The Three Letters that determined the Campaign to Yorktown

The War Years (1775-1783)

November 9, 2016
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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In the spring of 1781, Washington’s army was small (he would report on July 15 that he had only 5,835 rank and file); “the civil departments [were] totally destitute of money,” and with no money supplies could not be secured. Washington knew that France was not going to continue to support the United States with men, money and supplies much longer. If Washington was going utilize the French troops under Rochambeau that had arrived the previous summer, the time was now! Rochambeau and Washington met in conference at Wethersfield, Connecticut on May 21 and 22, 1781, not far from Hartford where they had met the previous September, to work out where the summer’s campaign should take place.

At the conference George Washington wanted to mount an operation against New York City:

Upon full consideration of our affairs in every point of view, an attempt upon New York with its present Garrison (which by estimation is reduced to 4500 regular Troops and 3000 Irregulars) was deemed preferable to a Southern operation as we had not Command of the Water. The reasons which induced this determination were, the danger to be apprehended from the approaching heats, the inevitable dissipation and loss of Men by so long a March, and the difficulty of Transportation; but above all, it was thought that we had a tolerable prospect of expelling the enemy or obliging them to withdraw part of their force from the Southward, which last would give the most effectual relief to those State.” “I know of no measure which will be so likely to afford relief to the southern States in so short a time as a serious menace against New York.1

Count Rochambeau wanted to mount an operation in the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia area. He saw little benefit in engaging in a costly siege of a well-fortified and manned position like New York, and also knew the value of a low-risk battlefield victory over a smaller force. In addition, the French line of battle ships had a deeper draft than their British counterparts, so Admiral de Grasse would not venture crossing the sand bar at Sandy Hook to get into New York harbor.

From late May until early August, the definitive plan that allegedly was agreed upon at Wethersfield became an ever-developing plan that allowed the two armies to act as the most current circumstances dictated. Communication was constant between Rochambeau, Count de Barras the fleet Commander at Newport, La Luzerne the French Plenipotentiary to the Continental Congress, Count de Grasse the Fleet Commander in the West Indies, and Washington. Dispatches could take up to six weeks to reach an individual and possibly the same time for a reply. Communications were not always delivered to the proper location. They crisscrossed, were delayed aboard a ship in a harbor, lost at sea or intercepted on land. Only when Rochambeau and his army marched from Newport to Philipsburg, New York to join Washington and his army in June of 1781 did some of the problems disappear.

On March 29 a letter was sent from rom De Grasse while he was at sea to Rochambeau. He had set sail from Brest, France on March 22 with a large fleet that included 26 ships of the line. The most important part of this letter, which for this article will be called No. 1, read:

His Majesty, Monsieur, has confided to me the command of the naval force which he has destined to protect his possessions in Southern America [the West Indies] and those of his allies in the north. The forces I command are sufficient to satisfy the views as to the offensive which it is in the interest of the allied powers to carry out in order to bring an honorable peace. . . . At the earliest … it will be about July 15 when I can off the coast of North America.2

He ended the letter with a caveat: “You know, Monsieur, that secrecy is the soul of every operation.”

On June 10 the letter arrived in Boston; before the day was out it had been rerouted to Newport and Rochambeau. The next day he shared the contents of the letter with Washington as well as the cover letter that he had written in reply to De Grasse  in which he urged him to sail to the Chesapeake rather than directly to New York.3 Surprised by the apparent alteration in the plans agreed to at Wethersfield, Washington wrote to Rochambeau on the 13th:

Your Excellency will be pleased to recollect that New York was looked upon by us as the only practicable object under present circumstance; but should we be able to secure a naval superiority, we may perhaps find others more practicable and equally advisable. If the Frigate should not have sailed, I wish you to explain this matter to the Count de Grasse, as, if I understand you, you have in your communication to him, confined our views to New York alone. And instead of advising him to run immediately into Chesapeak, will it be best to leave him to judge, from the information he may from time to time receive of the situation of the enemy’s Fleet upon this Coast, which will be the most advantageous quarter for him to make his appearance in.4

Prior to the arrival of the March 29 letter from De Grasse, Rochambeau had written to him on May 28; it was a summary of the Weathersfield Conference and a post-script written three days later

There are two points at which an offensive can be made against the enemy: Chesapeak and New York. The southwesterly winds and the state of defense in Virginia will probably make you prefer the Chesapeak Bay, and it will be there where we think you may be able to render the greatest service. … In any case it is essential that you send, well in advance, a frigate to inform de Barras where you are to come and also General Washington. 5

For a number reasons, the ship that was to deliver the letter did not depart until June 20. It took four weeks for the letter to reach De Grasse in the West Indies. He wrote back to Rochambeau and Washington on July 28. He was very clear in the letter, which we’ll call No. 2, what assistance he would be able to offer”.

[I will be bringing with me] from the regiments of Gatinois, Agenois, and Tourraine, amounting in all to three thousand men, one hundred artillery, one hundred dragoons, ten pieces of field ordnance, and several of siege artillery and mortars. The whole will be embarked in vessels of war from twenty-five to twenty-nine in number, which will depart from this colony on the 3d of August and proceed directly to the Chesapeake Bay, which place seems to be indicated by yourself, General Washington, M. de la Luzerne, and Count de Barras, as the best point of operation for accomplishing the object proposed. 6

This letter was received by Count de Barras at Newport on August 11; by the 14th, it was in the hands of both Rochambeau and Washington

Received dispatches from the Count de Barras announcing the intended departure of the Count de Grasse from Cape Francois with between 25 and 29 Sail of the line and 3200 land Troops on the 3d. Instant for Chesapeak bay.7

Washington was still not convinced that the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia area was the better of the two options.

The difficulty of doing this does not so much depend upon obtaining a force capable of effecting it, as upon the mode of collecting that force to the proper point, and transporting the provisions, Stores etc… necessary for such an operation. You are fully acquainted with the almost impracticability of doing this by land; to say nothing of the amazing loss of men always occasioned by long marches, and those towards a quarter in which the service is disagreeable.8

In the spring and early summer of 1781 Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold with 1600 British soldiers and Maj. Gen. William Phillips with 2600 British soldiers were rampaging through the state of Virginia, raiding towns and destroying wharves, warehouses, foundries, and mills. In late April both forces were ordered to Petersburg, Virginia where they would be joined by Lord Cornwallis and his army on May 20. The only American force in the area to monitor their movements was under the command of General Lafayette; with only 1200 men he was badly outnumbered.  He had been sent down to Virginia by Washington to put a stop to Arnold’s marauding. On August 6, LaFayette sent a letter, No. 3 for this article, to Washington. In it he wrote

The embarkation [of British troops], which I thought and do still think to have been destined to New York, was reported to have sailed up the Bay, and to be bound to Baltimore, in consequence of which, I wrote to your Excellency, and, as I had not indulged myself too near Portsmouth, I was able to cut across towards Fredericksburg. But, instead of continuing his voyage up the Bay, my Lord [Cornwallis] entered York River, and landed at York and Gloucester. … The troops in York and Gloucester are, – two battalions of light infantry; two large Anspach regiments, the eighth and seventy-sixth, which are said to be the two largest in the British army; the forty-third, the Queen’s rangers and some horse.9

Unfortunately, the letter did not reach Washington until the 16th:

Letters  from the Marqs. de la Fayette and others, inform that Lord Cornwallis with the Troops from Hampton Road, had proceeded up York River and landed at York and Gloucester Towns where they were thrown up Works.10

It was only two days earlier that he had written to Lafayette and seemingly closed the door on any operation against New York City because “A fleet of 20 sail came in last Saturday with troops, but they are said to be [3000] Hessian Recruits from Europe.”11

With the arrival of LaFayette’s letter, Washington, for the first time, knew the specific (and vulnerable) location of his objective (Letter No. 3), the size of the land and naval forces at his disposal (Letter No. 2), and the timeframe in which his objective had to be achieved (Letter No. 1). The length of DeGrasse’s stay in the Chesapeake was too brief unless he abandoned his plans for New York City and all of his energies were devoted to moving the two armies southward. The Chesapeake Bay and Virginia area had become “the preferable operation.”


1 John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 937), 22:143.

2 Archives de la Guerre, Service Historique de l’Armee de Terre, Vincennes, Correspondence Generale, No. 3734, 31; Henri Doniol, Histoire de la Participation de la France a l’etablissement  des Etats-Unis d’Amerique, Correspondance Diplomatiqie et Documents (Paris: Supplement, 1886-1899), 5:488.

3 Doniol, Histoire de la Participation, 5:475;

4 The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745- 1799, 22:207-9;

5 Doniol, Histoire de la Participation, 5:475.

6 Archives de la Guerre, Service Historique de l’Armee de Terre, Vincennes, Correspondence Generale, No. 3734, 84; The Rochambeau Papers, Paper 9 (Washington DC: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division), 119.

7 John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Diaries of George Washington 1748-1799 (Boston and New York: 1925), 2:255.

8 Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 22:433.

9 Jared Spark, ed., Correspondence of the American Revolution: being Letters of Eminent Men to George Washington (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1853), 3:366.

10 Fitzpatrick, The Diaries of George Washington, 2:255.

11 Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 22:501.


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