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OPERATIONS OF THE FRENCH ARMY
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
THE WAR OF THEIR INDEPENDENCE;
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH OF THE MEMOIRS OF MARSHAL COUNT DE
THE troubles in America beginning to engage us in her quarrel, it was resolved to send to that country a corps of auxiliary troops, of which the king gave me the command.
I had been preceded in that continent by the count d'Estaing, whose brilliant successes after the taking of Grenada, and the naval action which he had won over the English, were rendered fruitless at Savannah in Georgia; it was with much difficulty that he regained the coast of France, with a fleet disabled and dispersed by a violent storm.
The reverses which he experienced in this expedition, a projected attack by the English at New York upon Carolina, the depreciation of the continental money, all these causes together brought on an important crisis in the affairs of America; she had defended herself almost alone, since the beginning of her revolution, against the whole force of England. The more vigorous
her efforts had been, the less was she able to renew them. Her congress, in this difficult moment, resolved to solicit from the king of France their ally, fresh succours in ships of war, in troops and in money.--The king granted them a squadron of seven ships, to act on their coasts, a body of troops amounting 10 four thousand men, and a sum of money. The chevalier de Ternay was appointed to command the squadron.
In consequence of my representations about the insufficiency of the means with which I was furnished for acting at so great a distance, the king immediately doubled the corps which was intended for me; the artillery too was doubled, as well as the munitions of every kind: every thing appertaining to the department of war was set in motion towards Brest with a dili. gence almost unexampled, and arrived at that port early in April, the time fixed for the embarkation. The department of the marine was not so expeditious; the sailing of the fleet of M. de Guichen with the supplies of munitions and troops which were sent to our own colonies, had drawn all the transportships from Brest. The minister of the marine gave tardy orders to have some brought from Bordeaux, but they were detained by contrary winds, so that upon my arrival at Brest I found only vessels enough to embark one half of the troops which were destined for America.
M. de Choiseul used to say, that the watch of M. de Sartine, the minister of marine, was always too slow; and upon this occasion the remark was strictly applicable. The exertions of M. Hector, commandant of the marine at Brest, procured a small addition, the whole sufficing for the embarkation of five thousand men. We made the strongest remonstrances to our respective departments against the impropriety of dividing into halves a body of troops already too weak; but the preparations which were making in England to arm a squadron to be sent in pursuit of us; the advantage which this squadron would possess in sailing without a convoy; the necessity of a prompt departure, and above all, the urgency of affairs in America, requiring a speedy and effective succour, determined the council to dispatch a positive order to us, to separate into two divisions the corps destined for the United States, and to set sail with the first favourable wind with what troops could be collected for the first. We were assured at the same time, that every means would be used to send off as early as possible the second division. Contrary winds detained the convoy and squadron in port until the 2d of May, 1780, and the same winds detained at Bordeaux the transports of the second division. At length we were obliged to obey peremptory orders. Fifteen days before this time, La Fayette, who was returning to the American army, with the rank of Major General, which his services in America had procured him, embarked in a frigate at the isle of Aix, with a commissary charged to announce the sailing, and prepare at Rhode Island, for the debarkation and supplies, of the French troops.
After a month of contrary winds and delay in Brest-roads, the chevalier de Ternay took advantage of a wind in the night of the 1st and 2d of May to set sail with his whole convoy, which got to sea without accident; but was met by a violent gale in the gulf of Gascony; the fleet was dispersed for four days during which the storm lasted; but upon a change of wind soon got together again and doubled cape Finisterre. The English admiral had sailed with the same northerly wind; but the tempest having overtaken him before he had cleared the channel, he was obliged to regain a port, by which means the French convoy got considerably the start. Our voyage, after having passed to the south of the Azores, was easy, but slow and protracted by calms. On the 20th of June, being to the south of the Bermudas, we descried a squadron of six ships making towards the convoy under a press of sail; the chevalier de Ternay ranged his transports behind his line and moved towards the enemy, who was astonished to see seven sail of the line come forth from a groupe of merchant vessels, in order of battle. The bulk of their squadron kept the wind; one of their vessels however, fell within reach of our line, which pursued her so closely that she was very near being taken. The chevalier de Ternay observing that one of his ships Le Provence, although crowded with canvass, could not keep up, and occasioned a gap in our line, and fearing that the enemy's squadron which was to windward, might take advantage of the circumstance to cut her off, and afterwards fall upon the convoy, made signal to slacken sail to the two ships which preceded him: the English vessel took advantage of this to tack and join her squadron, receiving the fire of all our line, which however, did not disable her. The two squadrons kept up a cannonade until sunset. The chevalier de Ternay continued his route with the convoy, the security of which he preferred to the personal honour of capturing an enemy's ship.
We learned afterwards that this English squadron was commanded by captain Cornwallis, and was returning to Jamaica, after having escorted fifty merchant vessels, as far as the Bermudas.
Some days subsequent the French squadron took an enemy's cutter conveying a number of officers from Charleston to the West Indies. We learned from them the siege and capture by: the English of that capital of the Carolinas. We found soundings on the 4th of July, and concluded that we were only a short distance from the coast of Virginia. We took another enemy's vessel, the papers on board of which confirmed the capture of Charleston, and the return to New York of admi. ral Arburthnot's squadron with the body of troops who had maintained the siege under Gen. Clinton. He had left five thousand men at Charleston under the command of Lord CornWallis. The passengers informed us that the garrison of New York, since the return of those troops, amounted to fourteen thousand men, and that Arburthnot expected every day to be joined from England by admiral Graves, and to operate afterwards with their united forces. On the evening of the same day the chevalier de Ternay observed, within the capes of the Chesapeake, eleven large ships which our oldest sailors took for ships of war. We conjectured that they were the six ships which we had already encountered on the 20th, united to the force of Arburthnot or of Graves, and which were waiting to attack us in their turn. The orders of the chevalier de Ternay directing him to disembark at Rhode Island, he tacked about, changed his course in the night, and steered for Rhode Island. It was a fine opportunity which we had missed, for the eleven sail, as we were afterwards informed, were a convoy on their way from Charleston to New York, escorted by a few frigates. But the chevalier de Ternay, anxious only for the arrival of his convoy at the place of destination, studiously avoided every engagement which could only redound to his personal glory.
He entered at last, on the 12th of July, a harbour of Rhode Island, after a navigation of seventy days. The squadron of admiral Graves followed close upon us, and arrived the next day at New York. The storm which we had encountered in the bay of Biscay, obliged that officer to return to Plymouth, where he was detained fifteen days. In the neighbourhood of the Western Islands he captured a ship belonging to the French India company, which being richly laden he took in tow: this retarded his arrival and saved our convoy, which would have been roughly handled if the squadron of Graves, united to that of Arburthnot, had encountered us.
The troops debarked at Newport the capital of the island, and were encamped with their left to the sea and their right towards the anchorage of the squadron, which was protected by the land batteries that I planted at the most eligible points. I fortified also several points on which the enemy might land, and opened roads by which I might march to attack him at his first appearance. * * * * * *
The capture of Charleston had thrown the American finances into great discredit. The paper money had depreciated so far that sixty dollars of it were given for one of silver. General Washington, after detaching to Carolina the troops of the southern states under General Gates, was reduced to act on the defensive in the Jerseys with his army composed of the northern troops. The arrival of the French forces, although inferior in numbers to what they had expected, was welcomed by General Washington and the congress with great joy and gratitude. It was hoped that we should soon see the second division which was announced to congress by the French minister, with an augmentation of naval force accompanying it, that should restore to us the maritime superiority, so necessary for acting on every part of the coast in possession of the English.
Ten days after our landing, the combined English squadrons to the number of twenty sail, twelve of which were of the line, appeared in sight, and advanced to the island to attack the
French at their anchorage; but they renounced that project un. til they should be seconded by the land forces of which the English general was hastening the embarkation in the sound. General Washington, who watched all their movements, gave me frequent advices of them, and on account of the diminution of our little army and the weakened state of the squadron, from sickness, he authorized me to put in requisition the militia of the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, to assist us in our works and in the defence of the island. These states sent four or five thousand men assembled by General Heath, who all took the field with great ardour and perfect willingness. This American general had been dispatched by Washington to procure for the French all the succours which he might be able to command, and he acquitted himself of his charge with a truly patriotic zeal. I kept only two thousand men, of whom I gave the command to La Fayette, whom Gen. Washington sent to me at the same time. I requested General Heath to send the rest back to their harvests, which they had suspended to come to our assistance.
General Clinton had, in fact, embarked at a port in Long Island, with ten thousand of his best troops, a quantity of heavy artillery and mortars, for the purpose of attacking us on Rhode Island; but whether it was that he was informed of our prepa. rations to receive him, or that a recent movement of General Washington towards New York, made him afraid to commit the safety of that place to too small a garrison, he resolved to land his troops and to form camps on Long Island. It is said that there were at the time sharp altercations between the military and naval commanders: this was, without doubt, the occasion of the different demonstrations which they made at the end of August and during the month of September, but which were always too dilatory to give any uneasiness to the French troops. In the mean time, however, the enemy's squadron did not cease to blockade ours, and appeared to be waiting for a re• inforcement to attack us.
I will here speak of a small misunderstanding in my correspondence with General Washington, which was stifled in its origin. After he had answered my first letter in the most polite manner, I observed that under the pretext of being slightly acquainted with our language, he spoke but little of business in his succeeding letters; but he sent La Fayette to me with full powers. The latter had occasion to witness the vigour of our defensive measures against the preparations of the enemy, and to observe how effectually the army protected our small squadron against the superiority of the English. With regard to offensive operations, the chevalier de Ternay and myself deferred them until one of the three following events, of which we had great hopes, should take place:-- 1st, The arrival of my