By the autumn of 1794, most of the prisoners in the Conciergerie, a Parisian jail that housed enemies of the French Republic, had been released. Robespierre, the architect of the Reign of Terror that sent thousands to their deaths, had himself been executed the previous summer. His downfall led to the reevaluation of charges against aristocrats and peasants alike, most of whom were sent home.
Still, one prisoner, a Marshal of France highly decorated for his service to his country, remained. He was Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, better known as the Count de Rochambeau who alongside General George Washington had defeated the British at Yorktown thirteen years previously.
Born in Vendôme in 1725, Rochambeau began his military career in France's Army of the Rhine during the War of the Austrian Succession. His bravery soon brought him to the attention of King Louis XV who granted him a royal pension. Invited to stay at Versailles when he was not commanding troops in the field, Rochambeau preferred living with his family in Vendôme. Unlike many of his fellow aristocrats, Rochambeau was troubled by the excesses of the French court. His concerns for his country grew as he fought in Minorca and Germany during the Seven Years' War. He blamed the loss of Canada on the failure of the army and navy to coordinate their actions, a lesson that would guide him once he was appointed commander of the 4,000 man expeditionary force sent to defend the United States against Great Britain in 1780.
Refusing to fight the British until the French navy arrived on the Atlantic Coast, he camped with his troops in Rhode Island from July 1780 until August 1781. While Rochambeau respected Washington—whom he first met at a conference in Hartford, Connecticut in September 1780—he turned down his request to attack the British in New York City. Instead, when Admiral de Grasse's fleet finally appeared off Chesapeake Bay, Rochambeau convinced Washington to march their combined armies to Virginia where, with the assistance of the French navy, they could trap the British army under General Cornwallis.
Rochambeau's strategy helped lead to the American victory at Yorktown in October 1781. Returning to France in January 1783, he was appointed the Governor of Picardy and Artois. When the French Revolution broke out, he became the commander of the Armée du Nord, but resigned following several losses. Even though he supported the republic, he was accused of treason in April 1794 and imprisoned.
In the end, Rochambeau was only set free by recalling his service with General Washington. As he explained to prison officials, "I cannot believe in this era of equality a former aristocrat has no rights except to march to the scaffold before anybody else, and to be the last man to prove his innocence. Those are not the principles I learned from Washington, my colleague and my friend, when we were fighting side by side for American independence."1 Rochambeau was released in October 1794 and returned to Vendôme where he died in 1807.
Mary Stockwell, Ph.D.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.
Rochambeau, Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de. Mémoires Militaires, Historiques et Politiques, Two Volumes. Paris: Chez Fain, Imprimeur, Rue Ste-Hyacinthe, No. 25, 1809.
Whitridge, Arnold. Rochambeau. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1965.