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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From Unpublished Documents

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 “thirteen 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.” “The old-time prejudice kept up by the English,” wrote Mathieu-Dumas in his Souvenirs, “about the French character was so strong that, at the beginning of the Revolution, the most ardent minds and several among those who most desired independence, rejected the idea of an alliance with France.” “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 mechanisms, only busy frizzling their hair and painting their faces, without faith or morals.” How would thousands of such mechanisms be received?

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.” 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.”

Another fact which proved to our advantage was that the French could then be seen in numbers and at close quarters. The difference between the portrait and the original was too glaring to escape notice. 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 Bouillé, who was to cover himself with glory at Brimstone Hill, and is now chiefly remembered for the part he played in Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes, writes most affectionately, and does not forget to convey the compliments of his brave wife, who had accompanied him to Martinique. 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.” And he supplies him, in the same unpublished letter, with a most interesting account of Cuba, just visited by him: “This colony has an air of importance far superior to any of ours, inhabited as it is by all the owners of the land, so that the city (Havana) looks rather a European than a colonial one; society is numerous and seems opulent. If Spain would extend and facilitate the trade of Cuba the island would become exceedingly rich in little time. But prohibitory laws are so harsh and penalties so rigorous that they cramp industry everywhere.”

A postscript in the same letter shows better than anything else what was the common feeling among officers toward Rochambeau: “Montbrun,” writes Saint-Simon, “who has been suffering from the fever for a long time, asks me to assure you of his respectful attachment, and says that he has written you twice, that your silence afflicts him very much, and that a token of friendship and remembrance from you would be for him the best of febrifuges. All your former subordinates of Auvergne think the same, and have the same attachment for you, in which respect I yield to none.”

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 brusquery, 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 laws, and of liberty, his example more even than his authority obliged us scrupulously to respect the rights, properties, and customs of our allies.”