Sunday, January 22, 2023

ARP264 Arnold Commits Treason

We last left Benedict Arnold in Episode 238, in the spring of 1780.  Under pressure from Pennsylvania, the Continental Army put General Arnold before a court martial.  The court found him guilty of relatively minor offenses and ordered General Washington to issue a reprimand.  General Washington began his reprimand by noting Arnold’s great services to his country, but also that some of his conduct was “reprehensible” and that it was “imprudent and improper.

With Arnold’s reputation in tatters, Congress also went after Arnold’s finances.  Arnold had received a great deal of money to conduct the Quebec campaign in 1776.  When that money ran out, he used his personal funds to keep the campaign going.  Arnold kept careful financial records of his expenses, but the British captured those records during his retreat from Quebec.

Benedict Arnold
Congress could have recognized the realities of war, but Arnold had enemies in Congress who were looking to screw him however they could.  The Treasury Board concluded that Arnold owed Congress thousands of dollars for unaccounted expenses during the Quebec campaign, and would not recognize any of the debts he had incurred personally on behalf of the army.

Arnold ended up having to sell the new home in Philadelphia that he had purchased for his new wife, and moved into a smaller home owned by his father-in-law.  During this same time, Arnold had permitted Silas Deane to stay with him. Deane, you will recall, was fighting with Congress over the French loans that he had acquired on behalf of Congress to help fund the war.  Thanks to lies, Deane was fighting accusations that he had profited from these transactions.  Like Arnold, Congress was unwilling to repay Deane for personal loans he had made to the cause, and for which he expected to be reimbursed.

All of this had deeply soured Arnold against Congress.  It probably made him more open to ideas from his new loyalist wife, and her friends and family, about how these outrages would never happen under the King’s rule, and how Congress was simply not fit to rule over the American people.  Arnold also seemed to conclude that he was one of the key reasons why the British had not yet won the war, and that Congress simply did not appreciate that fact.

Turning Traitor

Arnold had begun his correspondence with British officials in early 1779.  He had concluded that Congress would never compensate him for the many sacrifices that he had made for his country, but perhaps Britain would.  He started asking himself "What's in it for me?"

If he did switch sides, he would certainly lose all of his existing property in America to confiscation.  In his correspondence, Arnold wanted reimbursement for his lost property, repayment of the debts he had incurred on behalf of the army.  He also wanted a commission as a general in the British Regular Army, a rank that would provide him with a pension after the war.

The parties reached an agreement in principle at that time, but waited for the right time for Arnold to turn.  The British wanted more than Arnold.  They wanted him to turn over a valuable post.  Arnold began providing valuable intelligence via secret couriers at this time.  After that, the correspondence seemed to pause for a while.  When the French army arrived in 1780, Arnold provided intelligence about that.  For more than a year, British intelligence had a mole at the highest levels of the Continental Army.  Arnold remained on the Continental side, waiting for the right time to make his move.

Arnold had originally requested reimbursement of £10,000 from the British.  In the spring of 1780, General Phillip Schuyler met with Arnold about giving him command of West Point.  Washington had thought Arnold would want a larger command, one that would offer him an opportunity to redeem himself on the battlefield and restore his reputation.  Arnold, however, had other plans.  He claimed that his battlefield injuries rendered him unable to take to the field and requested the command of West Point.

Arnold proposed to the British that in addition to the £10,000 in reimbursements, the British should give him another £20,000 when he turned over West Point.

West Point

The fortifications at West Point had grown increasingly important over the course of the war.  The Continentals had designated the area in 1774 as one of four choke points along the Hudson River where they could block British ships. A sharp turn in the river there made it a more difficult place for ships to pass.  

In 1778, the Americans began building permanent fortifications around the area to prevent any unauthorized river passage. These included the West Point chain across the river, and a series of fortifications to protect the chains from any attack.  

The defenses there continued to grow, mostly under the supervision of Colonel Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish engineer who had joined the Continental Army. Kosciuszko built a series of about thirty fortifications, all of which were designed to support one another in any attack.  If the British attacked some of the fortifications, others could fire on the attack.  The British would not likely have the numbers to attack all the fortifications at once.  This made West Point virtually impregnable.

In 1779, the British moved up the Hudson, getting within twelve miles of West Point before withdrawing back to New York City.  After that attack, Washington kept a larger garrison at West Point.  It was far enough away from the British lines in New York that they could not launch a surprise attack in a single day, but close enough that the Continentals could deploy forces south if the British did make any new foray up the Hudson River.

The British came to see West Point as key to controlling the lower Hudson River.  If they could do so, they would sit in between Washington’s Continentals in northern New Jersey, and the French army in Newport, Rhode Island.  Capturing West Point, on the heels of the fall of Charleston and the American loss at Camden might have driven American morale so low that it might lead to an end of the war.

View of West Pont from Constitution Island
Washington was already having trouble recruiting soldiers for his army.  Three major losses in 1780 certainly would not have helped that effort.

British attempts to take West Point by force had proven fraught with risk.  The British commander, General Henry Clinton, had attempted to launch an offensive out of New York City in the summer of 1780, after he returned from his victory at Charleston.  But he found that the farther he tried to move his army into enemy territory, the greater the defense and the more difficult it was to maintain supply lines.

While the British could run ships up the Hudson River, putting together an invasion fleet that could disembark and attack well defended entrenchments up a mountainside seemed too risky.  On the other hand, if the British could get the commander of West Point to turn over the 3000 man garrison there, the British could establish themselves behind the defenses and fend off any attack launched by the enemy against them.

The key to all of this was getting Benedict Arnold to take command at West Point.

Taking Command

Although both sides considered West Point to be important, Washington had never put one of his top generals in command there.  The garrison at West Point was meant to deter a British advance, but Washington did not anticipate that West Point’s commander would be leading men into battle.  Washington had given command to Major General William Heath.  Washington had found Heath’s leadership lacking early in the war, but could not discharge him from the army without upsetting Heath’s political allies in New England. In such cases, Washington tried to put such leaders in a position of prominence but where they would be unlikely to have their military skills put to the test.

William Heath

At times, Heath left for other duties, including handling the British prisoners captured after Saratoga, or for recruitment drives in New England.  During these absences, Brigadier General Alexander McDougall took command.  McDougall was also a patriot and politician turned military officer, without any impressive military record that would entitle him to a more active post.  After General Heath left for good in early 1780, the post command went to Major General Robert Howe, another politically prominent general who had lost command in the south because of his ineffectiveness.

As late as June of 1780, Arnold was still in Philadelphia.  Washington was trying to convince him to take a field command.  Arnold, however, wanted West Point.  It was about this time that Arnold contacted General Knyphausen about his request for £10,000.  He also demanded an immediate payment of £200 so that he could pay for continued communications through a private trusted channel.  At the time General Clinton and Major André were still in Charleston.  Knyphausen sent Arnold the money along with a ring.  He said that an agent would contact him and wear a matching ring as evidence that he was sent by the British command.

As part of his good faith, Arnold provided details about a planned invasion of Quebec, to be led by the Marquis de Lafayette. In fact, Washington had circulated information about this proposed invasion in hopes of word reaching the British and getting them to remove forces from New  York in order to support Quebec.  Arnold, however, did not know that this was disinformation.  Arnold also informed the British that he planned to leave Philadelphia to head home to Connecticut, and after that he would meet with Washington in Morristown in early July.

On his way to Connecticut, Arnold stopped in West Point to survey the defenses.  He wrote that many of the garrison was being deployed elsewhere, and gave detailed information about the defenses and their weaknesses.  He even advised where the enemy could land to begin an effective land assault on the fortifications.  He coded this assessment and sent it to the British in New York.

Arnold then continued on to Hartford Connecticut.  There, he tried to sell his house and collect on some debts, but had little luck with either.  Part of the problem was that he did not want to take Continental dollars.  He wanted notes drawn on European banks.

We don’t have any record of what Arnold discussed with Washington when they met at Morristown in early July.  But we do know that Washington still hoped to convince Arnold to take command of the entire left wing of his army.  Washington was still hoping to cooperate with the French in a joint invasion of Manhattan, and wanted Arnold to be a key field commander.  West Point would be well back behind the lines of any offensive. Washington said in a letter that the fort could be left in “the care of invalids and a small garrison of militia” during this time.

Arnold however left his meeting with Washington in early July with a very different view.  A few days after the meeting, Arnold wrote a coded message to his handlers in New York, letting them know that he would soon be in command of West Point and that he was ready to hand it over to the British for £20,000.  He also wanted a down payment of £1000 ahead of time.

British General Clinton received word of the offer, but allowed his chief of intelligence, Major John André, to handle the correspondence.  André responded that Arnold would receive a payment of £20,000 for his role in capturing West Point and its garrison, but nothing further for reimbursement of his losses.  Clinton also authorized a down payment of £500, half of what Arnold had requested.

On August 1, Washington met with Arnold at King’s Ferry near New York.  Washington encouraged Arnold once again to take a field command that would make him second in command of the Continental Army, behind only Washington himself.  

When Washington gave Arnold the news, he assumed Arnold would be delighted.  He even had already written general orders to be released later that day making public Arnold’s new command.  Washington recalled later though, that when he informed Arnold, that the general seemed disappointed.  Other witnesses recalled that Arnold’s face went red and that he appeared angry but that he said nothing.  Later that day at headquarters, Arnold told Washington that he was in no condition for a field command and insisted on taking command of West Point.  Two days later, Washington issued peremptory written orders to Arnold, having him take command of West Point and the other Hudson River forts.

Finalizing the Deal

Arnold finally took command of West Point in early August 1780.  One of his first acts was to send an aide to Philadelphia to collect his wife Peggy and their infant son. 

In mid-August, less than two weeks after taking command of West Point, Arnold received a coded letter from André informing him of Clinton’s counter-offer: the flat  £20,000 for the capture of West Point.  Arnold did not respond to Clinton or André.

Arnold did write to General Washington, informing him that the fort’s defenses were a mess.  Even so, everything he did seemed to weaken the defenses even further.  He raised no objection when Washington requested four of the artillery companies under his command for field duty.  Arnold sent hundreds of soldiers far from the fort, some on wood cutting duty, or to other outposts.  Within a few weeks, the garrison at West Point had fallen to four or five hundred men.  Arnold also removed much of the food stores from the fort, putting them in his personal store room at the mansion he used for a residence, several miles from the fort.  This would prevent the garrison from having enough food to withstand a siege of any length.  It also became quickly apparent that Arnold was selling some of the food on the black market.

Arnold attempted to respond to André, but the courier he chose to deliver his coded message got suspicious and turned it over to Continental General Samuel Parsons.  Since he could not decode its meaning, Parsons simply put the letter in a drawer.  A few days later, Arnold found another courier who got through a message to André, calling for a meeting near an American outpost, Arnold would meet either with André, or an agent of his choosing, to go over the final details of the plan.

Beverly Robinson

André worked out a plan to meet with Arnold where the two officers could talk privately without giving away Arnold’s plans to the Americans.  Arnold was living in a mansion owned by a loyalist named Beverly Robinson.  Early in the war, Robinson had fled to British controlled New York but had returned once under a flag of truce to handle some of his personal property.  By this time, Robinson was a colonel in the provincial militia. Colonel Robinson, accompanied by Major André, would meet with General Arnold at an American outpost near Dobbs Ferry, under the pretext of discussion the disposition of some of his remaining property at the house.  This would give Arnold and André time to confer privately.

On September 11, André and Robinson boarded the British ship Vulture and sailed up the Hudson to Dobbs Ferry.  Arnold sailed down from West Point to meet with them.  Although the Americans controlled the land in this area, British patrol boats controlled the water. As Arnold approached the Ferry, a British patrol boat fired on his bateau.  Arnold had to take cover near an American block house and could not make the meeting.  When Arnold returned to West Point, he said he had been on an inspection tour when he was attacked, and ordered more artillery to Dobbs Ferry to chase off the British patrol boats.

As Arnold and André tried to arrange another meeting, Peggy and Neddy finally arrived at West Point.  Around this same time, Arnold learned he would have another visitor.  General Washington wrote to inform him that he was on his was traveling north to meet with French General Rochambeau at Hartford, and requested an armed escort for his secret journey.  Washington also wanted a report on the West Point defenses.

Arnold put together the report for Washington, making a second copy for Major André.  He also tried to get a courier to take a message to New York that General Washington would be crossing the Hudson on September 18, hoping the British might arrange a raid to capture him and his other top officers.  

As Arnold prepared to lead the honor guard that would accompany General Washington across the Hudson, he received another letter from Colonel Robinson, indicating that André wanted to try to meet once again.  Arnold confided in his artillery Colonel John Lamb that he intended to meet with Robinson.  Lamb counseled against meeting with a notorious loyalist and suggested he speak with Washington about the propriety of such a meeting when the men met at Peekskill.

Arnold did have dinner with Washington at Peekskill, along with Lafayette, Knox, Hamilton, and others.  As the officers dined, the British warship Vulture approached.  The ship continued to sail by, unaware of the valuable group of diners nearby.  Arnold’s warning letter about Washington’s presence arrived in New York too late.

Washington warned Arnold not to meet with Colonel Robinson.  The loyalist could send a letter to New York Governor George Clinton if he had anything to discuss.  Washington was concerned more about the security of West Point.  One of his spies in New York had warned that an American general was working in league with the British.  Whoever that general might be, Washington was more concerned that Arnold work to improve the West Point defenses to deter any attack.  Given Washington’s denial, Arnold could not meet publicly with Robinson and André without raising suspicion.

Arnold could, however, meet with André alone since no one knew who he was.  Arnold sent word to André that Washington, Lafayette and others would be dining with him at his home near West Point on September 24.  It would be a perfect time for the British to attack.  They might capture, not only West Point, but the leader of the Continental Army as well.

Even with all this information, Clinton and André still thought a personal meeting with Arnold was critical to seal the deal.  They arranged one final attempt for a meeting.

And we will get to that meeting next time in an episode that may not go very well for Major André.

- - -

Next Episode 265 Arnold's Treason Revealed (Available February 5, 2023)


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Further Reading

Websites

Logistical and Quartermaster Operations at Fortress West Point, 1778-1783: https://www.hudsonrivervalley.org/documents/401021/1055071/westpointlogistics_cubbison.pdf

Bradley, J. H. West Point and the Hudson Highlands in the American Revolution, 1976: https://www.westpoint.edu/sites/default/files/inline-images/vietnam/West%2520Point%2520and%2520the%2520Hudson%2520Highlands%2520in%2520the%2520American%2520Revolution.pdf

THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR IN THE HUDSON HIGHLANDS: FORTIFYING WEST POINT, 1775-1779:  https://msaag.aag.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/8-MSG-2010-Galgano.pdf

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Boynton, Edward C. History of West Point and its military importance during the American Revolution, London: Sampson Low, Son, & Marston, 1864. 

Hill, George Canning Benedict Arnold. A Biography, Boston: E.O. Libby 1858. 

Sellers, Charles Coleman Benedict Arnold The Proud Warrior, NY: Minton, Balch & Co. 1930. 

Todd, Charles Burr The Real Benedict Arnold, New York: A.S. Barnes and Co.1903. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Lea, Russell M. A Hero and A Spy: The Revolutionary War Correspondence of Benedict Arnold, Heritage books, 2008 

Malcolm, Joyce Lee The Tragedy of Benedict Arnold: An American Life, Pegasus Books, 2018. 

Palmer, David R. The River and the Rock: The History of Fortress West Point, 1775-1783, Greenwood Publishing, 1969 (read on archive.org). 

Randall, Willard Sterne Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990 (read on archive.org). 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

ARP263 Hartford Conference


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
More importantly, Rochambeau wanted a larger French naval presence to gain superiority of the seas.  As long as the British controlled the water off their coast, the French army was little more than a supplement to the Continentals.

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
In April, shortly after his arrival, Guichen went on the offensive taking a fleet of 23 ships of the line and 3000 soldiers in hopes of capturing British-held Jamaica.  Britain had also recently replaced its commander in the West Indies.  Admiral George Brydges Rodney, who I discussed when he led the relief of Gibraltar back in Episode 243, assumed command.  Admiral Rodney was alerted immediately to the French fleet under Guichen taking to sea, and led his own fleet of 20 ships of the line to intercept them.

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.

Settling In

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.

French Regulars

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. 

Hartford Conference

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
As I said, Washington had been reluctant to meet because he was focused on building up his own army after its decimation during the previous winter at Morristown.  He only had a few thousand Continentals under arms.  Most of his attention over the summer was writing to Congress and to various state leaders trying to impress upon them  how important it was to send him soldiers and supplies so that he could make use of the newly arrived French Army to launch an offensive.  Until the Continental army reached a respectable size, Washington would not be able to convince the French to join him on any offensive.

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.  

Jeremiah Wadsworth
The leaders met at the home of Jeremiah Wadsworth.  He was a Hartford merchant who had been a commissary officer with the Continental Army.  He was a friend of General Nathanael Greene, and was also now serving as a local commissary for the French Army.

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.

- - -

Next Episode 264 Arnold Commits treason (Available January 22, 2023)


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Further Reading

Websites

“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

Free eBooks
(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) 

Wright, M. W. E. “What France Did for America: Memoirs of Rochambeau” The North American Review Part 1 May 1, 1917 , Part 2, June 1, 1917   & Part 3,  July 1, 1917 

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com 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 Archive.org

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.

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

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

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.