National Geographic Magazine/Volume 31/Number 6/Our First Alliance
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Volume 31, No. 6 [June 1917]
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Our First Alliance
By J. J. Jusserand, Ambassador of France to the United States
- At this time, when we are all reading the story of our expeditionary army to France, it is profitable to review the voyage of the French expedition of 137 years ago to America—an expedition undertaken with the same unselfish object as ours of today, but under conditions of travel and life so different. The following contribution by Ambassador Jusserand is abridged from his notable volume, entitled “With Americans of Past and Present Days,” by courtesy of the publishers, Messrs. Charles Scribner's Sons. —Editor.
The American war had been for five years in progress; for two years a treaty of alliance, having as sole object “to maintain effectually the liberty, sovereignty, and independence, absolute and unlimited, of the United States,” bound us French to the “insurgents”; successes and reverses followed each other in turn: Brooklyn, Trenton, Brandywine, Saratoga.
Quite recently the news had come of the double victory at sea and on land of d'Estaing at Grenada, and Paris had been illuminated. The lights were scarcely out when news arrived of the disaster of the same d'Estaing at Savannah. All France felt anxious concerning the issue of a war which had lasted so long and whose end continued to be doubtful.
When, in the first months of 1780, the report went about that a great definitive effort was to be attempted; that it was not this time a question of sending ships to the Americans, but of sending an army, and that the termination of the great drama was near, the enthusiasm was unbounded. All wanted to take part. There was a prospect of crossing the seas, of succoring a people fighting for a sacred cause—a people of whom all our volunteers praised the virtues; the people led by Washington, and represented in Paris by Franklin.
An ardor as of Crusaders inflamed the hearts of French youths, and the intended expedition was, in fact, the most important that France had launched beyond the seas since the distant time of the Crusades. The cause was a truly sacred one—the cause of liberty—a magical word which then stirred the hearts of the many. “Why is liberty so rare?” Voltaire had said, “Because the most valuable of possessions.”
All those who were so lucky as to be allowed to take part in the expedition were convinced that they would witness memorable, perhaps unique, events, and it turned out, indeed, that they were to witness a campaign which, with the battle of Hastings, where the fate of England was decided in 1066, and that of Bouvines, which made of France in 1214 a great nation, was to be one of the three military actions with greatest consequences in which for the last thousand years the French had participated.
French faith in America
A striking result of his state of mind is that an extraordinary number of those who went noted down their impressions, kept journals, drew sketches. Never perhaps during a military campaign was so much writing done, nor were so many albums filled with drawings.
Notes, letters, journals, sketches have come down to us in large quantities, and from all manner of men, for the passion of observing and narrating was common to all kinds of people: journals and memoirs of army chiefs like Rochambeau, or chiefs of staff like Chastellux, a member of the French Academy, adapter of Shakespeare, and author of a Félicité Publique, which, Franklin said, showed him to be “a real friend of humanity”; narratives of a regimental chaplain, like Abbé Robin, of a skeptical rake like the Duke de Lauzun; journals of officers of various ranks, like Count de Deux-Ponts, Prince de Broglie, Count de Ségur, son of the marshal, himself afterward an Academician and an ambassador; Mathieu-Dumas, future minister of war of a future king of Naples, who bore the then unknown name of Joseph Bonaparte; the Swedish Count Axel de Fersen, one of Rochambeau's aides, who was to organize the French royal family's flight to Varennes and to die massacred by the mob in his own country; journal, too, among many others, of a modest quartermaster like Blanchard, who gives a note quite apart, observes what others do not, and whose tone, as that of a subordinate, is in contrast with the superb ways of the “seigneurs,” his companions.
From page to page, turning the leaves, one sees appear, without speaking of Lafayette, Kosciusko, and the first enthusiasts, many names just emerging from obscurity, never to sink into it again: Berthier, La Pérouse, La Touche-Tréville, the Lameth brothers, Bougainville, Custine, the Bouillé of the flight to Varennes, the La Clocheterie of the fight of La Belle Poule, the Duportail who was to be minister of war under the Constituent Assembly; young Talleyrand, brother of the future statesman; young Mirabeau, brother of the orator, himself usually known for his portly dimensions as Mirabeau-tonneau, ever ready with the cup or the sword; young Saint-Simon, not yet a pacifist and not yet a Saint-Simonian; Suffren, in whose squadron had embarked the future Director Barras, an officer then in the regiment of Pondichéry.
All France behind America then
All France was really represented—to some extent that of the past, to a larger one that of the future.
A juvenile note, in contrast with the quiet dignity of the official reports by the heads of the army, is given by the unprinted journal, a copy of which is preserved in the Library of Congress, kept by one more of Rochambeau's aides, Louis Baron de Closen, an excellent observer, gay, warm-hearted, who took seriously all that pertained to duty, and merrily all the rest, especially mishaps.
Useful information is also given by some unprinted letters of George Washington, some with the superscription still preserved: “On public service—to his Excellency Count de Rochambeau, Williamsburg, Virginia,” the whole text often in the great chief's characteristic handwriting, clear and steady, neither slow nor hasty, with nothing blurred and nothing omitted, with no trepidation, no abbreviation, the writing of a man with a clear conscience and clear views, superior to fortune, and the convinced partisan, in every circumstance throughout life, of the straight line.
The British Government has, moreover, most liberally opened its archives, so that, both through the recriminatory pamphlets printed in London after the disaster and the dispatches now accessible, one can know what was said day by day in New York and out of New York, in the redoubts at Yorktown, and in the French and American trenches around the place.
An extraordinary task
Lieut. Gen. Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, aged then fifty-five, and Washington's senior by seven years, was in his house, still in existence, Rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris, at the beginning of March, 1780, he was ill and about to leave for his castle of Rochambeau in Vendomois; post-horses were in readiness when, in the middle of the night, he received, he says in his memoirs, a “courier bringing him the order to go to Versailles and receive the instructions of his Majesty.”
For some time rumors had been afloat that the great attempt would soon be made. He was informed that the news was true, and that he would be placed at the head of the army sent to the assistance of the Americans.
The task was an extraordinary one. He would have to reach the New World with a body of troops packed on slow transports, to avoid the English fleets, to fight in a country practically unknown, by the side of men not less so, and whom we had been accustomed to fight rather than befriend, and for a cause which had never before elicited enthusiasm at Versailles—the cause of republican liberty.
This last point was the strangest of all, so strange that even Indians, friends of the French in former days, asked Rochambeau, when they saw him in America, how it was that his king could think fit to help other people against “their own father,” their king.
Rochambeau replied that the latter had been too hard on his subjects; that they were right, therefore, in shaking off the yoke, and we in helping them to secure “that natural liberty which God has conferred on man.”
An alliance which forbade conquest
This answer to “Messieurs les Sauvages” is an enlightening one; it shows what was the latent force that surmounted all obstacles and caused the French nation to stand as a whole, from beginning to end, in favor of the Americans, to applaud a treaty of alliance which, while entailing the gravest risks, forbade us all conquest, and to rejoice enthusiastically at a peace which after a victorious war added nothing to our possessions. This force was the increasing passion among the French for precisely “that natural liberty which God has conferred on man.”
Hatred of England, quickened though it had been by the harsh conditions of the Treaty of Paris bereaving us of Canada, in 1763, had much less to do with it than is sometimes alleged. Such a feeling existed, it is true, in the hearts of some of the leaders, but not of all; it did in the minds also of some of the officers, but again not of all.
What predominated in the mass of the nation, irrespective of any other consideration, was sympathy for men who wanted to fight injustice and to be free. The cause of the insurgents was popular because it was associated with the notion of liberty; people did not look beyond.
It is often forgotten that this time was not in France a period of Anglophobia, but of Anglomania. Necker, so influential, and who then held the purse-strings, was an Anglophile; so was Prince de Montbarey, minister of war; so was that Duke de Lauzun who put an end for a time to his love affairs and came to America at the head of his famous legion.
All that was English was admired and, when possible, imitated: manners, philosophy, sports, clothes, parliamentary institutions, Shakespeare, just translated by Le Tourneur, with the King and Queen as patrons of the undertaking; but, above all, wrote Count de Ségur, “we were all dreaming of the liberty, at once calm and lofty, enjoyed by the entire body of citizens of Great Britain.”
The magic words to conjure with
Such is the ever-recurring word. Liberty, philanthropy, natural rights—these were the magic syllables to conjure with. “All France,” we read in Grimm and Diderot's correspondence, “was filled with an unbounded love for humanity,” and felt a passion for “those exaggerated general maxims which raise the enthusiasm of young men and which would cause them to run to the world's end to help a Laplander or a Hottentot.”
The ideas of Montesquieu, whose Esprit des Lois had had 22 editions in one year, of Voltaire, of d'Alembert, were in the ascendant, and liberal thinkers saw in the Americans propagandists for their doctrine. General Howe having occupied New York in 1776, Voltaire wrote to d'Alembert: “The troops of Doctor Franklin have been beaten by those of the King of England. Alas! philosophers are being beaten everywhere. Reason and liberty are unwelcome in this world.”
An alliance with no hatred for the common enemy
Another of the master minds of the day, the economist, thinker, and reformer Turgot, the one whose advice, if followed, would have possibly secured for us a bloodless revolution, was of the same opinion. In the famous letter written by him on the 22d of March, 1778, to his English friend, Doctor Price, Turgot showed himself, just as the French nation was, ardently pro-American, but not anti-English.
He deplored the impending war, which ought to have been avoided by England's acknowledging in time “the folly of its absurd project to subjugate the Americans. . . . It is a strange thing that it be not yet a commonplace truth to say that no nation can ever have the right to govern another nation; that such a government has no other foundation than force, which is also the foundation of brigandage and tyranny; that a people's tyranny is, of all tyrannies, the most cruel, the most intolerable, and the one which leaves the least resources to the oppressed; . . . for a multitude does not calculate, does not feel remorse, and it bestows on itself glory when all that it deserves is shame.”
The Americans, according to Turgot, must be free, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of humanity; an experiment of the utmost import is about to begin, and should succeed. He added this, the worthy forecast of a generous mind:
“It is impossible not to form wishes for that people to reach the utmost prosperity it is capable of. That people is the hope of mankind. It must show to the world by its example that men can be free and tranquil, and can do without the chains that tyrants and cheats of all garb have tried to lay on them under pretense of public good. It must give the example of political liberty, religious liberty, commercial and industrial liberty.
“The shelter which it is going to offer to the oppressed of all nations will console the earth. The ease with which men will be able to avail themselves of it and escape the effects of a bad government will oblige governments to open their eyes and to be just. The rest of the world will perceive by degrees the emptiness of the illusions on which politicians have festered.”
Toward England Turgot has a feeling of regret on account of its policies, but no trace of animosity; and, on the contrary, the belief that, in spite of what some people of note were alleging, the absolutely certain loss of her American colonies would not result in a diminution of her power. “This revolution will prove, maybe, as profitable to you as to America.”
The honorable rules of war rigorously observed
Not less characteristic of the times and of the same thinker's turn of mind is a brief memorial written by him for the King shortly after, when Captain Cook was making his third voyage of discovery, the one from which he never returned. “Captain Cook,” Turgot said, “is probably on his way back to Europe. His expedition having no other object than the progress of human knowledge, and interesting, therefore, to all nations, it would be worthy of the King's magnanimity not to allow that the result be jeopardized by the chances of war.”
Orders should be given to all French naval officers “to abstain from any hostile act against him or his ship, and allow him to freely continue his navigation, and to treat him in every respect as the custom is to treat the officers and ships of neutral and friendly countries.”
The King assented and had our cruisers notified of the sort of sacred character which they would have to recognize in that ship of the enemy—a small fact in itself, but showing the difference between the wars in those days and in ours, when we have had to witness the wanton destruction of the Louvain library, the shelling of the Rheims cathedral, and the Arras town hall.
A fight not for recompense, but for liberty
An immense aspiration was growing in France for more equality, fewer privileges, simpler lives among the great, less hard ones among the lowly, more accessible knowledge, the free discussion by all of the common interests of all. A fact of deepest import struck the least attentive: French masses were becoming more and more thinking masses. One should not forget that between the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the French one only six years elapsed; between the American and the French Constitutions but four years.
It was not, therefore, a statement of small import that Franklin had conveyed to Congress when he wrote from France: “The united bent of the nation is manifestly in our favor.” And he deplored elsewhere that some could think that an appeal to France's own interest was good policy:
“Telling them their commerce will be advantaged by our success, and that it is their interest to help us, seems as much as to say: ‘Help us and we shall not be obliged to you.’ Such indiscreet and improper language has been sometimes held here by some of our people and produced no good effect. The truth is,” he said also, that “this nation is fond of glory, particularly that of protecting the oppressed.”
The treaty of commerce, accompanying the treaty of alliance of 1778, had been in itself a justification of this judgment. Help from abroad was so pressingly needed in America that almost any advantages requested by France as a condition would have been granted; but that strange sight was seen: advantages being offered, unasked, by one party and declined by the other.
France decided at once not to accept anything as a recompense, not even Canada, if that were wrested from the English, in spite of Canada's having been French from the first and having but recently ceased to be such. The fight was not for recompense, but for liberty, and Franklin could write to Congress that the treaty of commerce was one to which all the rest of the world, in accordance with France's own wishes, was free to accede, when it chose, on the same footing as herself, England included.
This was so peculiar that many had doubts; John Adams never lost his; even Washington himself had some, and when plans were submitted to him for an action in Canada he wondered, as he wrote, whether there was not in them “more than the disinterested zeal of allies.” What would take place at the peace if the allies were victorious? Would not France require, in one form or another, some advantages for herself? But she did not; her peace was to be like her war, pro-American rather than anti-English.
The ideal leader—Rochambeau
Aware of the importance and difficulty of the move it had decided upon, the French Government had looked for a trained soldier, a man of decision and of sense, one who would understand Washington and be understood by him, would keep in hand the enthusiasts under his orders, and would avoid ill-prepared, risky ventures. The government considered it could do no better than to select Rochambeau. It could, indeed, do no better.
Rochambeau was appointed an officer and served on his first campaign in Germany at sixteen; fought under Marshal de Saxe; was a colonel at twenty-two (Washington was to become one also at twenty-two); received at Laufeldt his two first wounds, of which he nearly died. At the head of the famous Auvergne regiment, “Auvergne sans tache” (Auvergne the spotless), as it was called, he took part in the chief battles of the Seven Years' War, notably in the victory of Klostercamp, where spotless Auvergne had 58 officers and 800 soldiers killed or wounded, the battle made memorable by the episode of the Chevalier d'Assas, who went to his heroic death in the fulfillment of an order given by Rochambeau. The latter was again severely wounded, but, leaning on two soldiers, he could remain at his post till the day was won.
On the opposite side of the same battlefields were fighting many destined, like Rochambeau himself, to take part in the American war; it was like a preliminary rehearsal of the drama that was to be. At the second battle of Minden, in 1759, where the father of Lafayette was killed, Rochambeau covered the retreat, while in the English ranks Lord Cornwallis was learning his trade, as was, too, but less brilliantly, Lord George Germain, the future colonial secretary of the Yorktown period.
A happy marriage with annals brief
When still very young, Rochambeau had contracted one of those marriages so numerous in the eighteenth, as in every other, century, of which nothing is said in the memoirs and letters of the period, because they were what they should be—happy ones. Every right-minded and right-hearted man will find less pleasure in the sauciest anecdote told by Lauzun than in the simple and brief lines written in his old age by Rochambeau: “My good star gave me such a wife as I could desire; she has been for me a cause of constant happiness throughout life, and I hope, on my side, to have made her happy by the tenderest amity, which has never varied an instant during nearly sixty years.”
Informed at Versailles of the task he would have to perform, Rochambeau set to work to get everything in readiness, collecting information, talking with those who knew America, and noting down in his green-garbed registers, which were to accompany him in his campaign, the chief data thus secured.
He also addressed to himself, as a reminder, a number of useful recommendations, such as these: “To take with us a quantity of flints, . . . much flour and biscuit; have bricks as ballast for the ships, to be used for ovens; to try to bring with us all we want and not to have to ask from the Americans, who are themselves in want; . . . to have a copy of the atlas brought from Philadelphia by Mr. de Lafayette; . . . to have a portable printing-press, like that of Mr. d'Estaing, handy for, proclamations . . . siege artillery is indispensable.”
Some of the notes are of grave import and were not lost sight of throughout the campaign: “Nothing without naval supremacy.”
To those intrusted with the care of loading the vessels he recommends that all articles of the same kind be not placed on the same ship, “so that in case of mishap to any ship the whole supply of any kind of provisions be not totally lost.”
When all were there, however, forming a total of 5,000 men, the maximum was so truly reached that a number of young men, some belonging to the best-known French families, who were arriving at Brest from day to day, in the hope of being added to the expedition, had to be sent back.
The departure, which it was necessary to hasten while the English were not yet ready, was beset with difficulties. Tempests, contrary winds, and other mishaps had caused vexatious delay; the Comtesse de Noailles and the Conquérant had come into collision and had had to be repaired. “Luckily,” wrote Rochambeau to Montbarey, with his usual good humor, “it rains also on Portsmouth.” At last, on the 2d of May, 1780, the fleet of seven ships of the line and two frigates, conveying thirty-six transports, weighed anchor for good. “We shall have the start of Graves,” the general wrote again, “for he will have to use the same wind to leave Portsmouth.”
At sea now for a long voyage, two or three months perhaps, with the prospect of calms, of storms, of untoward encounters, of scurvy for the troops. On board the big Duc de Bourgogne, of eighty guns, with Admiral de Ternay, Rochambeau adds now and then paragraphs to a long report which is a kind of journal, assuring the minister, after the first fortnight, that all is well on board: “We have no men sick other than those which the sea makes so, among whom the Marquis de Laval and my son play the most conspicuous part.” He prepares his general instructions to the troops.
On board the smaller craft life was harder, and numerous unflattering, descriptions have come down to us in the journals kept by so many officers of the army, especially in that of the aforementioned young captain, Louis Baron de Closen, later one of the aides of Rochambeau.
A first-hand picture of life in the French fleet
He confesses, but with no undue sentimentalism, that he was saddened at first to some extent at the prospect of an absence that might be a long one, particularly when thinking “of a charming young fiancée, full of wit and grace. . . . My profession, however, does not allow me to yield too much to sensibility; so I am now perfectly resigned.”
It is hard at first to get accustomed, so tight-packed is the ship, but one gets inured to it, in spite of the “buzzing of so numerous a company,” of the lack of breathing space, and of what people breathe being made unpleasant by all sorts of “exhalations” from the ship, the masses of humanity on board, “and a few dogs.”
Closen has the good luck not to be inconvenienced by the sea, settles in his corner, and from that moment till the end takes pleasure in watching life around him. He learns how to make nautical observations, describes his companions in his journal, and especially the captain, a typical old tar who has an equal faith in the efficacy of hymns and of oaths.
“Prayer is said twice a day on the deck, which does not prevent there being much irreligion among seamen. I have often heard our captain swear and curse and freely use the worst sailors' language while he was praying and chanting:
“‘Ja mets ma confiance, Vierge, en votre secours, Et quand ma dernière heure Viendra, guidez mon sort; Obtenez que je meure De la plus sainte mort.’”
Various incidents break the monotony of the journey. On the 18th of June the Surveillante captures an English corsair, which is a joy; but they learn from her the fall of Charleston and the surrender of Lincoln, which gives food for thought.
A trap that was avoided
Nothing better shows the difference between old-time and present-time navigation than the small fact that while on the way they indulge in fishing. On board the Comtesse de Noailles they capture flying-fishes, which are “very tender and delicious to eat, fried in fresh butter, like gudgeons.”
An occasion offers to open fight, with the advantage of numerical superiority, on six English vessels; some shots are exchanged, but with great wisdom, and, in spite of the grumblings of all his people, Ternay refuses to really engage them, and continues his voyage.
“He had his convoy too much at heart,” says Closen, “and he knew too well the importance of our expedition, his positive orders being that he must make our army arrive as quickly as possible, for him not to set aside all the entreaties of the young naval officers, who, I was told, were very outspoken on that score, as well as most of the land officers, who know nothing of naval matters.”
The event fully justified Ternay, for Graves, whose mission it had been to intercept him and his slow and heavy convoy, missed his opportunity by twenty-four hours only, reaching New York, where he joined forces with Arbuthnot, just as our own ships were safe at Newport. The slightest delay on Ternay's part might have been fatal.
The more so since, when nearing the coast, our fleet had fallen into fogs. “Nothing so sad and dangerous at sea as fogs,” Closen sententiously writes; “besides the difficulty of avoiding collisions in so numerous a fleet, each vessel, in order to shun them, tries to gain space; thus one may chance to get too far from the center. The standing orders for our convoy were, in view of avoiding those inconveniences, to beat the drums every quarter of an hour or fire petards. The men-of-war fired their guns or sent rockets. The speed limit was three knots during the fog, so that each vessel might, as far as possible, continue keeping company with its neighbor.”
In spite of all which the Ile de France was lost, and there was great anxiety; she was not seen again during the rest of the journey, but she appeared later, quite safe, at Boston.
Washington given the honors of a marshal in the French army
The landing orders of Rochambeau, making known now to all concerned the intentions of the government, were clear and peremptory. Drawn up by him on board the Duc de Bourgogne, he had caused copies to be carried to the chiefs of the several corps on board the other ships:
“The troops which His Majesty is sending to America are auxiliary to those of the United States, his allies, and placed under the orders of General Washington, to whom the honors of a marshal of France will be rendered. The same with the President of Congress,” which avoided the possibility of any trouble as to precedence, no one in the French army having such a rank.
“In case of an equality of rank and duration of service, the American officer will take command. . . . The troops of the King will yield the right side to the allies; French troops will add black to their cockades, black being the color of the United States,” and some such hats, with black and white cockades, are still preserved at Fraunce's Tavern, New York.
“The intention of His Majesty,” the general continues, “is that there be perfect concert and harmony between the generals and officers of the two nations. The severest discipline will be observed. . . . It is forbidden to take a bit of wood, a sheaf of straw, any kind of vegetables, except amicably and in paying. . . . All faults of unruliness, disobedience, insubordination, ill will, brutal and sonorous drunkenness . . . will be punished, according to ordinances, with strokes of the flat of the sword.” Even “light faults of lack of cleanliness or attention” will be punished. “To make the punishment the harder for the French soldier, he will be barred from military service during his detention.”
The army, but not the fleet, had been placed under the orders of Washington. Ternay's instructions specified, however, that while his squadron had no other commander than himself, it was expected that he “would proffer all assistance that might facilitate the operations of the United States,” and that he would allow the use of our ships “on every occasion when their help might be requested.”
Good will was obviously the leading sentiment, and the desire of all was to give as little trouble and bring as much useful help as possible.
The French fleet at Newport
On the 11th day of July the fleet reached Newport, after seventy days at sea, which was longer than Columbus had taken on his first voyage, but which was nothing extraordinary. Abbé Robin, a chaplain of the army, arrived later, after a journey of eighty-five days, none the less filled with admiration for those “enormous machines with which men master the waves”—a very minute enormity from our modern point of view.
“There were among the land troops,” says Closen, “endless shouts of joy” at the prospect of being on terra firma again. The troops, owing to their having been fed on salt meat and dry vegetables, with little water to drink (on board the Comtesse de Noailles water had become corrupt; it was now and then replaced by wine, “but that heats one very much”), had greatly suffered. Scurvy had caused its usual ravages; 600 or 700 soldiers and 1,000 sailors were suffering from it; some had died.
They were now confronted by the unknown. What would that unknown be? Rochambeau had only his first division with him; would he be attacked at once by the English, who disposed of superior naval and land forces about New York? And what would be the attitude of the Americans themselves? Everybody was for them in France, but few people had a real knowledge of them. Lafayette had, but he was young and enthusiastic. Would the inhabitants, would their leader, Washington, would their army, answer his description?
On the arrival of the fleet Newport had fired “13 grand rockets” and illuminated its windows, but that might be a mere matter of course. Of these illuminations the then president of Yale, Ezra Stiles, has left a noteworthy record: “The bell rang at Newport till after midnight, and the evening of the 12th Newport illuminated; the Whigs put thirteen lights in the windows; the Tories or doubtfuls four or six. The Quakers did not choose their lights should shine before men, and their windows were broken.”
The game was, moreover, a difficult one and had to be played on an immense chess-board, including North and South (Boston, New York, Charleston, and the Chesapeake), including even “the Isles”—that is, the West Indies—and what took place there, which might have so much importance for continental operations, had constantly to be guessed or imagined for lack of news.
Worse than all, the reputation of the French was, up to then, in America such as hostile English books and caricatures and inconsiderate French ones had made it. We knew it, and so well, too, that the appropriateness of having our troops winter in our colonies of the West Indies was at one time considered. Our minister, Gérard, was of that opinion: “The Americans are little accustomed to live with French people, for whom they cannot have as yet a very marked inclination.”
“It is difficult to imagine,” said Abbé Robin, “the idea Americans entertained about the French before the war. They considered them as groaning under the yoke of despotism, a prey to superstition and prejudices, almost idolatrous in their religion, and as a kind of light, brittle, queer-shapen mechanism, only busy frizzling their hair and painting their faces, without faith or morals.” How would thousands of such mechanisms be received?
Preparing to give the enemy “hot shot”
With his usual clear-headedness, Rochambeau did the necessary thing on each point. To begin with, in case of an English attack, which was at first expected every day, he lost no time in fortifying the position he occupied, “having,” wrote Mathieu-Dumas, “personally selected the chief points to be defended, and having batteries of heavy artillery and mortars erected along the channel, with furnaces to heat the balls.”
During “the first six days,” says Closen, “we were not quite at our ease, but, luckily, Messieurs les Anglais showed us great consideration, and we suffered from nothing worse than grave anxieties.” After the second week Rochambeau could write home that if Clinton appeared he would be well received. Shortly after he feels sorry the visit is delayed; later, when his own second division, so ardently desired, did not appear, he writes to the war minister: “In two words, Sir Henry Clinton and I are very punctilious, and the question is between us who will first call on the other. If we do not get up earlier in the morning than the English, and the reinforcements they expect from Europe reach them before our second division arrives, they will pay us a visit here that I should prefer to pay them in New York.”
Concerning the reputation of the French, Rochambeau and his officers were in perfect accord; it would change if exemplary discipline were maintained throughout the campaign. There is nothing the chief paid more attention to than this, nor with more complete success. Writing to Prince de Montbarey a month after the landing, Rochambeau says: “I can answer for the discipline of the army; not a man has left his camp; not a cabbage has been stolen; not a complaint has been heard.”
Not one complaint against the conduct of the French troops
To the President of Congress he had written a few days before: “I hope that account will have been rendered to Your Excellency of the discipline observed by the French troops; there has not been one complaint; not a man has missed a roll-call. We are your brothers and we shall act as such with you; we shall fight your enemies by your side as if we were one and the same nation.”
Mentioning in his memoirs the visit of those “savages” who had been formerly under French rule and persisted in remaining friendly to us, he adds: “The sight of guns, troops, and military exercises caused them no surprise; but they were greatly astonished to see apple trees with their apples upon them overhanging the soldiers' tents.” “This result,” he concludes, “was due not only to the zeal of officers, but more than anything else to the good disposition of the soldiers, which never failed.”
William Channing, father of the philanthropist, confides to the same Ezra Stiles, in a letter of August 6, 1780, his delighted surprise: “The French are a fine body of men and appear to be well officered. Neither the officers nor men are the effeminate beings we were heretofore taught to believe them. They are as large and likely men as can be produced by any nation.” So much for the brittle, queer-shaped mechanisms.
With the French officers in the West Indies, most of them former companions in arms and personal friends, Rochambeau, as soon as he had landed, began to correspond. The letters thus exchanged, generally unpublished, give a vivid picture of the life then led in the Isles. Cut off from the world most of the time, not knowing what was taking place in France, in America, on the sea, or even sometimes on the neighboring island, unaware of the whereabouts of Rodney, having to guess which place he might try to storm and which they should therefore garrison, these men, suffering from fevers, having now and then their ships scattered by cyclones, played to their credit and with perfect good humor their difficult game of hide and seek.
They send their letters in duplicate and triplicate, by chance boats, give news of the French court when they have any, and learn after a year's delay that their letters of October, 1780, have been duly received by Rochambeau in June, 1781.
The Marquis de Saint-Simon writes from Santo Domingo to say how much he would like to go and fight under Rochambeau on the continent: “I would be delighted to be under your orders, and to give up for that the command-in-chief I enjoy here.”
Rochambeau's warm heart and strict discipline
The stanch devotion of Rochambeau to his duties as a soldier, his personal disinterestedness, his cool-headedness and energy as a leader, his good humor in the midst of troubles, had secured for him the devotion of many, while his brusquerie, his peremptoriness, the severity which veiled his real warmth of heart whenever the service was at stake, won him a goodly number of enemies, the latter very generally of less worth as men than the former.
In the affectionate letter by which he made up early differences with “his son Lafayette,” shortly after his arrival, he observes, concerning his own military career: “If I have been lucky enough to preserve, up to now, the confidence of the French soldiers, . . . the reason is that out of 15,000 men or thereabout who have been killed or wounded under my orders, of different rank and in the most deadly actions, I have not to reproach myself with having caused a single one to be killed for the sake of my own fame.”
“He seemed,” Ségur said in his memoirs, “to have been purposely created to understand Washington and be understood by him, and to serve with republicans. A friend of order, of law, and of liberty, his example more even than his authority obliged us scrupulously to respect the rights, properties, and customs of our allies.”
Waiting for the second division
Nothing without my second division, Rochambeau thought. He had urged the government in his last letters before leaving France to send it not later than a fortnight after he himself had sailed: “The convoy will cross much more safely now under the guard of two warships,” he had written to Montbarey, “than it will in a month with an escort of thirty, when the English are ready.” And again, after having embarked on the Duc de Bourgogne: “For Heaven's sake, sir, hasten that second division. . . . We are just now weighing anchor.”
But weeks and months went by and no news came of the second division. Washington with his ardent patriotism, Lafayette with his youthful enthusiasm, were pressing Rochambeau to risk all in order to capture New York, the stronghold of the enemy and chief center of their power. “I am confident,” Rochambeau answered, “that our general (Washington) does not want us to give here a second edition of Savannah,” and he felt the more anxious that, with the coming of recruits and going of veterans and the short term enlistments, “Washington would command now 15,000 men, now 5,000.”
Rochambeau decided in October to send to France his son, then colonel of the regiment of Bourbonnais, to remonstrate. As capture was possible and the envoy might have to throw his dispatches overboard, young Rochambeau, being blessed with youth and a good memory, had learned their contents by heart. One of the best sailors of the fleet had been selected to convey him, on the frigate Amazone.
On account of superior forces mounting guard outside, the captain waited for the first night storm that should arise, when the watch was sure to be less strict, started in the midst of one, after having waited for eight days, was recognized, but too late, was chased, had his masts broken, repaired them, and reached Brest safely. The sailor who did so well on this occasion and who was to meet a tragic death at Vanikoro, bore the name, famous since, of La Pérouse.
Dark days for the patriot cause
Time wore on—a sad time for the American cause. One day the news was that one of the most trusted generals, famous for his services on land and water—Benedict Arnold—had turned traitor; another day that Gates had been routed at Camden and Kalb killed. In December Ternay died. In January, worse than all, the soldiers of the Pennsylvania line mutinied; unpaid, underfed, kept under the flag long after the time for which they had enlisted, “they went,” Closen writes in his journal, “to extremities. In Europe they would not have waited so long.”
The danger was great, but brief; tempted by the enemy to change sides and receive full pay, the Pennsylvania line refused indignantly. “We are honest soldiers, asking justice from our compatriots,” they answered; “we are not traitors.”
Owing to Washington's influence, order soon reigned again; but the alarm had been very great, as shown by the instructions which he handed to Colonel Laurens, now sent by him to Versailles with a mission similar to that of young Rochambeau. The emotion caused by the last events is reflected in them: “The patience of the American army is almost exhausted. . . . The great majority of the inhabitants is still firmly attached to the cause of independence,” but that cause may be wrecked if more money, more men, and more ships are not immediately supplied by the French ally.
A serious situation in the South
While the presence of the American and French troops in the North kept Clinton and his powerful New York garrison immobile where they were, the situation in the South was becoming worse and worse, with Cornwallis at the head of superior forces, Lord Rawdon holding Charleston, and the hated Arnold ravaging Virginia.
Against them the American forces under Greene, Lafayette, and Morgan (who had partly destroyed Tarleton's cavalry at Cowpens, January 17) were doing their utmost, facing fearful odds.
With a handful of men, knowing that the slightest error might be his destruction, young Lafayette, aged twenty-four, far from help and advice, was conducting a campaign in which his pluck, wisdom, and tenacity won him the admiration of veterans. Irritated ever to find him on his path, Cornwallis was writing a little later to Clinton: “If I can get an opportunity to strike a blow at him without loss of time, I will certainly try it.” But Lafayette would not let his adversary thus employ his leisure.
One day, however, something would have to be done, and, in order to be ready, Rochambeau kept his army busy with maneuvers, military exercises, sham warfare (“le simulacre de la petite guerre”), and the building of fortifications. As for his officers, he encouraged them to travel, for a large part of the land was free of enemies, and to become better acquainted with these “American brothers,” whom they had come to fight for. French officers were thus seen at Boston, Albany, West Point, Philadelphia.
Latin was the language of communication
Closen, who, to his joy and surprise, had been made a member of Rochambeau's “family”—that is, had been appointed one of his aides—as soon as his new duties left him some leisure, began, with his methodical mind, to study, he tells us, “the Constitution of the thirteen States and of the Congress of America,” meaning, of course, at that date, their several constitutions, which organization, “as time has shown, is well adapted to the national character and has made the happiness of that people so respectable from every point of view.” He began after this to examine the products of the soil of Rhode Island, “perhaps one of the prettiest islands on the globe.”
The stay being prolonged, the officers began to make acquaintances, to learn English, to gain access to American society. It was at first very difficult; neither French nor American understood each other's language; so recourse was bravely had to Latin, better known then than today.
Unspeakable quantities of tea are drunk
For the use of Latin the commander-in-chief of the French army was able to set the example, and Ezra Stiles could talk at a dinner in that language with Rochambeau, still reminiscent of what he had learned when studying for priesthood.
Beginning to know something of the language, our officers risk paying visits and go to teas and dinners. Closen notes with curiosity all he sees: “It is good behavior each time people meet to accost each other, mutually offering the hand and shaking it, English fashion. Arriving in a company of men, one thus goes around, but must remember that it belongs to the one of higher rank to extend his hand first.”
Unspeakable quantities of tea are drunk. “To crave mercy, when one has taken half a dozen cups, one must put the spoon across the cup; for so long as you do not place it so, your cup is always taken, rinsed, filled again, and placed before you. After the first, the custom is for the pretty pourer (verseuse)—most of them are so—to ask you: Is the tea suitable?” “An insipid drink,” grumbles Chaplain Robin, over whom the prettiness of the pourers was powerless.
The toasts are also a very surprising custom, sometimes an uncomfortable one. “One is terribly fatigued by the quantity of healths which are being drunk (toasts). From one end of the table to the other a gentleman pledges you, sometimes with only a glance, which means that you should drink a glass of wine with him—a compliment which cannot be politely ignored.”
But what strikes him more than anything else is the beauty of those young ladies who made him drink so much tea: “Nature has endowed the ladies of Rhode Island with the handsomest, finest features one can imagine; their complexion is clear and white; their hands and feet usually small.”
But let not the ladies of other States be tempted to resent this preference. One sees later that in each city he visits young Closen is similarly struck, and that, more considerate than the shepherd Paris, he somehow manages to refuse the apple to none. On the Boston ladies he is quite enthusiastic, on the Philadelphia ones not less; he finds, however, the latter a little too serious, which he attributes to the presence of Congress in that city.
The Frenchmen's impression of Washington
But, above all, the object of my compatriots' curiosity was the great man, the one of whom they had heard so much on the other side, the personification of the new-born ideas of liberty and popular government—George Washington. All wanted to see him, and as soon as permission to travel was granted several managed to reach his camp. For all of them, different as they might be in rank and character, the impression was the same and fulfilled expectation, beginning with Rochambeau, who saw him for the first time at the Hartford conferences, in September, 1780, when they tried to draw a first plan for a combined action.
A friendship then commenced between the two that was long to survive those eventful years. “From the moment we began to correspond with one another,” Rochambeau wrote in his memoirs, “I never ceased to enjoy the soundness of his judgment and the amenity of his style in a very long correspondence, which is likely not to end before the death of one of us.”
Chastellux, who saw him at his camp, where the band of the American army played for him the “March of the Huron,” could draw from life his well-known description of him, ending: “Northern America, from Boston to Charleston, is a great book, every page of which tells his praise.” Count de Ségur says that he apprehended his expectations could not be equaled by reality, but they were. “His exterior almost told his story. Simplicity, grandeur, dignity, calm, kindness, firmness shone in his physiognomy as well as in his character. He was of a noble and high stature, his expression was gentle and kindly, his smile pleasing, his manners simple without familiarity. . . . All in him announced the hero of a republic.”
Abbé Robin's tribute
“I have seen Washington,” says Abbé Robin, “the soul and support of one of the greatest revolutions that ever happened. . . . In a country where every individual has a part in supreme authority . . . he has been able to maintain his troops in absolute subordination, render them jealous of his praise, make them fear his very silence.” Closen was one day sent with dispatches to the great man, and, like all the others, began to worship him.
As a consequence of this mission, Washington came, on the 6th of March, 1781, to visit the French camp and fleet. He was received with the honors due to a marshal of France; the ships were dressed; the troops, in their best uniforms, “dans la plus grande tenue,” lined the streets from Rochambeau's house (the fine Vernon house, still in existence) to the harbor; the roar and smoke of the guns rose in honor of the “hero of liberty.” Washington saw Destouches's fleet sail for its Southern expedition and wished it Godspeed; and after a six days' stay, enlivened by “illuminations, dinners, and balls,” he left on the 13th.
“I can say,” we read in Closen's journal, “that he carried away with him the regrets, the attachment, the respect, and the veneration of all our army.” Summing up his impression, he adds: “All in him betokens a great man with an excellent heart. Enough good will never be said of him.”
On the 8th of May, 1781, the Concorde arrived at Boston, having on board Count de Barras, “a commodore with the red ribbon,” of the same family as the future member of the “directoire,” and who was to replace Ternay. With him was Viscount Rochambeau, bringing to his father the unwelcome news that no second division was to be expected. “My son has returned very solitary” was the only remonstrance the general sent to the minister.
But the young colonel was able to give, at the same time, news of great importance. A new fleet under Count de Grasse had been got together, and at the time of the Concorde's departure had just sailed for the West Indies, so that a temporary domination of the sea might become a possibility. “Nothing without naval supremacy,” Rochambeau had written, as we know, in his note-book before starting.
In spite, moreover, of “hard times,” wrote Vergennes to La Luzerne, and of the already disquieting state of our finances, a new “gratuitous subsidy of six million livres tournois” was granted to the Americans. Some funds had already been sent to Rochambeau, one million and a half in February, with a letter of Necker, saying: “Be assured, sir, that all that will be asked from the finance department for your army will be made ready on the instant.” Seven millions arrived a little later, brought by the Astrée, which had crossed the ocean in 67 days without mishap. As for troops, only 600 recruits arrived at Boston, in June, with the Sagittaire.
The question of the hour: storm New York or relieve the South?
Since nothing more was to be expected, the hour had come for definite decisions. A great effort must now be made—the great effort in view of which all the rest had been done, the one which might bring about peace and American liberty or end in lasting failure. All felt the importance and solemnity of the hour. The great question was what should be attempted—the storming of New York or the relief of the South?
The terms of the problem had been amply discussed in letters and conferences between the chiefs, and the discussion still continued. The one who first made up his mind and ceased to hesitate between the respective advantages or disadvantages of the two projects, and who plainly declared that there was but one good plan, which was to reconquer the South—that one, strange to say, was neither Washington nor Rochambeau, and was not in the United States either as a sailor or a soldier, but as a diplomat, and in drawing attention to the fact I am only performing the most agreeable duty toward a justly admired predecessor. This wise adviser was La Luzerne. In an unpublished memoir, drawn up by him on the 20th of April and sent to Rochambeau on May 19, with an explanatory letter, in which he asked that his statement (a copy of which he also sent to Barras) be placed under the eyes of Washington, he insisted on the necessity of immediate action, and action in the Chesapeake:
“It is in the Chesapeake Bay that it seems urgent to convey all the naval forces of the King, with such land forces as the generals will consider appropriate. This change cannot fail to have the most advantageous consequences for the continuation of the campaign,” which consequences he points out with singular clear-sightedness, adding:
Advantages of a Southern offensive
“If the English follow us and can reach the bay only after us, their situation will prove very different from ours; all the coasts and the inland parts of the country are full of their enemies. They have neither the means nor the time to raise, as at New York, the necessary works to protect themselves against the inroads of the American troops and to save themselves from the danger to which the arrival of superior forces would expose them.” If the plan submitted by him offers difficulties, others should then be formed; but he maintains that “all those which have for their object the relief of the Southern States must be preferred, and that no time should be lost to put them in execution.”
At the Weathersfield conference, near Hartford, Conn., between the Americans and French, on the 23d of May (in the Webb house, still in existence), Washington still evinced, and not without some weighty reasons, his preference for an attack on New York. He spoke of the advanced season, of “the great waste of men which we have found from experience in long marches in the Southern States,” of the “difficulty of transports by land”; all those reasons and some others, “too well known to Count de Rochambeau to need repeating, show that an operation against New York should be preferred, in the present circumstances, to the effort of a sending of troops to the South.” On the same day he was writing to La Luzerne: “I should be wanting in respect and confidence were I not to add that our object is New York.”
To Virginia's rescue
La Luzerne, however, kept on insisting. To Rochambeau he wrote on the 1st of June: “The situation of the Southern States becomes every moment more critical; it has even become very dangerous, and every measure that could be taken for their relief would be of infinite advantage. . . . The situation of the Marquis de Lafayette and that of General Greene is most embarrassing, since Lord Cornwallis has joined the English division of the Chesapeake. If Virginia is not helped in time, the English will have reached the goal which they have assigned to themselves in the bold movements attempted by them in the South; they will soon have really conquered the Southern States. . . .
“I am going to write to M. de Grasse as you want me to do; on your side, seize every occasion to write to him, and multiply the copies of the letters you send him”—that is, in duplicate and triplicate for fear of loss or capture. “His coming to the rescue of the oppressed States is not simply desirable; the thing seems to be now of the most pressing necessity.” He must not only come, but bring with him all he can find of French troops in our isles; thus would be compensated, to a certain extent, the absence of the second division.
The fate of the United States hangs on de Grasse
Rochambeau soon agreed, and, with his usual wisdom, Washington was not long in doing the same. On the 28th of May the French general had already written to de Grasse, beseeching him to come with every means at his disposal, to bring his whole fleet, and not only his fleet, but a supply of money, to be borrowed in our colonies, and also all the French land forces from our garrisons which he could muster. The desire of Saint-Simon to come and help had, of course, not been forgotten by Rochambeau, and he counted on his good will.
After having described the extreme importance of the effort to be attempted, he concluded: “The crisis through which America is passing at this moment is of the severest. The coming of Count de Grasse may be salvation.”
Events had so shaped themselves that the fate of the United States and the destinies of more than one nation would be for a few weeks in the hands of one man, and one greatly hampered by imperative instructions obliging him, at a time when there was no steam to command the wind and waves, to be at a fixed date in the West Indies, owing to certain arrangements with Spain.
Would he take the risk, and what would be the answer of that temporary arbiter of future events, François Joseph Paul Comte de Grasse, a sailor from the age of twelve, now a lieutenant general and “chef d'escadre,” who had seen already much service on every sea, in the East and West Indies, with d'Orvilliers at Ushant, with Guichen against Rodney in the Caribbean Sea, a haughty man, it was said, with some friends and many enemies, the one quality of his acknowledged by friend and foe being valor? “Our admiral,” his sailors were wont to say, “is six foot tall on ordinary days and six foot six on battle days.”
Ready for a fight or a frolic
What would he do and say? People in those times had to take their chance and act in accordance with probabilities. This Washington and Rochambeau did. By the beginning of June all was astir in the northern camp. Soldiers did not know what was contemplated, but obviously it was something great. Young officers exulted. What joy to have at last the prospect of an “active campaign,” wrote Closen in his journal, “and to have an occasion to visit other provinces and see the differences in manners, customs, products, and trade of our good Americans!”
The camp is raised and the armies are on the move toward New York and the South; they are in the best dispositions, ready, according to circumstances, to fight or admire all that turns up. “The country between Providence and Bristol,” says Closen, “is charming. We thought we had been transported into Paradise, all the roads being lined with acacias in full bloom, filling the air with a delicious, almost too strong, fragrance.” Steeples are climbed, and “the sight is one of the finest possible.” Snakes are somewhat troublesome, but such things will happen, even in Paradise.
The heat becomes very great, and night marches are arranged, beginning at two o'clock in the morning; roads at times become muddy paths, where wagons, artillery, carts conveying boats for the crossing of rivers cause great trouble and delay. “French gayety remains ever present in these hard marches. The Americans, whom curiosity brings by the thousand to our camps, are received,” Abbé Robin writes, “with lively joy; we cause our military instruments to play for them, of which they are passionately fond. Officers and soldiers, then, American men and women mix and dance together; it is the feast of equality; the first-fruits of the alliance which must prevail between those nations. . . . These people are still in the happy period when distinctions of rank and birth are ignored; they treat alike the soldier and the officer, and often ask the latter what is his profession in his country, unable as they are to imagine that that of a warrior may be a fixed and permanent one.”
Washington warns of spies
Washington writes to recommend precautions against spies, who will be sent to the French camp, dressed as peasants, bringing fruit and other provisions, and who “will be attentive to every word which they may hear drop.”
Several officers, for the sake of example, discard their horses and walk, indifferent to mud and heat; some of them like the Viscount de Noailles, performing on foot the whole distance of 756 miles between Newport and Yorktown. Cases of sickness were rare.
On the 6th of July the junction of the two armies took place at Phillipsburg, “three leagues,” Rochambeau writes, “from Kingsbridge, the first post of the enemy in the island of New York,” the American army having followed the left bank of the Hudson in order to reach the place of meeting.
On the receipt of the news Lord Germain, the British colonial secretary, wrote to Clinton, who commanded in chief at New York: “The junction of the French troops with the Americans will, I am persuaded, soon produce disagreements and discontents and Mr. Washington will find it necessary to separate them very speedily, either by detaching the Americans to the southward or suffering the French to return to Rhode Island. . . . But I trust before that can happen Lord Cornwallis will have given the loyal inhabitants on both sides of the Chesapeake the opportunity they have so long ago earnestly desired, of avowing their principles and standing forth in support of the King's measures.”
Similar proofs of my lord's acumen abound in his partly unpublished correspondence. He goes on rejoicing and deducting all the happy consequences which were sure to result from the meeting of the French and American troops, so blandly elated at the prospect as to remind any one familiar with La Fontaine's fables, of Perrette and her milk-pot.
Washington, in the meantime, was reviewing the French troops (July 9) and Rochambeau the American ones, and—a fact which would have greatly surprised Lord Germain—the worse equipped the latter were, the greater the sympathy and admiration among the French for their endurance.
The patient Continental soldiers
“Those brave people,” wrote Closen, “it really pained us to see, almost naked, with mere linen vests and trousers, most of them without stockings; but, would you believe it? looking very healthy and in the best of spirits.” And further on:
“I am full of admiration for the American troops. It is unbelievable that troops composed of men of all ages, even of children of fifteen, of blacks and whites, all nearly naked, without money, poorly fed, should walk so well and stand the enemy's fire with such firmness. The calmness of mind and the clever combinations of General Washington, in whom I discover every day new eminent qualities, are already enough known, and the whole universe respects and admires him. Certain it is that he is admirable at the head of his army, every member of which considers him as his friend and father.”
These sentiments, which were unanimous in the French army, assuredly did not betoken the clash counted upon by the English colonial secretary, and more than one of our officers who had a few years later to take part in another revolution must have been reminded of the Continental soldiers of '81 as they led to battle, fighting for a similar cause, our volunteers of '92.
France fought for an idea
No real hatred, any more than before, appeared among the French troops for those enemies whom they were now nearing, and with whom they had already had some sanguinary skirmishes. During the intervals between military operations relations were courteous and at times amicable. The English gave to the French news of Europe, even when the news was good for the latter, and passed to them newspapers. “We learned that news” (Necker's resignation), writes Blanchard, “through the English, who often sent trumpeters and passed gazettes to us. We learned from the same papers that Mr. de La Motte-Picquet had captured a rich convoy.
“These exchanges between the English and us did not please the Americans, nor even General Washington, who were unaccustomed to this kind of warfare.” The fight was really for an idea, but, what might have dispelled any misgivings, with no possibility of a change of idea.
Two unknown factors now were for the generals the cause of deep concern. What would de Grasse do? What would Clinton do? The wounded officer of Johannisberg, the winner of Charleston, Sir Henry Clinton, a lieutenant general and former member of Parliament, enjoying great repute, was holding New York, not yet the second city of the world nor even the first of the United States, covering only with its modest houses, churches, and gardens the lower part of Manhattan, and reduced, owing to the war, to 10,000 inhabitants.
But, posted there, the English commander threatened the road on which the combined armies had to move. He had at his disposal immense stores, strong fortifications, a powerful fleet to second his movements, and troops equal in number and training to ours.
There are periods in the history of nations when, after a continuous series of misfortunes, when despair would have seemed excusable, suddenly the sky clears and everything turns their way. In the War of American Independence such a period had begun. The armies of Washington and Rochambeau, encumbered with their carts, wagons, and artillery, had to pass rivers, to cross hilly regions, to follow muddy tracks; any serious attempt against them might have proved fatal; but nothing was tried. It was of the greatest importance that Clinton should, as long as possible, have no intimation of the real plans of the Franco-Americans; everything helped to mislead him—his natural disposition as well as circumstances.
Clinton's fatal error
He had an unshakable conviction that the key to the whole situation was New York, and that the royal power in America, and he, too, Lieut. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, would stand or fall with that city. Hence his disinclination to leave it and to attempt anything outside. His instructions ordered him to help Cornwallis to his utmost, the plan of the British court being to conquer the Southern States first, and then continue the conquest northward. But he, on the contrary, was day after day asking Cornwallis to send back some of his troops.
A great source of light, and, as it turned out, of darkness also, was the intercepting of letters. This constantly happened in those days, to the benefit or bewilderment of both parties, on land or at sea. But luck had decidedly turned, and the stars shone propitious for the allies. We captured valuable letters, and Clinton misleading ones.
On the 18th of August the two armies raised their camps, disappeared, and, following unusual roads, moving northward at first for three marches, reached in the midst of great difficulties, under a torrid heat, greatly encumbered with heavy baggage, the Hudson River and crossed it at King's Ferry, without being more interfered with than before.
How can such an inaction on the part of Clinton be explained? “It is for me,” writes Count Guillaume de Deux-Ponts in his journal, the manuscript of which was found on the quays in Paris and printed in America, “an undecipherable enigma, and I hope I shall never be reproached for having puzzled people with any similar ones.”
The river once crossed, the double army moved southward by forced marches. Rochambeau, in order to hasten the move, prescribed the leaving behind of a quantity of effects; and this, says Closen, “caused considerable grumbling among the line,” which grumbled, but marched.
The news, to be sure, of so important a movement came to Clinton; but, since the stars had ceased to smile on him, he chose to conclude, as he wrote to Lord Germain on the 7th of September, “this to be a feint.” When he discovered that it was not “a feint” the Franco-American army was beyond reach. “What can be said as to this?” Closen writes merrily. “Try to see better another time,” and he draws a pair of spectacles on the margin of his journal.
The march southward thus continued unhampered. They crossed first the Jerseys, “a land of Cockayne, for game, fish, vegetables, poultry.” Closen had the happiness to “hear from the lips of General Washington, and on the ground itself, a description of the dispositions taken, the movements and all the incidents of the famous battles of Trenton and Princeton.” The young man, who had made great progress in English, was now used by the two generals as their interpreter; so nothing escaped him.
The reception at Philadelphia was triumphal; Congress was most courteous; toasts were innumerable. The city is an immense one, “with seventy-two streets in a straight line. . . . Shops abound in all kinds of merchandise, and some of them do not yield to the Petit Dunkerque in Paris.” Women are very pretty, “of charming manners, and very well dressed, even in French fashion.” Benezet, the French Quaker, one of the celebrities of the city, is found to be full of wisdom, and La Luzerne, “who keeps a state worthy of his sovereign,” gives a dinner to one hundred and eighty guests.
From Philadelphia to Chester, on the 5th of September, Rochambeau and his aides took a boat. As they were nearing the latter city, “we saw in the distance,” says Closen, “General Washington shaking his hat and a white handkerchief, and showing signs of great joy.”
Great news! De Grasse had come!
Rochambeau had scarcely landed when Washington, usually so cool and composed, fell into his arms; the great news had arrived; de Grasse had come, and while Cornwallis was on the defensive at Yorktown, the French fleet was barring the Chesapeake.
On the receipt of letters from Washington, Rochambeau, and La Luzerne, telling him to what extent the fate of the United States was in his hands, the sailor, having “learned, with much sorrow,” he wrote to the latter, “what was the distress of the continent, and the need there was of immediate help,” had decided that he would leave nothing undone to usefully take part in the supreme effort which, without his help, might be attempted in vain.
Having left, on the 5th of August, Cap Français (today Cap Haïtien), he had added to his fleet all the available ships he could find in our isles, including some which, having been years away, had received orders to go back to France for repairs. He had had great difficulty in obtaining the money asked for, although he had offered to mortgage for it his Castle of Tilly, and the Chevalier de Charitte, in command of the Bourgogne, had made a like offer. But at last, thanks to the Spanish governor at Havana, he had secured the desired amount of twelve hundred thousand francs. He was bringing, moreover, the Marquis de Saint-Simon, with the 3,000 regular troops under his command.
De Grasse's only request was that operations be pushed on with the utmost rapidity, as he was bound to be back at the Isles at a fixed date.
America's debt to de Grasse
It can truly be said that no single man risked nor did more for the United States than de Grasse, the single one of the leaders to whom no memorial has been dedicated.
The news spread like wild-fire; the camp was merry with songs and shouts; in Philadelphia the joy was indescribable; crowds pressed before the house of La Luzerne, cheering him and his country, while in the streets impromptu orators, standing on chairs, delivered mock funeral orations on the Earl of Cornwallis. “You have,” Rochambeau wrote to the admiral, “spread universal joy throughout America, with which she is wild.”
Anxiety was renewed, however, when it was learned shortly after that the French men-of-war had left the Chesapeake, the entrance to which now remained free. The English fleet, of twenty ships and seven frigates, under Hood and Graves, the same Graves who had failed to intercept Rochambeau's convoy, had been signaled on the 5th of September, and de Grasse, leaving behind him, in order to go faster, some of his ships and a number of sailors who were busy on land, had weighed anchor, three-quarters of an hour after sighting the signals, to risk the fight upon which the issue of the campaign and, as it turned out, of the war was to depend. “This behavior of Count de Grasse,” wrote the famous Tarleton, is “worthy of admiration.”
Six days later the French admiral was back; he had had 21 officers and 200 sailors killed or wounded, but he had lost no ship, and the enemy's fleet, very much damaged, with 336 men killed or disabled, and having lost the Terrible, of 74 guns, and the frigates Iris and Richmond of 40, had been compelled to retreat to New York. Admiral Robert Digby thereupon arrived with naval reinforcements; “yet I do not think,” La Luzerne wrote to Rochambeau, “that battle will be offered again. If it is, I am not anxious about the result.” Nothing was attempted. This “superiority at sea,” Tarleton wrote in his History of the Campaigns, “proved the strength of the enemies of Great Britain, deranged the plans of her generals, disheartened the courage of her friends, and finally confirmed the independency of America.” “Nothing,” Rochambeau had written in his note-book at starting, “without naval supremacy.”
Another French fleet in the Chesapeake
On reëntering the bay, de Grasse had the pleasure to find there another French fleet, that of his friend Barras. As a lieutenant general, de Grasse outranked him, but as a “chef d'escadre” Barras was his senior officer, which might have caused difficulties; the latter could be tempted, and he was, to conduct a campaign apart, so as to personally reap the glory of possible successes.
“I leave it to thee, my dear Barras,” de Grasse had written him on the 28th of July, “to come and join me or to act on thy own account for the good of the common cause. Do only let me know, so that we do not hamper each other unawares.”
Barras preferred the service of the cause to his own interest; leaving Newport, going far out on the high seas, then dashing south at a great distance from the coast, he escaped the English and reached the Chesapeake, bringing the heavy siege artillery now indispensable for the last operations. The stars had continued incredibly propitious.
The well-known double siege now began—that of Yorktown by Washington and Rochambeau, and that of Gloucester, on the opposite side of the river, which might have afforded a place of retreat to Cornwallis. De Grasse had consented to land, in view of the latter, 800 men under Choisy, whom Lauzun joined with his legion, and both acted in conjunction with the American militia under Weedon.
The two chiefs on the Yorktown side were careful to conduct the operations according to rules, “on account,” says Closen, “of the reputation of Cornwallis and the strength of the garrison.” Such rules were certainly familiar to Rochambeau, whose fifteenth siege this one was.
From day to day Cornwallis was more narrowly pressed. As late as the 29th of September he was still full of hope. “I have ventured these two days,” he wrote to Clinton, “to look General Washington's whole force in the face in the position on the outside of my works; and I have the pleasure to assure Your Excellency that there was but one wish throughout the whole army, which was that the enemy would advance.”
A dozen days later the tone was very different. “I have only to repeat that nothing but a direct move to York River, which includes a successful naval action, can save me; . . . many of our works are considerably damaged.”
Lord Germain was, in the meantime, writing to Clinton in his happiest mood, on the 12th of October: “It is a great satisfaction to me to find . . . that the plan you had concerted for conducting the military operations in that quarter (the Chesapeake) corresponds with what I had suggested.”
The court, which had no more misgivings than Lord Germain himself, had caused to sail with Digby no less a personage than Prince William, one of the fifteen children of George III, and eventually one of his successors as William IV; but his presence could only prove one more encumbrance.
After the familiar incidents of the siege, in which the American and French armies displayed similar valor and met with about the same losses, the decisive move of the night attack on the enemy's advanced redoubts had to be made—one of the redoubts to be stormed by the Americans with Lafayette and the other by the French under Viomesnil.
On the 19th of October, after a loss of less than 300 men in each of the besieging armies, an act was signed as great in its consequences as any that ever followed the bloodiest battles, the capitulation of Yorktown. It was in a way the ratification of that other act which had been proposed for signature five years before at Philadelphia by men whose fate had more than once in the interval seemed desperate—the Declaration of Independence.
On the same day Closen writes: “The York garrison marched past at two o'clock, before the combined army, which was formed in two lines, the French facing the Americans and in full dress uniform. . . . Passing between the two armies, the English showed much disdain for the Americans, who, so far as dress and appearances went, represented the seamy side, many of those poor boys being garbed in linen habits-vestes, torn, soiled, a number among them almost shoeless. The English had given them the nickname of Yanckey-Dudle.
“What does it matter? the man of sense will think; they are the more to be praised and show the greater valor, fighting, as they do, so badly equipped.” As a “man of sense,” Rochambeau writes in his memoirs: “This justice must be rendered to the Americans, that they behaved with a zeal, a courage, an emulation, which left them in no case behind, in all that part of the siege intrusted to them, in spite of their being unaccustomed to sieges.”
Yorktown's pitiful aspect
The city offered a pitiful sight. “I shall never forget,” says Closen, “how horrible and painful to behold was the aspect of the town of York. . . . One could not walk three steps without finding big holes made by bombs, cannonballs, splinters, barely covered graves, arms and legs of blacks and whites scattered here and there, most of the houses riddled with shot and devoid of window panes. . . . We found Lord Cornwallis in his house. His attitude evinced the nobility of his soul, his magnanimity and firmness of character. He seemed to say: I have nothing to reproach myself with; I have done my duty and defended myself to the utmost.” This impression of Lord Cornwallis was general.
As to Closen's description of the town, now so quiet and almost asleep by the blue water, amid her sand-dunes, once more torn and blood-stained during the Civil War, resting at the foot of the great marble memorial raised a hundred years later by Congress, it is confirmed by Abbé Robin, who notices, too, “the quantity of human limbs which infected the air,” but also, being an abbé, the number of books scattered among the ruins, many being works of piety and theological controversy.
A generous victor
Nothing better puts in its true light the dominant characteristics of the French sentiment throughout the war than what happened on this solemn occasion, and more shows how, with their new-born enthusiasm for philanthropy and liberty, the French were pro-Americans much more than anti-English. No trace of a triumphant attitude toward a vanquished enemy appeared in anything they did or said. Even in the surrendering the fact remained apparent that this was not a war of hatred.
“The English,” writes Abbé Robin, “laid down their arms at the place selected. Care was taken not to admit sightseers, so as to diminish their humiliation.” Henry Lee (Lighthorse Harry), who was present, describes in the same spirit the march past: “Universal silence was observed amidst the vast concourse, and the utmost decency prevailed, exhibiting in demeanor an awful sense of the vicissitudes of human life, mingled with commiseration for the unhappy.”
The victors pitied Cornwallis and showed him every consideration; Rochambeau, learning that he was without money, lent him all he wanted.
Cornwallis's tribute to the French
Cornwallis realized quite well that the French had fought for a cause dear to their hearts more than from any desire to humble him or his nation. He publicly rendered full justice to the enemy, acknowledging that the fairest treatment had been awarded him by them. In the final report, in which he gives his own account of the catastrophe and which he caused to be printed when he reached England, he said:
“The kindness and attention that has been shown us by the French officers, . . . their delicate sensibility of our situation, their generous and pressing offers of money, both public and private, to any amount, has really gone beyond what I can possibly describe and will, I hope, make an impression on the breast of every British officer whenever the fortunes of war should put any of them in our power.”
The French attitude in the New World was in perfect accord with the French sentiments in the Old. On receiving from Lauzun and Count de Deux-Ponts, who for fear of capture had sailed in two different frigates, the news of the taking of Cornwallis, of his 8,000 men (of whom 2,000 were in hospitals), 800 sailors, 214 guns, and 22 flags, the King wrote to Rochambeau: “Monsieur le Comte de Rochambeau, the success of my arms flatters me only as being conducive to peace.”
The beginning of a new political era
One of the most authoritative publicists of the day, Lacretelle, in 1785, considering, in the Mercure de France, the future of the new-born United States, praised the favorable influence exercised on them by the so much admired British Constitution—“the most wonderful government in Europe. For it will be England's glory to have created peoples worthy of throwing off her yoke, even though she must endure the reproach of having forced them to independence by forgetfulness of her own maxims.”
As to the members of the French army who had started for the new crusade two years before, they had at once the conviction that, in accordance with their anticipation, they had witnessed something great which would leave a profound trace in the history of the world. They brought home the seed of liberty and equality, the “virus,” as it was called by Pontgibaud, who, friend as he was of Lafayette, resisted the current to the last and remained a royalist.
Youthful Saint-Simon, the future Saint-Simonian, thus summed up his impressions of the campaign: “I felt that the American Revolution marked the beginning of a new political era; that this revolution would necessarily set moving an important progress in general civilization, and that it would before long occasion great changes in the social order then existing in Europe.”
Rochambeau visits Jefferson
For one year more Rochambeau remained in America. Peace was a possibility, not a certainty.
Rochambeau had established himself at Williamsburg, the quiet and dignified capital of the then immense State of Virginia, noted for its “Bruton Church,” its old College of William and Mary, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and the birthplace of the far-famed Phi Beta Kappa fraternity; its statue of the former English governor, Lord Botetourt, in conspicuous marble wig and court mantle. “America, behold your friend,” the inscription on the pedestal reads.
That other friend of America, Rochambeau, took up his quarters in the college, one of the buildings of which, used as a hospital for our troops, accidentally took fire, but was at once paid for by the French commander.
Rochambeau, his son, and two aides, one of whom was Closen, journey to visit at Monticello the already famous Jefferson. They take with them 14 horses, sleep in the houses where they chance to be at nightfall—a surprise party which may, at times, have caused embarrassment; but this accorded with the customs of the day.
The hospitality is, according to occasions, brilliant or wretched, “with a bed for the general as ornamented as the canopy for a procession,” and elsewhere “with rats which come and tickle our ears.” They reach the handsome house of the “Philosopher,” adorned with a colonnade, “the platform of which is very prettily fitted with all sorts of mythological scenes.”
The lord of the place dazzles his visitors by his encyclopædic knowledge. Closen describes him as “very learned in belles-lettres, in history, in geography, etc., being better versed than any in the statistics of America in general and the interests of each particular province—trade, agriculture, soil, products; in a word, all that is of greatest use to know. The least detail of the wars here since the beginning of the troubles is familiar to him. He speaks all the chief languages to perfection, and his library is well chosen, and even rather large, in spite of a visit paid to the place by a detachment of Tarleton's legion, which has proved costly and has greatly frightened his family.”
Many memorials are presented to the French commander
Numerous addresses expressing fervent gratitude were received by Rochambeau from Congress, from the legislatures of the various States, from the universities, from the mayor and inhabitants of Williamsburg, the latter offering their thanks not only for the services rendered by the general in his “military capacity,” but, they said, “for your conduct in the more private walks of life, and the happiness we have derived from the social, polite, and very friendly intercourse we have been honored with by yourself and the officers of the French army in general, during the whole time of your residence among us.”
The favorable impression left by an army permeated with the growing humanitarian spirit is especially mentioned in several of those addresses: “May Heaven,” wrote “the Governor, council, and representatives of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in General Assembly convened,” “reward your exertions in the cause of humanity and the particular regard you have paid to the rights of the citizens.”
Prejudices 300 years old destroyed in 3 years
Writing at the moment when departure was imminent, the Maryland Assembly recalled in its address the extraordinary prejudices prevailing shortly before in America against all that was French:
“To preserve in troops far removed from their own country the strictest discipline and to convert into esteem and affection deep and ancient prejudices was reserved for you. . . . We view with regret the departure of troops which have so conducted, so endeared, and so distinguished themselves, and we pray that the laurels they have gathered before Yorktown may never fade, and that victory, to whatever quarter of the globe they direct their arms, may follow their standard.”
The important result of a change in American sentiment toward the French, apart from the military service rendered by them, was confirmed to Rochambeau by La Luzerne, who wrote him: “Your well-behaved and brave army has not only contributed to put an end to the success of the English in this country, but has destroyed in three years prejudices deep-rooted for three centuries.”
The “President and professors of the University of William and Mary,” using a style which was to become habitual in France but a few years later, desired to address Rochambeau, “not in the prostituted language of fashionable flattery, but with the voice of truth and republican sincerity,” and, after thanks for the services rendered and the payment made for the building destroyed “by an accident that often eludes all possible precaution,” they adverted to the future intellectual intercourse between the two nations, saying: “Among the many substantial advantages which this country hath already derived and which must ever continue to flow from its connection with France, we are persuaded that the improvement of useful knowledge will not be the least. A number of distinguished characters in your army afford us the happiest presage that science, as well as liberty, will acquire vigor from the fostering hand of your nation.”
They concluded: “You have reaped the noblest laurels that victory can bestow, and it is perhaps not an inferior triumph to have obtained the sincere affection of a grateful people.”
The French army returns to Providence
As the summer of 1782 was drawing near, the French army, which had wintered in Virginia, moved northward in view of possible operations.
On the 14th of August Washington and Rochambeau were again together, in the vicinity of the North River, and the American troops were again reviewed by the French general. They are no longer in tatters, but well dressed and have a fine appearance; their bearing, their maneuvers are perfect; the commander-in-chief, “who causes his drums,” Rochambeau relates, “to beat the French march,” is delighted to show his soldiers to advantage; everybody compliments him.
During his stay at Providence, in the course of his journey north, Rochambeau gave numerous fêtes, a charming picture of which, as well as of the American society attending them, is furnished us by Ségur: “Mr. de Rochambeau, desirous to the very last of proving by the details of his conduct, as well as by the great services he had rendered, how much he wished to keep the affection of the Americans and to carry away their regrets, gave in the city of Providence frequent assemblies and numerous balls, to which people flocked from ten leagues around.
“I do not remember to have seen gathered together in any other spot more gayety and less confusion, more pretty women and more happily married couples, more grace and less coquetry, a more complete mingling of persons of all classes, between whom an equal decency allowed no untoward difference to be seen. That decency, that order, that wise liberty, that felicity of the new Republic, so ripe from its very cradle, were the continual subject of my surprise and the object of my frequent talks with the Chevalier de Chastellux.”
All France honors Rochambeau on his return
In the autumn of 1782 a general parting took place, Rochambeau returning to France.
The King, the ministers, the whole country, gave Rochambeau the welcome he deserved. At his first audience on his return he had asked Louis XVI, as being his chief request, permission to divide the praise bestowed on him with the unfortunate de Grasse, now a prisoner of the English after the battle of the Saintes, where, fighting 30 against 37, he had lost seven ships, including the Ville de Paris (which had 400 dead and 500 wounded), all so damaged by the most furious resistance that, owing to grounding, to sinking, or to fire, not one reached the English waters. Rochambeau received the blue ribbon of the Holy Ghost, was appointed governor of Picardy, and a few years later became a marshal of France.
Rochambeau was keeping up with Washington a most affectionate correspondence, still partly unpublished, the great American often reminding him of his “friendship and love” for his “companions in war.” Dreaming of a humanity less agitated than that he had known, dreaming dreams which were not to be soon realized, he was writing to Rochambeau, from Mount Vernon, on September 7, 1785: “Although it is against the profession of arms, I wish to see all the world at peace.”
The French Revolution found Rochambeau still an officer in the French army, defending the frontier as a marshal of France and commander-in-chief of the northern troops. In 1792 he definitely withdrew to his estate, barely escaping with his life during the Terror. A striking and touching thing it is to note that when a prisoner in that “horrible sepulchre,” the Conciergerie, he appealed to the “Citizen President of the Revolutionary Tribunal” and invoked as a safeguard the great name of Washington, “my colleague and my friend in the war we made together for the liberty of America.” Luckier than many of his companions in arms of the American war—than Lauzun, Custine, d'Estaing, Broglie, Dillon, and others—Rochambeau escaped the scaffold.
The equilibrium of the world has been altered
Visiting some years ago the place and the tomb and standing beside the grave of the marshal, it occurred to me that it would be appropriate if some day trees from Mount Vernon could spread their shade over the remains of that friend of Washington and the American cause. With the assent of the family and of the mayor of Thoré, and thanks to the good will of the ladies of the Mount Vernon Association, this idea was realized, and half a dozen seedlings from trees planted by Washington were sent to be placed around Rochambeau's monument—two elms, two maples, two redbuds, and six plants of ivy from Washington's tomb. The last news received about them showed that they had taken root and were growing.
In less than a century and a half New York has passed from the ten thousand inhabitants it possessed under Clinton to the five million and more of today. Philadelphia, once the chief city, “an immense town,” Closen had called it, has now ten times more houses than it had citizens.
Partly owing again to France ceding, unasked, the whole territory of Louisiana in 1803, the frontier of this country, which the upper Hudson formerly divided in its center, has been pushed back to the Pacific; the three million Americans of Washington and Rochambeau have become the one hundred million of today. From the time when the flags of the two countries floated on the ruins of Yorktown the equilibrium of the would has been altered.
There is, perhaps, no case in with the unavoidable mixture of human interests, a war has been more undoubtedly waged for an idea. The fact was made obvious at the peace, when victorious France, being offered Canada for a separate settlement, refused, and kept her word not to accept any material advantage, the whole nation being in accord and the people illuminating for joy.
|This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.
The author died in 1932, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.