A French Volunteer of the War of Independence/Chapter 3
Our voyage, which was a very bad one, lasted sixty-seven days. We met with a heavy storm off the Bermudas, and were often chased by British cruisers. At last we came in sight of Capes Charles and Henry at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.
As it was then almost night-fall the captain tacked about, intending to enter the Bay next morning. We then had a good wind behind us, and we hoped, but in vain, for a pilot to come off and take us in. The fear of being captured, however, made the captain determine to enter the Bay, which is very large. The destination of the vessel was Baltimore, but we were obliged to run into James River. The morning was very foggy, and we could not see more than a hundred yards or so. A few minutes later the fog lifted, the sun came out, and we found ourselves within a couple of cannon shot of the Isis, a British war vessel of 64 guns, which was moored at the entrance to the river. We might have run ashore on the coast, and the Isis could not have come near us as the wind was against her, but our captain lost his head and gave no orders, so we drifted within range of the Isis, and then went aground near the shore. The British being now convinced we were enemies, began to fire on us.
All the shore pirates of the district at once embarked to pillage us, and a scene of terrible disorder ensued. These sea wolves, nearly all negroes or mulattos, and numbering, as near as I could guess, about sixty, came on board under the pretext of saving the vessel, but they cared more for pillage than salvage, for they staved in casks of wine and brandy, and the greater part of them were soon very drunk. I noticed that their boats were secured to the ship by thin cords, so I quickly engaged a boy and one of our sailors to help me to bring up from the cabin my trunk which contained my goods,—alas! all my fortune,—and my other effects. We threw these into a boat belonging to one of the Lestrigons, whilst the owner was engaged in drinking and stealing, then we jumped in ourselves, cut the rope, and in a very few minutes were on shore.
The bullets whistled over our heads, but we were safe, and I had, moreover (as I thought), preserved all my property. Seated on my trunk, with my feet on the shore of America, I watched the total destruction of our ship, which was accomplished in a very few hours. We did not know what to do, or where to go, for we could not tell in which direction any houses lay. We could not speak the language, and we could not see any of the inhabitants of the country. At last several of the boats belonging to the robbers arrived, loaded with booty taken from the ship. Some of our sailors were in the boats. The leader of the pirates sent to the neighbouring town of Hampton for wagons, and when they came packed in them all which had been brought to shore, including my trunk and all that belonged to the passengers. I heard, however, the words, "Public Magazine," and that reassured me a little, for I imagined that when all the passengers were assembled, each would be allowed to claim and take away his own property.
In two or three days the crew got together, except two killed, and one or two drowned, and the doors of the Public Magazine were opened for us. My eyes filled with joy at again beholding the trunk which contained all my riches. The key was in my pocket; I approached my tnmk, but, alas! found that the padlock had been broken off, the lock forced, and, instead of the fine Dutch linen upon which I expected to make such a profit, I found only sail covers, stones, and a few rags of sails.
You may imagine my distress. I was thousands of miles from home, with no property except the clothes on my back, and no money except the nine or ten louis I chanced to have in my pocket.
Being weak and fatigued by the long voyage and its exciting incidents, I rested for a day or two, but not wishing to expend all my slender stock of money in an inn at Hampton, I set off to join the army, and, in order to get information, I first directed my steps towards Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia, about twenty or twenty-five miles distant from my starting point.
I was sure that, when once I had joined the army, I should run no risk by dying of hunger at all events; but it was a long way to the camp, and I did not know within a trifling matter of a hundred miles or so, where the head-quarters then were. Besides there were forests to pass through, and I was not sure whether I might not meet with bears, panthers, or rattlesnakes—at least that was what I had to expect if I believed all the books of travel I had read whilst I was in prison. I foresaw that I should often have to sleep under the stars, which, in the month of November, is neither safe nor pleasant in any country remote from the equator, and I was also doubtful as to whether I should find a dinner every day. With thoughts like these, but with no anxiety as to my baggage, I started off on the road—which was only a worn path—to Williamsburg.
There I found some Frenchmen, for they are to be met with everywhere. They provided me with a map of the country and I planned out my route. I learned that the army was camped at Valley Forges, three leagues from Philadelphia, and that there I should find the Marquis de la Fayette. It was a long journey to make on foot. I related the story of my shipwreck on the coast of Chesapeake Bay, and, as advice costs nothing, everybody was ready to give it, and all recommended me to complain to Mr. Jefferson, then governor of Virginia, of the robbery of my effects.After my experience in the Old World, and more recent vicissitudes in the New, I was not inclined to be too hopeful, but, to ease my mind, I called on the governor, accompanied by an interpreter. I found that Mr. Jefferson had been informed of our misfortunes. He expressed his regret that in such troublous times as we were then in, it was impossible for him to pay me the compensation to which I was entitled. In my presence he ordered his secretary to give me a certificate. This curious document was in English, which I could neither speak nor read, but later on I was able to peruse the document. The governor terminated his passport by recommending me to the charity of all with whom I might meet!
What freaks fortune had played with me. At nineteen years of age I had escaped from Pierre-en-Cize,—two months later had been shipwrecked a thousand leagues from home,—had been robbed of all I possessed, on a friendly shore, by the very persons I had come to help to regain their liberty,—and now I was trudging on foot to the head-quarters of the army, the bearer of a licence to beg on the road. Fortunately the little money I had sufficed, and I was not obliged to take advantage of the charitable verb "to assist," slipped in for my special benefit at the foot of the passport.
From Williamsburg to the camp at Valley Forges, near Philadelphia, is not less than 200 miles, and it must not be supposed that it required any superhuman effort to accomplish that. There was plenty of mud to be found—but that I expected; the weather was not always fine, for it rained often—in the months of November and December it rains even in France. In the midst of all these discomforts, which I foresaw would have an end, the knowledge that I was free sustained me, and comforted me. Moreover, I was young, and had health and strength. It is not astonishing therefore that I found at every step something fresh to drive away sad thoughts.
Birds unknown in France enlivened my view, and made me admire the richness and variety of their plumage, and in the almost continuous forest through which I had to pass, I was never tired of watching the thousands of little squirrels which leaped from bough to bough and tree to tree round me.
My baggage consisted of a single shirt. I had in my pocket a flask which I filled with gin (whenever I could get it) and in another pocket a hunk of bad maize bread. I had also five louis in my purse and a passport, signed "Jefferson."
Sand and forest, forest and sand, formed the whole way from Williamsburg to the camp at Valley Forges. I do not remember how many days I took to accomplish this difficult journey. Being badly fed, as a natural consequence I walked badly, and passed at least six nights under the trees through not meeting with any habitation. Not knowing the language, I often strayed from the right road, which was so much time and labour lost. At last, early in November, I arrived at Valley Forges.
The American army was then encamped three or four leagues from Philadelphia, which city was then occupied by the British, who were rapidly fulfilling the prophecy of Dr. Franklin.
That celebrated man—an ambassador who amused himself with science, which he adroitly made to assist him in his diplomatic work—said, when some friends came to Passy to condole with him on the fall of Philadelphia, "You are mistaken; it is not the British army that has taken Philadelphia, but Philadelphia that has taken the British army." The cunning old diplomatist was right. The capital of Pennsylvania had already done for the British what Capua did in a few months for the soldiers of Hannibal. The Americans,—the "insurgents" as they were called,—camped at Valley Forges; the British officers, who were in the city, gave themselves up to pleasure, there were continual balls and other amusements; the troops were idle and enervated by inaction, and the generals undertook nothing all the winter.
Soon I came in sight of the camp. My imagination had pictured an army with uniforms, the glitter of arms, standards, etc., in short, military pomp of all sorts. Instead of the imposing spectacle I expected, I saw, grouped together or standing alone, a few militia men, poorly clad, and for the most part without shoes;—many of them badly armed, but all well supplied with provisions, and I noticed that tea and sugar formed part of their rations. I did not then know that this was not unusual, and I laughed, for it made me think of the recruiting sergeants on the Quai de la Ferraille at Paris, who say to the yokels, "You will want for nothing when you are in the regiment, but if bread should run short you must not mind eating cakes." Here the soldiers had tea and sugar. In passing through the camp I also noticed soldiers wearing cotton night-caps under their hats, and some having for cloaks or great-coats, coarse woollen blankets, exactly like those provided for the patients in our French hospitals. I learned afterwards that these were the officers and generals.
Such, in strict truth, was,—at the time I came amongst them,—the appearance of this armed mob, the leader of whom was the man who has rendered the name of Washington famous; such were the colonists,—unskilled warriors who learned in a few years how to conquer the finest troops that England could send against them. Such also,—at the beginning of the War of Independence,—was the state of want in the insurgent army, and such was the scarcity of money, and the poverty of that government, now so rich, powerful, and prosperous, that its notes, called Continental Paper Money, were nearly valueless, like our own assignats in 1795.
Impressed by these sights, which had quite destroyed my illusions, I made my way through this singular army to the quarters of Marquis de la Fayette.
This young general was then, I believe, not more than 20 or 21 years of age. I presented myself to him, and told him frankly my whole story. He listened to my history with attention and kindness, and at my request enrolled me as a volunteer. He also wrote to France and before long received a reply confirming the truth of my statements; he then appointed me one of his aides-de-camp, with the rank of Major, and from that moment never ceased to load me with benefits and marks of confidence. The Marquis de la Fayette presented me as his aide-de-camp to the commander-in-chief. Washington was intended by nature for a great position,—his appearance alone gave confidence to the timid, and imposed respect on the bold. He possessed also those external advantages which a man born to command should have; tall stature, a noble face, gentleness in his glance, amenity in his language, simplicity in his gestures and expressions. A calm, firm bearing har monized perfectly with these attributes. This general, who has since become so celebrated for his talents and successes, was just beginning to play that important part in history that he has since so gloriously sustained, in every capacity, military, civil, and political. But I intend here only to speak of the general.
He was surrounded by his officers, who for the most part were, like me, on their first campaign. Many of them had been far from imagining, a short time before, that they were intended for a military career. I saw, standing near the Commander-in-Chief, Gates, the victor at Saratoga, a small man, about fifty years of age: two years before that he was merely a rich farmer, yet quiet and simple as he looked he had made himself a name in history. This agriculturist turned soldier, who was wearing on his head a woollen cap surmounted by a farmer's hat, had just received the sword of General Burgoyne, who, dressed in full uniform, and with his breast covered with all the orders England could give, came to him to surrender. Near Gates was Arnold, as brave as he was treacherous; he was lamed for life by a bullet he had received at Saratoga whilst sharing the dangers and glories of General Gates. A few months before he was a distinguished officer in the army, General Arnold was nothing more than a horse-dealer. General Lee, however, was a soldier before the War of Independence. General Sullivan was a lawyer, and when peace was declared he returned, not to his plough but to his office. Colonel Hamilton, the friend of Washington, when the war was over, also became a lawyer, and pleaded at Philadelphia. General Stark was the proprietor of a large and well-managed estate. Brave General Knox, who commanded the artillery, had, before the war, kept a book-store. Under him served Duplessis-Mauduit, a brave young officer, only twenty-six years old, and of whom I shall often have occasion to speak in these pages;—he afterwards perished at Saint-Domingo, vilely murdered by his own soldiers.
I also saw arrive at the mill which served our commander as his head-quarters, Colonel Armand, then commanding a troop of light horse. The life of this young Frenchman, who was then twenty-four, had been like mine, adventurous from the beginning. He was the nephew of the Marquis de la Beliniese, and had been an officer in the Gardes Franqaises. Having fallen madly in love with Mile. Beaumesnil, of the Opera, and been refused by her, he retired to the Monastery of La Trappe, which he left to seek danger by the side of General Washington. He had earned some glory and distinction under the name of Colonel Armand, and was to become more celebrated under the name of the Marquis de la Rouarie.
Lastly I saw there, for the first time. Monsieur de P——, who commanded the Engineers, and who was afterwards Minister of War to Louis XVI, at the beginning of the Revolution.
Amongst all these officers of different nationalities and habits I noticed more particularly the striking figure of the man before whom all bowed, as much from admiration and respect as from duty. General Washington appeared to be about forty. He had served in the British army, and as Major Washington commanded in 175—Fort Necessity, when M. de Jumonville, a French officer bearing a flag of truce, was shot by a private soldier, who did not see the white flag, and who fired without orders. According to all reports it is certain that the commander of the fort never gave any order to fire, and the most irrefutable proof of this is the gentleness, magnanimity, and goodness of General Washington,—a character which he never once belied amidst all the chances of war, and all the trials of good or bad fortune. M. Thomas has deemed it proper and patriotic to paint this unfortunate occurrence in the worst light, and severely blame the British officer. Had the name of Major Washington remained obscure, it would have been stained with an undeserved blot which no one would have thought it worth while to remove, but, as it is, any attempt to answer the charge would be an insult to one of the most beautiful and noble characters in history, and all suspicions fall to the ground before the name, the virtues, and the glory of General Washington. The assassin of De Jumonville could never have become a great man.
When the war broke out. General Washington was the proprietor of a splendid estate in Virginia, and he brought with him when he joined the army, a number of fine horses. He dressed in the most simple manner, without any of the marks distinctive of a commanding officer, and he gave away large sums to the soldiers, by whom he was adored. But all that he gave was from his own purse, for he had refused to receive any emoluments from the Government.
I ought to mention to the praise of the Marquis de la Fayette, that he followed the example of the commander-in-chief, and incurred great expense, purchasing with his own money all that was necessary to clothe, equip, and arm his men. The war cost him immense sums, and certainly no one will suspect him of any other motive than the noble one of glory, for the chances of reimbursement were not very probable. His motives were perfectly pure, and the enormous sacrifices he made can only be accounted for by the love of liberty, and the chivalric spirit which will always exist in France;—enthusiasm, love of danger, and a little glory were his sole rewards. The pleasure of commanding, fighting, and distinguishing himself were of some weight in the scale, it is reasonable to conclude, but honour and merit were the principal motives. The war in America only offered a chance of danger, privations, fatigues, and difficulties; the Marquis de la Fayette was the only one of all the young lords of the Court of France who had the courage and determination to leave the pleasures of the palace, and travel eighteen hundred leagues to obtain glory without profit.
Moreover, there was not an oppor tunity every day of acquiring even this much, under General Washington. It did not enter into his plans to readily engage with the enemy on every opportunity. He watched his time and chance before he struck a blow; the principle of "armed temporization" was his daily study, and, as events have proved, he well deserved the title which has been claimed for him of the American Fabius.
The British, occupied in the pleasures which they found in Philadelphia, allowed us to pass the winter in tranquillity; they never spoke of the camp at Valley Forges except to joke about it, and we for our part might almost have forgotten that we were in the presence of an enemy if we had not received a chance visitor. We were at table at head-quarters,—that is to say in the mill, which was comfortable enough,—one day, when a fine sporting dog, which was evidently lost, came to ask for some dinner. On its collar were the words. General Howe. It was the British commander's dog. It was sent back under a flag of truce, and General Howe replied by a warm letter of thanks to this act of courtesy on the part of his enemy, our general.
When I arrived at the camp I was in a pitiable condition, but the Marquis de la Fayette had the extreme kindness to furnish me with the means of procuring horses and a suitable equipment.
A plan was proposed to effect a diversion by attacking Canada, where, we were informed, we should find few troops to oppose us, and towards the middle of January, the Marquis de la Fayette went to take command of the troops in the district round Albany.
We made the journey on sledges on the North River, and travelled with great speed, but the weather was "wickedly cold." One of our companions was the brave Duplessis-Mauduit, who was to command our artillery. But before undertaking any measures we thought it prudent to make a treaty with the savage races who live on the borders of Canada and New England.
After resting some days in the town of Albany, we went up Mohawk River to the house of Mr. Johnston, whose residence was close to the huts of the various tribes known under the names of Tuscaroros, Oneidas, etc. We were prepared with the usual presents required to conciliate them, and in this case it might be said that little presents cement great friendships. Our gifts, which they thought magnificent, consisted of woollen blankets, little mirrors, and, above all, plenty of paint, which the savages esteem highly and use to paint their faces. There was also some gunpowder, lead, and bullets, and some silver crowns of six francs bearing the effigy of the King of France, who is known to these savages, by tradition, as the "Great Father."
About two thousand Indians, men and women, came to the appointed rendezvous, and thanks to our presents and the "fire water" which we distributed, the treaty was easily concluded. I was very anxious to observe the manners and customs of these people, who were a great novelty to me, but at the end of a few days I had seen quite enough, for the European beggar is far less disgusting than the American savage. Their numbers are diminishing rapidly from various causes.
We found amongst them an old soldier who had belonged to the Marquis de Montcalm's army. This man had become a savage; he had almost entirely forgotten French, and lived like the Indians, except that he had not let them cut his ears, which is the sign of a warrior. We left these tribes equally satisfied on both sides. The projected attack on Canada was postponed, for some reason of which I am ignorant, and we returned to the Camp at Valley Forges.
I remarked, however, that even in treating with these children of nature, there was a reciprocal distrust and an impression that caution was the mother of safety, for we brought with us fifty of the young warriors as a guarantee that the treaty should be duly executed, and one of our men remained with the Indians as a hostage—it was not I.
A little later some of these Indians joined our army, and I will here note two singular incidents concerning them. One day we were at dinner at head-quarters; an Indian entered the room, walked round the table, and then stretching forth his long tattooed arm seized a large joint of hot roast beef in his thumb and fingers, took it to the door, and began to eat it. We were all much surprised, but General Washington gave orders that he was not to be interfered with, saying laughingly, that it was apparently the dinner hour of this Mutius Scaevola of the New World.
On another occasion a chief came into the room where our generals were holding a council of war. Washington, who was tall and very strong, rose, coolly took the Indian by the shoulders, and put him outside the door. The son of the forest did not protest; he concluded probably that his ejectment was a way of expressing by signs that his company was not wanted.
At another time a meeting was appointed with the chiefs and warriors belonging to several tribes, which resided at great distances from each other in different directions. They had to pass through vast and thick forests where there were no paths. Though without either watch or compass they found their road, by means known to themselves alone. The meeting was to be on a plain, and it is a fact that on the day appointed we heard their songs and cries, and saw the various bodies of Indians arrive from all sides almost simultaneously.
I was astonished, on my return, to find what peculiar ideas our hosts, the Americans of New England, had of the French. One day I dismounted from my horse at the house of a farmer upon whom I had been billeted. I had hardly entered the good man's house when he said to me,
"I am very glad to have a Frenchman in the house."
I politely enquired the reason of this preference.
"Well," he said, "you see the barber lives a long way off, so you will be able to shave me."
"But I cannot even shave myself," I replied. "My servant shaves me, and he will shave you also if you like."
"That's very odd," said he. " I was told that all Frenchmen were barbers and fiddlers."
I think I never laughed so hearily. A few minutes later my rations arrived, and my host seeing a large piece of beef amongst them, said,
"You are lucky to be able to come over to America and get some beef to eat."
I assured him that we had beef in France, and excellent beef too.
"That is impossible," he replied, "or you wouldn't be so thin."
Such was,—when Liberty was dawning over the land,—the ignorance shown by the inhabitants of the United States Republic in regard to the French. This lack of knowledge was caused by the difficulty of intercourse with Europe. Their communications were almost entirely cut off, and even Boston and Philadelphia were in the hands of the English; nor were the people on the sea-coast in a more advanced State of civilization than those of the interior. More than a century of progress has been made in less than twenty years. I shall hardly be believed now when I state that, about this time, one of our men having left a pair of jack-boots, behind him, the Americans were so astonished at them, that they placed them, as a curiosity, in the New York Museum, where the man who had forgotten them afterwards found them ticketed French Boots.
We returned to the camp at Valley Forges about the 15th March. The enemy was still quiet in Philadelphia, dancing and drinking in true English style, and deeming themselves perfectly safe. We were not sufficiently strong to attempt to dislodge them, and were obliged to wait till 15th April, when our recruits and reinforcements were to arrive. We remained inactive till then. The weather was still very cold. A peculiarity of the climate, of this country is that often there is no spring, and owing to the absence of one of the most pleasant seasons of the year you pass straight from a long and hard winter to weather of insupportable heat, which has followed, without any intermediate gradations, a severe frost. The autumns, on the other hand, are long and very fine.
By 15th April our reinforcements had arrived, and we were preparing to open the campaign when we learned, with as much surprise as pleasure, that the British army had received orders to evacuate Philadelphia and fall back on New York. Their army was composed of veteran soldiers, was superior to us in numbers, and, moreover, protected by entrenchments. We imagined that the Cabinet at London had probably heard of the expected arrival of the squadron under Comte d'Estaing. But,—whatever was the cause,—the British prepared to leave Philadelphia and retire on New York, which was also in their hands at that time. They had to make a march of thirty leagues, and cross two rivers,—the Delaware at Philadelphia, and North River,— before arriving at New York. We, on our side, prepared to harass their rear-guard.
General Washington—partly out of friendship, and partly from policy—was anxious to afford the Marquis de la Fayette every opportunity to distinguish himself, and ordered him to take a strong body of troops and cross the Schuylkill, at a spot on the left of the British position, and cut off their rear-guard, if the opportunity should occur. La Fayette had already brilliantly distinguished himself at the Battle of Brandyivine, where he had received a ball in the leg.
We left about midnight, silently crossed the Schuylkill, and took up a position in a wood very close to Philadelphia, in order to be able to reconnoitre the enemy at daybreak, and attack if we had the chance. The main body of our army was ready to support us in less than two hours if we signalled for help.
The British, who had spies amongst our men, were soon informed of our plans. The greater part of their army was still in Philadelphia; they made a sortie, carried the weak post we had established on the banks of the Schuylkill to secure our retreat, and then marched in our rear, hop ing to catch us between two fires. Our little army, ignorant of the danger of the position, was about to be caught in a trap.
It happened otherwise, however. We had bivouacked and were resting, and waiting for daybreak.
Fortunately, a surgeon had heard,—I do not know how,—of this night march of the garrison of Philadelphia to cut off our retreat and take us in the rear. In the interests of his own safety, most probably, he had searched along the banks of the river and had found a ford where there was only three or four feet of water. I was lying on the ground, near our general, when the Esculapius came up and whispered the information he had found out, and the discovery of the ford, of which we did not suspect the existence. La Fayette, awakened by the sound of our voices, asked what was the matter, and made the surgeon repeat what he had already told me. Our general was admirably cool, and showed that presence of mind so valuable in a commander in a time of danger. He quietly told the surgeon to return to his post, and as soon as he had left, ordered me to mount my horse, and see for myself if the information was true. I did not go very far before I ascertained that Esculapius was quite correct. I saw the head of a moving column, so I returned at full speed. The next moment the order to march was given, and our retreat was effected quietly and promptly, and our little army crossed the Schuylkill in good order, by the ford which the surgeon had discovered. We were drawn up in order on the right bank, and made the signals previously agreed upon. Our soldiers believed that the march and countermarch formed part of a strategic movement. The enemy did not dare to show himself, being afraid of being caught in a snare.
Our expedition, which had served to puzzle the enemy, and our cleverly executed retreat, brought a good deal of praise to our general, which, to say truth, he deserved, but thanks were also due to the cautious and watchful surgeon who found the ford so opportunely;—nothing was said about him, however.
A few days later the British army had completely evacuated Philadelphia. We followed it almost within sight, and at Rareton Rivers, General Lee attacked the enemy's rear-guard, in the morning. This was composed of 7,000 men, the flower of the army, and comprised the regiment of Foot Guards. I was present at this affair, where the Marquis de la Fayette was under Lee's orders. We were thoroughly beaten, our soldiers fled in the greatest disorder, and we could not succeed in rallying them, or even in getting thirty men to keep together. As usually happens, the general who commanded was accused of treason. This was my first battle.
The stragglers re-formed behind our main army, which they met with in their flight, whilst the British, proud of their victory, though it was but a partial one, had the imprudence to pursue us with the reinforcements which they had drawn from the advance guard. General Washington waited for them in a strong position, with all his army drawn up in battle order.
The English had a deep ravine to cross before they could reach us: their brave infantry did not hesitate an instant, but charged us with the bayonet, and was crushed by our artillery. The fine regiment of the guards lost half its men, and its colonel was fatally wounded.
This engagement, called the Battle of Monmouth, from the name of a neighbouring village, began at ten o'clock in the morning: the heat was so excessive that we found soldiers dead without having received a wound. I did not see much of my first battle as we had not remained masters of the field; but that of Monmouth gave me some painful thoughts, even in the midst of the pride and pleasure of victory, and I cannot reproach myself with the callous heartlessness of the man who, on the field of Eylau, amidst the bodies of 24,000 of the victors and vanquished, said, "What a fine slaughter of men!" We slept on the field of battle amongst the dead, whom we had no time to bury. The day had been so hot, in both senses, that everyone had need of rest.
The British army retreated, about midnight, in silence, and we entered the village at six o'clock in the morning. The enemy had left behind some of his baggage and all his wounded; they were to be found in every house, and in the church. Every possible care was taken of them. I cannot even now think without pity of the young officers of the guards who had lost their limbs. Their colonel, one of the handsomest men I have ever seen, and sixty years of age, died of his wounds after suffering for twenty-four hours.
There was no further fighting until the English reached New York. We arrived before the city at almost the same moment as they entered it, and took up our position.
The siege was conducted under circumstances of great difficulty; a British squadron was anchored in the port; the town was protected on one side by North River, and on the other by East River,—both much larger than the Seine, or even the Loire. We should have needed a hundred thousand men if we had wanted to attack the place, and we had but fifteen thousand. The American army remained therefore "in observation," and contented itself with preventing the enemy from foraging in the country round about.
Whilst we were mutually engaged in watching each other, a plot was brewing which, if it had succeeded,—and it was within a hair's breadth of doing so,—would have been disastrous for our army, and perhaps even affected the fate of the newly-born Republic. I allude to General Arnold's conspiracy to betray the Fort of West Point into the hands of the English.
West Point, some twenty leagues from New York on the right bank of North River, was the chief arsenal of the American government. All the heavy artillery was kept there, and also that captured at the surrender of Saratoga. Congress had taken the precaution to make every approach to the place bristle with fortifications. The heights were surmounted by formidable batteries which could bring a heavy cross fire to bear upon several parts of the river, and the passage of the river was also barred—like the port of Constantinople in the time of the Greek Emperors—by a chain, every link of which weighed more than four hundredweight. The fortifications were erected under the direction of MM. Duportail and de Gouvion, officers sent from France.
Amongst the causes which brought about the liberty and independence of the United States, perhaps these impregnable fortifications should count for something.The British could not hope to capture West Point by main force, for their ships could not approach without running the gauntlet—for fully two miles—of a heavy cross fire from the banks and the neighbouring heights. They resolved to try King Philip's "mule laden with gold."
The possession of the fort of West Point would allow the enemy to cut off all our communications with the Northern States, from whence we derived all our provisions, particularly cattle. The loss of this place would have been the heaviest possible misfortune for us, and the consequences would have been incalculable. General Arnold commanded the fort.
Major André, a young officer of French extraction, and an adjutant in the British army, often had occasion to visit the American camp to make arrangements concerning the exchange of prisoners. By chance or design, he had made the acquaintance of Arnold. This general, a man of rare courage, had often rendered us signal services, but he had not been rewarded as well as he wished. Major Andre guessed that he was discontented, and could be easily bought over, and a compact was made between them. Arnold was promised a large sum of money, and a position of equal rank in the British army with full pay. On his side he undertook to surrender the fort. The enemy was to make a night attack by the river, and it was agreed that Arnold was to allow himself to be surprised.
There was still, no doubt, some minor points to be arranged, and it was necessary that the major should meet the general in order to discuss these. Andre came disguised, and was met by three of our militia men who were patrolling outside our lines, who stopped him and asked the usual questions. The major, who was dressed as a countryman, and badly mounted, replied quietly, and with an affectation of simplicity, that he was a farmer. The three militia men, who by the way were but badly armed, for the musket of one of them had no hammer, were just deciding to let him pass, when he imprudently complained of the delay they had caused him, and was stupid enough to offer them money, and this aroused their suspicions. Thereupon he proposed that they should conduct him to West Point, where he said he wished to go, but one of the militia men remarked that they would have five miles to walk, whereas by going only a mile or so they would meet General Washington, who ought then to be crossing North River on his return from a council of war held at Hartford. This was agreed, and the three militia men conducted their prisoner, without knowing who he was, to Kingsferry, where they awaited at the inn the arrival of the commander-in-chief.
Arnold, however, being suspicious, had had the major followed by a farmer of the district. Being advised by his messenger that Andre was captured, Arnold at once jumped into a boat manned by English sailors in disguise, and which was waiting for him below the fortifications, and was rowed to the Vulture, a British corvette lying about two cannon shot off, and so the unfortunate major was the only victim of Arnold's treason.
All this passed at very little distance from our camp. I had gone, out of curiosity, to see the generals arrive, and so was a witness, by accident, of this great drama. The inn-keeper told me that three militia men had arrested a very sus picious looking person, who had offered them money to let him go free, and showed me the place where this unknown personage was temporarily confined. I went to see him, and spoke to him, but as I did not know Major André by sight, I imagined the man to be nothing more than one of the enemy's spies. I was not the only person astonished a quarter of an hour later.
General Washington arrived with his staff, and having been told of the arrest, ordered Colonel Hamilton to go and examine the accused and bring back a report. I followed the colonel. The low room was very dark, and as night was falling, a light was brought. The colonel sprang back in astonishment and dismay, on recognizing at the first glance the unfortunate Major André. The prisoner wore no military insignia—a regimental jacket under his countryman's coat, might perhaps have saved him. Deeply pained by the recognition. Colonel Hamilton ordered the militia men not to lose sight of their prisoner for a moment, and hurried back to the general. "It is Major André," he cried in a tone of despair. Washington's first words were, "Take fifty horse, and bring me Arnold dead or alive." Then he at once gave orders for all the army to be under arms. His next care was to have the prisoner searched; there was found on him a paper containing all the particulars of the plan agreed upon—the surprise of the fort at West Point, and a simultaneous attack on our army. God knows what would have become of the American cause if the plot had succeeded.
The major was brought into the camp, under a strong escort, to be tried and sentenced; the least indulgence shown to him, would, in the circumstances in which we were placed, have been followed by a mutiny in the army.
Few culprits in modern history have inspired and deserved more general interest than this unhappy young man; a distinguished, brave, and active officer, handsome, amiable, and only twenty-six years of age. We received quite a procession of envoys who came to treat for his re lease. The English generals came in person, and offered almost anything to save his life. There was only one condition we could accept, and that was that Arnold should be delivered into our hands. The English were sorrowfully obliged to refuse this; they could not accede to the terms.
Major Andre was tried and condemned to be hanged; he did not even obtain the privilege of being shot. I can certify that when they came out after the court-martial the faces of all our generals showed marks of the most profound grief; the Marquis de la Fayette had tears in his eyes. The unfortunate young man met his death courageously; he said loudly that he did not think it dishonourable to have acted as he did against "rebels."The inevitable doom of Major Andre only served to accentuate the scorn and hatred that Arnold obtained and deserved. The traitor received his promised reward from the British government, but care was taken not to employ him as a general, the soldiers, both men and officers, being exasperated against him.
His wife and children, whom he had left behind, were in our power. He was base enough to suppose that they would be held responsible for his crime, and insolently wrote to General Washington threatening severe reprisals, and the destruction of Washington's beautiful estate in Virginia if any harm happened to his family. The sole reply Washington made was to order Mrs. Arnold and her children to be conducted into the British lines, with every possible attention. It was, I believe, Colonel Hamilton who was charged with this duty, with instructions to spare them every possible inconvenience.
No event of importance happened during the next few weeks, but we learned that the British government was sending Commissioners to New York to arrange the terms of peace. One of these representatives was Lord Carlisle, a very young man. He was the cause of a scandal, the odium and ridicule of which af fected him alone. He had inserted in the English papers, which were read at New York, a paragraph to the effect that the Marquis de la Fayette had been very well received at the Court of St. James, but a very short time before his departure for America, and therefore it was base ingratitude on his part to play the Don Quixote, and help the colonists in their rebellion against their sovereign. The Marquis de la Fayette felt personally insulted by this, and deemed himself justified in demanding satisfaction. A messenger was sent with a flag of truce to carry the challenge, but though the noble lord could not have thought this opponent beneath him in rank, he contented himself with replying that he would leave the quarrel to be settled by Admiral Howe and Comte d'Estaing. My lord was well known in the fashionable circles of London, and we therefore caused to be inserted in the papers, that he was nothing more than a young dandy, who wore rouge and patches, and was afraid to fight, and the laugh was on our side.
A little later on, Comte d'Estaing appeared before New York with a fleet of twelve vessels of the line and several frigates.
The American army, encouraged by the presence of the French Fleet, advanced the lines close to the city.
D'Estaing had hoped to be able to attack the British fleet in the port, with the advantage of superior force. Admiral Howe's squadron consisted only of seven or eight vessels of 50 guns. The French ships, being much larger, drew too much water, and were afraid of venturing too far in, for fear of running aground. The Languedoc, d'Estaing's flag vessel, mounted no guns. They were therefore obliged to renounce their original plan, and change their tactics.
The Marquis de la Fayette gave me a letter of introduction to Comte d'Estaing, which I presented, though I was a trifle nervous at the idea of an interview with such an important personage. He received me very well, and asked a good many questions which I was easily able to answer. I was closeted with him fully two hours. I partook of a most excellent dinner on board the Admiral's vessel, and was therefore much surprised to hear Comte d'Estaing complain that he was in need of many of the necessaries of life;—it certainly did not appear so. I announced the speedy arrival of fifty fat oxen;—which caused such universal pleasure that, before I had finished speaking, the good news was being conveyed by speaking trumpet or signals to all the vessels of the fleet.
All the officers surrounded me, and cross-questioned me closely as to our position, forces, etc. I was quite an important personage. Le Bailly de Suffren—then only in command of a 50-gun ship—sent for me on board his vessel. I was obliged, in order to please him, to drink such a quantity of punch that when I left the ship I was afraid I should fall into the sea. I was very happy to meet my cousin, the Chevalier de F——, y now the Comte de F y Grand Cross of the Order of St. Louis, and Vice Admiral: he was then a midshipman on board La Provence. He had heard of my escape from Pierre-en-Cize, and we now met, eighteen hundred leagues from home, in the midst of a campaign;—the proper place for both of us, however. I was greatly obliged to him for many kindnesses, and more particularly for a small supply of clothes, with which naval officers are always well supplied, and which, as I greatly needed them, I took care not to refuse.
At last I took leave of Comte d'Estaing, who entrusted me with dispatches for the commander-in-chief. I remember that he also gave me some kegs of lemons and pine-apples, which he had found on board a prize he had taken. To regain the camp, I had a voyage of twenty miles to make in a boat. I was so hungry during the night that I devoured several of the pine-apples; and they nearly killed me.
The plan of campaign of 1778 was changed; a combined attack was to be made, the French Fleet was to blockade Newport, Rhode Island, between New York and Boston, whilst a part of the army, under the command of General Sullivan, and comprising the division of the Marquis de la Fayette, was to besiege the place by land.
We effected our landing on this beautiful island in the most orderly manner, and without any difficulties, under the protection of three frigates sent by Comte d'Estaing.
Hardly had the troops disembarked before the militia,—to the number, I believe, of about ten thousand men, horse and foot,—arrived. I have never seen a more laughable spectacle; all the tailors and apothecaries in the country must have been called out, I should think;—one could recognize them by their round wigs. They were mounted on bad nags, and looked like a flock of ducks in cross-belts. The infantry was no better than the cavalry, and appeared to be cut after the same pattern. I guessed that these warriors were more anxious to eat up our supplies than to make a close acquaintance with the enemy, and I was not mistaken,—they soon disappeared.
A few days after we had disembarked, we opened our trenches before the place, and the works were being pushed on with great activity, when the British fleet appeared before Newport.
Comte d'Estaing at once gave orders to sail; there was little wind, but what there was was favourable. Our fleet defiled majestically in front of the enemy's earthworks; each vessel as she passed gave a broadside of half her guns, amongst them many 24- and 36-pounders, to which the forts replied with their 10- and 12-pounders. Our fleet gave chase to the British, who made all sail. Both fleets were soon lost to sight. We awaited the news of a victory, but our fleet was dispersed by a terrible storm, and the admiral's vessel, the Languedoc, dismasted by the gale, was very nearly captured by the enemy. The César, a vessel of 74 guns, commanded by M. de Raimondis, separated from the rest of the squadron, had a very severe engagement with some of the enemy's vessels. The captain lost his right arm, but managed to save his ship, which we thought had been captured. It was in the midst of this tempest that Admiral Byron's fleet arrived and joined that of Admiral Howe. The enemy then had the advantage in strength.
The siege still went on, but when M. d'Estaing re-appeared before Newport he told us he must withdraw the three frigates he had left to protect us, and we must raise the siege. D'Estaing took all the fleet to Boston for repairs.General Sullivan, angry at finding himself no longer supported by the French fleet, went so far as to insult our nation, and call the French traitors. Our two generals were almost on the point of fighting a duel. The Marquis de la Fayette complained bitterly, and with good reason, to Washington, of the treatment he had received. The retreat was made in good order, and we rejoined the main army.
In this expedition the commanders, both by land and sea, were dissatisfied with each other and themselves, but for me the siege had been rather pleasant, and on one occasion I received compliments which were as numerous as they were sincere, The occasion was as follows:
The Chevalier de Preville, who commanded the three frigates intended to protect our communications, wrote to me to ask if he could obtain some supplies for his sailors. I handed his letter to the Marquis de la Fayette, and General Sullivan authorized me to take a detachment and forage between the two camps.
For twenty-four hours I was in chief command, and had to make all the military and gastronomic dispositions required. The space between the enemy's forts and our lines was covered with houses and gardens, the owners of which had deserted them, not caring about living between two fires. My work had to be carried out right under the enemy's nose, and I fully expected there would be some bullets to receive. I had requisi tioned all the carts J could find, and filled them with fruit and,—so well does heaven protect good works,—not a shot was fired at us.
The frigates, being informed by signal, of the success of my expedition, sent off a number of boats, and I protected the convoy down to the beach. You should have seen with what gusto the sailors devoured the apples, and with what alacrity they unloaded the carts of potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables. Their gratitude was all the greater as they had been some time without any fresh vegetables. They hailed me as the good fairy of the fleet, and when I went on board I was enthusiastically welcomed.
The French government at last decided to recognize the United States as independent, and sent out M. Gerard as French Ambassador to Congress. It was quite time France took a step of this kind, for the help that she had sent through Caron de Beaumarchais had not given much satisfaction. The letters that he wrote to Congress, for instance, displayed a levity which amounted almost to insolence. I have kept a copy of one of his letters.
"Gentlemen: I beg to inform you that the ship Amphitrite, of 400 tons burden, will leave with the first fair wind for whatever port of the United States she may be able to reach. The cargo of the vessel, which is consigned to you, consists of 4,000 muskets, 80 barrels of gun- powder, 8,000 pairs of boots, 3,000 woollen blankets, also some engineer and artillery officers; item, a German Baron, formerly aide-de-camp to Prince Henry of Prussia, of whom you can make a general.
"I am. Gentlemen,
"Your obedient Servant,
"C. de Beaumarchais."
The members of Congress were very indignant about this letter, with the contents of which they made all us Frenchmen acquainted, but it was on a par with all that he did, and what might have been expected from such a man. The German Baron of whom he spoke so slightingly, was Baron Steuben, a great tactician, who was accompanied also by the Chevalier de Teman, a very distinguished officer. I have already named M. Duportail, M. Duplessis-Mauduit, and M. de la Rouarie. When the last-named presented himself before Congress, he was attended by his valet, a tall, handsome, and very brave man, named Lefevre. M. de la Rouarie at once received his commission as colonel, and, so simple and inexperienced were the members of the Committee, that they offered a similar commission to the valet on the strength of his good looks. He thanked Congress for the proffered honour, but begged leave to refuse it. Congress then consisted of thirteen members, one from each State of the Union, but men very different from us in their habits and ways. They took their seats in the Congress Hall, as we should enter a reading room in Paris, and the wisdom of their magnanimous resolutions was even surpassed by the simplicity of their manners.
After the siege of Newport was raised, we returned to the camp. General Washington and Congress decided to send La Fayette to France to ask for further supplies of men and money, the American paper money having fallen into utter discredit.
Great haste was made to finish building the frigate Alliance, which was to be a fast sailer, armed with thirty-six 12-pounders. The command of the new vessel was given to a Frenchman, Captain Landais of St. Malo, but the ship was under the orders of M. de la Fayette, and the captain was to land him wherever he wished. To complete the crew we, unfortunately, took seventy English prisoners. They were excellent sailors, and as they had all taken an oath of fidelity, it was thought they could be trusted.
The winter was very severe, and the ship was not fitted out till the end of January. The port of Boston was then frozen, and we were obliged to cut a passage for the ship through the ice. The wind was extremely violent, though favourable. We put up our mainsail only and that alone took us along at the rate of ten knots an hour. There were many French officers on board, amongst others M. de Raimondis, the captain of the César, who had lost his right arm in the last naval battle.
Off the Bank of Newfoundland we were assailed by a terrible tempest. It lasted so long, and grew so much worse, that first inquietude, then alarm, and at last consternation, seized everybody on board.
M. de la Fayette was invariably very ill at sea: he was down on the sick list. He often sent me to enquire after old Captain Raimondis, who suffered much pain from his amputation,—sufferings which were increased by the heavy rolling of the ship. The old sailor did not take a hopeful view of the situation; he told me that he had never, in all his voyages, met with such a fearful tempest. I carried these remarks back to M. de la Fayette, but to comfort him as well as myself, I told him that I thought the state of health of Captain Raimondis must necessarily influence his mind, and make matters look worse than they really were. M. de la Fayette lay on his back and soliloquized on the emptiness of glory and fame.
"Diable!" he said, philosophically, "I have done well certainly. At my time of life—barely twenty years of age—with my name, rank, and fortune, and after having married Mile, de Noailles, to leave everything and serve as a breakfast for cod-fish!"
For my own part I was better off; I had nothing to lose and no one to regret me. I went back to the old sailor. He occupied a cabin on the deck below that where M. de la Fayette was lodged, so that in going from one to the other I met with frequent falls, and had plenty of bruises to show as the result of my messages. It was impossible to keep one's feet, owing to the continual heavy seas which struck the ship. There was some talk of cutting the masts. One of my comrades M. de N——, became so excited that I saw him charge his pistols, so as to shoot himself rather than be drowned. There did not seem to me a pin to choose between either fate, but his last hour had not yet come. This unlucky fellow had a mania for suicide. In 1792, after the 10th August, he was an officer in the Constitutional Guards, and when the "patriots" came to drag him away to the Abbaye, he escaped from their hands by passing his sword through his body. At the end of three days,—which seemed very long, I must admit,—the tempest ceased, and during the rest of the voyage we had favourable weather.
But heaven had yet another trial in store for us. Whilst we were at dinner one day, thinking no more of bad weather, but of France, from which we were now only some five hundred miles distant, one of the crew entered, and asked to speak to M. de la Fayette. He took the Marquis on one side, and told him a good deal in a very few words; namely, that the English sailors had laid a plot to kill us, take possession of the vessel, and turn her head towards England. This was to be effected at five o'clock in the evening. when the English sailors came off their watch. Our informant added, that many of the men, especially the ringleaders, would be found to have arms concealed in their hammocks. He had only joined in the plot, he said, in order to be able to save us.
There was not a moment to be lost. We numbered in all fourteen officers. We began by securing the man who had warned us, and Duplessis-Mauduit stood over him with a cocked pistol in his hand. Some of us then went to fetch the bravest and trustiest of our sailors, who came quickly and ready armed. Thirty of us went down between decks, and, as the hammock of each of the ringleaders was pointed out to us by the man who had betrayed the conspiracy, the cords were cut with one blow of a hatchet, and the man thrown out, seized, and bound, before he was half awake. The scoundrels were so taken by surprise that they made no resistance. At first they all denied the existence of a plot, but on being questioned separately, the fear of being hanged on the spot made them confess their crime, one of the motives for which, it appeared, was that they had noticed amongst the baggage of M. de la Fayette, some very heavy cases which they supposed contained treasure. The informer was, of course, rewarded as he deserved. None of us went to bed that night; we had to watch over sixty men, bound, and shut up between decks. In the cabin which served as our council-chamber, nothing was to be seen but loaded pistols and drawn swords.
At daybreak we found that a Swedish merchant vessel was close to us. Captain Landais made the master come on board. The poor man's terror at seeing our cabin was ludicrous, the sight of all these deadly weapons made him imagine that his last hour had come. We tried to re-assure him by signs, for he did not know a word of French. For two whole days he was too frightened to either eat or drink, but he ended by finding our dinners very good, and our wine excellent. Captain Landais maintained that the Swede was a legitimate capture, but, when we arrived in France, we were forced to let him go.
We were all anxious to see land, for we were tired out, and we were worried, moreover, by the fear of meeting a hostile vessel stronger than ourselves, in which case it was tolerably certain that the men we were guarding below decks would have helped her. We had lost our top masts in the tempest, so flight would have been impossible. We were not yet in sight of land,—though it could have been at no great distance,—when an English cruiser of 16 guns, saw us and gave chase. As we showed no guns she no doubt thought ours was a vessel of the French East India Company, and a rich prize. So sure of this were her crew, that, as she neared us they mounted the rigging and cheered. When she was within half range she fired a shot to make us show our colours. We instantly ran up the American flag, and followed that by giving her a broadside.
She quickly saw her mistake, and lowered her flag. We contented ourselves with sending a boat's crew on board, and throwing all her guns and powder into the sea. We took a lot of Madeira wine, which we found on board, and then let her go in this pitiable condition. In our peculiar situation that was the most we could do.When we came within sight of the French coast, I noticed that our captain was making towards the English Channel. He would no doubt have been glad to revisit St. Malo, his native town. I told M. de la Fayette, who caused him to put the vessel about and make for Brest, where we disembarked.
- See Note B.
- See Note C.
- Philip of Macedon said "there was no fortress so impregnable that a mule laden with gold could not enter." The figure is a favourite one with French writers, and has been used by Camille Desmoulins, Châteaubriand, and Heine, ED.
- See Note D.
- See Note E.
- See Note F.
- See Note G.