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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From Unpublished Documents

TWO unknown factors now were for the generals the cause of deep concern. What would de Grasse do? What would Clinton do? The wounded officer of Johannisberg, the winner of Charleston, Sir Henry Clinton, a lieutenant-general and former member of Parliament, enjoying great repute, was holding New York, not yet the second city of the world nor even the first of the United States, covering only with its modest houses, churches, and gardens the lower part of Manhattan, and reduced, owing to the war, to 10,000 inhabitants. But, posted there, the English commander threatened the road on which the combined armies had to move. He had at his disposal immense stores, strong fortifications, a powerful fleet to second his movements, and troops equal in number and training to ours.

There are periods in the history of nations when, after a continuous series of misfortunes, when despair would have seemed excusable, suddenly the sky clears and everything turns their way. In the War of American Independence, such a period had begun. The armies of Washington and Rochambeau, encumbered with their carts, wagons, and artillery, had to pass rivers, to cross hilly regions, to follow muddy tracks; any serious attempt against them might have proved fatal, but nothing was tried. It was of the greatest importance that Clinton should, as long as possible, have no intimation of the real plans of the Franco-Americans; everything helped to mislead him: his natural dispositions as well as circumstances. He had an unshakable conviction that the key to the whole situation was New York, and that the royal power in America, and he, too, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton, would stand or fall with that city. Hence his disinclination to leave it and to attempt anything outside. His instructions ordered him to help Cornwallis to his utmost, the plan of the British court being to conquer the Southern States first and then continue the conquest northward. But he, on the contrary, was day after day asking Cornwallis to send back some of his troops. And while, as he never ceased to point out afterward, he was careful to add, “if you could spare them,” he also remarked in the same letter: “I confess I could not conceive you would require above 4,000 in a station where General Arnold has represented to me, upon report of Colonel Simcoe, that 2,000 men would be amply sufficient.”

A great source of light, and, as it turned out, of darkness also, was the intercepting of letters. This constantly happened in those days, to the benefit or bewilderment of both parties, on land or at sea. But luck had decidedly turned, and the stars shone propitious for the allies. We captured valuable letters, and Clinton misleading ones. It was something of a retribution after he had so often used or tried to use such captures to his advantage, as when, having seized an intimate letter of Washington, a passage of which might have given umbrage to Rochambeau, he had it printed in the newspapers. But the two commanders were not to be ruffled so easily, and all that took place was a frank explanation. Spontaneously acting in the same spirit, La Luzerne had written to Rochambeau concerning Washington and this incident: “I have told all those that have spoken to me of it that I saw nothing in it but the zeal of a good patriot, and a citizen must be very virtuous for his enemies not to find other crimes to reproach him with.”

More treasures had now fallen into the hands of Clinton: a letter of Chastellux to La Luzerne, speaking very superciliously of his unmanageable chief, Rochambeau, and of his “bourrasques.” In it he congratulated himself, as Rochambeau narrates, on having “cleverly managed to cause me to agree with General Washington,” the result being that “a siege of the island of New York had at last been determined upon.… He added complaints about the small chance a man of parts had to influence the imperiousness of a general always wanting to command.” Clinton caused that letter to be sent to Rochambeau, “obviously with no view,” writes the latter, “to the preservation of peace in my military family.” Rochambeau showed it to Chastellux, who blushingly acknowledged its authorship; the general thereupon threw it into the fire and left the unfortunate Academician “a prey to his remorse,” —and to his ignorance, for he was careful not to undeceive him as to the real plans of the combined army.

A text of the conclusions reached at the Weathersfield conferences was no less happily captured by Clinton, and we have seen how clearly Washington had there expressed his reluctance to attempt striking the chief blow in the South. A letter of Barras to La Luzerne, of May 27, was also intercepted, and as luck would have it, the sailor declared in it his intention to take the fleet, of all places, to Boston (a real project, but abandoned as soon as formed and replaced by another which took him to the Chesapeake). A most important letter of Rochambeau to La Luzerne, explaining the real plan, was thereupon intercepted; it was in cipher and the English managed to decipher it. But, as the stars shone propitious to the allies, it was only the English in London, and not those in New York, who could do it, and when the translation reached Clinton at last, he had no longer, for good causes, any doubt as to the real aims of Washington and Rochambeau.

The colonial secretary was, in the meantime, kept in a state of jubilation by so much treasure-trove and the news forwarded by Clinton, to whom he wrote: “The copies of the very important correspondence which so fortunately fell into your hands, inclosed in your despatch, show the rebel affairs to be almost desperate, and that nothing but the success of some extraordinary enterprise can give vigor and activity to their cause, and I confess I am well pleased that they have fixed upon New York as the object to be attempted.” Clinton acknowledged a little later to Lord Germain the receipt of a “reinforcement of about 2,400 German troops and recruits,” which he was careful to hold tight in New York till the end.

The combined armies had, in the meantime, done their best to confirm the English commander in such happy dispositions. They had built in the vicinity of New York brick ovens for baking bread for an army, as in view of a long siege. There had been reconnaissances, marches, and countermarches, a sending of ships toward Long Island without entering, however, “dans la baie d’Oyster,” skirmishes which looked like preliminaries to more important operations, and in one of which, together with the two Berthiers and Count de Vauban, Closen nearly lost his life in order to save his hat. A camp proverb about hats had been the cause of his taking the risk. When he returned, “kind Washington,” he writes in his journal, “tapped me on the shoulder, saying: ‘Dear Baron, this French proverb is not yet known among our army, but your cold behavior during danger will be it’” (in English in the original as being the very words of the great man to the young one, though cold does probably duty for cool, and the final it is certainly not Washington’s).

Then on the sudden, on the 18th of August, the two armies raised their camps, disappeared, and, following unusual roads, moving northward at first for three marches, reached in the midst of great difficulties, under a torrid heat, greatly encumbered with heavy baggage, the Hudson River and crossed it at King’s Ferry, without being more interfered with than before. How can such an inaction on the part of Clinton be explained? “It is for me,” writes Count Guillaume de Deux-Ponts in his journal, the manuscript of which was found on the quays in Paris, and printed in America, “an undecipherable enigma, and I hope I shall never be reproached for having puzzled people with any similar ones.”

The river once crossed, the double army moved southward by forced marches. Rochambeau, in order to hasten the move, prescribed the leaving behind of a quantity of effects, and this, says Closen, “caused considerable grumbling among the line,” which grumbled but marched. The news, to be sure, of so important a movement came to Clinton, but, since the stars had ceased to smile on him, he chose to conclude, as he wrote to Lord Germain on the 7th of September, “this to be a feint.” When he discovered that it was not “a feint.” the Franco-American army was beyond reach. “What can be said as to this?” Closen writes merrily. “Try to see better another time,” and he draws a pair of spectacles on the margin of his journal.

The march southward thus continued unhampered. They crossed first the Jerseys, “a land of Cockayne, for game, fish, vegetables, poultry.” Closen had the happiness to “hear from the lips of General Washington, and on the ground itself, a description of the dispositions taken, the movements and all the incidents of the famous battles of Trenton and Princeton.” The young man, who had made great progress in English, was now used by the two generals as their interpreter; so nothing escaped him. The reception at Philadelphia was triumphal; Congress was most courteous; toasts were innumerable. The city is an immense one, “with seventy-two streets in a straight line.… Shops abound in all kinds of merchandise, and some of them do not yield to the Petit Dunkerque in Paris.” Where is now the Petit Dunkerque? —“Mais où sont les Neiges d’antan?” Women are very pretty, “of charming manners, and very well dressed, even in French fashion.” Benezet, the French Quaker, one of the celebrities of the city, is found to be full of wisdom, and La Luzerne, “who keeps a state worthy of his sovereign,” gives a dinner to one hundred and eighty guests.

From Philadelphia to Chester, on the 5th of September, Rochambeau and his aides took a boat. As they were nearing the latter city, “we saw in the distance,” says Closen, “General Washington shaking his hat and a white handkerchief, and showing signs of great joy.” Rochambeau had scarcely landed when Washington, usually so cool and composed, fell into his arms; the great news had arrived; de Grasse had come, and while Cornwallis was on the defensive at Yorktown the French fleet was barring the Chesapeake.

On the receipt of letters from Washington, Rochambeau, and La Luzerne telling him to what extent the fate of the United States was in his hands, the sailor, having “learned, with much sorrow,” he wrote to the latter, “what was the distress of the continent, and the need there was of immediate help,” had decided that he would leave nothing undone to usefully take part in the supreme effort which, without his help, might be attempted in vain. Having left, on the 5th of August, Cap Français (to-day Cap Haïtien), he had added to his fleet all the available ships he could find in our isles, including some which, having been years away, had received orders to go back to France for repairs. He had had great difficulty in obtaining the money asked for, although he had offered to mortgage for it his castle of Tilly, and the Chevalier de Charitte, in command of the Bourgogne, had made a like offer. But at last, thanks to the Spanish governor at Havana, he had secured the desired amount of twelve hundred thousand francs. He was bringing, moreover, the Marquis de Saint-Simon, with the 3,000 regular troops under his command. De Grasse’s only request was that operations be pushed on with the utmost rapidity, as he was bound to be back at the Isles at a fixed date. It can truly be said that no single man risked nor did more for the United States than de Grasse, the single one of the leaders to whom no memorial has been dedicated.

The news spread like wild-fire; the camp was merry with songs and shouts; in Philadelphia the joy was indescribable; crowds pressed before the house of La Luzerne, cheering him and his country, while in the streets impromptu orators, standing on chairs, delivered mock funeral orations on the Earl of Cornwallis. “You have,” Rochambeau wrote to the admiral, “spread universal joy throughout America, with which she is wild.”

Anxiety was renewed, however, when it was learned shortly after that the French men-of-war had left the Chesapeake, the entrance to which now remained free. The English fleet, of twenty ships and seven frigates, under Hood and Graves, the same Graves who had failed to intercept Rochambeau’s convoy, had been signalled on the 5th of September, and de Grasse, leaving behind him, in order to go faster, some of his ships and a number of sailors who were busy on land, had weighed anchor, three-quarters of an hour after sighting the signals, to risk the fight upon which the issue of the campaign and, as it turned out, of the war, was to depend. “This behavior of Count de Grasse,” wrote the famous Tarleton, is “worthy of admiration.” Six days later the French admiral was back; he had had 21 officers and 200 sailors killed or wounded, but he had lost no ship, and the enemy’s fleet, very much damaged, with 336 men killed or disabled, and having lost the Terrible, of 74 guns, and the frigates Iris and Richmond of 40, had been compelled to retreat to New York. Admiral Robert Digby thereupon arrived with naval re-inforcements; “yet I do not think,” La Luzerne wrote to Rochambeau, “that battle will be offered again. If it is, I am not anxious about the result.” Nothing was attempted. This “superiority at sea,” Tarleton wrote in his History of the Campaigns, “proved the strength of the enemies of Great Britain, deranged the plans of her generals, disheartened the courage of her friends, and finally confirmed the independency of America.” “Nothing,” Rochambeau had written in his note-book at starting, “without naval supremacy.”

On re-entering the bay de Grasse had the pleasure to find there another French fleet, that of his friend Barras. As a lieutenant-general de Grasse outranked him, but as a “chef d’escadre” Barras was his senior officer, which might have caused difficulties; the latter could be tempted, and he was, to conduct a campaign apart, so as to personally reap the glory of possible successes. “I leave it to thee, my dear Barras,” de Grasse had written him on the 28th of July, “to come and join me or to act on thy own account for the good of the common cause. Do only let me know, so that we do not hamper each other unawares.” Barras preferred the service of the cause to his own interest; leaving Newport, going far out on the high seas, then dashing south at a great distance from the coast, he escaped the English and reached the Chesapeake, bringing the heavy siege artillery now indispensable for the last operations. The stars had continued incredibly propitious.

The well-known double siege now began, that of Yorktown by Washington and Rochambeau, and that of Gloucester, on the opposite side of the river, which might have afforded a place of retreat to Cornwallis. De Grasse had consented to land, in view of the latter, 800 men under Choisy, whom Lauzun joined with his legion, and both acted in conjunction with the American militia under Weedon. The two chiefs on the Yorktown side were careful to conduct the operations according to rules, “on account,” says Closen, “of the reputation of Cornwallis, and the strength of the garrison.” Such rules were certainly familiar to Rochambeau, whose fifteenth siege this one was.

From day to day Cornwallis was more narrowly pressed. As late as the 29th of September he was still full of hope. “I have ventured these two days,” he wrote to Clinton, “to look General Washington’s whole force in the face in the position on the outside of my works; and I have the pleasure to assure your Excellency that there was but one wish throughout the whole army, which was that the enemy would advance.” A dozen days later the tone was very different. “I have only to repeat that nothing but a direct move to York River, which includes a successful naval action, can save me … many of our works are considerably damaged.”

Lord Germain was, in the meantime, writing to Clinton in his happiest mood, on the 12th of October: “It is a great satisfaction to me to find … that the plan you had concerted for conducting the military operations in that quarter (the Chesapeake) corresponds with what I had suggested.” The court, which had no more misgivings than Lord Germain himself, had caused to sail with Digby no less a personage than Prince William, one of the fifteen children of George III, and eventually one of his successors as William IV: but his presence could only prove one more encumbrance.

After the familiar incidents of the siege in which the American and French armies displayed similar valor and met with about the same losses, the decisive move of the night attack on the enemy’s advanced redoubts had to be made, one of the redoubts to be stormed by the Americans with Lafayette, and the other by the French under Viomesnil. Rochambeau addressed himself especially to the grenadiers of the regiment of Gatinais, which had been formed with a portion of his old regiment of Auvergne, and said: “My boys, if I need you to-night, I hope you will not have forgotten that we have served together in that brave regiment of Auvergne sans tache (spotless Auvergne), an honorable surname deserved by it since its formation.” They answered that if he would promise to have their former name restored to them he would find they were ready to die to the last. They kept their word, losing many of their number, and one of the first requests of Rochambeau when he reached Paris was that their old name be given back to them, which was done. Gatinais thus became Royal Auvergne, and is now the 18th Infantry.

On the 19th of October, after a loss of less than 300 men in each of the besieging armies, an act was signed as great in its consequences as any that ever followed the bloodiest battles, the capitulation of Yorktown. It was in a way the ratification of that other act which had been proposed for signature five years before at Philadelphia by men whose fate had more than once, in the interval, seemed desperate, the Declaration of Independence.

On the same day Closen writes: “The York garrison marched past at two o’clock, before the combined army, which was formed in two lines, the French facing the Americans and in full dress uniform.… Passing between the two armies, the English showed much disdain for the Americans, who so far as dress and appearances went represented the seamy side, many of those poor boys being garbed in linen habits-vestes, torn, soiled, a number among them almost shoeless. The English had given them the nickname of Yanckey-Dudle. What does it matter? the man of sense will think; they are the more to be praised and show the greater valor, fighting, as they do, so badly equipped.” As a “man of sense,” Rochambeau writes in his memoirs: “This justice must be rendered to the Americans that they behaved with a zeal, a courage, an emulation which left them in no case behind, in all that part of the siege intrusted to them, in spite of their being unaccustomed to sieges.”

The city offered a pitiful sight. “I shall never forget,” says Closen, “how horrible and painful to behold was the aspect of the town of York.… One could not walk three steps without finding big holes made by bombs, cannon-balls, splinters, barely covered graves, arms and legs of blacks and whites scattered here and there, most of the houses riddled with shot and devoid of window panes.… We found Lord Cornwallis in his house. His attitude evinced the nobility of his soul, his magnanimity and firmness of character. He seemed to say: I have nothing to reproach myself with, I have done my duty and defended myself to the utmost.” This impression of Lord Cornwallis was general.

As to Closen’s description of the town, now so quiet and almost asleep, by the blue water, amid her sand-dunes, once more torn and blood-stained during the Civil War, resting at the foot of the great marble memorial raised a hundred years later by Congress, it is confirmed by Abbé Robin, who notices, too, “the quantity of human limbs which infected the air,” but also, being an abbé, the number of books scattered among the ruins, many being works of piety and theological controversy, and with them “the works of the famous Pope, and translations of Montaigne’s Essays, of Gil Blas, and of the Essay on Women by Monsieur Thomas,” that stern essay, so popular then in America, in which society ladies were invited to fill their soul with those “sentiments of nature which are born in retreat and grow in silence.”

Nothing better puts in its true light the dominant characteristic of the French sentiment throughout the war than what happened on this solemn occasion, and more shows how, with their new-born enthusiasm for philanthropy and liberty, the French were pro-Americans much more than anti-English. No trace of a triumphant attitude toward a vanquished enemy appeared in anything they did or said. Even in the surrendering, the fact remained apparent that this was not a war of hatred. “The English,” writes Abbé Robin, “laid down their arms at the place selected. Care was taken not to admit sightseers, so as to diminish their humiliation.” Henry Lee (Lighthorse Harry), who was present, describes in the same spirit the march past: “Universal silence was observed amidst the vast concourse, and the utmost decency prevailed, exhibiting in demeanor an awful sense of the vicissitudes of human life, mingled with commiseration for the unhappy.”

The victors pitied Cornwallis and showed him every consideration; Rochambeau, learning that he was without money, lent him all he wanted. He invited him to dine with him and his officers on the 2d of November. “Lord Cornwallis,” writes Closen, “especially distinguished himself by his reflective turn of mind, his noble and gentle manners. He spoke freely of his campaigns in the Carolinas, and, though he had won several victories, he acknowledged, nevertheless, that they were the cause of the present misfortunes. All, with the exception of Tarleton, spoke French, O’Hara in particular to perfection, but he seemed to us something of a brag.” A friendly correspondence began between the English general and some of the French officers, Viscount de Noailles, the one who had walked all the way, lending him, the week after the capitulation, his copy of the beforementioned famous work of Count de Guibert on Tactics, which was at that time the talk of Europe, and of which Napoleon said later that “it was such as to form great men,” the same Guibert who expected lasting repute from that work and from his military services, and who—irony of fate—general and Academician though he was, is chiefly remembered as the hero of the letters of Mademoiselle de Lespinasse.

Cornwallis realized quite well that the French had fought for a cause dear to their hearts more than from any desire to humble him or his nation. He publicly rendered full justice to the enemy, acknowledging that the fairest treatment had been awarded him by them. In the final report in which he gives his own account of the catastrophe,’ and which he caused to be printed when he reached England, he said: “The kindness and attention that has been shown us by the French officers … their delicate sensibility of our situation, their generous and pressing offers of money, both public and private, to any amount, has really gone beyond what I can possibly describe and will, I hope, make an impression on the breast of every British officer whenever the fortunes of war should put any of them in our power.”

The French attitude in the New World was in perfect accord with the French sentiments in the Old. On receiving from Lauzun and Count de Deux-Ponts, who for fear of capture had sailed in two different frigates, the news of the taking of Cornwallis, of his 8,000 men (of whom 2,000 were in hospitals), 800 sailors, 214 guns, and 22 flags, the King wrote to Rochambeau: “Monsieur le Comte de Rochambeau, the success of my arms flatters me only as being conducive to peace.” And, thanking the “Author of all prosperity,” he announced the sending of letters to the archbishops and bishops of his kingdom for a Te Deum to be sung in all the churches of their dioceses.

It was a long time since the old cocks of the French churches had quivered at the points of the steeples to the chant of a Te Deum for a victory leading to a glorious peace. The victory was over those enemies who, not so very long before, had bereft us of Canada. Nothing more significant than the pastoral letter of “Louis Apollinaire de la Tour du Pin Montauban, by the grace of God first Bishop of Nancy, Primate of Lorraine,” appointing the date for the thanksgiving ceremonies, and adding: “This so important advantage has been the result of the wisest measures. Reason and humanity have gauged it and have placed it far above those memorable but bloody victories whose lustre has been tarnished by almost universal mourning. Here the blood of our allies and of our generous compatriots has been spared, and why should we not note with satisfaction that the forces of our enemies have been considerably weakened, their efforts baffled, the fruits of their immense expense lost, without our having caused rivers of their blood to be spilt, without our having filled their country with unfortunate widows and mothers?” For this, too, as well as for the victory, thanks must be offered; and for this, too, for such a rare and such a humane feeling, the name of Bishop de la Tour du Pin Montauban deserves to be remembered.

The nation at large felt like the bishop. One of the most typical of the publications inspired in France by the war and its outcome was the Fragment of Xenophon, newly found in the ruins of Palmyra … translated from the Greek, anonymously printed, in 1783, in which under the names of Greeks and Carthaginians, the story of the campaign is told; the chief actors being easily recognized, most of them, under anagrams: Tusingonas is Washington; Cherambos, Rochambeau; the illustrious Filaatete, Lafayette; Tangides, d’Estaing, and the wise Thales of Milet, Franklin.

Critical minds, the author observes, will perhaps think they discover anachronisms, but such mean nothing; he will soon give an edition of the Greek original, splendidly printed, “so the wealthy amateurs will buy it, without being able to read it; the learned, who could read it, will be unable to buy it, and everybody will be pleased.”

The author gives a detailed description of the Greeks and of the Carthaginians, that is, the French and their former enemies, the English: “Greece, owing to her intellectual and artistic predominance, seemed to lead the rest of the world, and Athens led Greece. The Athenians were, truth to say, accused of inconstancy; they were reproached for the mobility of their character, their fondness for new things, their leaning toward raillery; but there was something pleasing in their defects. Justice was, moreover, rendered to their rare qualities: gentle as they were and softened by their fondness for enjoyment, they nonetheless were attracted by danger and prodigal of their blood. They felt as much passion for glory as for pleasure; arbiters in matters of taste, they played the same rôle in questions of honor, an idol with them; somewhat light-minded, they were withal frank and generous.… This brilliant and famous nation was such that those among her enemies that cast most reproaches at her envied the fate of the citizens living within her borders.”

Whether succeeding events have cured or not some of that light-mindedness, any one can see to-day and form his judgement.

As to Carthaginians (the English), no animosity, no hatred, but, on the contrary, greater praise than was accorded to his own compatriots by many an English writer: “It must be acknowledged that they never made a finer defense.… They faced everywhere all their enemies, and, disastrous as the result may have proved for them, this part of their annals will remain one of the most glorious. Why should we hesitate to render them justice? Yes, if the intrepid defender of the columns of Hercules were present in person at our celebration, he would receive the tribute of praise and applause that Greeks know how to pay to any brave and generous enemy.”

This way of thinking had nothing exceptional. One of the most authoritative publicists of the day, Lacretelle, in 1785, considering, in the Mercure de France, the future of the new-born United States, praised the favorable influence exercised on them by the so much admired British Constitution—“the most wonderful government in Europe. For it will be England’s glory to have created peoples worthy of throwing off her yoke, even though she must endure the reproach of having forced them to independence by forgetfulness of her own maxims.”

As to the members of the French army who had started for the new crusade two years before, they had at once the conviction that, in accordance with their anticipation, they had witnessed something great which would leave a profound trace in the history of the world. They brought home the seed of liberty and equality, the “virus,” as it was called by Pontgibaud, who, friend as he was of Lafayette, resisted the current to the last and remained a royalist. “The young French nobility,” says Talleyrand in his memoirs, “having enlisted for the cause of independence, clung ever after to the principle which it had gone to defend.” Youthful Saint-Simon, the future Saint-Simonian, thus summed up his impressions of the campaign: “I felt that the American Revolution marked the beginning of a new political era; that this revolution would necessarily set moving an important progress in general civilization, and that it would, before long, occasion great changes in the social order then existing in Europe.” Many experienced the feeling described in the last lines of his journal by Count Guillaume de Deux-Ponts, wounded at the storming of the redoubts: “With troops as good and brave and well-disciplined as those which I have had the honor to lead against the enemy, one can undertake anything.… I owe them the greatest day in my life, the souvenir of which will never die out.… Man’s life is mixed with trials, but one can no longer complain when having enjoyed the delightful moments which are their counterpart; a single instant effaces such troubles, and that instant, well resented, causes one to desire new trials so as to once more enjoy their recompense.”