Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau
|1 July 1725
|30 May 1807
Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau was a military officer who commanded the French expeditionary force sent in 1780 to assist in the United States’ rebellion against Great Britain. He commanded all French forces at the Siege of Yorktown and retired after fifty years of service as a Maréchal de France.
The future comte de Rochambeau was born in Vendôme 1725. He began his military career at the age of fifteen when he entered the French army as a cornet of cavalry. During the War of Austrian Succession, he served as an aide-de-camp to a series of prominent generals who mentored him throughout the war. At the age of twenty-two, Rochambeau received his commission as Colonel of Régiment de la Marche.
When the Seven Years’ War started, Régiment de la Marche was ordered to assist in the capture of British Minorca. Rochambeau’s actions in that campaign earned him a promotion to brigadier general. He spent the rest of the war campaigning in Germany. Rochambeau served as both a line officer directly in command of troops and a staff officer assisting more senior generals. He witnessed firsthand the disastrous effects that squabbling between senior officers could have on an army and its military effectiveness.
The Seven Years War was a disaster for France, and after the war King Louis XV appointed Rochambeau Inspector of Infantry, and tasked him with reforming the French army’s foot soldiers. Rochambeau aided in the development and implementation of numerous organizational and tactical reforms, including the adoption of light infantry tactics.
After Louis XVI declared war on Great Britain in support of the rebelling North American colonists, he ordered Rochambeau to command the lead elements of a southern England invasion. The operation was canceled in part because of weather and logistical challenges. Subsequently, Louis and his ministers sent Rochambeau and roughly 4,000 soldiers to North America to aid directly the members of the American Continental Army operating around New York City.
Rochambeau’s expeditionary force arrived at Newport, Rhode Island in July of 1780. Under the impression France would be sending additional troops and because the Continental Congress could not fund any offensive campaign in 1780, Rochambeau’s army remained in Newport for nearly a year. Rochambeau and Continental Army commander George Washington held a series of meetings throughout that winter discussing their plans for a major operation in 1781.
Rochambeau’s previous experience with toxic army politics made him uniquely suited to command a military force in an auxiliary role to an ally. By order of Louis XVI, Rochambeau was to serve as a subordinate to Washington, who while a capable general had significantly fewer years in uniform than Rochambeau. Prior Franco-American operations at Savannah, Georgia and Newport, Rhode Island in 1779 had gone poorly because the French and American commanders could not get along. With Washington and Rochambeau however, that friction never developed. Even when the two vigorously debated whether to attack New York City directly or striking at the British elsewhere, they worked through their differences admirably and respectfully.
By mid-summer of 1781, it became increasingly apparent to both Washington and Rochambeau that an attack New York City was impractical. By August, their soldiers were marching south to attempt the capture of a British force under the command of Charles Cornwallis near Yorktown, Virginia. Washington hosted Rochambeau at Mount Vernon on their way south, and the two armies assembled in Virginia by late September. The siege of Yorktown began on September 29 and ended on October 19.
Following the siege, Rochambeau kept his army in Virginia able to aid either Washington, who had returned north, or Nathanael Greene’s American forces operating in South Carolina. By the summer of 1782, French officials decided Rochambeau’s force was no longer needed on the North American continent. Rochambeau returned home to France, while the French government sent his former soldiers to the Caribbean in preparation for an invasion of British Jamaica.
After the American Revolution, Louis XVI appointed Rochambeau a Maréchal de France. That promotion proved problematic for Rochambeau when the monarchy fell during the French Revolution. Despite years of loyal service to the Republic, he was imprisoned and investigated by the revolutionaries. Unlike many, Rochambeau managed to avoid the guillotine and was eventually freed. He lived out his retirement in his beloved Vendôme, never returning to active military service.
Joseph F. Stoltz III
George Washington's Mount Vernon
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Whitridge, Arnold. Rochambeau: America's Neglected Founding Father. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1965.