My focus for some time now has been on the war in the south. I last talked about the main Continental army under Washington in Episode 276, when we discussed the mutiny of the Pennsylvania line. Before that, we go back to the fall of 1780 when Benedict Arnold fled to the British.
|Baron Von Closen retrieves his hat
In 1780 and 1781, the main British army under General Henry Clinton occupied New York City, including all of Manhattan Island and most of Long Island. The Continentals were located throughout northern New Jersey and the Hudson Valley area of New York, mostly around West Point. The French army under General Rochambeau had arrived at Newport, Rhode Island in 1780, and had not moved since then.
Washington had conferred with Rochambeau at Hartford, Connecticut, in the fall of 1780. There both generals had agreed that they did not have enough men and resources to attack the British in New York, and agreed to focus on getting larger and better equipped armies to take on the task. Rochambeau sent his son back to Versailles to plead for more of everything. Washington fought with Congress and State leaders about getting them to provide more soldiers, and everything else they needed but the few soldiers that did join did not help with New York since he had to send so many to Virginia and the Carolinas.
General Rochambeau’s son, the Vicomte de Rochambeau, put forward his father’s case for more of everything in France. It took him six months to return with an answer.
|Vicomte de Rochambeau
The war in Europe was also expanding. Britain had just declared war on the Netherlands. On top of that, when the younger Rochambeau arrived in France in December 1780, word had just arrived that the Empress Maria Theresa of the Holy Roman Empire had died. France was concerned this might result in a new European War involving Prussia. Vergennes did not want to send a large army across the Atlantic if France itself might be threatened with an invasion by an army of Prussians.
Everything Vergennes was hearing: from Rochambeau, from his Minister Luzerne in Philadelphia, and from the American Ministers, Adams and Franklin, in France, confirmed that the Americans were barely keeping an army in the field at all. They had very few men, and no food, clothing, ammunition, nor anything else to maintain an army. France would essentially have to finance the war for America.
When the Vicomte returned to America to deliver Vergennes’ response, General Rochambeau sent a message for Washington to meet with him so that could discuss the response. The Vicomte landed in Newport, Rhode Island on May 6, 1781.
Initially the two leaders planned to meet again in Hartford, Connecticut which was about half way between Washington’s Headquarters in New York and Rochambeau’s headquarters in Rhode Island. Hartford was ruled out as a meeting place this time since the Connecticut General Assembly was in session in Hartford. Delegates were already using any spare rooms in town. Washington’s aide-de-camp, Samuel Bletchley Webb, suggested the leaders meet in Wethersfield, a few miles south of Hartford. Webb had grown up in Wethersfield, and offered up his family’s home, owned at the time by his older brother, as a suitable place to hold a conference.
Vergennes, however, was willing to provide some funds, in the hopes that it would allow the Continental Army to rebuild its own forces. France made a gift of 3.5 million livres. This money could be used to build up the Continental Army to a size that could fight the British.
In addition, France had deployed a large fleet under Admiral de Grasse with twenty ships of the line and 3200 marines and soldiers. The fleet left France in the spring, headed for the West Indies. Navies had to leave the West Indies by late summer to avoid hurricane season. So the news was that De Grasse would bring his fleet to North America for a fall campaign.
With that information, Rochambeau and Washington had to agree on a plan to make use of the French Navy when de Grasse arrived. Washington was still very much focused on retaking New York City. If the French Navy could control the water around Manhattan, the Continentals and French could advance onto Manhattan and compel the surrender of General Clinton and the British army there.
General Rochambeau disagreed with the plan. The British had an estimated 13,000 soldiers, even if Washington believed it to be only around 8000. Even using Washington's lower number, and even with the French Navy taking New York Harbor, Rochambeau’s force of less than 5000 men combined with the Continental Army under Washington, which had maybe 5000 on a good day, would not be enough to overwhelm British defenses on Manhattan, or even maintain a siege. A good rule of thumb was that an attacker needed at least twice the forces as the defender.
Instead of looking at New York, Rochambeau wanted to move their armies to Virginia. The British army under Cornwallis posed a real threat, but could be wiped out by a combined American and French force, backed by the French fleet.
The leaders of both armies argued over the options for two days, in discussions later described at tense and heated. In the end, after two days of debate, Rochambeau acceded to Washington’s demand for an attack on New York. After all, his orders from Versailles were to support Washington’s command decisions. Even here, Rochambeau equivocated. He said his French army would march to join with Washington’s in New York and would then assess together whether they could attack the city.
After the two men departed, Rochambeau wrote to Admiral de Grasse informing him of the discussions but still holding that an attack on Virginia made more sense. Although Rochambeau was under orders to support Washington, de Grasse was not. If de Grasse sailed for the Chesapeake, there was nothing the Continentals could do to compel the French fleet to go elsewhere. Rochambeau did not openly defy Washington’s wishes since he also suggested in his letter that, after destroying Cornwallis’ army in Virginia, they could then sail up to New York, if time and resources permitted.
Rochambeau also reached out to French Minister Luzerne in Philadelphia about his plans. Afterwards. Luzerne also wrote to de Grasse about the importance of taking out Cornwallis’ Army in Virginia. So even after their conference, the American and French commanders did not seem to be on the same page.
King’s Bridge Raid
In mid-June, a few weeks after returning from Wethersfield, and after getting New England leaders to call up 1000 militiamen to protect the French assets at Newport, Rochambeau began marching his army toward Washington’s headquarters in New York. It took the French army nearly three weeks to reach New York state, arriving in Philipsburg on July 5.
The combined Continental and French Armies still totaled less than 8000 men. They faced a British defensive army of nearly 15,000. Even before the French army arrived, Washington began to probe British defenses for weaknesses. On the night of July 1, General Benjamin Lincoln led 800 Continentals on an amphibious landing at the northern end of Manhattan.
Lincoln had only rejoined Washington a few weeks earlier. We last left General Lincoln in Charleston South Carolina, where he surrendered along with the rest of the southern army in the spring of 1780. After his capture, the British Lincoln to leave on parole almost immediately after his capture. Under the terms of his parole he was permitted to visit Philadelphia to brief Congress, but afterward was restricted to New England. By the fall of 1780, the armies had arranged for an exchange, which allowed Lincoln to return to active duty. Lincoln, however, remained in Massachusetts, primarily organizing militia and recruiting for the Continental Army. He rejoined Washington in New York in mid-June 1781, just in time to launch this attack.
Lincoln had moved his men down the Hudson River landing on the New Jersey side, near the former site of Fort Lee. Overnight, his men crossed the river into Manhattan to attack the forts there. At the same time, French General Armand Louis de Gontaut, the Duke de Lauzun, led a night march against Morrissania, a Tory stronghold just to the east of northern Manhattan.
At dawn, Lincoln was poised to attack the forts, but found the defenses there unexpectedly strong. His orders in that case were to abandon his attack in Manhattan, and cross King’s Bridge, back into what is today Yonkers, then go down to aid in Lauzun’s attack on Morrisania.
Lincoln’s force encountered a force of Hessian Jaegers and was forced to retreat. The two armies skirmished, as Lincoln marched back toward the main Continental Army. When they got close to the main American camp, Hessians broke off their attack and returned to their base.
Loauzun heard the sound of gunfire and marched his French forces toward them, calling off his attack on Morrisania. By the time he arrived, the Hessians had already withdrawn. Washington observed the movements closely, trying to assess the British defenses. Similarly, General Clinton rode out from New York City to observe the skirmishing and look for any American weaknesses.
The Grand Reconnaissance
On July 6, a few days after Lincoln’s attack, General Rochambeau arrived in Phillipsburg from his winter camp in Newport. The July heat was unbearable during the march, and many French soldiers collapsed during the march. They needed time to recover before they would be ready for anything. Even so, Washington was thrilled that the French Army had arrived and would soon be ready to do something.
The French soldiers were concerned about the condition of their allies. Washington’s Continentals in New York numbered only about 3500 troops. One French officer at the time commented that the Continentals were “mostly naked” and that three-quarters of them had no shoes.
Rochambeau reviewed the intelligence from the earlier raid, but wanted to launch a second larger attack so that his officers could get a better understanding of British defenses. Washington and Rochambeau agreed to launch a grand reconnaissance. This would be a rather sizeable attack on the British lines, not with the goal of overrunning them, but only to determine where British defenses were, and how strong they were.
|French Map of British Defenses drawn July 1781
On the night of July 21, the combined armies of about 4000 men marched in four columns toward Valentine Hill, a small rise just to the north of Manhattan Island. In the early pre-dawn hours of July 22, the two Continental and two French columns converged there to prepare for the attack.
Again, French officers noted how poorly clothed and fed the Continentals were, but also noted that they marched efficiently, silently, and in good order. While the soldiers were poorly supplied, they acted as professional soldiers.
The combined army formed a line about two and a half miles long, with one end at the former Fort Independence, which the Americans had abandoned years earlier following the British offensive.
The only remaining enemy garrison across the river from Manhattan was at Redoubt Number 8, only a short distance away. Redoubt Number 8 sat across Harlem Creek from Manhattan and some distance from Kings Bridge, meaning it was somewhat isolated. But British forces on the other side of the river in Manhattan had boats to reach the Redoubt. The redoubt itself was garrisoned by Hessian and loyalist forces.
The allied forces wanted to take the redoubt so that they could get a view of the British defenses from the east. From the Redoubt, they simply had to look across Harlem Creek into Manhattan.
As the Americans and French advanced on Redoubt Number 8, Hessian pickets fired warning shots to alert British forces to the enemy’s presence. Within fifteen minutes, British dragoons crossed the Harlem Creek to reinforce the Redoubt. British artillery from Laurel Hill, just across the creek, had a cannon range to support the redoubt.
Washington ordered an assault on the Redoubt, with two French divisions and one Continental. The assault was reinforced by French artillery that had arrived just in time to participate. The British defenses held and the Allied assault fell back. Seeing that they would not take the redoubt, Washington and Rochambeau used the attack to get a better idea of defenses, not only at Redoubt Number 8, but also the nearby Fort Tryon, Fort Knyphausen and Fort Laurel Hill. They also noted that the British had also built a wall to prevent any advance between the forts on Manhattan.
After that, Washington and Rochambeau then left the army under the command of General Lincoln and rode off to see how the French advance on Morrissania was going. The two generals had only a small contingent of dragoons with them, when they encountered a group of about twenty Tories. The dragoons charged the enemy who retreated to a nearby house.
The small groups skirmished for some time. At one point, one of Rochambeau’s aides, the duc de Damas had his horse shot out from under him. After the horse fell, a Tory charged out of the house to attack another of Rochambeau’s aides, Louis-Alexandre Berthier, screaming “Die, you dog of a Frenchman”.
|French Map of Manhattan, 1781
The main talk among the officers, however, was Baron von Closen. As he had chased the Tories, a tree branch knocked off his hat. He stopped his horse and dismounted to retrieve it. By the time he mounted again, the rest of the party was gone, and he found himself alone. Closen eventually caught up with them, but they all had thought that he had been killed while retrieving his hat. His survival was a pleasant surprise, although they all gave him a hard time over risking his life to retreive his hat. In the end, none of the soldiers were killed or seriously wounded in the encounter.
The skirmish ended and the party continued on its way. They reached Morrissania, where they could get a good view of the British defenses on Manhattan south of the main British defensive line. There, the party came under fire from British cannons in New York Harbor. A panicked guide noted, after galloping away, that Generals Washington and Rochambeau followed him at a slow pace, apparently unconcerned about the cannonballs whirring around them.
By 9 PM after about 24 hours of constant movement, the generals had a quick meal and got a few hours of sleep. By 4 AM the next day, July 23, they were back in the saddle, headed for Throg’s Neck to view British defenses on Long Island.
As the surveyors and engineers did their work at Throg’s Neck, Rochambeau and Washington discussed what they had seen. Both men were exhausted men and fell asleep that afternoon. While they slept, the tide came in, turning their peninsula into an island. A British navy ship sailed up and fired on the party. The two generals had to grab their saddles and run up to the northern part of the island. There, aides got both men onto boats and back to the main shore. Their horses had to swim for it. One of Washington’s Life Guards was killed in this artillery barrage. The rest of the party, however, managed to get out of cannon range. They soon rejoined the main army near King’s Bridge.
The conclusion of the reconnaissance was that the British defenses were quite formidable. The allies estimated the enemy had about 18,000 soldiers. There was no way to storm the Manhattan defenses from the north, at least not without horrific losses. A water landing below those defenses could be easily blocked by the British Navy. The danger of being encircled and entrapped was too great, even if they could raise an army large enough to challenge the British.
As I said, Rochambeau had believed that New York was not a viable target from the beginning. But armed with this evidence, he seemed to convince Washington to give up the goal of an attack on New York and instead look toward Virginia.
A frustrated Washington finally conceded that his goal of taking New York in 1781 would be impossible. In his diary, about a week later, he lamented that if only the states had fulfilled their quotas, the attack would be possible. But conceding to reality, Washington finally began to consider an operation to the south rather than an attack on New York. His dream of ending the war by recapturing New York came to an end.
Next week, we are going to head a little further north, as the soldiers in the Mohawk Valley continue to contest British raids from Canada.
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(from archive.org unless noted)
Eckenrode, H.J. The Revolution in Virginia, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1916.
Harrell, Isaac Samuel Loyalism in Virginia; chapters in the economic history of the Revolution, New York, AMS Press, 1965.
Johnston, Henry P. The Yorktown Campaign and the surrender of Cornwallis, 1781, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881.
Kapp Friedrich The Life of Frederick William Von Steuben, New York: Mason Bros. 1859.
Tarleton, Banastre A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America, London: T. Cadell 1787.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Cecere, Michael The Invasion of Virginia, 1781, Westholme Publishing, 2017.
Kranish, Michael Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War, Oxford Univ. Press, 2010.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.