On the eastern side of Hartford’s Old State House, there’s an engraved plaque mounted on a boulder. Here, on Sept. 20, 1780, General George Washington, more than five years into America’s fitful war for independence, first met the man who would be his indispensible partner in winning it.
The man was General Comte de Rochambeau, the new commander-in-chief of the French Army in America. France had for years been backing the Americans in the war and had formally joined it in 1778. The French wanted to avenge their loss to the British in the French and Indian War and to stop British expansionism. But despite the money and military aid they’d given the Americans, their victory was anything but certain. France’s King Louis XVI had sent Rochambeau to help ensure it.
Rochambeau and 5,000 French troops had arrived in Newport, R.I., in July. Since then, he’d been eager for a meeting with Washington and had repeatedly asked the general to see him. The Frenchman recounted his frustration with the delay in his memoirs: "In a single hour’s conversation, we could have decided on more matters than could be contained in whole volumes of writing.”
Washington had good reason to avoid a meeting. His troops were a shambles: hungry, unpaid for months and short of ammunition. He could promise Rochambeau nothing as to their numbers or their readiness to fight. One historian thinks Washington feared that if he left the soldiers for the few days that the meeting would require, they would desert.
Finally Washington agreed to a rendezvous. The men chose Hartford as the venue because it was halfway between the American’s headquarters in New Windsor, N.Y., and Rochambeau’s in Newport. Hartford was then a village with a single road that ran along the Connecticut River.
Each man received a 13-cannon salute when he arrived. Washington’s entourage included, among others, his aide Alexander Hamilton and the dashing, preternaturally ambitious 23-year-old Frenchman the Marquis de Lafayette. He was a major general in the Continental Army and liaison between Washington and the French government. Rochambeau’s included a handful of officers from the French aristocracy, such as Count Axel de Fersen (rumored to be Marie Antoinette’s lover), and the Chevalier de Ternay, head of the French fleet.
After greeting each other, they went to the house of Jeremiah Wadsworth, four blocks away. (It was on the site of what is now the Wadsworth Atheneum, founded by Jeremiah’s son, Daniel.) Wadsworth was a wealthy businessman who had served as the commissary general for the Continental Army and would soon fill the same role for the French army.
The 48-year-old Washington, tall, reserved, well-spoken and unfailingly polite, made a sterling impression on the French officers. The Marquis de Chastellux described him as “the greatest and best of men.” Fersen wrote that he was “illustrious if not unique in our century.” Rochambeau, 55, short, heavy set and somewhat crusty, cut a less impressive figure.
The meeting lasted two days. The generals discussed where and when to launch a joint attack on the British. It could not be soon. The two agreed that they needed more manpower before they could attack anywhere. They would have to wait for French naval reinforcements.
But they disagreed about where to attack. Washington wanted to retake New York, which the British had seized in 1776. Rochambeau wanted to move straight south, to Virginia, and engage the enemy there.
The two met again the following May, this time in Wethersfield, at the house of Joseph Webb (now part of the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum). There Rochambeau acquiesced (or pretended to acquiesce) to Washington’s plan, agreeing to attack the British in New York. The French and American forces would proceed as soon as the Comte de Grasse, the French admiral, sailed from the Caribbean, bringing with him the needed ships, men and money to launch the offensive.
But Rochambeau didn’t intend to follow the plan. Six days after the meeting, he wrote de Grasse advising him to sail not to New York, but to Chesapeake Bay.
De Grasse did. Rochambeau confessed his subterfuge to Washington; the American general had no choice but to abandon his dream of retaking New York. Rochambeau, after marching his troops through Connecticut, joined Washington’s forces in White Plains, N.Y. Both armies then moved south to Chesapeake Bay.
The French admiral arrived just before the armies did, with 28 warships and 3,100 French soldiers. He then defeated the British Navy at the Battle of the Chesapeake. That enabled the American and French armies to lay siege to the British at Yorktown, on a peninsula at the mouth of the bay.
British General Cornwallis surrendered on Oct. 19. The war was, in effect, over. A year after that first meeting in Hartford, American independence was a fait accompli.