L’Expédition Particulière crosses the Atlantic: The French Rally to the American Cause

"The Outer Harbor of Brest," by Henri Joseph van Blarenberghe, 1773. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Following American success at Saratoga in the autumn of 1777, French King Louis XVI signed the Treaty of Amity and Friendship, establishing open French assistance to the American cause. In May 1780 nearly 6,000 soldiers and sailors left the Port of Brest in northwest France and sailed across the Atlantic, arriving in Rhode Island in July. Code-named l’Expédition Particulière, these adventurers were invaluable in securing America’s independence from Britain. The following eye-witness accounts make their voyage come alive.

Comte de Rochambeau, painted from life in 1782 by Charles Willson Peale. (Independence National Historical Park)

French General Rochambeau, the leader of l’Expédition Particulière, found fewer ships than he expected at the Port of Brest. 7,600 soldiers were ready to travel, but there was space for only 5,500. “These poor young men,” exclaimed Rochambeau, “are very much interested. They are in despair. Chevalier Ternay literally does not know where to put them.”[1]

Rochambeau told the French Minister of War, “I have to part company with two battle horses that I can never replace. I do so with the greatest sorrow, but I do not want to have to reproach myself with their having taken up the room of twenty men who could have embarked in their stead.”[2]

All horses, several regiments, and one-third of Légion de Lauzun’s fusilier companies were left behind. Rochambeau’s aide-de-camp, Hans Axel von Ferson, grumbled this was due “to the negligence and incompetency which attend everything in this country.”[3]

On May 5, the Royal Deux-Ponts regiment and the remaining Légion de Lauzun boarded; on the 6th, Soisonnois; the 8th, Bourbonnais, and on the 10th, St. Onge. On the 11th the treasury, heavy artillery, and passengers were loaded onto Fantasque. Storms, winds, and the collision of Comtesse de Noailles and Conquérant delayed departureLudwig von Closen, a captain in the Royal Deux-Ponts regiment, was relieved that his ship’s figurehead was the only casualty; he wrote, “Very fortunately, the only harm done was to give us a fright, for only the bowsprit, the spritsail, and the face of the charming Countess were smashed to pieces.” The regiment’s commander came on board and “in order to spur on the talents and good will of the workmen, he promised them 15 louis,” if the enough repairs were made for the vessel to return to harbor the next day. They succeeded, and “the lovely Countess was towed back (without a head, to be sure).”[4]

Von Closen griped about his “narrow quarters in these old tubs, so heartily detested by all who are not professional sailors.”[5]

Twenty-two persons at a table in a chamber 15 feet long and 12 feet wide, and 4 1/2 feet high, are not too comfortable, and the hubbub of such a numerous company is not very agreeable. Add to this the exhalations and other bad odors produced by the passengers, from men as much as from dogs, and you can appreciate how unpleasant such a crowd can be in such a tarry little old tub.[6]

Georg Daniel Flohr of the Royal Deux-Ponts also complained,

Two were assigned to each hammock. The majority had to lie on the bare floor. He who wanted to lie well had better stayed home . . . In the evenings we had to make do with bad soup blended with oil and prepared from pig beans and other such stuff. Anyone who has not yet seen it should just once take a look at this grimy mess and he would lose all appetite.[7]

French Commissary General Claude Blanchard wrote:

I was embarked upon Conquerant. On the first night I lay in the gun room with thirty or forty persons. The next day they prepared a little lodging place for me in the great cabin. That is where they eat. I lay there in a hammock, in the English fashion, over a cannon. I can write there, sitting on a portmanteau, and I have light through a port-hole.[8]

Lt. Col. Guillaume de Deux-Ponts was frustrated:

On the morning of the 16th, the Admiral ordered the fleet to weigh anchor and set sail. At the moment of getting underway, the wind shifted and forced us to remain in the roads of Brest. The wind became so violent that the convoy was obliged to return the next day to the same roads. From the 17th of April, the wind was constantly ahead. This forced us to inactivity. It was not before the 2d of May, at five o’clock in the morning, that we could set sail.

Our fleet at that time was composed of Duc de Bourgogne of 80 guns; Neptune, 74 guns; Conquérant, 74; L’Eveillé; Jason; Provence; and L’Ardent 64; the frigates Bellone, L’Amazone, and Surveillante; the cutters Guêpe and Serpent; and thirty-six transports, making in all forty-eight vessels.[9]

Deux-Ponts continued:

On the 9th of May, at five o’clock in the morning, we made Cape Ortegal, [Spain] situated in the province of Galicia, and were in sight of land until nine. The weather suddenly became thick, and the wind arose with so much violence that we were obliged to lie to in great haste.

On the 10th, the violence of the gale lasted until five o’clock in the afternoon, when a fresh breeze from the north-west allowed us at that hour to get away from the land and to make sail. The Provence had her fore top-mast and main top-gallant-mast carried away. Several other vessels suffered, among them was Neptune, which lost her mizzen top-mast. Immediately afterwards they signaled from Provence that she could not be repaired at sea. The wind continued all day with the same force.[10]

At noon, May 21, aboard The Conquerant, Blanchard exulted:

I ascended to the mizzen-top. I was not lashed there, as is usually done. I gave six livres to the topmen, as those who remain in the tops are called. To ascend the tops whilst under sail, at about forty years of age, when one is not accustomed to it, is not bad.[11]

At this period, our real destination was unknown on board. Many supposed that we were going to Jamaica because we bore much towards the south and were following the route taken to go to Jamaica or Saint Domingo.

Mons. deTernay sent back a frigate which was not part of our squadron to carry news of us and put into port in Spain. Informed of it late, I hastily wrote a word to my wife.

At the moment, I am perfectly well and without any indisposition, not the least headache. I cannot say as much concerning the preceding days. Without doubt these headaches proceed from the stomach, owing to the bad food on board. (Let me be pardoned for recurring so often to my health. It proves that when one is on board ship, he has little diversion and concerns himself much about himself.)[12]

At sea, if one suffers, he is disgusted, disheartened and curses the sea, but these moments pass, and one loves it.

On the 2d, at noon, I was struck by seeing the sun directly over our heads. I had not paid attention to it up to that moment.

We began to see seaweed at the 30th degree of latitude, and this continues as far as the tropics. The goémon is a grass which is detached from the submarine rocks and from the Canary islands. It has small grains shaped like grapes. The sea is entirely covered with it.[13]

Deux-Ponts noted: “On the 6th, at noon, we saw many sharks and porpoises or blowers. Some were more than 25 feet long.”[14]

Blanchard exclaimed: “Today I saw a flying-fish. These fishes are one or two feet long. They rather leap than fly, and it is their fins that support them. That which I saw kept himself between wind and water. He passed over about five or six fathoms.”[15] On board Closen’s Comtesse de Noailles flying-fishes were caught and eaten. They were said to be “very tender and delicious to eat, fried in fresh butter, like gudgeons.”[16] Many empathized with a Soissonnais Regiment sublieutenant traveling on the supply ship Pluvier, who moaned in June 1780, “the crews and troops were very tired, and most of them sick, since it was our fifty-first day at sea.”[17]

On June 4, Blanchard wrote,

A negro sailor died on our ship. We then had about sixty sick persons in Conquerant. We had on board about 150 persons more than the usual number on a vessel of our size, which occasioned crowding and was injurious to the wholesomeness of the air. It seems to me that little attention was paid to the health of the crew and that the sick were neglected.

Patients, attacked by dysentery and putrid fever were massed in hastily established hospitals. The only two physicians who were charged with the care of these live hospitals, contracted serious diseases there, of which they nearly died. As I did not spare myself on this occasion, I suffered from this pestilence for a long time.

On June 19th, we sent ten sick persons on board Fantasque. We had already sent as many to it some days before. It is intended to serve as a hospital, although having several passengers on board.

We calculated that we were two hundred leagues from St. Domingo. The heat was powerful. We were 4° from the tropic and were approaching the moment when the sun turns (June 21st). Consequently, it was almost perpendicular over our heads.

On the 18th, we found ourselves in the longitude of the Bermudas. It is this high up that the trade winds cease and that variable winds are found. At 9 o’clock a vessel was signaled. At 10 o’clock it was joined by our frigates. We learned from this vessel that Charleston had surrendered to the English on the 4th of May, and that the siege began on the 1st of April. This news made us desire more than ever to reach Newport or some other point which the Americans should point out to us.[18]

Deux Ponts described the major occurrence of the voyage:

On the 20th of June six vessels far to the windward of us were spotted about half-past twelve o’clock. The ships of the line, Neptune and l’ Eveillé received orders by signals to go in chase, keeping to the windward, and verbal orders to carry but little sail. Half an hour afterwards we could see distinctly that these were vessels of war.We immediately ran up the English flag and went in chase.

We could judge their nationality by the readiness with which they came towards the English flag. They were all making for us, but without order and some distance apart, when one of them separated from the others and made for our convoy. At three o’clock the officer of the deck came to tell us that the vessels which we were chasing were five ships of the line and one frigate. Neptune signaled this to our squadron, and our vessel repeated it.[19]

We were at dinner. This news made us leave the table in order to stow the hammocks and prepare for action. Half an hour afterwards, our two ships of the line found themselves within long range of a seventy-four gun ship and the hostile frigate which was about half a league ahead of the rest of their squadron. Our frigates and the ship of the line near M. deTernay, eagerly asked him for permission to give chase, but he did not think it prudent to grant it before it was sufficiently light to see whether there was a superior force.

At five o’clock in the morning, he was satisfied, and signaled to our frigates to give chase and joined in it himself. The hostile frigates out-sailed us. In order to make their escape more certain, they had sacrificed some of their guns, which they had thrown overboard.

At five o’clock in the afternoon, our seven ships were in line of battle. At a quarter to six, our flag-ship signalized to the leading vessel to begin the fight. That very moment the English ship, finding herself sufficiently free on the wind, passed before the French squadron, replying to the broadsides we sent. By this bold and skillful manoeuvre she regained her position in line. The fight began, and for twenty minutes was hot and heavy. The Chevalier deTernay, to draw nearer to the enemy, made the signal to our squadron to tack ship in succession. Firing began again at a great distance.

Reckoning from the first shot to the last, the fight lasted nearly an hour and a quarter. We lighted our lights and kept them during the whole night. The English did not have theirs. If this is any proof of victory on our part, I must confess that it is slight.

At half-past twelve at night, five cannon balls were fired between the masts of Duc deBourgogne. This made us believe the enemy had come up with us, and we would not escape him by morning. We passed the night in preparation and expectation of an attack.

Nevertheless, I turned in. It is the part of wisdom to sleep rather than to dream of a naval fight where there is nothing to gain. I awoke at half-past three, and my first care was to ask if the enemy was upon us. The reply was that only two foreign vessels could be seen. I looked and saw two frigates of the enemy in the middle of our convoy, which was setting sail to get away. So much the better, thought I.[20]

Blanchard concurred:

As to our ship, it did not appear to have received a single ball. The English fired too high, for we heard the balls passing over our heads. This cannonade lasted about a quarter of an hour. During this time, I was before the mast with M. de Vioménil.We proceeded back of the mast near the captain, and once or twice I ascended the quarterdeck bunk to understand the manoeuvres better.

After this first cannonade, the admiral gave the signal to counter-march, desiring to get near the enemy. As we formed the rear guard and were the last to perform this movement, we greatly enjoyed the sight of this manoeuvre, which is very handsome, and which was very well executed.

I am writing to-day, the 21st of June, the details of this encounter according to the impression made upon me, and such as I have beheld it, and I believe that M. deTernaycould not have behaved otherwise than he did, as well on account of the convoy as with respect to the little daylight which was left when the English retired.

Notwithstanding, from that very day I have heard M. deTernay blamed by some naval officers and other persons, sufficiently enlightened. First, for having formed his line according to the order of battle. Secondly, for having signaled Neptuneto slacken sail at the moment when it was about to cut off the English ship with which it was engaged, and which it would have undoubtedly captured. I shall not undertake to decide this question. I shall return to this cannonade and shall insert in my journal the details which will be drawn up respecting it by some man in the service, contenting myself in these first moments with mentioning in my own way what I have seen and what I think.

The English having disappeared, we proceeded in a bow and quarter line, steering north-west. On the evening of the engagement, whilst conversing with l’Ardent by means of a speaking-trumpet, we learned that Neptune had had two men killed and five or six wounded.

All the sick we had shut up during the fight in the holds, had suffered greatly. Many had come up on the deck and had taken their posts. A soldier who would die had asked the favor of being allowed to serve.

June 22d, A dead calm. I took advantage of it to visit lArdent to see my comrade, M. de Villemanzy, who was on board, and M. Demars, the manager of the hospitals. When asked with what English admiral they had been engaged, Captain M. de Marigny replied, “We have lost the opportunity of finding out.”[21]

On the 24th, M. de Vioménil’s brother, who was on board Neptune, came aboard our ship. According to what he said to us, it did not appear that they were as much dissatisfied on Neptune with M. deTernay’s conduct as were the other ships. They thought that he might, without inconvenience, have permitted them to chase the enemy’s ship which they were pursuing, and which they had attacked; a ship of 64 guns. They had lost only one man by sickness on board Neptune, and they had not the scurvy there.

If I have spoken of this combat at great length, it is because it interests me much and because we are incessantly speaking of it among ourselves. On a vessel, the least event occupies the mind, and especially those of this sort.

We have since learned that the five vessels were commanded by Commodore [William] Cornwallis, who was returning to Europe.

Continuing, Blanchard wrote:

On July 3d, the wind rose. We were all impatient to see land. Our voyage was beginning to be long, and we had a great number of sick persons on board. Scurvy was seizing the whole crew.

On the 4th, a sailor died. I learnt it from the surgeon-major; otherwise these events would not be known in the round house where we remain, nor even upon deck. A dead man is thrown into the sea through a porthole, and no one sees it except those entrusted with the care of the sick, who are kept in the lowest parts of the ship.[22]

Chevalier deTernay now spied near the opening of Chesapeake Bay, eleven sails, which our most experienced seamen considered to be large line-of-battle ships . . . deTernay’s orders being to land his convoy at Rhode Island, he tacked, and several times altered his course during the night, latterly steering in a north-east direction, towards Rhode Island.

On the 7th of July, deTernay held a council of war for the captains of the ships of the line and frigates of the squadron, announcing they were going to Rhode Island. It is supposed that we are not more than 50 leagues from Newport. We are positively to proceed to Newport and not to Boston.

It was foggy all day. In the evening it became very thick and the ships could not see each other. That they might not run afoul of each other, cannons and muskets were fired from time to time. The fog continued through the 9th of July. With care and signals, the squadron and convoy had been kept together with the exception of the transport, l’Isle de France which had been separated from us and which is missing at this time.

On the 9th,The uncertainty of our distance from land and the impossibility of seeing it, induced the Chevalier deTernay to anchor at noon. At two o’clock the weather cleared up, and at three, we set sail. A short time after we saw land but could not identify it.

At seven o’clock in the evening, we saw a small American boat, the captain of which the Admiral ordered aboard his ship. We learned that the land we had seen was No Man’s Island, one of the islands of Nantucket Banks. We came to anchor at nine o’clock and sailed again the next day at four in the morning.

I am writing this about noon. It is very desirable that the fog should cease and that we should at least be able to land. The condition of our sick is worse, and a battle would not be more murderous than a longer stay at sea. We are in a very critical moment. Shall we meet the English before landing, and will they have a superior force? It is in their interest to attack us. An English squadron may be near us without our knowing it on account of the fog.

M. deTernay’s intention is to go as near land as possible and if we do not meet with the enemy, to land M. de Rochambeau and his staff. For this purpose, deTernay would go onboard a frigate and as soon as he has gone, a signal will be made on board of Duc de Bourgogne for M. de Vioménil to take command of the troops which are not landed, and I will receive his orders respecting the business of my department. M. de Tarle, the directing commissary, is to accompany M. de Rochambeau.

Blanchard was worried:

How shall we be received by the Americans ? Have they not made their peace? Or, at least, have not the English seized the ground to which we expect to proceed? These are the questions which we ask each other. I have, therefore, reason to say that we are in a critical and truly interesting situation.

It is to be regretted that we have not met with any American vessel. It is still more surprising that they have not sent any one to meet us.

A merchantmen we captured signaled land, and at four o’clock, it was discovered from the masts of our vessel. At five o’clock, we all saw it very distinctly. After a voyage of sixty-nine days, there was great joy. Our sick people came out of their beds, and this sight seemed to restore them to health.

I am writing in the first moment of excitement. One should have been at sea, in the midst of the sick and dying, to feel it thoroughly. What adds to our satisfaction is that we do not see a sail. According to appearance, we shall land without hindrance. There are many sick, not only on our vessel but upon all those of the squadron and the convoy.

At about eight o’clock, the admiral made us anchor. We were three leagues from land. We saw Martha’s Vineyard, a little island lying to the north and twelve leagues from Rhode Island.[23]

Detail from a 1780 map of New England showing Martha’s Vineyard at lower right and Newport on the southwest side of Rhode Island. (New York Public Library)

On July 10, Deux Ponts wrote:

In the evening, we made land again, and were sure that it was Rhode Island. We passed the night at anchor and sailed at daybreak on the next day. The fog was very thick, and we ran in towards land, where we would have been lost if l’ Ecureuil had not fired some guns to warn us of danger. The fog lifted, and we were off Point Judith, where we were becalmed and forced to anchor. The Admiral sent us an American pilot. [24]

Blanchard noted:

On the 10th, towards noon, some pilots reached us from neighboring islands. The one whom we had on board told us that the Americans were still masters of Rhode Island and that he did not believe that the English had a greater force than ours in these seas. This man was from the island of Martha’s Vineyard. He had come of his own accord to offer us his services. He was a good man and displayed intelligence. He was neither a royalist nor insurgent, but a friend to everybody, as he told us with much simplicity. At ten o’clock in the evening, we anchored.[25]

Von Closen reported:

On the 11th, at four in the morning, we raised the anchor. The admiral made us re-anchor as the fog was growing thicker, but it dispersed at eight. We now saw land very distinctly. On one side, was Point Judith, from which we were only a league distant, and on the other, Rhode Island. But what we saw with great satisfaction was a French flag placed upon each of the two shores in front of us. This signal, doubtless agreed upon with M. de La Fayette, who had preceded our squadron, informed us that the English were not masters of Rhode Island, and that we would be well-received there. M. de Rochambeau and the officers of his staff repaired on board l’Amazone, which immediately set sail for Newport, where he arrived before noon.

There were among the land troops, endless shouts of joy at the prospect of being on terra firma again. The troops, owing to their having been fed on salt meat and dry vegetables, with little water to drink had greatly suffered. Scurvy had caused its usual ravages. 600 or 700 soldiers and 1,000 sailors were suffering from it. Some had died.[26]

After a passage of three and half months on board ship, the rest of the fleet, troops, sailors, and marines, anchored in the harbor in heavy fog. They were now confronted by the unknown.[27]

 

[1]James Breck Perkins, “France In The Revolution,” www.americanrevolution.org/frconfiles/fr16.php.

[2]Jean Jules Jusserand, With Americans Of Past And Present Days (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916), 9, www.Bartleby.Com/238/.

[3]Ibid., 31.

[4]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), 6-7.

[5]Ibid., 4.

[6]Ibid., 8.

[7]Robert Selig, “Deux-Ponts Germans: Unsung Heroes of the American Revolution,” German Life (August/September 1995), 51-52, www.americanrevolution.org/flohr1.php.

[8]Claude Blanchard, The Journal of Claude Blanchard, Commissary of the French Auxiliary Army sent to the United States during the American Revolution, Thomas Balch, trans., ed. (Albany, NY: J. Munsell, 1876), Chapter 1, archive.org/stream/journalofclaudeb00blan/journalofclaudeb00blan_djvu.txt.

[9]Guillaume Deux-Ponts, My Campaigns in America: A Journal Kept by Count William de Deux-Ponts 1780-1781, Samuel Abbott Green, ed. (Boston: JK Wiggin & William Parsons Lunt, 1868), 77, archive.org/stream/mycampaignsiname00deux/mycampaignsiname00deux_djvu.txt.

[10]Ibid., 78.

[11]Blanchard, Journal, 9-11.

[12]Ibid., 12.

[13]Ibid., 15-16.

[14]Deux-Ponts, My Campaigns, 34.

[15]Blanchard, Journal, 18.

[16]Jusserand, With Americans, 32.

[17]The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, Howard C. Rice, Jr. and Anne S.K. Brown, trans., ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), 16-17.

[18]Blanchard, Journal, 16-17.

[19]Deux-Ponts, My Campaigns, 81.

[20]Ibid.

[21]“Commander Charles René-Louis de Marigny, Comte De Bernard Propositus. 2020,” njcincinnati.org/c-de-bernard/.

[22]Blanchard, Journal, 29-30.

[23]Ibid., 37-38.

[24]Deux-Ponts, My Campaigns, 89.

[25]Blanchard, Journal, 39.

[26]Closen, Revolutionary Journal.

[27]Norman Desmarais, “Why Newport Rhode Island Scorned the French,” Journal of the American Revolution, January 02, 2020, allthingsliberty.com/2020/01/why-newport-rhode-island-scorned-the-french.

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3 Comments

  • Interesting article Kim. Thanks for citing original sources to explain your point. Not enough of that which often results in authors referencing other authors instead. In my view original sources are more credible when available. Yours are relatively unknown so even better.

  • LIKE!!! I was originally trained as an oral historian and love learning from “the voices of the past!”
    I totally agree with your thoughts on secondary sources.

    You totally made my day!!!

  • M. Burdick: Thank you for such a magnificent story! In books we usually see a single line about the arrival of a fleet, possibly a word or two about the miseries of the voyage. Your letters from the French fleet invite us onboard for the first time!

    Researching the fight at White Plains I found an illuminating tidbit in a letter from Tench Tilghman to his father about the voyage of the British fleet bringing troops to New York.

    October 31, 1776 at White Plains:

    Honored Sir: … They [the enemy] have now just reached the hills, which are very high and broken, and of consequence their motion must be very slow as we have taken all the passes. Their heavy horse [cavalry] from England are all ruined on the [sea] passage. We took a commissary [captive] last night who informs us that 900 horses were embarked; they were onboard 26 weeks. Five hundred died on the passage and 400 were landed yesterday reduced to skeletons. Source: Tilghman. Memoirs. 146-147.

    Please, give us more!

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