Her Encounter with Rochambeau Created Scandal in Williamsburg
The standard history of any war includes stories of armies, battles, and military conquests. There are other stories familiar to all wars, however, which are often undocumented and usually forgotten. These are not the stories of soldiers in battle, but those of soldiers and women. The Revolutionary War was in this respect no different from any other military conflict. Wherever the British, German, or French armies marched, they invariably met and frequently interacted with American women. During the 1780s, one such encounter between Rachel Warrington and Donatien Marie Joseph de Vimeur [the Vicomte de Rochambeau] became a major scandal among the gentry of Williamsburg and Yorktown, Virginia. Not only was the Vicomte the son of the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French army in North America, but the affair led to the birth of a baby boy named Lewis. Rachel hoped, and even expected the Vicomte would marry her and take care of their son. As was so often the case in these stories, however, the Vicomte left Rachel and Lewis, and never returned to America. Thus, Lewis Warrington, the illegitimate, forgotten son of a French aristocrat, became the lasting legacy of one of the American Revolution’s other stories.
Like many other children in colonial America, Rachel Warrington and her younger sister Camilla were orphaned at a very early age and raised by relatives. Born on January 20, 1753, Rachel spent her childhood in Yorktown with her aunt and uncle, Dr. George and Suzannah Riddell. By the time of the Revolutionary War, Camilla had grown into a beautiful young woman, “pretty enough to have been a belle” and “with that sort of wit which delights in sharp repartee.” She lacked a dowry, but her other qualities combined with her youth and her social connections to the Riddells made Camilla a reasonably attractive prospect for a good marriage. Dr. George Riddell recognized that and made provision in his will to give Camilla £1,500 upon his death, whereas the elder Rachel would receive only £1,000. Rachel had few of the qualities possessed by her sister. By the time of Dr. Riddell’s death in 1779, Rachel was already twenty-six years old and not yet married. The average Virginia-born woman of Rachel’s social class was usually married by her early twenties. Unlike her sister, Rachel had “no pretensions to beauty or wit,” and thus her aunt hoped that “good humour & notability would amply supply the deficiencies.”
After George Riddell died, Rachel and Camilla moved with Suzannah Riddell into a house on Palace Green in Williamsburg. (Suzannah Riddell’s house was later known as the Brush-Everard House.) Here Rachel and Camilla interacted with the highest levels of Virginia society and could claim St. George Tucker, Francis Bland Randolph Tucker, George Wythe and Governor Thomas Jefferson as their immediate neighibors. Unfortunately, much of Williamsburg’s gentry did not accept the Warringtons as part of their ruling class. Betsey Ambler, the daughter of a member of Governor Jefferson’s Council, commented that she “had little patience with either” Rachel or Camilla. Betsey’s friend Mildred Smith, daughter of a substantial landholder, complained that Rachel had “more bewitching talents for seducing a guileless heart then any human being I have ever known.” After the arrival in. 1781 of French troops under the Comte de Rochambeau, the behavior of the Warrington sisters, or at least the attention paid to them by French officers, provided Mildred Smith with further consternation. She protested that “their late conduct [h]as been So extraordinary that all eyes are fixed upon them,” for, since the arrival of the French, “their heads seemed turnd.”
After the defeat of Cornwallis’s army in October 1781, most of the French officers were actually quartered in Williamsburg where Rachel and the Vicomte became intimate during the winter of 1781-1782. In November 1782 Rachel gave birth to their illegitimate son, Lewis. Rachel hoped that the Vicomte would marry her, but on January 8, 1783, he left her and his three-month old son for France aboard the L’Emeraude, never to return to the United States. For the next four years, Rachel continued to hope that the Vicomte would return, and her plight became a major scandal. Her sister Camilla was mortified, fearing that her connection to Rachel would spoil her own chances of making a good marriage. Rachel’s indiscretion became the subject of severe criticism from Betsey Ambler and Mildred Smith. The latter congratulated Betsey on “being removed from” Rachel, as “she is indeed lost to every thing that is dear to Woman.” Mildred placed little responsibility with the Vicomte, arguing that had Rachel “kept in View the dignity of her Sex,” the situation would probably have been averted.
Rachel did find comfort with others. Suzannah Riddell “embraced” Lewis “with great tenderness” and upon her death in 1785 bequeathed to him a considerable inheritance. Aunt Suzannah’s nephew, Mr. Phillips, used his connections at the French court to encourage the Vicomte “to return, and perform his promise of marriage.” Unfortunately, the Vicomte “seemed rather to avoid every thing that led to the subject.” Even Betsey Ambler and Mildred Smith softened their reprimand with regard to Rachel’s son. To all who knew him, Lewis proved an engaging, wonderful child. Betsey commented that his “eyes certainly are the finest” she ever saw, and that “his playful vivacity” was a “delight [to] all who behold him.” Mildred admitted that “by and by . . . he is a lovely fellow.” Finally, in December 1786, after four years of waiting, Rachel lost hope that the Vicomte would return and married Richard Brown, a middling farmer from York County.
Unlike many French aristocrats, the Vicomte de Rochambeau survived the French Revolution. Upon the death of his father in 1807, the Vicomte succeeded to his father’s title as the Comte de Rochambeau. He served in Napoleon’s army and died at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. According to Warrington family legend, he proposed to recognize his paternity of Rachel’s child after Lewis won distinction in the War of 1812. Lewis allegedly rejected the offer, claiming that he would never accept the man who dishonored his mother. However, as Lewis did not gain military distinction until after 1813, such an exchange seems improbable.
Lewis Warrington enjoyed a distinguished career in the U.S. Navy. Perhaps the “dishonor” which befell his mother inspired the young Lewis to prove his own virtue and quality. As commander of the sloop Peacock, he forced the surrender of the British brig Epervier off Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 29, 1814. While in the Indian Ocean in the summer of 1815, Lewis’s Peacock captured four British Indiamen (large merchant vessels) as well as the British brig Nautilus on June 30, 1815. To recognize his victories, the U.S. Congress awarded Lewis a “gold medal,” and the Commonwealth of Virginia voted him a “presentation sword,” the highest military awards before the creation of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Unlike the Vicomte, Rachel Warrington lived to rejoice in her son’s war triumphs. After Rachel’s death about 1815, Lewis divided his inheritance from Suzannah Riddell with his stepsisters as a show of love and devotion to his mother’s memory. Following the war, the dashing and handsome Lewis steadily rose up the Navy ranks. In 1822, Commodore Lewis Warrington commanded the West India Squadron and its campaign against the pirates of the Caribbean. By 1826, Lewis had defeated the pirates, and for the first time in three centuries ships sailed the West Indies without fear. During the 1830s, he commanded the strategic Norfolk Navy Yard, and in 1844 he served briefly as the secretary of the navy. No longer simply the forgotten, illegitimate son of a French aristocrat, Lewis Warrington died an American hero in 1851.
Primary Source Documents: Rachel Warrington
The following letters are taken from the Ambler Family Papers, located at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation thanks Mr. Sheperd F. Lewis for permission to include a selection of the Ambler correspondence.
Mildred Smith and Betsey Ambler were both daughters of respected and wealthy men in York County and Williamsburg, Virginia. They were childhood friends, and continued this friendship into their adult lives. They were also well acquainted with Rachel Warrington’s story, which became a major topic of interest in their correspondence. Remember as you read these letters that Mildred and Betsey were members of Virginia’s gentry, or upper class. To them, making a “good marriage” and cultivating proper social connections were critical to personal success. At first, they considered the Warringtons to be their social inferiors; later they considered Rachel to be a social liability. Betsey even comments in a letter of 1786 (reprinted below) that “I had little patience with either” Rachel or Camilla Warrington. Their disapproving opinions of the Warringtons certainly prejudiced their observations, and thus many of their criticisms and descriptions are often exaggerated.
Mildred Smith to Betsey Ambler, 1781 (Letter No. 1)
. . . May I tell you dearest [girl] without offense, that the influence of Rachel over you had become so powerful th[at] I began to fear the effects of her example; not that I could for a moment suspect [a well] bred girl of practising indiscretions such as hers, but to one of your artless u[nsuspi]cious temper, admiring her as you have always done, and flattered by her attentions, without ever once suspecting her of making an improper use of your credulity; I [do] not, but beleive that your removal is fortunate; as at a distance you will have [it] more in your power to estimate her character truly, and continue to love her without . . . her enchanting conversation, certainly she has more bewitching talents for seducing a guileless heart then any human being I have ever known. . .
She is much to be pitied; when we reflect upon the disadvantages both herself and [sister] labored under, in being deprived of parents at least of a Mother, [at a] very early age . . . fain would I cast a veil over their frivolities but really their late conduct [h]as been So extraordinary that all eyes are fixed upon them — You well know what it was, with our own Officers but since the arrival of [the ships] Le Fendeu and le Fier Roderique commanded by the Viscount and [the] Cap[tai]n their heads seemed turnd . . . there is something so flattering in the [att]entions of these elegant french officers, and tho’ not one in them of them can speak a word of English, Yet their style of entertaining and their devotion to the Ladies of Yk. [Yorktown] is so flattering that almost any girl of 16 would be enchanted . . .
Mildred Smith to Betsey Ambler, 1782 (Letter No. 4)
. . . you were of opinion that I was sometimes inclined to severity as to my strictures on Female Conduct particularly with regard to your old Friend [Rachel] yet the event has proved that I was right in congratul[at]ing you upon your good fortune in being removed from her infatuating power over you — she is — Oh shall I repeat, she is indeed lost to every thing that is dear to Woman — well might you say “how I hate the French” — but why blame the Viscount. had she but kept in View the dignity of her Sex — or had she poor [soul]- been blest with a mothers care in early life and been taught the heinousness of such a departure from Female rectitude all might have been well.
“When lovely Woman stoops to folly:
And finds too late that men betray –
What Charm can soothe her melancholy
What tears can wash her guilt away.”
Poor deluded girl. I have never been to Wmsg [Williamsburg] since [the] unfortunate affair had been public nor should I know how to visit her, but yet it would give me pleasure to soothe her mind and I earnestly Entreat that if you should make me this promised Visit not to neglect to see her as you pass thro’ Town — her Sisters Mortification is beyond description. let any one of us bring such an event to our own mind and realize [Camilla Warrington’s] feelings. what would become of us. it appears to me that distraction would be the [consequence] — the poor old Lady [Suzannah Riddell] who has been inexorable, begins now to relent and has been frequently to her chamber and indeed when she imagined no one observed her embraced the child [Lewis Warrington] with great tenderness — by the by we understand that he is a lovely little fellow — (and are not children of this description always so) you will see how he will steal into the old Ladies affections by and by. I should wish the affair to remain secret except in your family, if only heard through me, for to promulgate so painful a disgrace would occasion me great disqueitude . . .
Betsey Ambler to Mildred Smith, 10 January 1786 (Letter No. 7)
. . . Mortified & chagrined as poor Mrs. Riddle was at the conduct of her eldest ward Rachel: still was she ever on her guard lest something should escape her that might wound the feeling of that poor deluded girl, and Oh her agony was [indescribable] whenever the sweet unoffending babe was brought into her presence, sometimes with her eyes shut she would kiss him, then send him away, and in a moment order that he might be brought back again; never did I see a greater conflict than hers in endeavoring to perform her duty and at the same time to preserve,that dignity of character which so highly distinguished her — poor Lady often did she excite my tenderest sympathy . . . weeping would she exclaim Oh that these girls that I have reared with so much care would have spared me the torture I now endure — Rachel lost & undone forever, –and tho Camilla has not departed from [the] path of honor as her sister has — Yet is her conduct far from being dutiful and affectionate, then in a transport of hysterics she would cry but poor thing her sisters disgrace no doubt has soured her temper and time alone can reconcile her to the shock. thus would the good Lady extenuate the faults of her younger ward, and entreat me to be indulgent to them both. but I had little patience with either. and would often remonstrate with the younger and implore her to show more kindness to her sister, and tenderness to her patron, reminding her of what she had done for them in their orphan helplessness, how she had performed a parents duty to them, and what she wou[ld] still do for them if they were not wanting in duty and affection. but Camilla was not of a temper to bear reproof, and there was another cause of irritation greater than her sisters disgrace. — The nephew of Mrs: [Riddell]; Mr. [Phillips] with his wife, a very lovely woman had arrived from England on a special visit was too well understood by Camilla (who considered them too dangerous rivals) to allow her to treat them with tolerable civility– and the continual altercations between them rendered the whole family quite uncomfortable; Often and often did I wish myself at home where days pass surrounded with tender relatives, and not a word is uttered that can excite a sarcastic retort. Not so were this family — made up of different tempers, different countrys, different pursuits — but all looking foward to one prospect, the division of the dear old Ladies wealth, tho in my opinion pursuing the very conduct to lessen their pretension. . .
. . . Miss Camilla the indulged pet of her Patron; grown up in the lap of indulgence pretty enough to have been a belle; with that sort of wit which delights in sharp repartee, and which serves only to make every one afraid of her, not even excepting her poor easy husband; who married her for no earthly reason, but because she had been admired for that very wit which he was daily smarting under — an amiable man he truly was . . . in the back ground of the group stood ,our lost friend [Rachel], She having no pretensions to beauty or wit had grown up unnoticed, by all, except her amiable and respected friend & Patron who fondly hoped that her good humour & notability would amply supply the deficiencies; alas what are these qualitys or any other; without that precious virtue: discretion, which once dispensed with leaves woman a prey to every trifling seducer & this was the case with poor [Rachel] who was not proof against the deep laid plans of the [Viscount Rochambeau] by even at the time I speak of her credulity was imposed upon by A hope that the [Viscount], would return and make an honorable woman of her; & [Mr. Phillips] would encourage her; assuring her that when he returned to England — he would use his interest with his friend on the Continent who was connected with the Court — who was the [connection] of the [Viscount], to return, and perform his promise of marriage. The Sarcastic observations those ridiculous promises would provoke Camilla . . . and to this moment Camilla retains the same vindictive spirit. . .
For Further Reading:
Catherine Kerrison, “By the Book: Eliza Ambler Brent Carrington and Conduct Literature in Late Eighteenth-Century Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 105 (1997).
Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (1980).
Linda Grant De Pauw and Conover Hunt, Remember the Ladies: Women in America, 1750-1815 (1976).