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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From Unpublished Documents

FOR one year more Rochambeau remained in America. Peace was a possibility, not a certainty. In London, where so late as November 20, the most encouraging news continued to be received, but where that of the catastrophe, brought by the Rattlesnake, arrived on the 25th, George III and his ministers refused to yield to evidence, Lord Germain especially, for whom the shock had been great, and who was beseeching Parliament “to proceed with vigor in the prosecution of the war and not leave it in the power of the French to tell the Americans that they had procured their independence, and were consequently entitled to a preference, if not an exclusive right, in their trade.” This was not to know us well; our treaty of commerce had been signed three years before, at a time when anything would have been granted to propitiate France, but there was not in it, as we saw, one single advantage that was not equally accessible to any one who chose, the English included.

As for King George, he decided that the 8th of February, 1782, would be a day of national fasting, to ask pardon for past sins, and implore Heaven’s assistance in the prosecution of the war. Franklin was still beseeching his compatriots to be on their guard: “It seems the [English] nation is sick of [the war] … but the King is obstinate.… The ministry, you will see, declare that the war in America is for the future to be only defensive. I hope we shall be too prudent to have the least dependence on this declaration. It is only thrown out to lull us; for, depend upon it, the King hates us cordially, and will be content with nothing short of our extirpation.”

With his French admiratrices the sage exchanged merry, picturesque letters. Madame Brillon writes, in French, from Nice on the 11th of December, 1781: “My dear Papa, I am sulky with you … yes, Mr. Papa, I am sulky. What! You capture whole armies in America, you burgoynize Cornwallis, you capture guns, ships, ammunition, men, horses, etc., etc., you capture everything and of everything, and only the gazette informs your friends, who go off their heads drinking your health, that of Washington, of independence, of the King of France, of the Marquis de Lafayette, of Mr. de Rochambeau, Mr. de Chastellux, etc., and you give them no sign of life! …”

With his valiant pen, which feared nothing, not even French grammar, Franklin answered: “Passy, 25 Décembre 1781.—Vous me boudés, ma chère amie, que je n’avois pas vous envoyé tout de suite l’histoire de notre grande victoire. Je suis bien sensible de la magnitude de notre avantage et de ses possibles bonnes conséquences, mais je ne triomphe pas. Sçachant que la guerre est pleine de variétés et d’incertitudes, dans la mauvaise fortune j’espère la bonne, et dans la bonne je crains la mauvaise.”

The future continued doubtful. In June Washington was still writing: “In vain is it to expect that our aim is to be accomplished by fond wishes for peace, and equally ungenerous and fruitless will it be for one State to depend upon another to bring this to pass.” French and American regiments remained, therefore, under arms and waited, but scarcely did anything on the continent but wait. For if George III was still for war, the mass of his people were not. Rochambeau availed himself of his leisure to visit the accessible parts of the country, give calls and dinners to his neighbors, study the manners and resources of the inhabitants, go fox-hunting “through the woods, accompanied by some twenty sportsmen. We have forced more than thirty foxes; the packs of hounds of the local gentlemen are perfect,” states Closen. The different usages of the French and the Americans are for each other a cause of merriment. “On New Year’s Day the custom of the French to embrace, even in the street, caused much American laughter,” but, the young aide observes with some spite, “their shake hands, on the other side, those more or less prolonged and sometimes very hard-pressed twitchings of the hands are certainly on a par with European embracings.”

Rochambeau had established himself at Williamsburg, the quiet and dignified capital of the then immense State of Virginia, noted for its “Bruton church,” its old College of William and Mary, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and the birthplace of the far-famed Phi Beta Kappa fraternity, its statue of the former English governor, Lord Botetourt, in conspicuous marble wig and court mantle. “America, behold your friend,” the inscription on the pedestal reads.

That other friend of America, Rochambeau, took up his quarters in the college, one of the buildings of which, used as a hospital for our troops, accidentally took fire, but was at once paid for by the French commander. Seeing more of the population, Rochambeau was noting a number of traits which were to be taken up again by Tocqueville, the diffusion of the ideas of religious tolerance, the absence of privileges, equality put into practise. “The husbandman in his habitation is neither a castellated lord nor a tenant, but a landowner.” It takes him thirty to forty years to rise from “the house made of logs and posts,” with the house “of well-joined boards” as an intermediary stage, to the “house in bricks, which is the acme of their architecture.” Labor is expensive and is paid a dollar a day. The country has three million inhabitants, but will easily support a little more than thirty, which was not such a bad guess since the thirteen States of Rochambeau’s day have now thirty-seven. Men are fond of English furniture, and women “have a great liking for French fashions.” In every part where the ravages of the war have not been felt people live at their ease, “and the little negro is ever busy clearing and laying the table.”

Faithful Closen, who had been proposed for promotion on account of his gallant conduct at the siege, accompanied the general everywhere, and also explored separately, on his own account, led sometimes by his fondness for animals, of which he was making “a small collection, some living and some stuffed ones, only too glad if they can please the persons for whom I destine them.” He takes notes on raccoons, investigates opossums, and visits a marsh “full of subterranean habitations of beavers,” and he sees them at work. He is also present at one of those cock-fights so popular then in the region, “but the sight is a little too cruel to allow one to derive enjoyment from it.”

Sent to Portsmouth with letters for Mr. de Vaudreuil, in command of our fleet, Closen becomes acquainted “with a very curious animal which the people of the region call a musk-cat, but which I believe to be the puant” (the stinking one), and a careful description shows that, in any case, the name well fitted the animal. He also studies groundhogs on the same occasion. The charm and picturesqueness of wild life in American forests is a trait which French officers noted with amused curiosity in their journals. Describing his long journey on foot from the Chesapeake, where he had been shipwrecked, to Valley Forge, where he was to become aide to his Auvergnat compatriot, Lafayette, youthful Pontgibaud, with no luggage nor money left, sleeping in the open, writes of the beauty of birds, and the delightful liveliness of innumerable little squirrels, “who jumped from branch to branch, from tree to tree, around me. They seemed to accompany the triumphal march of a young warrior toward glory.… It is a fact that, with their jumps, their gambols, that quantity of little dancers, so nimble, so clever, retarded my walk.… Such is the way with people of eighteen; the present moment makes them forget all the rest.”

Rochambeau, his son, and two aides, one of whom was Closen, journey to visit at Monticello the already famous Jefferson; they take with them fourteen horses, sleep in the houses where they chance to be at nightfall, a surprise party which may, at times, have caused embarrassment, but this accorded with the customs of the day. The hospitality is, according to occasions, brilliant or wretched, “with a bed for the general, as ornamented as the canopy for a procession,” and elsewhere “with rats which come and tickle our ears.” They reach the handsome house of the “philosopher,” adorned with a colonnade, “the platform of which is very prettily fitted with all sorts of mythological scenes.”

The lord of the place dazzles his visitors by his encyclopædic knowledge. Closen describes him as “very learned in belles-lettres, in history, in geography, etc., etc., being better versed than any in the statistics of America in general, and the interests of each particular province, trade, agriculture, soil, products, in a word, all that is of greatest use to know. The least detail of the wars here since the beginning of the troubles is familiar to him. He speaks all the chief languages to perfection, and his library is well chosen, and even rather large in spite of a visit paid to the place by a detachment of Tarleton’s legion, which has proved costly and has greatly frightened his family.”

Numerous addresses expressing fervent gratitude were received by Rochambeau, from Congress, from the legislatures of the various States, from the universities, from the mayor and inhabitants of Williamsburg, the latter offering their thanks not only for the services rendered by the general in his “military capacity,” but, they said, “for your conduct in the more private walks of life, and the happiness we have derived from the social, polite, and very friendly intercourse we have been honored with by yourself and the officers of the French army in general, during the whole time of your residence among us.” The favorable impression left by an army permeated with the growing humanitarian spirit, is especially mentioned in several of those addresses: “May Heaven,” wrote “the Governor, council and representatives of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in General Assembly convened,” “reward your exertions in the cause of humanity and the particular regard you have paid to the rights of the citizens.”

Writing at the moment when departure was imminent, the Maryland Assembly recalled in its address the extraordinary prejudices prevailing shortly before in America against all that was French: “To preserve in troops far removed from their own country the strictest discipline and to convert into esteem and affection deep and ancient prejudices was reserved for you.… We view with regret the departure of troops which have so conducted, so endeared, and so distinguished themselves, and we pray that the laurels they have gathered before Yorktown may never fade, and that victory, to whatever quarter of the globe they direct their arms, may follow their standard.”

The important result of a change in American sentiment toward the French, apart from the military service rendered by them, was confirmed to Rochambeau by La Luzerne, who wrote him: “Your well-behaved and brave army has not only contributed to put an end to the success of the English in this country, but has destroyed in three years prejudices deep-rooted for three centuries.”

The “President and professors of the University of William and Mary,” using a style which was to become habitual in France but a few years later, desired to address Rochambeau, “not in the prostituted language of fashionable flattery, but with the voice of truth and republican sincerity,” and, after thanks for the services rendered and the payment made for the building destroyed “by an accident that often eludes all possible precaution,” they adverted to the future intellectual intercourse between the two nations, saying: “Among the many substantial advantages which this country hath already derived, and which must ever continue to flow from its connection with France, we are persuaded that the improvement of useful knowledge will not be the least. A number of distinguished characters in your army afford us the happiest presage that science as well as liberty will acquire vigor from the fostering hand of your nation.”

They concluded: “You have reaped the noblest laurels that victory can bestow, and it is, perhaps, not an inferior triumph to have obtained the sincere affection of a grateful people.”

In order to “foster,” as the authors of the address said, such sentiments as to a possible intellectual intercourse, the French King sent to this university, as the college was then called, “two hundred volumes of the greatest and best French works,” but, La Rochefoucauld adds after having seen them in 1796, they arrived greatly damaged, “because the Richmond merchant who had undertaken to convey them to the college forgot them for a pretty long time in his cellar in the midst of his oil and sugar barrels.” Fire has since completed the havoc, so that of the two hundred only two are now left, exhibited under glass in the library-museum of the college. They are parts of the works of Bailly, then of European fame as an astronomer and scientist, who was, however, to count in history for something else than his Traité sur l’Atlantide de Platon, for he was the same Bailly who a few years later presided over the National Assembly, sending to the royal purchaser of his works the famous reply: “The nation assembled can receive no orders,” and who, two days after the fall of the Bastille, was acclaimed by the crowd mayor of Paris, while Lafayette was acclaimed commander-in-chief of the National Guard.

Another gift of books was sent, with the same intent, by the King of France to the University of Pennsylvania, and, though many have disappeared, the fate of this collection has been happier. A number of those volumes are still in use at Philadelphia, works which had been selected as being likely to prove of greatest advantage, on science, surgery, history, voyages, and bearing the honored names of Buffon, of Darwin’s forerunner, Lamarck, of Joinville, Bougainville, the Bénédictins (Art de vérifier les Dates), and the same Bailly.

Rochambeau, who had begun learning English, set himself the task of translating the addresses received by him, and several such versions in his handwriting figure among his papers.

Closen, intrusted with the care of taking to Congress the general’s answer to its congratulations, rode at the rate of over one hundred miles a day, slept “a few hours in a bed not meant to let any one oversleep himself, thanks either to its comfort or to the biting and abundant company in it,” met by chance at Alexandria “the young, charming, and lovely daughter-in-law of General Washington,” Mrs. Custis, and the praise of her is, from now on, ceaseless: “I had already heard pompous praise of her, but I confess people had not exaggerated. This lady is of such a gay disposition, so prepossessing, with such perfect education, that she cannot fail to please everybody.” He hands his despatches to Congress, some to Washington, returns at the same rate of speed, having as guide a weaver, so anxious to be through with his job (two couriers had just been killed), that he rode at the maddest pace. He reached Williamsburg on the 11th of May, having covered, deduction made of the indispensable stoppings, “nine hundred and eighty miles in less than nine times twenty-four hours.”

As the summer of 1782 was drawing near, the French army, which had wintered in Virginia, moved northward in view of possible operations. This was for Closen an occasion to visit Mount Vernon, where Rochambeau had stopped with Washington the year before when on their way to Yorktown. “The house,” says the aide, “is quite vast and perfectly distributed, with handsome furniture, and is admirably kept, without luxury. There are two pavilions connected with it, and a number of farm buildings.… Behind the pavilion on the right is an immense garden, with the most exquisite fruit in the country.”

Mrs. Washington gracefully entertains the visitor, as well as Colonel de Custine, the same who was to win and lose battles and die beheaded in the French Revolution. Some ten officers of the Saintonge regiment, which was in the neighborhood, are also received. “Mr. de Bellegarde came ahead of Mr. de Custine, and brought, on his behalf, a porcelain service, from his own manufacture, at Niderviller, near Phalsbourg, of great beauty and in the newest taste, with the arms of General Washington, and his monogram surmounted by a wreath of laurel. Mrs. Washington was delighted with Mr. de Custine’s attention, and most gracefully expressed her gratitude.”

All leave that same evening except Closen, who had again found there the incomparable Mrs. Custis (whose silhouette he took and inserted in his journal), and who remained “one day more, being treated with the utmost affability by these ladies, whose society,” he notes, “was most sweet and pleasant to me.” He leaves at last, “rather sad.”

Moving northward by night marches, the troops again start not later than two o’clock in the morning, as in the previous summer; the French officers notice the extraordinary progress realized since their first visit. At Wilmington, says Closen, “some fifty brick houses have been built, very fine and large, since we first passed, which gives a charming appearance to the main street.” At Philadelphia La Luzerne is ready with another magnificent entertainment; a Dauphin has been born to France, and a beautiful hall has been built on purpose for the intended banquet by “a French officer serving in the American corps of Engineers,” Major L’Enfant, the future designer of the future “federal city.”

On the 14th of August Washington and Rochambeau were again together, in the vicinity of the North River, and the American troops were again reviewed by the French general. They are no longer in tatters, but well dressed, and have a fine appearance; their bearing, their manœuvres are perfect; the commander-in-chief, “who causes his drums,” Rochambeau relates, “to beat the French March,” is delighted to show his soldiers to advantage; everybody compliments him.

During his stay at Providence, in the course of his journey north, Rochambeau gave numerous fêtes, a charming picture of which, as well as of the American society attending them, is furnished us by Ségur: “Mr. de Rochambeau, desirous to the very last of proving by the details of his conduct, as well as by the great services he had rendered, how much he wished to keep the affection of the Americans and to carry away their regrets, gave in the city of Providence frequent assemblies and numerous balls, to which people flocked from ten leagues around.

“I do not remember to have seen gathered together in any other spot more gayety and less confusion, more pretty women and more happily married couples, more grace and less coquetry, a more complete mingling of persons of all classes, between whom an equal decency allowed no untoward difference to be seen. That decency, that order, that wise liberty, that felicity of the new Republic, so ripe from its very cradle, were the continual subject of my surprise and the object of my frequent talks with the Chevalier de Chastellux.”