"Washington and Rochambeau"
Dr. Lee Kennett
This presentation was given to the
Washington Association of New Jersey,
at Morristown, in 1981.

Rochambeau lacked ideological commitment to the American cause, regarded his assignment in North America as a backward step in his career, and felt he had been given too few troops to defeat the British. Yet this professional soldier forged a cooperative and successful relationship with Washington, a gifted amateur who recognized his limitations compared to Rochambeau, a veteran of 10 sieges. Together they won a Franco-American victory at Yorktown that led to American independence.


I would like to share with you today some reflections on the relations between Washington and Rochambeau, first of all because it is a relationship which has interested me for the past several years, and secondly because it was so critical to the success of the American Revolution. So far historians have been little occupied with this military partnership, in part, I think, because it is a very difficult one to document. Our chief source here is Washington's letters, and though they are very voluminous, he wrote then with a certain circumspection regarding the French, for reasons I will explain shortly.
Washington also kept a private journal for much of his life, but unfortunately he did not make any entries in the Yorktown period, where we most need information. For his part, Rochambeau wrote relatively few letters – so few in fact that the French government lectured him on keeping it better informed. Rochambeau also wrote two volumes of memoirs, but they are frankly disappointing. So the picture I will present will be something of a conjectural one, with some parts unclear, others left blank.
We might at the outset draw a strong contrast between Washington's relations with Rochambeau and those he enjoyed with Lafayette. In the latter case, the friendship seems almost idyllic; the two men had a broad compatibility, and it is as though Lafayette's qualities complement exactly those of Washington. Like a set of gears, the two characters seem to mesh almost perfectly. This was never the case with Rochambeau. He had none of Lafayette's engaging youthfulness and flexibility. Here we are dealing then with two men who are in middle age; for better or worse their traits and attitude are fixed, and they do not mesh perfectly.
It is possible that the relationship might have ripened into an intimate friendship, as each came to know the other thoroughly, but this was not to be. Considering that Rochambeau was in the United States for two-and-a-half years, we might think that time enough to make acquaintance; but in fact only five months of that time did the two men spend together.
In the first twelve months Rochambeau was in America he saw Washington no more than six days, and those were days of formal conferences with aides in attendance, conducted for the most part through interpreters (Rochambeau did eventually learn enough English to express himself rather imperfectly). For the most part, then, the two generals communicated by letter, and here there were the difficulties we all associate with this imperfect means of conversing with others.
For both men there were difficulties in cooperation which went far beyond communication. Consider, for example, that for all his abilities, for all his prestige among his countrymen, George Washington was only an amateur at making war.
Rochambeau, on the other hand, was a professional. Their fundamental attitudes towards military operations were not the same, and they had to grope toward mutual understanding. Washington was little impressed by the rules and quite willing to attempt unorthodox or innovative measures. He had the amateur's liking for elaborate plans, multiple rendezvous, and complicated procedures--or at least the proposals for operations he submitted to Rochambeau often had these characteristics. Here we do not know if they represent Washington's own views, or if he submitted them in the hopes they would impress Rochambeau favorably. For there is another problem here.
Washington was an amateur and he knew it, and without being able to prove this, I strongly suspect he was sensitive and perhaps even intimidated by the prospects of working with a soldier such as Rochambeau. The French general had participated in at least a dozen sieges, while Washington had directed only one rather unorthodox siege, that of Boston. How do you give orders to a man who knows the business better than you do? Here, I think, was a serious problem for Washington.
Rochambeau had a different problem, that of adapting to a kind of war such as he had never known before. Having learned thoroughly the rules and procedures by which wars were fought and won in Europe, he had now to recognize that in North America many of those rules and procedures were not applicable. Thus he brought over for his troops copious quantities of hair powder (the French soldiers powdered their hair on Sundays and holidays), when the armies fighting here had all they could do to find sufficient quantities of gunpowder. He worried that he might not have the right kind of coin for paying his troops, when the men of the Continental Army went unpaid almost as a matter of course. Then too, Rochambeau never completely understood the complexities of our governmental system and the weakness of political and civil authorities generally. He felt that if someone somewhere could just issue the proper order, food supplies and wagons could be made to appear automatically. This might have been the case in the France of Louis XVI, but it was manifestly not the case in Revolutionary America.
At the risk of perhaps shocking some of you, I will say also that I don't think Rochambeau ever had the sense of ideological commitment to the American cause that Lafayette and some other Frenchmen clearly had. At fifty-five Rochambeau was too old to be converted into a revolutionary. He belonged to the highest stratum of a highly aristocratic society, and it would have been incomprehensible for him to turn his back on that heritage. He was conservative, "establishment" as we say, and utterly loyal to his country and its way of life; and this is precisely why he was designated to command the expeditionary force to America.
Rochambeau, then, is a man out of his element. He is never completely at home in North America. He does not feel he has been given enough troops for the task he has undertaken and he complains frequently that he lacks orders and directions from the French court; he is hesitant to act without such orders and instructions. It is significant, I think, that in the trenches before Yorktown, even before the victory was won, he wrote home requesting permission to return to France. At this time he gave poor health as his reason, but we are not sure it was anything more than a pretext.
In the course of my research I found a letter which Rochambeau wrote years later, and which I think historians have generally overlooked. In this letter he confides to a friend that his experience in North America was not a good thing because it did not advance his career; he even hints that his enemies at the French court arranged for him to go, just to get him out of the way. We should remember that Rochambeau was an ambitious man, and that like any French officer in the eighteenth century, he wanted two things: one was the blue ribbon of the Order of the Holy Spirit, the highest order the French King could confer on his generals; the other was the title of a Marshal of France. Rochambeau would ultimately have both, but he would not get them in North America.
Given these two men then, and the considerations which influenced them in their relations, it is obvious that all would not be smooth sailing. Even before Rochambeau's arrival, when Washington first heard of his coming from Lafayette, the American General was happy, but also preoccupied and nervous -- such are the emotions I seem to find in his correspondence.
He felt he had to come up with a comprehensive and sophisticated plan of operations which the French would find acceptable; unable to prepare such a plan himself, he got the opinions of all his major generals, then formed from them a kind of distillate. This he sent to Rochambeau upon the French general's arrival, and Rochambeau threw cold water on it. It was, the Frenchman confided to his superiors, both unworkable and dangerous.
The plan, I might add, was for immediate attack upon New York with combined forces, a plan Lafayette had urged upon Rochambeau as soon as the latter arrived in Newport, Rhode Island. For this reason Rochambeau felt Washington was too much under the influence of the young and inexperienced Marquis, who was adding ideas of his own to the letters he translated for Washington.
For a number of months bad feelings persisted between the two Frenchmen because of Rochambeau's suspicions and accusations.
The fundamental difference between Rochambeau and Washington in that summer and fall of 1781 was the former's steadfast refusal to undertake military operations without reinforcement -- a position which the French naval commander, Ternay, agreed with completely. Then too, there was an even more pressing reason to delay any plans for offensive action; the Royal Navy was guarding the entrance to Newport harbor with superior force, so that there was no way the French squadron under Ternay could take the sea; there was much logic in Rochambeau's argument that he could not just march off and leave Ternay's ships to the mercy of the English, should they decide to assault the port.
In purely military terms the French position was completely justified; there should be no offensive effort until the scales tipped in their favor. Yet the American Revolution was not a war which could be fought from military considerations alone. The war effort was after all a voluntary affair; it relied on the good will and spirit of sacrifice of the patriots, and thus the war effort depended in large part upon public opinion, on maintaining popular support.
It is a measure of Washington's intelligence and perspicacity that he understood this from the first. His attacks across the Delaware at Christmas 1776 had been of little consequence militarily, but the news of them had stirred the country and breathed new hope into the cause; now in the fifth year of the struggle, spirits were flagging again, and it was important to act, to be up and stirring, even if the practical military consequences were doubtful. This consideration, I think, guided Washington; the French commanders never really understood it.
On January 25, 1781, nature herself took a hand and broke the deadlock. A particularly violent storm swept along the New England coast; the French ships in Newport harbor rode it out unscathed, but the British vessels nearby were badly battered: one went on the rocks, a second was dismasted, and a third was blown all the way to Virginia waters. Suddenly the naval balance in North America shifted; the French squadron at Newport was free to take the sea. But here cooperation with Washington was defective. He wanted a sizeable force sent to the Chesapeake, where British troops had opened another front under the command of the most hated man in America -- Benedict Arnold. The French commanders were so anxious to act that they did so before receiving Washington's instructions. The force they sent was too small, and it was forced to return to Newport. Immediately the French began organizing a second, larger expedition, and Washington himself went to Newport in March to see it off. But it had delayed too long; when it reached Cape Henry it found a British squadron barring the entrance to the Chesapeake. After an indecisive engagement the French returned to Newport once more.
Washington was angry at these disappointments and in a letter to his cousin, Lund Washington, he complained that the French had dragged their heels about following his wishes. By a stroke of bad luck the letter was intercepted by the British, who published it in the New York newspapers and saw to it that Rochambeau received a copy. The Franco-American military alliance might have ended right there had Washington and Rochambeau been lesser men. As it was, the French general wrote to ask if the letter was genuine, and to say that the French felt they had done their best. Washington replied that the letter was indeed genuine, but that it had been hastily written and based on incomplete information. He added that certain parts of the letter "might have been inaccurately expressed." This explanation was sufficient for Rochambeau, who proposed that they "bury this trifle," which they did.
With the spring of 1781 came more discussions of campaign plans. Rochambeau was still hoping for reinforcements which would never come, and for instructions (which would come, but in such vague form that they were virtually useless). For his part, Washington was still drawn by the possibility of attacking New York. When the two commanders joined forces at White Plains in July 1781, they of course ceased to correspond, and for the historian this is unfortunate. We do not know exactly how the plan to shift their effort from New York to Virginia came about. While some historians believe that the French dragged a reluctant Washington away from New York, I do not read the evidence that way. Certain it is that once the decision was made, on or about August 15, 1781, it was Washington who gave the energy and direction to the whole shift of objectives. At his insistence the movement of troops was done swiftly and secretly, so as to achieve a strategic surprise. It is clear from Rochambeau's letters that he would have preferred a more measured movement, with adequate provisions for wagons, supplies, etc. As it was, the rapid marches south did strain supplies and create logistical problems, but by September 15th Washington had achieved a concentration of forces with which to win a decisive victory.
Once the allied armies were before Yorktown, the siege operation became largely a French affair; this because sieges were technical operations directed by engineers, and the engineers of both armies were French. Washington and Rochambeau were meeting daily now, to review progress on the siege and to discuss future plans. From allusions in the correspondence of both men, it appears that at this point their cooperation was harmonious and without incident. On October 17th, a British drummer appeared on the crumbling ramparts of Yorktown to beat a parley; within forty-eight hours Cornwallis had surrendered his command. The French and American armies had fought the last battle of the War of Independence, though no one knew it at the time.
If we look back over the sometimes thorny path of cooperation which took Rochambeau and Washington to Yorktown, we must acknowledge that in the end theirs proved to be one of the most effective military partnerships in history. I think this was possible first of all because Washington rose above the problems which his own lack of expertise tended to produce. First of all, it was a measure of the man that he sought and solicited advice when he was unsure, rather than try to conceal his uncertainties. Beyond that, Washington found, I think, that in his relations with the French he had such natural qualities of leadership that he simply imposed himself on them all.
We ought not to forget that Washington had a commanding presence, a charisma, as we would say today. The man was enormously impressive in appearance and manner; the Frenchmen he met recorded their impressions, and they were invariably highly laudatory. And for his part Rochambeau came to understand the war sufficiently to realize the enormous obstacles Washington had to overcome in leading the forces of an infant nation with slender resources against a great power of Britain's magnitude; his admiration for Washington grew with his understanding.
Each man demonstrated in this relationship a genuine effort to understand the other. Perhaps it actually helped that they did not speak the same language, that each was a foreigner to the other. With the foreigner we tend to show greater patience and to strive harder for comprehension. This sort of effort was all too uncommon among the generals of the American Revolution. I could cite as case in point the dialogue of the deaf which existed at the same time between Lord Cornwallis and Sir Henry Clinton. Their failure to work together is as much a part of the Yorktown surrender as the teamwork of their French and American adversaries.
Looking back over the records, I find one final and essential quality which these two men shared in spite of all their differences, a common trait of character. This was a steady perseverance in the face of disappointment and adversity. Neither of these men was a summer soldier or a fair weather friend to the cause. I think it is very hard for us to appreciate this quality, though our nation's birth may have depended upon it. When we read about the Revolution we know how it is going to come out and we forget that the participants in it did not. Most political and military analysts of the day felt the British would ultimately win, and the lessons of history seemed to support this judgment.
We should remember that in this same age the Poles, the Irish, the Corsicans and the Belgians also rose up in the name of freedom and independence, and in every case the movement failed. We alone succeeded; we alone, against all odds, fought and bested the most powerful nation of the age. While Washington and Rochambeau came out of the American Revolution with friendship and respect for each other, I believe the deepest feeling they shared was that of an incredible achievement, of a perilous passage in which the outcome was in doubt to the very end. How sweet the victory must have been, sweeter, probably, than we can ever know.


Lee Kennett is author of The French Forces in America 1780-1783 (Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut,1977), a well researched work that remains a ‘cornerstone' to describing the French-American allied military collaboration in North America.

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Page posted 13 April 2007.