The months leading up to the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781 are often glossed over in histories of the Revolutionary War. But they should not be. They were crucial months of preparation for the campaign to come. The events of late June to mid-August 1781 tell the important story leading up to the most consequential decision made by Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The resulting march of the allied French and American armies from New York to Virginia to confront the British forces operating in that state would culminate in a battle that would decide the outcome of the war.
During the months of June, July, and August, the two armies and their commanding generals undertook numerous actions that were critical to building trust and confidence in their ability to undertake military cooperation, starting with the movement of the French army from Newport, Rhode Island, to New York’s Westchester County. Some of the most interesting of such actions were the joint reconnaissances the two generals conducted of the defenses of British-occupied New York City in anticipation of a siege. In addition to the two generals sharing personal hazards and building trust, these scouting operations involved the joint movement of the two armies—crucial experience for later operations.
In the latter part of June 1781, Washington and Lt.Gen. Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French army, began putting into operation a plan decided on at their conference held the previous month in Wethersfield, Connecticut. In his diary, Washington summarized the decisions of the conference:
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 [French naval] 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 w[oul]d 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.
In accordance with these plans, Washington shifted the Continental army’s position south from West Point to Peekskill, ten miles closer to New York City. By the time Washington issued the orders for this march, Rochambeau had already set his four infantry regiments and one legionary corps—a mixed unit of mounted dragoons and infantry—in motion for the long journey from Newport to Westchester County. The Continental army began its march by divisions on June 21. Within four days the army had set up camp at Peekskill where the commander in chief joined it on June 25.
With the French army on the march and his own army now located closer to New York City, Washington decided to make a surprise attack. He intended to target the city’s northernmost defenses—the forts on the north end of Manhattan Island—and a Loyalist outpost at Morrisania, just across the Harlem River from the forts. Brig. Gen. Armand-Louis de Gontaut, duc de Lauzun would lead the raid on Morrisania and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln the attack on the Manhattan forts. Both would occur on July 3. Washington hoped to capture the forts before the British could react and then use them as a base for the siege. He would march the remainder of the Continental army south to be in position to support the two generals and exploit any success. It would be the first combined military operation of the two armies. Washington set the operation in motion after dark on July 1.
According to plan, Lincoln embarked the attack force at Teller’s Point on the Hudson River. The detachment then sailed down the New Jersey side of the river until it reached the site of old Fort Lee, nearly opposite the British forts on Manhattan Island. There, Lincoln disembarked his troops, and after sunrise on July 2 he made observations of the British defenses. Lauzun joined his legion with an American dragoon regiment and some Connecticut state troops and began his march to Morrisania. Washington began marching the main army south at 3:00 a .m. on the 2nd.
Because of unexpectedly strong British defenses, Lincoln could not attack the forts, and, in accordance with Washington’s orders, he moved his force across the river to the area north of King’s Bridge to aid Lauzun’s attack on Morrisania. A force of German jägers by happenstance met and engaged Lincoln’s force and were soon reinforced. Lincoln’s men fought hard but were forced to retreat towards the main army, now moving south from Valentine’s Hill, a dominating height eight miles from the allied camp and only four miles north of King’s Bridge. Observing the approach of the Continental main army, the jägers broke off their pursuit and retreated to King’s Bridge. Hearing the firing to the north, Lauzun canceled his own attack and rode to the sound of the guns. But he arrived too late to aid Lincoln. The Loyalists, though, were forced to retreat to Fort No. 8, the only British outpost on the mainland (just across Harlem Creek from the Manhattan forts). After conducting a brief reconnaissance, Washington left some troops near King’s Bridge as advanced guards and moved the main army back to the White Plains area, where it set up camp. During the fighting, British Gen. Henry Clinton had ridden “out to Kings Bridge to observe their motions and catch at any advantage that might offer.” But he “soon saw that nothing could be attempted—without risking a general action.”
The French army joined the American army at the camp on July 6. The armies remained in this position for over two weeks with no opposition from the British. Clinton, believing himself outnumbered and thinking a siege of New York was imminent, had adopted a defensive mentality, even requesting the return of many regiments from the southern states. The allied generals’ strategy was working.
Washington desired to conduct an extensive reconnaissance of the British works on the north end of Manhattan Island, along the Harlem River, and along Long Island Sound. On July 14, he ordered 5,000 men readied to march for King’s Bridge to “cover and secure” the operation, but “incessant rain” prevented the march. Nevertheless, Washington and Rochambeau decided to conduct a smaller-scale reconnaissance.
On July 18, the two generals, accompanied by Continental army’s chief engineer, the French quartermaster general, and the French chief engineer, rode to the eastern shore of the Hudson River, escorted by 100 dragoons. They then crossed to the New Jersey shore “in order to reconnoitre the Enemy Posts and Encampments at the North end of York Island.” There, they met an escort of 150 Jersey troops. Taking “different views” of the British defenses on Manhattan Island and along Harlem Creek, the party went as far south as Fort Lee, before returning and crossing back to the allied camp. Demonstrating his thoroughness and attention to military detail, Washington recorded in his diary his “discoveries,” or observations, regarding the forts: their water defenses, potential landing points and access routes from the river, the terrain near their approaches, the strength of their defensive works, and the nearby British camps. His detailed observations span three printed pages in the published diary.
Shortly after this reconnaissance, the two commanders again turned to the plan for the campaign. Admiral Barras, the commander of the small French naval squadron at Newport, wanted Washington and Rochambeau to decide on “a definitive plan of Campaign” that he could send to the Comte de Grasse, the admiral commanding a large French fleet then operating in the West Indies. De Grasse’s orders directed him to come to the American coast in the fall. The two generals met in formal conference and agreed on a plan of operations. If de Grasse should “arrive in Season” and could “force the Harbour of N York,” and if the British army remained divided, Washington wanted to keep “the Enterprize against N York & its Dependencies” as the allies’ “primary Object.” But the American commander had to acknowledge the “uncertainties” he faced in filling his regiments to full strength and obtaining supplies from the state governments. If de Grasse arrived too late in the season or brought too few land troops with him, Washington agreed that the allies should leave a garrison at the strategically important post of West Point and march with the remainder of their regiments to Virginia.
With this decision made and the weather improved, Washington and Rochambeau decided to conduct the extensive reconnaissance that they had planned for the 14th. Washington ordered 5,000 men made ready to march at 8:00 p.m.on July 21. As a secondary objective, an attack would be made on any troops from Col. James Delancey’s Loyalist raiders found outside Fort No. 8. At the appointed time, the French and American soldiers began their march south in four columns, each column on a separate road with a detachment of artillery. Lauzun’s legion and Col. Elisha Sheldon’s legion also joined the march. The appointed rendezvous for all columns was to be Valentine’s Hill. Also, the Connecticut militia and state troops stationed at Horseneck (Greenwich) marched down the coastal road toward Eastchester, where they were joined by Sheldon’s cavalry to clear Throgs Neck of enemy troops. Likewise, Sheldon’s infantry would join Lauzun’s legion to clear out Morrisania. Col. Alexander Scammel’s light infantry corps was to cover these advanced troops. The light infantry “were to advance thro’ the fields & way lay the Roads—stop all communication & prevent Intelligence getting to the Enemy.” The mountainous, wooded terrain with narrow passes and bad roads made the march slow and difficult, but, nevertheless, the French and American infantry formed their junction at Valentine’s Hill at 3:00 a.m.on July 22. Led by Maj. Gen. Samuel Holden Parson’s division, the army then pushed further south arriving at the heights back of Fort Independence by daybreak and deployed east as far as Delancey’s Mills and Williams Bridge.
Washington was pleased with the operation: “The enemy did not appear to have had the least intelligence of our movement or to know we were upon the height opposite to them till the whole Army were ready to display.” The British had, in fact, been surprised by the movement. Not until daybreak on the 22nd were they aware that the allied force had arrived and taken up strong positions in their front. Observing the arrival of the French and Americans, the Hessian troops posted just north of King’s Bridge bridge quickly retreated to the island and drew up the drawbridge over Harlem Creek.
To establish strong advanced posts, Washington ordered a Continental battalion with three field pieces to advance to the walls of the partially destroyed Fort Independence—just north of King’s Bridge—and other troops to take position in front of Fort No. 8. The Continentals came under fire from the British and Loyalists in the fort, but, according to one of Rochambeau’s aides-de-camp, they marched under this fire “very valiantly and in very good order.” Rochambeau sent a detachment of his grenadiers and chasseurs to support the American battalion. After making these dispositions, the two allied commanders and their aides rode west to Cox Hill to reconnoiter the British fortifications on the north end of the island. Ships anchored where Harlem Creek joins the Hudson River and batteries in the forts fired on the party but without effect. After finishing this reconnaissance, the generals rode back to camp.
While these events were occurring, the columns sent to break up the Loyalist camps proceeded to Throgs Neck and Morrisania, but, according to Washington, had “little effect, as most of the Refugees were fled, & hid in such obscure places as not to be discovered.” Others had retreated to adjacent islands, British shipping in the East River, or Fort No. 8. “A few however were caught and some cattle & Horses brought off.” As the Loyalists retreated, the allies began a harassing fire on Fort No. 8. At 6:00 a.m.two cannon were brought up to fire on Howland’s Ferry (behind the fort) where the Loyalists were trying to cross to Manhattan Island.
Despite these attacks, the British remained in the defensive posture they had exhibited earlier in the month. “No movements were made on our side, except reinforcing No. 8, with 20 men,” British officer Maj. Frederick Mackenzie wrote. Expecting a large attack on the fort, the British ordered “the troops stationed near Kingsbridge . . . to be in readiness to move if called upon” but took offensive action. The reinforcements for the fort—a troop of dragoons—exchanged shots with American dragoons in the forward post adjacent to the fort.
With the army deployed and the allies firmly in control of the ground, Washington, Rochambeau, and their chief engineers began “to reconnoitre the enemy’s position and Works first from Tippets hill opposite to their left.” The party, accompanied by aides-de-camp and escorted by a party of light infantry and about eight dragoons, first visited the position of the advanced battalion where they could observe Fort George on Manhattan Island. On the way to reconnoiter Morrisania, the party passed Delancey’s Mill, where a battalion of French troops was posted. The generals then proceeded along the bank of Harlem Creek to Morrisania. Washington soon came under fire. The British had observed the reconnaissance column. “Mr Washington was with them, “ Mackenzie wrote, “and came so near the point with some Cavalry, that some Cannon shot were fired at him, which soon obliged him to move off.”
After this, near Morrisania, the party “surprised a sort of light corps of about 20 Loyalists, including foot and horse, which had not had time to cross the river.” Washington, who had ridden about a mile ahead of the light infantry escort, sent forward eight dragoons to charge the Loyalists. The aides-de-camp joined the charge. Setting off at a gallop, the dragoons and aides found that the Loyalists had taken refuge in a house. Taking musket fire from the windows, the dragoons and aides surrounded the house, began returning fire with their pistols and carbines, and called on the Loyalists to surrender, threatening “to give them no quarter and to burn the house if they refused.” The Loyalists then called out that they were surrendering and exited the house. Meanwhile, about 200 British soldiers had gathered on the opposite shore and began firing at the Americans and French with muskets and grapeshot fired from four field pieces. Spotting this support, the Loyalists attacked the dragoons and aides. They paid a severe price for their rashness. Many were sabered or shot. Some dived into the Harlem River and were drowned. Ten Loyalists and seven horses were captured. Other than a horse shot from underneath one of the aides, the allied party took no casualties. A participant, French captain Louis-Alexandre Berthier, who would become a marshal of France under Emperor Napoleon I, wrote in his journal that Washington and Rochambeau “watched this little skirmish, which lasted five minutes, at very close range.”
Washington’s observations, which he recorded in his diary, were again very detailed. He noted that Fort Charles, just behind King’s Bridge, “would be absolutely at the command of a battery which might be erected” at Tippets Hill. He thought the fort on Cox Hill “was in bad repair, & little dependence placed on it.” But from every view he “could get of Forts Tryon, Knyphausen & Laurel hill the Works are formidable.” He also recorded extensive notes on enemy camps, potential crossing points for an assault, and potential locations for artillery. The two generals and the engineers then completed their reconnaissance and the party returned to camp.
Since the allies had not attacked Fort No. 8 in force, the British expected them to retire from the area in the night. But at daybreak they discovered that the allies remained in their positions in full force. At 3:00 a.m.on the 23rd, Clinton had ridden out to King’s Bridge to reconnoiter the allied positions from several points. Arriving at the fort on Cox Hill, he sent one of his aides-de-camp to Fort No. 8 with directions to the commanding officer to fire several cannon shots into the allied line. “His design,” wrote Mackenzie, “was to make the Enemy shew themselves, and enable him the better to judge of their position and numbers.” The shots “had the desired effect.” Immediately after the shots, the allied “Soldiers, who had been lying down, run up to the nearest heights, and Shewed the whole extent of their lines, and enabled him to form a good judgement of their numbers. “ Clinton next went to Fort Charles, the bastion guarding the crossing at King’s Bridge, where he could be easily observed by the allied troops posted at Fort Independence. A French or American dragoon was seen riding out from the fort and a cannon was soon brought up. Four or five shots were fired at the column coming up to relieve the garrison at Fort Charles “but without effect.” When the cannon in Fort Charles returned fire, the allies withdrew the piece from Fort Independence. But Clinton had left Fort Charles before the artillery began firing. After several hours of observation, he had satisfied himself that the allies “did not intend any immediate attempt” and returned to his quarters to have dinner. The British commander evidently had no thought of attacking the allied lines. He had believed since early June that he was “threatened with a siege” of New York.
While Clinton was conducting his observations, the allied generals resumed their reconnaissance, but they shifted the location to another point vital to the projected operation. Early in the morning, Rochambeau and his aides-de-camp called on Washington. The two generals, accompanied by the chief engineers and an escort of ninety American dragoons, then set out on a reconnaissance of Throg’s Neck, a peninsula southeast of Westchester that juts into Long Island Sound opposite to Whitestone on Long Island. A crossing from Throgs Neck to Long Island would be part of any operation leading to a siege of New York because control of Brooklyn Heights was essential. From Whitestone, a road led south to Flushing and the Jamaica Road that in turn led to Brooklyn Heights. Washington succinctly described the objective: “Went upon Frogs [Throgs] Neck, to see what communication could be had with Long Isld.” From Throgs Neck the officers could clearly see the shore of Long Island, just a short distance across the sound. A sixteen-gun British privateer, at anchor in the sound, took the party under fire. During the reconnaissance, the generals and their escort had to cross a low-lying marshy area; a “little connecting bridge” was quickly constructed to allow them to cross.
Arriving at the point where the engineers wished to conduct their observations, the party rested. As Rochambeau later recalled: “While our engineers carried out this geometrical operation, we slept, worn out by fatigue, at the foot of a hedge, under fire from the cannon of the enemy’s ships, who wished to hinder the work. Waking first, I called General Washington, and remarked to him that we had forgotten the hour of the tide. We hurried to the [bridge] on which we had crossed this small arm of the sea which separated us from the mainland; we found it covered with water. We were brought two little boats, in which we embarked, with the saddles and trappings of the horses; they then sent back two American dragoons, who drew by the bridle two horses, good swimmers.” Rochambeau’s aide-de-camp Luwig von Closen wrote: “After the leaders’ horses were over, I must confess that I was astonished to see the 90 horses of the American dragoons . . . unsaddled and compelled to swim across at once, without a rope or anything. The American officer assured me ‘that he had often had his men swim across, and that the horses were accustomed to this from birth’” (italics in original).Rochambeau remembered that the crossing “was made in less than an hour, but happily our embarrassment was unnoticed by the enemy.” Washington rated the ship’s fire as “harmless.”
The generals and engineers then decided to conduct a second reconnaissance of Morrisania, but, coming that close to the enemy, they needed to boost their escort. Rochambeau sent Closen to find Lauzun’s legion which was stationed some miles north of Throg’s Neck. The engineers, though, rode to Morrisania well ahead of the generals so as not to be disturbed in their observations. Closen noted that a “few carbine shots were fired at those who reconnoitered too openly.” Washington’s summary of the reconnaissance was brief and subdued: “Having finished the reconnoitre without damage—a few harmless shot only being fired at us—we Marched back about Six o’clock by the same routs we went down & a reversed order of March and arrived in Camp about Midnight.” With the reconnaissances completed, Washington could do little but wait for reinforcements to come in from the states and look forward to the arrival of the French fleet. Between July 24 and 31, he recorded in his diary only comments on his correspondence and minor troop movements.
By the first day in August Washington had come to the realization that a siege of New York would not be possible. On that date the general wrote in his diary that all material preparations had been made for the siege “and every thing would have been in perfect readiness to commense the operation against New York, if the States had furnished their quotas of men agreeably to my requisitions,” but only half of the men requested had arrived at camp. He began to shift his strategy: “Thus circumstanced, and having little more than general assurances of getting the succours called for . . . 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 views more seriously (than I had before done) to an operation to the Southward.” He began making preliminary arrangements for marching the army to Virginia.
In the next two weeks, Washington carried out the routine duties of army commander. He monitored events in Virginia and at New York, continued to familiarize himself with the roads and ground in the region of the camp, urged governors to keep up the militia serving with the army, tended to the organization of the army’s light infantry corps, and called in troops from other posts to concentrate his army.
On August 14, the long-awaited message from de Grasse arrived. Washington received dispatches from Admiral Barras announcing that de Grasse intended to sail for Chesapeake Bay from Cap François (in modern Haiti) on August 3 with between twenty-five and twenty-nine ships of the line and 3,200 land troops. De Grasse, Washington wrote in his diary, was anxious “to have every thing in the most perfect readiness to commence our operations in the moment of his arrival.” But the French admiral would be obligated to return to the West Indies in mid-October.
Presented with de Grasse’s decision for the Chesapeake, Washington did not hesitate in making his most consequential decision of the war. Matters had now “come to a crisis,” he wrote, and he had to decide on “a decisive plan.” Being limited by de Grasse’s short stay, “the apparent disinclination” in the French naval officers “to force the harbour of New York,” and “the feeble compliance” of the state governments to his requests for men, he relinquished “all idea of attacking New York” and instead ordered the French army and a large detachment of the Continental army to march for “the Head of Elk to be transported to Virginia for the purpose of cooperating with the force from the West Indies against the Troops in that State.” That momentous decision changed the course of the war. A mere five days after Washington made his decision, the French army and half the Continental army in New York were on the march to Virginia to meet de Grasse and join Lafayette’s army that had been holding Cornwallis at bay in that state.
The threat of a siege that the operations of the French and American armies had placed in Clinton’s mind continued to affect his actions (or lack of action). Even as the allies marched from the Hudson into New Jersey, he remained on the defensive. By the time he realized the allies were marching south through New Jersey, it was too late to do anything but sail to the Chesapeake with troops to aid Cornwallis. But de Grasse’s victory at the Battle of the Capes would soon foreclose that option. Between Rochambeau and Washington, as well as their troops, trust had been established and experience gained in combined operations. Now the allied armies could march with confidence to confront Cornwallis, who had taken post on the York River and begun to fortify an old tobacco port as a base—Yorktown.
Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Diaries of George Washington, 6 vols (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1976–79), 3:369 (Diaries). All dates are 1781 unless otherwise specified.
Diaries, 3:385–86, 388–89; Washington to David Waterbury, June 30 and July 1, Washington Papers, Library of Congress; Washington to Rochambeau, June 30, Rochambeau Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University; Washington to Lauzun, July 1, Washington Papers, Library of Congress; Washington to Benjamin Lincoln, July 1, Harvard University; Washington to Elisha Sheldon, July 1, Washington Papers, Library of Congress; Lincoln to Washington, July 2, Benjamin Lincoln Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society; Washington to Samuel Huntington, July 6, Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives; New-York Gazette: and the Weekly Mercuryfor July 16; Journal of Lieutenant Jean-François-Louis, Comte de Clermont-Crèvecœur, in Howard C. Rice, Jr., and Anne S. K. Brown, eds., The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783. 2 vols. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), 1:32; Carl Leopold Baurmeister, Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776–1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces. Translated and annotated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1957), 449–50; Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930), 2:556–59. The army’s camp was just east of White Plains, New York, and west of Dobbs Ferry on the Hudson River. For a contemporary map of the French and American encampments, see Rice and Brown, American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army, 2:238–39 (map 43).
Diaries, 3:390; Henry Clinton to Lieutenant General Charles, Earl Cornwallis, June 11, 15, and 28, in Ian Saberton, ed., The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in The Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War. 6 vols. (Uckfield, UK: Naval & Military Press, 2010), 5:95–98.
Diaries, 3:399; Evelyn M. Acomb, ed., The Revolutionary Journal of Baron Ludwig von Closen, 1780–1783(Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1958), 97–98 (Closen includes some events of the morning of the 22nd in his journal entry for the 21st; Mackenzie Diary, 2:570.
Mackenzie Diary, 571–72; Clinton to Cornwallis, June 8 and 11, in Saberton, Cornwallis Papers, 5:123–25. Clinton’s spies had intercepted some of Washington’s letters that discussed the campaign plan agreed at the Wethersfield conference (Saberton, Cornwallis Papers, 5:126–34).
Diaries, 3:401. In this instance, he did not record his observations, but Brig. Gen. Louis Duportail, the army’s chief engineer, later furnished him with a summary of the engineers’ observations (see Duportail to Washington, August 18, 1781, in Washington Papers, Library of Congress).
See Clinton to Cornwallis, September 2-4 and 6, in Saberton, Cornwallis Papers, 6:32-34. Clinton’s letters to Cornwallis throughout June, July, and early August reveal this defensive mindset. See the letters of June 8, 11, 19; July 11 and 15; and August11 in Saberton, Cornwallis Papers, 5:95–97, 123–25, 135–36, 142–43 and 6:20-24. In the letter of July 15, Clinton told Cornwallis he had been “reduced” by detachments to Virginia to a “very bare defensive” at New York. Clinton was preparing at most for a quick offensive in the Philadelphia-Delaware River region to “seize” the supplies stored in that city, but then he planned to bring the troops back to defend New York (see Clinton to Cornwallis, June 28, in Saberton, Cornwallis Papers, 5:114–15).