Hopes and Disappointments Lafayette Recalls the Rhode Island Campaign
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by Gloria Schmidt
First published by the American Friends of Lafayette Gazette 99. Dec 2023.
“Lafayette, on his visit to Rhode Island in 1824 told the late Mr. Zachariah Allen as he rode with him in a carriage across the border from Connecticut – ‘In this state I have experienced more sudden and extreme alternations of hopes and disappointments than during all the vicissitudes of the American war.’”
I came across this Lafayette quotation about his experience in Rhode Island while I was researching the memorial stone in front of the Portsmouth Historical Society. This quotation was included in a speech by Congressman Sheffield at the 1910 dedication of a Daughters of the American Revolution Memorial marking the site of an early skirmish during the Battle of Rhode Island. The story of the Rhode Island Campaign of August 1778 is filled with hopes and disappointments so we can imagine what those “extreme alternations of hopes and disappointments” might be.
The quotation intrigued me. Who was Zachariah Allen and how did he come to record that quote? Did Lafayette share more of his experiences in the Rhode Island Campaign or Sullivan’s Expedition as Allen called it? I found two articles by Allen that set the context for Lafayette’s comments on his experience in Rhode Island. One was a speech Allen gave at the Centennial celebration of the Battle of Rhode Island held in Portsmouth, Rhode Island in 1878. The other was a more comprehensive piece given as a paper to the Rhode Island Historical Society in Providence in 1861. This longer article, “Memorial of Lafayette,” details comments given about the Rhode Island Campaign, but it also records Lafayette’s views on such topics as American women, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte, and universal suffrage. In this article I will focus on his comments on the Rhode Island Campaign.
On August 23, 1824, Zachariah Allen had the rare opportunity of spending “many hours” in conversation with Lafayette when he escorted him during a carriage ride from Plainfield, Connecticut to Providence, Rhode Island. Lafayette was near the beginning of his Grand Tour of the twenty-four states – from August 1824 to September 1825. The 1824-25 triumphant tour as “Guest of the Nation” was Lafayette’s fourth visit to Rhode Island. He came in 1778 as a commander of troops during the Rhode Island Campaign which aimed at capturing Aquidneck Island from the British. In July 1780, Lafayette traveled to Newport to meet with French General Rochambeau, who had arrived in Newport on July 11 with a French expeditionary force. A third visit was after the Revolutionary War in October of 1784 when he was greeted in Providence and Newport with pomp and ceremony. On this fourth visit to Rhode Island in 1824, Allen (the representative of the Providence Town Council) and Colonel Ephraim Bowen (the representative of the Society of the Cincinnati) were charged with escorting Lafayette from the Connecticut border to Providence.
In 1824 Allen was 29 years old. He was a textile manufacturer and inventor of a heating system for homes. Later he would become the leading founder of an insurance company, and he contributed to the founding of The Providence Athenaeum and Roger Williams Park. From the early 1820s Allen was on the Providence Town Council. Colonel Bowen was a Revolutionary War veteran who participated in the raid on the Gaspee in 1772, and he was an officer in the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment. Bowen had known Lafayette from the days when he served as Deputy Quartermaster of the Continental Army for Rhode Island. Bowen worked on provisions during the Rhode Island Campaign.
Allen came to the carriage ride with historical questions in mind. He had been in discussions with Judge Benjamin Cowell who in retirement was dedicated to helping Revolutionary War veterans secure their pensions. He recorded the testimony of the soldiers that was required for pension approval. Cowell had become a leading expert on Rhode Island in the War for Independence. Among the testimonies he heard there were various causes described for the “sudden desertion” of the French fleet under Admiral Comte d’Estaing. Allen knew that Lafayette had met with the French Admiral and his officers onboard his ship and that he (in Allen’s words) “was probably the only person in the American service who knew the true reasons for the procedure” which led to the departure of the French fleet and the collapse of the Rhode Island Campaign. Allen wrote: “I availed myself of the opportunity thus afforded me for ascertaining from the lips of Lafayette himself the reasons that actually influenced the French admiral to abandon so abruptly the preconcerted plan of co-operating with General Sullivan, in the capture of the British army of 7000 men in Newport.”
The Rhode Island Campaign that had brought Lafayette to Rhode Island was the first joint American and French campaign of the American Revolutionary War. The plan unfolded as the French fleet sailed into Narragansett Bay on July 29, 1778. The hope was to wedge the British garrison in Newport between the French fleet coming from the west and the American soldiers coming from Tiverton in the east. The French fleet began to disembark troops on Conanicut Island (Jamestown) on August 9. The Americans crossed over to Aquidneck Island on the same day. The American forces were divided between Lafayette and General Nathanael Greene and all under the command of General John Sullivan. On August 10, the French fleet moved out to sea to engage the British fleet that had just arrived in the area. A powerful storm damaged both fleets and the French made the decision to go to Boston for repairs. Without French support, the Americans were in an untenable position, and Sullivan and his staff made the decision to retreat to fight again another day. The skirmishes that were fought to enable this successful planned retreat on August 29, 1778 are referred to as the “Battle of Rhode Island.”
Allen took contemporaneous notes on his conversations with Lafayette. He was active in the Rhode Island Historical Society, and he believed that the original design of the society was “for cooperating in gathering in every record and relic of the past, that nothing may be lost.” The notes were forgotten over time, but Allen located them when his interest in the Rhode Island Campaign was sparked by a lecture. His purpose in writing “Memorial of Lafayette” in 1861 was to “read some of the historical statements made by Lafayette in relation to Sullivan’s Expedition.” Allen was anxious to hear from Lafayette who would have first-hand knowledge of the decision-making of the French. The following is Allen’s recording of the conversation between them. Passages are taken from Allen’s 1878 “Conversations with Lafayette” paper.
Allen: “It is my purpose, in this address, to read some of the historical statements made by Lafayette in relation to Sullivan’s expedition, wherein he commanded the left wing of the American army, and General Greene the right wing. The true reasons which led to the unfortunate course pursued by the French Admiral, were known personally to Lafayette, who attended the council of French officers to which the Admiral referred the question for decision, whether to go out to attack the enemy’s feet, or to remain to complete the capture of the enemy’s army. The reasons that influenced their decision, will now be detailed in the form they were stated to me by General Lafayette. Soon after breakfast the General took his seat in the carriage with Colonel Bowen and myself, and left Plainfield (Connecticut), followed by several carriages, in which were the aides of the Governor of Rhode Island, and some Aldermen from New York, who had followed the General from that city.”
After being informed that he had passed the boundary line of Rhode Island, the General exclaimed:
Lafayette: “In this State I have experienced more sudden and extreme alternations of hopes and disappointments than during all the vicissitudes of the American war. When the French fleet arrived in Rhode Island, in the year 1778, I was assured of the certain capture of the British army in Newport, from an arranged plan for a combined attack of the American and French forces. Just at the moment of preparation, it was suddenly announced that an English fleet had appeared off the entrance to the port. I then went on board of the Admiral’s ship, and heard the question discussed, whether the fleet should remain to co-operate with the American army, in the proposed attack on the British army in Newport, or go out to sea to attack and drive away the British fleet from the coast. The council decided in favor of the latter plan.”
Allen: “In answer to my inquiry, what were the reasons that led to this decision, the General replied:”
Lafayette: “It was urged that by adopting the plan of attacking the enemy’s fleet, a double victory might be obtained by the French arms, on the sea as well as on the land. Our superior fleet, in driving away the British fleet, would have a chance of cutting off two or three of their ships of the line; and on their return to Newport, the British army, besieged by land, would soon yield a bloodless victory to the overpowering combined French and American forces.”
Lafayette continued: “When I saw the French fleet sail out of the harbor, I felt the first great disappointment of my sanguine hopes; but then I immediately began to have them
revived in the expectation of seeing the fleet speedily return, with some of the British ships as prizes. But a great tempest arose soon after the fleet went out upon the open sea, which dismasted several of the ships, and they all came back in a disabled condition.”
Lafayette related an anecdote about a ship’s commander who said that he would shoot himself in the heart rather than face dishonor if a frigate captured his ship. Lafayette went on to say: “The British fleet was actually driven away from the coast by the French fleet, as had been calculated, and two or three vessels were cut off and taken.”
On the return of the French fleet, Lafayette said his hopes were revived more strongly than before to the certain capture of the British army. But these fresh hopes were excited only to be more greatly disappointed than before; for D’Estaing again held a council of his officers, who decided to depart immediately with the whole fleet for Boston for repairs. He continued:
Lafayette: “My most earnest entreaties for him to stay only a short time to finish the conquest of the British army were all in vain. In answer to my inquiry for the reason of this second obstinate refusal to co-operate with their allies, the General replied that it was said in the
council of officers, they held it to be their first duty as naval commanders, to sustain the superiority of the French fleet on the ocean, to escape being shut up in port, and subjected to destruction by fire ships whilst at anchor in their disabled condition. This all important object could only be accomplished by losing no time in sailing for Boston, before the re-turn of the British fleet, to which port they had been ordered to go for repairs in case of necessity. When I again saw the French fleet sail out of the port for the last time, and abandon the capture of the British army, I felt this to be the most bitter disappointment of all, for I believe that this capture would have produced the same decisive result of speedily terminating the American war, as was subsequently accomplished by the capture of nearly the same army at Yorktown, by the successful co-operation of the French fleet under Count DeGrasse under similar circumstances.”
Allen: “Lafayette finished his narrative of the exciting events of his campaign in Rhode Island by saying that one hope still remained to him, that of inducing the French Admiral to return to Newport with his fleet. To accomplish this he said that he made the journey from Rhode Island to Boston, by relays of horses, in the shortest time that it had ever been performed. After this effort he despaired. To add to his chagrin, during his absence the battle of Rhode Island was fought, and he lost the chance of taking part in it. But to console him for this disappointment, he said, Congress, in the vote of thanks which they decreed, noticed him with the most refined delicacy, not for having fought the battle, but for his sacrifice of the opportunity of gaining personal glory, to aid the cause of the country more effectually by his services elsewhere.”
Allen’s conclusions: “The preceding explanations of the reasons for the apparently obstinate refusal of D’Estaing to co-operate with the American army in Rhode Island, there by causing the failure of Sullivan’s Expedition, and the keenest disappointment of the sanguine hopes of Lafayette, as well as of all the American people, lead us to the belief that the French Admiral acted under the influence of a council of his officers, and not from any discordant feelings towards General Sullivan. The practical results of the execution of the plan of the council of officers almost exactly verified their calculations, so far as related to the chasing away the English fleet, and the capture of two of their vessels which were cut off; and there is now every reason to believe that the remainder of their plan of winning also a victory on the land, might have been successful, had not several of the large ships of their fleet been providentially dismasted by a tempest unprecedented for violence in the annals of the country.”
Allen’s 1861 article was written 37 years after the carriage ride with Lafayette. Lafayette’s comments were referring to events which took place in 1778, 46 years before his tour of America. Allen’s memories of the conversation may have changed over the years. Lafayette’s perspective of the Rhode Island Campaign certainly could have changed. We can compare the comments Allen attributes to Lafayette with Lafayette’s own words in his letters at the time of the action. I will arrange the comments and quotations under categories of “hopes” or “disappointments.” Sometimes I could find confirmations in the letters, but not every comment had a comparable passage in a contemporaneous letter.
Hope: Lafayette was sure that the joint French-American effort would be victorious.
Lafayette to John Sullivan, Saybrook, 28 July, 1778: “I hope a pretty decent set of laurels may be collected upon that island, and we will terminate the whole by joining English country dances to French cotillions in company with the fine and reputed ladies of the charming place.” (Idzerda)
Letter to General Washington, from Lafayette. Providence, 6 August, 1778: “The admiral wants me to join the French troops to these I command, as soon as possible. I confess I feel very happy to think of my co-operating with them, and, had I contrived in my mind an agreeable dream, I could not have wished a more pleasing event than my joining my countrymen with my brothers of America, under my command, and the same standards. When I left Europe, I was very far from hoping such an agreeable turn of our business in the American glorious revolution.” (Idzerda)
Disappointment: The French decided on a sea battle with the British rather than the original plan of cooperating with the American army.
Letter to General Washington from Lafayette, Providence, 6 August, 1778: “I saw among the fleet an ardour and a desire of doing something, which would soon turn into impatience, if we don’t give them a speedy occasion of fighting. The officers cannot contain their soldiers and sailors, who are complaining that they have been these four months running after the British, without getting at them; but I hope they will be soon satisfied.” (Idzerda)
Lafayette assures Henry Laurens that d’Estaing did not go out to sea to fight the British fleet because of General Sullivan’s unilateral advance of American troops ahead of schedule.
Letter to Henry Laurens from Lafayette, Rhode Island, 25 August 1778: I will not go back to give the account of what has been done on our part before the admiral went after the British fleet —but I may assure you that he was not at all influenced by any behavior of any body, tho’ some try to insinuate it, and that he did consider the whole as you and me would have done.” (South Carolina Historical Society)
Hope: Lafayette saw some possible benefits of a naval battle.
Letter to Henry Laurens from Lafayette, Rhode Island 25 August, 1778: “…it is useless to Repass upon the advantages the fleet has already afforded to these coasts upon a military as well as a civil point of view —six frigates one of them was a check for a whole state have been burnt and destroy’d — the coasts cleared — harbors opened — the British army and navy kept together Philadelphia evacuated upon the intelligence of that fleet &c [etc.]” (South Carolina Historical Society)
Disappointment: Lafayette “felt the first great disappointment of my sanguine hopes” as he watched the French fleet sail out of harbor.
Hope: Lafayette was optimistic that the fleet would return in victory.
Disappointment: A storm damaged the French fleet and deprived d’Estaing of strategic options.
Letter to Henry Laurens from Lafayette, Rhode Island 25 August, 1778: “When after the storm which took away from his hands all the advantages of a gain’d victory, which put him in the worst shattered condition, when he came back to Rhode Island (because he had promis’d to come back), I was sent on board by general Sullivan – I found him more distress’d than any man I ever saw, by the idea that he would be some weeks out of the possibility of serving america.” (South Carolina Historical Society)
Hope: Lafayette was certain that the British army would be captured.
Disappointment: The French decision to leave for Boston was a bitter disappointment.
Letters from Lafayette to Henry Laurens, Rhode Island 25 August 1778: “My most earnest entreaties for him to stay only a short time to finish the conquest of the British army were all in vain. …I am a witness that he did every thing to convince himself and convince others that they could stay–but the orders of the king, the Representations of all his captains, the opinion of all the fleet even of some american pilots made it necessary for him to go to boston. indeed, my dear sir, in such circumstances as he was, which are too long to be explain’d how could he help it?” (South Carolina Historical Society)
Letter to George Washington from Lafayette Camp before Newport (During Siege of Newport) 25 August, 1778: “When the storm was over, they met again in a shattered condition, and the Caesar was not to be found. All the captains represented to their general that, after a so long navigation, in such a want of victuals, water, &c., which they had not been yet supplied with, after the intelligence given by General Sullivan that there was a British fleet coming, they should go to Boston; but the Count d’Estaing had promised to come here again, and so he did at all events. The news of his arrival and situation came by the Senegal, a frigate taken from the enemy. General Greene and myself went on board. The count expressed to me not so much as to the envoy from General Sullivan, than as to his friend, the unhappy circumstances he was in. Bound by express orders from the King to go to Boston in case of an accident or a superior fleet, engaged by the common sentiment of all the officers, even of some American pilots, that he would ruin all his squadron in deferring his going to Boston, he called a new council of war, and finding every body of the same opinion, he did not think himself justifiable in staying here any longer, and took leave of me with true affliction not being able to assist America for some days, which has been rewarded with the most horrid ungratefulness; but no matter.” (Idzerda)
Hope: The one hope remaining was that Lafayette could persuade the French Fleet to return to Rhode Island.
Letter to George Washington from Lafayette, Camp before Newport 25 August, 1778: “I am only speaking of facts. The count said to me these last words: after many months of sufferings, my men will rest some days; I will man my ships, and, if I am assisted in getting masts, &c., three weeks after my arrival I shall go out again, and then we shall fight for the glory of the French name, and the interests of America.” (Idzerda)
Disappointment: Lafayette lost the chance to participate in battle.
To George Washington from Lafayette, Tiverton, 1st September, 1778: “—That there has been an action fought where I could have been, and where I was not, is a thing which will seem as extraordinary to you as it seems so to myself. After a long journey and a longer stay from home, (I mean from head-quarters,) the only satisfactory day I have, finds me in the middle of a town. There I had been sent, pushed, hurried, by the board of general officers, and principally by Generals Sullivan and Greene, who thought I should be of great use to the common cause, and to whom I foretold the disagreeable event which would happen to me; I felt, on that occasion, the impression of that bad star which, some days ago, has influenced the French undertakings, and which, I hope, will soon be removed. People say that I don’t want an action; but if it is not necessary to my reputation as a tolerable private soldier, it would at least add to my satisfaction and pleasure. However, I was happy enough to arrive before the second retreat: it was not attended with such trouble and danger as it would have been had not the enemy been so sleepy, I was thus once more deprived of my fighting expectations.” (Idzerda)
On the whole, the letters Lafayette wrote before, during, and after the Rhode Island Campaign are reflected in the conversations recorded by Zachariah Allen in 1824. Allen’s record of his conversation lists the alternating hopes and disappointments that Lafayette felt at the time of the Rhode Island Campaign. They are the hopes and disappointments expressed by the American troops that engaged with British and German forces during that Campaign, but Lafayette had the benefit of being “in the room” when the decisions were made by the French. Many of the Americans (like the soldiers applying for pensions with Judge Covell) were left with the keen disappointment of d’Estaing’s “sudden desertion.” Some Americans speculated that the moves to engage the British in a naval battle and later to depart for Boston were in retaliation for the American General Sullivan’s invasion of Aquidneck Island a day ahead of schedule. Allen’s conversations with Lafayette would convince him that retaliation was not the motive.
Allen concludes his paper “Conversations with Lafayette” with the following: “The preceding explanations of the reasons for the apparently obstinate refusal of DeEstaing to cooperate with the American army in Rhode Island, thereby causing the failure of Sullivan’s Expedition, and the keenest disappointment of the sanguine hopes of Lafayette, as well as of all the American people, lead us to the belief that the French Admiral acted under the influence of a council of his officers, and not from any discordant feelings towards General Sullivan.”
For Lafayette and those engaged in Sullivan’s Expedition, Rhode Island was a state in which many experienced the alternations of hope and discouragement. The high hopes of the plan were dashed by a tempest that crippled the French fleet. Lafayette’s private secretary on the tour of America, Auguste Levasseur, recorded that “In entering the State of Rhode Island, Lafayette experienced a sharp tinge of regret that he was unable to suspend his triumphal trip for a time. It would have pleased him to visit some places which reminded him of so many memories of his youth.” Despite the dashed hopes, Rhode Island still held special meaning for Lafayette. Zachariah Allen’s recording of their conversations provides valuable insights into Lafayette’s experiences during the Rhode Island Campaign.
Accounts by Zachariah Allen of his conversations with Lafayette
Allen, Zachariah. “Memorial of Lafayette.” Paper read before the Rhode Island Historical Society, Feb, 4, 1861. I found this slim volume at the Providence Public Library.
Allen, Zachariah. “Conversations with Lafayette,” Rhode Island Historical Tracts #6, Sidney Rider, Providence, Rhode Island, 1878. This is also available online.
Letters of Lafayette
Idzerda, Stanley J. and Robert Rhodes Crout, editors, Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution, Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790, Volume 5, January 4, 1782–December 29, 1785. (Cornell University Press, 1983).
“Letters from the Marquis de Lafayette to Hon. Henry Laurens, 1777-1780 (Continued).” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, Vol. 9, No. 2, April 1908, pp. 59–66. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27575186
“Letters from the Marquis de Lafayette to Hon. Henry Laurens, 1777-1780 (Continued).”
The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, Vol. 9, No. 3, July 1908, pp. 109-114. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27575195
General Reference on Lafayette during the American Revolution
Gottschalk, Louis, Lafayette in America. (Arveyres, France: L’Esprit de Lafayette Society, 1975).
General Reference on Lafayette’s tour of America 1824-25
Levasseur, Auguste. Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825 (Manchester, New Hampshire: Lafayette Press, 2006) translated by Alan R. Hoffman.
General References on the Battle of Rhode Island
Cowell, Benjamin. Spirit of ’76 in Rhode Island: Or, Sketches of the Efforts of the Government and People in the War of the Revolution. Together with the Names of Those who Belonged to Rhode Island Regiments in the Army. With Biographical Notices, Reminiscences, etc., etc. (A. J. Wright, printer, 1850).
McBurney, Christian. The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War. (Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing, 2011).
About the author:
Gloria Schmidt has been researching and writing about the history of Portsmouth, Rhode Island for over thirty years. For the last three years Gloria has researched for the Battle of Rhode Island Association and is their Historical Research Advisor. In this role she has been responsible for the historical content of the Association’s website: battleofrhodeisland.org. Gloria’s training and experience as a librarian have contributed to her research skills, and her interest in Lafayette has developed from studying his important role in the Rhode Island Campaign. Gloria is a member of the American Friends of Lafayette and a member of the Farewell Tour Bicentennial Education Committee.