Sunday, October 16, 2022

ARP257 French Army in America

Back in Episode 246 we discussed Lafayette’s return to America from France.  Lafayette arrived in Boston in late April 1780 and made it down to General Washington’s Headquarters in Morristown New Jersey by early May.  The young general from France was pleased to announce that a French Army would soon arrive to support the Continentals in a final push to defeat Britain.

Washington, of course, was elated with the news, but also concerned since his army had fallen to only a few thousand men.  The southern army had been captured at Charleston and the states seemed in no hurry to send new soldiers.  Further, the army did not have the food or supplies to take care of the few soldiers that they did have. 

Washington spent the next few months desperately trying to build up his army for a major campaign with French cooperation during the summer of 1780. But the men and resources simply were not there.  The news of the arrival of the French Army spurred him to do whatever he could to prepare, but there was not much he could do.

Comte de Rochambeau

Leading the French army was Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, better known as the comte de Rochambeau.  Lafayette had requested command of the army, but the Continental major general had left France as a captain in the French Army.  The King of France was not going to turn over an entire army to a kid still in his twenties, no matter how impressive an impact he had made in America.

General Rochambeau was an older, experienced officer.  Like most officers of the era, Rochambeau came from aristocracy.  He was the third son of the Marquis de Rochambeau, who came from a prominent military family that could trace its ancestry back to officers who had led in the crusades.  His mother came from an important naval family.  Although his father had some physical handicap that had prevented military service, he nevertheless served the King and was honored as a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, among his titles.

comte de Rochambeau
Both of Rochambeau’s older brothers died in childhood.  So, from a young age, he was destined to carry his family’s title.  Born in 1725, he attended Catholic boarding schools where he received educational and military training beginning at age five.  At 15, he received his first commission as a cornet of horse and began service in the Army of the Rhine during the War of Austrian Succession.  The young teenager learned the rigors of combat at an early age and managed to thrive and impress his superiors.  He was wounded in battle several times, and suffered the same deprivations that the rest of his men faced during the war.  

By 1747, the 22 year old found himself a colonel leading a regiment.  A couple of years later, the 25 year old Colonel Rochambeau accepted his mother’s arrangement for his marriage into another wealthy family. 

By the outbreak of the Seven Years War, Rochambeau had risen to brigadier general.  He distinguished himself at the battle of Minorca, and was wounded in battle in the German states during the war.  By the end of that war, Rochambeau found himself serving as inspector-general of infantry and mixing with the top ministers at the court of Versailles.

Since France had entered its latest war with Britain, much of Rochambeau’s time was spent planning for the invasion of England in 1779.  After that plan fell apart due to problems and delays by their Spanish allies and an unfortunate smallpox outbreak in the invasion fleet, Rochambeau was looking for something else to do.  In 1780 Rochambeau was a 55 year old military commander with nearly 40 years of military experience.  According to his writings, he was contemplating retirement.  The thought of another major military campaign far from home did not seem to be something that he particularly wanted.

Unlike many other officers, we don’t really know Rochambeau’s personal views on the American fight for liberty, or other political issues of the day.  He did not speak English, and knew rather little about America.  Rochambeau was a professional soldier, who followed orders and fought whatever battles his superiors thought appropriate.  The King’s decision to appoint him the head of an expeditionary force to America would be his first independent command.

French Expeditionary Force

The King's commission directed Rochambeau to command his army separately from the Continental Army. The French army in America would not serve as auxiliaries.  His orders directed him to work closely with General Washington and to coordinate military actions that would assist the success of the American cause.  At the same time he was to use his own military judgment in the use of his army.  Initially, the king had granted Rochambeau a force of only 4000 soldiers.  After some negotiation, the King increased the number to 7500, out of the 32,000 men who had been assembled for the aborted invasion of Britain.

French Regulars
Lafayette had advised Rochambeau to bring all the supplies that they would need while in the field in America.  He noted that the Americans had almost nothing and that the French could not really rely on local supplies while in the field.

By March of 1780, Rochambeau was ready to embark on his transatlantic voyage.  Unfortunately, the French Navy was not ready.  All the troop transport ships had been used to ship another army to the West Indies.  After a few weeks of scrambling, the ministry managed to find enough ships to cram about 5500 soldiers aboard.  They had to leave behind another nearly 2500 men who would have to join them on a second voyage later.  They also had to give up the transport of any horses.

The fleet set off for America at the beginning of May.  The winds and weather forced the fleet to take a longer route, so that they were still at sea after two months.  Along the way, the fleet encountered ships that brought the news that the Continental Army had fallen at Charleston and the entire southern army had been taken prisoner.  The Americans had lost almost as many soldiers in South Carolina as Rochambeau was bringing to America.  The French also learned that General Clinton had returned to New York and was preparing a greeting of his own when the French fleet arrived.  

While the officers knew of their destination, the French soldiers were not informed until about seven weeks into the voyage.  The men cheered when they heard the news.  In part this may have been because of the French feeling toward American liberty.  A fair amount of the celebration may have been because they were not headed to the West Indies, where tropical diseases were known to decimate European regiments.


On July 11, 1780, the French fleet arrived in Newport, Rhode Island.  The British did not contest the landing.  They had abandoned Newport in late 1779 in order to consolidate forces in New York ahead of the Charleston offensive.

The people of Newport at first greeted the French fleet a bit tentatively.  No one was really sure what an occupying army would bring, even if it was allied with the US.  Even Continental soldiers and militia were known for taking what they needed from the locals out of necessity.  Although the French were now allies, the people of New England had been fighting them as long-time enemies only twenty years prior.  Only two years before, in 1778, the French had abandoned the attempt to recapture Newport from the British.  This had threatened to create a deep hostility between the two armies, which Washington and Lafayette had to work overtime to patch up.

The locals also had little to offer their French guests.  The town population had been less than 10,000 before the war, and the years of British occupation had caused it to fall to less than 5000, hardly enough to support 5500 French soldiers and thousands more sailors.  The British had largely destroyed Newport on their way out in 1779, and the town had few resources to rebuild.  Many buildings were still burned-out shells. 

Many of Rochambeau’s soldiers were sick with scurvy from a difficult 70 day journey to America aboard overpacked cramped vessels.  Rochambeau received reports that 2300 of the French soldiers and sailors required hospital rest following the voyage.

French Map of Newport 1780
Rochambeau proved that he was not just a career military officer.  He also knew how to act as a politician.  He began meeting with local leaders and ensuring them that the French Army would not abandon them again, that they were ready to pay in specie (gold and silver) for whatever they needed, and that they would remain good guests while stationed in the city. The men set about repairing buildings for use.  They brought much-welcomed hard money to pay locals for what they needed.

Within days, local support began to show.  The Town Council called for a night of illumination of candles in all the houses to celebrate the arrival of their allies.  With local support, the French army of 5500 men settled in and around Newport.  General Rochambeau, however, still had to worry about a British attack.  The main British army at New York was only 150 miles away.  A short sail up the coast could have the enemy upon them in days.  Newport’s defenses were a mess and a large portion of the French army was in hospital following the difficult sea voyage.

Rochambeau began writing letters to Versailles noting the difficulties he encountered.  The American economy was in freefall, with the Continental dollar virtually worthless.  The Continental Army appeared to consist of only a few thousand men who were starving and in rags.  General Washington seemed unable to draw in new recruits, and part of the American army needed to move south in order to replace the army that had been captured at Charleston.

British forces were in control of Georgia and South Carolina, and seemed on the brink of taking North Carolina.  George Washington had not yet traveled to meet with Rochambeau.  Many historians have argued that this delay was because Washington was embarrassed that he had no army to fight alongside the French.  At this same time, Washington was writing letters to officials in Virginia saying that they need to be aware of the “totally deranged situation of our affairs—of our distresses—of the utter impracticability of availing ourselves of this generous aid [that is, the French support], unless the States would rouse from the Torpor that had siezed them.”

The New England militia turned out in force to supplement the French forces, commanded by General William Heath.  But Rochambeau saw them as an army of beggars. The militia needed guns, tents, clothing, provisions, etc. Everyone was looking to the French army to serve as quartermaster for all the Americans.

Rochambeau’s letters to French officials back home essentially said that they need to send more soldiers, ships, arms, and money to win this fight, and that the Americans could be counted on for almost no military support.  But those were longer term issues.  Right in front of him, was the danger of a British attack before the French were prepared to defend themselves.

Bull’s Ferry

To take some of the pressure off his new French allies, Washington was eager to engage in some activity to distract the British.  He did not have the resources for a full scale attack, but did order General Anthony Wayne to launch a raid on Bull’s Ferry in New Jersey

Wayne took two regiments of Continentals from the Pennsylvania Line, along with the 10th Regiment, as well as a company of dragoons and four pieces of field artillery.  Their goal was to capture a blockhouse at Bull’s Ferry, on the New Jersey coast, just across the Hudson River from New York City.  A small unit of 70 loyalists held the heavily-defended spot, which kept open a river passage into New Jersey from Manhattan.  The guard also protected an area to the south where the British grazed cattle and horses.  While Wayne’s force attacked the blockhouse, he sent Major Light Horse Harry Lee’s cavalry to round up the cattle and horses.

Bulls Ferry
Wayne’s force attacked the outpost on the morning of July 21.  The battle began with the Continentals using their artillery against defenders who had no canons to return fire.  The defenders did put up a defense with muskets.  After about an hour of no real progress. Wayne’s frustrated attackers wanted to storm the defenses.  Wayne and the officers saw that the defenders had built up considerable defenses, creating a tangle of abatis that would take considerable time to break through.  

Eventually, the soldiers charged despite efforts by the officers to hold them back.  As the officers feared, the attackers got caught up in the abatis and were forced to withdraw after taking heavy casualties.  With that, the Continentals gave up the fight and withdrew.  The 70 loyalist defenders suffered 5 dead and 16 wounded.  The Americans suffered 15 dead and 49 wounded.  British reports estimate the attacking force at over 2000 soldiers.  The American records don’t give a number, but if it really was just the two or three regiments, and the artillery, it was probably more like 700 to 900 attackers.  Even so, that should have been more than enough to overwhelm 70 defenders.  The Continentals did return with a herd of captured cattle, but failed to capture the block house.

That’s probably why the Americans wanted to forget about the failed attack.  Instead, we remember it because British Major John AndrĂ© wrote a poem called “The Cow Chace” making fun of the failed American attack, despite the lopsided numbers.

British Threat

Back in New York City, British General Clinton largely ignored the raid.  He was focused on launching an attack on the new French garrison at Newport.  Two days after the French landed at Newport, Admiral Samuel Graves arrived in New York with six more British ships of the line.  Combined with Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot’s existing fleet, the British had enough firepower to overwhelm the French naval fleet, which consisted of seven ships of the line and a few smaller ships.

Graves had hoped to intercept the French fleet at sea.  He had left port at Plymouth around the same time as the French fleet under Admiral Arsac de Ternay had left Brest.  But a storm had slowed up the fleet, and then Graves had gotten distracted trying to capture prizes along the way.  By contrast, French Admiral Ternay had passed up the opportunity to capture any British prizes that he had encountered, instead focusing on getting his troop transports to America.

In truth, the British probably could have taken Newport in the days or weeks following the French landing. The French had no time to construct defenses, and half their men were sick following the long voyage.

Adm. Samuel Graves

British General Clinton wanted to attack quickly, but Admiral Arbuthnot opposed it.  First, the fleet that had arrived under Admiral Graves was also sick from the long journey and either needed time to recuperate, or had to have much of its crew replaced with locals in New York.  This led to a delay of more than a week before the British fleet could leave for Newport.  

By the time the British fleet reached sight of Newport on July 22, the French fleet had had time to anchor into a defensive position in the harbor, where its cannons were supplemented by artillery batteries on land. Admirals Arbuthot and Graves discussed the matter, and decided they would not attack until Clinton had brought up his army to supplement that naval attack with a combined land assault.  Clinton had been ready to move, but the navy had not supplied him with the necessary troop transports to cross Long Island Sound into New England.

It would be another five days until General Clinton had his ships and was getting ready to embark an army of 6000 men at Throg’s Neck on July 27.  As Clinton prepared to load his army aboard the transports, he received word that the Continentals were massing an army of 15,000, presumably to attack Manhattan from the north.  It was the perfect time to attack, with the bulk of the British Navy up at Newport and with more than half the army prepared to join them. Clinton had to call off the troop transports and redeploy his soldiers to defend against the possible American attack.  

Of course, Washington had nowhere near 15,000 men at this time. Clinton’s intelligence about the American attack was a ruse.  The Culper Ring in New York had gotten word to Washington that Clinton was preparing to move on Newport.  

Washington made a pretense of massing a large force and moving it across the Hudson and into a position where it could attack the British in northern Manhattan.  He made sure word got back to Clinton of this new threat, while greatly exaggerating his numbers.  Members of the Culper ring helped to spread disinformation to British agents who informed Clinton of the imminent attack.  

By doing so, the Continentals bought more valuable time for the French at Newport to dig in, reinforce their defenses, and convalesce their soldiers and sailors.  Washington had also ordered General Heath to bring 5000 New England militia to Newport to support the French Army.  This militia army appeared quickly and was ready to assist within days. By the time the British were ready to attack, the French were ready to defend, meaning the British saw a pretty fair risk that they could be defeated.  

In letters back to London, Clinton blamed the failure to attack on the fact that Admiral Graves had arrived too late, that Admiral Arbuthnot had failed to get intelligence of the arrival of the French fleet, and that the navy had failed to provide timely access to the troop transports.

By mid-August, Rochambeau felt confident enough to send home the New England militia.  Although they had turned out quickly, the Americans did not have food or tents for a sustained presence.  Rochambeau decided these men would best serve the cause by returning home to bring in their harvests.

Instead of a decisive conflict, the British in New York had hunkered down into a defensive posture.  The French in Newport also began to settle in for what appeared to be a long term encampment.  As of the end of August, two months after the French arrived, Washington remained in New Jersey, with what little army he had, still not finding the time to meet his new ally in the war.  

Next time: we head south, as General Horatio Gates is tasked with building a new army in the south to confront General Cornwallis.

- - -

Next Episode 258 Gates Takes Command 

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Further Reading


JONES, T. COLE. “‘Displaying the Ensigns of Harmony’: The French Army in Newport, Rhode Island, 1780-1781.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 85, no. 3, 2012, pp. 430–67. JSTOR,

WHITRIDGE, ARNOLD. “TWO ARISTOCRATS IN ROCHAMBEAU’S ARMY.” The Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 40, no. 1, 1964, pp. 114–28. JSTOR,

French Encampment in Newport:

Why Newport Scorned the French in 1780:

Comte de Rochambeau:

Charles Henri d’Ternay

“From George Washington to Joseph Jones, 22 July 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Wayne Loses Battle of Bull’s Ferry:

Piecuch, Jim "Antony Wayne's Repulse at Bull's Ferry, July 21, 1780" Journal of the American Revolution, Oct. 4, 2022.

Andre, John The Cow Chace

McBurney, Christian “The Culper Spy Ring Was Not the First to Warn the French at Newport” Journal of the American Revolution, Dec. 9, 2014.

Free eBooks
(from 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, 1780The Magazine of American History, Vol 5, pp. 161-186 (Google Books) 

Wright, M. W. E. “What France Did for America: Memoirs of Rochambeau” The North American Review

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Ferreiro, Larrie D. Brothers At Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016  (borrow on

Kennett, Lee The French Forces in America, 1780-1783, Praeger, 1977. 

Vail, Jini Jones Rochambeau: Washington’s Ideal Lieutenant, Word Association Publishers, 2020 

Weelen, Jean E. Rochambeau, Father and Son, H. Holt and Company, 1936 (reprint 2016).  (borrow on

Whitridge, Arnold Rochambeau: America’s Neglected Founding Father, Macmillan, 1965. (borrow on

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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