Today in 1781 marked the beginning of the end of the Revolutionary War. General George Washington of the Continental Army and Comte de Rochambeau of the French Army met at the elegant home of a Wethersfield merchant to plan the military campaign that would produce the decisive and ultimately war-winning victory at Yorktown, Virginia six months later.
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, respectively, were headquartered. Furthermore, Connecticut was friendly territory free of British occupation and its governor, Jonathan Trumbull, had been a fervent supporter of American independence from the earliest years of the war.
The Wethersfield conference was not the first time Washington and Rochambeau had convened in Connecticut. The two officers had been introduced to each other in Hartford eight months earlier, in September 1780.
Washington came to the Wethersfield strategy session 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.
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 website