Sunday, February 4, 2024

ARP297 March to Yorktown

We last left the main Continental Army under George Washington in Episode 290.  Washington and Rochambeau discussed their options for the 1781 fighting season during the spring.  Washington wanted to attack New York City and force the main British Army under General Clinton to surrender.  Rochambeau wanted to go to Virginia and take out the British southern army under General Cornwallis.  Washington’s goal would have been a more decisive way to end the war.  However, the chances of taking New York seemed much lower.  Washington convinced Rochambeau to probe the defenses in northern Manhattan, but those probes only confirmed Rochambeau’s belief that they could not take the British there.

French Alliance Flag
In August of 1781, Washington received confirmation that the French fleet under Admiral de Grasse was sailing for Virginia.  Washington gave up on his plans for New York and conceded that he would have to follow the French strategy

Washington had already deployed General Lafayette to Virginia to prevent the British from occupying Richmond.  The British forces took a defensive posture along the Chesapeake coast, despite having a larger army created by the combination of the forces that General William Philips led from New York and the army under General Cornwallis from South Carolina.

Washington received confirmation from Lafayette that the British Army was building a defensive position at Yorktown.  Washington knew the area well. In 1777, Virginia General Thomas Nelson had proposed building a monitoring station at Yorktown to track British ships coming and going from the Chesapeake.  Washington advised against it, saying that the narrow Yorktown peninsula could easily be cut off by land and trap any soldiers holding that position.  

Now, in 1781, his enemy was taking that same position.  Washington ordered Lafayette to prevent Cornwallis from gaining any path where he might march by land back down to the Carolinas.  Lafayette did not have enough men to attack Cornwallis’ army successfully, but he could build defenses that would likely  keep the enemy where they were.

Needs of the Army

Washington’s army in August only had a few thousand Continentals.  None of the states had raised their quotas for the 1781 fighting season, so they had little more than the number that had survived on winter encampments from the prior year.  He would also have to leave some portion of his army around New York so that the main British army under Clinton did not go on the offensive. So even if you combined Washington’s army with the Continentals already in Virginia, the British force under Cornwallis would still probably outnumber them by nearly 2-1.  On top of that, Washington was struggling more than ever to feed and supply his army.  The states had gotten tired of supporting an army and refused to come up with the necessary money and supplies to keep even a small army in the field.

Vicomte de Rochambeau

To get even his small army into fighting condition, Washington needed more of everything.  Fortunately, Colonel John Laurens had been successful in his efforts to get the King of France to contribute more to the cause.  In June of 1781, Lauren sailed into Boston with arms and equipment to resupply Washington’s army. This had been made possible through a large gift of cash from the King of France.

In addition to the equipment, however, Washington needed money to pay his soldiers.  The Continentals were promised monthly pay.  A private was entitled to $6.67 per month.  Of course, with inflation, that money literally was not worth the paper it was printed on.  A month’s pay would be worth less than one cent in specie, that is gold or silver.  To add to the insult, Congress had not even bothered to supply the paper money to pay the soldiers for many months.  Washington had begun 1781 with a mutiny because they were not getting what they were promised..  His men, rightfully, felt forgotten and neglected by the rest of the country.  

To forestall mutinies or desertions during this critical campaign, Washington wrote two letters to Robert Morris, the Superintendent of Finance for the Continental Congress.  Washington pleaded with Morris to come up with one month’s pay for the soldiers in specie to help with morale.

I must entreat you if possible to procure one months pay in specie for the detachment which I have under my command part of those troops have not been paid any thing for a very long time past, and have upon several occasions shewn marks of great discontent—The service they are going upon is disagreeable to the Northern Regiments, but I make no doubt that a douceur of a little hard money would put them in proper temper.

Morris, of course, had no money to give.  He immediately sent letters to the states, pleading that they provide money immediately: 

The Exigencies of the Service require immediate Attention, We are on the Eve of the most Active Operations, and should they be in anywise retarded by the want of necessary Supplies, the most unhappy Consequences may follow. Those who may be justly chargeable with Neglect, will have to Answer for it to their Country, to their Allies, to the present generation, and to all Posterity. I hope, intreat, expect, the utmost possible Efforts on the Part of your State; and I confide in your Excellency’s Prudence and Vigor, to render those Efforts effectual.

Despite the need for money, Washington could not wait for it to arrive.  He believed the French fleet was on its way to the Chesapeake, hoped it would arrive in August.  He has also received word from the fleet’s commander, Admiral de Grasse, that the fleet would only be available until mid-October, when it had to return to the West Indies.  That meant that Washington had a two month window to march his army to Virginia and defeat the British.

New York to Philadelphia

Washington moved his Continental Army into New Jersey in late August.  With him was the French army under Rochambeau that numbered about 5000 men.   Rochambeau's French Army was twice the size of the Continental Army led by Washington.  The armies first marched north to a point where they could cross the Hudson River into New Jersey.  They moved down the western coast of the river, bringing boats with them in hopes of convincing the British in New York that they planned a river crossing into New York to attack the city.

That ruse would not last long since they had to march west toward Pennsylvania.  By the end of August the armies were at Princeton.  They rested there for a couple of days, arriving in Trenton by September 2.  There, the armies crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.

When they reached Philadelphia, the army set up camp in the unpopulated area west of town.  This was along the eastern bank of the Schuylkill River over to the vacant land where Philadelphia City Hall sits today.  The armies paused there for a few days, marching down Market Street for a grand review by the Congress and the people of Philadelphia. 

Also while in the city, Washington hoped to collect some money to help pay for the Army’s travel expenses and to pay his soldiers.  As usual, Congress had nothing.  Robert Morris ended up going around to his wealthier friends in the city, borrowing money on his own personal credit.  He managed to scrape together about $30,000, which would help to cover some of the costs of moving the army, but not not enough to issue any pay.  Morris even managed to borrow $2000 in specie from General Rochambeau, probably from the French Army payroll.  Morris had to promise to repay by October 1.  Morris’ efforts were also aided by the arrival of Colonel Laurens in late August with some of the money provided by the King of France.

In effect, this was a French campaign.  The French army under Rochambeau was twice as large as the Continental Army.  France was also paying for almost all of the Continental Army’s expenses.  To have any hope of success, these combined armies had to unite with the French fleet under Admiral de Grasse.  The British army at Yorktown was being kept in place by the army under General Lafayette.

On Tuesday, September 4, Washington attended a dinner in Philadelphia hosted by the French Minister Luzerne.  The following morning, the Armies began marching for Head of Elk, Maryland.  At least part of the French army moved down the Delaware River by ship.  But the limits of ships and money forced the Continentals to walk.  Just after leaving Philadelphia, Washington received news that Admiral de Grasse had reached the Chesapeake.

Marching to Yorktown

As Washington had feared, his small army saw a number of desertions on the march.  Morale remained low.

On his arrival at Head of Elk, Washington received some good news.  General Rochambeau had written to Admiral de Grasse months earlier that the campaign was in desperate need of cash.  De Grasse convinced Spanish officials in Havana, Cuba to provide a loan of 500,000 Spanish pesos, which de Grasse carried to America.  Spain also agreed to use its navy to protect French merchant vessels in the West Indies, allowing de Grasse to take more ships with him to Virginia.

Spanish officials had to scramble to collect this massive amount of cash.  Although the Spanish Empire pulled tons of gold and silver out of its mines in Latin America, it did not keep piles of specie on hand in one place.  

The Spanish minister in Havana, Don Francisco Saavedra, worked with officials all across the Spanish Empire, including with Bernardo de Galvez in New Orleans, to come up with the money.  Saavedra was supposed to get the money from mines in Mexico, but the ships had not arrived by the time the French fleet was ready to leave.

The Spanish minister had to call on the people of Havana to lend the money until the treasure ships from Mexico arrived.  The people of Havana quickly responded, allowing the government to raise the necessary cash in just six hours.  The French fleet departed with the needed money and sailed for Virginia.

Confident that he would have the cash necessary to complete the campaign, Washington paused at Head of Elk to do something he had never done before: pay his soldiers for a full month’s pay in hard money.

Sergeant Joseph Plum Martin, who had been with the army since 1776 later wrote about the incident at Head of Elk. 

we each of us received a MONTH’S PAY, in specie, borrowed, as I was informed, by our French officers from the officers in the French army. This was the first that could be called money, which we had received as wages since the year ‘76, or that we ever did receive till the close of the war, or indeed, ever after, as wages.

Another soldier, John Hudson, also wrote: 

I received the only pay that I ever drew for my services during the war, being six French crowns, which were a part of what Robert Morris borrowed on his own credit from the French commander to supply the most urgent necessities of the soldiers. My comrades received the same amount. 

The money did wonders for morale.  

The bad news at Head of Elk was that there were not nearly enough ships to transport the army to Virginia.  About 1000 of the soldiers boarded ships.  The other 6500 or so continued to march overland.  The army made its way to Baltimore, where it once again was received happily by the residents of the town.

Then, Washington had another wartime “first”.  On September 8, he left while much of his army was still marching to Baltimore and rode to his home at Mount Vernon.  This was the first time he had seen his estate since he rode off to the Second Continental Congress in early 1775.  Washington brought with him several of his aides, as well as a few top French officers, including General Rochambeau.  During the years he had been away, Washington had provided instructions for updating the house and the grounds.  This was his first opportunity to see those changes.  But he did not really discuss that.  The leaders spent a couple of days at the plantation, working out some logistical details for the remainder of the campaign.

Planning at Yorktown
The morning of September 12, the group left Mount Vernon, headed for Williamsburg.  A week later, Generals Washington and Rochambeau boarded Admiral de Grasse’s flagship to discuss their military plans.

Although the leaders had arrived, the armies were still marching.  Some were still waiting for ships at Head of Elk.  Others were still marching to Baltimore.  Part of the army was able to board ships at Baltimore.  But the French did not believe the available ships were seaworthy and opted to continue marching overland.  Some of the transport ships arrived at the mouth of the York River on September 22.  Many of the ships continued to arrive over the following days.

There, the combined armies received more reinforcements. In addition to ships and money, Admiral de Grasse brought with him another 3300 French soldiers to join in the fight.  Washington also made contact with the Continental Army under Generals Lafayette, Anthony Wayne, and von Steuben.  The remainder of the army would continue to trickle in over the next few weeks.  

British Reaction

As the French and Continental Armies began marching to Virginia, the British command seemed unconcerned. General Clinton continued to focus on his own  position in New York.  In mid-July, Admiral Graves had taken the British fleet at New York and sailed off in search of a French supply fleet that intelligence reported might be headed for New England.  So Clinton was focused on security concerns of being without the protection of the Navy for a month.

London had not intended Graves to command this important mission.  The naval commander in North America Admiral Arbuthnot had resigned a few weeks earlier and sailed for London. Officials in London deployed Admiral Robert Digby to replace him.  But Arbuthnot was gone, and Digby had not arrived, so Graves served as the temporary commander of the fleet.

Gen. Henry Clinton

The British received reports that the French fleet under de Grasse might be headed for New York.  His local spies still told him that General Washington was focused on efforts to retake New York.  Although Washington had given up on that idea by mid-August, his musings about taking New York over the summer continued to come to Clinton in intelligence reports.

When the British fleet returned on August 16th, Clinton wrote to Admiral Graves suggesting an attack on the very small French presence that remained in Newport, Rhode Island.  Clinton had received intelligence that the fleet under de Grasse was headed for Newport, and thought the British fleet might seize the town again before de Grasse arrived.

Around this same time, the French and American armies left New York to begin their march across New Jersey. By late August, Clinton received intelligence reports telling him that the enemy was marching toward Baltimore.

Several officers under Clinton argued that the British should move into New Jersey and chase down the enemy armies while they were on the march.  Clinton dismissed these proposals, fearing the marches were a ruse to draw them out of Manhattan so that the enemy could attack the city while the bulk of the British army was in New Jersey.

Clinton still believed that Washington could not seriously hope to march to Yorktown.  The British navy could defeat the fleet under de Grasse.  The combined French and British armies did not have the overwhelming force to take Cornwallis’ defenses, and the British could evacuate by sea in the event of an unlikely military defeat.

These beliefs convinced  Clinton remained that Washington’s march was just an attempt to draw the British into New Jersey.  

A small British fleet under Admiral Samuel Hood had also sailed up from the West Indies and found no real enemy naval presence in the Chesapeake.  Hood, however, was concerned that the French fleet under de Grasse might be able to control the waters around Yorktown.  Hood continued on and arrived in New York at the end of August, but found General Clinton and Admiral Graves unconcerned about any possible attack on the British southern army at Yorktown.  Graves was still awaiting the repair of several ships.  Clinton was still concerned that de Grasse might target New York and that the enemy’s march to the south was just a ruse.

Lord Cornwallis

Similarly, in late August, General Cornwallis remained unconcerned.  His army outnumbered his enemy. Cornwallis had a force under his command of between 7000 and 8000 soldiers.  The army he faced, led by Lafayette, Anthony Wayne, and Baron Von Steuben numbered less than 2000, which could grow for short periods with the use of local militia.  But the prior experience with Virginia militia had proven them less than formidable.

Because General Clinton did not believe that Washington and Rochambeau were really headed for Yorktown, he didn’t bother to warn Cornwallis of the approaching armies.  After the arrival of the French fleet, Cornwallis saw his opportunity for an escape by sea limited only if the British fleet could take out the French.  

At this time, in late August, Cornwallis had the numbers to defeat the enemy forces against him.  At the very least, he could have marched out and defeated the smaller continental force against him before the larger combined force under Washington and Rochambeau arrived. That was the strategy that Colonel Banastre Tarleton was urging.  But since Cornwallis was not aware of their imminent arrival, he remained contently behind his defensive lines at Yorktown.  

Even after Cornwallis learned in late September that the larger combined French and Continental armies were assembling against him, he refused to attack.  Instead, he later claimed he expected General Clinton to provide reinforcements before he would engage with the enemy.  Of course, those reinforcements would almost certainly have to arrive by sea in order to arrive in time to be of any use.  That meant that the British fleet would have to defeat the French fleet for control of the Chesapeake.

Next week: we’ll see how that turns out when the British and French fleets do battle for control the Chesapeake.

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Next Episode 298 Battle of the Capes 

Previous Episode 296 Eutaw Springs

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Further Reading


National Washington Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association:

Marching to Victory: The Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail:

Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route:

How the Battle of Yorktown was bankrolled by Spain and France:

Bankrolling the Battle of Yorktown:

VIDEO: Robert Selig discussed the routes taken by the armies under Washington and Rochambeau:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

March to Victory: Washington, Rochambeau and the Yorktown Campaign of 1781 (

Baker, William S. Itinerary of General Washington from June 15, 1775, to December 23, 1783, Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott Co. 1892. 

Johnston, Henry P. The Yorktown Campaign and the surrender of Cornwallis, 1781, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881.

Rice, Howard C. The American Campaigns of Rochambeau's Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, Princeton University Press, 1972 (borrow only). 

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 unless otherwise noted)*

Davis, Burke The Campaign that Won America, Eastern Acorn Press, 1970 (borrow on 

Fleming, Thomas Beat the Last Drum;: The siege of Yorktown, 1781, St. Martin’s Press, 1963 (borrow on

Grainger, John D. The Battle of Yorktown, 1781: A Reassessment, Boydell Press, 2005 
(borrow on

Ketchum, Richard M. Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution, Henry Holt and Co. 2004. 

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on 

Philbrick, In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, Penguin Books, 2019. 

Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan Company, 1952. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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