In July 1780, after three and half months at sea, nearly 6,000 thousand men and supplies crammed on four frigates, seven ships of the line, and thirty-six transport vessels, sailed into Narragansett Bay. Ludwig von Closen of the Royal Deux-Ponts was dispatched to alert Gen. George Washington that the French allies had arrived. Washington quickly sent the Marquis de Lafayette to welcome them.
On September 14, Benedict Arnold was instructed by Washington:
I shall be at Peekskill on Sunday evening on my way to Hartford, to meet the French Admiral and General. You will be pleased to send down a Guard of a Captain and fifty at that time, and direct the Quarter Master to endeavour to have a night’s Forage for about 40 Horses. You will keep this to yourself, as I want to make my journey a secret.
On the 20th, Washington welcomed General Rochambeau and his French delegation with a speech and a thirteen-gun salute. One French officer noted that Washington’s “dignified address, his simplicity of manners, and mild gravity, surpassed our expectation and won every heart.”
The entourage proceeded to Jeremiah Wadsworth’s house for a reception. With Lafayette serving as interpreter, the two commanding generals, Admiral DeTernay, Brig. Gen. Henry Knox, two aides-de-camp and Rochambeau’s son conferred. Unexpected news arrived that British naval forces were assembling near New York. Washington and Rochambeau hurried to their respective headquarters. French Maj. Gen. Marquis de Chastellux reported:
The general belief in Rhode-Island was that M. de Guichen, whom we knew had quitted St. Domingo, was coming to join us, and we expected to go into immediate action . . . We found that instead of M. de Guichen, British Admiral Rodney had arrived at New York with ten ships of the line. Not the smallest doubt was entertained among us of an attack upon the French fleet, and even the army.
Rochambeau soon received a troubled letter from Washington.
Head Quarters Near West Point Sepr 26 1780
On my arrival here a very disagreeable scene unfolded itself. By a lucky accident, a conspiracy of the most dangerous kind, the object of which was to sacrifice this post has been detected. General Arnold, who has sullied his former glory by the blackest treason, has escaped to the enemy. This is an event that occasions me equal regret and mortification.
That December, British Gen. Henry Clinton sent Benedict Arnold to Virginia with 1,600 Loyalists and British regulars to raid Richmond and establish a fortification at Portsmouth. Washington was alerted by Virginia Gov. Thomas Jefferson that Benedict Arnold had arrived.
On the 31st. of December, a Letter from a private Gentleman to General Nelson came to my hands, notifying that in the morning of the preceding day 27 Sail of vessels had entered the capes and from the tenor of the letter we had reason to expect within a few hours further intelligence whether they were friends or foes, their force, and other circumstances.
They marchd from Westover at 2 oClock in the afternoon of [January] the 4th & entered Richmond at 1 oClock in the afternoon of the 5th. A regiment of infantry and about 30 horse continued on without halting to the Foundry. They burnt that, the boring mill, the magazine and two other houses . . . The next morning they burnt some buildings of public and some of private property with what Stores remained in them, destroyed a great quantity of private Stores and about 12 o Clock retired towards Westover where they encamped within the neck the next day. Loss sustained is not yet accurately known . . .
Within less than 48 hours from the time of their landing and 19 from our knowing their destination they had penetrated 33 miles, done the whole injury and retired. Their numbers from the best intelligence I have had are about 1500 infantry and as to their cavalry accounts vary from 50 to 120, the whole commanded by the parricide Arnold.
To what place they will point their next exertions we cannot even conjecture. The whole Country in the tide waters and some distance from them is equally open to similar insult.
Angered by Arnold’s treachery and the destruction of Richmond, Washington put a bounty on his head. Lafayette was instructed that if he encountered Arnold he should hang him, and it is said Continental marksmen were issued practice targets featuring Benedict Arnold’s image.
On February 6 Washington wrote to Jefferson, “There is no doubt that a principal object of Arnold’s operations is to make a diversion in favour of Cornwallis. To remove this motive by disappointing his intention will be one of the surest ways to remove the enemy.”
In Rhode Island, Claude Blanchard, commissary of the French Army, was surprised when he “dined at the house of Mr. Flint, an American, where I learnt much news; that L’ Éveillé, a ship of our squadron, had just gone with two frigates and the cutter upon a special expedition.” Lt. Col. Guillaume des Deux-Ponts elaborated:
the French ship of the line, L’Éveillé, the frigates Surveillante and Gentille, and the cutter Guêpe have set sail. No one knows their destination, but everyone thinks that they are going to the James River in Chesapeake Bay, to destroy the transports of Benedict Arnold, who has landed fifteen hundred men.
On February 8, Charles-René-Dominique Sochet Destouches, the newly-appointed rear admiral of the Newport Fleet, had indeed sent Capt. Arnaud Le Gardeur de Tilly south with a small squadron. The French ships entered Chesapeake Bay on February 13 and returned eleven days later. Although their ultimate goal was to destroy Benedict Arnold’s ships, the British escaped by going up the Elizabeth River, a waterway too shallow for the larger French ships to follow. De Tilly left at Yorktown the English ships the French had captured, and returned to Rhode Island.
On the way back to Rhode Island, the French commandeered another English ship. On February 19, The Romulus of forty-four guns surrendered to L’Éveillé without a fight. The French manned this prize and continued sailing north. At six o’clock on the evening of February 25, l’Eveillé, Surveillante, Gentille and Romulus arrived in Newport.
Lafayette and 1,200 New Jersey and New England troops had left Pompton, New Jersey, on February 23. Arriving in Virginia ahead of his force, Lafayette was surprised to discover that the French fleet had already come and gone.
From Newport on the 25th, Destouches wrote to George Washington,
Le peu de profondeur de La riviere d’Elizabeth n’a pas permis aux vaisseaux du roi de la suivre. Cependant, cette expedition n’a pas éte tout a fait sans succès . . . elle me met a même de la tenter une seconde fois avec de plus grands moyens. [The shallowness of the Elizabeth River did not permit the King’s vessels to follow Arnold’s ships. As this expedition was not a success . . . I would like to try a second time.]
The Count De Rochambeau has also transmitted me the copy of yours to him announcing the return of your ships from Chesapeak bay after having captured the Romulus, made a number of prisoners, and destroyed some transports. I receive the news of this success with the greatest pleasure and am happy to learn at the same time that you are preparing for a second visit to the bay, to assist the operations of the detachment I have sent.
I assure myself that I shall have the earliest advice of your subsequent arrangements as mine depend upon them. 
Lafayette contacted Thomas Jefferson with their new plans:
Elk March 6th 1781. Sir
On my arrival at this place I did myself the honor of writing to your Excellency and I hope my letter has been safely transmitted. A number of vessels have come up the river and as our preparations are going on with the greatest alacrity, I think the troops may be embarked to-morrow, so that if we hear from the French squadron we shall immediatley sail for Portsmouth. Had vessels been in readiness we might have been embarked two days ago; and as soon as a sufficient number of them comes within our reach, you may depend upon our celerity to forward the expedition.
The articles I had the honor to mention to your Excellency are of great importance to our success; and from a firm confidence in the power and exertions of the State of Virginia I calculate my arrangements on an expectation to obtain what I have taken the liberty to request. Armed vessels and gallies (those in the Potomack Rapahanock and York River might join us on our passage) will not only increase our safety, but may be employed to a vast advantage in the course of our operations. A sufficiency of boats to land about 1500 men and scows for the heavy artillery, an addition to our train of battering pieces, a good quantity of amunition and stores, a collection of pilots, Maps, lookout boats, and horses are articles which I had the honor of mentioning to your Excellency and which appear to be very important for our expedition.
Having directed that a return be made of articles wanting in the quarter master and Engineer departments I have the honor to inclose it in this letter, and I am obliged to request your Excellency’s aid in order to make up the deficiency.
From accounts received I should think that Arnolds force must be fifteen hundred regulars, some tories and about 600 sailors from the frigates. His position is strong and he has had time to fortify it. Under these circumstances the attack of the post requires a great superiority of forces.
This detachment is excellent but small and when formed consisted of 1200 men. Some diminution must be expected, and your Excellency may judge how large a body of militia will be necessary. Great exertions are requisite for our success and they must be made with the more activity as maritime superiority is always precarious.
Provisions are an article that demands my utmost attention, and upon which I will presume to trouble your Excellency. Independent of those which must be calculated upon the number of militia that the State will collect, 900 barrels of bread, 300 barrels of meat and a proportion of rum will be necessary to furnish this detachment alone for one month and I beg leave to request your Excellency’s aid on this matter. Should the State be able to furnish the detachment with live cattle during the operation, and to have a store ready on their arrival it would be of great advantage. We shall return such as remain in store.
I beg your Excellency’s pardon for troubling you with so repeated and so warm applications. But the affair is so important and military operations can be defeated by so many chances that I think it my duty to be very particular in mentioning every article which can promote the success of the expedition.
Jefferson, in turn, cautioned Washington:
The enemy are at this time in great measure blockaded by land, there being a force on the east side of Elizabeth river. Tho they have free exit from Elizabeth river, they suffer for provisions, as they are afraid to venture far enough to maraud in any great degree, lest the French squadron shoud be in their neighbourhood and come on them. Were it possible to block up the river, a little time woud suffice to reduce them, by want & desertions and woud be more sure in its event than an attempt by storm.
In Rhode Island, the order was given for “men of the infantry and 1500 of the artillery to embark the next day . . . General Washington . . . arrived about two o’clock. He first went to the Duc de Bourgogne, where all our generals were. All the troops were under arms.”
On March 7 Blanchard wrote,
I repaired on board the Duc de Bourgogne, a ship of 80 guns, commanded by M. Destouches, who had command of this squadron. M. de Vioménil had embarked thereon with several officers of the grenadier company of Bourbonnois. The other troops, making a total of 1,120 men, were distributed among the other ships of war and the Fantasque armed en flute. We also had two frigates and the Romulus, captured from the English a short time ago, which had been brought into the line.
Deux Ponts expanded:
On the 8th of March, the whole of our squadron, set sail at six o’clock in the evening. There were on board four companies of grenadiers and chasseurs, a detachment of a hundred and sixty-four men from each of our regiments, and a hundred artillerymen . . . There were put on board some pieces of artillery—sixteen-pounders and twelve-pounders, some howitzers, some field pieces—and everything necessary to attack intrenchments.
We think it is the intention to attack Arnold conjointly with 1,500 men of the American army, commanded by the Marquis de Lafayette, and with all the militia of Virginia. The Baron Vioménil commands the expedition, and the Marquis de Laval, the Viscount de Noailles, and MM. d’ Anselme and de Gambs, are the higher officers under his orders.
George Washington was there at sunset on March 8 when the French fleet sailed. Blanchard recorded, “The wind kept up until noon the next day. We had made 24 leagues. We steered towards Delaware Bay to attack Arnold, who was ravaging Virginia.” Washington sent a note to Lafayette who was already in Virginia:
I think the French had so much the start that they will first reach that Bay, but as there is no accounting for the delays and accidents of the sea, I have given you this notice, lest you, upon hearing that a Fleet had arrived below, might take it for granted that it was a friendly one and fall down. You will now see that precaution on that head is more than ever necessary.
Deux Ponts wrote, referring to British Adm. Mariot Arbuthnot:
On the 10th of March, at eleven o’clock in the forenoon, the English squadron set sail from Gardner’s Bay, and we can have no doubt that it is to pursue ours. The circumstances of their departure prove their activity. Arbuthnot knowing our preparations, sent a ship of the line and a frigate to reconnoitre. These appeared on the 9th off the entrance to the harbor of Rhode Island, approached quite near, lay to, and remained there long enough to find out certainly whether or not there were in our roads any vessels of war.
at eight o’clock in the morning, we saw land. It was Cape Henry. This shore is low, so that we were pretty near to it. We put about. Soon afterwards a sail was signaled, then some others, which compels us to clear the decks for action. In the meanwhile, we made signals of recognition and soon recognized the five vessels and the frigate from which we had been separated and which soon rejoined us to the great satisfaction of all.
Capt. Johann Ewald, a Hessian fighting under Benedict Arnold wrote:
On March 16th we received news that a French warship of sixty-four guns had sailed into Chesapeake Bay but had sailed away after a lapse of several hours. In the meantime this caused some anxiety among us since we knew the fleet under Monsieur deTernay, which had 3,000 troops onboard, was off the coast of Virginia and Generals Wayne and Muhlenberg had reinforced the Southern Army with a strong corps. From this one could conclude that if this French fleet were not beaten it intended to undertake something against Portsmouth.
Of the two fleets, the British had a slight advantage in firepower. The ninety-gun HMS London was the largest ship of either fleet. Blanchard, in his inimitable way, described the events:
On the 16th, at 6 o’clock in the morning, a sail was signaled which was perceived to be a frigate. Other vessels were soon discovered. Decks were cleared throughout our whole squadron. At 9 o’clock the English squadron was perfectly well distinguished, which formed a line after different manoeuvres. The English had eight ships, one of which was of three decks. They also had three frigates. We also had eight ships, but inferior to those of the English, for we had no ship of three decks. We had brought the Romulus into line, which had fifty guns.
M. Destouches’s intention was to avoid an engagement but perceiving that the English were gaining on us considerably, he tacked about and went at them. We began the engagement at 2 o’clock. It was bad weather and there was a little rain . . . the wind changed during the engagement which lasted a little more than an hour.
I will try to write an exact account of it and one prepared by a man of the service. All that I can say in the meanwhile and on my own account is, that the English seemed to me to fire very badly, that they did not take advantage of their superiority, and that there was confusion among them. One of their ships was so disabled that it fell to the leeward and made a signal of distress. It had encountered our ship and two others at the same time. If the Neptune had wished to follow it, it might have captured it or compelled it to run ashore.
The Conquérant, on which I had been posted during the voyage to America, had, for its part, to sustain the attack of three of the enemy’s ships, and fought hand to hand with the ship of three decks. It had also three officers killed . . . A hundred soldiers or sailors on board of it were hit, among whom forty were killed on the spot and an equal number mortally wounded. The greatest carnage was on the deck. The boatswains, the captain at arms and seven steersmen were among the dead, its tiller and the wheel of its helm were carried away. Notwithstanding which, it held out. The English, who were to the windward and, consequently, could renew the combat, were not anxious for it, put about and went away. . . .
Night came and the enemy were already at a distance. On board of the Duc de Bourgogne, we had only four men killed and eight wounded. An auxiliary officer also received a contusion along side of me. The Ardent, one of the ships of our squadron, found itself for some time between us and an English ship, which warded off many blows, but at the same time was prejudicial to our manoeuvre and hindered us from doing all the damage to the English that we might have done.
Besides, as I have mentioned, the English did not fire well. We were within pistol shot of one of their vessels, which twice fired a broadside at us, which I saw very plainly, without injuring us. A ball passed through our mizzen-mast without rendering it unserviceable. Fourteen balls were found in the hull of the ship. During the whole of the engagement I remained upon the quarter deck, within reach of the captain and of M. de Vioménil.
Deux-Ponts carefully documented the battle:
On Friday, the 16th of March, about twelve leagues to the east of Chesapeake Bay, the French king’s fleet under the orders of M. Destouches was sailing in close order. At half-past six in the morning, the frigate Hermione signalized a sail to the windward. She received orders to go and reconnoitre with L’Eveillé. Sometime afterwards the flute Fantasque, having discovered ten other sails far to the southward, signalized the information.
The flag-ship at once gave orders to stow hammocks and to take the line of battle on port tack. During the execution of this order the wind gradually shifted to the north, then to the north-north-east, and then steadied to the north-east. This put the French squadron to the windward of the English, at a distance of three leagues. It had been forced to follow the wind as it kept shifting, and when the fog had lifted a little, it reappeared on the starboard quarter, bearing, as well as our ships, east to south-east.
At nine o’clock they made signals to the Fantasque to hug the wind and to carry sail, and to the whole squadron to tack ship in succession. The wind began to blow strong and the general sails carried were foresails and topsails; The Ardent and l’ Éveillé, it carried away their main yards, and our ships had scarcely ended the commanded maneuver when the enemy’s squadron took the same tack, keeping as close to the wind as possible, with a good deal of sail.
The sea was heavy, it blew quite fresh, and some of the leeward batteries were almost under water. The English saw that their superiority was useless if they fought with the wind abeam. Their leading ship bore up consequently for the Conquérant on the same tack. It was half-past one o’clock, and the respective ships of the line began then to fire very near. The cannonading became hot in proportion as they came into the waters of their leaders.
The Conquérant, the leading vessel which had fought for half an hour when the last French ship began to fight against the fifth in the English line. She had already suffered much in her sails and rigging. She fell to the leeward and was attacked by several large ships, against which she kept up a continuous fire. The Duc de Bourgogne and the Neptune came up to defend her.
The firing stopped at three o’clock. The fight was a sharp one, well-conducted, and reflected credit on the French navy, but the object failed, and glory is only a chimera when it does not offer practical results.
On the 17th, Blanchard wrote:
The admiral caused us to lie-to and all the captains repaired for orders. Some infantry officers came with them, who did justice to the valor of the naval officers and the crews. This engagement united the army and the navy.
It was decided that they should return to Newport, as landing in Virginia seemed impossible in presence of the English, who, being better sailors than we, had certainly proceeded to the Chesapeake Bay. Besides the Conquérant was in a bad condition and the Ardent had also sustained some damage, even before the engagement.
Conquérant, at the head of the French line, “had, for its part, to sustain the attack of three of the enemy’s ships and fought hand to hand with the ship of three decks.” Her decks were a bloodbath. “The boatswains, the captain at arms and seven steersmen were among the dead.” Her wheel and tiller were shot away, and her rudder had been damaged. Unable to steer, she drifted out of the line and was subjected to the broadsides of each passing ship. London, with her three decks of heavy guns, threatened to crush the French seventy-four under her broadsides before Neptune came to her aid. Realizing that he could not bring the last of the British ships into the ﬁght if he continued to run downwind, Destouches swung his ﬂeet to the east, coming up on a port tack, each ship ﬁring at the van, or the lead, of the British ﬂeet as it passed. Robust was completely disabled and drifted off downwind until Arbuthnot dispatched a frigate to take her in tow.
“A council of war was held,” Berthier wrote, “and despite our slight advantage M. Destouches decided to proceed to Newport to repair his squadron.” French casualties were 72 killed and 112 wounded, while the British suffered 30 killed and 73 wounded, and still today the winner of the Battle of Cape Henry remains in dispute. Some believe it was a tactical victory for the French as Destouches had seriously damaged four English ships. Others think Destouches committed a tactical error in leaving the Chesapeake under British control, allowing Benedict Arnold’s troops to continue their raids.
Although Arbuthnot’s transports had delivered more than a thousand men to support Benedict Arnold, Arbuthnot was criticized by his own service for failing to bring the British ships into action when they had the benefit of the weather gage, and of not raising any other signal than that of engaging the enemy in line of battle. In July, claiming age and indisposition, Arbuthnot resigned his post and went home to England.
Washington wrote to Destouches:
I was last evening honored with your favor of the 19th instant by the Hermione Via Philada and with a duplicate from Newport. I am obliged by the minute detail which you are pleased to give me on the Action of the 16th instant between the Squadron of his Most Christian Majesty under your command and that of the British under Admiral Arbuthnot. Tho’ you have not been able to accomplish the object which you had in view, you have merited the thanks of every American by the boldness of the attempt, and by the gallantry and good conduct displayed through the whole course of the engagement— I will confess to you, Sir, I was never sanguine in my expectations after I saw the British Fleet follow you so closely from Gardiners Bay. I knew that the success of the expedition depended almost intirely upon your arrival in the Chesapeak before Admiral Arbuthnot—A circumstance in which the Winds and Weather had more influence than valour or skill—Had it depended upon the latter, I should have had perfect confidence, and the event has justified my opinion. I have the honor to be with very great consideration Sir.
Blanchard summed up the adventure: “On the 26th, the wind being favorable, we took advantage of it to proceed to Newport, where we anchored at five o’clock in the afternoon. I landed in order to have our hospitals prepared for the reception of the wounded. I found almost all our troops still under arms because they did not expect our return and had mistaken us for an English squadron. On the 27th, the troops landed; nothing of interest occurred at Newport. The cold continued and there was ice.”
Robert A. Selig, The Washington – Rochambeau Revolutionary Route In The State Of Rhode Island, 1780 – 1783: An Architectural And Historical Site Survey (Rhode Island Rochambeau Historic Highway Commission. 2006),
George Washington to Benedict Arnold, September 14, 1780, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-03283.
Ann Harrison and Mary Donohue, “Revolutionary War: The Conference State,”Connecticut History (Fall 2005), www.ctexplored.org/the-conference-state/.
“Summary of the Hartford Conference, September 22, 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives. founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-03357.
Francois Jean Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782 Vol. I (London: G. G. & J. Robinson, 1780), www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chastellux-francois-jean-de-beauvoir-chevalier-de.
Washington to Comte de Rochambeau, September 27, 1780, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-02-02-0874; original source: Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 2, 1779–1781, Harold C. Syrett, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 444.
Thomas Jefferson to Washington, January 10, 1781, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-04492.
“Raid of Richmond,” www.military.wikia.org/wiki/Raid_of_Richmond.
Washington to Jefferson, February 6, 1781, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-04772.
Claude Blanchard, 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), 88, ia800303.us.archive.org/17/items/journalofclaudeb00blanch/journalofclaudeb00blanch_bw.pdf.
Comte Guillaume de Deux Ponts, My Campaigns in America: A Journal Kept by Count William de Deux Ponts, 1780-81, Samuel A. Green, trans., ed. (Boston: J.K. Wiggin and Wm. Parsons Lunt, 1868), 99, archive.org/stream/mycampaignsiname00deux/mycampaignsiname00deux_djvu.txt.
Baron Ludovic de Contenson, La Société des Cincinnati de France et la Guerre d’Amérique, 1778–1783(Paris, 1934), 211; Edwin Martin Stone, Our French Allies in the Great War of the American Revolution (Providence, RI: Providence Press Company, 1884), 354.
Charles-René-Dominique Sochet Destouches to Washington, February 25, 1781, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-04991.
Lafayette to Jefferson, March 6, 1781, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-05-02-0100.
Jefferson to Washington, March 8, 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-05-02-0132.
The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, Washington Library Center for Digital History, www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/rhode-island/#march1781.
Larrie D. Ferreiro, “The Race to the Chesapeake between Destouches and Arbuthnot, March 1781,” Society for Nautical Research (November 2018), snr.org.uk/the-race-to-the-chesapeake-between-destouches-and-arbuthnot-march-1781/.
Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian’s Journal, Joseph P. Tustin, ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 269, archive.org/details/EwaldsDIARYOFTHEAMERICANWAR. Admiral deTernay had died in December. Unknown to Ewald, these ships were under the command of Destouches and Commander Arnaud le Gardeur de Tilly.