(Second of two articles)
The French and Continental armies that crossed the Hudson River from Verplanck to Stony Point in August 1781 on their way to a decisive victory over the British two months later at Yorktown, VA, returned to the Hudson Valley in triumph a year later. The Franco-American victory over Gen. Charles Cornwallis paved the way for the end of the Revolutionary War and independence for a new nation – the United States.
For all practical purposes the victory at Yorktown marked the end of significant fighting and the success of the American rebellion. Although the British evacuation of New York City was still two years away, in November 1783, the struggle for American independence was now considered a sideshow as London and Paris turned their attention to continuing struggles over more valuable British possessions in the Caribbean, Africa and India.
After Cornwallis’ surrender monumental challenges faced about 55,000 people of all persuasions plus thousands of animals crammed into the devastated Yorktown area, which in normal times had a population of about 2,000. Corpses of people and animals had to be buried. Sick and injured people needed medical care that was limited at best and hampered by supply shortages. All had to be fed. All generated waste that was usually disposed of in less than sanitary manners.
But within several weeks this unsustainable population had been dispersed. The French fleet sailed away. The Americans and their British prisoners headed north. The wounded were moved to hospitals as far away as Trenton, NJ. The Comte de Rochambeau’s French army dispersed to several sites in Virginia. Within a few years, most of the devastation had been repaired, covered or reclaimed by nature.
Gen. George Washington led the Continentals north to winter quarters in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the Newburgh, NY, area to be close to the British forces in New York City. Rochambeau’s army spent the winter in Virginia. Washington hoped that his ally might join him in a 1782 campaign to wrest New York City from the British, but that hope depended upon the larger military strategy being developed in France.
In April, Rochambeau was informed that French military supplies were going to the Caribbean, not to him. In May, French Admiral de Grasse, whose fleet had prevented Cornwallis from escaping Yorktown by sea, was captured, ending hopes of French naval aid to besiege New York.
In late June, amid the growing focus on the British-French duel in the Caribbean, Rochambeau notified Washington that he was heading north – not necessarily to attack or besiege New York City but to dissuade the British from sending their New York forces to join the fighting in the West Indies. The generals met in Philadelphia in July and, in the absence of clear directives from France, agreed that the French force would proceed to the Hudson “by slow and easy movements.”
The French, about 5,000 strong, reached the Suffern area, in what is now western Rockland County, in mid-September and began crossing the Hudson via the King’s Ferry from Stony Point to Verplanck on Sept. 17, 1782, where they were welcomed by a somewhat larger Continental force camped around the ferry landing. The French set up camp on the hills along the north side of Crompond Road.
During the week-long joint encampment, several French officers commented favorably on the Americans’ appearance, military discipline and esprit de corps – a great compliment and a sharp contrast to the impressions of 1781.
In response to new orders from France, the French left the Peekskill area on Sept. 24 and camped for a month in Yorktown Heights while they awaited further word on the readiness of a fleet that would carry them from Boston to the Caribbean. While camped around Hunt’s Tavern and Hanover Farm, French troops altered the course of the south branch of Hallock’s Mill Brook to improve their water supply and, at the same time, improve operations of Hallock’s Mill.
Hallock showed his gratitude for the improvements by asking the local sheriff to arrest Rochambeau because Hallock had not been paid for damage caused by the troops to his fences and other property. Rochambeau, always respectful of individual and property rights, ordered that the claim be paid based on an impartial estimate.
The French left Yorktown on Oct. 22, arrived in Boston on Dec. 6 and set sail for the Caribbean on Christmas Day.
Re-enactors from the Brigade of the American Revolution camped at Verplanck’s Point during the weekend of Sept. 21-23, 2007, to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the return crossing and demonstrated numerous facets of military life 225 years ago, including weapons, food, drill, music and camp activities. In a mirror image of the 2006 re-enactment of the 1781 crossing, the re-enactors rowed from Stony Point to Verplanck in open small boats while 21st-century “observers” watched from the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. Throughout the weekend, historians emphasized that the Hudson Valley was the key to the conflict and that the King’s Ferry was the key crossing point for people, arms and supplies, the vital link between New England and the states farther south.