Rochambeau stated that he told Admiral de Grasse that he considered a Yorktown offensive to be the most practiable. His letter to the admiral, written on June 11, 1781, however, shows that this was not the case. Rochambeau left the decision of his destination on the coast to de Grasse, as Washington preferred."

[Part Two, Chapters 4, 'America's Alternatives: New York of Virginia?', and 5, 'The Decision for Virginia', of Thayer's work contain some of the documents between the allied commanders that cover the decision making in the evolving formulation of the Yorktown campaign.]

Fleming, Thomas J. The Battle of Yorktown, New York, 1968.

At Wethersfield "Washington stubbornly insisted on New York....[however] Rochambeau was not only a good general, he was also a shrewd diplomat. He agreed to cooperate with Washington in reconnoitering New York's defenses..."

Author describes how Washington agreed to the change in plans and to march south, but had doubts that the allies would find Cornwallis still in Virginia. It was not until he received on 17 August the news from Lafayette that Cornwallis had retreated to the small tobacco port of York and was fortifying his position.

Davis, Burke. The Campaign That Won America, 1970, re-printed 1982.

"... the commanders had held a conference at Wethersfield, Connecticut, to plan the war's final offensive... Washington had written in his diary:

'Fixed with Count de Rochambeau upon plan of Campaign ... to commence an operation against New York ... or to extend our views to the southward as circumstances and a Naval superiority might render more necessary ...' "

Landers, H.L. (Col., USA). ' The Virginia Campaign and the Blockade and Siege of Yorktown 1781, Washington, 1931.

"On the 14th day of August Washington learned that the Count de Grasse would operate in the Chesapeake, and this date marks the end of all his plans to recover New York."

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."

Author quotes Washington's letter dated 31 July 1788 to Noah Webster that states:

"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, because it could not be foreknown where the enemy would be most susceptible of impression, and because we, (having command of the water, and with suffucuent means of conveyance,) could transport ourselves to any spot with the greatest celerity: that it was determined by me, (nearly twelve months beforehand,) at all hasards to give out and cause it to be believed by the heighest military as well as civil officers, the New York was the destined place of attack, for the important purpose of inducing the eastern & middle States to make greater exertions in furnishing specific supplies than they otherwise would have done, as well as for the interesting purpose of rendering the enemy less prepared elsewhere: that these means, and these alone, artillery, boats, stores, and provisions were in seasonable preparation to move with the utmost rapidity to any part of the continent; for the difficulty consisted more in providing, than knowing how to apply, the military apparatus: that before the arrival of the Count de Grasse, it was the fixed determination to strike the enemy in the most vulnerable quarter so as to ensure success with moral certainty, as our our affairs were then in the most ruinous train imaginable: that New York was thought to be beyond our effort, and consequently the only hesitation that remained was between an attack upon the British army in Virginia or that in Charleston: and finally * * * the hostile post in Virginia, from being a provisional and strongly expected, became the definite and certain object of the campaign. I only add, that it never was in comtemplation to attack New York, unless the garrison should first have been so far disgarnished to carry on the southern operations, as to render our success in the siege of that place as infallible as any future military event can ever be made."

Author notes that the "essential points in this extract from Washington's letter are that the place of attack was not absolutely agreed upon at the Wethersfield conference of May 21 [sic], 1781. ... there was always the thought that New York might be the objective.

However, quoting from another paragraph in Washington's letter: "That much trouble was taken and finesse used to misguide and bewilder Sir Henry Clinton in regard to the real object, by fictitious communications as well as by making a deceptive provision of ovens, forage, and boats in his neighborhood, is certain."

Author says that this "paragraph alone lends itself to several interpretations, the most extreme being that all of Washington's plans against New York were meant to deceive, misguide, and bewilder; all of which are permissible and effective stratagems."

Author quote's Washington's diary entry of 22 May:

"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 of 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."

Author quote from a 20 July diary entry made by Washington: It lements that he has not heard from the Massachusetts Governor for supplies and forces. It has

"... rendered it impracticable for me to do more than to prepare, first, for the enterprise against New York as agreed to at Weathersfield -- and secondly for the relief of the Southern States if after all my effort ..." the requested support does not come. He also states his "uncertainty with respect to the time of the arrival ... of the French Fleet & whether Land Troops would come in it or not..."

Author shows that Washington's diary entires by 1 August evidence that he has almost eliminated investing New York.

Kennett, Lee. The French Forces in America, 1780-1783, Westport, CN, 1977.

Author writes of the speculation of contemporaries had that Washington's intercepted dispatches were deceptions to hide the real intention to go to the south. The belief was that New York was not the primary objective agreed at Wethersfield. Author states on p.107 that such a belief "is belied by other evidence."

Kennett states that in a letter to Richard Henry Lee, a month after Washington's letter to General John Sullivan had been intercepted by the British, Washington "implied that the interception had been part of a plan to compel Clinton to recall troops from Virginia. Thus, it would seem, was a legend born."
Bonsal, Stephen. When the French Were Here, New York, 1945.

"Of course it cannot be insisted upon too often that, Washington, with his usual good judgment, wished to attack the enemy at New York. Success there would obviously end the war, while victory eleswhere could not be decisive." Author explains that it is at New York where the British had concentrated there largest army and offered the best anchorage for their fleet.

Washington's "frank entry in the journal of August 1 made quite clear why the long-cherished plan was abandoned and why de Grasse decided on the Virginia after Cornwallis had been driven toward the Chesapeake." [This is not quite correct! Cornwallis was not 'driven' toward the Chesapeake!]

Addressing the rumored riff between Washington and Rochambeau about the campaign objectives, the author states:

"Rochambeau denied these rumors with some heat and also the long-lived lie that Washington's letter to Sullivan was written for no other purpose than to mislead Clinton to cause him to draw all the troops that could be moved toward New York for fear it was about to be attacked. 'This great man', he [Rochambeau] said, 'is in no need of fiction such as this to pass on his fame to posterity'. Then follows the statement in his memoirs which, had it been published earlier (they did not appear until 1808), would have definitely settled the matter.
"     'At this time he [Washington] had the strongest desire to attack New York, and we would have carried out this operation if the enemy had continued to send detachments away from New York and if the French Navy had been able to support us.'"

Coakley, Robert W. and Stetson Conn. The War of the American Revolution, US Army Center of Military History, Washington, DC, 1974.

Author briefly discusses Lafayette's and Cornwallis' operations in Virginia up to July of 1781, and follows with:

"Meanwhile, Washington had been trying to persuade the French to co-operate in a combined land and naval assault on New York in the summer of 1781. ... Then on August 14 Washington learned that the French Fleet in the West Idies, commanded by Admiral Francois de Grasse, would not come to New York but would arrive in the Chesapeake later in the month ... "
[In following paragraph, author continues...]
"Washington sent orders to Lafayette to contain Cornwallis at Yorktown and then, after making a feint in direction of New York to deceive Clinton, on August 21 started the major portion of the Franco-American Army on a rapid secret movement to Virginia ..."

Scott, Samuel F. From Yorktown to Valmy, University of Colorado Press, 1998.


"On May 22, 1781, Rochambeau had met with Washington at Wethersfield, Connecticut, to plan an offensive against the British. Although Rochambeau favored the Chesapeake, he deferred to Washington, who continued to press for an attack on New York, and agreed to unite his forces with the American army on the east bank of the Hudson."

Idzerda, Stanley J., ed. 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.

Editor's introduction to Part I states 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."

Editor's footnote to 25 May letter from Marquis de Castries (French Navy Minister) to Lafayette In reference to de Castries stating that Rochambeau prefered 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"
Idzerda refers more than once that Washington's 31 May letter stated the conclusions of the Wethersfield Conference. Though intercepted by the British, Washington beleived it important enough to re-send to Lafayette on 4 June.


"Washington and Rocahmbeau'a 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]"

Selig, Robert A. Rochambeau's Cavalry: Lauzun's Legion in Connecticut 1780-1781. Report for the Connecticut Historical Commission, 2000.


"Much has been said and written about how the decisive victory at Yorktown later that year [1781] had been planned at Wethersfield in May. But nothing could be further from the truth. There can be no doubt that at Wethersfield in May 1781, Washington, for political and military reasons, was pushing, as he had for the past year, for an attack on New York rather than a march to Virginia."

Dr. Selig follows with several paragraphs that review the evidence in various contemporary documents. He is one of the foremost current scholars on the French forces in American from 1780 to 1783, and of their roll in the Yorktown Campaign of 1781. His recent research and studies have introduced significant unpublished, or little known, journals and letters of participants in the French expeditionary military force that operated along side George Washington.

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Page begun 17 August 2001; modified 5 October 2001.