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Jean Jules Jusserand (1855–1932). With Americans of Past and Present Days. 1916.


I. Rochambeau and the French in America

From Unpublished Documents

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.

A striking result of this 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 sceptical rake like the Duke de Lauzun, the new Don Juan, whose battle stories alternate with his love reminiscences, handsome, impertinent, licentious, an excellent soldier withal, bold and tenacious, marked, like several of his companions, to mount the revolutionary scaffold; journals of officers of various ranks, like Count de Deux-Ponts, Prince de Broglie, he, too, marked for the scaffold; 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; notes, map, and sketches of Baron Cromot-Dubourg, another of Rochambeau’s aides; 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 was really represented, to some extent that of the past, to a larger one that of the future.

Many of those journals have been published (Cromot-Dubourg’s only in an English version printed in America); others have been lost; others remain unpublished, so that after all that has been said, and well said, it still remains possible, with the help of new guides and new documents, to follow Washington and Rochambeau once more, and in a different company, during the momentous journey which led them from the Hudson to the York River. The Washington papers and the Rochambeau papers, used only in part, are preserved in the Library of Congress. 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 also preserved in the same library, 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 despatches 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.