Thursday, September 21, 2017

Rochambeau and Washington

There would have been no America without the help of Louis XVI. From The Daily Beast:
The Franco-American alliance was more than two years old, in July 1780, when the Rochambeau-led Expédition Particulière arrived in Rhode Island with 5,500 troops, some long-range cannon, and a relatively small fleet. The alliance had already had two large military disasters, at Newport in 1778 and at Savannah in 1779. Rochambeau wasn’t sure what he could accomplish either, having been forced to leave behind a good chunk of his army and ships, and being burdened with a set of instructions from Louis XVI, dictated by Lafayette, that in unequivocal language put him under the command of General Washington and made the French troops and ships no more than auxiliaries of the Americans.

 Washington had dreamed of this moment, and of having naval superiority over Great Britain. He had long believed that the only way to end the war was to capture a significant British stronghold and army, and for several years he had been fixated on New York as the most likely target for such an attack. Now, with the French fleet, it could be achieved! But to Rochambeau, an attack on New York seemed difficult and dangerous, as likely to end in the capture of his and Washington’s armies as in the capture of British commander Henry Clinton’s. In Rochambeau’s view, he didn’t have enough ships and men to assure himself and Washington of victory.

Washington and Rochambeau first met in Hartford on Sept. 20, 1780, at the home of Washington’s former commissary general and longtime supporter, Jeremiah Wadsworth. To this conference, Washington brought an eight-page plan for the attack on New York. Rochambeau came with a neatly written series of 10 questions, with space on the sheets to record Washington’s answers. The French queries were an elegant, Socratic trap. By answering the first one honestly, Washington would be led, inexorably and through his own logic, to the only possible conclusion, the one chosen ahead of time by Rochambeau.

So Washington was asked whether naval superiority was essential to a big victory over a target defended by the British Navy. When he responded truthfully, “There can be no decisive enterprise against the maritime establishments of the English in this country, without a constant naval superiority,” his fate was sealed because the French fleet was not yet strong enough. After the 10 questions had been answered, Rochambeau insisted that there would be no attack on New York in 1780, and none until Louis XVI dispatched more troops and a larger fleet to America. And he was able to induce Washington to co-sign a letter to the king to that effect. It was the only real product of the conference. (Read more.)

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