The French Depart Newport

The War Years (1775-1783)

June 6, 2023
by Norman Desmarais Also by this Author


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Lt. Gen. Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur Comte de Rochambeau did not wake up on the morning of June 18, 1781 and order his army of more than 6,000 men to break camp and begin their march south. Such an operation would take months to plan and execute. He sent the artillery company to Providence on April 10 and he was already making plans and purchasing horses, wagons and foodstuffs by April 12, 1781.[1] He sent assistant quartermaster Matthieu Dumas ahead of the army to select the camp sites and to mark the route.[2] Dumas submitted his recommendations to Pierre François de Béville, quartermaster general of the army, for his approval and final decision.

Quartermasters are generally not well-appreciated. Officers usually don’t want to perform their functions because there is no glory in them. After Congress appointed Nathanael Greene to replace Thomas Mifflin as quartermaster general of the Continental Army on March 2, 1778, Greene complained to his friend, Gen. Alexander McDougall on March 28: “All of you will be immortalizing your selves in the golden pages of History while I am confined to a series of druggery [drudgeries] to pave the way for it.[3]” He later wrote to General Washington on April 24, 1779 to express his desire to achieve fame on the battlefield, saying “Nobody ever heard of a quarter master in history.[4]” But quartermasters perform essential functions to keep an army in the field.

Quartermasters were staff officers responsible for the procurement and distribution of food, clothing and supplies. They also reconnoitered travel routes; oversaw the repair and maintenance of roads and bridges; established the layout, organization and construction of camps; and managed the supply and maintenance of wagons and the teams. They even assembled boats for water transport and river crossings.[5]

Quartermaster General Béville had five aides: Alexandre-Théodore-Victor, comte de Lameth; Jacques Anne Joseph le Prestre, comte de Vauban; Hans Axel, comte de Fersen: Louis François Bertrand Dupont d’Aubevoye, comte de Lauberdière and Mathieu Dumas. Louis Alexandre Berthier was also attached to the corps of quartermasters but most of his job was mapping the routes and the camps.

Fig. 1 Louis Alexandre Berthier’s map of the camp at Providence.

It does not appear that Béville or Vauban kept diaries. Lameth’s memoirs say very little about his time in America.[6] There is a brief section on the siege and surrender of Yorktown that offers nothing new to our knowledge of those events. The Comte de Fersen’s journal contains a series of letters to his father during the American campaigns.[7] He wrote frequently during the garrison period. His last letter before the march to Yorktown is dated June 3, 1781. In his next letter, dated October 23, 1781, he apologized for not writing sooner because he “had no time to write you the slightest detail.” He then included a “Journal of Operations during the Siege and Surrender of Yorktown” and another letter of the same date that gives a brief account of the major events of the previous three and a half months.

Louis François Bertrand Dupont d’Aubevoye, comte de Lauberdière,[8] Louis Alexandre Berthier[9], and Mathieu Dumas[10] are the only French assistant quartermasters general to have kept any account of their work and travels during the march.


As the French army began preparing for their departure from Rhode Island in early June 1781, General Rochambeau ordered a detachment of 400 men (100 from each regiment) to remain in Newport under the command of Lt. Gen. Claude Gabriel Marquis de Choisy to protect the city and the vessels and to guard the siege artillery.[11] Choisy also commanded about 1,000 American militiamen. Soldiers who had not seen combat in over a year were anxious to engage the enemy, attain glory and establish their reputation. It is not surprising that some were disappointed when they were ordered to remain behind.

Denis-Jean-Florimond Langlois de Montheville marquis du Bouchet was one of these disappointed officers.[12] He perceived his new orders as a humiliation. General Rochambeau tried to revive his spirits by telling him that the artillery would rejoin the army at a later time and that the main army could capture nothing without de Choisy’s detachment. Yet, du Bouchet felt shame at the thought of the army marching to combat while he remained in the rear.

Believing himself bereft of honor, his dejection made him incapable of listening to reason. He admitted he was on the verge of insanity. General de Choisy invited him and the Count de Lauberdière to dinner one evening in early June. When Lauberdière learned that du Bouchet would not be accompanying the army on its march, he surmised du Bouchet would not need his horses, so, during the dinner, he asked to buy them.

Lauberdière was General Rochambeau’s nephew and aide-de-camp. At twenty-one years old, he was the youngest member of Rochambeau’s staff. Du Bouchet was seven years older and a brigade major of the army (he was also the brother-in-law of Irishman Thomas Conway who served as a major general in the Continental Army).

Du Bouchet perceived Lauberdière’s offer as irony and mockery and believed it was intended to humiliate him and to remind him of his disgrace. He became very angry and responded with bitterness and resentment. Feeling his honor had been attacked, Lauberdière could not ignore the response in silence. He returned an hour later with Mr. de Mauduit[13] to demand satisfaction and introduced Mr. de Mauduit as his witness.

Du Bouchet said he was extremely busy preparing orders for the army’s departure. He asked these men to be seated for about half an hour or so, after which he would be free and entirely at their disposal.  He told them that he knew that certain wrongs could not be repaired and agreed to a duel with Mr. Lauberdière, who was younger and “had to make his reputation even more than I did.”

The duel left both men injured and unable to perform their duties for several weeks.  Du Bouchet’s duties were assumed by another brigade major and Lauberdière had to find his own means to rejoin the army when he was well enough to travel.[14]

The Fleet

When Charles Louis d’Arsac Chevalier de Ternay died on December 15, 1780, his second-in-command, Charles René Dominique Sochet, Chevalier Destouches, assumed command of the French fleet until Admiral Jacques Melchior, Comte de Barras, arrived to officially take command. The Count de Barras arrived in Boston on May 8, 1781 aboard the frigate Concorde and assumed command of the fleet when he arrived in Newport on May 13.

While Rochambeau was preparing to march south, de Barras wanted to stay in Newport. He planned an expedition to Penobscot and Nova Scotia to secure French fishing rights. Rochambeau had to remind him that his fleet’s mission was to provide direct assistance to America and that the commander should only act in concert with General Washington and him, Rochambeau. When there was nothing planned, he could attempt to make an expedition to the North, but that was no longer the case as two councils of war were held aboard his ship to decide the course of action.

If he continued in his plan, Mr. de Choisy would be unable to board his troops and munitions. Mr. de Barras understood the importance of the matter and responded that he would have the munitions, the artillery, etc. loaded without delay and that he would leave to join Admiral François Joseph Paul Comte de Grasse when he sailed for the Chesapeake.

New warehouses were erected in Providence and the main army depots were established there.  Supplies and the army’s effects were brought to Providence by water between June 1 and 3.[15]

 The First Phase of the March

The troops departed Newport in four divisions a day apart beginning on June 18. Each division was organized by regiment in order of seniority and had an assistant quartermaster assigned to it. Part of the field artillery went with each regiment.[16] The first division began to march at 4 am. It consisted of the Bourbonnais regiment and most of the general staff under the command of the Count de Rochambeau. The Vicomte de Rochambeau was their assistant quartermaster.

The second division, the Royal Deux Ponts regiment, left the following day under the command of the Baron de Viomenil,[17] Rochambeau’s second in command.  The Comte de Lameth was their assistant quartermaster.

The third division, the Soissonnais regiment under the command of the Count de Viomenil,[18] departed on the 20th. Their assistant quartermaster was Georges Henri Victor Collot.

The Saintonge regiment, commanded by the Comte de Custine,[19] formed the fourth division and set out on the 21st.  Louis Alexandre Berthier was their assistant quartermaster.

Matthieu Dumas was the assistant quartermaster that accompanied Lauzun’s Legion camped at Lebanon, Connecticut.[20] Lauzun’s Legion patrolled about ten miles to the left of the column. The chasseur (light infantry) companies of each regiment patrolled the flanks of the columns to scout and eliminate snipers, enemy patrols or harrassments.

The troops usually rose at 2 am, broke camp, and were on the march by 4 am.  They stopped for breakfast around 8 and halted around noon or 1 pm to make camp. If all went well, a quantity of stores had already arrived at the campsite:

Newport, 28 April 1781
20 Tons of Hay
20 Tons of Straw
380 Bushells Indn Corn;
If Oats are given to the horses then
225 Bushells of Oats
230 Bs Indn Corn
25 Cattle
12 Sheep
6 Calves
25 Cords Wood
To be supplied at every campsite[21]

After setting up the tents, if they arrived, the soldiers cut the wood they would need to burn for cooking and they fetched water. The soldiers also constructed ordinaries (kitchens) and dug necessaries (latrines). If they were camping for any length of time, they would also build slaughterhouses and ovens.[22] The baggage and artillery might arrive about eight to twelve hours later, if they arrived at all.

Fig. 2. Camp kitchen. (Author)

The soldiers were often tired from pulling wagons the horses refused to pull. They might be soaking wet, without tents, and had to spend the night in bivouac.[23]

The troops sometimes took alternate routes to accelerate the march or to reduce the demands on local infrastructures.  This was particularly notable in the march through Pennsylvania and Maryland.  The Count de Lauberdière took half the army across the Susquehanna River by the more common route, crossing at Lower Ferry.[24] Matthieu Dumas took the baggage, artillery and the other half of the army by way of Bald Friar’s Ferry.[25]

The roads were often very poor, causing frequent breakdowns and damage to the wheels of the baggage wagons and cannon carriages. This resulted in delays while waiting for repairs to be made or for the damaged vehicles to rejoin the regiment. Bridges were sometimes damaged.

Food supplies were sometimes not delivered to the prescribed depots on time, causing further delays. Other times, not enough boats had been acquired for crossing the rivers, so the soldiers resorted to bringing boats with them.

Fig. 3. Supplies were to be transported from magazines such as the one at Canterbury, Connecticut to camp sites such as Providence and Waterman’s Tavern.

Weather was another impediment. Besides hindering the march, soldiers often had to camp in bivouac when the baggage wagons were delayed. For example, after camping at Phillipsburg, New York for nearly a month, it took the army six days to travel forty miles to Kings Ferry, a distance the soldiers might otherwise have completed in two days.[26]

The Second Phase of the March

When the army marched out of Phillipsburg, they marched as a single column,[27] but the Americans and French sometimes took separate routes. Washington and Rochambeau agreed to march south and Rochambeau requested de Barras to set sail and bring the artillery and troops with him.[28]

Choisysent about 100 French troops to Providence to guard that city and embarked his detachment of 480 French infantry troops and 130 artillery troops at Newport on August 21-22, 1781. They sailed on the 25th and arrived in the Chesapeake on September 10 to join with Admiral de Grasse’s fleet from the West Indies.[29]

Verger’s journal provides one of the few surviving accounts of the passage from Newport to Virginia with de Barras’s squadron. Others include du Bouchet, Vicomte Maurice de Villebresme,[30] Georges Alexander Cesar de Saint-Exupéry,[31] an officer in the Sarre-Infanterie[32] and Marie François Joseph Maxime, Comte de Cromot du Bourg.[33]

Once de Barras’s fleet joined forces with de Grasse’s fleet from the West Indies, they blocked the Chesapeake Bay preventing any reinforcements coming to aid the Crown forces or any possibility of escape. The allied forces assembled at Yorktown began the siege on September 28. It resulted in the British surrender on October 19. The French and American armies were pretty much equal in numbers but, with the addition of the French fleets, three quarters of the allied forces at Yorktown were French.

After wintering at Williamsburg, the French army marched back to Newport for a short while. There, they rekindled the friendships they made two years earlier.  They then proceeded to Boston where they boarded ships. Some of the troops were reassigned to the West Indies. The remainder returned to France. Many of them would fight in the French Revolution.


[1]Rochambeau to Washington April 12,1780. The Papers of Jean Baptiste Rochambeau, Library of Congress. vol. 9, 26-29.

[2]Mathieu Dumas et al. Souvenirs Du Lieutenant Général Comte Matthieu Dumas, De 1770 a 1836: Publiés Par Son Fils. (Librairie De Charles Gosselin, 1839).

[3]The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, ed. Richard K Showman et al. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976), 2:326.

[4]Ibid., 3:426-427.

[5]Erna Risch, Supplying Washington’s Army (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1981); James A. Huston, The Sinews of War: Army Logistics, 1775-1953 (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1966).

[6]Alexandre Lameth and Eugène Welvert, Mémoires (Paris: Fontemoing, 1913).

[7]Hans Axel von Fersen, Diary and Correspondence of Count Axel Fersen (Boston: Hardy, Pratt, 1902).

[8]Louis François Bertrand Dupont d’Aubevoye, Comtede Lauberdière, The Road to Yorktown: The French Campaigns in the American Revolution, 1780-1783, trans. ed. Norman Desmarais (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2020).

[9]Louis Alexandre Berthier, “Journal of Louis-Alexandre Berthier,” The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army, trans. ed. Howard C. Rice and Anne S.K. Brown (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), 1:221-282.

[10]Mathieu Dumas, Souvenirs Du Lieutenant-Général Cte Mathieu Dumas, de 1770 À 1836 (Paris: C. Gosselin, 1839). Excerpts were translated into English as Memoirs of his Own Time; Including the Revolution, the Empire, and the Restoration. By Lieut.-Gen. Count Mathieu Dumas (London: Richard Bentley, 1839). Neither of these documents covers his duties as quartermaster. That recently found manuscript can be read in the Journal of a French Quartermaster on the March to Yorktown June 16 — October 6, 1781. Translated and annotated by Norman Desmarais (Lincoln, RI: Revolutionary Imprints, 2022).

[11]Heavy cannons of various calibers: 12-, 24-, 36-, and 64-pounders, howitzers and mortars of various calibers. The artillery park in Newport covered three modern city blocks.

[12]Denis-Jean-Florimond Langlois de Montheville marquis du Bouchet, Journal d’un émigré; ou cahiers d’un etudiant en philosophie qui a commencé son cours, dès son entrée dans le monde (Journal of an expatriate or booklets of a philosophy student who began his course, from his entry into the world), Cornell University Library manuscripts.

[13]Thomas-Antoine de Mauduit du Plessis.

[14]Norman Desmarais, “A French Duel in Newport.” Online Journal of Rhode Island History, February 19, 2022,

[15]Ludwig, Baron von Closen, Revolutionary Journal 1780-1783, trans. ed. Evelyn A. Acomb (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958), 82.

[16]Ibid. 84.

[17]Antoine Charles du Houx baron de Vioménil.

[18]Joseph Hyacinthe du Houx Comte de Vioménil.

[19]Adam Philippe, Comte de Custine.

[20]Lauberdière, The Road to Yorktown, 89-91; Berthier, “Journal,” 246-247; Dumas, Souvenirs, 1:64, 67-69.

[21]The potato yield in Rhode Island in 1778 was about 100 bushels per acre. The US average per acre yield increased to 1,025 bushels in 2011. The corn yield in Rhode Island for 1778 was 30 bushels per acre (a very, very good yield). In 2011, the US average was 225 bushels per acre. 1 bushel of shelled corn was equal to about 40 pounds of cornmeal. Soldiers were allotted 1.5 pounds of bread per day. An army of 5,000 French infantry soldiers would need 30,000 pounds of cornmeal in four days. That is equal to 750 bushels, or about 25 acres, of corn (at 30 bushels per acre). Double that if the navy is included, plus even more for feeding the cattle and horses. Thus, the French army would need the equivalent of 400 acres of corn per month, or 800 acres if the navy is included.

The standard army wagon carried seven barrels (between 1,500 and 1,600 pounds of flour (1,200 – 1,300 rations), so the 12,000 man army and navy required 10 wagon loads of flour per day.

The average weight of a head of cattle was around 600 – 650 pounds but could go as high as 1,000 pounds. David Trumbull in Lebanon, Connecticut bought four oxen in December 1780. Their average weight was 634 pounds. He purchased a 600 pound ox on January 2, 1781. The next day, he estimated the weight of two oxen at 1,050 pounds each, but one third waste (hide, tallow and bones). When Jeremiah Wadsworth bought cattle for the French forces in Newport in July 1780, he calculated it to “average 400 pounds each of Meat Beef,” i.e. slaughtered, about half the weight of a head of cattle today.

Every soldier was allotted 1 pound of beef per day: 5,500 soldiers x 30 days equals 165,000 pounds or 250-275 head of cattle per month.

Courtesy Robert A. Selig.

[22]The dressed carcass makes up about 60 percent of the live-weight of cattle; the remaining 40 percent live-weight is taken up by the hide, blood, bones, horns, hoof, tallow, intestines and casings, fat and organs such as the tongue, heart, kidney and liver known as the Fifth Quarter. In December 1782, Jeremiah Wadsworth purchased eighty-five head of cattle on the hoof in Boston weighing 630 lbs. on average, leaving 350 lbs. of meat per animal. Jeremiah Wadsworth Papers, Box 144, Folder December 1782, Connecticut Historical Society.

[23]Berthier, “Journal,” 245.

[24]Now Havre de Grace, Maryland.

[25]A bald-headed man named Fry supposedly kept a ferry at the ford. Both Bald Friar Ford and Ferry are said to have been named after him. George Johnston, History of Cecil County (Elkton, MD: published by the author, 1881), 345. The ford is 2 1/4 miles wide, 7 miles upstream from the present Conowingo Dam. This was the only practicable ford, but barely so, since the bottom was so rocky that the horses risked breaking their legs.

[26]Jean Francois Louis, comte de Clermont-Crevecoeur, “Journal of Jean Francois Louis comte de Clermont-Crevecoeur,”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), 1:40.

[27]Berthier, “Journal,” 255.

[28]Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur Comte de Rochambeau, “Correspondance du Comte de Rochambeau Depuis le Début de Son Commandement Aux États-Unis Jusqu’à la Fin de la Campagne de Virginie,”in Henri Doniol, Histoire de la Participation de la France à l’Établissement des Etats-Unis d’Amerique: Correspondance Diplomatique et Documents (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale/France, 1886), 5:475-476, 493-494, 510, 520-522, 524, 526. Donatien Marie Joseph de Vimeur Vicomte de Rochambeau, “The War in America: An Unpublished Journal (1780-1783) by the Vicomte de Rochambeau,”in Jean Edmond Weelen and Donatien Marie Joseph de Vimeur Rochambeau, Rochambeau, Father and Son: A Life of the Maréchal De Rochambeau, trans. Lawrence Lee (New York: H. Holt, 1936), 224. Lauberdière, The Road to Yorktown, 124-125.

[29]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), 134-135; Relation, ou Journal des Operations du Corps Français Depuis le 15 d’août 1781 (Philadelphia: Hampton, 1781), Henri Doniol, Histoire, 5:575.

[30]Vicomte Maurice deVillebresme, “Souvenirs du Chevalier de Villebresme,”Carnet de la Sabretache: revue d’histoire militaire rétrospective (1896), 4:177-194, 256-264, 313-325, 395-400, 422-438, 543-549.

[31]Georges Alexander Cesar deSaint-Exupéry, “The War Diary of Georges Alexander Cesar de Saint-Exupery,” in Countess Anais de Saint-Exupéry, Légion d’honneur: honneur et patrie(American Society of the French Legion of Honor) II: #2 (October 1931), 107-108.

[32]“Journal d’un officier du Regiment de la Sarre-Infanterie pendant la guerre d’amerique (1780-1782), ed. S. Churchill, in Carnet de la Sabretache: Revue d’Histoire Militaire Rétrospective, 2nd ser. III (1904), 370-371.

[33]Marie François Joseph Maxime, Comte deCromot Du Bourg, “Diary of a French Officer, 1781,”The Magazine of American History with notes and queries Vol. 4 (1880), 205-214, 293-308, 376-385, 441-452; Vol. 7 (1881), 283-295.



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