A French Volunteer of the War of Independence/Chapter 4
The naval officers received us well, but we could not make a long stay at Brest. Everyone of us wished to turn his steps tqwards home. The Marquis de la Fayette, who no longer philosophized now that he was safe on dry land, went to the Hotel de Noailles. His arrival was the news of the day, both at Paris and Versailles. The Queen of France did him the honour to bring Madame de la Fayette in her own carriage. She was surprised to meet her husband, for she had not been apprised of his return.
As for me, I took the diligence and made my way first to Clermont, and then to the paternal mansion, the Chateau of Pontgibaud. Gratitude took precedence of natural aflfection, however, for as the places happened to be on my road, I first went to Nantes, and thanked M. de la Ville-Hélis, and then to La Rochelle to thank M. Seigneur for past services. I did not want to surprise my father by arriving unexpectedly, and therefore took care to write and announce my return. Along with my own very respectful letter, I en closed one which the Marquis de la Fayette had been kind enough to write to my father.
In spite of these precautions, I felt, a sort of fear as I entered his room, and appeared before him for the first time. We were both equally embarrassed. His clouded brow betokened a storm, not an approaching storm, however, but one that is dying away in the distance. He addressed some reproaches to me, but they were merely a matter of form, intended to keep up the appearance of paternal dignity, and mainly concerned the heavy expenses which my journey from Paris to Pierre-en-Cize, and my imprisonment there had cost him.
I very naturally observed that perhaps if he had given me all that money he would have made a better use of it, and so should I. This very sensible reflection was too much for his gravity; he quite unbent, and it was with difficulty that he could prevent himself from laughing.
At the end of two hours he was no longer the same man, his curiosity had got the better of him, and he wanted me to give a full account of my Odyssey, my escape, voyage across the Atlantic, shipwreck, campaigns, and all. He made me read to him many times M. de la Fayette's letter, which corroborated all my statements. I say advisedly that he made me read it to him, for he had lost one of his eyes, many years before, at the Battle of Dettingen, and old age had enfeebled the sight of the other. I passed a fortnight at home, and by that time every cloud had passed away, and the sky was blue. I was so well restored to my father's affection that when I was leaving him to return to Paris to ask for a position in the army, he made me a present of 200 louis, increased my allowance to 1000 crowns, and gave me the address of a banker whom he had instructed to repay M. de la Fayette all the advances he had made on my account. He even offered to purchase a cavalry company for me if I could obtain one. He gave me besides a letter of thanks to my general. It was with a heart full of gratitude that I left him and started for Paris.
The nine beatitudes awaited me there. Certainly there must be some communication between heaven and earth, for no sooner was I restored to my respected father's good graces than all sorts of good fortune fell upon me.
At Paris I lodged in furnished apartments, not having the least idea where I should find any of my numerous relations, whom I believed to all be at their country houses at that season of the year. My uncle, the President de Salaberry took me to his house, and asked me to consider it as my home. He was a kind, good man, but that did not prevent him from being murdered during the Revolution—perhaps caused his death even. He heaped kindnesses upon me with the same serenity of conscience with which, as my father's brother-in-law, he had loaded me with abuse in my earlier days; but at that time he had been prejudiced against me by falsehoods and innuendoes which he was now annoyed with himself for believing.
When he had finished welcoming and embracing me, my kind but over-hasty uncle handed me a letter from my father, dated at Pontgibaud, 19th April, 1779. I shall never forget the date—albo dies notanda lapillo, I pressed to my heart this letter, which was addressed to my uncle, and in which I was happy to read these words, which shewed me that my father's present kindness was due to his sense of justice.
"Monsieur le Comte," wrote the secretary, for the good old man was obliged to dictate his letters, "desires that the Chevalier shall want for nothing; his intention being to compensate him amply for the misfortunes he has suffered by the injustice which was done him. He has been the victim of a sordid conspiracy which was discovered too late."
I thought no more of the injury that had been done me, except as a pleasing reminiscence, and dated my happiness back to the day of my escape, which after all had been something of a feat.
But I was far from knowing all the favours that fortune had in store for me. After I had been three weeks in Paris, the Marquis de la Fayette informed me that the King had given him a regiment of dragoons, and that His Majesty had granted me a commission as capitaine de remplacement, which entitled me to half-pay. The Minister of War confirmed the good news in an official letter, in which he said that by the wish of an important personage who did not wish his name to be known,—though I easily guessed it,—and who had taken me under his protection, the price of the brevet, that is to say 7000 francs, was remitted, and I had nothing to pay for my commission. I had no further happiness to desire, for, since the end of the "Seven Years' War," France had been at peace, and the army swarmed with young officers with aristocratic names. It was more difficult to be a cavalry captain in 1779 than it was to be a colonel twenty or thirty years later.
The French Government was then meditating a descent on England. A large army assembled in Brittany and Normandy, under the command of the Comte de Vaux.
Many transport ships were also collected at Harve and St. Malo. M. de la Fayette sent for me and told me that I was to start for Lorient, in company with the Chevalier de Gimat,—who had been one of his aides-de-camp in the American War,—and there wait for orders. There were some hints of a secret expedition. My heart beat with joy. My comrade, who was much older than I, a colonel, and a very experienced officer, was in the secret, but it was in vain that I tried to draw it out of him. He confined himself to repeating that I was very lucky, and that I should find that the patronage of the Marquis de la Fayette would be of great service to me. Beyond this he would tell me nothing.
Many armed vessels were awaiting us in the port of Lorient; the Bon Homme Richard, a vessel belonging to the India Company mounting 54 guns of various calibres; the frigate Alliance, on which we had made the voyage back to France; the Pallas, 32 guns, commanded by Captain Cottineau of Nantes, an able officer of the merchant service, etc. These were under the orders of the celebrated American commodore, Paul Jones, who commanded the Bon Homme Richard. A number of brigs and corvettes completed the little squadron.
We were to receive, on board these vessels and some transport ships, about 3000 men drafted from different regiments of the French army, and under the command of Marquis de la Fayette. I know now, what I did not know at that time, though I much wished to, that the object of this expedition was to make a descent upon Ireland, whilst the army of Comte de Vaux, protected by the combined fleets of France and Spain, under Comte d'Orvilliers, were to co-operate at the same time in a similar descent on the English coast. For some reason, unknown to me, the execution of this plan was deferred, and finally abandoned by the French Government.
During the six weeks that I spent in idleness at Lorient, I was eye-witness of a most curious, ridiculous, and incredible incident. A man in uniform dashed up the staircase, rushed into the room where I was sitting, and begged me to protect him. He looked scared, and anxious. It was no other than our brave,—indeed more than brave,—Commodore, the famous Paul Jones.
"Shut the door," he cried. "That scoundrel Captain Landais met me in the town and wants to fight me. He is pursuing me from street to street, sword in hand. I do not know how to fence and I do not want to be killed by that rascal."I closed the door and double-locked it, but the Captain never came. Certainly Paul Jones acted very sensibly, for the match was not equal; Captain Landais with his drawn sword would have made short work of him, and Paul Jones had nothing but blows to gain by the encounter. This adventure does not in the least detract from his reputation. His recent fight with the Serapis, that he captured by boarding, placed his courage above all suspicion, and put him on an equality with all the boldest, luckiest, and bravest sailors of ancient or modern times.
His quarrel with Captain Landais, of which this fight was a part, was not for the possession of a Helen, but for the command of the frigate Alliance, which had been ordered to sail at once for America, for, owing to some veering of the political compass, everything had been changed.
Six thousand Frenchmen, under the command of Comte de Rochambeau, and including a great number of young noblemen of the Court, anxious to have the privilege of serving as volunteers, were sent to the aid of the Americans, and embarked on a fleet of vessels, commanded by the Chevalier de Ternan, which was to sail from Brest. M. de la Fayette having sent in his resignation as Colonel of Dragoons, had taken leave of the King in the uniform of a Major General of the United States' army, and was already on board the French frigate Aigle, commanded by M. de la Touche Treville. La Fayette was to take the command of a division of Washington's army which was then encamped in Jersey Province, near New York. We received orders to join him, and embarked on the frigate Alliance, which was to sail without delay. Captain Landais had secured the command without striking a blow.
The conqueror of the Serapis had hardly left my sheltering roof than he went to Paris to show himself. The Parisians went to their windows to see him pass, and thronged to the Opera the night he went there. Marshal de Biron, who did the honours of the capital to all the great personages, received Paul Jones with every mark of respect, and placed the regiment of Gardes Frangaises under arms, in order to show it to the commander of the Bon Homme Richard. But during this time. Captain Landais remained at Lorient, and the American Minister we were to take back, being in haste to depart, took it upon himself not to wait for Paul Jones, and nominated Landais to the command.
We had sailed about a week when Paul Jones returned from Paris, and found himself without a command. We had on board two commissioners from Congress, and we were bound for Boston. It was decreed, apparently, that I should meet with strange adventures during my transatlantic voyages. On this voyage the captain went out of his mind. We had previously noticed some peculiarities in his manner, and we were soon to acquire the certainty that he was insane.
His madness broke out one day at dinner, the cause being a turkey that he was carving. Mr. Lee, one of the commissioners, who sat beside him, took the liver, and was about to eat it when Landais rose in a fury, and threatened to kill him with the carving-knife. Everyone rose, and the two nephews of the American commissioner ran to call some of the crew to prevent their uncle being murdered. Landais shouted out that the best morsel belonged by right to the captain. He said and did all sorts of foolish things. I took up my dinner knife in order to defend myself, for he seemed as though he were coming at me to take vengeance on me because I was roaring with laughter. He was raving mad. A number of the sailors ran up, and the commissioners ordered them to seize and bind the captain, which was done. We drew up an official report of the incident; and the command of the vessel was given to the first officer.
Under the direction of the new captain, we made a good passage, and disembarked at the end of ten or twelve days. Our course of action (in deposing the captain) was approved by the authorities at Boston. Such was the end of Captain Landais, the rival of Paul Jones—as far as my knowledge of him is concerned, at all events, for I never heard what became of him afterwards.
I hastened to rejoin the American army, which three weeks after my arrival, marched for Virginia.
This was in 1780. The little army of Comte de Rochambeau was blockaded in Rhode Island, where it had disembarked about the middle of the year. It was powerless to undertake any decisive action until the arrival of the French fleet.
It was not till 1781, almost a year after the landing, that the fleet under Comte de Grasse entered Chesapeake Bay. Dur ing this long interval, the American army, to which I belonged, performed no action of historical interest. I, for my part, shared with the others the dangers, and took part in the few indecisive skirmishes of the campaign, which we passed in marching and counter-marching, with occasional outpost affairs—in fact it was a war of observation.
The approach of the French fleet favoured a plan of attack which might result in a general and decisive engagement, and Comte de Rochambeau at last left Rhode Island. Washington's army embarked, joined the French forces, and we hemmed in the principal British army which then occupied Virginia and was in position at York Town. Lord Cornwallis, the commander-in-chief, was attacked by us on 6th October. One of the two principal redoubts was carried by the Marquis de la Fayette and the Americans a quarter of an hour before the French, headed by the regiment of "Grenadiers de Deux-Ponts," captured the other. The French and Americans emulated each other in courage and obstinacy, and the English also fought like devils. But British pride was humbled and Marquis Cornwallis was obliged to capitulate.
The young Due de Lauzun was sent by the two generals to arrange the terms of surrender. He went alone, waving his white handkerchief in his hand, for the chivalric Due de Lauzun never acted like anyone else would in the same circumstances. The British army did not come out with drums beating, colours flying, and all the honours of war, but was forced to defile between a double row of French and Americans, and lay down their arms, to the shame and confusion of their brave and unfortunate soldiers. Marquis Cornwallis wished to give up his sword to Comte de Rochambeau, but the French general made a sign with his hand to show that the honour of receiving it belonged to Washington as the commander-in-chief.
The English, now shut in New York State, were no longer in a condition to continue the campaign, and there followed a kind of tacitly arranged truce extending over the eighteen months which preceded the declaration of peace. The combined armies of Washington and Comte de Rochambeau were compelled to remain inactive, for the surrender at York Town had settled the question of American Independence, though the French and English continued to fight at sea for a few months longer. Being unacquainted with that kind of diplomacy which leads to nothing more than an exchange of cannon shot between hostile fleets, and finding that not another musket was to be fired in war on the American continent, M. de la Fayette left for France, and I did the same, for we had nothing in common with the little French army which remained in the United States until further orders.
Comte de Rochambeau's officers had nothing better to do, I suppose, than travel about the country. When we think of the false ideas of government and philanthropy which these youths acquired in America, and propagated in France with so much enthusiasm and such deplorable success,—for this mania of imitation powerfully aided the Revolution, though it was not the sole cause of it,—we are bound to confess that it would have been better, both for themselves and us, if these young philosophers in red-heeled shoes had stayed at the Court. But a truce to these reflections which have nothing to do with my memoirs. In the autumn of 1781, my friend, the Chevalier de Capellis, was about to sail for France in the frigate Ariel, which he commanded, and he took me on board. The Ariel was a prize captured by Comte d'Estaing's squadron; she was a very fast sailer, but only carried eighteen 9-pounders.
We started with a favourable wind, but a few days later were assailed by a tempest, which are frequent in these seas. My friend swore, as all sailors do, that this should be his last voyage; he was rich and would certainly never expose himself again to any of the dangers of this cursed profession. I did not believe a word of it, and I was quite right. He related to me the history of his brother, who had perished at sea,—this story always occurred to his recollection whenever the weather was bad. The storm, however, was not to be compared to that which I had encountered on my first return, when on the frigate Alliance.
After a voyage of fifty-five days, we sighted the coasts of Spain. I must not omit to mention that when fifty leagues from land we had the pleasure of meeting the Dublin, armed with twelve 9-pounders. She rightly guessed that our vessel was of English build, and supposed that we were English, but she very soon found out her mistake, greatly to our satisfaction, though not to hers. Both ships having shown their flags, a cannonade ensued, which lasted three quarters of an hour, at the end of which time the Dublin struck, for we were twice her size. She was loaded with merchandise.
The vessel and cargo belonged to the Ariel. I could not help laughing at my friend Capellis. During the fight he was everywhere at once, animating the gunners, swearing, and crying that our fire was not fast enough or heavy enough. When the Dublin struck, our gunners between decks, being unable to see on account of the smoke, or to hear on account of the noise, still went on firing. Capellis then felt that the enemy's vessel was his property, and that every extra bit of damage done her was a loss to him. He quite changed his tone and cried, "Cease firing! cease firing!" but no one heard him. "Upon my word, that fellow has fired again!" he shouted as he saw one of the gunners let fly another shot. His anger was really comic, and I believe he would have killed the man if he had not been restrained.
We entered the port of Corunna in triumph, with our prize, and moored close to the Argonaut, a French vessel of 74 guns, commanded by M. de Caqueray. He was about to give a fete on board that day, and we received invitations.
Even before we touched land, I thus enjoyed the honour and pleasure of seeing the ladies of Corunna, who had been invited, so to speak, on purpose to meet us, but before the ball we were regaled with an unexpected sight which much astonished us.
Before we had even cast our anchor, we were surrounded by a host of small boats containing women bringing fruit, and who climbed up the ship's sides as though they had been sailor boys. Many of the women were young and pretty, and did not sell fruit. In spite of orders they stormed our vessel, and, as the sailors favoured them, they were soon all over the ship,—except in the gun-room there were women everywhere; we could not help laughing at this strange invasion.
The fête given by M. de Caqueray was a very grand one, and the ladies appeared to me charming, for it was so long since I had seen any.
I was not quite so enthusiastic about the city of Corunna which these beautiful ladies and damsels inhabited. I had just left the United States, a new country where the towns were all new and where the greatest cleanliness prevailed even in the most humble habitation; where noth ing to excite disgust was ever seen, and there were no rags, and no beggars. At Corunna, I found old houses, mendicity at every corner, an atmosphere infected with smoke, and the smell of fried oil, and in fact all the innate dirtiness of people whose natural element is filth. Add to this the clatter of carts with wooden wheels, rumbling over the most uneven pavement in the world. Jean Jacques would have quitted Corunna an hour after he entered it, for he pretends that he was obliged to leave his lodgings in Paris simply because he heard a water carrier cry A Veau! in an unmusical voice.
As I had come from America, you may imagine that I was asked thousands of questions. The Duke of Medina-Celi, the colonel of a regiment then quartered in Corunna, asked as many questions as the Bailli in the Ingenu, but otherwise he was a very agreeable young man. Spaniards and French were then good friends, for the two nations had allied their forces against England, and both armies wore a cockade in which the French white was mingled with the Spanish red and black.
We were detained by contrary winds, and we profited by this accident to visit the port and arsenal of Ferrol.
We were told that it was "a miniature Brest." I noted that, like our great marine arsenal, it was entered by a narrow strait, but I do not otherwise intend to compare the two. All that I will say is, that I have seen Brest and I have seen Ferrol.
On our return to Corunna we were invited to a ball given specially in our honour. Madame Tenoria, the wife of the naval commissioner, held a faro bank at her house every night. I remember that I once had a mind to play there, and I lost a hundred louis, — one of the clearest of all my recollections of my wanderings.
I saw my pieces of gold disappear without ever uttering an impatient word,—but the devil lost nothing by my silence. Inwardly I was harrowed with grief and rage. My face looked calm, but nevertheless I was just on the point of kicking over the cursed gaming-table, when I was restrained by a remark of one of the bystanders. I distinctly heard someone near me say, "What a fine gambler that young officer is; he loses and never says a word." I felt that I was something of a hero, and that as a soldier I had to sustain the honour of the cloth. I put my hand back on the table, but if anyone could have looked under my coat they would have seen that I had buried the nails of the other hand in my flesh. Nevertheless I left behind me at Corunna, not only all my money, but the reputation of being a first-rate gambler. The experience served me in good stead, however, for since then I have never played again.
An incident of another nature happened to us whilst we were at Corunna,—one that might have had serious consequences for us, though we were not to blame.
We passed our evenings in one or other of the best houses of the city, returning on board about ten o'clock, at which time the boat was waiting for us. One night, when the weather was very bad, we hap pened to meet a religious procession in a narrow street; the viaticum was being carried to some great personage, I should imagine by the number of people who followed the dais; there were a great many women in the crowd. We three officers stood on one side respectfully, removed our hats, and as it was pouring with rain, we received all the water from the gutters on our unprotected heads, and were drenched to the skin. When the procession had passed, and was about thirty yards away, we thought we could with decency put on our hats, but the people tore them off again, crying and shouting something we could not understand, as we did not know Spanish. With that we all three drew our swords, whereupon these exceedingly pious Christians all tumbled over one another to get out of the way, and left us a clear road. We hastened our steps and took the first cross street we could find. The people, not wishing to lose anything of the ceremony, did not pursue us. Not knowing the town well, we probably did not take the shortest road to the boat, but we found it at last, and were very glad to take our seats in it.I mentally recounted to myself all that had happened to me since Pierre-en-Cize, and I could not prevent saying to myself, all that is needed is to see myself flogged to slow music through this cursed town, and then figure in an auto-da-fé with a benito on my head. But that would have been too much spite on the part of fortune, to heap so many misfortunes upon a simple individual like me. Providence watched over us. Our adventure had, however, created some excitement in the town, and the commandant requested us to give him the true account of the matter. When he had heard it, he recommended us not to set foot on shore for some days, and he promised to come and dine on board with us the following day. He was an Irishman, very kind and very witty, and we agreed together perfectly, but we were disenchanted with Corunna, and a few days later, the wind being favourable, we weighed anchor, and, after a good passage of a few days, landed at Lorient.
- See Note H.
- See Note I.
- One of Voltaire's short stories,