Jean-François de Clermont Crevecoeur
Professional Soldier Fighting for American Independence by order of the King
Jean-François Louis de Clermont Crevecoeur represents the typical French officer who was involved in the American Revolution. Unlike the more famous Marquis de Lafayette, who genuinely believed in the ideals and goals of the American Revolution, the Comte de Clermont Crevecoeur possessed no love for liberty or colonial independence. This lack of enthusiasm for the American cause was typical among some of the French participants in the Revolutionary war. When King Louis XVI of France agreed to enter the conflict on the side of the United States in 1778, he did not do so because he wished to join in an American struggle for freedom. The French king’s decision lay in the century-long struggle between France and Great Britain for global supremacy. This conflict had taken a decisive turn with the French defeat in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which caused France to lose its colonial possessions in North America. After the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, King Louis XVI could no longer pass up the opportunity to strip Great Britain of its North American colonies. Thus, the French king supported the American cause to cripple his imperial rival, and the majority of the French officers in America fought against the British for the king’s reasons, not Lafayette’s.
Born on January 10, 1752 in the Chateau de Vaudeville in Lorraine, France, Jean-François Louis came from a wealthy family steeped in the traditions of provincial aristocracy and military duty. However, the union of Lorraine to the French kingdom in 1766 placed the Clermont Crevecoeur family in a difficult financial situation. At the age of fourteen, Jean-François entered the lowest branch of the army as a candidate for the Royal Artillery School at Metz. In June 1769, at the age of seventeen, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Auxonne Regiment stationed at Metz, in which he continued to serve until April 1791. In 1780, Jean-François was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant, and his regiment was assigned to the army of the Comte de Rochambeau, who was to be the commander of the French land forces in North America. In May 1780, at the age of twenty-eight, Jean-François boarded a ship in the French fleet bound for Newport, Rhode Island.
When his ship reached the American coast on July 6, 1780, the French fleet spotted two British frigates. The French pursued the British ships, but were not able to catch them. Jean François later discovered “that the [British] fleet we sighted consisted of transports . . . bringing 2,800 troops back to New York from the Siege of Charleston.” The other officers shared his opinion that it was “a pity we missed such a chance!” By July 13, he entered the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island, and when he reached the town was “astonished to find hardly a soul.” Thanks to the war “the shops were closed” and surprisingly, the arrival of the French army initially “inspired the greatest terror in” the local residents. Fortunately “everything turned out for the best” after the Comte de Rochambeau’s assurances alleviated the New Englanders’ traditional fear of the French.
Despite his aristocratic background, Jean-François displayed a remarkable degree of appreciation for American manners, architecture, and customs. He found American women to be “very pale” and “quite precocious.” Although he observed that an American “girl of twenty here would pass for thirty in France,” he continued that “it must be admitted . . they have charming figures, and in general one can say they are pretty, even beautiful, in the regularity of their features and in what one can imagine to be a woman’s loveliest attribute.” Throughout his service in America Jean-François continued to scrutinize American life, frequently returning to the subject of American women.
His tolerance for and fascination with American culture notwithstanding, Jean-François’s aristocratic pretensions did alienate him from actual Americans. He felt more comfortable with the English, readily identifying with the latter’s “good upbringing and courtesy.” His personal political sympathies are also clear from his comment that “you never saw a French officer with an American. Although we were on good enough terms, we did not live together.” He believed this was “fortunate . . . [because] Their character being so different from ours, we should inevitably have quarreled.” It seems possible that if his native Lorraine had not united with France in 1766, Jean-François might have decided to come to America to fight for the British.
After marching through New England, Jean-François’s Auxonne Regiment joined General George Washington’s Continental Army at Bedford, Connecticut in July 1781. In August and September 1781, the army marched south to Baltimore and then to Annapolis on their way to trap Lord Conrwallis and his British force at Yorktown, Virginia. There Jean-François boarded a ship and was transported to Jamestown, Virginia. He spent two days in Williamsburg, which he found to be “not particularly pretty and consists of a single long street at either end of which are very handsome buildings . . . the streets are not paved and are very rough.” He reached Yorktown on September 28, 1781, and complained that “the heat that day was incomparably worse than anything we had previously endured.”
As an artillery officer, Jean-François participated in the shelling of the British positions in the town. The Americans finished placing their artillery before the French, who lacked “vehicles and horses to pull our guns and ammunition.” When the Americans finished setting up, the French borrowed the American horses, and had their guns in place by October 9, 1781. Jean-François’s battery “not being quite finished by the 9th, did not open fire until the 10th.” It was his turn “to go on twenty-four hour duty” on that initial day, and he “maintained a barrage that never let up for an instant.” Within a matter of days the British guns and the French and American guns traded continuous artillery bombardments. Jean-François commented that October 13 “was spent in cannonading and firing bombs at each other in such profusion that we’did one another much damage.” It seemed to him that the British had “been saving up their ammunition for the second parallel” where Jean-François had positioned his guns. The British artillery on this night “was of very small caliber and very effective, being fired at short range.” As a result, Jean-François lost six men and 28 more were wounded.
On October 14, Jean-Frangois’s guns trained on British Redoubts No. 9 and 10. The latter fell to a force of four hundred Americans armed with fixed bayonets and commanded by Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette. The former fell to a force of four hundred French grenadiers and chasseurs armed with fixed bayonets, and commanded by the Comte Guillaume de Deux-Ponts and the Baron de Viomenil. Jean-François detached two 4-pounders from their placements, and took “up a post between the two redoubts to support the battalion of grenadiers and chasseurs.” The capture of the redoubts proved decisive to the battle, and General Lord Cornwallis sued for peace on October 18, 1781.
After the Battle of Yorktown, Jean-François was promoted to the rank of First Captain. He returned to France where in 1786 he was promoted again. During the French Revolution, he displayed his aristocratic political leanings by siding with the nobility and clergy against the armies of the revolutionaries. In 1792, he resigned his military commission and became an émigré officer in various European armies which fought against Napoleon. Once Napoleon had conquered most of Europe and established his Continental System, Jean-François retired from active military duty in 1809 at the age of fifty-seven. He moved to England, one of two European countries not conquered by Napoleon (the other choice would have been Russia which he found unacceptable), and remained there until the restoration of the French monarchy under King. Louis XVIII in 1815. Jean-François returned to France, and lived there until his death in 1824 at the age of seventy-three.
Primary Source Documents: Jean-François de Clermont Crevecoeur
The following passages are taken from Howard C. Rice, Jr. and Anne S.K. Brown, eds., The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783: Volume 1, The Journals of Clermont-Crevecoeur, Verger, and Berthier (Brown University Press, Providence, R.I., and Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1972).
Crevecoeur’s comments on American customs, attitudes, and women:
[October 1780]. . . The American manner of living is worthy of mention. Their favorite drink seems to be tea, which is ordinarily served from four to five in the afternoon. The mistress of the house does the honors. She serves it to everyone present, and it is even rude to refuse it. Generally the tea is very strong, and they put a single drop of milk in it. They also drink very weak coffee, weakening it still further with the little drop of milk. They drink chocolate in the same manner. In the morning they breakfast on coffee, chocolate, and slices of toast with butter. They also serve cheese, jam, pickles, and sometimes fried meat. It should be remarked that those least well off always drink coffee or tea in the morning and would, I believe, sell their last shirt to procure it. . .
. . . The Americans are tall and well built, but most of them look as though they had grown while convalescing from an illness. (There are some, however, who are big and fat, but not very vigorous.) The Americans do not live long; generally one notices that they live to be sixty or seventy, and the latter are rare. There are, however, men and women here of eighty, but it is exceedingly uncommon for them to reach that age . . .
. . . The women are also very pale and seem frail. They are quite precocious. A girl of twenty here would pass for thirty in France. It must be admitted, though, that nowhere have I seen a more beautiful strain. As I have said, the women have very little color, but nothing,can compare with the whiteness and texture of their skin. They have charming figures, and in general one can say they are pretty, even beautiful, in the regularity of their features and in what one can imagine to be a woman’s loveliest attribute . . .
. . . The English had made the French seem odious to the Americans by their remarks about us. According to them, we were the meanest and most abominable people on earth. They had carried their insolence to the point of saying that we were dwarfs, pale, ugly specimens who lived exclusively on frogs and snails–and a hundred other such stupidities. . .
On the way to the Battle of Yorktown, 1781:
12 September (10 miles) From . . . Tavern to Baltimore. The roads were better. On the way we crossed three small shallow rivers, one of which had a very fine wooden bridge. We could not see the city until we were practically there. It looks quite pleasant, being large and well built and perfectly situated for commerce at one the upper branches of the Chesapeake Bay. Frigates can come up to the wharves. The streets are perfectly straight and have sidewalks, as in Philadelphia, but are not yet paved. It is one of the prettiest cities in America and is still only at the beginning of its growth. Many Dutch and German[s] live here. There is a French quarter where some Canadians live, but they have not prospered . . .
19 September (19 miles) Annapolis is a small town that is quite well built. It is situated on the Chesapeake Bay. The streets are not paved, nor as wide as in Baltimore. There are several fine houses here. The State House of the province is the most beautiful of any in America. . .
20-25 September (250 miles, by sea) From Annapolis to Jamestown, Virginia. On the afternoon of the 20th we embarked the artillery, and on the morning of the 21st all the troops came aboard. All the army baggage, the horses, and vehicles proceeded by land . . .
26 September (6 miles) To Williamsburg . . . Williamsburg is situated on a charming plain between two creeks that flow into the James and York rivers. The town itself is not particularly pretty and consists of a single long street at either end of which are very handsome buildings. . . The streets are not paved and are very rough . . . In peacetime Williamsburg was an important commercial center, but the war has ruined most of its inhabitants.
At the Battle of Yorktown, 1781:
28 September (12 miles) From Williamsburg we went to camp in front of York[town]. The combined armies of France and America left at four in the morning in a single column . . . The heat that day was incomparably worse than anything we had previously endured.
6 October We opened the trench, and the next day we built batteries. The one on the left was heavily shelled. The Chevalier de La Loge, who had his leg shot off there, died three days later. He was a lieutenant in our battalion.
9 October Because of the threatening moves made by the 26-gun enemy frigate Guadeloupe, the General sent an order to the left-hand battery, composed of four 12-pounders, two 24-pounders, six 6-inch howitzers, and a mortar, to shell the frigate and also the 50-gun Charon. The frigate retired in time, but the Charon was set afire by hot shot and burnt. . .
10 October My battery, not being quite finished by the 9th, did not open fire until the 10th. That day it was my turn to go on twenty-four hour duty, and I maintained a barrage that never let up for an instant.
13 October The day was spent in cannonading and firing bombs at each other in such profusion that we did one another much damage. The enemy seemed to have been saving up their ammunition for the second parallel. It was of very small caliber and very effective, being fired at short range. That night we had 6 men killed and 28 wounded.
14-15 October We directed most of our fire towards the two redoubts that we intended to attack. That night at eight o’clock 400 Americans, commanded by the Marquis de La Fayette, marched on the redoubt [British No. 10] nearest the river and captured it. At the same moment 400 grenadiers and chasseurs of the Deux-Ponts and Gatinais regiments, under the command of the baron de Viomenil, whose second in command was Comte Guillaume de Deux-Ponts, attacked the left-hand redoubt [British No. 9] and captured it at bayonet point. I was detached that day with two 4-pounders to take up a post between the two redoubts to support the battalion of grenadiers and chasseurs in case of resistance.
18-19 October 1781 The Articles of Capitulation were discussed and formulated. They were signed on the 19th, whereupon at one in the afternoon we took possession of the enemy’s works.
After the Battle, 1781:
. . . After the siege the excessive fatigues the army had been subjected to, as well as the bad food, caused a great deal of illness among the troops. We were short of nearly everything. Many officers also paid their toll in the form of serious illness. We lost many from bloody flux.
The English suffered no less than we. The large number of negroes they had requisitioned as laborers spread the plague in town. These miserable creatures could be found in every corner, either dead or dying. No one took the time to bury them, so you can imagine the infection this must have engendered. . .
. . The English and French got on famously with one another. When the Americans expressed their displeasure on this subject, we replied that good upbringing and courtesy bind men together and that, since we had reason to believe that the Americans did not like us, they should not be surprised at our preference. Actually you never saw a French officer with an American. Although we were on good enough terms, we did not live together. This was, I believe, most fortunate for us. Their character being so different from ours, we should inevitably have quarreled. . .
For Further Reading:
Stephen Bonsal, When the French Were Here (1945).
Howard C. Rice & Anne S.K. Brown, The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army (1972).
Lee Kennett, The French Forces in America, 1780-1783 (1977).
Samuel Scott, From Yorktown to Valmy: The Transformation of the French Army in an Age of