Jean Baptiste Donatien De Vimeur Rochambeau

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Date: 1936
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,901 words
Lexile Measure: 1240L

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About this Person
Born: 1725 in Vendome, France
Died: 1807 in Thore, France
Nationality: French
Occupation: Military leader
Other Names: Rochambeau; Vimeur, Jean Baptiste Donatien de
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Rochambeau, Jean Baptiste Donatien De Vimeur, Comte de (July 1, 1725 - May 10, 1807), commander, the commander of the French army in America during the War of the Revolution, was born at Vendöme, France, of an ancient and honorable family, the third son of Joseph Charles de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, and his wife, Marie Claire Thérèse Bégon. He was sent to the Collège de Vendöme in 1730, and received under Père Houbigant an excellent training in history, literature, mathematics, and the physical sciences. Being a puny lad and a younger son he was designated for the priesthood. The Bishop of Blois, a friend of the family, snatched the youth from the dangerous heresies of Jansenism at Vendöme and placed him in a Jesuit school at Blois. He was about to receive the tonsure when his elder brother died, and he returned to the Hötel de Rochambeau to continue his studies. There, and at Paris, he came in contact with authors and scholars and so became acquainted with some of the advanced thought of the century. At the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession he secured a commission as junior officer of cavalry in the regiment of Saint-Simon. He was given command of a troop of horse in July 1743 and three years later became aide-de-camp to the Duc d'Orléans. Shortly afterwards he was employed in the siege of Namur under the Comte de Clermont. Rochambeau returned to the army in 1747 as colonel on Clermont's staff, was severely wounded at the battle of Lawfeld, and served gallantly in the battle of Maestricht in 1748.

He married Jeanne Thérèse Tellez d'Acosta, daughter of a wealthy merchant, in December 1749, and retired to Vendömois. He disliked the intrigue and pomp of Versailles and found the life of a provincial country gentleman most congenial. This leisurely existence was interrupted by garrison duties at Verdun, Metz, and Besançon. In 1756 he participated in the brilliant campaign against Minorca and in the capture of Port Mahon from the English. He distinguished himself at Crefeld in June 1758 and during the following March he was placed in command of a regiment of infantry of Auvergne. His skillful maneuvering and personal bravery saved the French from a surprise attack and a disaster at Clostercamp in October 1760. Early in 1761 he was made a brigadier-general and was called to the post of inspector of cavalry. In this latter position he introduced a number of tactical improvements and displayed his unusual solicitude for the welfare of the soldiers--and for discipline. He was appointed governor of Villefranche-en-Roussillon in 1776.

France allied herself with the American insurgents early in 1778. D'Estaing's attempts to cooperate with the Americans in that year had been futile and unfortunate, but the following year the French were persuaded, chiefly by Lafayette, that a military and naval force ought to be sent to the assistance of the Americans: the momentous decision was finally made in February 1780. Lafayette had hoped to secure the command of this expeditionary army, but he cheerfully acquiesced in the appointment of Rochambeau and embarked for America to inform Washington of the imminent aid from France. Elaborate preparations were made for the expedition. Rochambeau's administrative skill and his unceasing application did something to counteract the characteristic inefficiency of the French war department, but nothing could prevail against the ineptitude of the naval department and the refusal of the Spanish to cooperate. In April 1780 some 7,600 soldiers had assembled at Brest ready to embark for America, but there were accommodations for only 5,500. After several tedious delays the fleet of ten ships of war and thirty convoys sailed from Brest on May 1. Admiral Ternay, with caution and ability, brought his fleet across the Atlantic and anchored off Rhode Island on July 11. The following day Rochambeau wrote to Washington that he had arrived full of "submission" and "zeal" and that the king's orders placed him and his army at the disposal of Washington (Washington Papers, Library of Congress). The admirable conduct of the French soldiers, together with the tact, courtesy, and charm of the officers, removed many old American prejudices against the French and prepared the way for effective cooperation and mutual good-will.

Rochambeau's position as commander of the French forces was complicated by the interference of Lafayette. In his impetuous zeal Lafayette, in August 1780, urged Rochambeau to cast off his lethargy and attack New York. But the French commander still awaited the remainder of his troops from France and was unwilling to attempt such a dangerous project unless the French had command of the sea. He rebuked Lafayette, but added a delicate touch: "it is always the old father Rochambeau who talks to his dear son whom he loves . . ." (Doniol, post, IV, 380). Washington felt that there might be difficulties in giving Lafayette too active a part in the dealings between himself and Rochambeau and accordingly arranged a conference with the French commander at Hartford on Sept. 21. Washington was inclined to favor an attack against New York, but when he observed that the opinion of the French generals was unfavorable he tactfully abandoned the project. However, Washington, Rochambeau, and Ternay joined in a request to the French government for more men and money; they declared that an attack against New York would be desirable only if the allies had a superiority at sea. Rochambeau and the French army then went into winter-quarters in Rhode Island.

Early in May 1781, the Comte de Barras arrived at Boston with the Vicomte de Rochambeau, who brought his father the unwelcome news that there was no second division of French troops to be expected. But he brought news that the French king had consented to a new subsidy of six million livres tournois and that the Comte de Grasse, in command of a powerful fleet, had sailed to the West Indies and would later cooperate with Washington and Rochambeau. A second conference between Washington and Rochambeau was held at Wethersfield, Conn., on May 21. Washington still favored the attempt against New York, but Rochambeau urged that operations against Cornwallis in Virginia be undertaken in conjunction with the fleet under De Grasse. This insistence upon the Virginia campaign was the work of La Luzerne, the French minister to the United States (Jusserand, post, pp. 61-63). It was agreed at Wethersfield that the movement against New York was perhaps the only practicable one, because of the great difficulties in transporting the troops to Virginia. The French fleet was to remain at Newport, but the army was to join the American forces on the Hudson. On June 10 the French broke camp at Newport and on July 5 the two armies were united at White Plains, N. Y. The combined Franco-American forces now numbered some 10,000. There were several skirmishes with the British, but Washington did not wish to hazard a general engagement. The strategy of the Franco-Americans was to depend upon the destination of De Grasse. On Aug. 14 news arrived that the French fleet was sailing for the Chesapeake. Washington, urged by Rochambeau, now prepared to march southward against Cornwallis who was being harassed by Lafayette in Virginia. If the British lost control of the sea and if Clinton at New York did not attempt to succor the British forces in Virginia, the fate of Cornwallis was sealed.

On Aug. 19 Washington and Rochambeau began their long march southward; William Heath [q.v.], with about 3,000 men, was left before New York to deceive the British. By Aug. 26 the rest of the army had gained the west side of the Hudson and they marched directly southward, still feinting an attack against New York. On the 29th they turned their backs on New York and marched rapidly towards Philadelphia. The American treasury was so bare that Rochambeau lent 20,000 hard dollars to enable Washington to pay his troops a month's salary. The speed with which both armies traveled and the skill with which two fleets and two armies formed a perfect union were both extraordinary. De Grasse anchored his fleet in the roadstead of Chesapeake Bay late in August and within several days disembarked 4,000 soldiers, who joined the army of Lafayette. The English fleet under Graves were repulsed in an attack against De Grasse on Sept. 5, and four days later the arrival of Barras with the French fleet from Newport gave the French forces such an advantage that Graves withdrew to New York. Barras had been induced to assist De Grasse only after repeated urgings by Rochambeau and Washington. Lafayette resisted the temptation to attack Cornwallis and wrote Washington and Rochambeau to make all haste to Yorktown, where the British were now encamped.

On Sept. 14 Washington and Rochambeau joined Lafayette and Saint-Simon at Williamsburg, Va. After a conference with De Grasse plans for the siege were drawn up: preparations were expedited by the fear that De Grasse would soon withdraw his fleet to the West Indies. There were skirmishes and bombardments by the siege guns, but casualties were small on both sides. Seventeen days after the siege was formally begun Cornwallis sent a flag of truce to consider terms of surrender. Rochambeau and Barras signed the articles of capitulation for the French. On Oct. 19 the surrender took place. The British wished to surrender themselves to the French, but Rochambeau discreetly held to a strict observance of the proprieties.

Following the surrender of Cornwallis, De Grasse sailed for the West Indies, Washington returned to the Hudson and Rochambeau and the French army went into winter quarters near Williamsburg. The Virginians thought the war was over and did not look kindly upon the presence of an army. But the French soldiers were kept under extraordinarily good discipline by Rochambeau and his staff. The French commander had requested his recall in June 1781, because his health had long been poor, and there was not much glory to be gathered in America. Fortunately for his fame he did not receive the message granting him permission to return until Dec. 6, 1781. After making a short tour in Virginia he finally embarked for France on Jan. 11, 1783. In one of his several last conferences with Washington the American commander spoke enthusiastically of a Canadian expedition, but Rochambeau knew that Vergennes did not favor any such campaign and politely declined. Rochambeau was suitably fêted before his long-delayed departure for France.

Upon his return to France there was no great public celebration for him, since Lafayette monopolized the public attention, but the king declared that he owed the peace to Rochambeau. Early in 1784 he was made commander of an important military district, with headquarters at Calais. He was an active member of the Society of the Cincinnati. Rochambeau participated in the second Assembly of Notables. In 1789 he was made commander of the important district of Alsace; poor health caused his retirement in December of that year. In September 1790 he was placed in charge of the northern military department and was created a marshal of France in December 1791. During the Terror he was arrested, imprisoned, and was about to be guillotined when Robespierre's death stopped the wholesale carnage. Rochambeau was honored by Napoleon and made a member of the Legion of Honor before his death at his château in 1807. He is buried at Thoré.


[Comte de Rochambeau, Mémoires militaires, historiques et politiques (2 vols., Paris, 1809); Memoirs (extracts translated by M. W. E. Wright, Paris, 1838); J. E. Weelen, Rochambeau (Paris, 1934); D. R. Keim, Rochambeau. A Commemoration by the Congress of the U. S. A. . . . (Washington, 1907); J. J. Jusserand, With Americans of Past and Present Days (1916); J. B. Perkins, France in the American Revolution (1911); Henri Doniol, Histoire de la participation de la France ... l'établissement des États-Unis . . . (5 vols., Paris, 1886-1899). Weelen has written the only satisfactory biography, but has failed to use the large collection of Rochambeau MSS. in the Lib. of Cong.; this collection was partly used by Jusserand. Doniol prints almost three hundred pages of Rochambeau documents from French archives. The materials listed in the bibliography of the Lafayette article should also be consulted for Rochambeau in America.]


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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310004552