Chapter 18 – The French Troops in America | France in the Revolution


    About the author

    James Breck Perkins headshot.
    James Breck Perkins

    James Breck Perkins (1847–1910) was an American historian notable for his works on French history. Educated at the University of Rochester, he initially practiced law before shifting to writing and public service. Perkins is best known for his comprehensive studies on the French Regency period, particularly in “France Under the Regency,” which examined Philippe d’Orléans’ governance post-Louis XIV. His other significant works include “France Under Louis XV” and “France in the American Revolution.”



      On May 10, 1781, the Concorde reached Newport, bringing Rochambeau’s son and the Comte de Barras, who was to succeed Ternay in command of the French fleet. The intelligence conveyed was of the highest moment, for it brought a reply to the requests which Washington and Rochambeau had sent to France after their conference at Hartford. In some respects the answer was not wholly satisfactory; the ten thousand French troops that had been asked for were not to be sent, and it was announced that the second division, which Rochambeau had so long expected, would never set sail. These were discouraging announcements; but the aid now given, and the still more valuable assistance that was promised, atoned for any disappointments. Six million livres were brought to Washington, that he might sustain his troops in the field; and such were their needs that, without this assistance, it is doubtful if even the small army which Washington then commanded could have been kept under arms.

      But the most important intelligence was contained in Segur’s letter to Rochambeau (Segur to Rochambeau, March 9, 1781; Doniol, v, 466.) The Comte de Grasse, so he was informed, had already sailed for the West Indies with a powerful fleet, and at some time during the summer he would cooperate in any expedition upon which Washington and Rochambeau might agree. In view of this information, it was decided that the commanders of the two armies should meet and discuss the campaign for the ensuing year.

      On May 21 Washington and Rochambeau met at Wethersfield. Rochambeau was accompanied by the Marquis de Chastellux, while Washington was accompanied by Knox and Duportail. The generals were not altogether in accord. Washington had long felt that the capture of New York would be the most serious blow that could be inflicted on the enemy, and with the cooperation of the two armies and the assistance of the French fleet, he thought this was not impossible. Rochambeau was inclined to think that operations in Virginia, in cooperation with de Grasse’s fleet, might be more efficacious. The ships of one French fleet had been unable to get over the bar at New York City, and this might prove to be the case with the present expedition, while the place was defended by an army equal in strength to that which could be led to the attack. It was finally decided that a movement against New York was the only practical one at present. The French ships at Newport were not equal to transporting the armies by sea, and the march to Virginia by land was long and arduous (Writings of Washington, Sparks’s ed., viii, 53.) Intercepted despatches indicated that Clinton would probably send some of his forces to Virginia; either the English at New York might be taken at a disadvantage if he did so, or the threat of an attack might prevent his sending reinforcements to complete the ruin of the American cause in the South. It was therefore decided that the French should march to the Hudson, and there join their American allies in the hope of a successful movement against New York. In the meantime a frigate was despatched to de Grasse to ascertain when and where his arrival could be expected. When the answer came, the commanders could then decide upon their future plans, so as to cooperate most efficiently with the fleet that the French admiral would bring to their aid.

      If the arrival of a French fleet secured a naval superiority to the allies and made it possible to transport an army by sea, Washington contemplated the possibility of changing his plans and transferring the campaign southward; but the difficulties of the long march by land, the danger of disease in the southern climate, and the disinclination of the troops for such an undertaking, decided him to concentrate his forces upon New York (Diary, May 22,1781; Magazine of American History, vi, 112.)

      He was not without hope of success. Unless New York were reinforced from the south, he thought, the city would fall; while to compel Cornwallis to send troops to Clinton’s relief would be a godsend to the struggling patriots in Virginia and the Carolinas. Accordingly he wrote Sullivan that at the Wethersfield conference it had been decided that both armies should take the field and advance upon New York City (Washington to Sullivan, May 29,1781; Writings of Washington, Sparks’s ed., viii, 58.) This letter, by some good luck, fell into the hands of the English, and Clinton’s delusions as to Washington’s plans proved so valuable later in the campaign that some have imagined the despatch was prepared in order to be intercepted. Nothing was further from Washington’s thoughts; the letter stated the decision which had actually been reached, and it was not until months later that the movement against Cornwallis was decided upon.

      Curiously enough, a similar letter from a French officer fell into Clinton’s bands and strengthened his conviction that New York was to be the objective point of the allies in this campaign. Chastellux wrote the French minister at Philadelphia, stating that at last he had induced Rochambeau to agree with Washington, and the siege of New York had been decided upon. This letter was also intercepted; and as it contained some caustic and unseemly criticisms by Chastellux on his commander, it was forwarded to Rochambeau, -“certainly not,” writes the count, “with the purpose of fostering peace in my military family.” (Mem. de Rochambeau, i, 274.)

      It was debated whether Newport should not now be abandoned, and the French fleet that was gathered there take refuge at Boston. Such a change was approved by the French admiral, who desired to undertake a separate expedition in the North, and was little inclined to a course of action that would result in his serving as a subordinate in the South, with de Grasse as his commander. After much discussion it was decided that the French ships should remain at Newport, from which point they could more readily reach de Grasse should his fleet arrive at New York or the Chesapeake, but that the army should join the American forces under Washington.

      The eventful campaign of 1781 now really began. It was the only year in which American and French armies fought effectively side by side; and through their successful cooperation the independence of the colonies was forever assured. Not even Rochambeau’s judicious course had prevented discontent from springing up among the French during the long months of inactivity. His army was vegetating in sight of the enemy, so said the grumblers; plunged in idleness, with its only employment the monotonous toil of watching defences, it was a burden to its allies, consuming supplies and rendering no service. The generals disputed and the soldiers grumbled, the commander was reserved and distrustful, the officers were dissatisfied and querulous (Count Fersen, Magazine of American History, iii, 304, 375.)

      Such discontents evaporated when the order for action was at last given. The soldiers had been comfortably lodged, and had suffered little from sickness; their number was not much less than when they had landed at Newport almost a year before. At five in the morning of June 10, the French broke up the camp in which for eleven months they had been stationed; they were taken on boats to Providence, and there at nine in the evening the first brigade arrived. At Providence they halted for a week, making their camp on land adjoining the burying-ground. Washington wrote, desiring that the armies should unite for joint action as soon as circumstances would admit, and thereupon the French began their march toward the Hudson. On the 18th the regiment of Bourbonnais, and on successive days the Royal Deux-Ponts, Soissonnais and Saintonge started on their way, keeping a day’s march apart (Baron Cromot-Dubourg’s Journal; lbid., iv, 293.) Crowds of friendly onlookers cheered them as they went. If the French had as yet won no victories for the American cause, they had made fast friends of the American people among whom they had been stationed.

      On the 23d the van reached Hartford, and the other detachments followed in turn. A local paper expresses the approval excited by their conduct and their appearance: “A finer body of men was never in arms . . . The exact discipline of the troops and the attention of the officers to prevent injury to individuals, has made the march of this army through the country very agreeable to the inhabitants.” This good conduct was rewarded by a good reception, and they met with friendly greetings; the farmers harnessed up their oxen to help the baggage trains at a pinch; at the cider-mills new cider was freely furnished to the thirsty soldiers.

      Rochambeau decided that he must stop two days at Hartford, in order to mend the broken carriages and give a rest to the artillery horses and oxen. The movement of an army was attended with many difficulties in those days, yet the French proceeded, not only in good order, but with considerable celerity. The officers set an excellent example to the men; the Vicomte de Noailles and the Comte de Custine made the entire distance from Providence to the North River on foot, at the head of their regiments. The French aristocrats, who came over to aid the embattled farmers of America, had many faults and foibles, but they were good soldiers. In eleven days the army marched two hundred and twenty miles; the weather was at times very hot, but they bore it well, and their commander boasted, with good cause, of the fact that perfect order prevailed; more than half the officers marched on foot with the men; there was no waste and no confusion (Rochambeau to Segur, July 8, 1781; Doniol, v, 511.)

      On the 30th the French encamped at Newtown. There a courier arrived from Washington, stating that he had planned a surprise of one of the enemy’s posts, and urging Rochambeau to send on a portion of his force with all possible haste (Washington to Rochambeau, June 30,1781; Writings of Washington, Ford’s ed., ix, 288.)In compliance with this the Duc de Lauzun, with two regiments under his command, left Newtown at early dawn on July 4, in order to cooperate with the Americans under General Lincoln. Washington hoped to surprise a body of refugees under Delancey, then encamped at Morrisania, but the endeavor proved a failure. The English had received some intimation of the plan, and they were not taken by surprise. There was a little skirmishing with a trifling loss. The refugee corps made its escape and nothing of importance was accomplished. Lauzun mildly criticized Lincoln’s movements (Balch, The French in America, etc., i, 155.) Some of the Americans suggested that Lauzun, with all his zeal, did not reach the appointed place quite on time. But Washington was prompt to recognize the celerity with which his allies had come at his request, and he never forgot to express an ample though judicious commendation. He now issued a general order thanking Lauzun, his officers and men, for the extraordinary zeal they had displayed in their rapid march and prompt action (General Order, July 3, 1781; Writings of Washington, Ford’s ed., ix, 295.) The commendation was well deserved; it was no one’s fault that the English succeeded in escaping. To Rochambeau he wrote that, while he had not been so fortunate as to succeed according to his wish, yet from the opportunity to reconnoitre the enemy’s position he hoped some benefit would result.

      On July 5 Rochambeau met Washington at White Plains, and the two armies were at last united. Washington gave fltting recognition of this important event. In a general order he expressed his thanks to the Comte de Rochambeau for the unremitting zeal with which he had prosecuted his march, in order to form the long-wished-for junction between the French and the American forces. It was, as he truly said, an event from which the happiest consequences were to be expected; the future was to show that such expectations would be more than realized.

      The impression produced was favorable on both sides. The fatigue of a long and hot march did not injure the brilliant appearance of the French regiments. The contrasts of white and pink, of blue and green, the well-setting long coats, the three-cornered hats, all had a pleasing aspect, and the manoeuvres of the men were as precise as their dress. The French were well impressed, if not by the clothes, at least by the soldierly qualities of their new associates. The American regiments had no regular uniform, but their clothes were kept clean, their discipline was good, they supported heat and fatigue with ease. Their table equipments were the simple ones to which they had become accustomed by years of simple fare, varied at times by no fare at all. “Their cooking gives them little trouble,” writes the Abbe Robin, ” they are satisfied to broil their meat and cook their corn-cake in the ashes.” (Abbe Claude Robin, Noveau Voyage dans l’Amerique Septentrionale dans l’annee 1781, et campagne de l’armee du Comte de Rochambeau.)

      The army now numbered about ten thousand men, composed equally of French and Americans. The American forces rested on the Hudson, while the French were at their left, their line reaching to the Bronx. Rochambeau’s headquarters were at Hart’s Corners, near where the line of the Harlem Railroad was subsequently built.

      Dinners to the officers were frequently given, and the difference in customs furnished the opportunity for some criticism. The French commissary, naturally critical in such matters, writes of a dinner given by Washington, that it was served in the American fashion and abundantly provided, but vegetables, beef, lamb, chickens, salad dressed with only vinegar, peas, pudding, and pie were all put on the table at the same time (Catholic World, xi, 797.) “They gave,” he says, “on the same plate, meat, vegetables, and salad.” The dinner was served in Washington’s tent, and this, in part, may excuse serving many viands together; but after more than a century of development, the Americans are still inferior to the French in the judicious division of courses.

      If the order of the dinner was faulty, the manners of the host made amends. Critical French officers recognized the distinction of Washington’s bearing and felt the dignity of his presence. “He received us,” writes one of Rochambeau’s aides on July 5, “with the affability which is natural to him and depicted on his countenance . . . His physiognomy is noble in the highest degree, and his manners are those of one perfectly accustomed to society, a rare thing certainly in America.” (Dubourg’s Journal, July 5, 1781; Magazine of American History, iv, 296.) “In his private conduct,” says de Broglie, “he preserves that polite and attentive good breeding which satisfies every one and offends nobody. He is a foe to ostentation and vainglory.” “Brave without temerity . . . generous without prodigality, . . . virtuous without severity,” says the academician, Chastellux (Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780,1781, 1782, i, 137 [ed. 1787].)

      The manners of our ancestors seemed provincial to the habitues of Versailles, and doubtless they were so; but the French admitted that if few of our officers had the tone of polite society, and none of the men could compare in appearance with the regiments of Bourbonnais and Royal Deux-Ponts, they had the essential qualities of good soldiers. “The American army . . .” writes the same observer, “seemed to me to be in as good order as possible for an army composed of men without uniforms and with narrow resources. The Rhode Island regiment, among others, is extremely fine.” And he adds a few days later: “I was astonished at the manner in which they march; perfect silence and order reigned, to which they added the greatest possible celerity . . . An American regiment was sent forward to capture a Redoubt and marched under the fire of the cannon in the best style possible.” (Dubourg’s Journal, June 7 and July 22; Magazine of American History, iv, 299, 302.)

      The two armies were now united, but no movement of importance was attempted. Washington and Rochambeau frequently conferred, occasional skirmishes furnished some slight excitement, but this was all. On July 18 the generals, with an escort of one hundred and fifty men, crossed the Hudson at Dobbs Ferry, and from the Palisades observed the island on which stood the little town that has since become the greatest commercial city of the world. But no opportunity for a successful assault revealed itself.

      On the night of the 21st, a reconnaissance in force was attempted. At eight in the evening five thousand French and Americans were under marching orders and slowly advanced during the night. At five in the morning they met at Valentine’s Hill, four miles from King’s Bridge. The Connecticut militia and the regiment of Soissonnais, Lincoln and Waterbury, the Due de Lauzun and the Marquis de Chastellux, farmers’ sons and the descendants of a feudal aristocracy, moved side by side, scouring the country around Morrisania and beyond. A few of the French soldiers forgot that the territory which they passed through was not a hostile land and indulged in plundering, but they were severely punished by their own officers. At Harlem Creek Rochambeau met with an experience new to him in his forty years of service. The reconnaissance was pushed on to Frog’s Neck, and on the return the tide had risen and the bridge was down. The officers crossed in boats, while the horses were driven in a crowd and, following one or two leaders, swam across. The sight was a novel one to Rochambeau, who likened it to the movement of a great herd of wild horses (Mem. do Rochambeau; Balch, The French in America, etc., i, 162. Washington’s Diary; Writings of Washington, Ford’s ed., ix, 311.)

      The wildness of the country and the novelty of the modes of warfare gave to these western campaigns an indescribable charm for many of the French soldiers. They were familiar with military movements in Flanders and by the Rhine, in a thickly populated country, and with great cities scattered about; with marches over well-built highways, some of which had been first constructed for the use of Roman legions; they were accustomed to the evolutions that were possible where means of communication were perfect, where well-drilled soldiers could march in order over a finished country. They now found themselves amid very different surroundings. The people and their customs bore little resemblance to the peasantry of France or Germany, to the burghers of the Low Countries or the dwellers in sunny Italy. There was small chance for the tactics of Turenne or Vauban, where armies had to labor over almost impassable roads or make their way through primeval forests. It was necessary to learn lessons from the craft of the Indian, to avail one’s self of the resourcefulness of the pioneer. Those who endeavored to carry on war in America on the model of a European campaign met with the disastrous overthrow of Braddock and Burgoyne. New phases of nature had to be encountered, new problems in warfare solved, new privations borne, new difficulties overcome.

      Our French allies met these novel conditions with cheerfulness and skill. Occasionally some officer grumbled because the roads were impassable and his food was uneatable, but most of them found a relish in privations and enjoyed the campaigning. The men were equally philosophical in their trials and zealous in their service. To have served in the American war furnished a richer food for memory than to have fought by the Rhine and been defeated under Soubise. The abundant journals and memoirs in which our visitors told of their adventures disclose not only the enjoyment which they found in fighting anywhere, but the special pleasure they found in fighting by the swamps of the James and the banks of the Hudson.

      The reconnaissance led to no important action, and the allies and the English continued to watch each other without daring to hazard a battle. Some of the French officers complained because no definite plan was formed, because the movements of the army were slow and Washington seemed fluctuating in his purposes. He could be nothing else. It was impossible, he said to Rochambeau, in the uncertainty in which they were, to fix on a definite plan of campaign; their measures must depend on circumstances, and on the situation of the enemy at the time of de Grasse’s arrival.

      He wrote in his diary on July 19: “I could not but acknowledge that the uncertainties under which we labour, – the few men who have joined, . . . and the ignorance in which I am kept by some of the states on whom I mostly depend, – especially Massachusetts, from whose governor I have not received a line since I addressed him from Weathersfield on the 23rd of May last, – rendered it impracticable for me to do more than to prepare, first, for the enterprise against New York as agreed to at Weathersfield, – and, secondly, for the relief of the southern states, if, after all my efforts and earnest application . . . it should be found at the arrival of Count de Grasse that I had neither men nor means adequate to the first object.” (Washington’s Diary, July 20; Magazine of American History, vi, 122.)

      The anticipations of any successful operation against New York were fast disappearing. Washington had been more hopeful of capturing the city than his French allies, and his disappointment was correspondingly greater. “We would have been in readiness to commence operations against New York,” he wrote on August 1, “if the states had furnished their quotas, agreeable to my requisitions.” Unfortunately, they had been far from complying with the requests of the commander-in-chief, and not one half the men needed and asked for had joined the army.

      He wrote the governors of the four New England states, calling on them in vigorous terms to complete their battalions, and to adopt effective means for furnishing supplies to their troops during the campaign. Unless they filled their battalions, he said, the result would be an inactive and inglorious campaign, and at that critical moment such a thing would be ruinous (Writings of Washington, Sparks’s ed., viii, 124.) But these appeals met with very insufficient response. There was indeed little encouragement to enter the service; more as a result of vicious legislation than from any exhaustion of the national resources, the finances of the country were in a condition of collapse, the absence of any central authority left the army dependent upon the exertions of the states, and these were either slack in performance or unsuccessful in accomplishment.

      “In view of this,” Washington writes, “I turned my thoughts more seriously than before to southward.” He had long contemplated transferring the seat of war to the South, and on August 2 he wrote to Morris, the superintendent of finance, suggesting the possibility of a movement to Virginia, and asking that vessels and supplies might be prepared for that contingency (Ibid., 122.)

      The English, meanwhile, wishing to gather their army where the allies were to make a serious attack, executed various manoeuvres, and each side was mystified as to the purposes of the other. A plentiful crop of deserters furnished either army with information more or less accurate. On July 30 news was brought to the American camp that Cornwallis, with a strong detachment from the forces in Virginia, had arrived at New York. This was important, but it proved not to be true. The arrivals were the garrison from Pensacola, captured by the Spanish and sent to New York on parole. But on August 11 the long-expected reinforcements from Europe reached their destination. Three thousand Hessians, thirteen weeks out from Bremen, landed at New York and were added to Sir Henry Clinton’s army. He now had eleven thousand men, and the defenders of New York were more numerous than the forces that hoped to capture the city.

      On August 18 news of this arrival reached Washington, but still more important information was to settle his plans and bring on the crisis of the war. It had been uncertain as to when, and where, de Grasse would make his appearance. Rochambeau had advised him to sail to Chesapeake Bay, but it was possible he might proceed directly to New York, and lookouts watched from the Jersey Heights, expecting any day that the French fleet might be seen sailing up the New York harbor. On the 14th of August information reached Washington that the fleet under the Comte de Grasse had sailed for Chesapeake Bay, and it shortly after arrived there.

      Related posts