July 21, 2015
Ursula Reed, center, is Chair of the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route group, with David Holloway, left, past Director of W3R-US, and Dr. Robert Selig, Historian, W3R-US, at one of the group’s events in Pencader, Delaware in 2009. Photo Credit: Courtesy of W3R-US
The mission of the Washington Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail is to partner with the public and private organizations to commemorate, interpret and protect historic resources related to the 1780-1783 Franco-American march to final victory against the British in the Revolutionary War. Visit us at http://www.nps.gov/waro/index.htm. Photo Credit: Courtesy of W3R-US
Editor’s Note: With the Hermione having completed its historic North American voyage, it is an opportune time to look into a lasting aspect of the ship’s educational mission and the partnership between Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America and the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route (W3R-US). Ursula Reed was elected Chair of the board of W3R-US in 2013 and to a second two-year term on June 25, 2015 at the group’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. Prior to W3R-US, Reed worked for The Rouse Company on Baltimore’s Harborplace and the New York South Street Seaport projects, among her many historical public-private development projects.
For this interview, Dr. Robert A. Selig, W3R-US’s Historian, also joins in to address a number of key points about this unique National Historic Trail.
Question: Tell us how you became involved in W3R-US?
Ursula Reed: In the late 90’s, I first became involved in W3R-US based on more than 20-years experience in volunteer service on non-profit boards at authentic historic house museums in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Another board member at the Historic Strawberry Mansion, who recognized my keen interest in history, invited me to join Colonial Dames of Delaware events where I met fellow citizens who were then trying to interest others in promoting the Washington-Rochambeau trail project, whose aim from its inception was to focus on the French role in the American Revolution.
I was then working as the development consultant for the Fairmount Waterworks – a National Historic Landmark on the Schuylkill River. In the late 70’s, I also worked for the Pennsylvania Historic Museum Commission on the development of the Penn’s Landing Museum and Cultural Center, now known as Independence Seaport Museum – where the Hermione docked in Philadelphia.
Q: What is its single most important accomplishment along the entire W3R-US NHT route in your opinion?
UR: The most important accomplishment of W3R-US was getting Congress and President Obama to designate the W3R-US as a National Historic Trail (NHT) in March 2009.
This gave W3R-US the opportunity to partner with the National Park Service (NPS) under the US Department of Interior. The NPS appointed a Superintendent, Joe DiBello, to work with us on the development of the 700-mile NHT that connects both land and water trails from Boston to Yorktown. Now, after more than 40 years since passing the Clean Water Act of 1972, in the USA people are returning to our waterfronts for recreation and will hopefully rediscover our history. The W3R-US NHT provides access to and tells the story of the creation of our democracy and the evolution and human impact on the environment along the way – highlighting lessons learned.
Actually, the northern boundary of the W3R-US NHT is Boston where the Hermione first arrived with Lafayette on board on 28 April1780. General Rochambeau sailed into Newport on 11 July 1780. Rochambeau’s forces sailed out of Boston Harbor on Christmas Day 1782. So the W3R-US NHT starts in Newport but ends in Boston. At this year’s events, W3R-US’s Newport activities, and at the other ports of call of the Hermione, celebrate the 235th anniversary of the French landing.
Q: What have been the major accomplishments of W3R-US the last 12-18 months?
UR: Completing the W3R Historic Resource Studies for all nine states this last year has been a major accomplishment. Based on that research, W3R-US and state groups have installed banners and interpretive signage along the NHT and produced public history programs at each site. Partnering with the NPS, American Friends of Lafayette, Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America, Inc. (FOHLA) and Independence Seaport Museum as well as partners in VA, MD, DE, NJ, PA, NY, CT, RI, and MA promotes the W3R NHT in the US and France, stimulating heritage tourism globally.
Meeting the challenges of partnering with FOHLA for arrival ceremonies and W3R programs was also a major accomplishment for our people—way beyond the normal workload of this all-volunteer W3R-US organization. Our mission is to educate the public about the history of the American-French Alliance along the north to south 1780-1 Route. In Philadelphia, for example, more than 100 people attended a history lecture by Dr. Robert Selig at 9:30 am on the day the Hermione arrived on June 25, 2015!
By focusing on our common interest in promoting the American/French Alliance, our W3R team responded with amazing grace and enthusiasm for our French friends.
Going forward with stops in Newport and Boston at the northern boundary of the W3R NHT, our members will surely welcome the Hermione and its crew with gracious hospitality and authentic history.
Q: What in your view do Americans need to know about Washington and Rochambeau’s military relationship?
UR: Americans need to know about the critical leadership role of General Rochambeau during the 1781 campaign. Rochambeau had more experience as a senior military strategist than either the much younger Lafayette or General Washington. Each played a critical role in winning the War of Independence: Lafayette as liaison to the French court, Rochambeau as commanding officer of a French auxiliary force twice the size of the Continental Army on the march to Yorktown and Washington as the undisputed commanding officer of allied forces and integrative force of the alliance.
Too little was known about the role of Rochambeau in the US – until the creation of the W3R-US NHT. We must continue to educate the public about this critical Washington/Rochambeau relationship in winning American Independence and the crucial need for western democracies to strengthen their cooperation against radical ideologies of all and any color– especially now as we are continuing our quest for a more peaceful world.
Q: Do you think Rochambeau and Washington understood each other in spite of language gaps, culture and military priorities, and what about Lafayette’s role between them as a liaison?
Robert Selig: The first few weeks after his return to the US in May 1780 were difficult for Lafayette as he was forced to realize and admit that if anything the supply situation and morale of the Continental Army had deteriorated during his absence. Prior to the arrival of Rochambeau in mid-July, his enthusiasm and (almost) conviction that the arrival of Rochambeau would lead directly to a siege of New York and the end of the war kept Lafayette going. In this, Lafayette was tacitly encouraged by Washington, for whom New York City was always the top prize of the war. Rochambeau’s troops, however, were in no position to embark on this particular campaign and Lafayette’s constant urging, almost pestering, of Rochambeau achieved exactly the opposite.
As Lafayette continued pressing for action, eventually even questioning Rochambeau’s courage, this could have thrown the alliance into a severe crisis. It speaks highly for the 55-year-old Rochambeau that on 27 August 1780 he calmly admonished the 22-year-old marquis as “an old father … to a son who is very dear to him” that “I do not need to be spurred into action.” Having “brought to your attention, as gently as possible, the things that displeased me in your last letter,” Rochambeau concluded by assuring Lafayette of his “love and esteem to his last breath.” The marquis had been gently, but firmly, put in his place.
Lafayette attended the Hartford Conference in the home of Jeremiah Wadsworth on 21 September 1780 as interpreter (as did Alexander Hamilton) but that was the only meeting of the two generals that he attended prior to the siege of Yorktown and it was not successful either. Washington had brought an eight-page outline for an operation against New York City drafted by Alexander Hamilton, in the hope that he would be able to convince Rochambeau and Ternay to stage such an attack before the onset of winter but Rochambeau declined. And so both generals decided to return to their headquarters to prepare for the eventuality of an amphibious attack and to delay any major action until the arrival of the second division from France in 1781.
Primarily, however, I do not believe Lafayette succeeded as a liaison because Washington and Rochambeau did not need a liaison. They almost immediately established an understanding and mutual liking of each other, which remained intact throughout the war. Washington realized that too and sent Lafayette out of the way to Virginia in the spring of 1781.
Q: Did Rochambeau and Washington correspond much after he and French troops moved on to the Caribbean and eventually to France?
RS: They corresponded as long as the war went on but then the exchange of letters went down rapidly. A search of the George Washington papers shows three by Rochambeau in 1786 and one by GW, one letter by Rochambeau in 1787 (and three by GW), two in 1788 (and four by GW) three in 1789, one in 1790, one in 1792, one in 1794, and one in 1795. That is the last letter sent by Rochambeau. I did not count all the letters by GW responding to Rochambeau, but you get the gist.
Q: What are your future goals for the W3R-US in concert with Joe DiBello and the National Park Service?
UR: W3R-US will continue our role as advocate for the NPS and work with Joe DiBello to carry out our mission as described on our website www.w3r-us.org in developing this new National Historic Trail. In 2016, we expect to work with our NY partners and NPS to install interpretive signage in the Hudson River Valley, as a model for other states. We are also updating our website before the NPS 2016 Centennial and reaching out to school teachers and children interested in living history. Also visit NPS website.