Home / 18th Century / 21st Century Multinational Operations at the Siege of Yorktown, 1781
21st Century Multinational Operations at the Siege of Yorktown, 1781
By Mark R. Froom

Many authors and historians have written about the importance of the Siege (Battle) of Yorktown that led to the defeat of the British Army under Lieutenant General (LTG) Charles Cornwallis and cessation of any further military operations against the newly formed United States of America. The success of General George Washington’s Continental Army and their French allies at Yorktown played an important role in achieving American independence. This article will not analyze the tactics at the Siege of Yorktown but analyze the siege from the perspective of multinational operations. The aim of the article is to examine the operation at Yorktown through current multinational operation doctrine specifically from Joint Publication (JP) 3-16, Multinational Operations, Field Manual (FM) 3-16, The Army in Multinational Operations, and Allied Joint Publication (AJP-3), Allied Joint Doctrine for the Conduct of Operations. This article will specifically analyze the command structures and coordination mechanisms, the adherence to the tenets of multinational operations, and the application of the principles of joint and multinational operations of the two opposing forces and how closely the actions before and during the Siege of Yorktown paralleled and illustrated current multinational doctrine. The reader will have a better appreciation and understanding for this paper by having a general background of the tactics and timeline of the Revolutionary War and the Siege of Yorktown. Two books, both cited in this paper, The Virginia Campaign and the Blockade and Siege of Yorktown, 1781 by H.L. Landers and Almost a Miracle by John Ferling are excellent sources.

By their very nature multinational operations are complicated endeavors that require special considerations because of the “Cultural, diplomatic, psychological, economic, technological, and informational factors.”[1] that affect a nation’s willingness to participate. Washington had an appreciation for the complex nature of conducting multinational operations and understood the importance of the French Allies in the success of the Siege of Yorktown. He knew to defeat the British forces at Yorktown the operation needed the proper integration of American and French ground forces and just as important integration of the French Navy.[2]

In past conflicts U.S. military professionals have applied many of the lessons learned from the Siege of Yorktown but they still can discover many more lessons learned to apply in today’s operating environment and for future multinational operations. Many practices implemented by the armies during the Siege of Yorktown are now codified in current U.S and allied military doctrine including practices for multinational and joint operations. The first question to answer about the Siege of Yorktown is why was it considered to be a multinational operation?

Multinational Operations

“The American Revolution was a multinational military event.”[3] Both JP 3-16 and FM 3-16 describe multinational operations as “military actions conducted by forces of two or more nations”[4] The British forces commanded by Cornwallis conducted multinational operations at Yorktown with Hessian (German) units, British Loyalists units, and Native American Tribes.[5] To complete the multinational military event, American forces conducted multinational operations at Yorktown with French ground forces commanded by LTG Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau and French naval forces commanded by Admiral Francois de Grasse and Admiral Jacques-Melchior de Barras.[6]

Both forces at the Siege of Yorktown participated in multinational operations, but what were the structure and command arrangements of their multinational partnerships?

There are two primary multinational partnership structures, an alliance which “is the relationship that results from a formal agreement between two or more nations for broad, long-term objectives” and a coalition which “is an arrangement between two or more nations for common action.” Coalitions are not formal agreements and are usually narrower in scope than alliances.[7] The partnership between American and French forces displayed many characteristics of an alliance, however, the British partnership displayed characteristics of both a coalition and an alliance. On February 6, 1778, Americans Silas Deane, Arthur Lee, and the esteemed Benjamin Franklin signed a Treaty of Alliance with France in which the French agreed to provide military and financial aid to America “until the Independence of the united states shall have been formally or tacitly assured by the Treaty or Treaties that shall terminate the War." The treaty contained 13 separate articles, which will be discussed later in this paper, addressing present and future relations between the two parties. A passage from Article 11 which reads, “his most Christian Majesty guarantees on his part to the united states, their liberty, Sovereignty, and Independence absolute, and unlimited…” would become extremely important to the newly formed nation on its road to independence.[8]

The British partnership with its allies was a little more complicated. While the British did not have any formal military treaty with any of the German Principalities, Duchies, or Counties,[9] it had “employed auxiliary land troops from the German principalities” to augment its forces.[10] While hiring soldiers is a type of formal agreement it is not the type of agreement that meets the intent of an alliance defined in JP 3-16. Also, there is no evidence to show Germany nor Great Britain had any common goals or objectives during the American Revolution and the partnership was nothing more than a business transaction.[11] There were also hints of this in the behavior of the Hessians during the surrender of forces after the siege where the British displayed their wounded honor openly but “the Germans did not greatly care whose hands they were in.”[12] Besides their German partners the British had “loosely structured coalitions with selected Native American tribes”[13] who mostly conducted reconnaissance and small harassing raids. The tribes that supported the British generally had similar a goal, the defeat of the newly formed United States of America. In many instances Native American goals went beyond just defeating the enemy to where many tribes feared total annihilation.[14] The Franco-American partnership strongly resembled an alliance, while the British partnership displayed characteristics from both an alliance and a coalition. To be successful in multinational operations participating nations must develop command structures and relationships that meets the needs, goals, and objectives of all parties.

Command and Coordination Relationships

A challenge when conducting multinational operations is participating nations will operate under two distinct command structures or chains of command – a multinational chain of command which is formed out of an alliance or coalition and a national chain of command which extends to the country’s national leaders.[15] This arrangement inherently violates the principle of unity of command, “The direction of all forces under a single, responsible commander who has the requisite authority to direct and employ those forces”,[16] however nations participating in multinational operations should strive to achieve unity of command and unity of effort which is the, “Coordination and cooperation toward common objectives, even if the participants are not necessarily part of the same command or organization”[17] Unity of effort may be obtained by developing clearly defined command relationships and coordination and control structures.[18] Early in the American Revolution the American and French commanders struggled with establishing proper chains of command to exercise unity of command and unity of effort. This was illustrated in the combined Franco-American assault on Newport Harbor during the Battle of Newport, Rhode Island when both the American Commander, Brigadier General Sullivan and the French Naval commander Admiral d’Estaing went against the established plan. Sullivan’s unplanned move to seize Butt’s Hill “gave much umbrage to the French officers”[19] and d’Estaing’s unplanned pursuit of the British caused one of Sullivan’s subordinate commanders, Colonel Israel Angell, to write that d’Estaing “left us in a most rascally manner.”[20]

To help improve their shortcomings with unity of command and unity of effort the Franco-American alliance attempted to establish an improved organizational command structure in preparation for the Siege of Yorktown. The concept of unity of effort will be revisited later in this paper when the principles multinational operations from AJP-3 are addressed. The British alliance/coalition also established a multinational organizational command structure before and during operations a Yorktown.

Multinational Command Structures

JP 3-16 outlines three basic command structures for multinational operations – integrated, lead nation, and parallel. A lead nation structure has all partner nations under the command and control of a single nation. An integrated structure has single commander but the command staffs to lowest level possible are made from all member nations. A parallel structure has no single commander controlling member nation forces.[21] FM 3-16 adds one other, a combination command structure where lead nation and parallel command structures exist together during an established coalition.[22] The command structure established under the American and French alliance displayed characteristics of a combination command structure as outlined in FM 3-16, and both a lead nation and parallel command structures. The command structure established for Cornwallis’ forces showed mostly the characteristics of lead nation command structure.[23]

Figure 1 below clearly illustrates in November 1781 the Franco-American alliance was conducting multinational operations using a parallel command structure. The figure shows LTG Rochambeau commanded French ground forces at the Siege of Yorktown, coordinated with General Washington, and reported to his national command authority in France, the French Minister of War Charles Gravier. The figure also shows Washington commanded the American land forces, coordinated with French land commander, and answered to his national command authority, the newly formed United States Congress. There was a similar command relationship with the French Naval forces supporting the siege except Admirals De Grasse and De Barras reported to the French Minister of Marine Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux. In addition, there was only coordination and not direct command between either of the land force commanders and the French Naval commanders. However, this figure does not fully depict the command relationship the French and Americans had at the Siege of Yorktown. Further investigation will show the Franco-American alliance mostly likely did not operate under a parallel command structure as outlined in JP 3-16 and FM 3-16 but under a different multinational command structure.

Figure 1

Yorktown Campaign: Franco-American Command and Control, September – November 1781[24]

In 1780, the French ministry issued instructions signed by Prince de Montbarrey to LTG Rochambeau concerning the conduct of military operations with America. There were eight articles total, the first five which addressed general military and command relationships between the French and Americans. There was also a set of secret instructions consisting of two articles which addressed dispersal and security of French land forces.

Figure 2

Article I. That General Rochambeau should always be under the command of General Washington.

Article II. That all projects and plans for the campaign or for limited expeditions should be decided upon by the American general, with a view to preserve that harmony which His Majesty hopes to see between the two Commanders in chief, the generals, and the soldiers of the two nations.

Article III. The French troops, being only auxiliaries, will always yield precedence and the right of the line to the American troops.

Article IV. In conformity with the above article, American officers of the same rank and date of commission as French officers, shall take command.

Article V. It is his majesty’s expectation and very positive order to Count de Rochambeau, that he will see to the exact and literal execution of the above four articles.

Article VI. The corps of French troops will retain in all cases full jurisdiction and right of trial over every individual belonging to it.

Article VII. His Majesty, having provided for all the wants of the troops who may be sent from Europe, Congress, and General Washington having been previously informed of the intended succours, and the Marquis de Lafayette having been especially charged to give then notice of it and of the moment of their arrival, expects that the strictest orders will have been issued for furnishing the necessary provisions and refreshments of all kinds and the horses required for transporting the French Artillery; and that these supplies will be at hand, wherever circumstances may render it advisable for the French troops to land.

Article VIII. His Majesty confides to the prudence of Count de Rochambeau, to his zeal and military talents, and above all to his firmness, the care of maintaining among the French troops the most severe and exact discipline in all respects. Above all it is enjoined upon him to promote by all possible means the greatest harmony and good understanding between the French and the American troops, and all the inhabitants who are either subjects or allies of the Congress of the United States.

Special Instructions

Article I. His Majesty desires and orders Count de Rochambeau to retain, as far as circumstances will permit, the French troops collected together in one corps; and to represent to General Washington that it is the King's intention that the French troops shall not be dispersed, except in the case of temporary detachments, which are to rejoin the principal corps within a few days.

Article II. His Majesty intends that the corps of French troops shall keep its own guards and secure its own camps, cantonments, or quarters. [25]

The clear intent of the instructions to Rochambeau was to have the American commander lead the multinational operation. So, with Rochambeau under the command of Washington the command structure exhibits characteristics of a lead nation structure. However, there were no special instructions to either Admirals de Grasse or de Barras directing them to become subordinate to General Washington or LTG Rochambeau during the operation. The F

American and French ground forces. Because of this the command structure cannot be considered completely a lead nation structure. As stated before, a combination command structure is where lead nation and parallel command structures exist together during an established coalition.[26] Even though the Franco-American partnership was an alliance and not a coalition the command structure more closely resembles a combination command than strictly a lead nation, parallel, or integrated command structure.

The command structure for the British forces under Cornwallis exhibited characteristics of a lead nation structure. Since the German contingents were hired by the British to conduct operations, they did not report back to German authorities. They were directly commanded by the British. The loyalists and native American tribes had the same command relationship with the British as the Germans.[27] While no single command structure will meet the needs of every nation in a multinational command it is important to build a structure that helps achieve unity of effort during the partnership. Another way to help achieve unity of effort is for multinational partners to develop different types of coordination mechanisms, such as liaison networks and coordination centers.

Multinational Force Coordination

Coordination centers and liaison networks are vital to the multinational force to help achieve unity of effort. These mechanisms will allow for the proper integration of the participating nations especially with planning, sustainment, command and control and other warfighting functions.[28] The Franco-American alliance had effective liaisons which fostered better understanding, facilitated exchange of information, enhanced mutual trust and increased teamwork between the nations.[29] For example Washington’s Chief of Artillery and Chief Engineer Brigadier Generals Henry Knox and Louis Duportail, created a formidable liaison team. They coordinated with French Naval forces and were instrumental with persuading Admiral De Grasse to stay in the Chesapeake Bay to prevent the British forces from escaping the siege at Yorktown.[30] Another effective liaison was Major General Marquis de Lafayette, a French general who commanded the First Division for General Washington before and during the Siege of Yorktown. Lafayette served as a translator and liaison for Washington and LTG Rochambeau and he was instrumentally in forging the excellent partnership between the two nations.[31] De Grasse also requested American pilots familiar with the Chesapeake Bay area and surrounding waters be sent to him in the Caribbean so he could be more familiar with the bay and the pilots would guide his ships in the Chesapeake before and during the siege.[32] However, if the Franco-American partnership had setup more formal liaison networks or multinational coordination centers the alliance would have improved communication, expedited integration, and achieved a greater unity of effort during the siege.

During Operation Desert Storm the forces from the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Joint Force Command (Saudi) established a coalition, coordination, communication, and integration center that was highly effective and aided in the overall victory for the coalition.[33] Coordination between the French and Americans went well prior to the siege when the commanders were able to meet face to face. In September 1781 Washington met with De Grasse and Rochambeau near Yorktown and was pleased with the meeting because he got “what he wanted with regard to the campaign at hand.”[34] Coordination slowed exponentially when the commanders could not meet in person. Letter writing and couriers were the practice of day and could take days to weeks for the communique to reach its intended audience.

Shortly after their meeting De Grasse made it known he was going to leave the Chesapeake Bay because of rumors of a British fleet heading towards Virginia. Washington, Lafayette, and Rochambeau each wrote him imploring him to stay. While waiting for a reply “Washington waited in an agony of anxiety while this was done.”[35] Robust coordination centers and liaison networks most likely would have alleviated some of the delays in communication between commanders, improved coordination, and ultimately led to better unity of effort. While command structures, coordination centers, and liaison networks are tangible tools multinational commanders can use to ensure mission success they must not ignore intangible considerations such as the tenets of multinational operations.

The Tenets of Multinational Operations

Mutual confidence is the cornerstone to successful multinational operations. General Dwight D. Eisenhower stated after World War II that this is the “one basic thing that will make allied commands work.”[36] Multinational partnerships can help achieve mutual confidence and avoid mission failure by adhering to the tenets of multinational operations which are respect, rapport, knowledge of partners, patience, mission focus, teambuilding, and trust and confidence.[37] During the Siege of Yorktown the Franco-American alliance displayed mutual confidence and enhanced unity of effort by acknowledging and exercising the tenets of multinational operations.


Respect is “a strong feeling of approval of somebody/something because of their good qualities or achievements.”[38] It is essential to include all partners in the planning process for multinational operations and the partners must consider and respect each other’s views, opinions, customs, culture, and values.[39] There was much respect displayed between the partners of the Franco-American alliance, especially between Washington and Rochambeau. When Washington and Rochambeau met in Wethersfield, Connecticut on May 22, 1781, the two commanders and their staffs started formal planning. The planning was initially developed to engage the British in New York, but after learning that De Grasse was sailing to the Chesapeake Bay and Cornwallis was moving towards Virginia both commanders agreed New York was no longer a viable objective [40] Both Washington and Rochambeau concluded enthusiastically that Virginia and the eventual Siege of Yorktown would be the new objective. Regardless of the objective whether it was New York or Virginia Rochambeau promised full support to his allies.[41] On September 14 Washington rode to Williamsburg to meet with the French forces he was greeted with great respect as a “conqueror” with a 21-gun salute and later that evening he was the guest of honor at a lavish French banquet.[42]

Generally, the French soldiers respected the American soldiers despite their “ragged” and destitute appearance. Other French officers complimented and showed respect to the Americans also, for example, aide to Quartermaster General Béville, Louis François Bertrand Dupont comte de Lauberdiere stated “But I remember their great accomplishments and I can not see without a certain admiration that it was with these same men that General Washington so gloriously defended his country” and

Baron Ludwig von Closen, aide-de-camp of Rochambeau wrote “I admire the American troops tremendously! It is incredible that soldiers composed of men of every age, even of children of fifteen, of whites and blacks, almost naked, unpaid, and rather poorly fed, can march so well, and withstand fire so steadfastly.”[43] The ultimate sign of respect was given to General Washington and the American forces during the surrender of British forces at an open field along the Hampton Road outside of Yorktown October 19, 1781. General Cornwallis, who chose not to attend, directed his representative, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, to surrender to General Rochambeau. At the ceremony Rochambeau had his aide-de-camp direct Brigadier General O’Hara to surrender to General Washington. Ultimately Washington directed O’Hara to surrender to second in command Major General Benjamin Lincoln.[44]

The Americans also showed much respect for their French counterparts and were very grateful for their arrival. Continental soldiers were impressed by the uniforms, equipment, and discipline of their French counterparts. Washington’s private secretary Colonel Jonathan Trumbull wrote, “A very fine Body of Troops compose the French Army, which seems anxious to give some Marks of Heroism, to distinguish their Attachment & Military Pride.”[45] Captain Richards of Connecticut was equally impressed by the way his French counterparts entered their bivouac sites and settled into their routines.[46] Respect is extremely important to building a multinational partnership and establishing rapport and getting to know your partners is equally as important.

Rapport, Knowledge of Partners, and Teambuilding

Rapport is “a friendly relationship in which people understand each other very well’[47] Building rapport between partnership nations is necessary for overall unity of effort. It is especially important that commanders and other leaders develop rapport with their counterparts. This will improve teamwork and lead to successful mission accomplishment.[48] Good rapport will help nations get to know one another better and this will help prevent misunderstanding because of individual customs, culture, or other sensitivities. Knowledge of partners is imperative during multinational operations. The multinational partnership will become an effective combat multiplier the more nations know about each other.[49] Good rapport and knowledge of partners along with teambuilding will help ensure an atmosphere of cooperation and trust among partner nations. This type of trusting atmosphere should lead to unit of effort and ultimately to mission accomplishment.[50]

Washington and Rochambeau developed a great rapport and were always happy to see each other. Once while going to meet Rochambeau after hearing the news De Grasse was in fact sailing north toward Yorktown Washington uncharacteristically “…whipped off his hat…windmilled his arms…shouted at the top of his lungs…and when Rochambeau came ashore [he] embraced him.”[51] Rapport between De Grasse and Washington was sound even though they only met in person a couple of times. What better way to get to know your partners than to invite them to your house. In September 1781 Washington invited Rochambeau and both their staffs to his home in Mount Vernon for a few days. This energized Washington and prior to his departure to the front lines on 12 September wrote to Lafayette: “I hope you will keep Lord Cornwallis safe, without Provisions or Forage, untill we arrive.”[52]

During, their first meeting De Grasse greeted Washington “Mon cher petit general!” and everyone in attendance found it amusing. Greetings aside, their first meeting was an astounding success for the Americans with Washington getting most of what he asked for as it pertained to the Siege of Yorktown. All parties left the meeting feeling motivated and confident.[53] In a subsequent engagement on De Grasse’s flagship the Ville de Paris Washington met with all warship captains of the French fleet to discuss plans and ask if De Grasse could possibly stay longer in the Chesapeake than the original agreed upon date of 15 October. The meeting was a good teambuilding event for the alliance and “It was very gay; and when they departed that evening every one of the thirty-five ships saluted with every single member of its crew in shrouds or tops, while colors flapped, and cannons boomed” and yes Washington got his extension De Grasse agreed to stay until the end of October.[54]

When the French and American forces met on 6 July 1781 in White Plains, New York both commanders immediately started to build the team and establish rapport between the armies. First the French Army paraded in review for the Americans and the Americans especially Washington was impressed by their professionalism. Rochambeau’s aide-de-camp noted “Our general received the greatest compliments for the beauty of his troops.”[55] The Americans then reciprocated and conducted a parade in honor of their allies. Despite the Americans “ragged” appearance and some cases bare feet the French knew these Americans were battle hardened veterans who could become effective partners against the British.[56] Another team building method devised by Washington was to have inter-mess visits between officers and he also hosted large formal dinners in his tent.[57] It is extremely important to get to know your partners before going into battle, but because partner nations have different ways of doing things all parties will have to exercise patience before and during operations.


“Patience (with somebody/something) [is] the ability to stay calm and accept a delay or something annoying without complaining.”[58] Partner nations must be diligent and continually pursue a meaningful relationship with each other. Multinational partnerships will take time to develop and if the partnership lacks patience and communication, it will degrade quickly.[59] Exercising patience is a force multiplier for commanders, and it will enhance their ability to build teams especially with newly formed and untested partnerships.[60] Both the Americans and French forces displayed patience before and during Siege of Yorktown which helped form a successful Franco-American alliance.

At the Wethersfield conference Rochambeau showed much patience towards Washington. Washington insisted on a campaign to retake New York, but Rochambeau favored a campaign in south. Ultimately Rochambeau yielded to Washington and agreed to campaign into New York. However, Washington consented, and they both agreed if French Naval forces should “‘arrive upon the Coast,’ joint operations should be conducted ‘as circumstances should dictate’”[61] It seems Rochambeau’s patience paid off because if De Grasse’s fleet would arrive from the Caribbean, then the combined forces would campaign into south. Twice both Rochambeau and Washington displayed immense patience concerning De Grasse and his fleet. The first time was when they both waited from mid-July to August for reports to find out whether De Grasse would sail north towards Virginia. Fortunately, Washington finally received a dispatch on August 14th that the Admiral’s fleet had started their journey north to the Chesapeake Bay.[62] The second time was in late September when the two commanders and Lafayette implored De Grasse to stay in the Chesapeake Bay and not chase the British fleet into the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, after several days the three received word from De Grasse that he would stay in the Chesapeake Bay and the ground forces could commence their finally push towards Yorktown.[63]

On 31 July 1781, Lafayette wrote to General Washington about the good example American soldiers were providing to the French, “The patience and sobriety of our militia are so much admired by the French officers, that two days ago a French colonel called all his officers together to desire them to observe the good examples, which were given to the French soldiers by the American troops.”[64] In early September 1781 De Grasse arrived at the Chesapeake Bay and felt the urgent need to dispatch his land forces and commence operations against the British. Lafayette urged De Grasse to exercise patience and wait for Washington and Rochambeau to arrive in the area and their set their forces for the upcoming siege.[65] Having patience paid off for both the American and French before and during the Siege of Yorktown. While exercising patience the French and American commanders were still able to focus on mission accomplishment.

Mission Focus

During multinational operations partner nations need to respect one another, exercise patience with each other, and establish rapport, which will lead to knowledge of partners and teambuilding. However, commanders will have to temper or modify these needs to focus on mission accomplishment.[66] Commanders must remain focused on the mission and not assign tasks to nations that do not have the capability to accomplish those tasks. Allocating the proper assets should be the guiding principle for the multinational commander, however political pressures may dictate a course action that goes against that principle. If this occurs commanders must focus the multinational force on the purpose of the operation and ensure all partners conduct operations professionally.[67] This will help prevent mission creep, “the gradual broadening of the original objectives of a mission or organization.”[68]

The Americans and French remained mission focused throughout the Siege of Yorktown. This focus began 22 May 1781, as mentioned previously, began at conference in Wethersfield where the two ground commanders came to together to plan operations against the British in New York. Even though the objective changed from New York to Yorktown, because circumstances and changes in the operational environment, the main focus was to strike at a weakened British force and eventually negotiate a surrender.[69] Because of his experience with siege warfare Rochambeau knew striking a quick blow to Cornwallis’ forces at Yorktown would be the incorrect tactic. He believed the focus should be a slow but steadfast approach towards the British which would result in more accurate artillery fire.[70]

Once De Grasse was committed to sail to the Chesapeake Bay he became laser-focused and took several risks to bring his entire fleet north to assist Washington and Rochambeau. His actions would leave all the French possessions in the Caribbean Islands unprotected. To obtain funds to for the operation he pledged his personal assets to merchants in Cap Francais but was refused. Finally, he obtained funds from merchants in Cuba. He also had to convince the governor of Santo Domingo to lend him three French regiments assigned to assisting Spain in capturing Jamaica. His relentlessness paid dividen

1781 he almost strayed from his mission much like d’Estaing did during the siege at Newport, Rhode Island. After a few days of engaging the British Fleet near Virginia Capes De Grasse disengaged and returned to the Chesapeake Bay and refocused on the main objective at Yorktown.[72] One of the main reasons the French and Americans could focus on the mission was because of the trust and confidence the two nations had in each other.

Trust and Confidence

Trust and confidence are the cornerstones to building and maintaining relationships. As previously stated, General Eisenhower believed trust and mutual confidence are extremely important to developing multinational partnerships. However, all nations must work hard to establish trust and confidence because it is something that does not just happen and “Saying what you mean and doing what you say are fundamental to establishing trust and confidence in an MNF [multinational force].”[73] Because there was good rapport, mutual respect, patience, and mission focus in the Franco-American alliance trust and confidence was built between the two nations before, during, and after the Siege of Yorktown.

As early as 1 March 1780 France displayed a certain amount trust toward their American counterparts. The instructions signed by Prince Montbarrey contained language in the eight separate articles (See Figure 2.) that the French government had the utmost trust and confidence in the American forces and the French commanders and soldiers should trust and have confidence in Washington to lead the campaign and when appropriate “always yield precedence and the right of the line to the American troops.”[74] In essence, the instructions showed the Americans the French had enough confidence in them to place their land forces subordinate to theirs. Despite some early misgivings during the planning conference at Wethersfield Rochambeau had enough confidence in Washington’s decision to attack New York he “decided to use all the resources at his disposal to support Washington’s plan.”[75]

On 1 September 1781 Washington received a packet of letters, one of which was from Admiral De Grasse. The letter stated he was anchored in the Chesapeake Bay with 28 ships and 3,000 troops ready for battle and “He was, now, entirely at the service of Monsieur le General Washington.”[76] If not for the confidence both Rochambeau and De Grasse had in Washington and his ability to lead the multinational force at Yorktown, the two French commanders could have easily tried to isolate Washington and control the operational environment. However, they both chose to place themselves under the command of Washington. Now that the Americans have the trust and confidence of both the French land and Naval forces the Siege of Yorktown could commence in earnest.

The American forces including Washington also displayed the utmost trust and confidence in their French partners. In June 1781, Washington sent a memorandum via Layfette to Rochambeau stating that Prince Montbarrey made an excellent choice to command the French troops “a Gentleman whose high reputation…and military abilities promise me every public advantage and private satisfaction.”[77] Also in the memorandum he extolled praise on Lafayette, “As a General officer, I have the greatest confidence in him…He knows all the circumstances of our army and the country at large…All the information he gives, and all the propositions he makes, I entreat you will consider as coming from me.”[78] Washington understood he was not an expert in siege operations so in late September 1781 he entrusted both Rochambeau and Baron von Steuben with final planning because both had extensive experience with that type of operation.

Washington also expressed his confidence in the French naval commanders. In the original plan to seize New York, Admiral de Barras was supposed to anchor outside of Boston Harbor, but he selected to anchor near Newport, Rhode Island because of weather patterns. Washington disagreed but wrote, “I would not, however, set up my single judgment against that of so many gentlemen of experience, more especially as the matter partly depends upon a knowledge of marine affairs.”[79] Again Washington showed trust and confidence when in June 1781 Rochambeau wrote to him saying De Grasse would stop in Chesapeake Peak Bay before sailing to Sandy Hook, New York. While he disagreed, he deferred to “the admiral that it would be left entirely to his own judgment, based upon information he might receive of the British Fleet upon the coast, as to what would be the most advantageous quarter in which to appear.”[80] There can be no unity of effort without mutual confidence and trust that must be built into the multinational force, and it must be diligently pursued to guarantee success.

Principles of Multinational Operations

Arguably the most famous and effective multinational force is NATO. (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). It was established in 1949 and currently has 31 members. NATO operates using an integrated command structure and uses several hundred doctrinal publications to help conduct operations, for example Allied Joint Publication (AJP-3), Allied Joint Doctrine for the Conduct of Operations and Allied Joint Publication, Allied Joint Doctrine (AJP-01).[81]

AJP-3 lists 12 principle of multinational operations – unity of effort, concentration of force, economy of effort, freedom of action, definition of objectives, flexibility, Initiative, offensive spirit, surprise, security, simplicity, and maintenance of morale. Commanders and organizations must understand and apply these principles to conduct relevant multinational operations.[82] This paper will only analyze the principles of unity of effort, concentration of force, definition of objectives, and surprise as they pertain to the Siege of Yorktown. The other principles will be left for other researchers and historians to analyze.

Unity of Effort

The Franco-American alliance did an excellent job achieving unity of effort by involving all actors with a “comprehensive approach” in solving problem at the Siege of Yorktown. As stated throughout the paper the partnership achieved harmony by building rapport, understanding capabilities and limitations, planning together, and respecting each other.[83] This was illustrated by the decisions made by De Grasse. He was under no obligation, per the instructions from Prince Montbarrey (See Figure 2.) to yield to the will or command of Washington. However, he cooperated to ensure the alliance was working towards a common goal. He along with Washington and Rochambeau understood that the maritime and land forces had to work in concert if they were to defeat the British.[84] For example, on 22 September 1781 both Rochambeau and Washington solicited De Grasse’s promise to stay in the Chesapeake Bay and support the land forces until the end of October. De Grasse understood that blocking the bay from entry or escape of the British forces was necessary for mission accomplishment.[85]

On 21 October 1781 Brigadier General Knox wrote a letter to John Adams after the siege outlining the victory. His letter is an excellent summary of the unity effort displayed between the French and American forces.

This important affair has been affected by the most harmonious concurrence of circumstances that could possibly have happened: a fleet and troops from the West Indies, under the orders of one of the best men in the world; an army of American and French troops marching from the North River—500 miles—and the fleet of Count de Barras, all joining so exactly in point of time as to render what has happened almost certain…The unequivocal testimonies which America has already received of the friendship of France induces us to hope much from the future.[86]

In contrast the British forces struggled with unity of effort before and during the Siege of Yorktown. The two main land commanders Cornwallis and General Henry Clinton and two of the most important Naval commanders Admirals Thomas Graves and Samuel Hood could not get along with each other and were at odds in the execution on how to engage the French and Americans. While Cornwallis was always decisive and aggressive, Clinton was indecisive and passive. In March 1781 after campaigning in South Carolina Cornwallis advanced to Virginia despite orders from Clinton to return to Charleston and reset. Once in Virginia Cornwallis started receiving vague and contradictory messages from Clinton adding to the lack of unity between the two commanders.[87] On 20 May 1781 Cornwallis received a directive from Clinton to establish a naval base near Portsmouth, Virginia but he ignored the order and decided to conduct a series of raids instead. In June of the same year, he received a scathing letter from Clinton rebuking his actions and another directive to send six regiments back to New York to defend against an attack by Washington even though Washington and French had been in Virginia since May.[88]

Hood and Graves had similar interactions as the land commanders. On 5 September 1781 Hood and Graves squandered an excellent chance to defeat De Grasse’s fleet near Cape Henry in the Chesapeake Bay “because of a misunderstanding”. The misunderstanding turned out that they had “scant regard for each other.”[89] After the engagement with De Grasse Graves nor Hood could be persuaded despite pleas from both Clinton and Cornwallis to reinforce Cornwallis in Yorktown. The admirals decided to refit in New York and did not set sail again until 19 October the day the British surrendered to Washington.[90] When the multinational force is unified in obtaining a common goal it can focus on clearly defined objectives than can contribute to the overall mission accomplishment.

Definition of Objectives

“Military objectives are an important consideration in plan development because they specify what must be accomplished”[91] and the Franco-American alliance knew what needed to be accomplished to defeat the British at Yorktown. “A clear and concise end state allows planners to better identify objectives[92] and the American and French end state, which “describes conditions that define mission success”[93] was the defeat of the British and the expulsion from American soil.[94] As the French American alliance formed the first major objective was the siege of New York. As mentioned before this was decided at the Wethersfield conference but was soon changed to objectives in Virginia[95] and ultimately to the Siege of Yorktown when Washington received a letter from Lafayette stating “Ennemy Have…Went Round to Yorktown.”[96] When Washington made the decision to shift the fight south to Virginia new objectives were formulated. One objective was to fool Clinton into thinking the French and Americans were still going to New York. Washington moved the 2nd Continental Artillery north to Philadelphia giving the British the impression the allies were moving to Sandy Hook, New York to welcome the French Fleet.[97] Washington’s other objective as the allies moved south to Virginia was to have Lafayette keep in close contact with Cornwallis and fix the British forces in one spot if possible.[98] Arguably the most important objective established prior to siege was Rochambeau’s fleet closing off the Chesapeake Bay to prevent the British Fleet from entering and the British land forces from escaping.[99]

A point of concern for Washington was the fortification at Gloucester Point. He sent forces to secure that area to prevent Cornwallis from using it stockpile supplies and prevent the British from crossing the York River and escaping.[100] For the siege into Yorktown Washington had established several important and obtainable objectives. Two of the more import objectives were the establishment of siege lines or parallels. These siege lines were a long trench system that ran parallel to the British fortifications and protected troops and canons. Protecting the allied cannons was extremely important because these cannons were then able to provide almost endless bombardment on Cornwallis’ forces in and around Yorktown, eventually leading to surrender three weeks later.[101] By selecting the proper objectives multinational commanders will be able to concentrate their force at the right place and time.

Concentration of Force

In today’s doctrine concentration of force goes beyond just massing forces to deliver a lethal blow to the opposing force. Through a concentration of effects and actions the multinational force can achieve objects and gain the initiative by imposing multiple dilemmas on the enemy. To obtain this concentration of force, effects, and actions the multinational force must define objectives and achieve unity of effort.[102] Before and during the Siege of Yorktown the Franco-American alliance did extremely well concentrating their forces, which led to their success. The British forces did not do as well as their opponent at applying the principle of concentration of force.

At Yorktown the French and Americans were able to impose multiple dilemmas on the British at the right time and place and well concentrated and naval force. On 14 August 1781 when Washington and Rochambeau received the letter from De Grasse that he would move his fleet to the Chesapeake Bay the new plan was to concentrate forces in Virginia and engage Cornwallis’s army.[103] 16 days later De Grasse rendezvoused with Lafayette’s unit to mass forces on the North side of the James River, while the combined Armies of Washington and Rochambeau continued to march south to eventually meet up with Lafayette and Rochambeau.[104]

French Naval forces continued to consolidate in early September 1781. While De Grasse was engaging the British fleet near Cape Henry Admiral De Barras stealthily sailed his squadron into the Chesapeake Bay. This move now gave the Franco-American alliance naval superiority with a fleet totaling 36 ships.[105] When the Siege began in earnest on 20 September 1781 the Franco-American alliance numbered more than 19,000 troops while the British forces had less than 9,000.[106] In addition the allies were able to consolidate one-third more cannon than the opposition.[107] The concentration of land and naval forces brought to bear by the Americans and French on the British proved overwhelming and eventually led to their surrender.

As stated, before Clinton and Cornwallis did not get along and could not agree on how to fight the war against the Franco-American alliance. This was worsened by the distance that separated their two large armies. The British had a larger navy and more land forces than the combined French and American Army and Navy if they could bring those forces together “This was the gist of the matter.”[108] Essentially their armies were occupying two naval bases, Clinton in New York, and Cornwallis in Yorktown without much naval support. Admiral Graves had five ships in New York. The rest of the British Navy was occupying the Caribbean under Admiral George Rodney. Eventually Rodney sent 14 ships to towards the Chesapeake Bay, but this proved to be ineffective. Both British land units were vulnerable to attack and could not reinforce each other. Because the forces were not concentrated, and the Navy was spread thinly from New York to the Caribbean Islands resupply was inadequate to survive a siege.[109] Not only were the British not able to bring their forces to defend against nor attack the allies they were caught by surprise several times before and during the siege at Yorktown.


Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! – Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle. Surprise is “achieved through unexpected actions”[110] and it can undermine an adversary’s thought process and may “achieve results disproportionate to the effort expended.”[111] Surprise is critical to seizing the initiative because of the confusion and shock the enemy may feel from the unforeseen and unpredictable behavior displayed.[112] Deception and surprise are closely related concepts used to mislead and confuse opponents[113] and on several occasions the Franco-American alliance surprised and deceived the British which almost always led to excellent results.

The first surprise the Franco-American alliance had for the British was when they decided to change their objective from New York to Virginia and the eventual seizure of Yorktown. Throughout the Fall of 1780 Clinton thought he knew what the allies were going to do and when. He knew when Washington and Rochambeau met in both Newport and Wethersfield, and he suspected something big was planned. Based on his intelligence reports he suspected a March towards New York but was not sure. As late as August 19, 1781, he still did not know the destination of the allies.[114] Washington was clever with his deception plan by sending false reports, building boats for ferrying troops to Staten Island, building bake ovens in New Jersey, issuing contracts for food deliveries to New York, and starting false rumors, hoping British loyalists would overhear about troop movements to New York.[115] Washington implemented other active deception measures using the New Jersey Brigade commanded by Colonel Elias Dayton. He directed Dayton to conduct ferrying operations, patrols, and other covering actions to deceive the British into still thinking the allies were moving north instead of south.[116] The French and Americans maintained the ruse of a march north by dispersing the two armies on multiple routes. It was not until early September when the allies marched through Philadelphia that British knew for sure the French and Americans destination was Virginia.[117] The allies surprise and deception led to the fatal mistake by Clinton of not ordering Cornwallis to withdraw from Yorktown and head north.[118]

Throughout the summer of 1781 the British leadership assumed the French Navy under De Grasse would leave ships in the Caribbean and send others to France. Admiral Graves and Clinton then assumed De Grasse would try to rendezvous with De Barras in New York with any remaining ships. The two British commanders still thought even if De Grasse could link up with De Barras the British would still have more ships in the area of operation than the French.[119] The big surprise for the British was there was no French rendezvous near New York but in the Chesapeake Bay with a fleet much larger than expected. This miscalculation by the British led to a failure at the Battle of the Capes in the Chesapeake Bay. Besides losing one ship and receiving major damage to three others the British allowed De Barras to sail undetected into the Chesapeake and join with De Grasse[120].

De Grasse was not yet finished surprising the British. On August 31, 1781 “a messenger brought him [Cornwallis] the shocking news that a large squadron flying the Bourbon flag was at the mouth of the Chesapeake.”[121] Additionally De Grasse blocked the entrance to York River and dispatched troops to sail up the James River to Rendezvous with Lafayette. “Cornwallis knew instantly that he was in trouble” and probably because of the shock decided to “fatalistically stay on at Yorktown”[122] The Franco-American alliance’s surprise and deception were a key component to their victory against the British.


Many of the lessons learned from the Siege of Yorktown have found their way into current military current doctrine especially JP 3-16, FM 3-16, and AJP-3. The primary aim of this paper was to illustrate current multinational doctrine such as command structures, tenets, and principles of multinational operations through some of the major events before and during the Siege of Yorktown. While the paper did not do a major analysis of the timeline or tactics during the siege, other papers and books have done this analysis, it did show, especially from the Franco-American alliance perspective, when nations adhere to the practices and procedures in current multinational doctrine they were and can be successful.

While this paper focused on current multinational doctrine during the Siege of Yorktown further analysis should be done from the perspective of current joint doctrine, especially from Joint Publication (JP) 3-0, Joint Campaigns and Operations and JP 5-0, Joint Planning. It would be extremely interesting and beneficial to analyze the conference at Wethersfield to see if the French and Americans commanders and planners use any semblance of the seven-step joint planning process outlined in the third chapter of JP 5-0. It also would be just as interesting to analyze how the Franco-American commanders, of Washington, Rochambeau, and De Grasse may have used the operational design methodology and applied operational art from chapter 4 of JP 5-0 when formulating how they were going to defeat the British first at New York and then ultimately at Yorktown.

JP 3-0 would also be fruitful for further analysis of the Siege of Yorktown especially through the lens of the joint functions -command and control, information, fires, intelligence, movement and maneuver, protection, and sustainment. For example, what were the key command and control mechanisms used by the Franco-American alliance to synchronize operations between the land and naval forces? How did the Franco-American alliance use information to defeat the British at Yorktown? Who was more successful in disseminating and integrating intelligence with plans and operations? How did the Franco-American alliance execute joint fire support at the Siege of Yorktown? Why was De Grasse so successful with his movement and maneuver from the Caribbean to the Chesapeake Bay? What active and passive measures did Washington use to protect the force before and during the siege, especially during the long march from New York to Yorktown? What were the keys to sustaining the French and American armies during that same long march to Yorktown? These are but a few key questions to start an analysis of the Siege of Yorktown through the lens of the joint functions and other joint doctrine.

There are still many tactical, operational, and strategic lessons to be learned from the American Revolution. Battles such as the Siege of Yorktown will continue to provide military historians with much to analyze from either a tactical, joint, or multinational perspective.

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Show Notes

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© 2024 Mark R. Froom

Written by Mark R. Froom.

About the author:
Mark R. Froom is currently the Chair for the Department of Professional Studies at the Sergeants Major Academy, Fort Bliss Texas. As a Sergeant Major (Ret.), he served 31 years in multiple assignments. He holds a master’s degree in education and a master’s degree in environmental management.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

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