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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From Unpublished Documents

IN the autumn of 1782 a general parting took place, Rochambeau returning to France and the army being sent to the Isles, believed now to be threatened by the English; for if the war was practically at an end for the Americans on the continent, it was not yet the same elsewhere for us, and Suffren especially was prosecuting in the Indies his famous naval campaign, which, owing to the lack of means of communication, was to be continued long after peace had been signed.

So many friendships had been formed that there was much emotion when the last days arrived. On the 19th of October, being the anniversary of Yorktown, Washington offered a dinner to the French officers, who on the same day took leave of him, never to see him again. “On that evening,” says Closen, “we took leave of General Washington and of the other officers of our acquaintance, our troops being to sail on the 22d. There is no sort of kindness and tokens of good will we have not received from General Washington; the idea of parting from the French army, probably forever, seemed to cause him real sorrow, having, as he had, received the most convincing proofs of the respect, the veneration, the esteem, and even the attachment which every individual in the army felt for him.”

After having taken leave, “in tenderest fashion,” of the American commander, who promised “an enduring fraternal friendship,” Rochambeau, carrying with him two bronze field-pieces taken at Yorktown, presented by Congress, and adorned with inscriptions, the engraving of which had been supervised by Washington, sailed for France on the Emeraude, early in January, 1783. An English warship which had been cruising at the entrance of the Chesapeake nearly captured him, and it was only by throwing overboard her spare masts and part of her artillery that the Emeraude, thus become lighter and faster, could escape. The general learned, on landing, of the peace which Vergennes had considered, from the first, as a certain, though not immediate, consequence of the taking of Yorktown. “The homages of all Frenchmen go to you,” he had written to Rochambeau, adding: “You have restored to our arms all their lustre, and you have laid the corner-stone for the raising, which we expect, of an honorable peace.” The hour for it had now struck, and while Suffren had yet to win the naval battle of Goudelour, the preliminaries had been signed at Versailles on the 20th of January, 1783.

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. Owing to the proximity of his new post, he was able twice to visit England, where he met again his dear La Luzerne, now French ambassador in London, and his former foe, Admiral Hood, who received him with open arms. But the tokens of friendship which touched him most came from officers of Cornwallis’s army: “They manifested,” he writes, “in the most public manner their gratitude for the humanity with which they had been treated by the French army after their surrender.”

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,” discussing a possible visit to France, and describing his life now spent “in rural employments and in contemplation of those friendships which the Revolution enabled me to form with so many worthy characters of your nation, through whose assistance I can now sit down in my calm retreat.” 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.”

“Much as he may wish to conceal himself and lead the life of a plain man, he will ever be the first citizen of the United States,” La Luzerne had written to Vergennes, and the truth of the statement was shown when a unanimous election made of the former commander-in-chief the first President of the new republic, in the year when the States General met in France and our own Revolution began.

Knowing the friendly dispositions preserved by Rochambeau toward Americans. Washington often gave those going abroad letters of introduction to him; one day the man was Gouverneur Morris, so well known afterward; another day it was a poet of great fame then, of not so great now. Less sure of his ground when the question was of Parnassus than when it was of battle-fields, Washington had described this traveller to Lafeyette as being “considered by those who are good judges to be a genius of the first magnitude.” To Rochambeau he introduced him as “the author of an admirable poem in which he has worthily celebrated the glory of your nation in general, and of yourself in particular.” The poet was that Joel Barlow, of Hartford, who, having become later minister of the United States to France, died in a Polish village in the course of a journey undertaken to present his credentials to the chief of the state, who, for important reasons, had been unable to grant him an audience elsewhere than in Russia, the year being 1812, and the sovereign Emperor Napoleon.

The poem alluded to by Washington was an epic one, called the Vision of Columbus, in which an angel appears to the navigator in his legendary prison and reveals to him, in Virgilian fashion, the future of American. Washington, Wayne, Greene are thus shown him, as well as

  • Brave Rochambeau in gleamy steel array’d,
  • a description which, if brave Rochambeau ever saw it, must have made him smile.

    Rochambeau’s letters are in such English as we have seen he had been able, with commendable zeal, to learn late in life. The French general keeps the American leader informed of what goes on in France, in England, and Europe, bestows the highest praise on Pitt, “a wise man who sets finances (of the English) in good order,” and gives an account of a visit paid him by Cornwallis at Calais: “I have seen Cornwallis last summer at Calais.… I gave him a supper in little committee; he was very polite, but, as you may believe, I could not drink with him your health in toast.”

    He tells Washington of Franklin’s departure from France, very old, very ill, greatly admired, “having the courage to undertake so long a voyage to go and die in the bosom of his native country. It will be impossible for him, at his coming back [to] America, to go and visit you, but I told him that you would certainly go and see him, and that I had always heard you speaking of him in the best terms and having a great consideration for his respectable character. He will have a great joy to see you again, and I should be very happy if I could enjoy the same pleasure.”

    An affectionate interest for one another and one another’s families appears in all these letters, as well as a cherishing of common souvenirs. Rochambeau asks to be remembered to his former American comrades: “A thousand kindness[es] and compliments to Mr. Jefferson, to Mr. Knox, and to all my anciens camarades and friends which are near you.”

    The Countess de Rochambeau sometimes takes up the pen, and in one of her letters appeals to Washington in favor of dear Closen who, though he had every right to be included in it, had been forgotten when the list of the original Cincinnati had been drawn up. The request was at once granted.

    Two gouaches had been painted by the famous miniaturist Van Blarenberghe, one representing the storming of the redoubts at Yorktown, the other the surrender of the garrison. They were for the King, and are well known nowadays to every one familiar with the Versailles Museum. Their topographical accuracy is so remarkable that it had always been believed the painter had had the help of some French officer present at the siege. Rochambeau writes to Washington about those pictures and gives us the name of the officer who had actually helped the miniaturist, a well-known name, that of Berthier: “[There have] been presented yesterday to the King, my dear general, two pictures to put in his closet (study), which have been done by an excellent painter, one representing the siege of York, and the other the defile of the British army between the American and the French armies.

    “Mr. Ie Marshal de Ségur promised me copies of them which I will place in my closet on the right and left sides of your picture. Besides that they are excellent paintings, they have been drawn both by the truth and by an excellent design by the young Berthier, who was deputed quartermaster at the said siege.”

    Washington having alluded, as he was fond of doing, to the rest he had at last secured for the remnant of his life, as he thought, under the shadow of his own vine and fig-tree, Rochambeau in his answer courteously and sincerely compliments him on the “philosophical” but not definitive quiet he now enjoys under the shadow— “of his laurel-tree.”

    The War of the Austrian Succession had found Rochambeau already an officer in the French army; the Revolution found him 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 definitively withdrew to Rochambeau, 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. He lived long enough to see rise to glory that young man who was teaching the world better military tactics than even the book of Count de Guibert, Bonaparte, now First Consul of the French Republic. Bonaparte had great respect for the old marshal, who was presented to him by the minister of war in 1803; he received him surrounded by his generals, and as the soldier of Klostercamp and Yorktown entered he said, “Monsieur Ie Maréchal, here are your pupils”; and the old man answered: “They have surpassed their master.”

    After having been very near death from his wounds in 1747, Rochambeau died only in 1807, being then in his castle of Rochambeau, in Vendomois, and aged eighty-two. He was buried in the neighboring village of Thoré, in a tomb of black and white marble, in the classical style then in vogue. An inscription devised by his wife at the evening of a very long life, draws a touching picture of those qualities which had won her heart more than half a century before: “A model as admirable in his family as in his armies, an enlightened mind, indulgent, ever thinking of the interests of others … a happy and honored old age has been for him the crowning of a spotless life. Those who had been his vassals had become his children.… His tomb awaits me; before descending to it I have desired to engrave upon it the memory of so many merits and virtues, as a token of gratitude for fifty years of happiness.” On a parallel slab one reads: “Here lies Jeanne Thérèse Telles d’Acosta, who died at Rochambeau, aged ninety-four, May 19, 1824.”

    In the castle are still to be seen the exquisite portrait, by Latour, of her who in her old age had written the inscription, several portraits of the marshal, and of his ancestors from the first Vimeur, who had become, in the sixteenth century, lord of Rochambeau, the portrait in the white uniform of Auvergne of the old soldier’s son, who died at Leipzig, the sword worn at Yorktown, the eagle of the Cincinnati side by side with the star of the Holy Ghost, the before-mentioned gouaches by Van Blarenberghe, a portrait of Washington, given by him to his French friend and also mentioned in their correspondence, and many other historical relics. But the two bronze field-pieces offered by Congress are no longer there, having been commandeered during the Revolution. In front of the simple and noble façade of the slate-roofed castle, at the foot of the terrace, the Loir flows, brimful, between woods and meadows, the same river that fills such a great place in French literature, because of a distant relative of the Rochambeaus of old, Pierre de Ronsard.

    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.