"Lafayette, Franklin, And
The Coming of Rochambeau's Army"

Dr. Jonathan R. Dull (1980)
This presentation was given to the
Washington Association of New Jersey,
at Morristown, in April 1980.

The decision to send Rochambeau to Newport at the head of a French army was the result of persistent lobbying by the Marquis de Lafayette; the adroit diplomacy of Franklin; the recognition by Washington that American troops would inevitably lose a war of attrition, and the French minister Vergennes' preference for diplomatic reasons to fight the British in North America rather than in the English Channel or on English soil, Professor Dull explains.


We celebrate this year the bicentennial of a unique event in our history – the arrival of the only foreign troops ever invited to the United States. The news of their coming was given to George Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette here in Morristown on May 10, 1780. What more fitting place, therefore, to discuss the origins of this singular occurrence? I use the world "singular" in more than one sense. The coming of Rochambeau's army was not only a unique event but also an unexpected one. When the alliance was signed no one anticipated that French troops would be sent to the United States. Almost two years of discussion preceded Rochambeau's departure from Brest in May 1780. In this discussion were involved directly or indirectly many of the most important figures in the Revolution: Washington, Hamilton, John Adams, Franklin, and Lafayette. Finally it is possible to trace this story since the appearance of such recent historical works as Lee Kennett's fine book The French Forces in America, 1780-83 and Stanley Idzerda's splendid edition of Lafayette's letters and papers from 1778 to 1780, the second volume of Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution. In telling it I will draw also on my own research on French war strategy and on Franklin's diplomacy.
Rochambeau's army of course was only a part of the French aid to America. France loaned or gave the new republic almost 50,000,000 livres in direct financial support, equivalent in purchasing power to perhaps 100,000,000 contemporary dollars. Without this help the finances of the new country surely would have collapsed. This direct financial aid was dwarfed, however, by the enormous sums France spent on her own armies and fleets.
The War for American Independence cost the French government over a billion livres, a sum equal to almost three years of its normal income. It was the resultant increase in the royal debt which prompted the political crisis of 1787-9, the beginning of France's own revolution.
Most of these expenses were incurred by the French navy. From the French perspective the war was chiefly a naval war, a war fought from the North Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. In the course of this war French fleets visited American waters each year from 1778 through 1782. The largest of these fleets, that of de Grasse, blockaded Cornwallis' army at Yorktown. Also indispensable to Cornwallis' capture, however, were the units of the French army commanded by Rochambeau.
Yorktown ended the long stalemate between the opposing armies in North America and broke the British will to continue their efforts to coerce Americans into obedience. Voluntarily Britain surrendered her bases of New York and Charleston as part of the peace settlement. Without the French presence in America it is difficult to visualize a victory on the scale of Yorktown; without such a victory it is difficult to visualize the British abandoning New York and Charleston and recognizing American independence.
Initially, however, France intended to limit her help to financial and naval support. In January 1778 Conrad-Alexandre Gerard, an undersecretary of the French foreign ministry, met with Benjamin Franklin and his fellow commissioners, Arthur Lee and Silas Deane. Gerard indicated that France supposed it would not be agreeable to the United States to have foreign troops in their country.
Soon thereafter the United States and France signed a treaty of alliance and a French fleet commanded by Vice Admiral d'Estaing weighed anchor for America. D'Estaing's intention was to surprise the British fleet at New York. Once it was destroyed the huge British garrison there could be blockaded and starved into surrender to Washington's army. D'Estaing's fleet arrived in July 1778. The French ships, however, proved to be of too deep draft to enter New York harbor. D'Estaing therefore was forced to shift his attention to the smaller British garrison at Newport.
An American army under Generals Sullivan, Lafayette and Greene joined him at Rhode Island. Their combined operation failed. The French fleet, damaged by battle and by a storm, was forced to withdraw to Boston. The campaign of 1778 ended without the decisive victory sought by France.
No one felt this setback more keenly than did the Marquis de Lafayette. In 1776 the nineteen-year-old nobleman had been given a Major General's commission by Silas Deane, the first American diplomatic representative in France. To make use of the commission, however, Lafayette had had to earn in battle the trust and respect of General Washington.
Although the young Frenchman considered the American cause as his own, he never lost his French national pride. Newport had seemed to promise an opportunity for the display of French courage and military prowess.
D'Estaing had been a general in the French army before transferring to the navy and moreover was a distant cousin of the marquis; Lafayette, thrilled by his arrival, had hoped in the final assault to command the marines embarked aboard the French fleet. Instead d'Estaing had departed, leaving the American army to conduct a dangerous retreat before it in turn was besieged by the British. The French admiral was accused by some of Lafayette's fellow officers of abandoning unnecessarily the American army, an accusation which even seemed countenanced by General Sullivan, the American commander.
While defending his countryman, Lafayette sought a way to undo the shame and mistrust resulting from the defeat at Newport. Lafayette therefore wrote d'Estaing to suggest ways of causing the defeat to be forgotten. One of his suggestions was that France send 2,000 troops to Boston to be embarked aboard the French squadron, which then could carry out combined operations against Halifax, Newfoundland, Florida and Georgia, or the British West Indies. Another suggestion was that France send 6,000 to 10,000 troops to join the Americans in an attack on Canada (i.e., the province of Quebec).
Lafayette was not the only one thinking about a joint attack on Canada. Rumors abounded that autumn of 1778 that the British were planning to evacuate their posts in the United States, leaving America free to renew its attack on Canada. Congress decided to explore the possibility of French help. A Congressional committee queried Lafayette when he arrived in Philadelphia in October to ask Congress' leave to rejoin the French army.
In spite of Lafayette's having proposed the same idea to d'Estaing, his answers were non-committal. There were a couple of reasons for his reticence. On his journey to Philadelphia he had discovered that Americans feared a French army in North America. No one was more suspicious of French intentions than was General Washington. To Lafayette he merely detailed the obstacles to a joint attack on Canada, but to Henry Laurens, the President of Congress, Washington described in detail his apprehensions that France would keep Canada for herself.
Unaware of Washington's mistrust, Lafayette probably was more restrained by the opposition of Gerard, now French minister in Philadelphia. Before the alliance was signed Gerard had warned Franklin and his colleagues to expect no French help in capturing Canada. Before coming to America, the new minister had been instructed to offer Congress no encouragement for such a project. France wished America independent but if Canada remained in British hands the Americans would appreciate better the need they had for the friendship and alliance of France. When a Congressional committee proposed joint Franco-American operations against Halifax, Newfoundland, and Quebec, Gerard answered evasively and he subsequently ordered Lafayette to do the same.
In spite of Gerard's and Lafayette's reserve Congress pressed the idea. Lafayette was granted leave to return to France and was asked to carry Congress's new instructions to Franklin, just given the title of American minister plenipotentiary to the French court. Congress ordered Franklin to convince the French of the necessity of attacking Halifax and Quebec. It also sent him a plan for joint operations, which involved the sending of four French ships of the line and 4,000-5,000 troops to attack first Quebec and then Halifax. Lafayette, carrying these instructions, went to Boston to embark for France.
On January 1, 1779 Congress changed its mind. Persuaded by Washington's opposition it ordered Lafayette to rescind the proposal for a joint attack on Canada. The messenger arrived too late. Lafayette sailed from Boston on January 11; not until May would Lafayette and Franklin learn of Congress's change of heart.
Our story now shifts to the Parisian suburb of Passy, the home of American commissioners Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. After reporting to the French court, one of Lafayette's first visits was to Passy. On the evening of February 20, 1779 Lafayette met with Adams and most probably also with Franklin. We have two clues as to what occurred that winter evening. On the following day Adams wrote Lafayette suggesting future operations in America for a French fleet and for an expeditionary force of 5,000 men.
Several days later Franklin wrote the French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, with a similar proposal. Interestingly both Adams and Franklin stressed the importance of attacking Newport. Franklin's instructions from Congress had been to ask for help in attacking Halifax and Quebec. Nothing had been said of French troops operating within the United States. What had induced the usually cautious Franklin to exceed his orders? My guess is that both Adams and Franklin had been won over by Lafayette's enthusiasm.
Lafayette had never abandoned the idea of avenging the defeat at Newport. After his testimony to Congress he had written his friend Henry Laurens suggesting unofficially that if the British forces in New York and Rhode Island were an obstacle to an attack on Canada some troops and ships (presumably French) might help to their reduction.
Before departing from America, Lafayette asked his friend William Carmichael, a congressman from Maryland, to forward him intelligence from America. He told Carmichael he was interested principally in New York, Rhode Island, Quebec, Montreal, Halifax and Newfoundland. Apparently Lafayette was able to communicate these interests to Adams and Franklin.
Soon, however, joint operations in North America dropped from discussion. Adams, no longer a commissioner, returned to America. Franklin, the project's other supporter, came to realize how rash he had been. Eventually he told Congress that he had recommended to the French that they reduce Halifax and Quebec, but he said nothing of his proposed attack on Rhode Island. Henceforth Franklin adhered strictly to his orders; he would ask for supplies but say nothing directly about troops.
Lafayette too fell silent. New objectives arose for his youthful enthusiasm as the focus of the war shifted to Europe. France's hopes for a quick victory in 1778 had been frustrated. Now badly outnumbered at sea, she had no choice but to seek the help of Europe's third great navy, that of Spain. Spain's price for joining the war included French agreement to some plan for ending the war in a single campaign, before Spain's own overextended Empire could be threatened.
The plan that was adopted involved the clearing of the English Channel by a Franco-Spanish fleet of at least 50 ships of the line, whereupon 20,000 French troops would be landed on the Isle of Wight. Once this had been captured a landing could be made near Portsmouth and that great naval base destroyed. It was hoped this would force Britain to sue for peace.
A proposal by Lafayette for a separate raiding force of 1, 500 men to operate in the Irish Sea was dropped, but Lafayette was given an important staff position with the invasion army. The idea of an expeditionary force for North America was shelved. Shelved but not forgotten. Vergennes and his colleagues on the French council of state viewed the proposed invasion of England with some skepticism. Even as the attack force for England gathered Vergennes asked Lafayette to forward him maps of Rhode Island. In a letter to Washington Lafayette confessed he would be happiest if he could rejoin American colors or put a division of 4,000 or 5,000 Frenchmen under Washington's orders.
At Vergennes' request he then sent detailed plans for military and naval operations in North America with Newport as the opening target. The invasion of England was delayed by contrary winds and by the end of July Vergennes was ready to suggest to Spain that the major effort of the war be shifted to North America. Lafayette had become a major lobbyist for sending military as well as naval aid to North America. Franklin was not free to ask such help from Vergennes, but he was willing to talk unofficially to Lafayette.
Repeatedly the marquis assured Vergennes that only Franklin's lack of orders prevented his requesting French troops. In early September the French and Spanish fleet in the English Channel returned to port. Gradually even the Spaniards had to recognize that the invasion would have to be postponed for another year. The French council of state, however, was ready to abandon the invasion for good. To better understand the debate let us take a look at the strategic situation in the autumn of 1779.
As I've mentioned, Vergennes, the French war leader, was very wary of attacking England directly. Part of his apprehensions were military. To send troops across the Channel was terribly risky. It involved not only enormous logistical problems but also the continual maintenance of naval superiority. The French navy by itself did not have sufficient ships to gain or keep control of the Channel; the great fleet of 1779 had contained 36 Spanish ships of the line and only 30 French. Together they had forced 45 British ships of the line to flee but if the British chose to fight even so large a numerical advantage might not be enough. The Spanish fleet was not used to operating with the French, and Spanish training and materiel were suspect at best. All in all, to challenge the British in their own waters was to court great risks.
An invasion of England was also a great risk diplomatically. The great powers of eastern Europe, particularly Russia, were happy to see the British taught some humility but they would not stand by if Britain were in danger of being crushed. An invasion of England would raise justly their apprehensions. Moreover, the French government itself was not inclined to risk the war's getting out of hand. Its war aims were strictly limited. All Vergennes wished to do was bring Britain down a peg. He believed American independence would reduce British power sufficiently for France to deal with her as an equal. Once France could do that she would be free to deal with her real enemies, Austria and Russia.
The Austrians and Russians had already grabbed large chunks of territory from the Poles and threatened at any time to do the same to the Turks. (Russia eventually did use the American war as an opportunity to take over the Crimea.) Vergennes viewed such expansionism as the greatest long-term danger to the security of France. The American war was designed to strengthen his hand to deal with that threat. He might even hope that Britain, once taught her lesson, would be willing to cooperate with him. Since Britain might be tomorrow's ally, it would be best not to humiliate her too badly today.
The question then was how to win a war against an enemy you couldn't attack directly. The answer was obvious. Britain was over-extended militarily. Only the British navy linked British garrisons scattered over much of the world, from Quebec to St. Augustine, from Jamaica to St. Lucia, from Gibraltar and Minorca to Bombay and Bengal. Combined, the French and Spanish navies outnumbered the British by about 4 ships of the line to every 3. If a major share of the British navy could be pinned down in Europe the French might hope eventually to achieve a decisive superiority in numbers in the Indian Ocean or the Caribbean or off the coast of America. This is what finally happened at Yorktown. De Grasse's superiority off the Virginia Capes was a direct result of the pressure exerted by a Spanish fleet off Gibraltar, a French and Spanish fleet off the south coast of England, and a Dutch fleet in the North Sea.
Attaining naval superiority was only solving half the problem, though. To pick off the scattered British garrisons the French also would need a superiority of land forces. To attain this superiority in the Western Hemisphere France would need the help of the United States and Spain. The French army had thus far been very successful in the West Indies and still possessed a strong advantage both in numbers and leadership. In Louisiana the Spaniards lacked an advantage in numbers, but they possessed a general worthy of comparison to Washington--Governor Bernardo de Galvez, a staunch supporter of the Revolution and the future conqueror of Natchez, of Mobile, of Pensacola, and of the Bahamas. The weak link in the Western Hemisphere was the Continental Army.
In past years you have had described to you the terrible ordeals of Washington's army and Washington's role in holding together that army. Washington's leadership hardly can be overestimated; furthermore, by 1779 his generalship cannot be faulted. As long as he maintained control of the hills of New Jersey and of the Hudson River gap the American position was as impervious to direct assault as was the British position at New York. The continuation of the stalemate, however, depended on forces beyond Washington's control. By late 1779 the American war effort had begun to wither from exhaustion. Each year of the war America was able to support fewer troops in the field. Moreover the British recently had opened a new front in Georgia and South Carolina, further straining the American war effort. Even French financial aid, indispensable as it was, might not by itself prove enough.
Attrition and exhaustion threatened to accomplish what Howe and Clinton had not--to destroy the Continental Army. Once that happened, militia alone could not hold back British regulars. The French government was kept well informed by Gerard of American disunity and war weariness. French regular troops might help to maintain the stalemate until an opportunity presented to take the initiative, but how could France be certain they would be welcome? Franklin could not invite them without Congress's permission and Congress in 1779 had become bitterly divided over foreign policy. For political reasons as well as reasons of security Vergennes could not raise in Congress the issue of French troops. Vergennes confessed that he didn't know what could be done regarding America. Although he believed the welfare of America required French troops be sent, France couldn't act unilaterally. Without American agreement an expeditionary force could not be included in the plans for the 1780 campaign.
The impasse was broken by Washington. Washington's attitude was critical; if he were to accept the idea of French troops in America, Congress hardly was likely to object. On January 25, 1780 Lafayette sent to Vergennes a passage from a letter he had just received from his former commander. Washington, writing the previous September, had said that he would welcome Lafayette to Columbia's shores whether it be in the character of an American Major General or as the officer at the head of a corps of gallant French if circumstances required this.
Lafayette also enclosed for Vergennes a letter of Alexander Hamilton's suggestion that the French send not only a naval force but also 2,000 troops to America. Lafayette's message appears to have been decisive. On January 29 Vergennes sent to his ambassador in Spain the campaign plans for the coming year. They included 6 ships of the line and 3,000 to 4,000 troops for North America. With minor changes, this was the force which sailed from the port of Brest the coming May.
Why did Washington change his mind? The best evidence is to be found in the notes taken by Alexander Hamilton at a conference held on September 16,1779. On that day the chevalier de la Luzerne, en route to Philadelphia to relieve Gerard as France's minister plenipotentiary, stopped at West Point to discuss war strategy with Washington. The American commander told him that if operations against Canada became possible American land forces by themselves would be sufficient, although French naval cooperation would be very useful and necessary. In discussing the military situation in occupied Georgia and threatened South Carolina, however, Washington's attitude was far different.
Suppose, asked Luzerne, the French court should find it convenient to send directly from France a squadron and a few attached regiments to act in conjunction with the American army in this quarter. Would this be agreeable to the United States? Washington replied that he thought it would be "very advancive of the common cause." Washington also indicated that he expected Newport could be captured by a combined naval-land operation, but that the British forces there were liable to be withdrawn first. Thus it appears that it was the British success in the American South which induced Washington to accept the idea of direct French military as well as naval help.
Eventually it was the main British army in the South, that of Cornwallis, which fell victim to the French and American forces. Washington also was correct about Newport. The reappearance in American waters of d'Estaing's fleet in the autumn of 1779 frightened the British into abandoning Rhode Island without a fight. Although d'Estaing's attack on Savannah failed he was thus able indirectly to reverse his setback at Newport the previous year. Ironically it was Newport which in August 1780 welcomed Rochambeau's army and its escorting fleet.
This story, though, I will leave you to read in Kennett's book. What of Lafayette's hopes to command the expeditionary force? As Kennett points out, he was considered far too junior in rank for such an important command. A key job was reserved, however, for the young man who had been such an important link between the leaders of France and America. It was Lafayette who was chosen to notify Washington of the coming of the expeditionary force and to prepare for its arrival. This was the news that he brought to Morristown that day in May two hundred years ago.
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Page posted 7 April 2006.