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Washington and His Comrades: Chapter X

France to the Rescue

During 1778 and 1779 French effort had failed. Now France resolved to do something decisive. She never sent across the sea the eight thousand men promised to La Fayette but by the spring of 1780 about this number were gathered at Brest to find that transport was inadequate. The leader was a French noble, the Comte de Rochambeau, an old campaigner, now in his fifty-fifth year, who had fought against England before in the Seven Years’ War and had then been opposed by Clinton, Cornwallis, and Lord George Germain. He was a sound and prudent soldier who shares with La Fayette the chief glory of the French service in America. Rochambeau had fought at the second battle of Minden, where the father of La Fayette had fallen, and he had for the ardent young Frenchman the amiable regard of a father and sometimes rebuked his impulsiveness in that spirit. He studied the problem in America with the insight of a trained leader. Before he left France he made the pregnant comment on the outlook: “Nothing without naval supremacy.” About the same time Washington was writing to La Fayette that a decisive naval supremacy was a fundamental need.

A gallant company it was which gathered at Brest. Probably no other land than France could have sent forth on a crusade for democratic liberty a band of aristocrats who had little thought of applying to their own land the principles for which they were ready to fight in America. Over some of them hung the shadow of the guillotine; others were to ride the storm of the French Revolution and to attain fame which should surpass their sanguine dreams. Rochambeau himself, though he narrowly escaped during the Reign of Terror, lived to extreme old age and died a Marshal of France. Berthier, one of his officers, became one of Napoleon’s marshals and died just when Napoleon, whom he had deserted, returned from Elba. Dumas became another of Napoleon’s generals. He nearly perished in the retreat from Moscow but lived, like Rochambeau, to extreme old age. One of the gayest of the company was the Duc de Lauzun, a noted libertine in France but, as far as the record goes, a man of blameless propriety in America. He died on the scaffold during the French Revolution. So, too, did his companion, the Prince de Broglie, in spite of the protest of his last words that he was faithful to the principles of the Revolution, some of which he had learned in America. Another companion was the Swedish Count Fersen, later the devoted friend of the unfortunate Queen Marie Antoinette, the driver of the carriage in which the royal family made the famous flight to Varennes in 1791, and himself destined to be trampled to death by a Swedish mob in 1810. Other old and famous names there were: Laval-Montmorency, Mirabeau, Talleyrand, Saint-Simon. It has been said that the names of the French officers in America read like a list of medieval heroes in the Chronicles of Froissart.

Only half of the expected ships were ready at Brest and only five thousand five hundred men could embark. The vessels were, of course, very crowded. Rochambeau cut down the space allowed for personal effects. He took no horse for himself and would allow none to go, but he permitted a few dogs. Forty-five ships set sail, “a truly imposing sight,” said one of those on board. We have reports of their ennui on the long voyage of seventy days, of their amusements and their devotions, for twice daily were prayers read on deck. They sailed into Newport on the 11th of July and the inhabitants of that still primitive spot illuminated their houses as best they could. Then the army settled down at Newport and there it remained for many weary months. Reinforcements never came, partly through mismanagement in France, partly through the vigilance of the British fleet, which was on guard before Brest. The French had been for generations the deadly enemies of the English Colonies and some of the French officers noted the reserve with which they were received. The ice was, however, soon broken. They brought with them gold, and the New England merchants liked this relief from the debased continental currency. Some of the New England ladies were beautiful, and the experienced Lauzun expresses glowing admiration for a prim Quakeress whose simple dress he thought more attractive than the elaborate modes of Paris.

The French dazzled the ragged American army by their display of waving plumes and of uniforms in striking colors. They wondered at the quantities of tea drunk by their friends and so do we when we remember the political hatred for tea. They made the blunder common in Europe of thinking that there were no social distinctions in America. Washington could have told him a different story. Intercourse was at first difficult, for few of the Americans spoke French and fewer still of the French spoke English. Sometimes the talk was in Latin, pronounced by an American scholar as not too bad. A French officer writing in Latin to an American friend announces his intention to learn English: “Inglicam linguam noscere conabor.” He made the effort and he and his fellow officers learned a quaint English speech. When Rochambeau and Washington first met they conversed through La Fayette, as interpreter, but in time the older man did very well in the language of his American comrade in arms.

For a long time the French army effected nothing. Washington longed to attack New York and urged the effort, but the wise and experienced Rochambeau applied his principle, “nothing without naval supremacy,” and insisted that in such an attack a powerful fleet should act with a powerful army, and, for the moment, the French had no powerful fleet available. The British were blockading in Narragansett Bay the French fleet which lay there. Had the French army moved away from Newport their fleet would almost certainly have become a prey to the British. For the moment there was nothing to do but to wait. The French preserved an admirable discipline. Against their army there are no records of outrage and plunder such as we have against the German allies of the British. We must remember, however, that the French were serving in the country of their friends, with every restraint of good feeling which this involved. Rochambeau told his men that they must not be the theft of a bit of wood, or of any vegetables, or of even a sheaf of straw. He threatened the vice which he called “sonorous drunkenness,” and even lack of cleanliness, with sharp punishment. The result was that a month after landing he could say that not a cabbage had been stolen. Our credulity is strained when we are told that apple trees with their fruit overhung the tents of his soldiers and remained untouched. Thousands flocked to see the French camp. The bands played and Puritan maidens of all grades of society danced with the young French officers and we are told, whether we believe it or not, that there was the simple innocence of the Garden of Eden. The zeal of the French officers and the friendly disposition of the men never failed. There had been bitter quarrels in 1778 and 1779 and now the French were careful to be on their good behavior in America. Rochambeau had been instructed to place himself under the command of Washington, to whom were given the honors of a Marshal of France. The French admiral, had, however, been given no such instructions and Washington had no authority over the fleet.

Meanwhile events were happening which might have brought a British triumph. On September 14, 1780, there arrived and anchored at Sandy Hook, New York, fourteen British ships of the line under Rodney, the doughtiest of the British admirals afloat. Washington, with his army headquarters at West Point, on guard to keep the British from advancing up the Hudson, was looking for the arrival, not of a British fleet, but of a French fleet, from the West Indies. For him these were very dark days. The recent defeat at Camden was a crushing blow. Congress was inept and had in it men, as the patient General Greene said, “without principles, honor or modesty.” The coming of the British fleet was a new and overwhelming discouragement, and, on the 18th of September, Washington left West Point for a long ride to Hartford in Connecticut, half way between the two headquarters, there to take counsel with the French general. Rochambeau, it was said, had been purposely created to understand Washington, but as yet the two leaders had not met. It is the simple truth that Washington had to go to the French as a beggar. Rochambeau said later that Washington was afraid to reveal the extent of his distress. He had to ask for men and for ships, but he had also to ask for what a proud man dislikes to ask, for money from the stranger who had come to help him.

The Hudson had long been the chief object of Washington’s anxiety and now it looked as if the British intended some new movement up the river, as indeed they did. Clinton had not expected Rodney’s squadron, but it arrived opportunely and, when it sailed up to New York from Sandy Hook, on the 16th of September, he began at once to embark his army, taking pains at the same time to send out reports that he was going to the Chesapeake. Washington concluded that the opposite was true and that he was likely to be going northward. At West Point, where the Hudson flows through a mountainous gap, Washington had strong defenses on both shores of the river. His batteries commanded its whole width, but shore batteries were ineffective against moving ships. The embarking of Clinton’s army meant that he planned operations on land. He might be going to Rhode Island or to Boston but he might also dash up the Hudson. It was an anxious leader who, with La Fayette and Alexander Hamilton, rode away from headquarters to Hartford.

The officer in command at West Point was Benedict Arnold. No general on the American side had a more brilliant record or could show more scars of battle. We have seen him leading an army through the wilderness to Quebec, and incurring hardships almost incredible. Later he is found on Lake Champlain, fighting on both land and water. When in the next year the Americans succeeded at Saratoga it was Arnold who bore the brunt of the fighting. At Quebec and again at Saratoga he was severely wounded. In the summer of 1778 he was given the command at Philadelphia, after the British evacuation. It was a troubled time. Arnold was concerned with confiscations of property for treason and with disputes about ownership. Impulsive, ambitious, and with a certain element of coarseness in his nature, he made enemies. He was involved in bitter strife with both Congress and the State government of Pennsylvania. After a period of tension and privation in war, one of slackness and luxury is almost certain to follow. Philadelphia, which had recently suffered for want of bare necessities, now relapsed into gay indulgence. Arnold lived extravagantly. He played a conspicuous part in society and, a widower of thirty-five, was successful in paying court to Miss Shippen, a young lady of twenty, with whom, as Washington said, all the American officers were in love.

Malignancy was rampant and Arnold was pursued with great bitterness. Joseph Reed, the President of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania, not only brought charge against him of abusing his position for his own advantage, but also laid the charges before each State government. In the end Arnold was tried by court-martial and after long and inexcusable delay, on January 26, 1780, he was acquitted of everything but the imprudence of using, in an emergency, public wagons to remove private property, and of granting irregularly a pass to a ship to enter the port of Philadelphia. Yet the court ordered that for these trifles Arnold should receive a public reprimand from the Commander-in-Chief. Washington gave the reprimand in terms as gentle as possible, and when, in July, 1780, Arnold asked for the important command at West Point, Washington readily complied probably with relief that so important a position should be in such good hands.

The treason of Arnold now came rapidly to a head. The man was embittered. He had rendered great services and yet had been persecuted with spiteful persistence. The truth seems to be, too, that Arnold thought America ripe for reconciliation with Great Britain. He dreamed that he might be the saviour of his country. Monk had reconciled the English republic to the restored Stuart King Charles II; Arnold might reconcile the American republic to George III for the good of both. That reconciliation he believed was widely desired in America. He tried to persuade himself that to change sides in this civil strife was no more culpable then to turn from one party to another in political life. He forgot, however, that it is never honorable to betray a trust.

It is almost certain that Arnold received a large sum in money for his treachery. However this may be, there was treason in his heart when he asked for and received the command at West Point, and he intended to use his authority to surrender that vital post to the British. And now on the 18th of September Washington was riding northeastward into Connecticut, British troops were on board ships in New York and all was ready. On the 20th of September the Vulture, sloop of war, sailed up the Hudson from New York and anchored at Stony Point, a few miles below West Point. On board the Vulture was the British officer who was treating with Arnold and who now came to arrange terms with him, Major John Andre, Clinton’s young adjutant general, a man of attractive personality. Under cover of night Arnold sent off a boat to bring Andre ashore to a remote thicket of fir trees, outside the American lines. There the final plans were made. The British fleet, carrying an army, was to sail up the river. A heavy chain had been placed across the river at West Point to bar the way of hostile ships. Under pretense of repairs a link was to be taken out and replaced by a rope which would break easily. The defenses of West Point were to be so arranged that they could not meet a sudden attack and Arnold was to surrender with his force of three thousand men. Such a blow following the disasters at Charleston and Camden might end the strife. Britain was prepared to yield everything but separation; and America, Arnold said, could now make an honorable peace.

A chapter of accidents prevented the testing. Had Andre been rowed ashore by British tars they could have taken him back to the ship at his command before daylight. As it was the American boatmen, suspicious perhaps of the meaning of this talk at midnight between an American officer and a British officer, both of them in uniform, refused to row Andre back to the ship because their own return would be dangerous in daylight. Contrary to his instructions and wishes Andre accompanied Arnold to a house within the American lines to wait until he could be taken off under cover of night. Meanwhile, however, an American battery on shore, angry at the Vulture, lying defiantly within range, opened fire upon her and she dropped down stream some miles. This was alarming. Arnold, however, arranged with a man to row Andre down the river and about midday went back to West Point.

It was uncertain how far the Vulture had gone. The vigilance of those guarding the river was aroused and Andre’s guide insisted that he should go to the British lines by land. He was carrying compromising papers and wearing civilian dress when seized by an American party and held under close arrest. Arnold meanwhile, ignorant of this delay, was waiting for the expected advance up the river of the British fleet. He learned of the arrest of Andre while at breakfast on the morning of the twenty-fifth, waiting to be joined by Washington, who had just ridden in from Hartford. Arnold received the startling news with extraordinary composure, finished the subject under discussion, and then left the table under pretext of a summons from across the river. Within a few minutes his barge was moving swiftly to the Vulture eighteen miles away. Thus Arnold escaped. The unhappy Andre was hanged as a spy on the 2d of October. He met his fate bravely. Washington, it is said, shed tears at its stern necessity under military law. Forty years later the bones of Andre were reburied in Westminster Abbey, a tribute of pity for a fine officer.

The treason of Arnold is not in itself important, yet Washington wrote with deep conviction that Providence had directly intervened to save the American cause. Arnold might be only one of many. Washington said, indeed, that it was a wonder there were not more. In a civil war every one of importance is likely to have ties with both sides, regrets for the friends he has lost, misgivings in respect to the course he has adopted. In April, 1779, Arnold had begun his treason by expressing discontent at the alliance with France then working so disastrously. His future lay before him; he was still under forty; he had just married into a family of position; he expected that both he and his descendants would spend their lives in America and he must have known that contempt would follow them for the conduct which he planned if it was regarded by public opinion as base. Voices in Congress, too, had denounced the alliance with France as alliance with tyranny, political and religious. Members praised the liberties of England and had declared that the Declaration of Independence must be revoked and that now it could be done with honor since the Americans had proved their metal. There was room for the fear that the morale of the Americans was giving way.

The defection of Arnold might also have military results. He had bargained to be made a general in the British army and he had intimate knowledge of the weak points in Washington’s position. He advised the British that if they would do two things, offer generous terms to soldiers serving in the American army, and concentrate their effort, they could win the war. With a cynical knowledge of the weaker side of human nature, he declared that it was too expensive a business to bring men from England to serve in America. They could be secured more cheaply in America; it would be necessary only to pay them better than Washington could pay his army. As matters stood the Continental troops were to have half pay for seven years after the close of the war and grants of land ranging from one hundred acres for a private to eleven hundred acres for a general. Make better offers than this, urged Arnold; “Money will go farther than arms in America.” If the British would concentrate on the Hudson where the defenses were weak they could drive a wedge between North and South. If on the other hand they preferred to concentrate in the South, leaving only a garrison in New York, they could overrun Virginia and Maryland and then the States farther south would give up a fight in which they were already beaten. Energy and enterprise, said Arnold, will quickly win the war.

In the autumn of 1780 the British cause did, indeed, seem near triumph. An election in England in October gave the ministry an increased majority and with this renewed determination. When Holland, long a secret enemy, became an open one in December, 1780, Admiral Rodney descended on the Dutch island of St. Eustatius, in the West Indies, where the Americans were in the habit of buying great quantities of stores and on the 3d of February, 1781, captured the place with two hundred merchant ships, half a dozen men-of-war, and stores to the value of three million pounds. The capture cut off one chief source of supply to the United States. By January, 1781, a crisis in respect to money came to a head. Fierce mutinies broke out because there was no money to provide food, clothing, or pay for the army and the men were in a destitute condition. “These people are at the end of their resources,” wrote Rochambeau in March. Arnold’s treason, the halting voices in Congress, the disasters in the South, the British success in cutting off supplies of stores from St. Eustatius, the sordid problem of money–all these were well fitted to depress the worn leader so anxiously watching on the Hudson. It was the dark hour before the dawn.