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Revolutionary War
History

Creation of the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail

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The Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail (the Route) was created in March 2009 when President Barack Obama signed into law Public Law 111-11, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, making it the youngest of the 19 National Historic Trails (NHTs) in the NPS system. (For the text of Public Law 111-11, click here) It began as a private-public effort in Connecticut in 1995 with the eventually successful attempt to preserve and protect the Rose Farm in Bolton, site of two encampments of French forces under the comte de Rochambeau from June 21-25, 1781, and November 4-5, 1782, from commercial development. In October 2000, it became a national effort with the passage of the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Heritage Act of 2000, which required “the Secretary of the Interior to complete a resource study of the 600-mile route through Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia, used by George Washington and General Rochambeau during the American Revolutionary War." (For the full text click here)

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The Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail.
National Park Service

 

Put differently, the Route, as established in 2009, is to tell the story of the movements of Continental Army and allied French forces from New York and Newport, RI, to Yorktown between June and September 1781, on water and on land, and back north again - the Continental Army in November and December 1781, and French forces in July and August 1782, and of the contributions of those states to the victory at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. (For the NPS website click here)

The themes, goals, and unifying purpose, of the Route are defined by the National Trails System Act in 1968, which requires NHTs to "follow as closely as possible and practicable the original trails or routes of travel of national historical significance", and by the NPS Final Review Document of October 2006, which states that the Route is to “serve interpretive, educational, commemorative, and retracement purposes through recreational, driving, and water-based routes.” the Route had

  1. to identify resources in the states along the route and to develop a plan to preserve and interpret campsites, surviving road sections, buildings and other resources as well as other architectural and/or landscape features …

This goal was achieved through resource studies and site surveys for the nine states and the District of Columbia through which the NHT runs. The studies, beginning in Connecticut in 1999, and ending in New Hampshire in 2018, were funded by various public and private donors, the NPS, and the National Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association (W3R-US), a non-profit corporation incorporated in Delaware in 2003, and its state affiliates. (For the W3R-US website click here; for the full text of these studies click here)

English farm french encampment
From August 29-31, 1781, French forces camped on the grounds of the "English Farm" in Liberty Corner, New Jersey.

 

This research identified hundreds of resources and added the State of New Hampshire, where a number of vessels in the fleet of Admiral Vaudreuil, charged with transporting French forces to the West Indies, anchored from August to December 1782. They also showed that, with the exception of battlefields related to the Burgoyne Campaign, allied forces visited or marched across every Revolutionary War battlefield along America’s East Coast from Bunker Hill to Newport, White Plains, Morristown, Princeton, Trenton, Germantown, Redbank, Cooch’s Bridge, and Yorktown. French diaries, journals and letters describing these sites constitute invaluable resources of the appearance of these sites, supplementing American and British descriptions.

  1. … with a view toward the campaign of 1781 as a diverse, cross-cultural (intra-American as well as Franco-American) experience crucial for the development of a national American identity and/or character

The racial, ethnic, linguistic, and religious make-up of the Continental Army reflected the diversity of the nascent United States. Its soldiers were white Europeans, black African-Americans, and even a few Native Americans; they were of English, Scots, Irish, German, and many other ethnic backgrounds; they spoke English, German, and French, and worshiped in mostly Protestant faiths, with a generous sprinkling of Catholics and Jews. Rochambeau’s troops too spoke French and German, worshiped as Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans, and even included an occasional African soldier. As these soldiers met their allies, and the civilian populations through which they marched, their encounters made them aware of who they were in part also by showing them who they were not. French observations of life in America, particularly of slavery, of customs, habits, and foods, often contain information not found in American sources. 

  1. while emphasizing the important contributions of the various states and their citizens toward the victory at Yorktown …

When asked to name sites related to the American War of Independence, Boston, Valley Forge, Philadelphia, and Yorktown are probably the locations mentioned most frequently. The Route provides an opportunity to show how victory at Yorktown, indeed in the War of Independence, could only be achieved through the non-military contributions of thousands of Americans who provided cattle, grain, fire-wood, and/or lodging, who served as ferry-men, wagon drivers, or guides to the troops marching to Virginia. No single community was large enough to supply the roughly 2,400 Americans and 4,500 French troops commanded by hundreds of officers accompanied by well over 1,000 servants riding on 1,500 horses or more and hundreds of wagons drawn by as many as 2,000 oxen as they made their way to Virginia. Access to supplies could only be ensured if the troops spread out across a larger area. The legislation establishing the NHT takes this into account when it defines the Route as “a corridor” of multiple routes rather than as a single route.

  1. … as the culmination of the crucial contributions of France toward American independence and as a manifestation of the global character of that war.

In 1776, France became to first nation to support the rebellious colonies in their struggle against the crown of King George III, first clandestinely and then openly after the treaties of February 1778. Few Americans realize that there were more French forces outside Yorktown than Continental Army forces, or that the victory at Yorktown was only possible because a French fleet under Admiral de Grasse blocked Lord Cornwallis’ escape route down the Chesapeake Bay. 

France’s support in America’s struggle for independence was crucial in achieving victory at Yorktown. The Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail celebrates that victory and the Franco-American friendship that has endured until today.

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Robert A. Selig

Robert A. Selig is a historical consultant with a PhD in history from the Universität Würzburg in Germany and has served as project historian for the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route since 1997.