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March to Victory: the 1781 Crossing at King’s Ferry

Franco-American force of 7,000 was headed to Virginia to deliver a decisive blow against the British during the Revolutionary War.

Verplanck was an extremely busy place for several days in August 1781 as 7,000 American and French soldiers crossed the Hudson River to Stony Point via the King’s Ferry. Two months later those soldiers, with the aid of a French fleet, would deliver a decisive blow against the British in Yorktown, VA, during the fight for the independence of the United States.

The massive river crossing underscored what historians of the Revolutionary War have repeatedly 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.

A French army commanded by the Comte de Rochambeau arrived in Westchester County on July 6, 1781, although the history of its journey to Verplanck’s Point began years earlier. The British victory in the French and Indian War in 1763 had upset the global balance of power, and since then France and other European powers had been seeking an opportunity to restore that balance. The American uprising offered an opportunity, and the U.S. victory at upstate Saratoga in October 1777 convinced France that the rebellion was viable. Material aid was soon forthcoming, followed by the arrival of Rochambeau’s army at Newport, RI, in late 1780.

Rochambeau and American Gen. George Washington met in May 1781 in Wethersfield, CT, to map strategy. The most attractive targets were New York City, where Gen. Henry Clinton was based, and the army of Gen. Charles Cornwallis in the southern states. The American and French commanders agreed to rendezvous in Westchester until they selected an objective.

The French left Newport in June with 4,600 troops, 900 servants, 1,000 oxen and 1,700 horses. When they arrived in Westchester they joined 6,000 soldiers of the 10,500-member Continental army. The Continentals camped in southern Greenburgh, inland from Dobbs Ferry, and the French camped to the east of them.

For many residents, this was their first encounter with non-English-speaking forces (and former enemies), as well as the first joint venture of the two armies. Considering the many differences, things generally went smoothly. The Continentals were relatively ragtag in appearance, but the well-uniformed French repeatedly complimented their drill, marching and devotion to their cause. There was little interaction between the armies; the enlisted men were deliberately separated, and the American officers were reluctant to accept French invitations because of a shortage of funds for reciprocal invitations. As for language differences, some American officers spoke French, while some French officers, and Irish enlistees in the French army, spoke English. Washington and Rochambeau favored interpreters. Civilians liked the fact that French soldiers paid for goods and services in hard money, not paper. Still, there was some culture shock; America was not an enlightened European outpost, and many of the men in the ranks of Catholic France were Masons, not papists.

The combined armies conducted a Grand Reconnaissance of the defenses of New York from July 21 to 23 and concluded that the city was too big to tackle unless French Admiral de Grasse decided to sail his fleet from the West Indies to New York Harbor to support a land attack. De Grasse settled the matter when, in a letter received Aug. 14, he informed the Westchester commanders that he was going to Chesapeake Bay, not New York.

The Franco-American army broke camp Aug. 18, with about 4,500 French and 2,600 Continentals heading for the King’s Ferry. The remainder of the force remained behind to make Clinton suspect that New York was the target. For several days, troops streamed down the main road to Verplanck’s Point and the boats that would carry them across the Hudson. On the west bank, the deception of Clinton continued as the French and Americans indicated that they might attack the city from New Jersey.

On Oct. 19 the combined land and sea forces of the United States and France compelled the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown and helped convince the government in London that pouring additional resources into suppressing the revolution might jeopardize more valuable British possessions in the Caribbean. That decision came to fruition with the Treaty of Peace and the evacuation of New York City in 1783.

Re-enactors from the Brigade of the American Revolution camped at Verplanck’s Point Aug. 25-27, 2006, to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the crossing. The re-enactors demonstrated numerous facets of military life 225 years ago, including weapons, food, drill, music and camp activities. Several boats of soldiers rowed across the river from Verplanck’s Point to Stony Point, as the French and Continentals did in 1781.

A highlight of the weekend was the dedication of a plaque with the following inscription near the water’s edge in Verplanck: “In grateful remembrance. Dedicated to the soldiers of the Continental and French armies who crossed the Hudson River here at King’s Ferry August 20-26, 1781 on their march to victory at Yorktown, Va. May their sacrifices and hardships never be forgotten, the liberty and independence they fought for never be taken for granted and may the spirit of their patriotism burn within our hearts forever. Erected at Verplanck’s Point by the patriotic citizens of the Town of Cortlandt on August 26, 2006 during the 225th anniversary of the American War for Independence.”

Coming in two weeks: The Journey Back, 1782

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