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Washington and Rochambeau, a Revolutionary CollaborationJune 23, 2015
By Theodore J. Crackel
In July 1780, a French fleet arrived at Newport, Rhode Island with some 5,000 French infantry and a number of marines under the command of Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, le Comte de Rochambeau. Although Rochambeau had been ordered to regard Washington as his superior officer, the result was a remarkable collaboration between the two men – one that led to the victory at Yorktown, Virginia that assured American independence.
Given earlier events, however, that collaboration was by no means a certainty. Two years before, in 1778, another French fleet had appeared off Newport, which was then occupied by the British. The French landed troops that were to help Major General John Sullivan’s force seize that city, but, when a storm began to gather and a small British fleet approached, the French recalled their troops and departed unceremoniously. Sullivan and his men barely escaped capture. A year later the French landed some 3,000 troops to join the American siege of Savannah, Georgia. After an ineffectual bombardment of the city the combined forces assaulted the entrenched British positions and were repulsed in one of the bloodiest defeats of the war.
Although Washington was careful to avoid even the hint of concern, he remained somewhat skeptical. Still, in 1780, he understood the potential value of an effective alliance with the French. Rochambeau was not unaware of the Americans’ reservations and, just two days after his arrival, wrote to Washington, assuring him of his high regard. The American general replied with equal warmth: “I hasten to impart to you the happiness I feel at the welcome news of your arrival…. Among the obligations we are under to your Prince, I esteem it one of the first that he” chose to command of his forces “a Gentleman whose high reputation and happy Union of social Qualities & Military abilities promise me every public advantage and private satisfaction.” Washington then sent Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, to Newport as a personal ambassador and opened a regular correspondence with Rochambeau.
At the top of Washington’s agenda was his long hoped-for attack on British-occupied New York City. Rochambeau, however, was concerned that attacking the entrenched British in the city was dangerous, but he kept his objections to himself. In September, Washington and Rochambeau met for the first time. Although the meeting produced no immediate plan, it did give them an opportunity to take each other’s measure. They clearly liked what they found and soon formed a bond of trust.
In early 1781, however, that trust was tested. When the French lost an opportunity to attack British forces ravaging the coast of Virginia, Washington committed a rare indiscretion. He wrote to his farm manager and distant relative, Lund Washington, complaining “in confidence” about the French failure. As ill luck would have it, the letter was intercepted and published. Rochambeau, however, refused to take serious offense. Though embarrassed, Washington did not deny that the letter was his. Instead he wrote to Rochambeau explaining that the letter was written “to a private friend – a Gentleman … on whose discretion I could absolutely rely.” Rochambeau accepted Washington’s explanation, and the matter was dropped.
Shortly thereafter, in mid-May, they learned that a powerful French fleet, under François-Joseph, comte de Grasse de Tilly, had left Europe, bound for the West Indies and that this fleet might operate for a time off of the American coast before returning to France. Washington thought immediately of his long-cherished attack to regain New York City; Rochambeau favored an action in Virginia on the Chesapeake. When the Frenchman suggested a personal conference to discuss strategy for the 1781 campaign, Washington eagerly agreed.
Although Rochambeau still favored a rendezvous further to the south, he did agree that de Grasse would be asked to sail to New York when he completed operations in the West Indies, and that the two generals would try to develop a reasonable plan of operation against the British-held city. In his message to de Grasse, Rochambeau stated Washington’s request that the fleet come to New York, but also stated his own arguments for the Chesapeake. In the meantime, the two generals decided to move Rochambeau’s forces closer to New York and, from his perspective, also closer to Virginia.
As they worked together in the next few months Washington and Rochambeau gained an ever deeper mutual personal regard and trust. In late July 1781, shortly after their two armies linked up near White Plains, New York, the two men went with a group of engineers to scout British-held defenses. While the engineers explored, the two generals decided to nap. When they awoke they found that the engineers were gone and that the causeway by which they had come was covered by the incoming tide. Fortunately, some American dragoons saw them and brought them back to shore. “Happily,” Rochambeau recounted in his memoirs, “our embarrassment was unnoticed by the enemy.”
Although planning and preparations for an attack on New York continued, Washington was beginning to share Rochambeau’s concerns. Early in August he recorded in his diary that “I turned my eyes more seriously … to an operation to the Southward.” That turned out to be fortunate, for in mid-month they learned that de Grasse, with twenty-nine warships and 3,200 troops, was on his way to the Chesapeake. That ended all indecision: the action would be along the Chesapeake.
Within days, the first of nearly 7,000 French and Continental troops began the move southward across New Jersey to meet transports that would move them down through the Chesapeake Bay and onward to Virginia. Meanwhile, Lafayette (and soon Major General Nathanael Greene) kept watch over General Charles Cornwallis, who had his forces at Yorktown.
Washington, Rochambeau and their staffs now rode ahead, stopping briefly at Mount Vernon to enjoy the hospitality of Washington’s estate. It was the first time the American general had returned to his beloved farm since his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in June 1775.
At the same time, the war was moving towards a conclusion more rapidly than either man could have imagined. In New York, General Henry Clinton was aware of the approach of de Grasse’s fleet, but underestimated its size. He concluded that the British fleet of nineteen warships, assembled in New York harbor under the command of Admiral Thomas Graves, could handle the French threat. Cornwallis, in Virginia, made the same mistake. Both men were disastrously wrong and by the time Graves was ordered to sea, the course history was to take could not be reversed.
On September 5th, when Graves arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake, he promptly stumbled upon de Grasse and was severely mauled. When he withdrew, sailing his battered fleet north to the shelter of New York harbor, French ships slipped into the Chesapeake and cut off any chance Cornwallis had of escape.
As Washington and Rochambeau rode towards Yorktown, Washington was particularly aware that he now commanded a coalition army of at least 15,000 troops and that trapped before them lay a hitherto inconceivable prize: Cornwallis, with an army of some 8,000 men. When Cornwallis capitulated on the 19th of October, Washington did not exaggerate when he acknowledged his “infinite obligations… to His Excellency the Count de Rochambeau.” As the allied army entered British positions they lined up with the French to the left and the Americans to the right of the road along which the British marched into captivity. To accompany that march the British drums beat a slow march. That beat also foretold an equally slow, but certain, end to the war and the birth of a new, independent nation.
In this campaign Washington and Rochambeau had worked together in remarkable harmony. While the two men had enormous respect and admiration for each other’s abilities, that alone might not have assured such a result. Fortunately they had also formed a deep bond of trust and friendship. In his letter of farewell to Rochambeau, in mid-December 1782, Washington wrote “of the happiness I have enjoyed in our private friendship. The remembrance of which will be one of the most pleasing Circumstances of my life.” Rochambeau responded in kind, acknowledging their friendship and assuring Washington of his “most inviolable personal attachment & respect.”
Washington and Rochambeau kept up a warm, if irregular, correspondence for several years, but the very different events that engulfed the two nations in the closing decades of the 18th century appears to have made the exchange too uncomfortable to maintain. “Do you remember, my Dear general, the first repast we made together,” Rochambeau wrote in 1790. “The soup,” you remarked, showed “the difference of the character of our two nations, the french in burning their throat, and all the Americans waiting wisely of the time that it was cooled. I believe, my dear general, you have Seen” in the past year "that our nation has not changed character. We go very fast – God will that we come at our aims.” Washington, in reply, summarized his nation’s recent history: “We have a good government in Theory, and are carrying it pretty happily into practice…. Public sentiment runs with us, and all things hitherto seem to succeed according to our wishes.” This was the last exchange of letters between the two friends.
Washington lived on until December 1799, and Rochambeau until May 1807, but we can be very certain that in their remaining years they recalled, often and fondly, those days when they had forged a friendship in the cauldron of the American Revolution.
Theodore J. Crackel served as the Editor-in-Chief of the University of Virginia’s Papers of George Washington documentary editing project for six years. He was instrumental in beginning a process of digitization to make the papers more accessible to students and scholars.