French Encampment in Newport: July 11th - November 1st, 1780
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Dr. Robert Selig & W3R- US
The French arrived in Newport in July of 1780. Most of the forces wintered in Newport except the Lauzun Legion which camped in Connecticut. Rochambeau was very skillful in handling his troops, and the Americans began to appreciate their presence. Where the British had demolished defenses, the French engineers worked on rebuilding them. Major General William Heath’s diary for September of 1780 notes that “The batteries were strengthened, a very strong one erected on Rose-Island, and redoubts on Coaster’s-Island: the strong works on Butt’s-Hill (were) pushed.” A few days later he would remark: “The French army continued very busy in fortifying Rhode-Island: some of their works were exceedingly strong and mounted with heavy metal.” We know from orderly books (daily records) that the American militiamen were aiding the French masons as they enlarged and fortified Butts Hill Fort.
On March 6, 1781, three months before the French army departed from Newport, General Washington visited Count de Rochambeau to consult with him concerning the operation of the troops under his command. Washington was hoping to encourage Rochambeau to join in an attack on New York City.
To this must be added around 490 officers and a number of domestics for a total of around 6,000 me. Admiral de Ternay’s fleet numbered over 6,000 sailors and marines for a total of around 12,000 arrivals.
Newport, run down and impoverished after years of British occupation, was overwhelmed by the new arrivals. Incapable of feeding itself, foodstuffs, firewood and other necessities of life had to be purchased and transported to the city at the expense of France.
In June 1782, there were fewer people living in Newport than troops that had disembarked with Rochambeau:
The total population of Newport in 1782 incl. free and enslaved African-Americans was 5,532.
A 1774 census showed Providence with 4,321 inhabitants in 655 families living in approx. 370 dwellings, still fewer people than there were soldiers in Rochambeau’s army. The total population of Rhode Island was a little over 60,000.
The troops had arrived too late to conduct a military campaign in 1780 and many of the men, afflicted with scurvy and other diseases, were too sick to embark on any campaign. “The camp ran from east to west from present-day Spring Street, where at the west end it overlooked a marsh and the squadron anchorage. On the east end, it overlooked Easton’s Beach.” The infantry regiments camped on the east side, the artillery “on the camp’s west end close to Spring Street. The area across Spring Street and stretching down to Thames Street was laid out as the French Army’s artillery park.” Lauzun’s Legion took up positions at Castle Hill.
Following three months in their encampment the infantry went into winter quarters 1780/81 in Newport in abandoned and/or empty houses while the hussars of Lauzun’s Legion spent in winter in Lebanon, Connecticut. On 10 June 1781, the French infantry which had spent the winter of 1780/81 in Newport received orders to embark the following day in two divisions on dozens of vessels to travel from Newport to Providence.
Kennett, Lee. The French Forces in America, 1780-1783 (Westport, 1977)
Rice, Howard C. Jr., and Anne S.K. Brown, eds., The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783 2 vols., (Princeton and Providence, 1972)
Scott, Samuel F. From Yorktown to Valmy: The Transformation of the French Army in an Age of Revolution (Niwot, CO, 1998)
Selig, Robert A. The Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route in the State of Rhode Island, 1780-1783. An Architectural and Historical Site Survey and Resource Inventory
(2006/2015) available at W3R History by State
For an extensive bibliography of English-, French- and German-language titles about France and the American War of Independence click here
About the Author
By Robert Selig, PhD. for the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Resource Study & Environmental Assessment, 2006.
Previously published by W3R- US on https://w3r-us.org/history-by-state/