May 22: Washington & Rochambeau Plan Yorktown Campaign in Wethersfield

 

This day in Connecticut history marked the beginning of the end of the Revolutionary War, as General George Washington of the Continental Army and Comte de Rochambeau of the French Army met in Wethersfield, Connecticut to plan the Yorktown Campaign of 1781.

A U.S. postage stamp from 1931 commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Yorktown Campaign.

Wethersfield was a logical choice for such a crucial meeting: it was a prosperous town located halfway between New Windsor, New York and Newport, Rhode Island, where Washington and Rochambeau’s armies were respectively headquartered.  Furthermore, Connecticut was friendly territory free of British occupation and its governor, Jonathan Trumbull, had been an avid supporter of American independence from the earliest years of the war.  Nor was the Wethersfield conference the first time Washington and Rochambeau had convened in Connecticut — the two officers had first been introduced to each other in Hartford eight months earlier, in September 1780.

An 1838 engraving of the Joseph Webb house in Wethersfield, where Washington stayed in May 1781.

This time, however, Washington intended to propose an aggressive joint offensive against the British Army in New York City.  The British occupation of New York had long been a thorn in the side of the American patriots, who had been trying in vain to drive them out since the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn in 1776.   Rochambeau, however, countered Washington’s idea with one of his own: Instead of New York, the French and American forces should focus on defeating the British Army in the southern colonies.  With a large fleet of French naval vessels at their disposal, Rochambeau convinced Washington to abandon his dream of reclaiming New York and instead target the Yorktown peninsula in the tidewater region of Virginia.

In his journal entry of May 22, Washington wrote that he had successfully “fixed with Count de Rochambeau upon a plan of Campaign.”  Little did they know that the Yorktown Campaign of 1781 would result in the surrender of Cornwallis and an entire division of the British Army less than six months after their momentous meeting in Wethersfield.  Today, the house where Washington stayed during the May 1781 conference is open to the public as one of three homes that make up the Webb-Deane-Stevens museum in historic Old Wethersfield.

 

Further Reading

Ann Harrison and Mary Donohue, “Connecticut: The ‘Conference’ State,” Connecticut Explored

Elizabeth M. Covart, “Planning the Final Action: George Washington and Rochambeau, May 1781,” Journal of the American Revolution

Webb-Deane-Stevens museum homepage