Comte de Rochambeau

The Frenchman Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau (1725-1807), commanded the French expeditionary force in the American Revolution. He was with Gen. George Washington at the Battle of Yorktown.

The Comte de Rochambeau was born at Vendôme on July 1, 1725. Educated for the Church, he entered the army at the age of 17 and fought with bravery and skill in the War of the Austrian Succession, serving in Bohemia, Bavaria, and along the Rhine. A colonel by 1747, he took part in the Seven Years War as a brigadier general and achieved distinction in the expedition to Minorca and battles in Germany.

As a lieutenant general, Rochambeau was named commander of the French forces sent to America, and in July 1780 he landed at Newport, R.I., with about 5,500 troops. Although he was to launch combined operations with the Americans against New York, he was blockaded by a British fleet and was forced to spend a year entrenched while he awaited the arrival of French naval forces.

Rochambeau conferred with Washington in the spring of 1781, and they agreed that together they could overwhelm Henry Clinton at New York or Charles Cornwallis in Virginia, but not both. They decided to have Adm. de Grasse sail from the West Indies to Chesapeake Bay to cut the British communications and prevent mutual support between Clinton and Cornwallis; to avoid Clinton; and to strike Cornwallis.

The French forces under Rochambeau joined the Americans at White Plains, N.Y., in June and marched to Williamsburg, Va., where they met the Marquis de Lafayette's army in September. Reinforced by 4,000 troops brought by De Grasse from Haiti, Washington and Rochambeau besieged the British forces under Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 2. De Grasse's naval forces turned back Adm. Graves's ships coming to Cornwallis's rescue and thereby prevented Cornwallis's escape or his reinforcement. On October 19 Cornwallis surrendered. Rochambeau spent the winter in Virginia, returned to Rhode Island in the fall of 1782, and went back to France in 1783.

In 1790, during the revolutionary period in France, Rochambeau commanded the Army of the North. He was made a marshal of France in 1791. In the following year, disenchanted with governmental policy and the conduct near Lille of poorly trained troops sent to him, he resigned his command and was succeeded by Lafayette. He was arrested for treason but escaped the guillotine.

In 1804 Napoleon made him a grand officer of the Legion of Honor. His two volumes of Mémoires, militaires, historiques, et politiques were published in 1809, after his death at Thoré on May 10, 1807.

A striking figure, Rochambeau was simple in his tastes and dignified in his behavior. He eschewed ostentation and airs of self-importance. In America, he placed himself without reservation under Washington's orders and ensured the Franco-American cooperation that finally defeated the British in the American Revolution.


Further Reading on Comte de Rochambeau

The latest work on Rochambeau is Arnold Whitridge, Rochambeau (1965). See also Allan Forbes, Rochambeau (1925), and Jean-Edmond Weelen, Rochambeau: Father and Son (1936).

Additional Biography Sources

Le Comte, Solange, Rochambeau, Paris: Lavauzelle, c1976.