Rochambeau, Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de
Rochambeau, Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte De
ROCHAMBEAU, JEAN-BAPTISTE DONATIEN DE VIMEUR, COMTE DE. (1725–1807). Commander of the French army in America. Born at Vendôme of an old and honorable family, he was being trained for the church (the traditional career for a third son) when his older brother died. At the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1948), he was commissioned in the cavalry regiment of Saint-Simon. In 1743 he took command of a cavalry troop (company), having served in Bohemia, Bavaria, and on the Rhine. In 1747 Rochambeau was promoted to colonel of the infantry Regiment de la Marche, and the next year he was appointed aide-de-camp to the duke of Orleans. He sustained a serious thigh wound at the battle of Laufeldt; took part in the siege of Maestricht (1748); became governor of Vendôme (1749); distinguished himself in the capture of Port Mahon, Minorca, from the British in 1756; and was promoted to brigadier general. He fought in Germany, where he distinguished himself at Crefeld, took command of the Auvergne Regiment in 1759, and saved the French army from a surprise attack at Clostercamp in October 1760. Wounded several times in the latter action, Rochambeau was commended for personal bravery and fine tactics and promoted to the rank of maréchal de camp. Early in 1761 he was named inspector general of infantry. In 1771 he was awarded the Great Cross of the Order of Saint Louis and in 1776 became governor of Villefranche-en-Roussillon, which provided him a steady, substantial revenue.
In 1780 Rochambeau was given command of the expeditionary force sent to America to start a new and decisive phase of the French alliance. Possessing the necessary virtues for such a command, Rochambeau was a consummate professional. Promoted to lieutenant general for this assignment, he took command of some seventy-six hundred soldiers assembled at Brest. He sailed on 1 May 1780 with the fifty-five hundred for whom there were transport accommodations, and with the escort of Admiral Ternay's fleet, he arrived off Newport on 11 July.
Rochambeau faced a difficult task. His instructions required his troops to act as auxiliaries to the Americans, yielding them the place of honor, and he was to maintain good relations with the them. If the British triumphed, he was to withdraw his force to Saint Domingue. Up until his arrival in America, the French alliance had been a frustrating disappointment to the Patriots, owing largely to the failures of Rochambeau's predecessor, Estaing. The British fleet promptly bottled up Ternay. Rochambeau was, because of his instructions, hesitant to commit to battle without clear superiority.
Since Washington did not understand French and Rochambeau did not understand English, Washington sought to use Lafayette as a mediator between the two. Yet when Lafayette tried to advise the old veteran on the unique nature of American combat, Rochambeau took offense, particularly as he was unclear which part of the advice was Washington's and which Lafayette's. The two disagreed over the feasibility of an assault on New York City and Long Island. With irritation and delicacy, Rochambeau wrote the impatient youth that in resisting his appeals, "Allow an old father to reply to you as a cherished son whom he loves and esteems immensely." Yet Rochambeau was not so delicate with La Luzerne; he complained about Lafayette's letters, written "surely at the instigation of some hotheaded persons." Complicating Rochambeau's problems was the inability of the French war and naval departments to send the full expeditionary force across the Atlantic in the spring of 1780; this was aggravated by lack of Spanish participation.
In Newport the French forces, systematically isolated from the local population, exercised cordial relations with the Americans. During their stay, they put a significant quantity of specie into the American economy, an amount that has been estimated at four million dollars. At a meeting with Washington at Hartford, Rochambeau made it clear that the French would not participate in any campaign during 1780. Inactivity began to create morale problems among Rochambeau's officers. Rochambeau's son, the vicomte de Rochambeau, reached Boston early in May 1781 with Admiral Barras and the bad news that the second division of French forces would not come; the good news, however, was that admiral Grasse was headed for the West Indies and would be available in "July or August." When Rochambeau and Washington met at Wethersfield, Connecticut, on 21–23 May 1781, Rochambeau was free to make only vague references to Grasse's availability. The combined French-American operation near New York was stalled in August until news arrived on 14 August of Grasse's movement toward North America.
Events led ultimately to Cornwallis's isolation on the Yorktown peninsula; Grasse's arrival in the Chesapeake, which closed off any British evacuation; and the superiority of land and naval forces that would result in the Yorktown siege. According to Captain Ludwig von Closen, Rochambeau had already participated in fourteen sieges. The standard principles had been laid out by the military engineer Sébastien Vauban a hundred years earlier. Rochambeau and Washington made plans with Grasse in a meeting on 17 September and the admiral agreed to remain in the Chesapeake to the end of October. The siege commenced on 9 October and ended on 17 October. As Rochambeau would later recall, when Cornwallis's representative at the surrender ceremony tried to hand him his sword, "I pointed to General Washington … and told him that the French army being only an auxiliary on this continent, it devolved on the American General to tender him his orders."
In the aftermath of Yorktown, Rochambeau began planning the campaign of 1782, but without the naval force that would be necessary to act. By mid-1782, Rochambeau received word that the French fleet in the West Indies would return to Boston in August, and Rochambeau left Williamsburg on 1 July. At Philadelphia, Washington sought to interest him in a Canadian campaign, but Rochambeau ruled that it was beyond his instructions. Most of the French force left Boston on 24 November. Rochambeau sailed from Anne Arundel County, Maryland, on 8 January 1783, pursued by a British frigate across the Atlantic to Nantes, which he reached on 20 February. Louis XVI recognized his achievement with official commendation and royal favors that included the Blue Ribbon of the Order of the Holy Spirit, the highest honor the king could confer. Early in 1784 he was made commander of the northern district of France at Calais, where he remained for four years. Rochambeau took part in the second Assembly of Notables. Given command of the important Alsace district in 1789, he was forced by ill health to retire in December of that year. In September 1790 he was put in command of the army of the North, and in December 1791 he became a marshal of France. During the Terror he was arrested and escaped the guillotine only because Robespierre's death brought a halt to the Terror. Rochambeau was released on 27 October 1794 after a six-months' detention. He lived out his life quietly on his estate near Vendôme.
SEE ALSO Barras de Saint-Laurent, Jacques-Melchior, Comte de; Estaing, Charles Hector Théodat, Comte d'; French Alliance; Grasse, François Joseph Paul, Comte de; La Luzerne, Chevalier Anne-César de; Lafayette, Marquis de; Spanish Participation in the American Revolution; Ternay, Charles Louis d'Arsac, Chevalier de; Yorktown Campaign; Yorktown, Siege of.
Bodinier, André. Dictionnaire des officiers de l'armée royale qui ont combattu aux Etats-Unis pendant la guerre d'Indépendance, 1776–1783. Vincennes, France: Service historique de l'armée, 1982.
Closen, Ludwig von. The Revolutionary Journal of Baron Ludwig von Closen. Edited and translated by Evelyn M. Acomb. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958.
Contenson, Ludovic de. La Société des Cincinnati de France et la Guerre d'Amérique. Paris: Editions Auguste Picard, 1934.
Kennett, Lee. The French Forces in America, 1780–1783. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1977.
Rice, Howard C., Jr., and Anne S. K. Brown, eds. The American Campaigns of Rochambeau's Army: 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Rochambeau, Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de. Memoirs of the Marshall Count de Rochambeau. Translated by M. W. E. Wright. New York: New York Times, 1971.
Whitridge, Arnold. Rochambeau. New York: Macmillan, 1965.
revised by Robert Rhodes Crout