Home  »  With Americans of Past and Present Days  »  I. Rochambeau and the French in America

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


I. Rochambeau and the French in America

From Unpublished Documents

SOME will, perhaps, desire to know what became of Closen. Sent to the Islands (the West Indies) with the rest of the army, he felt, like all his comrades, greatly disappointed, more even than the others, on account of his bride, whom American beauties had not caused him to forget. He had inserted in his journal a page of silhouettes representing a dozen of the latter, with the name inscribed on each; but he had taken care to write underneath: “Honni soit qui mal y pense.” When about to go on board he writes: “I scarcely dare say what I experienced and which was the dominating sentiment, whether my attachment to all that I love or ambition added to sensitiveness on the principles of honor. Reason, however, soon took the lead and decided in favor of the latter.… Let me be patient and do my duty.”

To leave Rochambeau was for him one more cause of pain: “I shall never insist enough, nor sufficiently describe the sorrow I felt when separated from my worthy and respectable general; I lose more than any one else in the army.… Attentive as I was to all he had to say about battles, marches, the selection of positions, sieges, in a word, to all that pertains to the profession, I have always tried to profit by his so instructive talks.… I must be resigned.”

Once again, therefore, life begins on those detested “sabots,” a large-sized sabot, this time, namely the Brave, of seventy-four guns, “quite recently lined with copper,” a sad place of abode, however, in bad weather, or even in any weather: “One can scarcely imagine the bigness of the sea, the noise, the height of the waves, such pitching and rolling that it was impossible to stand; the ships disappearing at times as if they had been swallowed by the sea, to touch it the instant after only with a tiny bit of the keel. What a nasty element, and how sincerely we hate it, all of us of the land troops! The lugubrious noise of the masts, the crics-cracs of the vessel, the terrible movements which on the sudden raise you, and to which we were not at all accustomed, the perpetual encumbrance that forty-five officers are for each other, forty having no other place of refuge than a single room for them all, the sad faces of those who are sick … the dirt, the boredom, the feeling that one is shut up in a sabot as in a state prison … all this is only part of what goes to make life unpleasant for a land officer on a vessel, even a naval one.… Let us take courage.”

Few diversions. They meet a slave-ship under the Austrian flag, an “abominable and cruel sight,” with “that iron chain running from one end of the ship to the other, the negroes being tied there, two and two,” stark naked and harshly beaten if they make any movement which displeases the captain. The latter, who is from Bordeaux, salutes his country’s war flag with three “Vive le Roi!” They signal to him an answer which cannot be transcribed. No one knows where they go. “Sail on,” philosophically writes Closen.

They touch at Porto Rico, at Curaçao, where the fleet is saddened by the loss of the Bourgogne, at Porto Cabello (Venezuela), where they make some stay, and where Closen loses no time in resuming his observations on natives, men and beasts, tatous, monkeys, caimans, “enormous lizards quite different from ours,” houses which consist in one ground floor divided into three rooms. The “company of the Caracque” (Caracas) keeps the people in a state of restraint and slavery. Taxation is enormous.” Religious intolerance is very troublesome: “Though the Inquisition is not as rigorous in its searches as in Europe, for there is but one commissioner at Caracque, there is, however, too much fanaticism, too many absurd superstitions, in a word, too much ignorance among the inhabitants, who can never say a word or walk a step without saying an Ave, crossing themselves twenty times, or kissing a chaplet which they ever have dangling from their neck with a somewhat considerable accompaniment of relics and crosses. One gentleman, in order to play a trick on me, in the private houses where I had gained access so as to satisfy my curiosity and desire of instruction, told a few people that I was a Protestant. What signs of the cross at the news! And they would ceaselessly repeat: Malacco Christiano—a bad Christian!”

On the 24th of March (1783) great news reached them: the French vessel Andromaque arrived, “with the grand white flag on her foremast, as a signal of peace. The minute after all our men-of-war were decked with flags.” There were a few more incidents, like the capture of some French officers, who were quietly rowing in open boats, by “the Albemarle, of twenty-four guns, commanded by Captain Nelson, of whom these gentlemen speak in the highest terms.” As soon as the news of the peace was given him they were released by the future enemy of Napoleon.

The hour for the return home had struck at last. It was delayed by brief stays in some parts of the French West Indies, notably Cap Français, Santo Domingo (now Cap Haïtien). “A few days before our arrival at the Cape Prince William, Duke of Lancaster, third son of the King of England, had come and spent there two days, while the English squadron was cruising in the roads. Great festivities had been arranged in his honor,” —for there was really no hatred against the enemy of the day before.

Some calms and some storms also delayed the return, with the usual “criiiiicks craaaaaks” of the masts, the journey being occupied in transcribing the “notes and journals on the two Americas,” and enlivened by the saving of the parrakeet of a Spanish lady who had been admitted with her family on board the Brave. “Frightened by something, the little parrakeet flies off and falls into the sea. The lady’s negro, luckily happening to be on the same side, jumps just as he is, with no time to think, dives, reappears, cries, ‘Cato! Cato!’ joins the parrakeet, puts her on his woolly head, and returns to the ship.” Delighted, the lady “allows this black saviour to kiss her hand, a unique distinction for a slave, and bestows on him a life pension of one hundred francs. Many sailors would have liked to do the same, had they known.”

Land is now descried; they see again the sights noted when sailing for America: these “coasts thick-decked with live people, fruit-trees and other delightful objects.” All is delightful; the joy is universal; they make arrangements to reach Paris, which Closen did in magnificent style. “And I,” we read in his journal, “after having bought a fine coach where I could place, before, behind, on the top, my servants, consisting of a white man and of my faithful and superb black Peter, and with them three monkeys, four parrots, and six parrakeets, posted to Paris in this company, a noisy one and difficult to maintain clean and in good order.… The next day (June 22) I was at Saint-Pol-de-Léon, my last quarters before sailing for America, and saw again with hearty rejoicings the respectable Kersabiec family which had so well tended me throughout my convalescence after a deadly disease.” He thought he could do no less than present them with one of his parrakeets as a token of “gratitude and friendship.”

At Guingamp he finds the Du Dresnays, other friends of his, and reaches Paris, he writes, on the 30th of June, with “all my live beings of all colors, myself looking an Indian so tanned and sun-burnt was my face, exception made for my forehead, which my hat had preserved quite white.”

The Rochambeau family made him leave his inn and stay with them in their beautiful house of the Rue du Cherche-Midi. The general (“my kind and respectable military father,” says Closen) presented him to the minister of war, Marshal de Ségur, who granted the young officer a flattering welcome, and the journal closes as novels used to end in olden days, and as the first part of well-ordered, happy lives will ever continue to end. Leaving Paris with the promise of a colonelcy en second—“a very eventual ministerial bouquet”—he went home to Deux-Ponts: “There I found my beautiful fiancée, my dear, my divine Doris, who had had the constancy to keep for me her heart and her hand during the four years of my absence in America, in spite of several proposals received by her, even from men much better endowed with worldly goods, my share consisting only in the before mentioned ministerial promise and in the reputation of an honest man and a good soldier.”

I shall only add that the ministerial promise was kept, and that it was as a colonel and a knight of Saint Louis that Closen found himself aide-de-camp again to his old chief, Rochambeau, charged with the defense of the northern frontier at the beginning of the Revolution.

Faded inks, hushed voices. The remembrance of the work remains, however, and cannot fade; for its grandeur becomes, from year to year, more apparent. 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 to-day. 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 centre, has been pushed back to the Pacific; the three million Americans of Washington and Rochambeau have become the one hundred million of to-day. From the time when the flags of the two countries floated on the ruins of Yorktown the equilibrium of the world has been altered.

There is, perhaps, no case in which, 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.

The cause was a just one; even the adversary, many among whom had been from the first of that opinion, was not long to acknowledge it. Little by little, and in spite of some fitful reawakening of former animosities, as was seen in the second War of Independence, hostile dispositions vanished. The three nations who had met in arms in Yorktown, the three whose ancestors had known a Hundred Years’ War, have now known a hundred years’ peace. “I wish to see all the world at peace,” Washington had written to Rochambeau. For over a century now the three nations which fought at Yorktown have become friends, and in this measure at least the wish of the great American has been fulfilled.