Charles County's Role in the Washington Rochambeau March to Yorktown, Virginia 1781
Seventeen eighty-one was a climatic year in the American colonies’ struggle for independence. The focus of the war had shifted from the north to the south and colonial forces were struggling to meet the threat of British General Cornwallis moving up from South Carolina toward Virginia and British forces already in the lower Chesapeake area. In March, General Washington dispatched French General Lafayette and 1200 light infantry to strengthen the colonial forces in Virginia. Lafayette reached Williamsburg on March 14, 1781. The plan was for him to link up with some 1100 French forces coming by sea, but the French forces coming by sea never landed and Lafayette turned back north to rejoin Generals Washington and comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French army in America, for what was to be a siege of the British in New York. Plans changed rapidly, however, when French Admiral de Grasse announced his intention to sail to the Chesapeake instead of New York. Lafayette quickly turned again toward Virginia and Washington and Rochambeau, with 2700 and 4650 officers and men respectively, headed south for what would be the climactic battle of the American Revolution—Yorktown. In support to these movements two groups of French officers and supply wagons belonging to the American firm of Jeremiah Wadsworth hurried south through Charles County and across the Potomac.
The best record of their actual route taken by these three parties are the maps produced after the fact by Simeon DeWitt. DeWitt was instructed by George Washington on November 4th 1781`to map the road from Williamsburg, VA north to Bladensburg, MD. DeWitt’s maps offer little in the way of details beyond the line of the route itself, but the path is clear and the notations along the way informative. Three of the French officers kept journals that offer details of their trip and their brief time in the County. For the most part, present-day roads follow their colonial forbears with one exception. The route south from Port Tobacco to Hooe’s Ferry formerly climbed up from the Port Tobacco River valley south of the town following a stream known that flows into the Port Tobacco River known as Wills Branch. A remanent of that road known as Purcell Road survives. Today the road extends further south and climbs the hill to St Thomas Manor/St Ignatius. The Three PartiesThe first party consisted of two French officers, Col Robert Guillaume Dillon of Lauzun’s Legion and Jean-Baptiste Louis Philippe, Count of Saint Maime and Muy, colonel of the Soissonnois Regiment. Electing not to travel with Lafayette by ship down the Chesapeake, they set out for Williamsburg from Head of the Elk via Baltimore, Annapolis, Upper Marlboro, Mellwood, Port Tobacco and Hooe’s Ferry where they crossed on March 15, 1781. The Dillon comte de Saint-Maisme party was accompanied by three servants one of whom was a slave named Madras belonging to Dillon.
The second party consisted of two of General Rochambeau’s aides-de-camp, Baron Ludwig von Closen and Francois Joseph Cromot du Bourg. They followed the same route taken by Dillon and comte de Saint-Maisme through the County and crossed over the Potomac on September 15, 1781. Closen and du Bourg were accompanied by four servants one of whom was a free black man named Peter who later accompanied Closen back to Europe. There were ten horses in their party.
The third party consisted of three men and nine horses and an unspecified number of wagons belonging to Jeremiah Wadsworth, a Connecticut Merchant, who provided the logistical support for Rochambeau’s forces. We know of this group only through a single, undated expense list from September 1781.
My contribution to the commemoration of this part of the Washington Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail has been to create four paintings to serve as part of the interpretive signage. The four paintings follow.