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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From Unpublished Documents

NOTHING without my second division, Rochambeau thought. He had urged the government in his last letters before leaving France to send it not later than a fortnight after he himself had sailed: “The convoy will cross much more safely now under the guard of two warships,” he had written to Montbarey, “than it will in a month with an escort of thirty, when the English are ready.” And again, after having embarked on the Duc de Bourgogne: “For Heaven’s sake, sir, hasten that second division.… We are just now weighing anchor.” But weeks and months went by, and no news came of the second division. Washington with his ardent patriotism, Lafayette with his youthful enthusiasm, were pressing Rochambeau to risk all, in order to capture New York, the stronghold of the enemy and chief centre of their power. “I am confident,” Rochambeau answered, “that our general (Washington) does not want us to give here a second edition of Savannah,” and he felt the more anxious that, with the coming of recruits and going of veterans, and the short-term enlistments, “Washington would command now 15,000 men, now 5,000.”

Rochambeau decided in October to send to France his son, then colonel of the regiment of Bourbonnais, to remonstrate. As capture was possible and the envoy might have to throw his despatches overboard, young Rochambeau, being blessed with youth and a good memory, had learned their contents by heart. One of the best sailors of the fleet had been selected to convey him, on the frigate Amazone. On account of superior forces mounting guard outside, the captain waited for the first night storm that should arise, when the watch was sure to be less strict, started in the midst of one, after having waited for eight days, was recognized, but too late, was chased, had his masts broken, repaired them, and reached Brest safely. The sailor who did so well on this occasion, and who was to meet a tragical death at Vanikoro. bore the name, famous since, of La Pérouse.

Time wore on, a sad time for the American cause. One day the news was that one of the most trusted generals, famous for his services on land and water, Benedict Arnold, had turned traitor; another day that Gates had been routed at Camden and Kalb killed. In December Ternay died. In January, worse than all, the soldiers of the Pennsylvania line mutinied; unpaid, underfed, kept under the flag long after the time for which they had enlisted, “they went,” Closen writes in his journal, “to extremities. In Europe they would not have waited so long.”

There was no doubt, in fact, that the life they had to lead did not closely resemble that which, in accordance with the uses then prevailing in every country, the posters urging enlistment depicted to them. One such poster, preserved in Philadelphia, announces “to all brave, healthy, able-bodied, and well-disposed young men in this neighborhood who have any inclination to join the troops now raising, under General Washington, for the defense of the liberties and independence of the United States,’6 a “truly liberal and generous [encouragement], namely, a bounty of twelve dollars, an annual and fully sufficient supply of good and handsome clothing, a daily allowance of a large and ample ration of provisions, together with sixty dollars a year in gold and silver money on account of pay.” The appeal vaunted, by way of conclusion, “the great advantages which these brave men will have who shall embrace this opportunity of spending a few happy years in viewing the different parts of this beautiful continent, in the honorable and truly respectable character of a soldier, after which he may, if he pleases, return home to his friends with his pockets full of money and his head covered with laurels. God save the United States!” Pretty engravings showed handsome soldiers, elegantly dressed, practising an easy kind of military drill.

The danger was great, but brief; tempted by the enemy to change sides and receive full pay, the Pennsylvania line refused indignantly. “We are honest soldiers, asking justice from our compatriots,” they answered, “we are not traitors.” On the margin of a French account of those events, published in Paris in 1787, Clinton scribbled a number of observations hitherto unprinted. They are in French, or something like it. Opposite this statement the British general wrote: “Est bien dit et c’est dommage qu’il n’est pas vrai.” We cannot tell, but one thing is sure, namely, that in accordance with those words, spoken or not, the rebellious soldiers acted. Owing to Washington’s influence, order soon reigned again, but the alarm had been very great, as shown by the instructions which he handed to Colonel Laurens, now sent by him to Versailles with a mission similar to that of young Rochambeau. The emotion caused by the last events is reflected in them: “The patience of the American army is almost exhausted.… The great majority of the inhabitants is still firmly attached to the cause of independence,” but that cause may be wrecked if more money, more men, and more ships are not immediately supplied by the French ally.

While the presence of the American and French troops in the North kept Clinton and his powerful New York garrison immobile where they were, the situation in the South was becoming worse and worse, with Cornwallis at the head of superior forces, Lord Rawdon holding Charleston, and the hated Arnold ravaging Virginia.

Against them the American forces under Greene, Lafayette, and Morgan (who had partly destroyed Tarleton’s cavalry at Cowpens, January 17) were doing their utmost, facing fearful odds. With a handful of men, knowing that the slightest error might be his destruction, young Lafayette, aged twenty-four, far from help and advice, was conducting a campaign in which his pluck, wisdom, and tenacity won him the admiration of veterans. Irritated ever to find him on his path, Cornwallis was writing a little later to Clinton: “If I can get an opportunity to strike a blow at him without loss of time, I will certainly try it.” But Lafayette would not let his adversary thus employ his leisure.

To arrest the progress of Arnold two French expeditions were sent, taking advantage of moments when access to the sea was not blocked by the English fleet before Newport, one in February, under Tilly, who pursued Arnold’s convoy up the Elizabeth River as high as the draft of his ships permitted, but had to stop and come home, having only captured the Romulus, of 44 guns, some smaller ships, a quantity of supplies destined for Arnold, and made 550 prisoners; another of more importance under the Chevalier Destouches, in March, with part of Rochambeau’s army on board, in case a landing were possible. In spite of all precautions, Destouches’s intentions were discovered; the English fleet engaged ours; the fight, in which 72 French lost their lives and 112 were wounded, was a creditable one and might easily have ended in disaster, for the enemy had more guns, and several of our ships, on account of their not being copper-lined, were slow; but clever manœuvring, however, compensated those defects. Congress voted thanks, but the situation remained the same. “And now,” Closen noted down in his journal, “we have Arnold free to act as he pleases, Virginia desolated by his incursions, and M. de Lafayette too weak to do anything but keep on the defensive.”