George Washington’s 1781 Campaign Design Revealed

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull, 1820. (Architect of the Capitol)

George Washington closed a July 31, 1788 letter to Noah Webster noting that Webster’s “desire of obtaining truth is very laudable, I wish I had more leizure to gratify it . . . the knowledge of innumerable things, of a more delicate and secret nature, is confined to the perishable remembrance of some few of the present generation.”[1] The letter contained Washington’s response to Webster’s inquiry concerning Washington’s true design and objectives for the allied Revolutionary War campaign of 1781. Researchers examining the available records generally conclude that Washington truly desired an attack on the British garrison in New York as the decisive offensive campaign of 1781. Others credit General Rochambeau with steering the campaign to focus on the British in the south, ultimately resulting in Lord Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Rochambeau later wrote, “[Washington’s] wish was really then to attack New York, and we should have carried the plan to execution if the enemy had continued to draft troops from its garrison.”[2] Washington’s letter to Webster highlights the fact that Washington protected his true intentions from both friendly and enemy forces. The letter also reveals that Washington did not leave a clear written record associated with these events until he summarized them in the 1788 letter to Webster. In examining the record of the 1781 campaign, we find that Washington provided some clues into his overall campaign design. When combined with Washington’s letter to Webster, one may easily conclude that Washington protected information, worked to deceive the enemy of his true intentions, and monitored the friendly and enemy situations, seeking the best opportunity for military success.

Washington Protected Information

Washington’s intent, campaign design, and objectives provide great insight into how he viewed the campaign of 1781. Washington understood the importance of operational security, today termed OPSEC by the United States military. Operational security involves protecting critical information, including friendly intentions, from enemy exploitation.[3]

Washington knew if he spoke freely of his true intentions to pursue an offensive in the south for the 1781 campaign that he would lose the support of the political leadership and the people in the northern and middle states. It seemed obvious to Washington that the people would feel abandoned by the army and exposed to British retribution. Washington admitted to Webster the need to maintain local support to “cause it to be believed by the highest military as well as civil Officers that New York was the destined place of attack, for the important purpose of inducing the Eastern and Middle States to make greater exertions in furnishing specific supplies than they otherwise would have done.” Washington understood that the cooperation and contribution of these states was important because “the difficulty consisted more in providing, than knowing how to apply the military apparatus.”[4] Washington had a surplus of vision for applying military force; he lacked the resources to execute his vision. Washington’s statements reflect a sophisticated understating of operational security because he knew if his true intentions became public knowledge the minimal sustainment the army received from the state governors and the Continental Congress would diminish. Washington also understood the loss of the army’s ability to conduct any type of offensive operation during the 1781 campaigning season could lead to declining morale, the loss of French military support and the ultimately the collapse of the Continental Army as a cohesive and effective fighting force.

By withholding his intentions until the last possible moment, Washington sought to maximize the sustainment and logistics support to the Continental Army as both Washington and Rochambeau moved south to attack Lord Cornwallis in Virginia. On September 7, Washington finally released the letters to the southern governors requesting support. He had prepared the letters on August 31, but held them because he wanted to maximize the support available to his forces as he moved from the Hudson River to the Chesapeake Bay through the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. During the first week of September, the American and French forces arrived at the head of the Elk River in Maryland postured to continue the move down the Chesapeake Bay. By this time, Washington placed enough distance between the allied army and Clinton’s garrison in New York that he was beyond their immediate operational reach. At this point in the campaign, as the focus shifted to Virginia, operational security was no longer the most critical campaign considerations because Washington learned that Admiral de Grasse’s French fleet was anchored in the Chesapeake Bay and had landed 3,000 disciplined French regulars, preventing Cornwallis’s escape and announcing the ultimate campaign objective.[5]

Washington Worked to Deceive the Enemy

Military deception, frequently referred to as MILDEC, involves, “actions executed to deliberately mislead adversary military . . . decision makers, thereby causing the adversary to take specific actions (or inactions) that will contribute to the accomplishment of the friendly mission.”[6] Washington would understand this contemporary definition of military deception because his practices during the 1781 campaign aligned well with deception principles.

Washington acknowledged the importance of deception during the 1781 campaign when he indicated “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. Nor were less pains taken to deceive our own Army; for I had always conceived, when the imposition did not completely take place at home, it could never sufficiently succeed abroad.”[7]

Washington had a substantial number of boats constructed in the Hudson River Valley and some of these accompanied the army on its movement south past New York City, giving the enemy the perception that the boats would be used for an attack on New York. Washington also ordered the construction of baking ovens in locations in Chatham, New Jersey near New York to lead the enemy and his own army to believe his forces were going to stay in that vicinity for an extended period of time, warranting the construction of ovens.[8] He used unencrypted letters and sent them with couriers that would be easily compromised to spread false information that would lead the British to infer an imminent attack on New York. In a final move of deception, Washington feinted his army by marching them towards New York before veering suddenly south through Philadelphia towards Virginia.

The often-quoted Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, would fully endorse Washington’s response to Webster when he pointed out that deception serves, “the interesting purpose of rendering the enemy less prepared elsewhere.”[9] Washington accomplished his goal of creating doubt in the mind of Sir Henry Clinton, commanding British forces in New York, concerning his campaign objective. It was not until September 2 that Clinton finally concluded the allied army was headed to Virginia.[10]

Washington Sought the Best Opportunity for Success

Skilled commanders and military leaders remain flexible and attentive to opportunities to exploit enemy weaknesses. Washington exhibited these qualities and skills as he contemplated actions during the spring and summer of 1781. In his consultations with General Rochambeau, Washington reserved making a final decision on the campaign objective because he needed the means to deliver a decisive offensive campaign involving three key ingredients: men, ships and money. While Washington needed all three of these elements, he most desperately needed French naval power. He highlighted the importance of this ingredient when he stated, by “(having the command of the water with sufficient means of conveyance) [we] could transport ourselves to any spot.” Washington desperately needed a victory during 1781, and he understood his defensive posture would never lead to a decisive 1781 campaign. He sought an enemy vulnerability to attack, and he needed to help develop conditions to create that vulnerability because he understood “it could not be foreknown where the enemy would be most susceptible.”[11]

On May 15, just days before his commander’s conference with General Rochambeau at Wethersfield, Connecticut, Washington received intelligence of an estimated 2,000 British reinforcements bound from New York for the Chesapeake.[12] This information may have influenced Washington’s view of potential operations against a weakened New York garrison as he developed a position at the Wethersfield conference the following week. Washington was not fixed on New York, however; he wrote to Webster, “the point of attack was not absolutely agreed upon.”[13]

As early as June 25, Washington made mention of the potential advantages of a southern operation. This line of thinking continued throughout the month of July, and on August 1 Washington wrote, “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 Troops in Virginia were recalled to reinforce New York and therefore I turn my views more seriously (than ever before done) to an operation to the Southward.”[14] When Washington revealed to Webster that “the point of attack was not absolutely agreed upon,”[15] he accurately recalled his thought processes during the spring and summer of 1781.

After August 1, Washington’s focus shifted to one of two southern targets, “as 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.” Washington continued, “it never was in contemplation 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.”[16] At some point during the first two weeks of August, most likely on August 14, when he received news of de Grasse’s movement to the Chesapeake Bay,[17] Washington realized the opportunity, “the hostile Post in Virginia, [went] from being a provisional and strongly expected [target and] became the definitive and certain object of the Campaign.”[18]


A detailed analysis of the actual events associated with the 1781 campaign, concluding in Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown and summarized in Washington’s July 31, 1788 letter to Noah Webster, provides great insight into Washington’s thought processes as he both reacted to events and attempted to shape the environment for the 1781 campaign. Washington’s skill and understanding of concepts involving the protection of friendly information, today termed as OPSEC, and deception of the enemy, today termed MILDEC, allowed Washington to help control and shape the environment. His mature and pragmatic understanding allowed Washington a certain degree of freedom of action in developing his options and opportunities, and for him to execute a campaign design seeking the best opportunity for success. The allied campaign of 1781 reveals a window into the military mind of Washington, yet as Washington revealed to Webster, the elements of campaign design and military art existed only in the mind of Washington. Lacking any written record because of their “delicate and secret nature,”[19] many important details of Washington’s design for the 1781 campaign perished with Washington.

When evaluating surviving records in the context of actual events, one can correctly conclude that Washington’s design skills, supported by French military resources, enabled him to execute a synchronized ground and maritime campaign. During the 1781 campaigning season, Washington’s vision and execution resulted in an offensive campaign design that placed his British opponents in a reactionary posture. On this occasion, his campaign design skills exceeded those of his of his British opponents because Washington understood “how to apply the military apparatus.”[20] Washington understood and professionally practiced during 1781, what are today elements of the art and science of war.


[1] George Washington to Noah Webster, July 31, 1788, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939), 30: 28; among other accomplishments, Noah Webster worked to promote American nationalism.

[2] By “draft troops from its garrison,” Rochambeau meant that New York was weakened because British troops were pulled away to other places. Count de Rochambeau and M. W. Wight, “What France did for America: Memoirs of Rochambeau,” The North American Review, 202(739) (June, 1917): 981.

[3] “operations security — A capability that identifies and controls critical information, indicators of friendly force actions attendant to military operations, and incorporates countermeasures to reduce the risk of an adversary exploiting vulnerabilities.” Also called OPSEC. DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, August 2017), 175,, accessed November 30, 2017.

[4] Fitzpatrick, Writings, 26.

[5] “Minutes of Occurrences respecting the Siege and Capture of York in Virginia, extracted from the Journal of Colonel Jonathan Trumbull, Secretary to the General, 1781,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 14 (1875-76): 322; and, E. M. Acomb, “The Journal of Baron Von Closen,” The William and and Mary Quarterly, 10 (2) (April 1953): 210; British naval commanders continued to struggle in responding to allied actions and obtaining an accurate intelligence estimate of French naval actions; see French E. Chadwick, The Graves Papers and Other Documents Relating to the Naval Operations of the Yorktown Campaign: July to October 1781 (New York: The Naval History Society, 1916), 51-2, 56-61 & 83-4,, accessed December 10, 2017.

[6] “military deception — Actions executed to deliberately mislead adversary military, paramilitary, or violent extremist organization decision makers, thereby causing the adversary to take specific actions (or inactions) that will contribute to the accomplishment of the friendly mission.” Also called MILDEC. DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 152.

[7] Fitzpatrick, Writings, 28.

[8] Tom Shachtman, The French Bread Connection, Journal of the American Revolution, September 2017,, accessed December 10, 2017.

[9] Fitzpatrick, Writings, 26.

[10] Clinton to Cornwallis, September 2 and 4, 1781, in Ian Saberton, ed., Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War (Uckfield, England: The Naval & Military Press Ltd, 2010), 6: 32-3; and, Howard C. Rice, Jr. and Anne S.K. Brown, eds. & trans., The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, Verger Journal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), 1: 133.

[11] Fitzpatrick, Writings, 27.

[12] John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., George Washington Diaries: 1748-1799, 1781: May 1 – November 5 (New York and Boston: The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1925), 2: 214.

[13] Fitzpatrick, Writings, 26.

[14] Fitzpatrick, Diaries, 246.

[15] Fitzpatrick, Writings, 26.

[16] Ibid., 27-8.

[17] Rice & Brown, De Grasse’s letter to Rochambeau, July 28, 1781, 1: 61-2.

[18] Fitzpatrick, Writings, 28.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 26.

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  • The letter was published in1939, citation: George Washington to Noah Webster, July 31, 1788, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939), 30: 28. Appears most researchers have just missed this valuable letter that provides significant insight into Washington’s 1781 campaign planning. One of my students provided a secondary source that referenced this letter. Without the help of this student, I would never have found it.

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