NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND, HOSTS
THE FRENCH MILITARY IN 1780
Newport, Rhode Island, played an important part in the American Revolution by housing military personnel who arrived from France to help the Americans. Excerpts from three journals, kept by Jean Francois Louis Clermont-Crèvecœur, comte de; Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger, and Louis Alexandre Berthier, provide material for this post on Newport, Rhode Island. This is Part 1 of a continuing discussion of the French in Rhode Island. To read the next segment click on: The French Military in America During the American Revolution: Pt. II
During the night of October 30/31, 1780, a snowfall blanketed the navy ships that were transporting M. le Comte de Rochambau’s army to their winter quarters in Newport, Rhode Island. On the morning of the 31st, a thick mist enveloped the ship’s sails. “There was great activity as they hoisted their anchors to proceed to moor broadside,” according to Verger’s journal. The harbor they entered to moor at Newport was “rather difficult to enter,” but was “one of the best in the world. Easily a hundred vessels can winter there. It extends all the way to Providence, which is accessible to frigates… At the harbor entrance there is a lighthouse.”
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Verger noted that Newport was “situated on a small island (known today as Acquidneck Island) about 12 leagues long by 6 wide” which “lies between 41 degrees and 42 degrees north latitude and 72 and 73 degrees west longitude.”
Berthier, in contrast, described the island as being “4 leagues long and 1 ½ wide” and “traversed by 9 superb roads.”
“Like the province to which it gave its name, it is called Rhode Island. It is the capital of the province,” Verger wrote, noting that it was “occupied by 6,000-7,000 inhabitants.”
The province of Rhode Island had “the healthiest climate of North America.” While the winters were quite cold, the summers were very pleasant, since the “excessive heat common in America is cooled by the sea breezes.” The land is generally quite fertile, though stony; its normal crop is corn.
Clermont-Crevecroeur wrote that the “town of Newport could pass for a city.” Verger described it as having between 800 and 1,000 houses, mostly built of wood.
“Sometimes they build them outside the town, and, when completed, put them on rollers and pull them to the lot on which they are to stand. Mostly these are very small houses, though it is not rare to see them move fairly large ones,” Clermont-Crevecroeur wrote. They “are charming of simple architecture, and quite well planned for the convenience of each owner. The interiors are wonderfully clean, and the exteriors painted in different colors present a varied aspect that enhances one’s pleasure.” The interior had little furniture, barely enough for indispensable use, and “Everything is simple and so clean you can see your face in it.” However, Clermont-Crevecroeur noted that there was “nothing pretty about the town itself.”
According to Clermont-Crevecroeur, “The English had made the French seem odious to the Americans by their remarks about us. According to them, we were the meanest and most abominable people on the earth. They had carried their insolence to the point of saying we were dwarfs, pale, ugly specimens who lived exclusively on frogs and snails—and a hundred other such stupidities.” Berthier agreed, writing that “Newport is largely inhabited by Tories, and the English had expressed such a low opinion of the French that on our arrival its residents had closed their doors to us…”
Rochambeau, however, conducted himself with such courteousness, wisdom and calm, and maintained such good discipline in his army, that “Everyone’s feelings had changed so much that each officer was like a member of his host’s family. Even the most rabid Tories had made friends with the French,” according to Berthier.
“Little by little the houses and shops were opened to us, and some merchandise was offered, though at outrageous prices,” Clermont-Crevecroeur wrote. “Finally, on both sides friendship and courtesy replaced the bad impressions we had formed of each other, and we were received as brothers rather than foreigners. We took up quarters in the town to the great delight of the residents, who lodged us very well…They took the trouble to teach us their language, wishing themselves to learn French. Few members of the army had cause to complain of their lodging or their hosts.”
“The whole army had spent a delightful winter in Newport,” wrote Berthier and when “each man got the word and prepared to leave the pleasures ceased and gave way to regrets in which the whole town joined, especially the women…there was now a universal sigh of regret.”
SOURCE: The journals, translated and edited by Howard C. Rice, Jr. and Anne S. K. Brown, are published in their book The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, Volume I, The Journals.