exerpt from NATIONAL SOCIETY OF SONS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
One of the most important foreign military commanders to fight for the United States was the French General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, compte de Rochambeau. Born at Vendome on 1 July 1725, he was the third son of a family with a long military tradition which extended back to the crusades.
In 1776, Rochambeau accepted the Governorship of Villefranche-en-Roussillon, and served under the comte de Vaux to prepare for an invasion of England.
The French Treaty of Commerce (an eighteenth-century ‘lend-lease act’) was signed in 1779 with the American colonies. France had committed herself. There now existed a ‘new’ French army (largely a result of Rochambeau's reforms and preparations) that was in a high state of readiness and had no immediate objective since the invasion of England was cancelled. This was the setting in 1780, when the marquis de Lafayette returned from America to argue for the deployment of a major contingent of French forces to fight along side the American colonists.
It was not surprising that Rochambeau was promoted to Lieutenant General and was assigned to command a planned expedition of over 7,000 men to aid the American rebels. The operation was given the code name of Expédition Particulière and consisted of only 5,500 men when it sailed from Brest on 1 May 1780. It anchored off Newport, Rhode Island, 11 July 1780.
This was the beginning of Rochambeau's greatest military achievement, but one which often gets overlooked in histories, since the victorious results largely benefited his allies and not his own nation. The story is down played by histories which seek to promote national heros. It is also ignored because it is a success story of such accomplished professional military skill that it did not produce the bloody, costly encounters that make for sensational reading in popular military history. Because the end came in a relatively pedestrian siege in 1781, the difficult situation confronting Rochambeau in 1780 is seldom recognized.
Rochambeau was in a precarious position when he landed on American shores in July 1980. His line of communications was 5,000 miles across an ocean dominated by the enemy's navy. He was campaigning in an unfamiliar land, allied with a rebellious, ill-defined faction of the enemy's people. His allies, themselves, had been enemies of France less than two decades previously. Equally distressing, Rochambeau discovered that the American army was far less prepared than even the worst reports received in Paris had indicated.
With professional dedication, Rochambeau dutifully placed his finely equipped and trained French forces under Washington's supreme command, and overcame American prejudices by tact, a modest charm, and wise demeanor. Rochambeau's personal influence was strongly reflected in the courteous conduct of his officers and the exceptional discipline of the French troops. Seldom in military history has a military leader exhibited such thorough command over the factors so critical to conducting coalition warfare.
Initial complications arose with impetuous zeal of Lafayette as liaison officer with Washington. However, Rochambeau corrected this problem with his famous, admonishing ‘father-to-son’ letter to the young marquis. Rochambeau counseled Lafayette that it would be tempting to make a military show of force with the superb French forces he had, but that it was more important not to waste any of these limited resources on anything other than an important operation.
Rochambeau, although far more experienced than Washington as a military commander, served under Washington with the utmost respect and skill. The two commanders carefully formulated their grand strategy in a series of conferences. The Hartford Conference of 21 September was held in Connecticut, half way between the French encampment at Newport and Washington's headquarters near New York. Rochambeau resisted pressure to launch an immediate attack against the British strong defenses at New York. Rochambeau convinced Washington to wait for more forces (the over 2,000 of Expédition Particulière that had to be left due to a shortage of sea-lift).
The French expedition went into winter quarters in Rhode Island. Rochambeau established his headquarters in Newport and settled into the social life with considerable success. Although the French officers were billeted among citizens, the troops were maintained in separate camps outside of the city. Everything the French used (even the camping fields) was paid for with hard currency.
The French troops were commended by many for their amazing discipline, which is really a reflection upon the quality of the commander. Rochambeau did not rely on the threat of harsh punishment but rather on anticipating the needs of his men and providing for them. He established what may be the first military newspaper in America. This and the many social activities were in response to the isolation his troops experienced in the unfamiliar surroundings of colonial America.
Early in 1781, the Americans pressed for the French to deploy on some excursions in the south, where up to this time British were meeting with little resistance. Although Rochambeau was leery of engaging in hastily conceived plans which would not decisively strike at the British, he did finally agree to send his small French fleet in a January raid into Virginia waters. However, at a Newport meeting with Rochambeau Washington pressed for a large force to deploy against Arnold in Virginia. A French force deployed on 9 March but was turned back by the British fleet.
In late March 1781, Rochambeau received news from Paris. There would be no more French troops sent to join his expedition, but Admiral de Grasse with a fleet of about 30 ships would be in the West Indies and might be made available for a brief time in North America.
Rochambeau discussed this with Washington at their 21 May 1781, Wethersfield Conference. Washington became more appreciative of the reason for Rochambeau's caution. It was imperative that this French force be used for decisive operations since it would be all that the French intended to provide.
The Two commanders discussed two options. One was Washington's long held objective of taking New York from the British. The other was a suggestion by Rochambeau to concentrate forces in the south against less formidable British forces. Both options needed naval support to succeed. While Washington's New York campaign was given priority, the concept for a campaign in Virginia began to take form.
In June 1781, American and French forces joined at Philipsburg, New York. In July, Washington and Rochambeau performed a joint reconnaissance. They recognized that lack of naval support and more American troops prevented a serious attack against the British positions in New York. Then, on 14 August, Rochambeau received word of de Grasse's intentions to be off the coast of Virginia in September. With this news, the Yorktown Campaign was set in motion. Washington immediately approved the largest overland strategic movement in the war.
The French naval commander of the small fleet at Newport departed 25 August with the valuable French siege guns and provisions to join up with De Grasse. Unknown to the American and French forces in the north, De Grasse had already anchored in Lynnhaven Bay on 13 August and off loaded 3,000 troops.
The Allies' overland march from New York began 25 August with deceptive northward moves which successfully confused the British forces at New York for days. En route south, some of the forces loaded on boats at Head of Elk, Maryland. Except for the wagon train, field artillery and escort cavalry, the rest of the armies embarked on ships from Annapolis, Maryland. The strategic movement was made in remarkable time. By 9 September, Rochambeau and Washington (traveling entierly overland and separately from their main forces) were at Mount Vernon, Virginia. There they received news that de Grasse was at sea engaging British naval forces. On 14 September, Washington and Rochambeau arrived at Williamsburg, Virginia, to join up with a small contingent of American forces under Lafayette and French regiments that came with de Grasse's fleet. Also, it was learned that de Grasse had succeeded in driving the British fleet under Graves back out to sea, leaving the now highly outnumbered British forces of Cornwallis' isolated at Yorktown. Swiftly, Washington and Rochambeau conducted a perfect textbook eighteenth-century siege. Trenches were dug largely under the supervision of French engineers. The presence of French siege guns, which Rochambeau had brought with his expedition, were a devastating surprise to the British.
The British surrender (19 October) at Yorktown was the decisive military engagement Rochambeau had sought. Of course, many were not certain at the time exactly how decisive it was. Washington and Rochambeau immediately had to think about the next campaign. Washington hurried back north, while Rochambeau' forces remained in Virginia, Headquartered at Williamsburg.