“His Obliging Partiality for Me”: George Washington Meets Rochambeau, September 1780
TOPICS: Alexander Hamilton, Benedict Arnold, Franco-American Relations, George Washington, Revolutionary War, Rochambeau
by Jeffrey L. Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
July 27, 2018
Gen. George Washington wrote Deputy Quartermaster Gen. Nehemiah Hubbard from headquarters in Bergen County, N.J., on Sept. 13, 1780:
I have made an appointment to meet the Count de Rochambeau and The Chevalier de Ternay. . . at Har[t]ford on the 20th instant. The Marquis de la Fayette—Genl [Henry] Knox and the commanding Officer of the Corps of Engineers in our service [Lieutenant Colonel Gouvion] will accompany me. [Y]ou will be pleased to provide the best quarters which the Town affords, and make every necessary preparation of Forage and other matters.1
Washington first met Lieutenant General Rochambeau, whose French soldiers were stationed near Rear Admiral Ternay’s French fleet at Rhode Island, to plan strategy during a nadir of the American Revolution. Aspiring to take New York City from the British in 1780 before the onset of winter, Washington expected during the first two weeks of September that French reinforcements from Europe or the West Indies would soon arrive. He learned instead on September 16 that a British fleet from the West Indies had recently reached the vicinity of New York City.2 He had informed Rochambeau earlier in September about the defeat and dispersal of Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates’s Patriot army near Camden, S.C., on August 16.3 Washington then imparted the news of British reinforcements arriving at New York City to Rochambeau and Ternay at Hartford, Conn., where Washington attended a strategy conference with the French officers from September 21 to 22 at the home of Jeremiah Wadsworth, a prominent merchant and commissary for the French forces in North America.
Rochambeau wrote in his memoirs that “this unexpected intelligence put an end to the conference, as the French generals were anxious to return to their respective posts, where their presence was now more than ever required. . . . General Washington, too, was anxious to get back to his army, where his presence was indispensable.”4 Before departing, Rochambeau and Ternay consented to help Washington’s army attack New York City if enough French warships from the West Indies arrived by the beginning of October to “gain possession of the Port of New York.” They also agreed that if French reinforcements were to arrive “in the remainder of the fall, or early in the winter, in this case an expedition should be made against the enemy in the Southern states.” Invoking their instructions – or lack thereof – from the French government, however, they declined to send the French soldiers at Rhode Island to Washington’s army in New Jersey and balked at a possible “Winter expedition into Canada.”5
Rochambeau and Ternay returned to find that their subordinates had, thanks to a letter from Washington, “taken the necessary measures for the safety of our ships” in case of a British embarkation from New York City.6 Washington, in contrast, discovered at West Point, N.Y., on the way to his army that Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold had defected to the British. As Washington’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, who accompanied Washington to Hartford, rather presciently pondered in a letter to Lt. Col. John Laurens written from camp in Bergen County on September 16, “Fortune favours the enemy, and with inferior means they baffle us every where. Is it fortune, or is it false combination that fights against us?”7
Patriot fortunes, however, soon improved. Arnold’s scheme to betray West Point’s garrison to a British embarkation from New York City was thwarted. Wadsworth’s friend Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, who commanded Washington’s army during the Hartford conference, also departed in October to replace Gates as the commander of the southern department, where he would soon begin to reverse United States losses. Most importantly, Washington and Rochambeau developed amiable personal relations at the Hartford conference that would facilitate a decisive victory over the British at Yorktown, Va., roughly a year later. As the Providence Gazette (Providence, R.I.) printed under the heading “HARTFORD, Sept. 26” on October 4, “The greatest satisfaction was expressed by the parties at this meeting, and the highest marks of polite respect and attention were mutual. The corps of guards and artillery were on duty, and saluted with 13 cannon on the arrival and departure of these gentlemen.”
Rochambeau had written Washington from Newport, R.I., before the conference that “I have, sir, the greatest desire to present my respects to your Excellency, and to give you Verbally fresh assurances of the Veneration that I have for your Excellency.”8 He returned from Hartford “delighted” with Washington, who treated him as a veritable equal even though the venerable French general had been ordered by the French government to serve as Washington’s subordinate.9 Washington, in turn, noted with regard to Rochambeau in an undated letter he wrote another French officer likely in October or November 1780, “Confirmed by what I have seen myself, in the high opinion of his abilities and personal qualities, with which the reputation of the Count De Rochambeau had impressed me, I learn with peculiar pleasure, his obliging partiality for me.”10
A few months before he became U.S. president, moreover, Washington wrote Rochambeau from Mount Vernon on January 29, 1789, shortly before the beginning of the French Revolution, which Rochambeau initially supported, “I cannot but hope, that the Independence of America, to which you have so gloriously contributed, will prove a blessing to mankind, It is thus you see, My dear Count, in retirement, upon my farm, I speculate on the fate of nations; amusing myself with innocent Reveries, that mankind will, one day, grow happier and better.”11
1. George Washington to Nehemiah Hubbard, September 13, 1780, in Middlesex County Historical Society Library. See GW to Rochambeau, September 8, 1780, in Library of Congress: Papers of George Washington.
2. See George Washington to Samuel Huntington, September 15–16, 1780, in Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives, item 152. See also David Forman to Washington, 14 September, in Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives, item 152.
3. See George Washington to Rochambeau, September 8, 1780, in Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library: Rochambeau Papers and Rochambeau Family Cartographic Archive.
4. Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, Memoirs of the Marshal Count de Rochambeau, Relative to the War of Independence of the United States, trans. M. W. R. Wright (Paris, 1838), 18.
5. “Conference at Hartford,” [September 22, 1780], in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Harold C. Syrett et al., vol. 2 (New York, 1961), 437–38.
6. Rochambeau, Memoirs, 18. See George Washington to Ternay, September 16, 1780, in Library of Congress: Papers of George Washington, and Destouches to Washington, September 19, 1780, in Historical Society of Pennsylvania: Gratz Collection.
7. Hamilton Papers, 2:431–32.
8. Rochambeau to George Washington, September 11, 1780, in Library of Congress: Papers of George Washington.
9. Rochambeau, Memoirs, 20. Ternay, “who, by the way, was very infirm,” died in December. Ibid., 21.
10. George Washington to Du Bouchet, in Library of Congress: Papers of George Washington. See Du Bouchet to Washington, September 28, 1780, in Library of Congress: Papers of George Washington.
11. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, ed. W. W. Abbot et al., vol. 1 (Charlottesville, 1987), 264–66.