Home Connecticut The Rochambeau Expedition Through CT and RI: 7 Fun Facts

The Rochambeau Expedition Through CT and RI: 7 Fun Facts

The parade to end all parades

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On June 11, 1781, the Rochambeau Expedition began its march from Newport, R.I. For nearly four months, about 6,000 officers, soldiers, servants, auxiliaries and camp followers would march and sail 680 miles to Yorktown.

Headed by Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, it was an enormous undertaking.

Rochambeau

The Rochambeau Expedition included 450 officers, 3800 noncommissioned officers and enlisted men, 1,000 servants, 350 teamsters and cooks, 30 wives and children. Plus horses, cows, wagons, artillery, ammunition and uniforms. The soldiers wore elegant uniforms with white waistcoats and cockaded hats. When the regimental bands struck, they marched with military precision.

The American colonies had never seen anything like it.

Today, the National Park Service maintains the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail. You may have seen the markers along the route. It connects publicly accessible sites along the roads and waterways the French and American troops took on their way to Yorktown and back. The trail starts in Boston, because Rochambeau

The Rochambeau Expedition

Before they even left, the French meticulously planned the route to Phillipsburg, N.Y., where they would meet up with the Continental Army. Advance scouts had to find the best of the primitive colonial roads. They had to identify campsites along the way with enough forage, wood and drinking water. And to keep the British in the dark, they had to keep it as secret as possible.

The Rochambeau Expedition arrives (sort of)

So as not to clog the roads, the French staggered departures over four days. A fourth of the army would leave each day.

The army left Newport in boats to Providence, where they set up an encampment. One regiment stayed behind in Providence to guard the baggage and munitions stored in the Old Market House. Many of the soldiers had gotten scurvy on the voyage from France, and so the French set up a hospital in University Hall. It now houses the office of the president of Brown University.

The bulk of the expedition then marched through Cranston, Scituate, Foster and finally Coventry. There the army camped outside of Waterman’s Tavern, now on the National Register of Historic Places. The French then crossed over into Connecticut and camped in Sterling. They set up their next camps in Windham, Bolton and then East Hartford for three nights’ rest. They crossed the river into Farmington for their seventh encampment, marched on to Southington for the eighth, and then Breakneck Hill in Middlebury for the ninth.

Washington warned Rochambeau that the next stop,  Newtown, was a “very disaffected part of the country,” and urged him on to Danbury. The French then set up their eleventh and final Connecticut encampment in Danbury. They had marched from Providence through Connecticut in 20 days.

Here are some more fun facts about the Rochambeau Expedition.

1. Newport at first gave the Rochambeau Expedition the cold shoulder.

The French fleet sailed into Newport Harbor on the afternoon of July 11, 1780 and dropped anchor.

The French men and officers wore brilliant ceremonial uniforms as they stood on the decks of the ships in the flotilla. Gen. Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, le comte Rochambeau, was resplendent in navy blue jacket trimmed with gold braid, a red vest and matching breeches with above-the-knee black leather boots and spotless white gloves. He boarded a small sloop piloted by an American and sailed toward shore.

He expected some sort of welcome. . A committee of dignitaries, cheering crowds, perhaps, or cannon salutes, speeches, a parade.

He got nada. Nothing but a few peddlers trying to sell him apples and cherries. .Most of the townspeople hid behind closed shutters and locked doors.

French officers expressed disappointment with their nonexistent reception. They had, after all, endured hardship at sea to rescue the struggling Continental Army. More than a thousand had gotten sick.

The Rochambeau Expedition arrives in Newport.

That night, the American commander of the Rhode Island Militia, Gen. William Heath, showed up just in time to invite him to his home as his honored guest. The next day, the Americans started to make things right. Boxes of candles were distributed to the Newporters who wanted them, and the town was illuminated on July 13 and 14 to honor the French. A parade was held, fireworks set off in front of the Statehouse and a bell rung past midnight.

There were reasons for the poor reception, not least of which was the French and Indian Wars that pitted Americans against the French. And they were Catholic.

2. A little silver made everything right.

Actually, the French had a lot of silver. And their money smoothed things over with their former enemies.

The British had occupied Newport before the French arrived, and they left the town in shambles. They’d destroyed many of the houses, making them unfit to live in. There was little commercial activity.

As soon as he arrived in Newport, Rochambeau told the residents they would pay for everything in silver. He offered to pay local workmen to rebuilt  the houses the British had trashed if his men could live in them during their stay

On the road, the French bought food, wood and fodder from local merchants.

The Rochambear Expedition returned from Yorktown along much the same route in 1782. A Hartford resident wrote a letter on New Year’s Eve, 1781, saying,  “Money is very scarce among the People in General, their daily Prayers are that the French Army may return soon to their part of the World that Money may again circulate amongst them.

In September 1781, Rochambeau loaned George Washington half his war chest of hard currency. Washington paid his troops with it.

3. They didn’t know where they were going.

Washington had met with Rochambeau in Wethersfield earlier that year. They had agreed the two armies would meet in Phillipsburg, N.Y. From there they would either march north to New York or south to Virginia.

The British occupied New York and commanded North American operations from there. At the same time, Lord Cornwallis’ army was wreaking havoc in the South. Washington wanted to go north and dislodge the British from New York. Rochambeau thought that too risky because the British had such a strong position. He preferred going south to defeat Cornwallis.

Rochambeau got his way. The reason? The French fleet, headed by Admiral DeGrasse, would provide naval support for the combined French-American campaign against the British. And it was up to DeGrasse, then in the Caribbean, whether he would sail to the Chesapeake or to New York Harbor. Not until August, while camped in Phillipsburg, did Washington and Rochambeau learn that DeGrasse had headed to the Chesapeake. That meant the armies would head south rather than east.

4. The Rochambeau Expedition required huge amounts of supplies.

The French Army had an American purchasing agent, Jeremiah Wadsworth. He had to find more than 600 oxen and1355 horses for the wagon train and artillery. He had to hire men to build bread ovens along the route and 15 cooks. For the 210 wagons he needed to find 239 teamsters.

The wagons broke down often on the bad roads, so wheelwrights came along to repair them. Farriers took care of the horses’ hooves. Advance crews of workmen filled potholes and widened roads. Baggage wagons carried tents, coats and haversacks. There were wagons for first aid, wagons for butchers and wagons for stragglers.

5. The smart French uniforms didn’t do so well in the heat.

French soldiers wore gaiters and tight-fitting wool underwear. They also had to carry 60 pounds of equipment along with their 20-pound muskets. So they didn’t do so well in the hot summer.

Cartoon, Rochambeau reviewing troops

To avoid heat prostration, trumpeters sounded reveille at 2 am. They got on the road by 4 am, and marched 12 to 15 miles to the next encampment. Since they generally arrived by noon, that gave them time to pitch their tents and enjoy local entertainment.

6. They partied along the way.

Local tavern keepers entertained the officers.

The regimental bands held concerts, which allowed the men to dance with the “beautiful maidens” of Connecticut.  In Monroe, Conn., for example, 600 soldiers danced with the ladies on the green.

The officers took the opportunity to see the new country. They visited battlefields such as Princeton, Trenton and Brandywine, and they saw Valley Forge. Some went sightseeing in Wethersfield and West Point, and some even got to see Mount Vernon. The Great Falls of the Passaic River in Patterson, N.J., were a much sought-after natural wonder.

7. Some roads today still look like they did in 1781.

Because they’re so evocative of that time, the National Park Service lists them on the National Register of Historic Places. In Connecticut, they include part of Bolton Center Road in Bolton, 3.6 miles of Plainfield Pike in Sterling, 2 acres of Old Canterbury Road in Canterbury, Reservoir Road in Newtown,, the road near White’s Tavern in Andover, part of Palmer Road in Scotland, part of Scotland Road in Windham and a section of the Ridgebury Road in Ridgefield.

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