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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From Unpublished Documents

ONE day, however, something would have to be done, and, in order to be ready, Rochambeau kept his army busy with manœuvres, military exercises, sham warfare (“le simulacre de la petite guerre”), and the building of fortifications. As for his officers, he encouraged them to travel, for a large part of the land was free of enemies, and to become better acquainted with these “American brothers,” whom they had come to fight for. French officers were thus seen at Boston, Albany, West Point, Philadelphia. It was at this period that Chastellux went about the country with some of his companions, and gathered the material for his well-known Voyages dans l’Amérique du Nord, the first edition of which, in a much abbreviated form, was issued by that printing-press of the fleet which Rochambeau had recommended to himself not to forget: “De l’Imprimerie Royale de l’Escadre,” one reads on the title-page. Only twenty-three copies were struck off; the “Imprimerie Royale” of the fleet had obviously no superabundance of type nor of paper.

Closen, who, to his joy and surprise, had been made a member of Rochambeau’s “family,” that is, had been appointed one of his aides, as soon as his new duties left him some leisure, began, with his methodical mind, to study, he tells us, “the Constitution of the thirteen States and of the Congress of America,” meaning, of course, at that date, their several constitutions, which organization, “as time has shown, is well adapted to the national character and has made the happiness of that people so respectable from every point of view.” He began after this to examine the products of the soil of Rhode Island, “perhaps one of the prettiest islands on the globe.”

The stay being prolonged, the officers began to make acquaintances, to learn English, to gain access to American society. It was at first very difficult; neither French nor American understood each other’s language; so recourse was bravely had to Latin, better known then than to-day. “Quid de meo, mi carissime Drowne, cogitas silentio?” A long letter follows, in affectionate terms addressed to Doctor Drowne, a Newport physician, and signed: “Silly, officier au régiment de Bourbonnois,” September 9, 1780. Sublieutenant de Silly announced, however, his intention to learn English during the winter season: “Inglicam linguam noscere conabor.” His letters of an after-date are, in fact, written in English, but a beginner’s English.

For the use of Latin the commander-in-chief of the French army was able to set the example, and Ezra Stiles could talk at a dinner in that language with Rochambeau, still reminiscent of what he had learned when studying for priesthood. The president of Yale notes in his journal:

“5 [October, 1780]. Introduced to the commander-in-chief of the French allied army, the Count de Rochambeau.…

“7. Dined at the General de Rochambeau’s, in a splendid manner. There were, perhaps, thirty at table. I conversed with the general in Latin. He speaks it tolerably.”

Beginning to know something of the language, our officers risk paying visits and go to teas and dinners. Closen notes with curiosity all he sees: “It is good behavior each time people meet to accost each other, mutually offering the hand and shaking it, English fashion. Arriving in a company of men, one thus goes around, but must remember that it belongs to the one of higher rank to extend his hand first.”

Unspeakable quantities of tea are drunk. “To crave mercy, when one has taken half a dozen cups, one must put the spoon across the cup; for so long as you do not place it so, your cup is always taken, rinsed, filled again, and placed before you. After the first, the custom is for the pretty pourer (verseuse)—most of them are so—to ask you: Is the tea suitable?”—“An insipid drink,” grumbles Chaplain Robin, over whom the prettiness of the pourers was powerless.

The toasts are also a very surprising custom, sometimes an uncomfortable one. “One is terribly fatigued by the quantity of healths which are being drunk (toasts). From one end of the table to the other a gentleman pledges you, sometimes with only a glance, which means that you should drink a glass of wine with him, a compliment which cannot be politely ignored.”

In the course of an excursion to Boston the young captain visits an assembly of Quakers, “where, unluckily, no one was inspired, and ennui seemed consequently to reign.”

But what strikes him more than anything else is the beauty of those young ladies who made him drink so much tea: “Nature has endowed the ladies of Rhode Island with the handsomest, finest features one can imagine; their complexion is clear and white; their hands and feet usually small.” But let not the ladies of other States be tempted to resent this preference. One sees later that in each city he visits young Closen is similarly struck, and that, more considerate than the shepherd Paris, he somehow manages to refuse the apple to none. On the Boston ladies he is quite enthusiastic, on the Philadelphia ones not less; he finds, however, the latter a little too serious, which he attributes to the presence of Congress in that city.

But, above all, the object of my compatriots’ curiosity was the great man, the one of whom they had heard so much on the other side, the personification of the new-born ideas of liberty and popular government, George Washington. All wanted to see him, and as soon as permission to travel was granted several managed to reach his camp. For all of them, different as they might be in rank and character, the impression was the same and fulfilled expectation, beginning with Rochambeau, who saw him for the first time at the Hartford conferences, in September, 1780, when they tried to draw a first plan for a combined action. A friendship then commenced between the two that was long to survive those eventful years. “From the moment we began to correspond with one another,” Rochambeau wrote in his memoirs, “I never ceased to enjoy the soundness of his judgment and the amenity of his style in a very long correspondence, which is likely not to end before the death of one of us.”

Chastellux, who saw him at his camp, where the band of the American army played for him the “March of the Huron,” could draw from life his well-known description of him, ending: “Northern America, from Boston to Charleston, is a great book every page of which tells his praise.” Count de Ségur says that he apprehended his expectations could not be equalled by reality, but they were. “His exterior almost told his story. Simplicity, grandeur, dignity, calm, kindness, firmness shone in his physiognomy as well as in his character. He was of a noble and high stature, his expression was gentle and kindly, his smile pleasing, his manners simple without familiarity.… All in him announced the hero of a republic.” “I have seen Washington,” says Abbé Robin, “the soul and support of one of the greatest revolutions that ever happened.… In a country where every individual has a part in supreme authority … he has been able to maintain his troops in absolute subordination, render them jealous of his praise, make them fear his very silence.” Closen was one day sent with despatches to the great man and, like all the others, began to worship him.

As a consequence of this mission Washington came, on the 6th of March, 1781, to visit the French camp and fleet. He was received with the honors due to a marshal of France, the ships were dressed, the troops, in their best uniforms, “dans la plus grande tenue,” lined the streets from Rochambeau’s house (the fine Vernon house, still in existence) to the harbor; the roar and smoke of the guns rose in honor of the “hero of liberty.” Washington saw Destouches’s fleet sail for its Southern expedition and wished it Godspeed; and after a six days’ stay, enlivened by “illuminations, dinners, and balls,” he left on the 13th. “I can say,” we read in Closen’s journal, “that he carried away with him the regrets, the attachment, the respect, and the veneration of all our army.” Summing up his impression, he adds: “All in him betokens a great man with an excellent heart. Enough good will never be said of him.”