When le Comte Rochambeau and his 6,000 men sailed into Newport Harbor on the afternoon of July 11, 1780, they expected to be met by a welcoming committee of dignitaries, cheering crowds perhaps, or cannon salutes, speeches, a parade.
They had, after all, endured hardship at sea to rescue the struggling Continental Army. More than a thousand of them were sick.
The French men and officers wore brilliant ceremonial uniforms as they stood on the decks of the ships in the flotilla. Gen. Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, le comte Rochambeau, was resplendent in navy blue jacket trimmed with gold braid, a red vest and matching breeches with above-the-knee black leather boots and spotless white gloves. He boarded a small sloop piloted by an American and probably stood at attention as the vessel sailed toward shore.
There were no dignitaries, only a few ordinary Newporters trying to sell them cherries and apples. Most of the rest of the town was hiding behind closed shutters and locked doors, though it was still afternoon.
French officers expressed disappointment at the cold reception from the people they came to help.
There were reasons for it, not least of which was the French and Indian Wars that pitted Americans against the French.
Then there was the unfortunate failure in 1778 of French Admiral D’Estaing and his 4,000 men. They had arrived to drive the British from occupied Newport, but abandoned the invasion amidst rumors and storms.
The British propagandized against the French as unreliable, Catholic, pale ugly dwarves who lived on snails and frogs. Loyalists in Newport spread rumors that the French were coming to take their land and their liberties.
It was only recently that the British army had evacuated Newport. Many Newporters had fled the occupation, while the British commandeered their houses, stole food from those who remained, looted property and chopped down every tree but one for firewood. The townspeople suffered disease and starvation during the harsh winters of military rule. By the time Rochambeau arrived, they were depressed and apathetic.
Washington had qualms about French ground forces in the United States. He had fought in the French and Indian wars, and he knew well of American attitudes toward Catholics. He had tried to quell anti-Catholic sentiment by banning Pope Night in Boston in 1775.
By the summer of 1779, Washington’s attitude began to change. The Continental Army’s position was deteriorating. He met with a French minister in West Point and told him the Americans would welcome French military aid. He sent a letter to Lafayette with the same message.
Things got worse for the American cause that winter. The Continental Army’s morale plummeted during the wretched winter of 1779-80 at their winter quarters in Morristown, N.J.
Rochambeau Makes Nice
As soon as he arrived in July 1780, Rochambeau reassured the few Newport residents he met that the French came to help, not to rule. He said they would pay for everything in silver, not in the worthless Continental currency. He told them the French would not treat them as the British had.
Rochambeau saw that many houses in Newport had been trashed or torn down by the British troops. He offered to pay to have them rebuilt if his men could live in them during their stay. By doing so, he gave Newport tradesmen much-needed work and avoided building barracks, which would have been more expensive.
On the night Rochambeau arrived, the American commander of the Rhode Island Militia, Gen. William Heath, showed up just in time to invite him to his home as his honored guest. The next day, the Americans started to make things right. Boxes of candles were distributed to the Newporters who wanted them, and the town was illuminated on July 13 and 14 to honor the French. A parade was held, fireworks set off in front of the Statehouse and a bell rung past midnight.
Rochambeau later traveled to Wethersfield, Conn., to plan strategy with Washington.
Fifteen months after Rochambeau arrived in Newport, the British surrendered at Yorktown.
This story was updated in 2021.