Back in Episode 257, I talked about the arrival of the French Army in America. General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, led an army of about 5500 soldiers, With them were seven ships of the line and five smaller frigates under the command of Admiral Charles-Henri-Louis d'Arsac, chevalier de Ternay. Upon arrival, much of the army and navy was sick from the journey, and also had to scramble to build a defensible position at Newport Rhode Island.
French Navy in West Indies
The French had come to America with far fewer soldiers than originally planned. There were not enough ships to transport all of the soldiers that Rochambeau expected to bring with him. Rochambeau had to cram his 5500 soldiers onto 36 transports, leaving behind much of his equipment, horses, and another 2500 soldiers. Those who could not get on the ships remained in Brest, waiting for available transport ships to carry them to America.
|Washington & Rochambeau
French naval priorities, however, remained elsewhere. With only seven ships of the line, the French had enough to defend against a British naval attack on Newport, but could not go on the offensive.
Recall that Admiral d’Estaing had commanded a French Fleet in America for two years prior. Most of it was spent in the West Indies. Admiral d’Estaing had bailed out of a joint assault on British occupied Newport in 1778 after a storm wrecked most of his fleet. He then spent months in Boston getting repairs. After that, his fleet sailed to the West Indies where he failed to prevent the British from capturing St. Lucia. After receiving more ships under the Comte de Grasse, d’Estaing captured St. Vincent and Grenada. He then sailed north to Savannah, hoping to assist the Americans in retaking that town from the British. The attack failed and d’Estaing returned once again to the West Indies.
In March of 1780, d’Estaing returned to France, still recovering from wounds he received at Savannah. Command of the fleet in the West Indies fell to Luc Urbain du Bouëxic, comte de Guichen. The Admiral was in his late 60s. I won’t go into his lengthy record, but he was an experienced officer with a long record going back to the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War. He had been commander of the Channel fleet in 1778 and 1779 before heading to the West Indies with another squadron of ships to reinforce the French presence there.
|French and Naval forces near Martinque
On April 17, the two fleets made contact, and spent the first few hours jockeying for position. Rodney had hoped to take advantage of Guichen’s position which had left the French fleet strung out in a fairly loose formation. Robert Carkett, the commander of the lead British ship, the Stirling Castle, ignored instructions and simply charged directly at the French fleet. The British commanders behind him followed.
Another French officer, the third in command comte de Grasse, managed to get most of the French fleet into a tighter position and fight off the attack. No ships were lost in the battle, which was considered a draw. But the French suffered 222 killed and 537 wounded in the fierce fighting that day. The British suffered 120 killed and 354 wounded.
A month later, the two fleets engaged again over several days between May 15 and May 20th. The fighting was once-again indecisive. By July, with hurricane season approaching, Admiral Guichen left the West Indies, taking the bulk of his fleet back to France. British Admiral Rodney took the bulk of the British fleet up to New York to assist with the effort there. It’s not clear to me why Guichen did not sail up to Newport to assist Rochambeau, but whatever his motivation, he made no attempt to support the French expeditionary force in New England. French priorities were in the West Indies.
Meanwhile, General Rochambeau had arrived in Newport in July and was desperately short-handed. His immediate concern had been a British attack just after his arrival. When the immediate threat of an attack dissipated, the French settled in to await the arrival of their reinforcements and an opportunity to attack. While the British Navy was unwilling to attack Newport, the British ships of the line remained off the coast, keeping the French Navy bottled up in Newport Harbor. Rochambeau came to realize that no additional support seemed to be on its way, and had to plan to make due with what he had for the foreseeable future.
The French Army made a good impression on the locals, paying hard money for everything they needed. A local populace who was used to being looted and robbed by both the enemy and desperate Continentals, was pleasantly surprised by French soldiers who did not steal their chickens or strip their orchards, but rather paid for rations with gold and silver. The French rented buildings, which they repaired at their own expense. The officers rented rooms in the finest homes in Newport and soon intermingled with local society.
If anything, the French army was even more stratified between nobles and commoners than the British Army. France required an commissioned officer to have at least four generations of nobility in his family tree. Even wealthy commoners could not become officers, except through the very rare instance of promotion through the ranks. The enlisted men came from the poorest of the poor in France. Even so, the effective military discipline and good provisioning by the quartermaster kept most of Rochambeau’s soldiers from engaging in the looting and theft that plagued most other armies.
Because the British had destroyed many of the homes in Newport, Rochambeau made arrangements to have his soldiers repair and rebuild the homes at French expense. In compensation, the owners would allow soldiers to live in the homes rent free during the time of the French occupation. This was a win-win, since it permitted the French soldiers to obtain free housing, while the American owners had their ruined properties restored and would receive them back after the French departed.
The discipline and good behavior of the French army soon won over the locals. Just to be sure, Rochambeau forbade his army from holding Catholic masses out in public in anti-papist New England, and issued orders that the soldiers should not try to attend Protestant services.
The French also spread out their army, setting soldiers not just in Newport but also in Providence and Popasquash, where they also established hospitals for their sick and wounded. The illness from the poor food and conditions during the sea voyage continued to take its toll. About 30 soldiers died of disease during the voyage from France. Another 18 died in July, in the two weeks after the army landed. By the end of the year, 265 French soldiers had died from disease, most the result of conditions suffered on the voyage across the Atlantic.
Rochambeau maintained tight discipline. Not only was the smallest theft punished harshly with floggings, officers were even forbidden from hunting during the harvest period to prevent any potential disruptions. When officers did go riding,, they were ordered to respect fenced land and remain on public paths. Soldiers were held in isolated camps and needed a pass to go into town. Even then, they had to be accompanied by a non-commissioned officer who was responsible for their behavior. Fraternization was so strictly blocked that there are no records of venereal diseases or unexpected pregnancies caused by French soldiers.
French officers, on the contrary, did mingle with the locals, but still remained on best behavior. They lived with local families and encouraged social gatherings. Even so, it appears that Rochambeau’s prohibition on sexual relationships seems to have kept the officers from such attempts. Even officers who had reputations in Europe both before and after Newport, managed to keep it in their pants while in Rhode Island. One of Rochambeau’s top officers, the Duc de Biron, had multiple affairs in Europe. He was billeted with a widow and her three daughters in Newport. The ladies later noted that they grew quite fond of him, but that he never acted inappropriately, and always treated them as if they were his own sisters.
There were, of course, some isolated incidents. A French corporal killed an American in August, and was rather quickly tried and shot by firing squad.
French payment in specie for everything then needed made them even more popular with the locals. It got to the point where the Continentals had to send aides with French purchasing agents to prevent locals from overcharging them. The only ones complaining were American purchasing agents who could not compete with the French buyers.
Several dozen French soldiers attempted to desert in 1780 while in Newport. In hopes of maintaining good relations, the Americans passed laws treating French deserters the same as American deserters, to be returned to their units to face punishment.
As it turned out, it was not the enemy, but boredom that would become the primary concern for Rochambeau’s first year in America. The Continentals were in no condition to go on the offensive, and the British seemed content to keep the French bottled up in Newport.
It would be several months before Rochambeau and Washington would even meet. For most of the spring and summer of 1780, Washington was trying, unsuccessfully, to get Congress to provide him with the men and supplies he needed for an offensive. Making the five day trip to Newport would have taken Washington out of contact with Congress for several weeks, at a time when negotiations over everything were pretty intense. Washington also was probably reluctant to meet with Rochambeau and admit that he lacked the men and resources to do much of anything.
Instead, Washington relied on General Lafayette to serve as a go-between for the two armies. Lafayette used the opportunity to try to get Rochambeau to launch an offensive against New York, with the army that Lafayette had originally hoped to command himself. In late July, Lafayette wrote to Washington that the French army was eager to go on the offensive, that they “detest even the thought of remaining at Newport, and are burning with the desire of joining you. They curse any one who talks to them of waiting for the second division, and are furious at remaining blockaded here.”
At this same time, Lafayette was pressing Rochambeau to launch an immediate offensive against the British in New York. Rochambeau thought this plan was foolhardy. He complained to the French Minister Luzerne that Lafayette was trying to dictate an extremely risky strategy, and that although Lafayette was representing General Washington, it was not clear that even Washington approved of Lafayette’s plans.
A frustrated Rochambeau finally wrote a letter to Lafayette essentially saying very nicely that the young and inexperienced officer would not become a successful and experienced officer if he tried to lead an army on a highly risky attack that could result in the destruction of that army. He indirectly accused Lafayette of trying to satisfy his personal ambition by putting the lives of French soldiers at great risk. Lafayette could have taken great offense at the letter, but decided to back off and accept General Rochambeau’s experience-backed advice.
From Rochambeau’s perspective though, he had landed in a strange country, had his small navy bottled up and unable to move, had a third of his army still in France awaiting transport, had not yet even met the American commander after nearly two months in America, and was getting all of strategic advice from Lafayette, an officer with almost no experience and still in his early 20’s. No experienced officer in his right mind would launch an offensive against a superior enemy in those circumstances. Certainly, before anything could happen, Rochambeau needed to meet and confer with General Washington in person.
It did not help when word reached both Rochambeau and Washington that the Americans suffered the loss of a Continental Army in the south, this time under General Gates at Camden. This further threatened the American claims of independence in the southern states, and put even greater demands on Washington to send a third army to the south. Doing so would mean his depleted army in the north would get even smaller. Also news that the French General de Kalb, who had joined the Continental Army, was killed in the battle at Camden. That certainly did nothing to inspire the French.
By September, Rochambeau had been in Newport for nearly two months and still had not met with Washington. He was fed up with communicating through Lafayette, who Rochambeau still thought was trying to set his own agenda. Washington finally agreed to meet with Rochambeau in Hartford, Connecticut, about half-way between the French and Continental camps.
|French & American Troops at Hartford
Washington’s headquarters at Morristown was a five day ride from Newport. The American commander had no time to travel that distance, spend time conferring with the French commander, then returning to New Jersey, all during the summer fighting season when the British might launch another attack from New York against his tiny army.
Finally, by September, Washington decided he could no longer put off a meeting with Rochambeau. The two leaders agreed to meet at a half-way point, in Hartford, Connecticut, about a two and a half day’s ride for each group.
Traveling with Washington to Hartford was General Henry Knox, his chief of artillery, Lt. Colonel Jean Baptist de Gouvion, an French officer who had become Washington’s chief of engineers, and of course General Lafayette. Also attending were several of Washington’s aides, including Colonel Alexander Hamilton.
General Rochambeau brought Admiral Ternay, several of his other top generals, and his son, the Vicomte de Rochambeau. The conference had been scheduled for September 20th, but the French delegation was late due to their coach breaking an axle during the trip.
The leaders finally sat down together on September 21st to discuss strategy. Washington was in the embarrassing position of not even knowing exactly how many soldiers he commanded at the moment, as the number was always changing. He also noted that a large portion of his army would have its enlistments expire at the end of the year. Even so, he managed to make a positive personal impression on the French officers.
Rochambeau was still awaiting the second half of his expeditionary force to arrive. Ternay’s naval fleet was still blockaded in Newport Harbor. They hoped, in vain, that naval reinforcements under Admiral de Grasse might sail up from the West Indies. Until more French ships and soldiers arrived, the generals agreed they did not have enough resources to launch a successful attack on New York City. The two leaders agreed that they would need a combined army of 30,000 as well as naval superiority before they could consider such an attack.
At the time, it was not clear when, if ever, they would have those numbers. The entire Continental and French expeditionary army in America probably did not total 10,000 soldiers combined. The only thing that was clear was that there would not be a decisive battle in 1780. The armies would have to go into winter quarters. Washington would spend the winter in New Jersey, again. Rochambeau and his army would spend the winter in Newport.
All Washington could do was ask Rochambeau to pass along more requests for more French soldiers and ships, and also to see if France could spare more money to help the Continentals to keep going. Hopefully France would fulfill those requests in time for the beginning of the fighting season in the spring of 1781.
After two days of meetings, the leaders agreed that New York City should remain their goal, but at present they could do nothing. Rochambeau would send his son back to Versailles to beg for more money and supplies. Traveling with Rochambeau’s son would be Colonel John Laurens who had recently been released from parole after his capture at Charleston. Washington would continue to beg Congress to come up with the resources that he needed.
The meeting wrapped up rather quickly after word arrived that the British fleet under Admiral Romney had arrived in New York with thirteen additional ships of the line. Rochambeau, concerned that this would mean a British attack on Newport was once again imminent, wanted to get back to his army as quickly as possible.
On September 23rd, the two delegations returned to their camps. Rochambeau would end up spending an entire year in Newport, with pretty much nothing to do. Washington headed back to New Jersey, stopping in West Point along the way to meet with General Benedict Arnold. When he arrived, Arnold was nowhere to be found. But the reason for Arnold’s absence will have to wait for next time.
Next time: General Arnold decides to trade in his blue uniform for a red one.
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Next Episode 264 Arnold Commits treason (Available January 22, 2023)
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“Conference at Hartford, [22 September 1780],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-02-02-0866
“Conference at Hartford: George Washington’s Answers to Queries by the Comte de Rochambeau and the Chevalier de Ternay, [22 September 1780],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-02-02-0865
Letter from Rochambeau to Lafayette: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1r3IncAiPsTt5PkUje9PImIQFHlrOCUK_bhoJDpczseA
(from archive.org unless noted)
Balch, Thomas The French in America During the War of Independence of the United States 1777-1783, Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1891.
Lomask, Milton Rochambeau and Our French Allies, New York, P.J. Kenedy, 1965 (borrow only)
Rice, Howard C. (ed) The American Campaigns of Rochambeau's Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, Princeton University Press, 1972 (borrow only)
Winfield, Charles “The Affair at Block House Point, 1780” The Magazine of American History, Vol 5, pp. 161-186 (Google Books)
Books Worth BuyingFerreiro, Larrie D. Brothers At Arms : American independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016 (borrow on Archive.org)
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Kennett, Lee The French Forces in America, 1780-1783, Praeger, 1977.
Scott, Samuel F. From Yorktown to Valmy: The Transformation of the French Army in an Age of Revolution, Univ. Press of Colo. 1998 (borrow on archive.org).
Vail, Jini Jones Rochambeau: Washington’s Ideal Lieutenant, Word Association Publishers, 2020.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.