THE TREE THAT HIDES THE FOREST
by M. Jacques de TRENTINIAN
This is page, with some minor editing by the author, is from a 2006 article, "La Fayette, l'arbre qui cache la forêt", published in "Notre Amerique" bulletin, to inform the French public about this particular phase of the French assistance in the War for American Independence. The English Translation is by Mr. Frederick L. Graham, past President-General of the Society of The Cincinnati.

One hundred thousand French combatants, more than four thousand killed, eight thousand wounded, probably ten thousand dead from illness or wounds: who considers today the heavy burden France assumed for its contribution to the Independence of the United States?
Most Americans have been conditioned to perceive the French participation in the American War for Independence embodied, almost singularly, in the person of the Marquis de La Fayette. After all, the Americans made La Fayette one of the only six honorary citizens of the United States. Unquestionably, this young and idealistic French nobleman made an outstanding contribution as a volunteer officer in the small army of George Washington, and he proclaimed during his entire long life his love for that other country. Moreover, he did it with that art of communication and that charisma which he had in common with his near contemporary Bonaparte; he knew how to take the initiative and how to leave written evidence in his style to create his remarkable image.
When, as the last surviving general of the army of the "insurgents", he returned to the United States in 1824, he was welcomed in triumph during his entire voyage which lasted nearly a year and of which so many American cities still bear traces either through their names (there are 38 cities named Lafayette in America) or the name of a street, a monument or, as in Paris, a store.
Each year, the Sons of the American Revolution organize on the 4th of July at his tomb in Picpus cemetery in Paris in the presence of the ambassador of the United States and important civil and military authorities, a ceremony of the renewal of the American flag which has flown over his tomb for more than a century.
However, if one examines the real role of this exceptional man in bringing about the entry of France (in the war) and the contribution of his country to the war of independence, historians must note that it was very modest.
His very sincere enthusiasm for new ideas were inspired and framed by Count de Broglie*. The secret of his departures (for America) were merely apparent. Another eminent person collaborating with Washington was dispatched by the French government before him: du Portail, engineer and strategist, who was to become the creator of the American Engineering Corps.
The expedition of the army of Rochambeau which crossed the Atlantic with arms and equipment (six thousand men, forty ships, heavy artillery etc.) represented an exceptional projection of force, completed the following year by a second army brought in from the Antilles by Count de Grasse of which the naval force of 35 ships were to contribute to the decisive victory at Yorktown. This initiative on the part of the French government was difficult, not only to convince its Spanish ally to tolerate it, but also to have it accepted by a Congress and an ambassador (Franklin) initially most reticent.
It is important to understand that the decisive intervention of France was the result of a policy maturely thought out and that this policy was far from being limited to what was happening on the North American continent.
The French Foreign Minister, Vergennes, believed he had found in the revolt of 1776 the moment to reestablish the balance of power in Europe, in restoring the freedom of the seas confiscated by England after the conclusion of the disastrous Seven Years War (1763). The wise Vergennes and his young king knew how to purchase the alliance of Spain and to obtain the neutrality of the other major powers. Louis XVI and his naval minister reconstituted a navy, with the help of Spanish units, capable of victoriously confronting the British navy.

Comte de Vergennes, Foreign Minister designs and has the King approving France alliance policy with the patriots. Artist unknown, Musée de Versailles.

Faced with these considerable naval forces on all the seas of the globe, England was obliged to give their independence to the colonies in revolt. The capture of most of the islands producing sugar in the Antilles, those of Minorca in the Mediterranean, the siege of Gibraltar, the threats on their possessions in India and even on its own coasts (65 warships, 400 transport vessels, 40,000 men massed in Normandy and Brittany during the summer of 1779) obliged this small nation of only 8 million enterprising people, stubborn but realistic, to give in.
It is to the entirety of the powerful nation of 28 million inhabitants that came to the support of the men who were fighting for the respect of their rights and the obtaining of their liberty that one should associate the memory of that great event so important to the history of the world; the creation by two million colonists of a new nation with such a promising future.
In this year of the 250th anniversary of the birth of La Fayette, let us celebrate him as a hero of qualities in which many Frenchmen wish to recognize themselves. But let us know, as well, how to associate this memory with that of an entire people in this just combat launched by the decision of a young prince of 24 years old who was to know, fifteen years later, a tragic destiny.


Louis XVI: the 1754 born King decides to support the birth of a new republic. 'Medallion' portrait by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, Chateau de Versailles.

* Comte de Broglie was Marechal de Broglie's almost twin brother (both were born within a year. They formed a pair of which the younger had the reputation of having the better brain. He won significant battles in Germany at the time of the French and Indian War. He had been the chief of "Le Secret du Roi", team of Louis XVth's secret diplomacy concerning Poland and as such Vergennes' and many others' boss. (Louis XVI dissolved these services when he became the King, but chose Vergennes as his Foreign Minister). It was Broglie who motivated and promoted Lafayette, who was a young officer in his army; invited him to the Metz dinner where the Duke of Gloucester evoked the fair combat of the patriots; introduced him to free masonry ; attached Kalb, the future hero of the battle of Camden, to him as a coach; pre-financed his purchase of a boat, the Victoire.(as the marquis was too young to spend freely his own inheritance), ...

The author of this article has a scientific background, followed by a consultant and CEO career in the Insurance industry. Comte de TRENTINIAN became, in 1998, a board member of the France branch of the Society of The Cincinnati. In the USA, he is Vice President General (Europe) of the National Society, Sons of the American Revolution [NSSAR]. He contributes to a better understanding of the American Revolution by thorough studies of the French archives and assisting many active historians. He organized of the ‘Alliance Day 2003' in Paris at a delicate moment of the American and French relationship, and is currently in charge of the DAR-SAR project to commemorate ‘Treaty of Paris' in 2008. He was guest speaker of the 2004 Yorktown Day in Virginia; he led a party of sixty from French Daughters of the American Revolution, SAR and Veterans' associations to the 225th anniversary of Yorktown 2006 commemorations. Comte de TRENTINIAN is a chevalier de la Legion d'honneur.



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Page created 24 September 2007, revised 26 January 2010.