“France is America’s oldest ally. A lot of people don’t know that,” President Donald Trump said in Paris, on Bastille Day. “France helped us secure our independence, a lot of people forget.”
There’s much more to that story of course (I’ve just written a book about it!). American history and mythology generally don’t portray Yorktown as a French-invented, French-run affair. But in a major sense it was. To achieve the victory, General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau (yes, that’s all one name) had to outfox General George Washington.
The Franco-American alliance was more than two years old, in July 1780, when the Rochambeau-led Expédition Particulière arrived in Rhode Island with 5,500 troops, some long-range cannon, and a relatively small fleet. The alliance had already had two large military disasters, at Newport in 1778 and at Savannah in 1779. Rochambeau wasn’t sure what he could accomplish either, having been forced to leave behind a good chunk of his army and ships, and being burdened with a set of instructions from Louis XVI, dictated by Lafayette, that in unequivocal language put him under the command of General Washington and made the French troops and ships no more than auxiliaries of the Americans.