Chapter 22 – Closing Years of the War | France in the Revolution


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    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.”



      The surrender of Yorktown proved to be the end of the Revolutionary War, but its importance was not at first realized, even by the victors. The French army remained for a year longer in America, and at the close of 1781 all looked forward to an active campaign in the following year.

      After the surrender, Washington and the northern army returned to the Hudson. The Continentals under La Fayette were transferred to Greene, the militiamen went home. Rochambeau and his command went into winter quarters near Williamsburg in Virginia. They were looked on askance by the people among whom they were quartered; the Virginians were anxious to believe that the war was over, and they did not wish to see either friendly or hostile troops. An army is usually a poor neighbor, but Rochambeau’s soldiers, both in New York and Virginia, were kept in extraordinarily good order. Among a strange people, whose language they could not understand, the French soIdiers maintained a strict discipline. Rochambeau endeavored to quiet the burghers of Williamsburg by telling of the good record his troops had made during a march of seven hundred miles. They were little comforted by this, but when Rochambeau proceeded to repair, at his own expense, any injuries done, the fears of the townspeople were somewhat quieted. The French during the winter were treated with reasonable cordiality by those whose liberties they came to establish.

      While Rochambeau was endeavoring to get from France instructions as to the coming campaign, he desired himself to be relieved from duty. He had asked for his recall some time before, and only by fortunate circumstances was he kept in command and enabled to share in the glory of Yorktown. His statue would not stand in front of the White House at Washington had his first request for a release been granted.

      In June, 1781, four months before the siege of Yorktown, he asked for his recall. His health had long been poor, the campaign in America thus far had not been productive of glory, and he was anxious to return to France. Fortunately for his fame, this request experienced the delays of the period. Not until the 24th of August did it receive attention in Paris. The demand was a reasonable one and was promptly granted, and on that day Segur, the minister of war, wrote Rochambeau that he had communicated to the King his wish to return to France to reestablish his health; and that the King had approved the request, leaving the count to fix the time of his return whenever he thought that his presence was no longer necessary and that no injury would result to the good of the service. He was directed to turn over the command of the army to the Baron de Viomenil. The despatch reached Boston on the 6th of November, but not until the 6th of December did it reach Rochambeau at his headquarters.

      The campaign of Yorktown was now over, the war was ended, and there was no reason why he should not return to France. “The air of Virginia,” he writes, “while healthy in winter, is laden with fever in the summer, and I have never failed to catch a fever wherever I have found it epidemic.” In the mean time Viomenil had been obliged to go back to France on account of his health, but he returned, and when Rochambeau left, the remaining French troops were placed under his command.

      Segur congratulated Rochambeau on these fortunate delays. “I am persuaded,” he writes him on the 7th of December, “that, notwithstanding your poor condition of health on the 20th of October, you are well pleased that you had not received consent for the leave of absence which you had asked.”

      Not until June, 1782, did the French army start on its march northward. No plans were made for the campaign, because it now became evident that with the surrender of Yorktown the war had practically ceased. Parliament had voted to acknowledge the independence of the colonies, and negotiators were already engaged in agreeing on terms of peace. The war had become a picnic, and the anxieties and hardships of the past were succeeded by a year of leisure and comfort. At Baltimore the detachments united, and from there they marched north until, on September 14, they reached the Hudson.

      Social diversions replaced military activity during this peaceful summer. A son was born to Louis XVI, who was not destined to inherit his throne, but the event was celebrated in a manner befitting its supposed importance. Washington had proper demonstrations in his army: the soldiers paraded, a great dinner was given, and a ball closed the day. The French minister at Philadelphia celebrated the event with special splendor. Eleven hundred tickets were issued for the entertainment. “The ladies,” so read the card, “will be so obliging as to provide themselves with partners before the evening.” There was abundant opportunity for the dancing that was so carefully regulated. A dancing-room was erected, forty feet by sixty, and when the guests were weary of this they could walk into a garden, arranged in the highest style of eighteenth-century art.

      Hairdressing for men and women was then an elaborate process, and the artists of Philadelphia were hardly equal to the demand. At six in the morning of the great day many ladies were found in the hands of their coiffeurs. Ten thousand outsiders were given an opportunity to watch the eleven hundred elect, and some Quaker ladies, who were unwilling to adapt their dresses to the occasion, looked at their more worldly sisters through a gauze curtain prepared for their use. Even the eleven hundred were truly republican: there were found among them representatives of the army and the professions, of merchants and tradesmen, of families old and new. The gayeties of our ancestors were not carried to excess; by three o’clock in the morning all the guests had retired and the house of the minister was dark.

      In September the French army marched to King’s Ferry, where it was received with due honors by the Continental forces under Washington. The American soldiers were drawn up in a double line, and through this the allies passed, the drums beating a French march (Memoires de Rochambeau, i, 309; James Thacher, A Military Journal, etc., 312.) Rochambeau had commended highly the good bearing of the American troops, and declared that Steuben had made of them soldiers worthy of the King of Prussia. Their appearance was certainly more pleasing now than in the trying years of the war. Large supplies of clothing had been sent from France, and large amounts had been captured at Yorktown. All of the latter the French had abandoned to their allies, who certainly stood in need of them, and for almost the first time, the American soldiers had stout clothing to cover their stout hearts.

      There was no more fighting for them, and the French troops began their march to Boston in order to be ready for the homeward journey. As they were leaving, an incident occurred which showed that seven years of conflict had not accustomed our people to the usages of war. As Rochambeau was about to start at the head of his staff, a sheriff appeared with a summons in his hand, and, tapping the general on the shoulder, said, “You are my prisoner.” Some of the young officers wished to resent such conduct, but Rochambeau more sensibly contented himself with telling the sheriff to take his prisoner away if he could. The sheriff replied that he had done his duty, and if the general decided to set justice at defiance, he only asked for himself a safe retreat(Memoires de Segur [1825 ed.], i, 414.)

      The writ was issued for the value of some trees, which one of the French regiments had cut down for firewood. The owner seems to have been more enterprising than patriotic. Rochambeau amiably submitted the matter to the court, which awarded two thousand francs instead of fifteen thousand, the amount of the demand; and as the award was less than the French had offered to pay, the owner was condemned to pay the costs.

      Perhaps as a precaution against similar attempts, Governor Trumbull issued a proclamation to the good people of Connecticut, telling them that they must not charge the French soldiers more than current prices for provisions. The warning was heeded, and the French bore testimony to the moderation in price of all they bought during their last march through that state.

      When they reached Rhode Island in November, after their victorious campaign in the South, they were received with ardent felicitations. The Council and representatives adopted resolutions, expressing their appreciation of the services rendered by the French; they asked Heaven to reward these exertions in the cause of humanity and the regard which the French had shown for the rights of citizens, and they expressed the hope that these laurels might be crowned with the smiles of the best of kings, and the gratitude of the most generous of peoples (Rhode Island Colonial Records, ix, 619-620.) To this Rochambeau made fitting reply, and his army again camped at their old winter-quarters in North Providence.

      The citizens were ready to welcome them, and the newspapers sought to excite their zeal by the stilted appeals to ancient history which suited the literary taste of that day. Let us consider, said the “Providence Gazette,” “the great toils and hardships they have cheerfully undergone in America. Let our ladies be persuaded cheerfully to suffer a part of their houses and furniture to be used a few days by those who have rendered their country such essential services. This will be but a small sacrifice compared with the Roman ladies, who repeatedly, in the exigencies of the state, cheerfully gave up their rings, diamonds, and personal ornaments. They will thus raise their characters for patriotism and hospitality, to be carried on the wings of applause across the Atlantic.” (Providence Gazette, Nov. 2, 1782.)

      Fortunately, our French friends demanded neither jewels nor furniture. The officers were given a dinner, and in return Rochambeau gave several balls. The amiable and enthusiastic Broglie found new objects of admiration at these entertainments. “It was at the first of these balls that I saw for the first time the Misses Brown, sisters of the Governor of the city. I do not give their portraits here because I do not wish to turn all the men crazy, and render all the women jealous.” But he does add a fervent description of the manner in which Betsey’s long eyelashes hid her great black eyes, “a thing,” be says, “both rare and lovely.” She told the prince that she had never imagined that this was a beauty, and he adds: “It is quite certain that it was for her a discovery.”

      The army found comfortable quarters for the winter. Lauzun’s legion of cavalry was to be quartered at Providence; but Rochambeau was a prudent general, and he discovered that the dealers in forage in the town had raised their prices to an extravagant figure, considering that the French paid in louis d’or instead of Continental currency. Accordingly he declined the kind invitations and sent the cavalry to seek cheaper quarters near Lebanon, in Connecticut. At Hartford Lauzun found the taverns full of legislators, so he and Chastellux stopped with Colonel Wadsworth, whom they declared to be ” tall, well made, and of a noble and agreeable countenance.” (Chastellux Travels, etc. (1787), i, 30.)

      The larger part of the infantry remained in Newport; the rest were sent to North Providence and camped on the Dexter Farm, open land that now forms part of the city. Camp Street perpetuates the memory of their stay, in the nomenclature of the town. The officers were quartered with various citizens, all of whom, from Governor Cook down, seemed to have opened their doors to receive our allies. Those who paid rent for their rooms had no reason to complain of high prices. For seven weeks’ use of Major Robinson’s great room, Comte Dumas paid but ten dollars. Penelope Peck received from Dr. Fersen, principal marine physician of the navy of France, for the rooms he occupied, the modest rental of six shillings per week. But the payments were all made in lawful silver money, and not in Continental currency.

      An army quartered on a city is usually an unwelcome guest, but the French made no disturbance and paid cash for what they got. They were, therefore, popular among the people, while the presence of the French officers furnished an interest to Newport and Providence society which those staid towns had not before known.

      Rochambeau now turned over his command to Baron de Viomenil, and on January 11, 1783, he sailed for France (59th Cong. 1st Session Sen. Doc., vol. 32, no. 537 [Count do Rochambeau Commemoration], p. 500.) In a farewell letter to him Washington stated, with his usual accuracy, the value of Rochambeau’s services. “I cannot permit you to depart from this country,” he wrote, “without repeating to you the high sense I entertain of the services you have rendered. to America, by the constant attention which you have paid to the interest of it, by the exact order and discipline of the corps under your command, and by your readiness at all times to give facility to every measure which the force of the combined armies were competent to.” (Writings of Washington, Sparks’s ed., viii, 368.)

      After a stormy passage Rochambeau reached France, and at once presented himself at Versailles. It is melancholy to consider how many French gentlemen who risked their lives in the cause of American independence ended honorable careers on the scaffold in their own country. Rochambeau was more fortunate. He received from the King the commendation to which he was justly entitled, and he was afterwards made a marshal of France. Like many of his old comrades in America, he was brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal and condemned to death. It is said that on the day appointed for his execution the cart which transported prisoners was so full that there was no place for him, and before his turn came again Robespierre had been sent to the block and the prisoners were liberated. He was an old man when Napoleon’s great career began, but he was held by him in high esteem, and was made a grand officer of the Legion of Honor. He died in 1807, full of years and honors.

      After the departure of Rochambeau, the French army remained for a while at Rhode Island waiting for the fleet, which was to convey them home, to be put in readiness. A final ball was given at Newport on the 16th of November, at Mrs. Crowley’s assembly-room, by some of the young noblemen of Rochambeau’s army. The “Mercury ” informs us that the rooms “exhibited a sight beautiful beyond expression … and the whole transactions of the evening were conducted with so much propriety and elegance that it gave the highest satisfaction to all who had the honor of being present.”

      The Prince de Broglie described the matter in somewhat different terms. The young people declared that since the French had been away there had been no more amusements at Newport, and accordingly he and a few others decided to give a ball to those disconsolate fair ones. “We met with neither reluctance nor refusal when we spoke of dancing. Our company was composed of some twenty young ladies, some of them married, all of them beautifully dressed, and all appearing to be pleased . . . We quitted Newport with great regret, but not without having first kissed the hand of Polly Leiton.” (Journal du Voyage du Prince de Broglie, Colonel, etc.; in Societe des bibliophiles francais: Melanges, 2d part.)

      The weather during the march to Boston was cold and disagreeable. Quite a number of the common soldiers were ready to leave their colors and stay in America, where the chance of a prosperous existence seemed as good as in France. There were, therefore, some desertions, but on the 7th of December the army reached Boston and made its triumphal entry. The officers and soldiers were dressed in their best. “A great part of the population of the town,” says the Comte de Segur, “came out to meet us; ladies stood at their windows and welcomed us with the liveliest applause; our stay was marked by continued rejoicings, by feasts and balls which succeeded each other day by day.” (Mem. de Segur [1825 ed.], i, 418.)
      If the Bostonians were sorry to have their guests leave them, many of the French shared their regret. “I leave,” says Segur, “with infinite regret a country where men are, as they ought to be everywhere, sincere and free. Private interests are there confounded in the general interests . . . Each man dresses according to his means and not according to the fashion. Each thinks, says, and does what he wishes. . . . Nothing drives one to be false, to be base, or to flatter.” (Mem. de Segur [1825 ed.], i, 422.)

      On the 24th the fleet under Vaudreuil sailed from Boston, carrying with it the French army. The legion of Lauzun remained south and did not sail until May 12, when it embarked at the Capes of Delaware.

      The French government was liberal in the bestowal of rewards upon those who had reflected honor upon their country by their service in the United States. Viomenil was made a lieutenant-general, La Fayette and Lauzun were made marechaux de camp, Deux-Ponts was made a brigadier, and the Vicomte de Rochambeau, the son of the Comte de Rochambeau, was made a Knight of St. Louis.

      La Fayette was the most conspicuous volunteer in our cause, and the fame he won in America made him a leading figure in the political upheaval in his own country: Here his career had been one of unusual success. His good judgment never failed, his military achievements, if not extraordinary, were meritorious and at times brilliant. But the orderly progress of our Revolution was well adapted to the manner of man that La Fayette was. His unselfish zeal endeared him to those in whose behalf he came to fight. The purity of his motives and his patriotism received full appreciation when he served under a leader like Washington. For the dark passions, the stormy tumults in which France became involved, La Fayette was not the man; he exerted little influence over the Revolution in his own country. If he did not tarnish his former fame, he did not gain any new glory. He preserved the lofty elevation of his character through all the trying ordeals of a long and eventful life. But it must be confessed that he was unequal intellectually to the great crisis into which he was thrown. Indeed, to many students of French history he appears only, as Mirabeau declared him, a Cromwell-Grandison.

      The Prince de Broglie was among the most distinguished in birth of the French noblemen who came to our aid. His father was a duke and marshal of France, and a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, who had commanded an army during the Seven Years’ War. The son came over to America in 1782, and had no opportunity for active service; but his memoirs show him to have been sincere in his devotion to our cause, and singularly acute, for a young man a little over twenty, in his judgments upon the new and strange people among whom he was thrown. Unlike some of his associates, his zeal for political liberty was not confined to this country; after his return he was active in advocating reforms in France, and was sent as a deputy to the States-General. There he acted with the liberal element, and after his term had expired, he served in the army of the Rhine. But the overthrow of the monarchy went beyond his desires. He resigned from the army, and, instead of taking refuge abroad, sought peace in his country- seat. He did not find it there, for he was arrested as a suspect, and on June 27, 1794, was executed on the guillotine. He met his fate when safety was just at hand; a few days later Robespierre was overthrown, and the Reign of Terror ceased.

      A similar fate awaited an officer who played a more important part both in America and in France. The Comte de Custine came here in 1781. After his return to France, be became marechal de camp and governor of Toulon. In 1789 be was elected to the National Assembly, and in 1792 he commanded an army on the lower Rhine. He was popular with the soldiers, but his conduct did not suit the Jacobins; he was arrested at the head of his army, taken to Paris, and brought to trial. It was still in the early days of the Committee of Public Safety, and Custine’s friends thought the condemnation of the general impossible, as it could be based only on perverted slanders. They soon discovered their mistake. The general defended himself in a way that would have convinced any ordinary tribunal, and indeed there was nothing he had done which required defense. The crime charged was treason. The crime he had committed was the giving offence to the Jacobins, who were resolved to show that no man, either in the army or in private life, was strong enough or popular enough to withstand their hostility. Custine was one of the first notable victims of the Terror; he was condemned and executed with the promptitude that added consternation to such downfalls.

      The Due de Lauzun was one of the most amiable, as well as one of the most gallant of the French volunteers, and if he was a leader of the roues in France, he was a model of the proprieties in America. He, too, met the common fate of a trial before the Revolutionary Tribune and death upon the scaffold. Viomenil, who was second in command to Rochambeau, fell mortally wounded when defending the royal family in the Tuileries against the attack of the mob on August 10, 1792. The Chevalier Duportail, another brilliant French officer, early enlisted in the American service (1777), and at Yorktown commanded the engineer corps. He was received with honor on his return, and in 1790 was made minister of war. It was a perilous dignity at such a time, and neither the minister’s patriotism nor his capacity saved him from accusation when accusation often meant death. He also came before the Revolutionary Tribunal and met the usual condemnation, but he made his escape and found safety in the land for whose liberties he had. fought.

      The list of those who thus met death or ruin in the Revolution in their own land could be long extended.

      While many of the officers who took part in our war met an early and evil fate, for some of them a very different fortune was reserved. The three Lameths served in America with credit, and one of them was severely wounded at Yorktown. Two of them were for a while prominent figures in the French Revolution, and were fortunate enough to live through it and occupy positions of prominence afterwards. Theodore Lameth, who served in this country when a little over twenty, died in 1854, at the extreme age of ninety-eight.

      With the exception of La Fayette, Alexandre Berthier was destined to the most conspicuous lot. He served with great credit in this country with La Fayette and under Rochambeau, and he took part in the final victory of Yorktown. He passed through the French Revolution with honor and with safety, and at last became a follower of Napoleon. He was one of those whose extraordinary fortunes corresponded with that of their extraordinary leader. Berthier accumulated an enormous fortune; he was made a marshal of the empire; he was created Prince of Wegram; he married the niece of the King of Bavaria; he was loaded with life’s honors, only at last, as was believed, to take his own life in the agony of conflicting emotions excited by Napoleon’s return from Elba.

      Dumas, who so often expressed unfavorable views as to his American associates, helped to organize the National Guard, escorted the King, and protected him during his return from Varennes. Later he became a general under Napoleon and was minister of war to Joseph Bonaparte when he was king of Naples.

      The Comte de Segur, whose memoirs contain one of the most interesting accounts of the condition of French society when he was a youth, and of the conditions of our own country when he was here, also found fortune under Napoleon, and became a member of the Imperial Senate.

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