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Retaking New York from the occupying British and Hessian forces was General Washington’s primary goal in July of 1781. He knew that this would be a difficult task, and planned a reconnaissance-in-force to accomplish his mission.

Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, Marechal De France, by Charles-Phillippe Larivière. (Courtesy of the Palace of Versailles)
Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, Marechal De France, by Charles-Phillippe Larivière. (Courtesy of the Palace of Versailles)
Manhattan had been controlled by the British since 1776 and their forces were well entrenched. Determining the layout of the British fortifications was an essential first step in preparing plans for an assault. To accomplish this, Washington, in combination with recently arrived French forces commanded by the compte de Rochambeau, planned a reconnaissance-in-force.

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A classic military tactic, a reconnaissance-in-force uses a significant assault on enemy fortifications to draw the enemy’s fire. Once the enemy’s strength and the location of his defensive works has been exposed, the attacking forces withdraw, their objective having been accomplished.

Feint Attacks on the Unsuspecting British

The feint attack on the British works defending New York began in the early morning darkness of July 22, 1781. Roughly 4,000 American and French soldiers divided into four major columns picked their way over difficult terrain towards Manhattan. Ultimately in position over a front extending nearly two and a half miles long, Washington proudly boasted in his diary that, “The enemy did not appear to have had the least intelligence of our movement or to know we were upon the height opposite to them till the whole Army were ready to display.”


Though surprised, the British soldiers reacted quickly. Within fifteen minutes of the shots fired by Hessian jaegers on picket duty, British light dragoons were ferried across the Harlem River to oppose the American and French forces.

Washington and Rochambeau made careful notes as the British began to expose their fortified positions. They noted weaknesses in the British works along Spuyten Duyvil creek. To take a closer look at stronger fortifications down the island, they joined the advanced American battalion to the front of British Redoubt Number 8. It became clear that any direct attack on forts across the Harlem River would be costly. Searching for a good spot to cross the river further south, the two generals continued their exploration. At one point they were surprised by a party of about twenty Tories.

Quick action by the generals’ aides and a few dragoons saved them from capture.

Washington and Rochambeau Debrief

By 9 o’clock that night, after almost twenty-four hours in the saddle, Washington and Rochambeau and their staffs finally sat down to supper and to review the information that had been collected. However, they were back to work early the next day scouting landing sites on Long Island.

The reconnaissance finally completed, the generals ordered their troops to fall back to French and American camps near Dobbs Ferry. Over the next days, Washington and Rochambeau studied the notes they had taken. The results were conclusive: the British had used their five year occupation of Manhattan to tremendous effect. To attack northern Manhattan would have been a nightmare for the Americans and their French allies.

The July 22-23 reconnaissance of northern Manhattan and the realization of just how strong the British fortifications were, inspired Washington and Rochambeau to formalize their contingency plans and prepare for a movement to the south as early as August 1. When, on August 14, news that comte de Grasse’s fleet would arrive at the Chesapeake, orders to move against Cornwallis’s forces at Yorktown were already prepared.

Yorktown Campaign

Overall, the reconnaissance-in-force was an impressive piece of operational skill by two armies, and two commanders, that had never worked closely together. The success of the New York reconnaissance boded well for future Franco-American operations.