--------------------------Rochambeau's March to Yorktown -- 1781 ----------------
by Compatriot Ray Maxson, VP, Mecklenburg Chapter, NCSSAR
Rochambeau - the most decorated French General to Fight for America.
Jean Baptise Donathien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau was born at Vendome, France on July 1, 1725. He entered the cavalry regiment after he was brought up at the Jesuit college at Blois, in southern France. He served in the French army artillery in Bohemia and Bavaria and on the Rhine, and in 1747 (at 22) he attained the rank of colonel. He became governor of Vendome in 1749. He distinguished himself in 1756 in the Mororca expedition and was promoted Brigadier General of Infantry. In 1757-58 he fought in Germany, notably at Crefeld, and was wounded in the battle of Clostercamp in 1760. In 1761 he was appointed Mareschal de camp and inspector of cavalry. Rochambeau was the most distinguished general to support the American Revolution. (1)
Rochambeau Brings 6000 French Troops to America
In 1780 he was sent, as a Lieutenant General, in command of 6,000 French troops, to help the American colonists under General Washington. On July 10, 1780, he arrived at Newport, RI. He reluctantly was held in Newport for a year, because he could not leave the French Fleet of 8 ships, which was blockaded by the British in Narragansett Bay, off Newport, RI (1)
Rochambeau is Blockaded by British Fleet and General Clinton
The war in the South was started by the Commander of the British forces in American, General Henry Clinton. He directed the fall of Savannah, GA, then he returned to New York, leaving his General Cornwallis in charge of the war in the South. Because Cornwallis was operating at such distance from New York, Cornwallis had permission to correspond directly with Lord George Germain in London, creating a semi-independent command. This arrangement was good for General Clinton, because if Cornwallis had any defeats, Clinton would not be to blame. However, if there were victories, Clinton would get the credit. (2)
British Clinton prepares for Rochambeau
With the successes of the Cornwallis in the South, (Charleston, Camden, Charlotte), Clinton got the credit. So he was obligated to deplete his forces at New York to meet the needs of Cornwallis. By dispatching more and more of Clinton's troops, the forces in New York were short of the strengths needed to venture beyond the defenses of the city of New York. And thus the New York forces under Clinton posed no aggressive position, and could be bypassed by the Revolutionary Forces. These circumstances set the stage for the ending the war with a defeat of Cornwallis. (2)
The splitting of forces between New York and Cornwallis in the South, offered an opportunity for Washington, with the support of the 6,000 French troops from Rochambeau. Now the dye was cast for the summer campaigns. Rochambeau left 500 French troops to guard his position and ships in Newport, RI. The number of French troops ready for service were 4,000 from Rochambeau.
Rochambeau Marches to join Washington on the Hudson
Finally, on July 10, 1781, Rochambeau's force was able to leave Newport, RI, and joined Washington on the Hudson. There was anticipation of the arrival of the French Fleet of 20 ships from the West Indies, and 10 from the Caribbean, added to the 8 from Rochambeau, under the command of Admiral de Grasse. Once they arrived, they expected to control the seas and supply lines for the first time in the War.
At that time, Washington was planning to build an army of 15,000 to combine with Rochambeau and attack Clinton in New York City. The British General Clinton was known for building large armies in port cities and living the comfortable life with the support of British Loyalists. He had an army of 8,000 defending New York, but feared that Washington and Rochambeau would attack and defeat him with the French Fleet. This was the Washington plan also.
The letter of this plan was sent to Layfayette by Washington. But the letter was intercepted by traitors and given to General Henry Clinton in New York. At that time, General Clinton requested half of Cornwallis's forces (2000 men). To make this transfer, Henry Clinton commanded Cornwallis to establish and fortify a port at Yorktown, VA, to dock ships of the line, as well as frigates. This put Cornwallis out of the offensive campaign and forced him to camp without adequate supplies and to wait for shipped supplies. This was a great opportunity and the Generals, Layfayette, Greene and Washington jumped at the opportunity. (2)
Rochambeau's troops bond with Americans, boosting moral.
General Washington decided to make an assault on the Island of Manhattan on July 2, 1781. The attack was discovered and General Clinton pulled his forces to the formidable forts on the Manhattan side of the Harlem River and repulsed the attack. Discouraged, Washington retreated to White Plains. At this time, Washington's army was down to only 5,000 men and needed supplies. His men were disheartened by another defeat and without pay for a year. At his Headquarters in White Plains, New York, Washington and Rochambeau combined forces. Washington was also concerned that a long march of 400 miles south, that would lead to sickness depletion's, exhaustion and reductions of half the American Forces. Gently, Rochambeau presisted and soon won over Washington. (2)
At this point, Rochambeau was acutely aware of how close to disaster the war was tending. He wrote: "I must not conceal from you, Monsieur, that the Americans are at the end of their resources, that Washington will not have half of the troops he is reconned to have, and that I believe, though he is silent on that, that at present he does not have 6,000 men; that Marquee de la Lafayette does not have 1,000 regulars with militia to defend Virginia..." (3)
Washington and Rochambeau combined forces and continued to probe the British defenses in New York. During the next six weeks, the American and French Troops built up a close ties, which were essential and encouraged by Rochambeau. The French opinion of American troops improved somewhat during these days of reconnoitering. A Frenchman wrote home: "We made it most carefully, although we were harassed by six or seven hundred cannon. The Americans lost two men and we captured about 20-30 English and killed four or five. I cannot insist too strongly how I was surprised by the American Army. It is truly incredible that troops almost naked, poorly paid, and composed of old men and children and Negroes should behave so well on the march and under fire..." (2)
Rochambeau saves defeat, keeps Cinton in NY and calls for French Fleet
Finally, on August 12, 1761, the final blow came to Washington's plans to attack New York. A fleet of 20 vessels sailed into New York Harbor with Lord George Germain reinforcements from Europe. This brought Clinton's forces in New York above the predicted combined forces of Washington and Rochambeau. Then on August 14, a messenger came painting into the allied camp from Newport from Admiral Barras. Admiral de Grasse was coming to the Chesapeake and he was bringing with him 29 warships and 3,000 soldiers. This forced Washington to abandon his attack on New York City and to march to Yorktown and attack Cornwallis. However, Washington and Rochambeau, kept Clinton at his defenses and prevented an attack as the long column marching around New York City to the New Jersey bank. Clinton thought the attack would come through Staten Island, so he stayed in a defensive position in New York City. This allowed the Army and supplies to slip past Clinton, easily and quickly. This was later to prove to be a brilliant maneuver, although it may have been only due to luck and playing to Clinton's relish for the comforts of New York City that had a hand in its brilliance. (3)
Rochambeau loans money to Congress to keep the Army from dissolving.
So the celebrated march to Yorktown started, to join the 1000 troops of Lafayette for the siege of Cornwallis at Yorktown. It was only after Washington got congress to give one months back pay (in the worthless continental paper money) to his men that they agreed to march south. Many of the volunteers deserted during the long march in the hot of the summer. When they arrived in Philadelphia the whole town turned out.. But Philadelphia could only give them cheers. The city was ravaged by the British Fleet and all their guns, cannon and supplies were needed to defend the city from a British Attack. The starving men of Washington's Army started to riot and desert and Washington asked Congress for hard cash. The desperate congressmen of the fledgling United States Government, finally resulted in a solution to the rioting and dissolution of the American Army. The Congress of the United States negotiated to borrow enough hard cash from the intendant of the French army (with Rochambeau's encouragement) to give the men a few dollars. Only this allowed the army to continue the march to Yorktown.(1)
Rochambeau Supplies the Major Forces at Yorktown.
On September 6, Washington and Rochambeau's Combined Army marched to the head of the Elk River, to get promised boats to ferry his army across to the marsh to support General Lafayette. However, the ships of his Maryland friends had been mostly destroyed by the British cruisers controlling the Chesapeake Bay. It was decided that only the 2,000 best (and least ill) of the troops of the Army, (1,200 French and 800 Americans), would continue on to Yorktown to win the Revolutionary War. This was all that was left of the projected 20,000, to attack New York City only a month before. And Cornwallis had over 7,500 troops, heavily fortified at Yorktown. (2)
It takes great courage to continue at this point. But Washington and Rochambeau standing together on the banks of the Chesapeake, were men of courage and were not deterred. They were determined to support General Lafayette's 1000 men, fighting Cornwallis at Yorktown. At that point, as it happened so many times in the Revolutionary War, the men of Maryland came to the defense of their new nation. The sons of Maryland, volunteered a force of 1,800 men, many of them sons and brothers of men who had died so heroically at the battle of Long Island in 1776. "They are young, terribly young," said General Gist, of Maryland, "but they are lion's whelps and now they are under way. Some are riding, some are sailing, some are walking. They will be there, General, before you are." This lifted the hearts of the exhausted soldiers who had marched over 300 miles this summer.. and the combined Army of Washington and Rochambeau, the hope of the freedom of the United States, continued their march. (2)
Washington Honors Rochambeau with Dinner at Mt. Vernon.
It is hard to believe that at time of war, the Commanding General of the United States would ride out alone, ahead of his troops, into the unguarded towns, filled with loyalists, just to give a feast of hospitality for his French Comrades in arms and to reassure the forces fighting in Yorktown. But this is what happened on September 8. General Washington rose at dawn, as usual, and set out two hours before breakfast on his horse. His pace was too much for his French Guards, so he left them and he arrived alone by nightfall in Baltimore. He did not rest, and on Sunday, September 9, he rode 60 more torturous miles from Baltimore to his home in Mount Vernon. This was the first time in six years and four months that General Washington was in his home. He met his four grandchildren for the first time and prepared a feast for Rochambeau and his general staff on September 11. This was the only form of sincere thanks that Washington could give to Rochambeau for saving his army. (2)
Rochambeau and Washington are Abandoned by French Fleet
On September 12, everyone was up at dawn for the march to Williamsburg and join General Lafayette for the siege at Yorktown. The American troops at Yorktown were reduced to eating only 4 ears of roasted corn per person per day. Then a dispatch came from General Lafayette: Admiral De Grasse had abandoned the blockade at the mouth of the Chesapeake. A British fleet had appeared on the horizon, and the French had gone to sea to battle them. Sounds of gunfire had been heard from shore, and both fleets had vanished into the vast Atlantic, so no one knew whether France or Britannia ruled the waves. If the French fleet lost, the blockade would be broken and Cornwallis would be supplied from the sea. There was nothing to do, but to continue to ride to Yorktown and pray for good news. (2)
French Fleet has an astonishing Sea Battle.
The balance of the Revolutionary War was in the hands of the Marquis de Grasse-Tilly. On September 5, he was 59, and should have retired by now. He had first entered the navy at the age of twelve, and he had held the rank of rear admiral for less than six months. This was his first independent command. Almost all the intangibles favored the sailors of England - and thus what happened on the Atlantic during the next five days, is doubly astonishing. De Grasse had a reputation for frequent collisions with ships during maneuvers. This would have run him out of the British Navy, but this was the best that the French Navy had. Also, De Grasse was only allowed to stay in American waters till October 15, to avoid the Hurricane Season of the West Indies. Whereas the British Sailors were well trained and well paid, the French Fleet refused to leave its home French port, until the French minister of finance hurried to Breast with "donations" for the sailors back pay. The French treasury was empty. (2)
De Grasse was ordered to leave half his fleet to protect his convoy in the West Indies. However, De Grasse decided to ignore orders and to take his full fleet of 24 ships of the line to the Chesapeake and this act of courage changed the outcome of the War. The British had 27 ships of the line in the battle under Admiral Graves, and they were copper bottomed for speed, had superior seamanship, superior firepower and better fleet conditions. The British fleet was very disciplined and waited till they were formed in a perfect line.. bowsprit to stern.. bearing down on the French fleet. The French Fleet was in bad order, frantically trying to escape the Chesapeake Bay for the open sea. The perfect ordering of the British Fleet and maneuvering gave De Grasse 2 hours to form up. Then Graves tried to sail closer to the French Line, but as they made the maneuver, the wind changed and the British line turned at 30 degrees into the French Line. The British Ships did not have cannon to fire directly forward, but the French line had its full broad side to engage the British ships. So it was, each British ship in line approached at 30 degrees to each French ship of the line in order. And each British ship was pounded with broadsides. This continued until the fourth British ship approached at a favorable angle and then the next three British ships damaged three of the French Ships. However, with the 30 degree slant, the rear line of the British Ships could not get in range and could not capitalize on this success. After 2 hours the battle, line formation was finally lifted, but it was nearly dark then, so the French fleet was able to recover and form a new line. (2)
The British again formed a line and took notes on their damage. Eight British ships were damaged beyond battle readiness. As the carpenters worked on repairs for both fleets, the lines stood about 3 miles apart, waiting for orders. The British were in command, but could not agree on the battle plan and Admiral Graves discussed the conditions and plans for the next 3 days. On September 8, three of the damaged British ships were sunk or disabled, one caught on fire and blew up. Finally, on the 9th De Grasse made a move and sailed back into the Chesapeake Bay. When Graves finally decided to attack De Grasse in the Chesapeake on September 12, he found 36 French ships waiting. Admiral Barra's 16 additional ships had joined De Grasse. This was an overwhelming superiority, so the British Fleet returned to defend New York City. (2)
Rochambeau masses forces with Washington at Yorktown
On September 10, the last leg of the journey, of the Washington and Rochambeau's march to Yorktown, began under the anxiety for news of the De Grasse Fleet. Messages of warning were sent to the troopships sailing to Yorktown. It would be the end of everything if they sailed into the guns of the British Fleet. The Generals, Washington and Rochambeau rode tirelessly, and left their army and staff, behind as they rode. It was not till late on September 14 that the Generals rode through Williamsburg and joined up with General Lafayette at his French army tent encampment. The French Regiments poured out of their tents and formed up to cheer le grand Washington. After a brief review, General Washington rode on to his Americans, who had prepared a reception with drum rolls and cannon blasts and 21 gun salutes. The ragged Light Infantry of Lafayette and the tattered Pennsylvania Line stood in trim formations. They did not look flashy, but Washington undoubted looked upon them with pride. Out numbered four to one, these men had defended General Washington's beloved Virginia with stubborn courage. (2)
The night was long, and news still was waiting of the fleets of Admiral De Grasse and Admiral Barras. General "Mad Anthony" Wayne (The most successful General of Washington's staff) had been wounded by a sentry when he failed to give the proper countersign. General Lafayette had just staggered out of bed, the first time in two weeks. He had malaria. Baron von Steuben was in bed with the gout. But the heroes of the Revolution were now all together, and it was a time for toasts and serenades.. The long historic march to Yorktown was culminating. But their Army was scattered along the Chesapeake, no one knew the fortunes of the French Fleet, they had no supplies or arms, and Cornwallis still out numbered the American and French Forces behind the defenses of Yorktown. (2)
Forces of Rochambeau, Washington and French Fleet plan attack on Yorktown
News came to the camp after midnight, of the French Fleet victory over the British Fleet. Cornwallis was again bottled up at Yorktown, but since the British Fleet was still strong and being reinforced in New York, everyone knew it was inevitable the British Fleet would return and attempt to save Cornwallis. And it was less than a month that De Grasse must leave the Americas to return to the West Indies to protect the French Supply Fleet. Time was of the essence.. And supplies were gone. There was not a kernel of grain to feed the 9,000 French and American soldiers in Yorktown, and they were living from day to day on food from the surrounding country side. At this point, the Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, got the food supplies, often by giving personal notes to farmers from his own funds. (2)
During the next 4 days, General Washington went to the French Fleet and met with Admiral De Grasse and planned the attack on Cornwallis at Yorktown. Although the French Fleet would protect the Chesapeake Bay, past October 15, it could not provide support of troops, or attack the coast above Yorktown. It was up the Washington and Rochambeau to defeat Cornwallis. Now the celebrated march to Yorktown was complete. On September 22, the Combined Army joined the troops of Lafayette for the siege of Cornwallis at Yorktown, the last battle of the Revolutionary War. There was never enough time to fully prepare by the Revolutionary Armies, and when it was known that De Grasse was commanded to return to the West Indies, the Battle of Yorktown started with haste on September 28.
Rochambeau refuses the Victory Sword from Cornwallis.
The French and American soldiers marched together from Williamsburg to Yorktown at 5:00 AM, carrying the honor of the two nations, inspiring every breast with sentiments that are the presage of Victory. Sergeant Joseph Plumb Martin was among the soldiers that had fought bravely through the past 5 years and wrote with plain Yankee determination. "We come a long way to see them and were unwilling to be put off with excuses."
The battle consisted of daily bombardments and nightly trenching building closer and closer to the main fortifications of Yorktown. Supplies were cut off, so Cornwallis forced all his freed Negroes (5,000) into the open battle area.. to die or be captured. This allowed him to continue with less mouths to feed. At the end of the battle and siege, Cornwallis was forced to surrender on October 19, 1781.. ending the Revolutionary War. Cornwallis first offered his sword to Rochambeau. But, even though the French outnumbered the Americans in this battle, Rochambeau refused the offer and told Cornwallis to surrender to Washington. Under the terms of surrender, Cornwallis and his unarmed men were allowed to return to England. And all the British Forces were required to leave America.
The Congress of the United States voted Rochambeau and his troops the thanks of the nation and presented him with two cannon taken from the English at Yorktown. They had no money and only debts to pay for the freedom of the United States. This again confirms that freedom is never free. (1)
Rochambeau is honored by America.
The comradeship of Washington and Rochambeau, at this low point of American's fight for freedom from Britain, was essential to keep up the moral of both Washington and the American Troops. By all estimates, the British had better supplies, actually paid their soldiers, had a better army, superior navy, better supplies and a string of victories. But the Americans won with their undying spirit, tireless endurance, with the help of God and the moral and physical encouragement of heroes like Rochambeau. Rochambeau returned to Vendome, France and was loaded with favours by king Louis XVI and was made governor of Picardy. During the French revolution, Rochambeau was arrested during the Terror, and narrowly escaped the guillotine. He was subsequently pensioned by Bonaparte, and died at Thore, France on May 10, 1897. (1)
The March of the troops of Washington and Rochambeau
from Newport, RI to Yorktown, VA.
Newport, RI join Americans at Dobbs Ferry, near White Plains, NY,
on the Hudson in New York. - July 10, 1781
New York, White Plains to Peakskill, Kings Ferry, across the Hudson
to New Jersey march to Philadelphia. - August 14-22, 1781
New Jersey to Philadelphia, PA - August 22-September 3, 1781
Philadelphia, PA to Baltimore, MD - September 8-12, 1781
Baltimore, MD, to Mount Vernon, VA - September 16-26, 1781
Mount Vernon, VA to Williamsburg, VA - September 26-28, 1781
The battle of Yorktown, VA stated on September 28, 1781
note: as was mentioned in the narrative, Washington and Rochambeau often rode on ahead of their army, so the dates do not match up with the main army movements.
The following Map shows the movements of Rochambeau, Washington, the DE Grasse French Fleet, The Barras French Fleet, The Graves and Hood British Fleets, St. Simone's French Troops from DE Grasse's Fleet, and Lafayette's Forces attacking Cornwallis at Yorktown.