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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From Unpublished Documents

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 time of the d’Estaings was gone; definitive results were to be sought. The government considered it could do no better than to select Rochambeau. It could, indeed, do no better.

The future marshal of France had been first destined to priesthood for no other reason than that he was a second son, and he was about to receive the tonsure when his elder brother died, and Bishop de Crussol, who had been supervising Donatien’s ecclesiastical studies, came one day to him and said: “You must forget all I have told you up to now; you have become the eldest of your family and you must now serve your country with as much zeal as you would have served God in the ecclesiastical state.”

Rochambeau did so. He 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 fulfilment 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 battle-fields 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. At Johannisberg, in the same war, Clinton, future commander-in-chief at New York, was wounded, while here and there in the French army such officers distinguished themselves as Bougainville, back from Ticonderoga, and not yet a sailor, Chastellux, already a colonel, no longer a secretary of embassy, not yet an Academician, and my predecessor, La Luzerne, an officer of cavalry, not yet a diplomat, who was to be the second minister ever accredited to America, where his name is not forgotten.

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.” The issue of that union, Viscount Rochambeau, from his youth the companion in arms of his father, an officer at fourteen, accompanied him to the States, and was, after a career of devotion to his country, to die a general at Leipzig, in the “Battle of Nations.”

Informed at Versailles of the task he would have to perform, the exact nature of which was kept a secret from the troops themselves now gathered at Brest, Rochambeau hastened to forget his “rhumatisme inflammatoire” and 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.”

As to the pay for himself and his officers, he writes to the minister that he leaves that to him: “Neither I nor mine desire anything extravagant; we should like to be able to go to this war at our own expense.” But the government did not want him to be hampered by any lack of funds, and allotted him the then considerable sum of twelve thousand francs a month, and four thousand a month the generals under him.

At Brest, where he now repaired, Rochambeau found that the ships were not so numerous as expected, so that only the first division of his army could embark under Admiral Chevalier de Ternay: a sad blow for the commander-in-chief. He prescribed that care be at least taken to select for the passage the most robust men, and, in order to save space, that all horses be left behind, himself giving the example. “I have,” Rochambeau writes to Prince de Montbarey, the minister of war, “to part company with two battle-horses that I can never replace. I do so with the greatest sorrow, but I do not want to have to reproach myself with their having taken up the room of twenty men who could have embarked in their stead.” Officers, soldiers, ammunition, artillery, spare clothing for the troops, and even the printing-press go on board at last. Men and things are close-packed, but end by shaking down into place; all will go well, Rochambeau writes to the minister, “without any overcrowding of the troops; the rule for long journeys having been observed, namely one soldier for every two tons burden.”

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 fleet was already on the high seas when a cutter brought the government’s last instructions to Rochambeau. On the boat were two brothers called Berthier, who besought to be allowed to volunteer. “They have joined us yesterday,” the general writes to the minister, “and have handed us your letters.… They were dressed in linen vests and breeches, asking to be admitted as mere sailors.” But there was really no place to put them. “Those poor young men are interesting and in despair.” They had, nevertheless, to be sent back, but managed to join the army later, and so it was that Alexander Berthier began in the Yorktown campaign a military career which he was to end as marshal of France, and Prince of Wagram and Neufchâtel.

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,” and he added, with a touch of emotion at this solemn moment: “I recommend this expedition to the friendship of my dear old comrade, and to his zeal for the good of the state.”

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.

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.” He was assigned to the Comtesse de Noailles, of three hundred tons (the Ecureuil, that kept her company, was of only one hundred and eighty). Each officer had received fifty francs for extra purchases; they found it was little, but when they had made their purchases they found that it had been much, so great was the difficulty in stowing their possessions on the ship. At last, “after much trouble and many words—a few crowns here and there—each of us succeeded in squeezing himself and his belongings in those so-detested sabots.” Closen, for his part, had provisioned himself with “sugar, lemons, and syrups in quantity.”

The crew consisted of forty-five men, “half of them Bretons, half Provençals,” speaking their own dialect, “and who, little accustomed to the language used by their naval officers when giving their orders,” were apt to misunderstand them, hence the bad manœuvring which sent the Comtesse de Noailles right across the Conquérant. A sad case; would they be left behind, and miss taking part in the expedition? By great luck “there were but the bowsprit, the spritsails, and the figure of the charming countess which were broken to pieces.” Repairs are begun with all speed. Mr. de Deux-Ponts promises fifteen louis to the workmen if the ship is ready the next day at noon. “One more reassuring circumstance was that Mr. de Kersabiec, a very expert naval officer, was intrusted with the care of looking after the workmen.” He never left them, and “encouraged them by extra distributions. I was intimate with all the family, having spent the winter at Saint-Pol-de-Léon; the souvenir of which still gives me pleasure.” The next day all was right once more: “After eleven, the amiable countess was taken again—with no head, it is true, like so many other countesses—beyond the harbor chain.” It was possible to start with the rest of the fleet: the high fortifications overlooking the harbor, the villages along the coast, so many sails curved by a wind “joli-frais,” the clear sky, “all united to form the most beautiful picture at the time of our start.… So many vessels under way offered a truly imposing sight.”

Every-day life now begins on the small craft; 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:

  • Je 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. 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 centre. 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.

    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 Fraunces’ 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.