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Marching To America's Real Independence Day

Forging the Potomac posed major logistical challenges in 1781.

On Sept. 24 and 25 nearly 1,000 head of cattle crossed the Potomac River at the site of Chain Bridge. On those same two days down stream a wagon train and entire army came from the site of Georgetown to the open fields of Arlington via ferry.

During those crossings one man and one horse drowned. The man, of unknown rank and heritage, military or civilian, became the first unknown to be buried at the present site of Arlington National Cemetery.

It was 1781 and the army of French Gen. Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur comte de Rochambeau had just crossed into Virginia on their march to Yorktown to join up with the troops of Gen. George Washington and others for the Battle of Yorktown. There, the two partners and the combined forces of their allies would face the army of Gen. Lord Charles Corwallis in what was to become the decisive battle of the American Revolutionary War.

Last Saturday morning at 8 a.m. three Revolutionary War re-enactors made that same Potomac River crossing 225 years later. This time they walked across the Key Bridge. They were one day ahead of the actual crossing anniversary and accompanied by a throng of supporters.

But, their 685-mile trek from Rhode Island to Yorktown to mark the anniversary of that historic march and battle was no less a test of human endurance, determination and dedication than that of the troops whose footsteps they are retracing. "It was sort of bittersweet to come across the bridge this morning. This is our last state," said Mike Fitzgerald, a 17-year producer and actor from Sewickley, Pa., one of the Revolutionary triumvirate marchers.

"We are honoring the young men of 1781. We are the senior march. We are all 55 years and older," retired U.S. Marine Fitzgerald, 57, told the crowd assembled to welcome them at Gateway Park in Rosslyn.

THEIR JOURNEY with history commenced six years ago when David Holloway, a 55-year-old carpenter from Wallingford, Conn., and retired U.S. Navy Seabee, got the idea for the march to honor America's Revolutionary allies when he took two French exchange students to visit Yorktown.

"My wife and I used take in exchange students and we'd take them to historic sites. When we were walking the Yorktown battlefield I said that we owed the French for our independence," Holloway explained.

"Their response was that was nothing like what France owed us for what we did for them in World War II. That, somehow sparked the idea in me for the march," he said.

"I sent out emails to see who might be interested and immediately heard back from Mike. Then, I heard from Dave Fagerberg, our third member," Holloway said.

Fagerberg, 57, a retired U.S. Army veteran, is a self-employed insurance consultant from Prairie Village, Kan. "There's a lot of mixed emotion in the march. It can be rough when its raining all day. But, the toughest part is just the marching day after day," he said.

"Then there is the exciting part — at ceremonies like this. People are so appreciative of what we are doing. We aren't funded by anyone. We do accept contributions on our Web site and people have been very generous," he said. That Web site is www.marchtoyorktown.org.

When Holloway first put forth the idea of the march he was met with skepticism. "You're going to do what was the response from most," he said. "Nobody would believe me but I just kept working on it."

He also found a deaf ear when he went to several insurance companies for coverage of their journey. "When I told them we were going to walk from Rhode Island to Yorktown down the northeast corridor they didn't want any part of it," Holloway said.

But on June 17, the same day 225 years earlier that Rochambeau's troops stepped off so did the little army that could. "We did get an initial contribution from the DAR but even the national W3R organization would not fund us. It has been all from private donors and we have now covered our expenses," Holloway confirmed. W3R stands for Washington/Rochambeau Revolutionary Route.

Averaging 15 to 16 miles per day, the trio is following the French Army's route going from one camp site of their predecessors to another. The reenactment of the Yorktown battle will take place Oct. 20 and 21 with the surrender ceremony on Oct. 22.

With the actual battle having commenced on Oct. 19, 1781, that day is now called "Yorktown Day." It is referred to as "the day that saved the Fourth of July" by some historians.

"When we get to Yorktown I'll switch over to my Brit uniform which is a lot more comfortable. I usually portray a Brit in the reenactments. I'll be fighting these other two guys," Fitzgerald said with a grin.

IN WELCOMING the three to Virginia, Paul Ferguson, vice chairman, Arlington County Board of Supervisors, said, "It's very exciting having you finally in Virginia. Ferguson was then presented with several items marking the march from the District of Columbia to Virginia by Betty Jane Gerber, representing the District, who stated, "Freedom's flame has been lit."

Recounting the history of the French Army's river crossing 225 years previously, Kevin Vincent, chairman, Arlington Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board, told the audience, "You are standing where the ferry crossed. Arlington was nothing but open fields then and this was the main north/south route. Army/Navy Drive and Ridge Road were part of that main artery."

Rochambeau himself had actually crossed into Virginia on Sept. 10 to meet Washington at Mount Vernon. They had left the main body of their armies after passing Wilmington, Del. Washington rode ahead reaching Mount Vernon Sept. 9. The two commanders continued their journey Sept. 12 arriving in Williamsburg Sept. 14.

Waiting for them there were Gen. Lafayette with a small American army, and Gen. Comte Saint-Simon with some French regiments that Admiral De Grasse had brought from the West Indies. The French wagon train arrived at the allied camp Oct. 7, 1781, the day the battle commenced.

Arlington was so sparsely populated that one soldier wrote in his diary that they only passed three houses between the river and their arrival in Alexandria, according to Vincent. "We are here today to recognize those that made the Yorktown march," Vincent said.

Following the ceremony and refreshments with members of the local DAR and other reenactors that have joined with them at various stops along their route, the three set out for Old Town Alexandria. There they enjoyed lunch at one of Gen. George's favorite hangouts — Gadsby's Tavern.

Saturday night they encamped at Lee-Fendall House, a stone's throw from where the French Army encamped in 1782 on their return from the Yorktown battle. Sunday morning they traveled down the George Washington Memorial Parkway, past Mount Vernon Estate, and on to Pohick Regional Park where they spent Sunday night.

Monday's schedule called for the march to continue following Colchester Road to Occoquan. Ceremonies such as those that took place in Rosslyn have greeted them all along their route. "This has been more than I had ever hoped for. The march and the people have been fantastic," Holloway declared.