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The French Connection
Rakehells, men of good will, adventurers, and bunglers were all in the glittering pageant when the Old World came to help out the New
December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
French tactics were simple: Admiral de Grasse would threaten England’s possessions in the West Indies to draw off the British navy so that seasoned French troops could be landed in America. The plan was easy, the accomplishment difficult and muddled. The Americans asked prudently for four thousand men—sufficient to help, yet unlikely to be regarded as the decisive army. The point was rapidly grasped by the French, who elected to send eight thousand men, including some cavalry with horses. Supplies, of course, for the eight thousand men had to go with them. Almost incredibly quickly, by eighteenth-century standards, seventy-five hundred men were assembled at Brest. Alas, there were no ships to take them across the Atlantic. The Spaniards, already myopically preoccupied with Gibraltar, could send none. The Spaniards also were huffy because the French refused to send their army to recover Florida. So in the end only fifty-five hundred sailed, and not a single horse—not even the commander in chief’s. The decision was a tough one, for Rochambeau parted with two tried war-horses that he could never replace, but it was two horses or twenty men. Rochambeau chose the men.
A typical decision, easy maybe for Rochambeau, but it would have been almost impossible for most European generals, conscious of their status and dignity. But Rochambeau possessed great qualities and great integrity. A professional soldier for all of his life, he had steadily risen through ability, sound judgment, and honesty—qualities that he was now to display at their best. Excepting horses, the logistics of the expedition were admirable. Everything went with it—clothes and tents, as well as guns and bullets. And most important of all, money. Rochambeau was well aware of the dangers for a French army in America. After all, the French alliance had created considerable distaste; many Americans were still English enough to hate the French and to suspect France’s motives. There was quite a strong anti-French party in Congress, led by the Lees. A few rapes, a little pillaging, demands to Congress for money, and the French would be hated more than the British and as much as the Hessians. Rochambeau resolved to pay for everything that his army required, and his experience told him that he would have to pay grossly inflated prices—that was the nature of war. He demanded and got eight million livres for the expedition, a vast sum by eighteenth-century standards. The army was of high quality, and, as if to impress the Americans with the sincerity of their intentions, some of the great aristocratic families were with it: the Duc de Lauzun, with six hundred men of his own family corps, the Légion de Lauzun; the Marquis de Laval-Montmorency was there; and, at last, the Vicomte de Noailles, the ardent friend of Lafayette, among scores of others, eager to revenge the ignominy of France.
All of these aristocrats were young, rich, extravagant, brilliantly dressed, and exquisitely mannered, used to the gardens and sophistications of Versailles and Paris. They found colonial America a primitive place, but they were fascinated by it. They loathed the food but loved the girls, whose freedom in society amazed them as much as their beauty attracted them. The setting, in terms of houses and furniture, they regarded as unnecessarily crude, but the style of life—its ease, its freedom—won their hearts. But what amazed them most of all was the absence of grinding poverty, at that time the dark background to their gilded lives.
They were ardent, confident men, yet at first it looked to them as if the ignominy might never be obliterated, but only strengthened. Before landing at Newport, Rhode Island, on July 10, 1780, Rochambeau had heard of the fall of Charleston. He found the American forces dispirited, ill equipped, and unpaid. Inflation was rampant, and the English stranglehold on Charleston and also New York encouraged defeatism and strengthened those drawn to compromise. In October he sent his son, Vicomte Rochambeau, back to France, requesting a second division, more supplies, and enough cash for George Washington to pay his army. The young Rochambeau exchanged the gloom of New England for the gloom of Versailles. The Spanish were obsessed with Gibraltar and reluctant to commit any forces except in Florida. The loss of Charleston depressed Louis xvi, and neither he nor his ministers were relieved by what they heard of the American army: the news of the Pennsylvania mutinies had already reached them. Another British victory and the end would be in sight. France would then be mercilessly savaged in the Caribbean. Another long war seemed to be in prospect, and France’s treasury was on the point of exhaustion. Tough decisions were made —no more troops were to go to America. Rochambeau must win or lose with what he had. But six million livres, enough for Washington’s army, were scraped together. Rochambeau was told that if opportunity and his own tactical situation allowed, de Grasse would be permitted to leave his West Indian station to help in a combined attack on the British during the next campaigning session. Nevertheless de Grasse’s main purpose—to attack Jamaica with Spain—was his first priority.