French Infantry Campsites 1 (south), and 51 (north) in Providence

Name:   Providence Camp
State:   Rhode Island
Date:   12 – 21 June 1781 and 10 – 14 November 1782
Who:   French
Units:   Bourbonnois, Soissonnois, Saintonge and Royal Deux-Ponts Regiments of Infantry plus regimental artillery
Destination:   White Plains, New York

On 9 June 1781, the French infantry which had spent the winter of 1780/81 in Newport received orders to embark the following day in two divisions on dozens of vessels to travel from Newport to Providence.

Around 5:00 a.m. in the morning of 10 June 1781, the first Brigade of French forces began to embark on vessels waiting for them in the harbor of Newport to take them to Providence. Some of the troops had to spend the night on the water, and all arrived too late in the evening, around 9:00 p.m., of 11 June to set up camp. Those that reached Providence spent the night in the Market House, others in the Old Work House on the west bank of the Moshassuk River just north of Smith Street. From there they marched the next morning to their campsite, which Louis Alexandre Berthier described as “a mile and a half out of town on the road to Hartford,” i.e., on either side of Cranston between Westminster Avenue – “the road to Hartford” – Plane and Broad Streets. “Its right flank rested on this road and its left on the Providence River. … Providence is a small city of the second category, well built and thickly settled. In peacetime it carries on a thriving commerce because of its situation, since frigates can come up to its docks.” Since “several of them ran aground,” reported French artillery lieutenant the comte de Clermont-Crèvecœur, “most of the troops spent the night aboard these little craft, many without food. It was only the next day [12 June] with the help of the tide that the boats got up the river. All the troops disembarked on the 12th and camped beyond the town of Providence, where the army spent several days. Providence is rather a pretty town.”

Landing Site at India Point Park

As French forces remained encamped outside Providence, a convoy of eight vessels accompanied by the 50-gun ship of the line Le Sagittaire carrying 592 infantry replacements and two companies, 68 men, of artillery, arrived in Boston harbor on 7 June 1781. These replacements, which debarked on 15 June, had been drawn from the regiments of Auvergne (71 healthy plus 7 sick) and Neustrie (19 plus 28) for the Bourbonnois; Languedoc (80 plus 6) for the Soissonnois; Boulonnois (112 plus 36) for Saintonge; Anhalt (46 plus 4) and La Marck (39 plus 36) for the Royal Deux-Ponts; and Barrois (31 plus 17) for Lauzun’s Legion. Informed of the arrival of this convoy, Rochambeau on 9 June had sent two captains and one lieutenant and one sergeant from each of the regiments to Boston to receive the troops.

As the infantry awaited the arrival from Boston of re-enforcements sent from France to fill up the ranks, the infantry of Lauzun’s Legion departed for Lebanon on 14 June, where they arrived on 16 June. That same day, 16 June, the replacements finally had been integrated into their units as well and on Monday, 18 June, the First Division set out for Waterman’s Tavern.

French Campsite in Providence, 12-21 June 1781

  1. Camp à Providence le 10 et 11 Juin, 30 miles de Newport; cette Marche s’est faite par eau; undated; Louis-Alexandre Berthier Collection, Portfolio IX, Packet 21-1; Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. (Detail) Reproduced with permission of Princeton University Library.

French Campsite in Providence, 12-21 June 1781

French forces camped here from 12 to 22 June 1781 on their way to White Plains, New York and eventually to Virginia.

A 1774 census showed Providence with 4,321 inhabitants in 655 families living in approx. 370 dwellings, fewer people than there were soldiers in Rochambeau’s army. The total population of Rhode Island was a little over 60,000.

The columns that departed from Providence on 18 June numbered around 450 officers and 3,800 NCOs and enlisted men.

The actual convoy that departed from Providence on 18 June, however, was much larger. Rochambeau hired 239 American wagon conductors “for two dollars per day,” recorded his aide-de-camp the comte de Lauberdière, and 15 mostly female cooks for the 210 wagons of six oxen each (= 840 draft oxen) in the 15 brigades of his train. Eighty horses drew the twenty staff waggons, the artillery added about 500 horses. Almost all of the about 400 officers had at least three horses for themselves and their servants, which may have added another 1,200 animals to the columns.

On Monday, 18 June 1781, the First Division set out for Waterman’s Tavern: “the Regiment of Bourbonnois marches on 3 O’Clock on Monday morning,” John Carter wrote to Jeremiah Wadsworth from Waterman’s Tavern on 16 June 1781. It was to arrive at Waterman’s “by 9 or 10” in the morning. Marching with the First Division, Rochambeau had established this order:

The regiment Bourbonnois under the comte de Rochambeau, to leave on 18 June

The regiment Royal Deux-Ponts under baron de Vioménil, to leave on 19 June

The regiment Soissonnois under comte de Vioménil, to leave on 20 June

The regiment Saintonge under comte de Custine, to leave on 21 June

The eight twelve-pounders and six mortars of the field artillery were divided into four detachments with one detachment attached to each of the divisions. Each division was led by an Assistant Quarter Master General and preceded by ouvriers, i.e., workmen commanded by an engineer who filled potholes and removed obstacles. The first division was preceded by 30 pioneers, half of whom carried axes, the second through fourth division by 15 pioneers, eight of which had axes. Then came the division proper. In the case of the First Division, this meant that the vicomte de Rochambeau led the column. Then followed the officers and men of the Bourbonnois, followed by the guns of the field artillery drawn by horses. The seven wagons of Rochambeau’s baggage headed the baggage train, followed by the ten regimental wagons (one per company) with the tents of the soldiers and the luggage of the officers. Each captain had been allowed 300 pounds, each lieutenant 150 pounds of baggage for a total of 1,500 pounds per regiment distributed on wagons. Staff was allowed a separate wagon; a wagon for stragglers completed the regimental assignment of twelve wagons. Besides their muskets, the soldiers, dressed in gaiters, wigs, and tight-fitting woolen small clothes, carried equipment weighing almost 60 pounds. This regulation equipment consisted of

3 chemises = 3 shirts

1 bonnet de nuit = 1 night cap

1 bonnet de police = 1 fatigue cap

2 culottes de tricot = 2 pairs of wool breeches (“tricot” was a woolen fabric)

2 mouchoirs = 2 handkerchiefs

2 cols = 2 neckstocks

1 agrafe de col = 1 neckstock buckle

2 paires de souliers = 2 pairs of shoes

2 paires de bas, dont une de laine et une de fil = 2 pairs of stockings, including one of wool and one of thread (most likely linen or cotton thread)

2 paires de guêtres blanches = 2 pairs of white gaiters

1 paire de guêtres d’étoffe = 1 pair of wool gaiters (“étoffe” is a woolen fabric)

1 paire de guêtres de toile noircie = 1 pair of blackened linen gaiters

1 paire de boucles de souliers = 1 pair of shoe buckles

1 paire de boucles de jarretières = 1 pair of garter buckles

2 cocardes = 2 cockades

1 sac de peau = 1 skin bag (“peau” usually refers to a tanned skin with the hair on)

1 sac de toile = 1 cloth bag (most likely linen)

1 peigne à démêler = 1 comb to untangle hair

1 peigne à décrasser = 1 comb to clean hair

1 peigne à retaper = 1 comb to redo hair

1 vergette à habits = 1 coat brush

2 brosses à souliers = 2 shoe brushes

1 sac de poudre = 1 powder puff

1 houppe = 1 tuft

Behind the regimental train followed the three wagons assigned to Blanchard, and the division’s hospital wagons. Eight wagons carried the military chest under the supervision of César Louis de Baulny was the chief treasurer for the French forces. Wagons for the butchers, loaded with bread, with fodder, the “King’s stock,” and the brigade of wheelwrights and shoeing smiths brought up the rear. Even the Provost had his own wagon for the instruments of his trade. The make-up of the 2nd through 4th divisions followed the same pattern. The Second Division was led by Captain Charles Malo comte de Lameth, an aide-de-camp to Rochambeau until May 1781, the third by Captain Georges Henry Victor Collot, also a former aide-de-camp to Rochambeau, and the forth by Louis Alexandre Berthier. Behind their QMG guide came the individual regiments, followed by a quarter of the field artillery, part of the baggage train of the headquarters staff led by the baggage of the general in charge of the division and the field hospital down to wheelwrights and shoeing smiths.

In order to avoid having to march in the heat of the day, the regiments got up early: reveille was around 2:00 a.m., by 4:00 a.m. the regiments were on their way. Captain Samuel Richards of the Connecticut Line, on leave at home in Farmington, Connecticut, in June 1781, recorded that “They marched on the road in open order, untill the music struck up, they then closed into close order. On the march – a quarter master preceeded and at the forking of the road would be stuck a pole with a bunch of straw at top to shew the road they were to take.” The first men might reach next campsite, usually 12 to 15 miles away, as early as 8:00 a.m. while the van might not arrive before noon. First the soldiers set up their tents, then some dug earth ovens while others received meat, bread, and supplies for the chamber, as an infantry squad was called, “in front of the camp.

French Encampment in Providence, 10-14 November 1782

Following a camp on 9/10 November at Waterman’s Tavern, the First French Brigade reached Providence on 10 November and encamped on the same site it had camped 15 months earlier. The Second Brigade joined the First Brigade on the 11th. They did not stay long. Lieutenant Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger, a Swiss officer in the Royal Deux-Ponts, recorded that he only “remained two days in camp near the city, and on the third we left town to move into barracks in a wood. A heavy snowfall made us appreciate the barracks, especially since most of our tents were worn out.” The “barracks in a wood” were the new campsite on the property of Jeremiah Dexter off of North Main Street. One company of fusiliers from each of the four regiments, which were to embark on the Fantasque, were sent to quarters in Pawtucket on 13 November. The Fantasque was in such bad repair, however, that it did not join the marquis de Vaudreuil’s fleet when it departed from Boston on 25 December 1782, but remained in Pauwtucket until 6 February 1783, when she sailed directly to France. They were the last French soldiers to leave Rhode Island.

The relocation of the French camp onto the property of Jeremiah Dexter on 13 November was necessitated according to Baron Closen because the owner of the land they had encamped refused to let the French cut wood on his property. The amount of wood needed for both the barracks as well as for cooking and warmth was enormous: during their brief stay in Providence, French forces cut a total of 1,681 cords of wood from almost 60 acres of land. With that wood they built 325 barracks and huts, 266 of which were sold on 31 December 1782, barely a month after the departure of French forces.

Suggestions for further readings:

Kennett, Lee. The French Forces in America, 1780-1783 (Westport, 1977)

Rice, Howard C. Jr., and Anne S.K. Brown, eds., The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s

         Army 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783 2 vols., (Princeton and Providence, 1972)

Scott, Samuel F. From Yorktown to Valmy: The Transformation of the French Army in an

         Age of Revolution (Niwot, CO, 1998)

Selig, Robert A. The Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route in the State of Rhode

         Island, 1780-1783. An Architectural and Historical Site Survey and Resource Inventory

(2006/2015) available at http://www.w3r-us.org/