Lafayette’s Mapmaker: Michel Capitaine Du Chesnoy
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by Gloria Schmidt
Previously published by Portsmouth History Notes at https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/ Republished with permission.
I have been searching for a way to illustrate the Marquis de Lafayette’s movements in Rhode Island and I came across a map that will be very helpful. It is a map of the positions of American troops in August of 1778. Rhode Island shorelines are prominent and the American camps are laid out so I can mark Lafayette’s positions throughout the Campaign.
I have seen (and used) this map before, but as I read Lafayette’s letters just before the Rhode Island Campaign, I came to appreciate this map and the French mapmaker, even more. The mapmaker was Michel Capitaine du Chesnoy. Chesnoy arrived in Charlestown, South Carolina with the teenage Lafayette. He was struck by an illness and it was only in the Spring of 1778 that he was well enough to help Lafayette. In his recovery he made maps of battles that he did not witness personally. He did a survey of the British positions at Ticonderoga, (Plan of Carillon or Ticonderoga). The map of Ticonderoga is unique, as mapmaker Chesnoy created the battlefield map through a combination of scouting accounts and secondary maps without visiting the area.
When Chesnoy came to America he was thirty-one years old and had been a lieutenant in the French army. He was made a Captain in the engineer corps of the Continental Army. Lafayette was unhappy with that because he considered Du Chesnoy his personal aide. The Marquis wrote to Henry Laurens in a letter dated July 23 from White Plains, New York.
“Mr. Capitaine one of my family has got the commission of a captain of engineers. ..Mr. Capitaine was in the Marshal of Broglios family, they made me a present of him and I attached him to serve me not only in America and in war but also to stay in the family in peaceable times. Such an officer I can’t spare, and I will employ him to make plans of our positions and battled for Gal. Washington, for me and for the king…The only way of getting him out of the engineer is to have for him a commission of Major in the line, he is now in my family but I want to have him entirely my supern-aide-de camp.”
Note: A supernumerary aide had no regular duties and is held in reserve by the commander.
In January of 1779, Chesnoy followed Lafayette back to France. Chesnoy’s maps were used to persuade the French to continue to support the American forces. He presented a collection of his maps to the King of France. When he joined Lafayette in returning to America in 1780 he received a promotion to Captain in the French Army. He continued to serve as Lafayette’s mapmaker and aide-de-camp. His maps record the victories of the Virginia Campaign.
Chesnoy returned to France with Lafayette in 1781 but he kept his commission in the American army until it disbanded in 1783. He died in France in 1804, but his maps are still a valuable resource as we study the Rhode Island Campaign.
Map: Capitaine Du Chesnoy, Michel, and Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Du Motier Lafayette. Carte des positions occupeés par les trouppes Américaines apres leur retraite de Rhode Island le 30 Aout.  Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/00555648/.
Websites About Chesnoy: