History

Published on July 5th, 2016 | by Joshua Chanin

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The French Heroes of the American Revolution

The year 1777 was a very bleak year for the American Rebels. Commander in Chief George Washington could see all the misery his army was experiencing, but through all odds he still tried to rally his men to fight on. Since his victorious escape from the British at the Battle of Long Island in the late summer of 1776, Washington had not been able to garner another major victory for the rebels. His army of farmers and ranchers were getting defeated on the battlefield time and time again. This produced a cloud of misery above every man’s head, and dampened the independent spirit that was widely celebrated the year before. Just two years into the war, the “temporary” rebel government was bankrupt and fleeing from General Howe’s British troops. New relationships with the European countries seemed to be going astray, the army was shattered to its core, and the newly-independent country was on the brink of extinction. But one shining stream of light was able to pass through this darkness, as the American victory at Saratoga in the summer of 1778 turned the tide in favor of the rotting army. The American’s victory plans were restored as the French joined an alliance with their North American counterparts, sensing that they had the opportunity to seek revenge on their foe. It would later be the many courageous and compassionate acts of kindness by several Frenchmen, who proved to be the real heroes of the American Revolution, that contributed to the future American victory. In providing help for the tattered rebel army and motivating their fellow partners to rise up above all odds, the army stood united in the face of defeat and firmly proclaimed their freedom.

Jean-Marc Nattier, Portrait de Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1755)

Portrait of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1755) by Jean-Marc Nattier. Photo by Wikipedia.

A strong patriot who secretly helped the rebels in the revolution was Monsieur de Beaumarchais. Born in the lower working class of eighteenth-century France, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais would soon become one of the most influential people of his time. Beaumarchais would have an early successful career becoming an inventor and financier, and eventually a famous playwright and inspirational author. In his later life he served as a music teacher in the aristocratic court of King Louis XVI. Beaumarchais was an early French supporter of the American Revolution, and was honored to be named a spy for the government of France by traveling to England in 1775 to gather information on British society and politics. After returning to his home country in early 1776, he was interested in the war effort in North America and tried to persuade the King to help the colonists because he believed that the British economy would significantly crumble without their precious thirteen colonies. Louis was hesitant at first and did not want to start another war with Britain, fearing British naval dominance over the French fleet and American rebel defeat. After some persuading, he finally allowed Beaumarchais to singlehandedly start up a commercial enterprise called Roderigue Hortalez and Company, which supplied the American colonists with ammunition, weapons and clothes. All these materials would never be paid for in the end. The operation was very secret and was only kept among the King’s court and Beaumarchais. Not even the colonists or General Washington knew about the person who helped finance the revolution. Even though Monsieur de Beaumarchais is not acknowledged or remembered in America today due to his unknown presence among the colonists, the money and supplies he provided Washington greatly benefited the rebel army in continuing their desperate fight during the dark year of 1777, before his countrymen finally intervened.

Rochambeau_Versailles

Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur de Rochambeau. Photo by Wikipedia.

Regarded as one of the most famous generals of the century, the Comte de Rochambeau played a major role in helping the Americans achieve their independence. Being very patriotic to his country as a young teenager, Rochambeau joined the French military at just the tender age of fifteen, before being named an officer a year later during his first campaign. During the French and Indian War, though he received several wounds, he was always ready to stand by his men in battle, which resulted in him being promoted to the rank of brigadier general. Like most of his nation, Rochambeau was very disappointed and angry at losing the war, resulting in the collapse of France’s North American empire. He vowed to take revenge on the British, and began concentrating on needed military reforms for the French army. Rochambeau finally got his chance at retaliation when the government named him commander of all French forces in North America in 1778. An army of 7,000 strong men underwent new training under the general, and the French forces decided to fight alongside the American rebels. After arriving in the United States in early 1780, Rochambeau placed himself under the command of General Washington. At first he was weary and nervous around the American soldiers who were his enemies just twenty years prior. But the French general soon forgot about these uncomfortable thoughts as he used his soft charm and wisdom to lighten up the American mood. Rochambeau even impressed Washington. It is said that the rebel commander was in awe of General Rochambeau’s vast experience and skill. The French general would soon become one of Washington’s trusted allies and help the American forces capture the critical redoubts at the Battle of Yorktown in October of 1781. The surrender of General Cornwallis’s British forces was made possible by the brilliant mind of a general who had successfully given the French a glorious victory before paving the way for American sovereignty.

800px-Gilbert_du_Motier_Marquis_de_Lafayette

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Photo by Wikipedia.

The most well-known Frenchman who helped the Americans defeat the British was the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette was born into a French aristocratic family with a military background. When his father was struck in battle, young Lafayette aspired to be like him and pursued a career in the French military. It is believed that Lafayette did not take a liking to the English when he traveled to London during the year 1775 to visit his uncle, who at that time was the French ambassador to Britain. According to sources, in London, Lafayette met many important Englishmen including Sir Henry Clinton (who was soon going to be named Commander in Chief of all British forces in America), but did not toast to King George III. He would soon cut his trip short and return to France three weeks later. After his unpleasant trip to the British Isles, it is presumed that Lafayette took an interest in the American War of Independence, prompting him to persuade the American agent in Paris to enter him into the Continental Army as a major general. In the summer of 1777, Lafayette was sent to General Washington as his aide-de-camp. The young man would soon prove to the American general that he was more than just an “aide”. At the Battle of Brandywine on September 11th, 1777, when it looked like the Americans were going to go into disorderly retreat, the French officer picked himself back up after he was shot in the leg, and rallied the rebels into an orderly formation. For his bravery, Washington recommended to Congress that Lafayette should command his own division. His brilliant battle strategies helped the Continental Army survive through the war. Lafayette soon turned out to be one of George Washington’s firmest friends and supporter. The friendship blossomed and endured throughout the war. Washington knew that Lafayette was the key to the “special” relationship between the United States and France and was relieved to hear the news when France decided to be an ally in 1778. At Yorktown, Lafayette would command a division that would contain the British forces in the town until Washington arrived with supplies a few weeks after. His help in planning and implementing the siege and attack on the redoubts would ultimately result in the British’s surrender. Although he had to pass many obstacles in order to get to America, Lafayette was determined to help the rebels in their struggle, resulting in the formation a friendship with George Washington, which would ensure the longevity of the rebel army and the close friendship between France and America.

With a dark and winding road ahead of them, the Continental Army of the newly independent nation called the United States was in utter despair in the year 1777. The joyous past of declaring independence was lost, and now Washington and his men grieved the harshness of winter, the struggles of not having enough food, and the depressing fact that their army was losing every battle. As the giant British army was clawing its way through the heart of the American colonies, breaking apart the pieces of liberty one step at a time, it looked as if the rebels were going to lose their fight for freedom. But after a fortunate victory in New York, France eventually decided to ally with the colonists. Due to the compassionate efforts of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, General Rochambeau, and the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington was able to turn his troops into a fighting force, overcome the most powerful army in the world, and create a free nation filled with patriotism and life. The kindness and support from these ordinary Frenchmen would strengthen the special relationship between the nations of France and the United States, ensuring that the seeds of liberty would still prosper on for many centuries into the future.

Sources
Black, Jeremy. “Decisive Battles: From Yorktown to Operation Desert Storm.” The Journal of the Historical Association 96, no. 321 (Jan. 2011): 123.
Clary, David A. Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship that Saved the Revolution. New York City: Bantam Books, January 30th 2007.
Kennett, Lee. The French Forces in America, 1780-1783. Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, November 22nd 1977.
Phillip, Ranlet. “French Founding Father: Lafayette’s Return to Washington’s America.” Journal of American History 95, no. 3 (Dec. 2008): 802-804.
Skaggs, David Curtis. “The Battle of Yorktown, 1781: A Reassessment.” Journal of Military History 70, no. 2 (April 2006): 502-504.
Unger, Harlow Giles. Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French Playwright who saved the American Revolution. New York City: UPNE: Book Club edition, September 13th 2011.
Unger, Harlow Giles. Lafayette. Saint Paul: Wiley Publishing, November 1st 2003.
Vail, Jini Jones. Rochambeau: Washington’s Ideal Lieutenant. Pittsburgh: Word Association, June 16th 2011.


About the Author

Joshua Chanin is a recent graduate from Austin College, Texas, obtaining his undergraduate degree in history and political science. He will be attending the University of Texas in Arlington in the fall of 2016, where he hopes to obtain an MA and a Ph.D. in history. Chanin plans to become a professor of American history in later life (focusing on the American Revolution), and has published pieces for the Texas Lifestyle Magazine, Midwest Book Review, and the Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History. He loves sharing his new research and findings with everyone, especially the readers of the French Quarter Magazine.



One Response to The French Heroes of the American Revolution

  1. Roger Honea says:

    What do you know about family name of Honea my anciestry shows line of soldiers starting with the french revoution

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