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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From Unpublished Documents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 8th of May, 1781, the Concorde arrived at Boston, having on board Count de Barras, “a commodore with the red ribbon,” of the same family as the future member of the “Directoire,” and who was to replace Ternay. With him was Viscount Rochambeau, bringing to his father the unwelcome news that no second division was to be expected. “My son has returned very solitary,” was the only remonstrance the general sent to the minister. But the young colonel was able to give, at the same time, news of great importance. A new fleet under Count de Grasse had been got together, and at the time of the Concorde’s departure had just sailed for the West Indies, so that a temporary domination of the sea might become a possibility. “Nothing without naval supremacy,” Rochambeau had written, as we know, in his note-book before starting.

In spite, moreover, of “hard times,” wrote Vergennes to La Luzerne, and of the already disquieting state of our finances, a new “gratuitous subsidy of six million livres tournois” was granted to the Americans. Some funds had already been sent to Rochambeau, one million and a half in February, with a letter of Necker saying: “Be assured, sir, that all that will be asked from the Finance Department for your army will be made ready on the instant.” Seven millions arrived a little later, brought by the Astrée, which had crossed the ocean in sixty-seven days, without mishap. As for troops, only 600 recruits arrived at Boston, in June, with the Sagittaire.

Since nothing more was to be expected, the hour had come for definitive decisions. A great effort must now be made, the great effort in view of which all the rest had been done, the one which might bring about peace and American liberty or end in lasting failure. All felt the importance and solemnity of the hour. The great question was what should be attempted—the storming of New York or the relief of the South?

The terms of the problem had been amply discussed in letters and conferences between the chiefs, and the discussion still continued. The one who first made up his mind and ceased to hesitate between the respective advantages or disadvantages of the two projects, and who plainly declared that there was but one good plan, which was to reconquer the South, that one, strange to say, was neither Washington nor Rochambeau, and was not in the United States either as a sailor or a soldier, but as a diplomat, and in drawing attention to the fact I am only performing the most agreeable duty toward a justly admired predecessor. This wise adviser was La Luzerne. In an unpublished memoir, drawn up by him on the 20th of April and sent to Rochambeau on May 19 with an explanatory letter in which he asked that his statement (a copy of which he also sent to Barras) be placed under the eyes of Washington, he insisted on the necessity of immediate action, and action in the Chesapeake: “It is in the Chesapeake Bay that it seems urgent to convey all the naval forces of the King, with such land forces as the generals will consider appropriate. This change cannot fail to have the most advantageous consequences for the continuation of the campaign,” which consequences he points out with singular clear-sightedness, adding: “If the English follow us and can reach the bay only after us, their situation will prove very different from ours; all the coasts and the inland parts of the country are full of their enemies. They have neither the means nor the time to raise, as at New York, the necessary works to protect themselves against the inroads of the American troops and to save themselves from the danger to which the arrival of superior forces would expose them.” If the plan submitted by him offers difficulties, others should be formed, but he maintains that “all those which have for their object the relief of the Southern States must be preferred, and that no time should be lost to put them in execution.”

At the Weathersfield conference, near Hartford, Conn., between the Americans and French, on the 23d of May (in the Webb house, still in existence), Washington still evinced, and not without some weighty reasons, his preference for an attack on New York. He spoke of the advanced season, of “the great waste of men which we have found from experience in long marches in the Southern States,” of the “difficulty of transports by land”; all those reasons and some others, “too well known to Count de Rochambeau to need repeating, show that an operation against New York should be preferred, in the present circumstances, to the effort of a sending of troops to the South.” On the same day he was writing to La Luzerne: “I should be wanting in respect and confidence were I not to add that our object is New York.”

La Luzerne, however, kept on insisting. To Rochambeau he wrote on the 1st of June: “The situation of the Southern States becomes every moment more critical; it has even become very dangerous, and every measure that could be taken for their relief would be of infinite advantage.… The situation of the Marquis de Lafayette and that of General Greene is most embarrassing, since Lord Cornwallis has joined the English division of the Chesapeake. If Virginia is not helped in time, the English will have reached the goal which they have assigned to themselves in the bold movements attempted by them in the South: they will soon have really conquered the Southern States.… I am going to write to M. de Grasse as you want me to do; on your side, seize every occasion to write to him, and multiply the copies of the letters you send him,” that is, in duplicate and triplicate, for fear of loss or capture. “His coming to the rescue of the oppressed States is not simply desirable; the thing seems to be now of the most pressing necessity.” He must not only come, but bring with him all he can find of French troops in our isles: thus would be compensated, to a certain extent, the absence of the second division.

Rochambeau soon agreed, and, with his usual wisdom, Washington was not long in doing the same. On the 28th of May the French general had already written to de Grasse, beseeching him to come with every means at his disposal, to bring his whole fleet, and not only his fleet, but a supply of money, to be borrowed in our colonies, and also all the French land forces from our garrisons which he could muster. The desire of Saint-Simon to come and help had, of course, not been forgotten by Rochambeau, and he counted on his good-will. After having described the extreme importance of the effort to be attempted, he concluded: “The crisis through which America is passing at this moment is of the severest. The coming of Count de Grasse may be salvation.”

Events had so shaped themselves that the fate of the United States and the destinies of more than one nation would be, for a few weeks, in the hands of one man, and one greatly hampered by imperative instructions obliging him, at a time when there was no steam to command the wind and waves, to be at a fixed date in the West Indies, owing to certain arrangements with Spain. Would he take the risk, and what would be the answer of that temporary arbiter of future events, François Joseph Paul Comte de Grasse, a sailor from the age of twelve, now a lieutenant-general and “chef d’escadre,” who had seen already much service on every sea, in the East and West Indies, with d’Orvilliers at Ushant, with Guichen against Rodney in the Caribbean Sea, a haughty man, it was said, with some friends and many enemies, the one quality of his acknowledged by friend and foe being valor? “Our admiral,” his sailors were wont to say, “is six foot tall on ordinary days, and six foot six on battle days.”

What would he do and say? People in those times had to take their chance and act in accordance with probabilities. This Washington and Rochambeau did. By the beginning of June all was astir in the northern camp. Soldiers did not know what was contemplated, but obviously it was something great. Young officers exulted. What joy to have at last the prospect of an “active campaign,” wrote Closen in his journal, “and to have an occasion to visit other provinces and see the differences in manners, customs, products, and trade of our good Americans!”

The camp is raised and the armies are on the move toward New York and the South; they are in the best dispositions, ready, according to circumstances, to fight or admire all that turns up. “The country between Providence and Bristol,” says Closen, “is charming. We thought we had been transported into Paradise, all the roads being lined with acacias in full bloom, filling the air with a delicious, almost too strong fragrance.” Steeples are climbed, and “the sight is one of the finest possible.” Snakes are somewhat troublesome, but such things will happen, even in Paradise. The heat becomes very great, and night marches are arranged, beginning at two o’clock in the morning; roads at times become muddy paths, where wagons, artillery, carts conveying boats for the crossing of rivers cause great trouble and delay. Poor Abbé Robin, ill-prepared for martyrdom, becomes pathetic, talking of his own fate, fearful of being captured by the English and of becoming “the victim of those anti-republicans.” He sleeps on the ground, under a torrential rain, “in front of a great fire, roasted on one side, drenched on the other.” He finds, however, that “French gayety remains ever present in these hard marches. The Americans whom curiosity brings by the thousand to our camps are received,” he writes, “with lively joy; we cause our military instruments to play for them, of which they are passionately fond. Officers and soldiers, then, American men and women mix and dance together; it is the Feast of Equality, the first-fruits of the alliance which must prevail between those nations.… These people are still in the happy period when distinctions of rank and birth are ignored; they treat alike the soldier and the officer, and often ask the latter what is his profession in his country, unable as they are to imagine that that of a warrior may be a fixed and permanent one.”

Washington writes to recommend precautions against spies, who will be sent to the French camp, dressed as peasants, bringing fruit and other provisions, and who “will be attentive to every word which they may hear drop.”

Several officers, for the sake of example, discard their horses and walk, indifferent to mud and heat; some of them, like the Viscount de Noailles, performing on foot the whole distance of seven hundred and fifty-six miles between Newport and Yorktown. Cases of sickness were rare. “The attention of the superior officers,” says Abbé Robin, “very much contributed to this, by the care they took in obliging the soldiers to drink no water without rum in it to remove its noisome qualities.” It is not reported that superior officers had to use violence to be obeyed. This precaution, up to a recent date, was still considered a wise one; in the long journeys on foot that we used to take in my youth across the Alps, our tutor was convinced that no water microbe could resist the addition of a little kirsch. Anyway, we resisted the microbes.

On the 6th of July the junction of the two armies took place at Phillipsburg, “three leagues,” Rochambeau writes, “from Kingsbridge, the first post of the enemy in the island of New York,” the American army having followed the left bank of the Hudson in order to reach the place of meeting. On the receipt of the news, Lord Germain, the British colonial secretary, wrote to Clinton, who commanded in chief at New York: “The junction of the French troops with the Americans will, I am persuaded, soon produce disagreements and discontents, and Mr. Washington will find it necessary to separate them very speedily, either by detaching the Americans to the southward or suffering the French to return to Rhode Island.… But I trust, before that can happen, Lord Cornwallis will have given the loyal inhabitants on both sides of the Chesapeake the opportunity they have so long ago earnestly desired of avowing their principles and standing forth in support of the King’s measures.” Similar proofs of my lord’s acumen abound in his partly unpublished correspondence. He goes on rejoicing and deducting all the happy consequences which were sure to result from the meeting of the French and American troops, so blandly elated at the prospect as to remind any one familiar with La Fontaine’s fables, of Perrette and her milk-pot.

Washington, in the meantime, was reviewing the French troops (July 9), and Rochambeau the American ones, and—a fact which would have greatly surprised Lord Germain—the worse equipped the latter were, the greater the sympathy and admiration among the French for their endurance. “Those brave people,” wrote Closen, “it really pained us to see, almost naked, with mere linen vests and trousers, most of them without stockings; but, would you believe it? looking very healthy and in the best of spirits.” And further on: “I am full of admiration for the American troops. It is unbelievable that troops composed of men of all ages, even of children of fifteen, of blacks and whites, all nearly naked, without money, poorly fed, should walk so well and stand the enemy’s fire with such firmness. The calmness of mind and the clever combinations of General Washington, in whom I discover every day new eminent qualities, are already enough known, and the whole universe respects and admires him. Certain it is that he is admirable at the head of his army, every member of which considers him as his friend and father.” These sentiments, which were unanimous in the French army, assuredly did not betoken the clash counted upon by the English colonial secretary, and more than one of our officers who had, a few years later, to take part in another Revolution must have been reminded of the Continental soldiers of ’81 as they led to battle, fighting for a similar cause, our volunteers of ’92.

No real hatred, any more than before, appeared among the French troops for those enemies whom they were now nearing, and with whom they had already had some sanguinary skirmishes. During the intervals between military operations relations were courteous, and at times amicable. The English gave to the French news of Europe, even when the news was good for the latter, and passed to them newspapers. “We learned that news” (Necker’s resignation), writes Blanchard, “through the English, who often sent trumpeters and passed gazettes to us. We learned from the same papers that Mr. de La Motte-Picquet had captured a rich convoy. These exchanges between the English and us did not please the Americans, nor even General Washington, who were unaccustomed to this kind of warfare.” The fight was really for an idea, but, what might have dispelled any misgivings, with no possibility of a change of idea.