On October 17, 1781 (that’s 237 years ago), Lord Cornwallis of Britain surrendered his army at Yorktown. March to Victory: Washington, Rochambeau, and the Yorktown Campaign of 1781, a publication by Dr. Robert Selig, walks readers through the American troops’ march to victory in the Revolutionary War and the large role the French played in helping America gain its independence.
Throughout this booklet learn the endearing details of the relationship between General George Washington and French commander General Rochambeau. Despite having reservations, Rochambeau pledged to use all the resources at his disposal to support Washington’s plan. France promised both to fight and also to agree to no separate peace until Britain formally recognized American independence. To work together to defeat the British under the command of Lord Cornwallis, these French and American military commanders had to overcome formidable barriers of culture, language, tactical doctrine, and political agendas. They used translators to work out plans, including the plan to commence an operation against the British, with Washington focused on an attack in New York and Rochambeau preferring an operation against British forces in the South. In the end, Rochambeau promised his full cooperation in an attack on New York City at the wish of Washington.
Despite having been enemies just 15 years earlier in the French and Indian War, the respect among the French and American troops grew steadily the more they worked together. Jonathan Trumbull, Washington’s private secretary, wrote, “The Junction of the two armies [which] is formed at this Place, & has commenced with high seeming Cordiality & Affection, demonstrated by constant Acts of Conviviality & social Harmony.” Baron Closen of the French army wrote, “I admire the American troops tremendously! It is incredible that soldiers composed of men of every age, even of children of fifteen, of whites and blacks, almost naked, unpaid and rather poorly fed, can march so well and withstand fire so steadfastly.”
General George Washington soon realized, however, that without additional massive reinforcements and material, as well as the assistance of a powerful fleet, an assault on New York had little chance of success. He became convinced it was best to head south. He wrote in his diary that he “could scarce see a ground upon which to continue my preparations against New York, and therefore I turned my views more seriously (than I had done before) to an operation to the southward.”
In early August 1781, French military officer Marquis de Lafayette drafted a report to Washington letting him know that Cornwallis and his men were settling in on the banks of the York River. But to trap the British army, a naval force would be necessary. Again, the Americans turned to the French in their time of need. Rochambeau informed Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse, the commander of the French fleet, of the demand for ships, and de Grasse agreed to send a fleet to Chesapeake. De Grasse’s fleet of 36 ships outnumbered that of the British, who had only 18. However, de Grasse promised to keep his fleet there only until October 15. So, the two commanders in chief hastily adjusted their plans to march south knowing that time was of the essence.
To throw off the British, Washington had a few tricks up his sleeve. He ordered ships for Staten Island and had bake ovens built in New Jersey. Made-up stories about movements and plans were intentionally leaked to the troops, in the hopes that they would be overheard by spies and passed onto the British headquarters. And by dispersing the French and American armies on multiple different routes south, the allies continued their antics to try to confuse their enemy. It wasn’t until early September that the British realized Cornwallis and his troops were in danger. By then, the first units of the Continental Army had already reached the northernmost part of the Chesapeake Bay.
During the march south, several American soldiers quit due to the fact that Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution, did not have the funds to pay them. Once again, the French stepped in. On September 7, Morris asked Rochambeau if he could lend the Americans money to compensate the troops. Rochambeau gave him almost half the amount left in his treasury. This was the first and only time many Continental soldiers received hard money during their years of service to their country, and to say they were thrilled would be an understatement.
In early September George Washington invited Rochambeau and his staff to stay at his Mount Vernon home. The two commanders continued their journey together and arrived at Williamsburg on September 15 to wait for the arrival of their troops. With a little teamwork, they met with de Grasse and convinced him to keep the French fleet in America until the end of October, buying them more time. After being supplied ships to help them finish out their journey to Virginia, members of the Continental Army were the first to arrive in Virginia. They docked at Archer’s Hope, marched into Williamsburg and camped behind the College of William and Mary. Yes – the college, which was founded in 1693, was already there at that time! The French met them about one week later. Once the French and American troops were all back together again (now in the South), the armies of Washington and Rochambeau finally set out for Yorktown.
Beginning on October 3, 1781, a series of attacks and counterattacks ensued among the British and the French and American forces. On October 16, the British managed to seize two French artillery positions, but the effort ultimately proved unsuccessful. So, they tried it another way and attempted to break the encirclement the French and Americans had created. But as troops were being ferried across the York River to conduct the attack, Mother Nature intervened. A storm disrupted the British operation. Cornwallis began to realize that the Americans and French held a decisive advantage. On October 17, a British officer waved a white handkerchief in surrender. The next day, two British officers met with an American and a French counterpart to negotiate surrender terms. The British government recognized the independence of the United States in the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the Revolutionary War in 1783.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Read the full story of the March to Victory. Order this publication from the Center of Military History at the GPO Bookstore today.
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