Rochambeau’s Arrest

Nineteenth-century painting of Rochambeau, by Charles-Philippe Lariviere (Palace of Versailles)

The French army was returning from Yorktown, Virginia in 1782 on their way to Newport and Boston. Lt. Gen. Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur Comte de Rochambeau, preferring his duty to his comfort, always ordered his general staff to select the house closest to the camp for his headquarters. When the army reached Crompond, New York, they camped there from September 7 to October 23. (Crompond is about 3 miles east of Peekskill. The French camp was in what is now Yorktown Heights, New York, about 9 miles from Peekskill.) General Rochambeau lodged at the house of a poor miller by the name of Samuel Delavan on Hallock’s Mill Road in Yorktown Heights.[1] He was believed to be of French descent and a militia captain.

Mr. Delavan’s properties had been devastated in the American War of Independence. His few possessions were enclosed by split rail fences near the French camp. As there was no water supply near the camp, the soldiers built an aqueduct, which began at a lake about a mile and a half from the miller’s house. It passed by the army camp, and powered the mill near the house. The soldiers also repaired the mill and part of Mr. Delavan’s house. It would have cost Mr. Delavan a large amount of money to do this work, but General Rochambeau completed it at his own expense. The soldiers also built two very large ovens which would remain behind when they proceeded to the next camp.

As the weather was getting cold, the soldiers cut wood and built barracks in the fields, as they expected to remain there two more months. They also burned several fences to keep warm. The inhabitants of Crompond complained to General Rochambeau of the damage his troops, particularly the Soissonnais, had done and asked an exorbitant amount in compensation. There are several accounts of the story that ensued, with differing details and outcomes.

Count de Lauberdière

Louis-François-Bertrand du Pont d’Aubevoye, Comte de Lauberdière, General Rochambeau’s cousin and aide-de-camp, was lodged in an attic with two of his companions. They were very surprised to be awakened in the middle of the night by a man who entered and asked them for a place to sleep. The officers allowed him to lie down on the floor beside them.

The following morning, at dawn, they found that the man had risen and was walking about the property with Mr. Delavan. After a light and frugal breakfast, the miller, escorted by the man, who was the sheriff or perhaps the mayor, came to speak with General Rochambeau. They came to tell him that they toured the property and observed that the troops did quite a bit of damage and that Mr. Delavan wanted to be reimbursed. The sheriff said that he was sorry, that he recognized the important services the general had rendered to his country and that he appreciated everything he had seen the general do during his stay at Crompond. All of that could not, however, deter him from taking the general prisoner to assure that the miller’s and the other inhabitants’ complaints would be redressed and their losses replaced. He estimated those losses to be 15,000 livres (francs, about $3,000).

Mr. Delavan then put his hand on General Rochambeau’s neck. The sheriff took him by the shoulder and grabbed him by the other side. The first reaction of the general’s staff officers was to beat both the miller and the sheriff with the flats of their swords.[2]

Baron von Closen

Ludwig, Baron von Closen, General Rochambeau’s interpreter, noted that Mr. Delavan demanded 1800 livres damages for something that was worth at most 400. He recorded that when the sheriff resumed speaking, he stammered and said that “the case required him to use the rights of his office, and, since the General refused to have these damages paid for, he was in the difficult position of having to announce … ‘you are my prisoner.’”

General Rochambeau, “more surprised than angered by the sheriff’s insolence,” created a very singular spectacle. After a moment of reflection, he began to smile in a rather stiff way and ordered von Closen to tell the sheriff that “out of respect for the laws of the country, he wanted to pardon him for what he had just done, because of his ignorance in executing them and lack of training; that except for this he could very well have kept him as a prisoner even and sent him in the care of a small detachment of grenadiers to General Washington, who would have been able after that to settle these differences; that, however, this time he would limit himself to advising him to go away, as he had come; that if the sheriff had some just complaints to make, he must address himself to General Washington, under whose orders the General and all his army were.” After all, they were setting a precedent as they were the first two civilians to arrest a general in the midst of his army.

Von Closen found it ironic that the claim for firewood and damaged fences should come from the same man whose millrace, house and mill had been greatly improved by the labor of the French soldiers. He viewed Delavan as an avaricious and ungrateful man.[3]

Jean-Baptiste-Antoine de Verger

Jean-Baptiste-Antoine de Verger recorded that Rochambeau wrote to General Washington to tell him of the incident and that Washington sent his dragoons to arrest the man and send him to prison in Philadelphia. Rochambeau requested the man be freed. Washington referred to a similar case in his letter to Gov. George Clinton on October 19, 1782: Daniel Woolsey, of Westchester County, sued Jehosiphat Starr for damages. Starr was a foragemaster for the French army, under Col. James Wadsworth, the contractor supplying that army. When Constable William Dean tried to serve the warrant for Starr’s arrest, Colonel Wadsworth sent him to the provost and ordered him out of the French camp. A Westchester justice of the peace forwarded the complaint to Governor Clinton. General Washington said that he did not think he had a right to interfere with the internal police of the French army. He asked Wadsworth to try to prevent quarrels between the citizens and his employees.[4]

General Rochambeau

General Rochambeau remembered the incident this way. “On the moment of departure, just as the drums had beaten to arms, and the troops were drawn up in marching order, a man respectfully walked up to me, and addressing me, stated that he was aware of the immanent services I had rendered to his country, that he respected me greatly, but that, at the same time, he was obliged to do his duty. He then presented a paper to me, and tapping me slightly on the shoulder, told me that he constituted me his prisoner. ‘Very well, sir,’ I replied, jocosely; ‘but take me if you can.’ ‘No, please your excellency,’ replied the sheriff’s officer; ‘but I beg you will allow me, after the performance of my duty, to withdraw unmolested.’”[5]

The General was taken aback by this compliment and demanded an explanation. The man replied that, since the General had not seen fit to pay all the damages, according to the law of the land he would be held prisoner until the sum was paid. More surprised than angered by the sheriff’s insolence, the General advised him to leave if he did not wish to become a prisoner himself. He explained the irregularity but he especially stressed the danger of their conduct if they had to deal with a less popular and less thoughtful man than he. He told them that despite the unusual manner in which they brought their complaint, he wanted to study the reasons. He said that it was only just to pay for whatever had been destroyed. He ordered the Count de Lauberdière to go tell Mr. de Villlemanzy, Commissary of War, to come to the location with the other commissaries to jointly estimate the damages and to pay for them after the report was made to him.

Mr. de Villemanzy, who was charged with the settlement of all accounts for articles consumed by the army throughout the camp, gave it over to arbitration with the locals. He went to Mr. Delavan’s house and found him surrounded by his fellow-citizens, who were all criticizing him loudly for his conduct toward a French officer. Mr. de Villemanzy made his way to Mr. Delavan and made him sign a paper by which he consented to compromise the matter by referring it to a decision by arbitration.

Mr. de Villemanzy was ordered to employ three impartial experts to assess the value of the damage and to make a settlement to avoid having it said that the French army did not make restitution for damages. It was also noted that the American army paid neither for wood nor for forage. The soldiers plundered despite orders from General Washington and the principal officers against doing so. These orders were not followed very strictly and discipline was lax. Moreover, the soldiers were not paid punctually and some officers and soldiers were not paid for two or three years. Sometimes, even their rations were not delivered on time because the contractors were trying to make too large profits.[6]

Claude Blanchard

Claude Blanchard, Assistant Commissary of War and a member of the committee of arbitration, recorded that the general staff officers were astonished at the general’s arrest. They burst into laughter mingled with indignation and impatience. He noted that everyone wanted to take the sheriff away, but General Rochambeau said he would abide by the laws of the country and departed after giving security.

The sums involved in the claim as cited in the different journals vary considerably, but there was evidently a substantial reduction. The committee of arbitration reduced the demand by half, or to 2,000 francs, or to only 600 francs, depending on the account, and “cast the plaintiff in the whole of the costs.”[7]

Another account says that General Rochambeau had them hand over 50 louis, half of which could be regarded as compensation. He then spoke to the miller and the sheriff about the circumstance. They resorted to their status of free men, independent of anything that was not law. This did not excuse the exaggeration they had made of the loss and the compensation they demanded.

The compromise settlement of Mr. Delevan’s claim by Villemanzy and the American arbiters seems to have closed the incident. The officers then departed to rejoin the column which was marching toward Salem, New York. Governor Clinton dismissed the sheriff, and Mr. Delavan, the miller, was out his money since he had to pay all the expenses.

When the army reached Salem, Claude Blanchard lodged at the house of the sheriff who arrested General Rochambeau but did not know it at the time. He recorded that “he received me very well and made me take tea with him. He was a little old man, pretty lively. He had a daughter, not handsome and very familiar; one thing which shows this familiarity, but the American manners at the same time, is, that having met her in the kitchen, she told me that she had left her room where the chimney smoked; I proposed to her to come into that which had been given to me. She agreed to it and remained there for a long time; sometimes we conversed, at other moments she suffered me to write and attend to my business.”[8]

The story of General Rochambeau’s arrest circulated widely at the time.  Rochambeau subsequently recorded it in his Mémoires which Louis-Philippe, Comte de Ségur used to compile his own memoirs.  He noted Rochambeau’s tact in dealing with the Americans and the Americans’ respect for the power of the law. Ségur also recalled that the National Assembly cited the affair during the debates at the beginning of the French Revolution.[9]

 

[1] For further identification of Delevan and the localities involved, see Cortlandt Pell Auser, “Le Comte [de Rochambeau] at Crompond: October, 1781,” The Westchester Historian, Westchester County Historical Society, XXXVI, No.2 (April-June, 1960), 39-40, and No.3 (July-Sept., 1960), 64-67. In the 1950’s the Yorktown Grange named its fairgrounds “Rochambeau Park.”

[2] Louis-François-Bertrand du Pont d’Aubevoye, comte de Lauberdière, Journal de l’Armée aux orders de Monsieur le comte de Rochambeau pendant les campagnes de 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783 dans l’Amérique septentrionale. Archives Nationales, Paris (NAF 17691), Cahier 3, fol. 196-197.

[3] Baron Ludwig von Closen, Revolutionary Journal 1780-1783, translated and edited with an introduction by Evelyn A. Acomb (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1958), 257-259.

[4] John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The writings of George Washington from the original manuscript sources, 1745-1799 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1931), 25: 276-277; Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger, “Journal of Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger,” in The American Campaigns Of Rochambeau’s Army, translated and edited by Howard C. Rice and Anne S.K. Brown (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), 1:167-168; Closen, Revolutionary Journal, 259n.

[5] Memoirs of the Marshall Count de Rochambeau, extracted and translated by M. W. E. Wright. (New York: The New York Times and Arno Press, 1971), 93-94.

[6] Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, Memoires Militaires historiques, et politiques de Rochambeau, Ancien Marechal de France et Grand Officier de la Legion d’Honneur (Paris: Fain, 1809), 312-313.

[7] Claude Blanchard, The Journal of Claude Blanchard, Commissary of the French Auxiliary Army sent to the United States during the American Revolution, translated and edited by Thomas Balch (Albany, NY: J. Munsell, 1876), 177-178.

[8] Ibid., 178-179.

[9] Louis-Philippe, comte de Ségur, Mémoires, ou souvenirs et anecdotes (Paris: Alexis Eymery, 1827), 1: 445-446.

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