June 4, 2002

An event which had to have caused quite a stir among the populace hereabouts when it happened but which has since been all but forgotten is about to be restored to public view. Those working to bring that about say it could have a major impact on how Delaware is perceived, especially among potential visitors.

On Sept. 7 and 8, 1781, the Continental Army, some 1,400 strong, plus assorted militia, commanded by General George Washington, accompanied by an expeditionary force of about 5,000 French regular troops under Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, the Count of Rochambeau, marched through New Castle County. What was significant about that, of course, is that they were en route to Yorktown, Va., where, supported by a French naval expedition, they would lay siege to General Charles Cornwallis's British army in what proved to be the climatic battle of the War for Independence.

Largely at the prodding of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution and other organizations involved in preserving the heritage of the Revolutionary period, Congress in 2000 enacted a measure directing the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service to conduct a 'resource study' of the 600-mile route to determine how it can best be preserved and interpreted. All nine states through which the route passes are cooperating in the study, which is due to be completed in November.

The Delaware phase of that study is about to be conducted by Robert Selig, a consultant who is a recognized authority on the march.

The best result that could come from the study, according to Ray Hester, who chairs the committee coordinating Delaware's involvement, would be for the route to be designated a national historic trail. That, he said, would put it at the same level as the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail and several others, mostly in western states, as a top-level attraction for national and international tourism. It also would make it the first National Park Service venue in Delaware.

Even if the effort falls short of that, he added, state and local resources can be brought to bear to assure that not only sites connected with the march but also other historic and cultural resources in the area are showcased for visitors. The fact that several states are cooperating in the anachronistically labeled  W3R (Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route) cause should enhance such efforts.

State Representative Wayne Smith, who co-sponsored legislation authorizing Delaware's official participation in the effort and providing the money to finance the state's part of the study, said it will provide a strong incentive "for Delawareans to reconnect to their past."

The French troops spent their night in Delaware encamped in Wilmington while the Americans pitched their tents in the Stanton area. On the way back, after Cornwallis's surrender on Oct. 19, 1781, some French troops were billeted in Wilmington over the winter. Although there were no further significant engagements, the war did not definitively end until the Treaty of Paris was signed two years later. Their enlistments over, some of the Frenchmen settled here permanently and some of their descendents still live in the area, according to Chuck Fithian, of the state Historic Preservation Office.

Beyond filling out such details, "research identifying locations associated with the Franco-American armies ... will bring out an appreciation of our involvement in the Revolution. That's a topic that has never been thoroughly researched," he said.

The popular concept is that Delaware had what amounted to a few cameo roles in the nation's seminal epic -- Caesar Rodney's overnight ride to Philadelphia to vote for independence and a skirmish at Cooches Bridge along Old Baltimore Pike being the most celebrated. But, Fithian said, "there was a lot more going on than that."

Hester pointed out, for instance, that Washington is known to have visited the Robinson House in Claymont, which was the home of one of his generals. There are buildings still standing throughout the state that were here at the time and the historic area of the town of New Castle is a living reminder of that period.

"Heritage tourism and heritage education are important and they are activities that are growing. There's more to W3R in Delaware than a two-hour drive. It's an opportunity to show what we did in the Revolution and what we have here now," he said.

A history-minded tourist is, by nature, the kind of person who wants to spend time absorbing everything that an area has to offer, he added. There also is an obvious advantage in highlighting the French contribution to America's Revolution as a means of attracting international visitors.

"The side effects and benefits that can come from this are tremendous," Hester said. "I want to see us do more with this than just put up a few more historic markers."

2002. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Trace the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route
Read about the entire Yorktown campaign
Go to Yorktown -- Oct. 19, 1781

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