For most of 1781, the inhabitants of Williamsburg lived in a constant state of anxiety. Already economically devastated by the loss of the state capital, which was moved to Richmond in April 1780, city residents lived under threat of British attack for most of 1781. The arrival of the infamous American traitor, Benedict Arnold, at the start of the year with a small British force prompted the first alarm. He threatened to march on Williamsburg, but failed to carry through and instead, sailed on to Richmond.
A brief British occupation of Williamsburg in April was followed in late June and early July by another occupation that lasted ten days and involved thousands of British and German troops. The anxiety continued after they left, when Gen. Charles Cornwallis moved his army from Portsmouth to Yorktown, just twelve miles from Williamsburg, in August and established a fortified post there.
The situation improved considerably for Williamsburg in early September when several thousand French troops under General St. Simon arrived in the city. They were part of a French force from the Caribbean under Admiral de Grasse, and they were the first of thousands of French and American reinforcements destined for Williamsburg and ultimately Yorktown.
General Marquis de Lafayette, who commanded an American force in Virginia only half the size of the British under Cornwallis, led his continentals and militia into Williamsburg on September 4, and just like that, the allied army of French and American troops in Williamsburg presented a formable challenge to General Cornwallis in Yorktown.
On September 8, Lafayette informed the Chevalier de La Luzerne, who was still aboard a French naval ship, that nearly 6,000 French and American troops were in and around Williamsburg. Most were encamped on the outskirts of town. A grand camp was located about half a mile west and northwest of the Wren Building at the College of William and Mary and east of present day Matoaka Lake. The American camp was located on ground that is part of the college campus of William and Mary. Some of the French troops also encamped on part of today’s campus, but the bulk of the French encamped north of the road to Richmond (Route 60) in what is now a mixed residential and commercial neighborhood. It appears that Williamsburg was off limits to most of the troops. They spent an uneventful week waiting for Generals Washington and Rochambeau to arrive with reinforcements from the north.
The arrival of the American and French commanders ahead of their troops created a frenzy of excitement in Williamsburg. Lt. William Feltman with the Pennsylvania continentals noted that, “In the evening about four o’ clock twenty-one pieces of cannon were fired on the arrival of his Excellency, General George Washington. There was a universal joy amongst our officers and soldiers, especially the French troops, on his arrival,” Another officer, St. George Tucker, provided a more detailed account of the reaction to their arrival.
About four o’ clock in the afternoon [Washington’s] approach was announced. He had passed our camp, which is now in the rear of the whole army, before we had time to parade the militia. The French line had just time to form. The Continentals had more leisure. He approached without any pomp or parade, attended only by a few horsemen and his own servants. The Count de Rochambeau and General [Edward] Hand, with one or two more officers were with him. I met him as I was endeavoring to get to camp from town, in order to parade the brigade; but he had already passed it. To my great surprise he recognized my features and spoke to me immediately after. General Nelson, the Marquis, etc., rode up immediately after. Never was more joy painted in any countenance than theirs. The Marquis rode up with precipitation, clasped the General in his arms, and embraced him with an ardor not easily described. The whole army and all the town were presently in motion. The General, at the request of the Marquis de St. Simon, rode through the French lines. The troops paraded for the purpose and cut a most splendid figure. He then visited the Continental line. As he entered the camp the cannon from the Park of Artillery and from every brigade announced the happy event. His train by this time was much increased; and men, women and children seemed to via with each other in demonstrations of joy and eagerness to see their beloved countryman. His quarters are at Mr. Wythe’s house. Aunt Betty [the wife of the late Peyton Randolph] has the honor of the Count de Rochambeau to lodge at her house. We are all alive and so sanguine in our hopes that nothing can be conceived more different than the countenances of the same men at this time and on the first of June. The troops which were to attend the General are coming down the bay. . .. Cornwallis may now tremble for his fate, for nothing but some extraordinary interposition of his guardian angels seems capable of saving him and the whole army from captivity.
The first of the American and French troops from New York arrived at Burwell’s Landing on September 22. They continued to arrive over the next four days, some landing at Burwell’s, others College Landing, and still others at Jamestown. They then marched into Williamsburg and encamped near the capitol on the east end of town. Jean-Francois-Louis, Comte de Clermont-Crevecoeur, an artillery officer and French nobleman, recorded his impressions of Williamsburg in his journal.
Williamsburg is situated on a charming plain between two creeks that flow into the James and York rivers. The town itself is not particularly pretty and consists of a single very long street at either end of which are very handsome buildings. . .. The streets are not paved and are very rough in both summer and winter.
On September 27, General Washington repositioned the troops encamped west of Williamsburg; they marched through town and joined the newly arrived northern troops camped near the capitol. Rations of bread or flour and meat for four days were issued to all the American troops. The allied march to Yorktown commenced the next day at 5 a.m. To protect the supply magazines established in Williamsburg as well as the city itself, Washington left nearly eight hundred troops behind. He explained to Admiral de Grasse, the French naval commander, that he could ill afford to lose the men for the siege, “but unless this detachment is made, the Enemy might in the greatest security land above Queen’s Creek to cover his left flank, and by a very short march effect the most destructive purposes.”
Over the next three weeks the allied army besieged the British at Yorktown. Most of the allied sick and wounded were sent to Williamsburg, the French used the college as a hospital and the Americans used the former Governor’s Palace. On October 19, the British surrendered. Most of the British and Hessian prisoners were marched to Winchester, Virginia. General Washington sent some of his troops to the Carolinas and led the rest north to New York, while Admiral de Grasse returned to the Caribbean with his naval squadron. The French army under General Rochambeau, however, stayed in Virginia for the winter.
The French in Williamsburg
General Rochambeau posted his French army in several locations in Virginia. He left one regiment at Yorktown, posted another in Hampton, ordered a detachment of artillery to the small town of West Point at the head of the York River, and ordered the remaining two French regiments, with several companies of artillery, to Williamsburg. Rochambeau and his staff took up residence at George Wythe’s home, General Washington’s former headquarters on Palace Green.
To at least one French officer who recorded his experience in Williamsburg, the city’s inhabitants were thrilled to host the French for the winter.
One could not be more hospitable than are the inhabitants of Williamsburg to all the army officers; they receive them very cordially in their homes and do all in their power to provide entertainment for them . . . In this city, the fair sex, although they are not the prettiest I have seen, form a very agreeable and, in general, very well bred society.
It is not difficult to understand why Williamsburg’s residents embraced the French army in their city. The departure of the state government to Richmond eighteen months earlier, the city’s economic engine, was a severe blow to Williamsburg’s merchants and inhabitants. Months of disruption caused by two British occupations and the constant threat of another attack also brought economic hardship to the city in 1781.
The arrival of the American and French armies in the fall offered some relief to the commerce-starved city; the needs of thousands of troops and hundreds of draft animals had to be met. Although the paper currency offered by the Americans was nearly worthless, the French offered hard specie (coin) for payment. Their arrival and continued stay in Williamsburg was thus an economic blessing to many of the city’s inhabitants.
Based on the journals of several French officers, the French were fascinated with both the natural wonders of Virginia as well as the character and custom of the people. One officer posted at West Point over the winter recorded candid observations of Virginians that likely described those in Williamsburg as well.
These people are very hospitable and receive you in a most cordial manner, but they are exceptionally lazy. The gentlemen, as well as those who claim to be but are not, live like lords. Like all Americans they are generally cold, but the women are warmer. They have the advantage of being much gayer by nature than the northern women, though not so pretty. They love pleasure and are passionately fond of dancing, in which they indulge in both summer and winter. When a gentleman goes out of his house—something he does rarely—he is always followed by a negro groom who rides behind him.
Detailed description of Virginia’s wildlife, plants, terrain, and climate, appear in many of the French journals. One officer noted that General Rochambeau, like General Washington, thoroughly enjoyed fox hunts and went several times a week whenever conditions allowed. One can imagine that, given the propensity of Virginians to dance and entertain, the general and his officers also found plenty of opportunity to enjoy the favorite pastime of most Virginians.
Although both the French and their hosts in Williamsburg seemed satisfied with their stay in the city, their presence in Williamsburg was not incident free. On November 23, the residence of Reverend James Madison, the president of the college who had allowed the building to be used as a hospital for French soldiers, was damaged by fire. Rochambeau conveyed the news to General Washington in late December following yet another fire that destroyed the governor’s palace.
The Wing of the College where we Lodged our wounded officers had begun to be burnt down, we carried away all the sick, and all the furniture, but could only think about hindering the communication of the fire with the main building. Last night, the same accident happened to the Palace, in which was the American hospital, all the sick were saved as well as the greatest part of the effects, and we hindered the fire from communicating to the neighbouring houses, to mine [the Wythe House] especially; it is the one occupied by your Excellency, it was covered all the night long with a rain of red hot ashes. We have put all your sick in the Capitol, and today have had all which was possible for us to furnish them with. At Colonel Menzies’s requisition I have ordered a guard to be set around it to prevent the same accident, and I have caused the precaution to be tripled [at] our hospital at the College.
General Rochambeau agreed to pay £12,000 for the damage caused to the college building as well as the loss of a significant part of Reverend Madison’s library and several pieces of physics equipment. There was no French compensation for the governor’s palace, which lay in ruins for years after the fire. That was the responsibility of the American government.
The French remained in Williamsburg and the surrounding posts through June 1782. Unaccustomed to Virginia’s summer, many suffered through the heat and humidity. An officer posted in West Point observed in his journal that,
We suffered greatly from the heat. The nights seemed even hotter than the days. We did not know where to turn. Added to this discomfort was an invasion of gnats, whose bite is far more venomous than those of Europe . . . During the summer it is impossible to go out of the house in the daytime. The houses are designed to stay cool, being built round a large hall or vestibule with a cross draft running through it. This serves as a sitting room during the day. In the evening you go out, but you do not stay long outdoors since the dampness of the night air is dangerous. The Americans stand the heat better than we do, or at least they are less sensitive to it.
When orders to march back to New York were issued in late June 1782, they no doubt came as a relief to many of the French soldiers who wished to escape Virginia’s searing summer. The bulk of the French army marched north on July 1. Their departure marked the end of an era for Williamsburg, which completed its transformation into a sleepy Virginia town. The city would, of course, rise from obscurity one hundred and fifty years later, much to the joy of history enthusiasts everywhere. But that is another story.
E. Lee Shepard, ed., Marching to Victory: Capt. Benjamin Bartholomew’s Diary of the Yorktown Campaign, May 1781 to March 1781 (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 2002), 21, and Stanley J. Idzerda, ed., “General LaFayette to the Chevalier de La Luzerne, September 8, 1781,” LaFayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790, Vol. 4 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1981), 391.
Howard C. Rice and Anne S.K. Brown, trans. and eds., “Clermont-Crevecoeur Journal, September 26, 1781,” The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army, 1780-83, Vol. 1 (Princeton, NJ and Providence, RI: Princeton University Press, Brown University Press, 1972), 56.
“General Rochambeau to General Washington, December 24, 1781,” House History File, George Wythe House Historical Report: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series 1484 (1938), 16-17.