If ever a man lived up to his family motto, the comte de Rochambeau was that man: “To Live and Die as a Gallant Knight.” In providential parlance, Rochambeau was the right man in the right spot at the right time, to enable the United States to win independence from Great Britain. Without his leadership, sense of protocol, experience and commitment to duty, General George Washington’s final campaign would likely have come to naught, with fatal consequences to the new Republic.
Rochambeau came into the world in Vendom, France, third son of an “ancient and honorable family.” He followed the prescribed career path of a dutiful lesser son through education by Jesuits for the church. When his elder brother died, Rochambeau’s calling changed to military service in an era which featured serial wars between France and England. In the eight year War of Austrian Secession (“King George’s War,” in America) Rochambeau commanded a Cavalry Regiment in several campaigns and was promoted to Colonel at the age of twenty two. As A.D.C. of the Duke of Orleans, he learned the ins and outs of staff work and took active parts in several more campaigns, being severely wounded several times. His promotion to Brigadier General affirmed his courage and tactical skills, his appointment as Governor, his political ones.
By 1780 Rochambeau was on the short list of Frances’ greatest generals when he accepted the command of the French expeditionary force of 7,000 infantry, cavalry and artillery sent to assist George Washington in the American War against Great Britain. His accomplished diplomatic skills (though he knew no English), personal wealth, military experience, and reputation for courage and hard-hitting combat record (attested to by his limp and many scars), made him the ideal leader alongside Washington. Rochambeau could have stood on his laurels and demanded General Washington’s compliance and deferential recognition, but he always deferred to the American commander, with respect.
He very delicately disapproved of Lafayette as liaison, and had to bear patiently the failures of his own nations’ provisioning and failure to send all the troops promised. He chafed not a bit when he saw the ragged Continental troops with whom he was allied. Calm and patient till needed, then swift and resourceful when called upon, characterized the comte de Rochambeau in America. After General Washington paraded the armies through Philadelphia in the Yorktown Campaign, the Pennsylvania Line threatened to remain behind unless paid. Rochambeau gallantly wrote a cheque (as it were) for $20,000 to Robert Morris, to cover the expenses and keep the army together.
At Yorktown the great Rochambeau showed what he was made of by expertly positioning his troops, absorbing casualties from the siege and keeping up an unwavering line on the left flank of the Allied siege works. When the British finally capitulated, General O’Hara, substituting for Lord Cornwallis, tried to present his sword to Rochambeau, who swiftly indicated George Washington as commander in chief, to whom such gifts should be made. For two great generals working together on the field of battle, neither of whom spoke the other’s language, a more perfectly choreographed and victorious partnership could hardly be imagined.
Rochambeau returned to France, much celebrated. He continued to command French armies against all her enemies, which was just about everyone, narrowly escaped execution in the “reign of terror,” and retired with all the honors such a general deserved. His service in the United States was indispensable to the creation of the Republic.