A Scene from the Yorktown Campaign

Painted Revolutionary War scene of troops marching past officers on horseback during the Yorktown campaign

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Henry A. Ogden painted this scene of George Washington reviewing French troops at the Philipsburg encampment, the first time the allies shared a camp during the Yorktown campaign.

The French alliance has inspired scores of artworks since the Revolutionary War. The most famous scenes depict the arrival of General Rochambeau and his army in Newport in July 1780 or the allied siege of Yorktown in the fall of 1781—events that bookend the long campaign to Virginia. In August 2021 the Institute acquired a painting of a much less familiar scene on the campaign to Yorktown. Around the turn of the twentieth century, American illustrator Henry A. Ogden painted George Washington reviewing French troops in July 1781 at the encampment at Philipsburg, New York—the first camp shared by the American and French armies during the war. The painting reminds us that the story of how the American and French armies got to Yorktown is just as important to tell as what happened after they arrived.

The encampment was established in northern Westchester County, along the east bank of the Hudson River only about fifteen miles north of British-held Manhattan. Stretching for more than four miles, the American and French camps occupied wooded hilltops littered with ravines and streams—a commanding position from which to monitor the surrounding area. Westchester County had been a lawless no-man’s-land for most of the war, with local loyalist and patriot militias harassing residents and travelers and seizing property. The allied armies would occupy the encampment for six weeks while their commanders finalized plans for an attack on the enemy that they hoped would end the war.

General Washington and the Continental Army arrived first, on the fifth anniversary of the declaration of American independence. The French army arrived two days later, on July 6, 1781, after a grueling march through the stifling summer heat. “It is impossible to be more uncomfortable than we were that day,” recalled the comte de Clermont-Crèvecoeur, a lieutenant in the Auxonne Regiment of the French army. “More than 400 soldiers dropped from fatigue, and it was only by frequent halts and much care that we brought everyone into camp.” Washington’s general orders for the day celebrated “the long wished for junction between the French and American Forces. An Event which must afford the highest degree of pleasure to every friend of his Country and from which the Happiest Consequences are to be expected.”

The two armies marked the beginning of the joint encampment with a grand review of the troops on July 8. George Washington, General Rochambeau and other senior officers watched as the American troops, then the French regiments, marched past them. One of Rochambeau’s aides-de-camp, the comte de Lauberdière, detailed the occasion: “We had only one day to repair the damage of the march. Even so, the troops appeared in the finest dress. Mr. de Rochambeau positioned himself in front of the white flag of his senior regiment and saluted General Washington. Almost all the officers of the army, having dismissed their troops, accompanied him. Our general received his highest compliments on the appearance of his troops.”

In the watercolor-and-gouache painting the Institute recently acquired, artist Henry A. Ogden focused on the review of the French troops at Philipsburg. He specifically depicted the Soissonnais Regiment—in their white uniforms with pale red facings—marching past the mounted senior officers of the allied armies. It is not clear why Ogden chose to feature the Soissonnais. During the march to Philipsburg, the regiment stood out to Abbé Claude Robin, a chaplain with Rochambeau’s army: “The regiment of Soissonnais has in all this tedious march, had the fewest stragglers and sick of any other;–one of the principal causes was, without doubt, the precaution of the Colonel, who, on purpose for the campaign, had linen breeches made for his whole regiment.” In the painting Ogden included the commanding officer of the Soissonnais, the comte de Saint Maime, walking between the regiment’s flagbearers with his sword raised. General Washington, raising his hat in salute, is flanked by Rochambeau and the chevalier de La Luzerne, French minister to the United States. Next to them, in the foreground of the painting, are Major General Benjamin Lincoln and Brigadier General Henry Knox of the Continental Army, and the duc de Lauzun, a brigadier general of the French army and commander of Lauzun’s Legion. On the opposite side of the marching French troops, Continental Army soldiers, distinguished by their buff-and-blue uniforms, stand in a line watching the review. One of the Continentals carries the American flag pictured at the center of the scene. A camp of white tents appears on a hilltop in the distance.

This work celebrates the alliance with France and asserts the importance of the French army’s participation in the Yorktown campaign. Ogden titled the painting Washington Reviewing Our Ally—the French—1781, which remains on a typed paper label signed by the artist on the back side of the artwork. Sometime later a brass plaque was added to the front of the frame bearing a more assertive title, When America Needed France. The composition is dominated by French soldiers and flags. Among the reviewers, the artist placed French generals in their elaborate uniforms at the head of the group—even though George Washington was the primary reviewer at the event and was named first in the artist’s title. Ogden’s use of a troop review in camp to represent French participation in the Revolutionary War, rather than the more commonly pictured battlefield heroics, emphasizes the promise of French support instead of the results. The calm, resplendent scene conveys confidence and hope for the campaign to come and for the end of the war.

Henry Alexander Ogden (1856-1936) was a successful American illustrator, mostly of historical military scenes. From the 1870s until his retirement in the 1920s, he produced drawings and paintings for publication in periodicals and books. His largest and most important project was creating color plates for Uniforms of the Army of the United States, first published in 1890. Ogden labored over the historical accuracy of his artworks, using original uniforms and weapons as well as historical documents in his research. While the historical accuracy of his paintings is not infallible, Ogden was a pioneer in researching and presenting early American uniforms and settings for both popular and scholarly audiences. Despite the hundreds of his illustrations that are available in print, his scene of the French troops at Philipsburg does not appear to have been published, and it remains a mystery why he painted it.


See the painting in more detail in the online museum collections database.

Watch a lecture on the march to Yorktown by historian Robert Selig.


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