Adam Custine—a Fighter for American Independence and Reforms in France

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May 30, 2024
by Johannes von Thadden Also by this Author

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In George Washington’s Mount Vernon mansion many visitors take note of the key presented by Lafayette to the first American president, formerly used in the Bastille prison in Paris. Few visitors invest much time to look at a tea set on display in the exhibition and fewer still will wonder about who made Martha and George Washington such a costly and delicate present. It was Adam Custine on his second visit to Mount Vernon in 1781. As deputy division commander Custine was directly next to Gen. Jean-Baptiste comte de Rochambeau and Gen. Antoine baron de Vioménil.

Adam Custine’s way to America

Adam Philippe comte de Custine, baron de Sarreck was born on February 4, 1742 into a noble family residing in Lorraine in the Eastern part of France. His father had planned a military career for little Adam—and little he was when he joined the army on June 17, 1747 at the age of five.[1] Putting young boys into the army, at least formally, was a way of circumventing a rule requiring a minimum number of years in the army in order qualify for a specific military rank.

Tea service presented to George and Martha Washington by Adam Custine on display at Mount Vernon. (Author)

Adam took a serious interest in his military career. He fought in the Seven Years War against Prussia and received his first command in 1763 with the Custine dragoons. His ambitions went higher: In 1767 he got married to a quite wealthy, charming and, of course, noble young lady. They moved to Paris where real careers were made, as close to the king as possible. He gained access to the court, requiring him to prove his undisturbed “blue blood line” at least back until 1399.[2] A son and a daughter were born to this marriage before his wife, sadly enough, died very young in 1771.[3] Adam Custine was never to marry again.[4]

He continued his career up to the rank of colonel and eagerly wished to advance further, but the French army was overstaffed with generals. Custine knew that only a combination of good contacts and further military experience could get him to where he thought to belong.

When France decided to openly support the American insurgents, Adam Custine understood that this provided him with a unique opportunity: he pressured the minister of war “with great urgency” requesting to give him a command in the expeditionary army and to promote him to the general rank.[5] It surely helped that the minister was a relative. He received the command of the infantry regiment Saintonge, already planned to be shipped to America, but was only promoted to the rank of brigadier, one rank below general, as deputy division commander.

Custine was put on Le Conquérant, a ship fifty-seven meters long that had to provide room for 960 men and provisions for a six months journey.[6] The living conditions on this ship were incredible: there was no room for people to sleep, not even on the deck. The first death of scurvy followed only two weeks after having left the port of Brest.[7] Dead men were just thrown into the ocean. At least twenty-three died during the ten weeks at sea on Custine’s ship alone.[8] However, this figure doesn’t provide the full picture of the daily horror on board: after one month already sixty people were reported seriously sick. They were left in the dark, hot and humid lower parts of the ship.[9] When the French contingent finally arrived at Newport, Rhode Island on July 11, 1780 the number of ill soldiers was estimated at 2,600.[10] At this time, the French hadn’t yet discovered what the English treated as a secret: scurvy could easily be avoided by providing fruits. About 200 more French soldiers were going to die in the following weeks.[11]

Custine, however, enjoyed the adventure. Living conditions for officers were much better but nonetheless cramped: twenty-four officers shared a small cabin. As described by a friend in a letter, he “had never seen Custine in better mood, sober, going to bed early, getting up early, marching outside as much as possible on a ship, looking great, with even a little corner to read and write.”[12]

Rochambeau commanded that the camp needed to be fortified immediately against the English.[13] This command went to Custine and to the Count of Zweibrücken; twelve days of hard work followed for the two officers and their soldiers. However, Custine “had survived the travel well, better than many others. . . . Custine is doing better than in France.”[14]

Adam Custine in America

Custine had to get his life organized under conditions totally unknown to him. He was entitled to bring along his own secretary Mr. Pequier, three servants plus a cook. This wasn’t a personal favor but followed strict rules: General Rochambeau was entitled to eight servants. In addition, Custine was allowed to have twenty horses, his own tent and a two-wheeled cart to transport his personal belongings.[15]

Communication was an immediate need. Custine kept an intense correspondence with his family and for his business needs. He had well prepared for this adventure: He had written a last will and had put his brother-in-law, Albert-Louis baron de Pouilly, in charge of his son and daughter. For his son he had hired a teacher, Joseph Girard, with a meticulous study program. For his daughter he had secured a place in a renowned convent in Paris. There she made the right connections and thereby in 1790 married Henri-Evrard Marquis de Dreux-Brézé who was the master of ceremony to King Louis XVI—a huge step up the social scale for Custine.[16]

Custine also needed to run a tight ship for his business: in 1770 he had bought a faïencerie (pottery) in Niderviller which he hoped to turn into a profitable earthenware production.[17]

Custine found a reasonable room in a private house in Newport and was busy drilling his troops. In addition, like other officers, he was tasked to tour the unknown country, study roads and analyze possible battle grounds. He asked to meet General Washington in his winter quarters in New Windsor, New York; permission was granted in a letter dated November 16, 1780.[18]

The situation for the general and his army was far from delightful: his pockets were empty, living conditions for the Americans were poor and hunger was a constant companion. Washington trusted Custine with a letter to Lafayette dated December 7, 1780.[19] He recommended Custine both to the President of Congress and to Gen. Anthony Wayne.[20]

Custine asked the French ambassador to introduce him to Thomas Jefferson. This required a horse ride of over 600 miles and back, through cold and snow—quite a challenge even for an experienced horseman like Custine. He and his companions arrived on December 29, about one month after having left the French winter quarters.

As Jefferson was fluent in French the conversation was easy. They stayed at Monticello overnight. Jefferson left them with several letters of recommendation for their further trip.[21] They finally came as far south as Richmond, Virginia, where they had to quickly turn around because Gen. Benedict Arnold, the traitor, had just landed with 1,500 British troops. Custine thereby was one of the first to learn about this new threat, and he went to see General Washington again to report his observations. On January 24, 1781 Washington wrote to Rochambeau:

The Count De Custine, The Marquis De Laval and Mr. De la Corbière who have honor to call upon me on their return to Rhode Island will communicate to you all we learn, concerning Arnold’s descent in Virginia. ‘Tis said by later accounts that he had reimbarked—perhaps to fall upon some other point.[22]

Rochambeau used the established relationship between Washington and Custine, sending him right back with another letter—again a ride of over 200 miles each way.[23] Custine this time took his time to return to the French winter quarters where he was not seen again until early April, only to leave for another trip to Boston.[24]

One source reports an incident in spring 1781, according to which Custine criticized a French major in such a way that he wanted to resign which, in return, was rejected by Custine, as was the major’s request for a duel to save his honor. As a consequence, the major shot himself. This incident led to severe criticism of Custine’s officers but no measures were taken against Custine.[25] It is not clear whether the shooting incident actually occurred; regardless, in early June he departed for another reconnaissance through the country.[26]

Custine on the way to Yorktown

He returned just in time to participate in the strategy meeting set up by Rochambeau on June 8, 1781. Together with seventeen other officers Custine signed the minutes of this discussion.[27] As a result, Rochambeau began to march south, together with 239 wagons, 500 servants and 600 oxen. The vanguard left on June 18. The Saintonge regiment as the rearguard, under the command of Custine, only started marching on June 21. Custine had to take with him one quarter of the French artillery, sixty wagons and the field hospital.[28] He let his soldiers march for seven days without much rest. To avoid the day’s heat, wakening was at 2.00 a.m., the march commencing at 4.00 a.m. In America Custine had learned what could be achieved with soldiers believing in their cause. Unlike other French officers, Custine made the march on foot, and this good example leads to no man falling behind.[29]

On July 2, the French met Washington’s Army. All plans were changed by the news that comte François de Grasse-Tilly, commander of the French fleet in the West Indies, had arrived in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay: Washington and Rochambeau now decided to attack Gen. Charles Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown, about 400 miles away down in Virginia. On August 30, both generals reached Philadelphia with the first part of their troops. Custine and his rearguard were given the honor of a parade in town on September 4, followed by an opulent dinner in the French embassy.[30]

After the allied troops reached Head of Elk, Custine was made responsible for organizing the transport of a great part of these troops down the bay. General Washington ordered him directly:

Head Quarters, Williamsburg, September 15, 1781: Sir, the Troops embarked, having been stopped on the Sailing of the Fleet from the Chesapeake, I have the Pleasure to inform you that the Count De Grasse, having been joined by Monsr De Barras’ Squadron, and having captured two of the British Frigates, is now returned with the whole, and again taken his Station in the Bay. By this Means, the Bay being perfectly secure, you will be pleased to proceed with the Troops under your Command, with all possible Dispatch to James River, where they are to debark at James Town, and receive further orders.[31]

Custine organized about seventy boats which were filled up to the maximum with soldiers, provisions and military supply. Rochambeau’s adjutant remarked dryly that it needed zeal for duty, or much more the wish to avoid a harsh march, to expose yourself to the risk of pontoon boats that partially lacked masts while others were taking in water everywhere and many were guided and operated only by one Black man. In addition, he reported that he and Custine had to pay with their own money for necessary provisions for the soldiers.[32] Things weren’t made any better by constant rain and heavy winds. Claude Blanchard reported:

Together with M. de Custine I mounted a little boat together with some officers and about 50 grenadiers . . . We only had biscuits and cheese for the soldiers and for us only some cold meat . . . On the 14th we discovered the squadron of M. de Grasse, and M. de Custine and I boarded the Ville de Paris . . . He greeted us warmly and invited us for dinner.[33]

Following the landing, the soldiers still had to march about another 200 miles before finally arriving at Yorktown.

Custine and the Battle of Yorktown

On September 28 the allied troops set out from their quarters in Williamsburg to Yorktown. After both contingents installed themselves around the town, the siege began. Rochambeau insisted on the classical way: cut off the enemy escape routes, dig in and take your time. For many Americans this was a new experience.

Custine was charged with an important mission: to oversee the biggest part of the French digging. All together 4,000 men were put to the task of digging and securing this dangerous work, including 750 men each from the American and French regiments for the digging alone. Custine was tasked to organize every second night shift but did more; Rochambeau remarked in his diary:

In the night of (October) the 8th to the 9th the trench was dug by the Saint-Simon and the Royal Deux-Ponts regiments under the command of the Marquis de Saint-Simon and M. de Custine, brigadier, who already had dug the first trench. Because he is the only brigadier he climbs every second day in the trench.[34]

Another officer wrote, “M. de Custine bears the siege’s strain to the best where he is every second day on duty. This wasn’t my advice but he shows such a zeal which can’t be stopped by anybody, and he has such a fortunate physical condition to endure it.”[35]

Custine spent six nights in the trenches, together with his soldiers. This really required stamina and courage; until October 14 the French suffered 52 soldiers killed and 134 wounded. The trenches had to be four to five feet deep and about ten feet wide to allow the transport of heavy equipment like cannons. The first parallel was about six thousand feet long and the second parallel 700 feet. For the soldiers this meant moving more than 300,000 cubic feet of earth—without being allowed to speak, in order not to attract precise hostile fire. Adjutant General Edward Hand reported later that never there was more harmony between two armies than between the French and the Americans and that they only tried to outdo the other’s part.[36]

Rituals played a big role, even if they brought danger. Not only did General Washington himself dig the first shovel of earth but, as was the French custom, after the first night of work a parade was organized where fully dressed soldiers mounted the trench with flags and music. Custine’s regiment in its easily visible white uniforms was given this dangerous honor on the French side. The ritual was known to the British as well and required them to shoot at the parading soldiers. For reasons unknown, General Cornwallis let only two canons roar which, luckily for Custine and the French, did no harm.[37]

Now the allies began to move cannons, howitzers and mortars into the trenches and started a heavy bombardment. For the evening of October 14 Washington and Rochambeau had ordered two British redoubts to be stormed, the two best-fortified ones.

To allow the approach to be as undetected as possible, it had been agreed to launch a fake attack under Custine’s command on the other side of the battlefield. Accounts differ on how well this attack was executed; some reports state it worked, others remark that the distraction was launched an hour too late, even though watches had been synchronized for joint action at 7.30 p.m.[38]

“The feint on the left side on our side was carried out a bit too fierce by M. de Custine who came 100 feet close to the [British] entrenchment and lost a lot of men,” wrote one officer.[39] Figures on how many French soldiers lost their life in this attack range from nine to twelve. Baron Closen, always critical of Custine, added that Custine had been drunk and therefore attacked too late. There is no other source confirming this rumor—on the contrary, reports by Custine’s superiors are unanimously positive on Custine’s contribution to this battle, confirming him to have been “the best example as an officer.”[40]

Finally, Cornwallis surrendered on October 19—the final turning point of the Revolutionary War. A huge picture in the United States Capitol depicts this historical moment, when the British troops laid down their weapons. Cornwallis declared himself ill and assigned his deputy General O’Hara with the unpleasant task of handing over the sword of surrender. Therefore, curiously, the picture called The Surrender of Cornwallis doesn’t depict the person it is named for.

Included in the picture is a proud Adam Custine. It is a realistic impression of how Custine looked—the artist, John Trumbull painted Custine in Thomas Jefferson’s residence in Paris in 1787 and used this portrait for his famous Yorktown picture.[41]

The Surrender of Cornwallis by John Trumbull. Adam Custine’s portrait is highlighted. (Architect of the Capitol)
Adam Custine, detail from John Trumbull’s Surrender of Cornwallis. (Architect of the Capitol)

One of the few letters by Custine from America that survives is dated October 19, addressed to the educator of his son, written “in the midst of the horror of war, among dead and dying people.[42] Custine referred to the aftermath of this battle: “You could hardly walk ten steps without meeting dead or dying people, desperate negroes, left to their fate, and corpse on corpse everywhere.”[43]

Therefore, the following days were harsh even for the victors. Custine and other officers had to organize the cleaning of the battlefield, provide for the captured enemy soldiers, watch many of their own wounded soldiers die, many under horrible conditions, and cope with the quickly deteriorating living conditions for everybody:

After the siege, the intense fatigue the army had experienced and the bad food caused lot of illness among the soldiers. Almost everything was missing. Many officers paid the price and got seriously ill themselves. We lost many to bloody diarrhea. The English didn’t suffer less than we did. A great number of negroes who had been put to forced labor brought the pestilence into town. These miserable creatures were to be seen at every corner, either dead or dying. Nobody took the effort to bury them; you’ll imagine the danger of infection.[44]

Custine after the victory

The next task was to provide winter quarters for the French army. As it wasn’t clear for how long this war might still go on, no plans could be made for a quick return. Even though the term “world war” had yet to be coined, the Revolutionary War from a French perspective was part of a long conflict mainly with England on who would dominate an ever-greater part of the world. This conflict between France and England certainly wasn’t over just because some former colonies had won a regional war.

Soldiers went into tents or huts, while officers were given the luxury of being quartered in local family houses.[45] Custine, restless and curious as ever, undertook further trips, this time through the Carolinas.[46]

In May 1782 Custine learned that the king had promoted him to the rank of Maréchal de Camp, the entry rank for a general (not today’s title Field Marshall).[47] His military ambitions had paid off!

It took until summer 1782 before Rochambeau gave orders to march back north. On July 2, the first regiments started marching. Custine, again, commanded the rearguard and left on July 4. The summer was hot; therefore, marches began each day at 2.00 and lasted until the late morning hours when the sun became unbearable.[48]

On July 15, close to Fredericksburg, Custine and other officers went to visit General Washington’s mother and sister. The same evening, Custine gave a dinner invitation “in a beautiful house” on the hills overlooking the Rappahanock and Fredericksburg.[49] From there he went on to meet Martha Washington again at Mount Vernon.[50] This is when Custine brought her a complete tea service as a gift, especially produced for the Washingtons in Custine’s factory. He had given this much thought: The set came with the letters “GW” artfully placed above clouds, a royal symbol for someone who had achieved godly acts. This tea set wasn’t just costly. Custine organized the design, the production and the transport carefully. It took months of preparation to have it at hand for this visit. Martha Washington was very pleased with this more than generous present and informed her husband about it. George Washington in his own handwriting sent a note to Custine:

Head Qrs. Newburgh, August 7, 1782
Sir: Mrs. Washington, in a letter which I have just received from her, expresses her sensibility at your polite attention in calling upon her at Mount Vernon. She informs me also of the obligation you have laid me under, in a present of elegant China, which, as the product of your own Estate, I shall consider as of inestimable value knowing, as I do, the favourable Sentiments which accompanied it.
I have the honr. etc.[51]

Custine in his reply on August 16, already out of Baltimore, made his feelings clear, expressing his “outstanding joy” about Mrs. Washington having accepted “the production of my country.” He hoped Washington would recognize in it who was the greatest admirer of his virtues that “gave liberty to this continent”.[52]

This admiration for the General in particular, but also for Thomas Jefferson, didn’t keep Custine from taking a critical look at slavery in the Southern states. His position against slavery was clear when in August 1789 he drafted his own version of a human rights declaration for discussion in the French National Assembly, of which he had become an elected member. In article 2 he wrote: “Each man is the sole owner of his person,” further underlined in article 17: “No man is freer than another.”[53] No wonder that he was among those nobles who supported a radical change in France—he himself was ready, against the majority in his family, to defend the new French Republic against her enemies.[54]

The summer and fall of 1782 were a strange mixture, on the one side uncertainty whether the British would really give in and, on the other side, parades praising the American victory, so on October 19—the first “Yorktown Day”—a dinner was given by Washington for the French officers.[55]

Finally, on October 30, Rochambeau informed his army that most of them would not be sailing back home but instead to the Caribbean, possibly to attack the British in Jamaica for which France and Spain had formed an alliance.[56] For many soldiers this came as a shock. For many officers like Rochambeau or Custine it meant a detour on their way home.

In the unusually cold months of November and December the French army had to march to Boston. On December 23, 1782 Custine boarded the Duc de Bourgogne. The sailing was difficult and slow: On December 26 the flotilla was hit by a heavy storm during which the ship took in over three feet of water and was in danger of sinking. Another vessel sank on February 3, 1783, taking with it the lives of eighty people. Custine’s ship holed on February 11 and had to be saved. Only on February 15, Custine reached Porto Cabello at the shore of today’s Venezuela.[57] Custine “had survived the exhausting travel well. Only the heat he doesn’t like.”[58] It took him until July 19, 1783 before he and the Saintonge regiment could finally disembark in Brest[59]—more than three years after having embarked for America, three years without family and friends, three years having had to manage all his business from a place as remote as thinkable in those days.

When England, in the Treaty of Paris, had accepted the American independence, Custine ordered an impressive figurine made in Niderviller depicting Benjamin Franklin and King Louis XVI. A handful of copies were made. One of them is on display in the diplomatic reception rooms of the State Department in Washington, D. C., another in the New York Metropolitan Museum and in Paris in the Carnavalet museum—and on a stamp honoring the US Bicentennial in 1978.

Custine during the French Revolution

Custine is an interesting example for how important this campaign became for political development in France. If Louis XVI and his advisors had thought about how to humble the English, they hadn’t given enough thought about how a successful revolution would change the thinking of many French. Thousands came back to France knowing that there was an alternative to absolute monarchies.

Custine stands out among other French militaries: He returned with even bigger military ambitions and had developed a deep interest in politics. Over the coming years he built up networks and addressed several pressing political issues with position papers which he provided to the government. He ran a fierce campaign to become elected into the États Généraux in 1789, a parliament called by the king. He was in favor of reforming this to the National Assembly where he actively fought for a reform agenda—for political equality, for freedom of religion and the rule of law.

In 1792, now appointed lieutenant general, he again took a command in the army. He surprised the allied Prussian and Austrian troops which had invaded France to terminate the revolution when he, against conventional wisdom, didn’t follow the invading army but started to invade Germany. It is fair to say that in these weeks it was in large part Custine who saved the French Revolution. Even though his efforts finally failed, Custine set a lasting example when he initiated the Republic of Mainz and the German National Convention with the ambition to free the German people from the feudal yoke.[60]

In those days he dreamt of becoming the French George Washington. He didn’t make direct claims to such a role, but this thought had crossed his mind. In particular two documents point to this: a public announcement “to the German nation” after he had taken Mainz announcing his intention to liberate other parts of Germany and calling for a rebellion against the suppression by kings and other rulers; and a very harsh letter to Robespierre and the Jacobins in Paris where he claimed that, given the danger of being overwhelmed by Prussia and Austria, “a strong and wise leader” was needed. He didn’t indicate who this leader should be but the letter leaves no doubt of whom he thought. This letter is one reason why the revolutionaries in Paris thought it wise to get rid of someone with such aspirations.[61]

This throws a glance at the shadow side of Custine’s character: He was overly convinced of himself, stubborn, neglecting and underestimating his enemies, often not listening to good advice.[62] But he stood up for what he thought was right. This led him to follow the request of Maximilien Robespierre to return to Paris in summer of 1793 to justify his military actions and his critical comments of the Jacobins in front of the Revolutionary Tribunal. Finally, this took him to the guillotine on August 28, 1793.

The rulers in France had no interest in restoring his honor. Adam Custine, in his own right, is well deserving of being remembered.[63]

 

[1] His military dossier: Service historique de la Défense, Vincennes, France: GR 3Yd 1264.

[2] Extraits des Preuves de Noblesse de diverses maisons et familles faits par Les Généalogistes des Ordres du Roi depuis 1733 jusqu’en Novembre 1781; Archives Nationales, Paris: AN, MM813 (microfilm), volume 4.

[3] Laure duchesse d’Abrantès, Histoire des salons de Paris (Paris: Ladvocat Librairie, 1837), 2:311-312. Stéphanie comtesse de Genlis, Mémoires de Mme. de Genlis sur la cour, la ville et les salons de Paris (Paris: Gustave Barba, Libraire-Éditerur, 1868), 52f.

[4] However, he later didn’t claim to have led the “life of a caste Joseph” as he wrote in a letter to the National Assembly. Réimpression de l’ancien moniteur, depuis la réunion des États-Généraux jusqu’au Consulat. Mai 1789 – Novembre 1799 (Paris: Moniteur, 1841), volume 16, letter of June 14, 1793.

[5] Arthur Chuquet, Les Guerres de la Révolution, tome VI: L’Expédition de Custine (Paris: Librairie Plon, no publication year given), 49. Jean Louis baron Gay de Vernon, Mémoire sur les opérations militaires des généraux en chef Custine et Houchard, pendant les années 1792 et 1793 (Paris: Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, 1844), 48.

[6] Thomas Balch, Les Français en Amérique pendant la guerre de l’indépendance des Etats-Unis 1777 – 1783 (Paris: A. Sauton, 1872), 91.

[7] Claude Blanchard, Guerre d’Amérique 1780-1783, Journal de Campagne (Paris: Librairie Militaire de J. Dumaine, 1881), 18.

[8] Ibid., 30.

[9] Ibid., 21, 24.

[10] Evelyn M. Acomb, trans. and ed., The Revolutionary Journal of Baron Ludwig von Closen 1780-1783 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1958), 28.

[11] Robert Selig, “A German Soldier in America, 1780-1783: The Journal of Georg Daniel Flohr”, The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Vol. 50 No. 3 (July 1993), 579.

[12] Custine, as all other officers, was tasked to keep a diary. Blanchard, Guerre d’Amérique, 64. This diary is neither to be found in the military archives nor is it in family possession. The author discussed this topic with a descendant of Custine’s daughter, Michel comte de Dreux-Brézé.

[13] Selig, “A German Soldier in America,” 580. Georg Daniel Flohr, Reisen, Beschreibung von America welche das Hochlöbliche Regiment von Zweybrücken hat gemacht zu Wasser und zu Land vom Jahr 1780 bis 84. manuscript in Bibliothèque Municipale, Strasbourg, France

[14] François-Ignace Ervoil d’Oyré letters, The American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati, societyofthecincinnati.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16923coll3/search/searchterm/ervoil, letters of August 6 and August 11, 1780.

[15] Jacques de Trentinian, La France au secours de l’Amérique, Autopsie de l’Expédition particulière du comte de Rochambeau et du chevalier de Ternay, mars – décembre 1780 (Paris: Éditions SPM, 2016), 21, 126, 142, 163f., 173, 281.

[16] Michel de Dreux-Brézé, Les Dreux-Brézé (Paris: Édition Christian, 1994).

[17] “La Manufacture de Porcelaine de Niderviller,” Porcelaines de Niderviller (Sarrebourg: Musée du Pays de Sarrebourg, 1995), 913. Patrick Bichet and Henry Bourgon, La Faïencerie de Niderviller. Ses origines il y 250 ans, son histoire, ses modèles artistiques en faïence et en porcelaine (Sarrebourg: Société d’histoire et d’archéologie de Lorraine, Section de Sarrebourg, 2013).

[18] Henri Doniol, Histoire de la participation de la France à l’Établissement des États-Unis d’Amérique. Correspondance diplomatique et documents (Paris: Imprimérie Nationale,1886), 5:393. Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, DC: U. S. Government Print Office, 1931-1944), 20:357.

[19] The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008), letter, December 8, 1780 to General Lafayette.

[20] Writings of George Washington, 20:435.

[21] The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, ed. Barbara B. Oberg and J. Jefferson Looney (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda 2008).

[22] George Washington to Rochambeau, January 24, 1781, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-30-02-0226. Doniol, Histoire, 410.

[23] Doniol, Histoire, 411.

[24] Ervoil d’Oyré letters, February 1, April 3 and April 20, 1781.

[25] Paris et Versailles. Journal anecdotique de 1762 à 1789, publié par Céléstin Hippeau (Paris: Aug. Aubry Libraire, 1869), 184.

[26] Ervoil d’Oyré letters, June 8, 1781.

[27] “Séance du Conseil tenu à bord du vaisseau du Roi Le Neptune“ on June 8, 1781, Rochambeau Papers and Rochambeau Family Cartographic Archive. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University; Archives at Yale, GEN MSS 146, Series II, archives.yale.edu/repositories/11/archival_objects/202522. Doniol, Histoire, 484-486.

[28] Howard C. Rice, Jr. and Anne S.K. Brown trans. ed., The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army 1780 -1783 (Princeton: University Press, 1972), 2:26ff. “Mapping the Washington-Rochambeau Route,” Flintlock and Powderhorn. Magazine of the Sons of the Revolution Vol. 21 No. 1 (Spring 2003), 9. Louis-Alexandre Berthier, “Journal,” Rice and Brown, The American Campaigns, 1:221-282. Richard M. Ketchum, Victory at Yorktown. The Campaign that won the Revolution (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2004), 144.

[29] Ervoil d’Oyré letters, June 26, 1781; Balch, Les Français en Amérique pendant la guerre, 136.

[30] Amblard Marie, Vicomte de Noailles, Marins et soldats français en Amérique pendant la guerre de l’indépendance des États-Unis (Paris: Librairie académique Didier Perrin,1903), 234.

[31] Writings of George Washington, 23:118-119.

[32] Louis François, comte de Lauberdière, “Journal de l’armée, aux ordres de Monsieur le Comte de Rochambeau, pendant les Campagnes de 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783 dans l’amérique septentionale,” The Road to Yorktown, The French Campaigns in the American Revolution, 1780 – 1783, Norman Desmarais ed. (El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie, 2021), 151.

[33] Blanchard, Guerre d’Amérique, 94; Ketchum, Victory at Yorktown, 179.

[34] Doniol, Histoire, 578.

[35] Ervoil d’Oyré letters, October 13, 1781.

[36] Jerome A. Greene, The Guns of Independence. The Siege of Yorktown, 1781 (New York and Staplehurst: The History Press, 2005), 225.

[37] Ibid., 169f.

[38] Acomb, The Revolutionary Journal of Baron Ludwig von Closen, 149f. differently, Greene, The Guns of Independence, 239f and My Campaigns in America: a journal kept by Count William de Deux-Ponts, 1780-81 (Boston: J. K. Wiggin & W. P. Lunt, 1868), 67, 157.

[39] Rice and Brown, The American Campaigns, 1:142.

[40] Chuquet, Les Guerres de la Révolution, 6:35.

[41] The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition. Theodore Sizer, ed., The Autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), 152.

[42] Louis Kuchly, Les Custine ont-ils trahi?, les Custine, Seigneurs de Guermange, Sarreck, Niderviller, Sarraltroff et autres lieux (Sarrebourg: Société d’histoire et d’archéologie de Lorraine, 1989), 79 – 80.

[43] Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger, “Journal,” Rice and Brown, The American Campaigns, 1:151.

[44] “Diary of Jean-François Comte de Clermont-Crèvecoeur,” Rice and Brown, The American Campaigns, 1:64.

[45] Blanchard, Guerre d’Amérique, 105.

[46] Ervoil d’Oyré letters, November 5, 1781.

[47] Noailles, Marins et soldats français, 296ff.

[48] Acomb, The Revolutionary Journal of Baron Ludwig von Closen, 207f.

[49] Blanchard, Guerre d’Amérique, 110.

[50] Acomb, The Revolutionary Journal of Baron Ludwig von Closen, 214. Blanchard, Guerre d’Amérique, 111. The George Washington Collection. Fine and Decorative Arts at Mount Vernon (Manchester, VT: Hudson Hill Press, 2006), 89.

[51] Writings of George Washington, 24:485.

[52] George Washington Papers, Series 4: Adam P., Comte de Custine-Sarreck to George Washington. August 16, 1782.

[53] Adam Philippe Comte de Custine, Déclaration des droits du Citoyen François (Paris: n.p., August 1791).

[54] His son stayed on his side, only to be guillotined himself shortly after his father. His sister and his brother-in-law Albert Louis de Pouilly, also a general, were among the many nobles fleeing France. Pouilly and his sons fought on the side of the Prussian and Austrian allies against the revolutionary French army, losing all earthly possession but saving their lives. Radmila Slabáková, Le destin d’une famille noble émigrée d’origine française dans l’empire des Habsbourg et en Tchécoslovaquie de la fin du XVIIIe siècle aux années trente du XXe siècle : les Mensdorff-Pouilly (Grenoble: Université Pierre Mendès France, 1999).

[55] Acomb, The Revolutionary Journal of Baron Ludwig von Closen, 255f.

[56] Clermont-Clèvecourt, in: Rise / Brown, volume 1, 90.

[57] Acomb, The Revolutionary Journal of Baron Ludwig von Closen, 276-294. Berthier, “Journal,” 1:256-259. “Diary of Jean-François Comte de Clermont-Crèvecoeur,” 1:86-92.

[58] Ervoil d’Oyré letters, February 20, 1783.

[59] Verger, “Journal,” 1:180.

[60] On the short-lived attempt to introduce a republican system in Germany: Landtag von Rheinland-Pfalz (ed.), Die Mainzer Republik. Der Rheinisch-Deutsche Nationalkonvent (Mainz: von Hase & Koehler, 1993).

[61] Adam Custine, Aufruf an die gedrückte Menschheit in Deutschland im Namen der Franken-Republik (October 21, 1792), Geheimes Staatsarchiv, Berlin, I HA Rep. 63, Nr. 1597, S. 25. The five-page letter is seldomly quoted at all. Archives Nationales (Paris), W99.

[62] In 1786, Mirabeau, a major figure in French politics, described him as being “crazy,” “pompous” and “conceited.” Honoré-Gabriel Riquetti, comte de Mirabeau, Œuvres de Mirabeau, tome 8 (Paris: Lecointe et Pougin et Didier, Libraire, 1834), 340. Lafayette called Custine a “crosshead” but “incapable of treason.” On August 24, 1785 Custine was invited by the Prussian King Frederick II to a dinner with General Cornwallis. Lafayette learnt about the stories Custine had told about his contribution to the victory over Cornwallis, commenting that Custine “told some fables about the American War and, in particular, the campaign in Virginia.” But he wouldn’t “claim this territory” from Custine as “I have done it of Lord Cornwallis.” Marie Joseph du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, Mémoires, Correspondance et Manuscrits du général Lafayette (Paris: H. Fournier Ainé,1837), 4:342, 2:123f, 128f. Theodor West, Charactere der französischen Revolution und der Kaiserzeit (Berlin: Th. Bade, 1838), 71f.

[63] Thanks to my wife and family for their patience and to Małgorzata Lazarska for her language brush-up.

2 Comments

  • Washington, though generally happy about any republican movement, had great concerns about the French Revolution as we can see here:

    Writing to a correspondent in October 1789, newly elected US president George Washington gave his opinion of the French Revolution:

    “The revolution which has been effected in France is of so wonderful a nature that the mind can hardly recognise the fact. If it ends as our last accounts to August 1st predict, that nation will be the most powerful and happy in Europe.

    But I fear, though it has gone triumphantly through the first paroxysm [seizure], it is not the last it has to encounter before matters are finally settled. In a word, the revolution is of too great a magnitude to be effected in so short a space, and with the loss of so little blood.

    The mortification of the king, the intrigues of the queen and the discontent of the princes and nobles, will foment divisions in the National Assembly, and they will unquestionably avail themselves of every faux pas in the formation of the constitution, if they do not give a more open, active opposition.

    Great temperance, firmness, and foresight are necessary. To forbear [prevent] running from one extreme to another is no easy matter, and should this be the case… rocks and shelves [shoals], not visible at present, may wreck the vessel and give a higher-toned despotism than the one which existed before.
    George Washington.
    New York
    October 13th 1789.

    As usual, Washington was right and probably, if/when he learned of Custine’s execution, wished he could have been saved to live in safety in America. Whatever failures the man had, he did not deserve so wicked a fate at the hands of his countrymen.

  • You’re right: George Washington quickly became reluctant regarding the revolution in France.
    He was, of course, also informed about Adam Custine’ fate whom he remembers well.
    Washington well understood the difference between a republic built on the principle “All men are created equal” (even so it took some time for everybody to understand that this needs to include everybody) and a philosophy as developed by the Jacobins where a revolutionary elite defines what is right or wrong – paving the way for modern totalitarian ideologies like nazism or communism.
    Custine had understood this difference when he returned from America and he later spoke up for democratic reform in France.

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