THE FRENCH CONNECTION

by Lloyd W. Fowles

         In 1777, the British Army commanded by General Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga. Over two years later, the Foot Guard Company participated in another event which, although it did not have the threat of approaching battle, was vital in the formation of plans for the victorious conclusion of the war. After the alliance with France, which had been signed soon after the defeat, upwards of five thousand French soldiers landed at Newport, Rhode Island in July 1780. As Comte de Rochambeau, the French leader, had explicit orders to "be under the command of General Washington", and was eager to begin military activities, a meeting of the two generals was shortly arranged. How and why Hartford was selected at the location is a matter of speculation, but there are many valid reasons for the choice. Washington was in New Jersey and Rochambeau in Rhode Island, consequently, a centrally located, safe, inland city with adequate facilities (which would include proper escort guards) was chosen. When Washington and his staff met Rochambeau's entourage including Admiral Ternay on September 20, 1780 in Meeting House Square, it was, as Colonel Deming said, "a pageant the most picturesque in exterior outlines and the most inspiring from its moral grandeur in which your corps has ever participated". Although the American uniforms may have lacked a certain luster when near those worn by the French Staff and troops, the Foot Guard could show an American uniform which compared favorable in this flash of brilliance if not in its length of tradition. The officers present at this international conference were those whose names rank high in Revolutionary War importance. Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth represented the State of Connecticut and with Washington were General Henry Knox, Marguis de Lafayette, Colonel Alexander Hamilton, and Colonel James McHenry.

     Rochambeau presented his ideas to Washington and his staff in the meetings at Colonel Wadsworth's home on September 20 and 24. Washington's replies indicated how desperately the Americans needed assistance. Rochambeau was insistent on naval superiority and believed that the French fleet in the West Indies could provide it. To this Washington could only add his amen. His comments as recorded in the French army archives state, "The observations in this article are keen and the way proposed to procure naval superiority is the best. One of the most important points is that the help arrive on time". Both generals agreed that New York should be the prime military target although Washington was willing to attack with fewer that Rochambeau's estimate of 30,999 troops needed for the assault. Washington's final comments restated, "the situation of America renders it absolutely necessary that her allies lend her vigorous help and that to so many other obligations and other proofs of generosity His Majesty and Court add that of helping the United States of America by sending still more ships, men and money." How tragic the "situation of America" was at this time became more apparent when Washington returned to his headquarters to learn of the Treachery of Benedict Arnold. Despite the gloomy outlook, in reality, this meeting of Washington and Rochambeau was the harbinger of the forces that were to bring victory to the American cause. The importance of the occasion which not only created conditions for the ultimate defeat of British arms but also began a close bond of friendship between Washington and Rochambeau which has been celebrated by the Foot Guard each September since 1938 as Rochambeau Day.

     No efforts were made to implement the policies of the French and American high command during the next half year. It seemed necessary to await forces and the "naval superiority" so vital to Rochambeau. To speed along the course of the war and take advantage of French support, Washington and his staff held another conference with Rochambeau in May 1781 at Joseph Webb's house in Wethersfield. This time the State was represented by Governor Trumbull, and the Foot Guard together with the Matrosses - an artillery unit - provided escorts and guards for the two generals and their staffs in Hartford as it had done the year before. General Washington was still pressing for the capture of New York as the great aim of the collaboration of American and French Troops. A short time late, however, French naval superiority was finally established, and the plans were changed to bring all forces and resources to bear on the campaign against Lord Cornwallis in Virginia. Connecticut, therefore, finally saw the French troops in 1781 as they marched across the State on their way to join the Continental Army in the decisive battle of Yorktown.

 

February 22, 2004
Article edited for inclusion in "Battalion Review" by Major L. Schave

From An Honor to the State, by Lloyd Fowles.
Used with permission

 

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