SOURCE: Richard Borkow M.D., Village Historian of Dobbs Ferry (1-27-09)
Washington’s bold and secret 1781 march from Dobbs Ferry, NY, to victory at the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia, began on Sunday morning, August 19, 1781, when the American army broke its 6 week summer encampment in lower Westchester and was paraded for the march in Dobbs Ferry. The allied French army, under the command of General Rochambeau, broke camp and departed for Virginia on the same day, about 3 miles to the east of Dobbs Ferry. Washington, the supreme commander of the allied armies, had made the decision five days earlier, on Aug. 14, 1781, to change strategy and risk a march of more than 400 miles from New York to Virginia, where he hoped to surprise and trap General Cornwallis’s 7,500 British and Hessian troops.
Washington’s new strategy would win the war. Yet this outcome was completely unforeseen by most observers in the summer of 1781. For Washington’s new strategy was adopted at a time of dismal military prospects, and few anticipated that 1781 could be the year of a dramatic American victory. Congress and the states, discouraged by the long and seemingly inconclusive war, were providing Washington with minimal material support. His army lacked basic supplies, and French officers wrote of their amazement on witnessing the state of destitution of the American army. American forces would not have been able to march to Virginia at all had not Rochambeau generously provided them with desperately needed funds, 20,000 gold dollars in all, which amounted to half of his own war chest.
Washington’s march to Virginia was arguably the most decisive military movement of the Revolutionary War. On October 19, 1781, two months to the day following the departure of the American army from Dobbs Ferry, Cornwallis surrendered his entire army to the allied American and French forces. The victory at Yorktown broke a long-standing military stalemate and led to the end of the Revolutionary War and to remarkably favorable peace terms for the young republic.
Because Washington’s march was so consequential to the fate of our nation, Congress, in 2000, asked the National Park Service to survey the Washington-Rochambeau route and to identify the full range of historic themes associated with the route (Public Law 106-473). Congress is now considering legislation to commemorate the march of the allied armies to Virginia by establishing the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail, which, if it becomes a reality, would run through nine of the original thirteen states.
In response to the 2000 request of Congress, the NPS surveyed the W-R route and published the results of the survey in the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Resource Study & Environmental Assessment (October, 2006). I was one of the trustees of the Dobbs Ferry Historical Society who read the historical narrative in the W-R Resource Study soon after its publication: we were disappointed to see that the actual historical significance of Dobbs Ferry was not recognized, even though Dobbs Ferry was the starting point of Washington’s march to Yorktown.
Determined to correct this error, the society sent a 14 page document, with a wealth of historical evidence, most of it primary source, to the NPS on December 2, 2006, during the ‘public comment’ period. Nine months later, the NPS responded to our document in a perfunctory way, cavalierly disregarding the evidence and the principal historical points.
When we state that Dobbs Ferry was the starting point of Washington’s 1781 march, we are not making a new historical claim. Dobbs Ferry has long been recognized by historians as the starting point of Washington’s march. A map prepared in 2001 for a different NPS project (called The American Revolution at a Glance), prominently shows Dobbs Ferry as the starting point of Washington’s 1781 march to Virginia. And a map of Washington’s march to Yorktown, prepared by historians at the United States Military Academy at West Point, unambiguously identifies Dobbs Ferry as the point of origin and shows that 2,000 American troops marched from Dobbs Ferry to the Battle of Yorktown.
So Dobbs Ferry is not making a new claim; rather, we are attempting to prevent erasure, in NPS historical narratives, of Dobbs Ferry’s very well-substantiated history. We have endeavored to engage the NPS through various means, including the public comment period and U.S. Senate testimony on April 26, 2007,, in order to ask this basic question: Apart from Yorktown itself, what locality along the line of Washington’s march to Virginia is more significant than its starting point? The question deserves an answer, and we are still waiting for the NPS to respond.
In January and November, 2008, Dobbs Ferry’s appeal was given strong support by Thomas Fleming, President of the Society of American Historians and by David Hackett Fischer, Pulitzer Prize recipient and University Professor and Earl Warren Professor of History at Brandeis University. Each historian independently reviewed the historical material, and each independently concluded that Dobbs Ferry’s historical contentions are correct.
On January 6, 2008, Thomas Fleming sent a strong letter of support on behalf of Dobbs Ferry’s appeal for historical accuracy to many senators and representatives, which stated that: “… the Dobbs Ferry Historical Society submitted a 14 page comment to the NPS on December 2, 2006, with ample evidence that the town was the actual starting point for the march. My investigation confirms the validity of their maps and citations…”
In November, 2008, David Hackett Fischer sent me the following statement: My reading of the primary evidence is much the same as yours. The account of Dr. Thacher, the maps of French officers, and the correspondence of George Washington all clearly indicate that French and American troops camped in Dobbs Ferry and other towns nearby. Dobbs Ferry itself was the scene of one of the most dramatic events of the march. American troops paraded there and started the long march to Virginia, making feints in other directions as they passed New York. Dobbs Ferry deserves to be remembered as one of the crossroads of the American Revolution. In the Dobbs Ferry area, George Washington made one of the decisive choices of the Revolution, when he turned hisarmy toward Virginia and victory in the American War of Independence.
One would think that an historical opinion offered by these eminent historians would be of some interest to the NPS. But no: the agency has simply ignored their opinion.
We are beginning to understand why. In August, 2008, an article about Dobbs Ferry’s appeal in the Scarsdale Inquirer acted as a spotlight, and we now have a glimpse of the political influences which have been brought to bear on the NPS decision-making process. In the article the main lobbying group for the Washington-Rochambeau Trail legislation, known as W3R (the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association), went on the attack, and attempted to discount Dobbs Ferry’s historical significance on the Washington-Rochambeau Historic Trail with assertions that flatly contradict the historical evidence and are extremely easy to refute. I was astonished that W3R representatives were willing to have such nonsensical claims appear in print. Nevertheless, the Scarsdale Inquirer article is revealing, as it shows the firm intent of W3R-New York to block Dobbs Ferry’s recognition. A detailed refutation of the W3R assertions are posted on www.VillageHistorian.org . I will be glad to send the article itself, in pdf format, to anyone who requests it.
The Washington-Rochambeau route, which passes through nine states, is about to become a national historic trail, but never mind the historical facts! Instead, consider this: when the Washington-Rochambeau Trail legislation is enacted by Congress, the NPS will make decisions on the placement of valuable assets of historical tourism, including visitors’ centers and museums. The localities that are selected can expect a significant boost to their economies. In each of the nine states, however, only a few localities can be selected, and the leaders of W3R-New York appear to have their own preferred sites in mind. Clearly, Dobbs Ferry is not one of them.
Some have suggested that since the stakes are so high, the attack by W3R-NewYork on Dobbs Ferry is simply an effort to rub out a rival and exclude it from the competition for those valuable assets before the competition even starts. Whatever their intent, however, a village which is deserving of NPS support, and the public, which is entitled to accurate historical information, are both being given short shrift.