Jean Ternant (1751-1833)

This page is an article submitted by Mr. Frank Whitney.

Portrait of Jean Ternant by Charles Willson Peale. The oil painting was executed in 1781, and is now held by the Independence National Historical Park.

Jean Ternant was born into a lower middleclass family of retail merchants and tanners on 12 December 1751 at Damvillers, a small city located on the northeast border of France. By 1772 he had acquired enough education to qualify to take the entrance examination for Mezieres, the school of military engineering. Unfortunately, he failed to be selected. Blocked from his chosen path of entry into the Royal Army Ternant elected instead to join the American rebellion. In January 1777 Ternant and his younger half-brother, Claude Vincent Ternant, sailed for Louisiana. From New Orleans Ternant made his way to the United States and in March 1778 at Valley Forge he petitioned for a commission in the Continental Army as an engineer. Once again he was unsuccessful. Washington was reluctant to employ the inexperienced and unknown young Frenchman and it was only on the recommendation of Baron de Steuben that Ternant, who spoke and wrote English, was appointed a sub-inspector but without military rank. For the first six months of his American service Ternant worked as a civilian employee, first as a sub-inspector under de Steuben and then as a clerk in the Quartermaster's Department. Thanks largely to the influence of de Steuben and the urging of John Laurens, one of Washington's aides-de-camp, and the son of, Henry Laurens, the President of the Continental Congress, Ternant was commissioned a Lt.Col and appointed Chief Inspector for the Southern Department in September 1778.
Between March 1778 and November 1783 Ternant fashioned a solid record of service and in the process gained the admiration of his colleagues and the praise of his superiors His combat record included the retreat from Barren hill, the Battle of Monmouth, the December 1778 engagement at Savannah and the siege of Charleston in the spring of 1780. Over the course of his career in the Continental Army Ternant's intelligence, his well-mannered and agreeable personality and his zeal for the American cause facilitated his employment in a variety of positions. In addition to his duties as a sub-inspector, Baron de Steuben at Valley Forge employed Ternant as a liaison between himself and the Board of War, as a translator and as one of the assistants in drawing up the Baron's regulations. As noted, he also served in the Quartermaster's Department. Later, as chief inspector in the Southern Department, Ternant was responsible for implementing the military regulations designed by de Steuben He was Benjamin Lincoln's Adjutant General during the siege of Charleston and earlier he had been sent as an emissary to the Governor of Havana in an effort to coordinate American and Spanish efforts to recover Georgia and drive the British from Florida.
Ternant's military career suffered a major interruption in 1780. With the surrender of Charleston he became a prisoner of war and although paroled immediately and entrusted with carrying General Lincoln's dispatches to the Congress, Ternant spent the next twenty months restricted to Philadelphia. Not exchanged until January 1782 he missed Greene's campaign in the south and any chance to participate in the events that culminated with the victory at Yorktown. Ternant's forced stay in Philadelphia however, was not a total loss. During that period he spent most of his time at the French legation and formed several friendships that would be important to his later career. The French Minister to the United States, Anne-Cesar, Chevalier de La Luzerne became his patron and Ternant also became friends with the legation's two secretaries, Francois Barbe and Louis Guillaume Otto. During the same period he was elected to the American Philosophical Society as a foreign member.
On his return to active duty Ternant was assigned to Armand's Partisan Legion as its second in command and was restored to his position as chief inspector in the Southern Department. Ternant ended his American military service as a Colonel in command of the First Partisan Legion and returned to France in the summer of 1784 hoping to be granted a similar rank in the Royal Army.
Between 1785 and 1791 Ternant's enjoyed a successful military career in Europe. Unable at first to gain a commission in the Royal Army, in 1785 he served as a Colonel of cavalry in the Maillebois Legion, a mixed force employed by the Dutch Republic and later acted as a military advisor to the Dutch Patriot movement. He was also an unofficial agent for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During the Prussian invasion of the Dutch Republic in 1787 Ternant directed the unsuccessful defense of Amsterdam In that same year he was awarded the cross of the Royal and Military Order of Saint-Louis and in March 1788 he achieved his lifelong ambition by being appointed Colonel Commandant of the recently raised Royal-Liegeois regiment. Ternant would serve in the Royal Army until April 1791 when he was appointed Minister-Plenipotentiary to the United States from the court of Louis XVI, a position he obtained largely through the influence of Lafayette
As Minister to the United States Ternant faced numerous difficulties, a deteriorating political situation in France, a slave revolt in Saint Dominique, war in Europe leading to a growing diplomatic crisis over American neutrality and finally, the overthrow of the Monarchy and establishment of the First Republic. To all of them he responded in a calm and professional manner and proved an excellent representative of his country. With the invasion of France in the fall of 1792 Ternant petitioned to resume his military career with the rank of marechal de camp or brigadier general. His request was rejected and he was replaced as Minister by Edmund Genet and recalled. Frustrated and embittered by events Ternant chose to remain in the United States. He did not return to France until 1801. A firm believer in a constitutional monarchy and a friend of Lafayette Ternant disapproved of the Napoleonic regime and chose to remain a private citizen. He lived comfortably on his military pension and the dividends from his investments in government securities until his death in 1833. He died a few weeks short of his eight-second birthday.

Author's provided references the foregoing article:

I. For Ternant's family and his experience with the engineers prior to his American adventure see Archives Departementales de la Meuse, series 2E, registres paroissiaux et d'etat civil; Archives de la Guerre, series 2Ye, dossier individual, Jean Ternant and 2Yf, dossier pension, Jean Ternant. See also Gilbert Bodinier's two studies, Dictionnaire des Officiers de l'armee royale qui ont combattu aux etats-unis pendant la Guerre d'independence 1776-1783 Vincinnes, 1982 pg. 524 and Les Officiers de l'armee royale, Vincinnes, 1983 pg. 269.

II. A review of Ternant's service record in the Continental Army is covered in Lasseray. Andre, Les Francaise sous les Treize Etoiles 1775-1783, Paris 1935, Vol 2, pg 433-436 and Adams, Dougles N. "Jean Baptiste Ternant, Inspector General to the Commanding Generals of the Southern Forces 1778-1782", South Carolina Historical Magazine 86 (October 85) pp. 221-240.Additional information can be found in Kapp, Frederick, The Life of Frederick William von Steuben, New York, 1859.

III. Ternant's service in the Dutch Republic and his experiences in the Royal Army during the early years of the revolution in France are discussed in Cobban, Alfred, Ambassadors and Secret Agents, London 1954; Grouvel, R. "Le Legion de Maillebois 1784-1786", Le Passepoil no 2 pp 33-37; Louis Leconte's fine old study, Le Regiment Royal-Liegeois au service du roi de France 1787-1792, Moulins, 1937 and The Diary and Letters of Gouverneur Morris edited by Ann Curry Morris, New York, 1889.

IV. For Ternant's service as Minister-Plenipotentiary to the United States see Turner, Frederick Jackson ed. "Correspondence of the French Ministers to the United States 1791-1797" The Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the year 1903, Vol. II, Washington, 1904.

V. For Ternant's life after 1793 see Hagley Museum and Library, Winterthur Manuscripts, series A, Correspondence of Victor DuPont; W3, Letters to and from Jean Ternant, 1791- 1824 and series D, Corredpondence of Gabrielle Josephine, wife of Victor DuPont, W3 Letters from Jean Ternant, 1797-1826 and Archives Nationales, LXXXVII 1458, Testament de Jean Ternant and LXXXVII 1469, Succession & partage de M. Jean Ternant.

Notes added by website manager:

1. While some general narratives reference a "Jean Baptiste Ternant", the author of the foregoing article has found that only American secondary sources have included "Baptiste" in his name and has found no use of "Baptiste" in a primary sources. 'Jean Ternant' is the name on both his birth register and his final holographic testament.

2. Narratives reflect different dates for Ternant's death. While 1816 has been the date often given for Ternant's death, especially in American studies. The author of the foregoing article has inspected copies of Ternant's last testament and the succession and partage papers regarding his estate. There is no question that JeanTernant died on 15 November 1833, at his home no 28 rue des Petits-Hotels, Paris. The report of his death in 1816 at Couches is obviously in error; most likely another person having the same name.

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Page created 9 July 2011; modified 24 July 2011.