Le Bègue de Presle Duportaïl, Louis

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Le Bègue de Presle Duportaïl, Louis

LE BÈGUE DE PRESLE DUPORTAÏL, LOUIS. (1743–1802). Continental general and chief engineer. France. Born at Pithiviers, he was the son of a nobleman who was a conseiller du roi. He became a student at the engineering school at Mézières in 1762 but was dismissed for one year. In 1765 he was accepted as ingénieur ordinaire and promoted to captain in 1773. On 25 January 1777 he was given leave with the grade of lieutenant colonel to "take care of personal business" (vaquer à ses affaires particulières).

Duportail undertook extended negotiations with Franklin and Deane that resulted in a commission in the Continental army on 13 February 1777. On 8 July, Congress approved his appointment and on 22 July gave him seniority over all engineers previously appointed. On 17 November, Congress named him brigadier general and chief of engineers. Having joined the main army at Morristown, he took part in the Philadelphia campaign. One of his first major assignments was to work on the Delaware River forts, which brought him into conflict with Coudray. He remained with Washington at Valley Forge in 1777–1778 and during the Monmouth campaign of June 1778. Lafayette became impressed with his abilities and called him "one of the best and most honest officers upon this continent." On 29 June 1778 he was sent to work on the defenses of Philadelphia, and in 1779 he served in the Hudson Highlands. In March 1780 he was put under Lincoln's orders but arrived at Charleston too late to play any significant role in the defense of that city. Becoming a prisoner on 12 May 1780, he was exchanged in October 1780 and rejoined Washington in time to play a vital part in the Yorktown campaign.

On 11 May 1779 his title was changed to commandant of the Corps of Engineers and Sappers and Miners. Washington personally commended him for his siege work in the attacks at Yorktown. On 16 November 1781 Duportail was promoted to major general, and on 10 October 1783 he was given leave to resign from the American service with a strong congressional commendation of his "distinguished merit." A memorandum he had prepared on the need for American fortifications was judged by Congress "sound and just." Meanwhile, in the French service Duportail had been made lieutenant colonel attached to the infantry, and on 13 June 1783 he became a French brigadier general of infantry. In 1787 he was authorized to instruct the army of Naples, and he became maréchal de camp in 1788. From November 1790 to December 1791, Duportail served as minister of war. In 1792 he was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of the twenty-first military division at Moulins. His politics being suspect, Duportail escaped in 1794 to America, where he became head of the Corps of Engineers. Only after Napoleon's rise to power was his name removed from the émigré list. In 1802 he died at sea while returning to France.

Duportail's services were invaluable to the American cause. He was one of the few foreign officers who genuinely impressed Washington. "I shall ever retain a grateful sense of the aids I have derived from your knowledge and advice to me," Washington wrote.

SEE ALSO Charleston Siege of 1780; Deane, Silas; Engineers; Franklin, Benjamin; Monmouth, New Jersey; Philadelphia Campaign; Yorktown Campaign; Yorktown, Siege of.


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Kite, Elizabeth S. Brigadier-General Louis Lebègue Duportail, Commandant of Engineers in the Continental Army, 1777–1783. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1933.

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                            revised by Robert Rhodes Crout