America The Ungrateful

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For decades the French had been a traditional enemy of New Englanders. Ministers from Maine to Massachusetts had long encouraged repatriated prisoners of Franco-British wars, mostly women, to record their experiences with hordes of Jesuit priests preying upon their Calvinist souls. These accounts went from the pulpit up and down the coast, confirming long-standing beliefs that connected the French and the Catholic Church with immorality, bad theology, and priestly tyranny. During the French and Indian War this practice had reached new heights, and the following years of uneasy peace had not wiped out old prejudices. For most Americans the French remained objects of suspicion and hostility.

Lauberdière saw this hostility assert itself wherever Rochambeau’s troops went. “Upon their arrival in Williamsburg, the French found the same reception from the Virginians that they had had in Rhode Island upon debarkation.” Although Virginians “owe to the French the salvation of their country, the conservation of their goods and of their possessions,” they “refuse to lodge … and to receive amongst themselves those who shed their blood for them.”

There too British propaganda evidently played its part; Clermont-Crèvecoeur wrote that the British “had made the French seem odious to them by their remarks about us … saying that we were dwarfs, pale, ugly, specimens who lived exclusively on frogs and snails.” (It was, however, an American, Robert Beverley, who as early as 1705 had described a prodigious bullfrog in his History and Present State of Virginia as being large enough to provide a “comfortable meal” for “six French-Men.”)

As summer turned into fall, the French forces settled into their quarters in Newport. French culture, Lauberdière records, broke the ice: “The Frenchman is always the same. No other people has mastered better than he the charming art of making himself loved. … His nimbleness, his gallantry, at times ridiculed by other peoples, always meets with an agreeable response” from the other “sex, [which responds] the same in all countries. … Compliments, whether true or false, seduce them, are always in season with them. At first our manners astonished the Americans. Before long our courtesies, our politenesses conquered them, and they quickly recognized our superiority in this field.”

Rhode Islanders may have put up with such solicitude because the French paid in specie. According to Lauberdière, “our allies were very anxious to get ours.” Other officers expressed themselves more bluntly. Axel von Ferson, a favorite of Marie Antoinette, complained that Newporters “overcharged us mercilessly. They treat us more like enemies than friends. … Their greed is unequalled.” Rochambeau found himself “at the mercy of the userer,” while Clermont-Crèvecoeur claimed that “suspicion, fraud and insincerity characterize most American merchants.”

As the French marched south in the summer of 1781, they encountered another surprise: warfare itself outside European norms and etiquette. Not only did both sides engage in forms of battle fit only for bandits and robbers, but the British in particular committed what could only be described as criminal acts. Lauberdière described how the British had (supposedly) inoculated the black slaves with smallpox and spread them across Virginia to infect Americans and how they had “murdered” an American colonel, Alexander Scammel, near Yorktown (he may have been killed just after surrendering; the record remains unclear to this day). But the British officer Banastre Tarleton outdid them all. Near Portsmouth, Virginia, he hanged a pregnant woman under a sign reading, “You will not bear any more rebels.”

Americans seemed quite prepared to sink to the same level of warfare; only French intervention saved the young captain Charles Asgill from the gallows in retaliation for the British hanging of an American officer. “The French are always the friends of the defeated,” Lauberdière explained; “kindness was the principle of our conduct vs them.” After Yorktown, he added, Americans “were very upset about the capitulation. They had hoped for an assault so that they could take revenge for the tyranny, one could say for the cruelty, which they had experienced by the English during the war.” For Lauberdière, even holding a grudge against a defeated enemy betrayed a serious lack of breeding.

French officers were more than eager to befriend, wine, and dine the vanquished foe. Americans resented this; they didn’t have the means to compete with the French aristocrats. Legend has it that Baron von Steuben had to sell his horse to throw a dinner for his own fellow officers, while, as the Vicomte de Rochambeau, Rochambeau’s twenty-six-year-old son, observed, French officers were making substantial loans to their British counterparts.

But these officers belonged to the same social class, which was far above those in the Continental forces, where according to the Comte d’Estaing, you found “captains who are not good enough company to be permitted to eat with their general officers and colonels who are innkeepers.” As far as the French were concerned, the concept of noblesse oblige simply lay beyond the understanding of any American officer. For the French, “the last shot of the cannon also gave the signal for friendship.”