February 21, 2000

Editor Hans DePold, Bolton Town Historian


This newsletter is to provide a means for keeping historians, re-enactors, and other interested people aware of the activity to create a national historic trail, the WRRR. Rochambeau’s French army defined the route when they marched from Newport to Yorktown and back to Boston. The goal is to encourage creation of a National Historic Trail with the registration of the entire route that passes through Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and to raise to a higher level the quality of heritage preservation all along the route.

WRRR Camp 5

The CT Department of Environmental Protection will announce whether Camp 5 is granted 50% state open space matching funds on February 22. There is cause for some optimism because Bolton officials have been invited to attend the announcement.

Sabre Rattling

The sabre was a sword with a slightly curved blade worn by Hussars (cavalry) and officers. It was inserted in a protective scabbard. Often the last sound an enemy or scoundrel would hear was the rattle of the sabre as it was pulled from the scabbard to attack. It was similar to the effect today as hearing the click as a gun is cocked. The close association of the sabre rattle with a deadly strike caused fear in the 1700s and led to the 1800s expression sabre rattling. Eventually sabre rattling came to mean a thinly veiled threat of military force.

The Attempted Arrest of Rochambeau

At no time did Rochambeau complain in his memoirs about how the French were treated by Americans. Rochambeau only mentioned two instances in his diary that refer to prices in America. In the first instance he mentioned a humorous anecdote of an attempt to have him arrested. It is to illustrate this strange country where cobblers presumed to be congressmen, printers presumed to be diplomats, book sellers presumed to command the artillery, engineer-farmers presumed to be commanding generals, and sheriff’s officers presumed to have power over foreign armies. In the second instance he mentioned how special low prices for the French were a sign of American gratitude and hospitality.

For anyone to believe that our French allies were regularly charged unfair prices is to seriously underestimate the skill of General Rochambeau in planning the logistics and support of his army. In fact, anyone who tried to price gouge the French army was virtually guaranteed to lose both his profit and the respect of his countrymen. There were several stages of price negotiations with the Americans in which the stakes were successively raised. Greed was given no quarter by the French.

Rochambeau was a seasoned warrior and first saw battle at the age of ten. He had faced Cornwallis on the Minden battlefield of Europe and there had seen Lafayette’s father mortally wounded. He knew what to expect in America because he had seen the effects of war in Europe. It was no surprise to see American towns and fields burned, and villages plundered. It was expected that extreme shortages would exist in areas where the British army had ventured because they confiscated all the food and fuel they needed. The British control of trade first with intolerable acts was intended to reduce the population to desperation with few manufactured goods, including almost no weapons, gunpowder, or clothing. These hardships of war were not unique to America.

There was little doubt Rochambeau’s French army also added to the drain on the colonial resources and further drove up the prices as the French sought to buy horses, forage for the animals, and food for the soldiers. There was a great difference though, and that was that the French infused gold and silver into the American economy by paying for everything they needed and by loaning money to the American government. The French brought their artillery, munitions, and troops, but they still had to buy their horses and the livestock to pull their wagons. Once on the march, worn out, sick or injured livestock and horses meant there would be a feast that evening.

Alex Braake researched and weighted the annual price of 15 commodities in Philadelphia during the American Revolution. He shows no inflation just prior to 1776. In the year of the Declaration of Independence inflation surged to over 20%. The British blockade and the war caused inflation to average 150% in each of the years 1777 and 1778. That early disastrous winter of 1779 pushed inflation to 167%. The severe winter, the late summer and the arrival of the French army thrust inflation in 1780 to over 400%. The need for horses for the officers and Hussars caused their price to skyrocket. Some of the inexperienced French officers were appalled by the high prices they had to pay in blockaded America, but Washington and Rochambeau were philosophical and took things in stride. Rochambeau lived on the edge, and like Washington, never succumbed to adversity. Wisdom and dry humor were their forte and brought them through the hardest of times. Washington made this humorous comment about prices in late 1778 well before the highest prices.

“A rat in the shape of a horse, is not to
be bought at this time for less than L 200.”

The French infusion of hard currency began to strengthen the economy with inflation falling to 90% during the Washington-Rochambeau march to Yorktown in 1781. The American economy then stabilized in 1782 as the French army marched to Boston and thereafter prices in Philadelphia fell almost 10% each year until 1785.

But how did Rochambeau handle the purchase of supplies for the French army? The French tried, where possible, to distance themselves from the unpleasantness of negotiating prices. They hired well respected local people to act as their purchasing agents. Jeremiah Wadsworth of Connecticut was one of them. He and his men visited the towns through which the army would pass and appraised them of the facts of war, namely, that the French army could confiscate whatever it needed. He would then tell them that if they cooperated they would be paid well in hard silver for everything. He got the local officials to pledge as much as they could, often more than they could deliver. Bolton CT had fewer than 2000 people and pledged to supply 20 tons of forage. Just before the French army arrived, Bolton was prodded into action with a long admonishing letter from Wadsworth,

“Never let it be told that Twenty ton of
hay could not be found for hard money in
the town of Bolton for the French Army.”

The French commissar worked with the American purchasing agents and with local traders and artificers to arrange to have supplies in advance and to negotiate a fair price. If the asking price was too high and the army arrived before the final price was negotiated, the goods were taken and the seller was told he would be paid later. Seeing the goods disappear before being paid made the seller more likely to accept a fair price immediately.

If the asking price did not come down, another tactic was to prepare to leave without paying. The sound of the drums beating for the departing army was a last resort. Now if the price was not reduced the seller was risking losing both his profit and his entire investment. Rochambeau wrote about the amusing situation when one problem reached that last stage. It involved firewood used at a French camp.

“On the moment of departure, just as the drums had beaten to arms, and the troops were drawn up in marching order, a man respectfully walked up to me, and addressing me, stated that he was aware of the eminent services I had rendered to his country, that he respected me greatly, but that, at the same time, he was obliged to do his duty. He then presented a paper to me, and tapping me slightly on the shoulder told me that he constituted me his prisoner.”

At this time Rochambeau appeared faced with mammon in the form of a captain and a sheriff’s officer. They apparently thought they could escalate the issue and profit by confronting General Rochambeau directly.

“Very well, sir,” I replied, jocosely;
‘Then take me if you can.”

Perhaps at that very moment the rattle of the French sabres changed the mindset of the price gouger and his friends from, “How much profit can I make?” to “If I can leave this place alive will I still be able to still have a family?” ” No, please your Excellency,” replied the sheriff’s officer; ” I beg you will allow me, after the performance of my duly, to withdraw unmolested.”

A compromise suddenly appeared appealing to the greedy. Rochambeau relates that fellow Americans were disgusted with behavior of the would-be mammon.

“I continued on the march, I sent the Commissar to the house of the American, whom he found surrounded by his fellow-citizens, who were all upbraiding him loudly for such conduct towards a French officer. The commissary made way through them, and made the captain put his signature to paper, by which he consented to compromise the matter, by referring it to the decision of an arbitration he latter reduced the demand to two thousand francs. “

The only other comment Rochambeau makes on his treatment by Americans with regard to provisions was with regard to Connecticut. In his memoirs General Rochambeau wrote, ” Governor (Trumbull) and his council issued a proclamation, urging his fellow-citizens not to raise a single cent the price of provisions during he passage of the French troops. The inhabitants obeyed this injunction so generously, that each mess was able to add, every evening, to the common allowance every kind of provision at a very low price.”

A few paragraphs later Rochambeau says, ” I have never mentioned the multitude of addresses of the towns and assemblies-general of the different States of America presented to the general, and all of which were expressive of their feelings of sincere gratitude towards France.

He further goes on to say, ” Hospitality is the virtue the most generally observed.”

And so we may conclude that while less sensitive, less experienced, less knowledgeable, and more cynical people may have been critical of the embattled and blockaded Americans, Rochambeau himself shows in his memoirs that he recognized Americans as a simple, honest, grateful, and generous people.