Long before Interstate 95 and Amtrak, Delaware provided a corridor for some important people journeying elsewhere. The number of travelers who stayed overnight while passing through nearly 222 years ago would certainly have warmed a few cockles in the collective hearts of  folks in the hospitality business nowadays.

Robert Selig, who has spent several months studying their trip, said that, while they certainly stirred up considerable interest among the locals of those days, they were understandably viewed with mixed emotions. "It must have seemed like a swarm of locusts, but these French locusts came with money," he said.

The Frenchmen were soldiers in the expeditionary force commanded by Lieutenant General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau. They were accompanied over a span of four days and three nights by the bulk of the Colonial Army and attached militia led by General George Washington.

Combined strength of the two continents was about 11,000 and that did not count servants. They came with horses, oxen, supply wagons and various and sundry accouterments of soldiering. By way of

perspective, he said there were all of 1,200 people residing in Wilmington at the time -- fewer than were aboard each of the French ships which later transported the armies down Chesapeake Bay from Head of the Elk (Elkton today), Baltimore and Annapolis.

They were headed south to a rendezvous in Yorktown, Virginia, with a general named Charles Cornwallis and the principal British army sent by King George III to put an end to all that Yankee Doodle nonsense about independence. The allies and a large French fleet provided enough 18th Century shock and awe to force Cornwallis's surrender in Oct. 19, 1781. That did not actually end the Revolutionary War, but assured not only that it would end but also how it would end.

With the 225th anniversary of the Franco-American climactic battle and the trek which led up to it, there is considerable interest in the eight states through which the armies passed -- the French started in Newport, R.I., and the Americans from The Bronx, N.Y. -- in promoting a commemoration and establishing a permanent 'national historical trail' to attract history-minded folk and other tourists well beyond 2006.

Robert Selig shows a draft copy of his report to an attender at the Sons of the American Revolution meeting.

The effort is known as promoting the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, abbreviated as W-3-R.

On Apr. 8, the landmarks committee of the National Park System Advisory Board unanimously recommended that a complete proposal be developed and presented to Congress for final consideration and vote to be a designated a 'national historical trail'.

The Delaware Historic Preservation Office hired Selig, a professional historian, to determine and document the armies' route through northern Delaware. He presented a summary of his findings on Apr. 26 at a meeting of the Delaware Society, Sons of the American Revolution. His complete 200,000-word report is due to be published soon by the office.

Selig said it will forever put an end to the false notion that Delaware, where only a single major skirmish, the Battle of Cooch's Bridge, was fought, played only a minor supporting role in the Revolution.

On the contrary, he said, his research has demonstrated that the state was an important link in the supply chain and things like the apparent willingness of Delawareans to accommodate the massive number of soldiers who passed through in early September of 1781 demonstrated their patriotism. Among the things he found in the state archives were chits the Continentals issued to property owners from whom they requisitioned supplies and pastures for their mounts. Only when the new United States government agreed in 1790 to assume war debts of the states, were these dug out of cupboards and attics and cashed, Selig said.

The route, he determined, came down from Chester, Pa., where Washington met Rochambeau, entering Delaware at Naamans, where the Robinson House, which the troops passed, still stands. They traveled via Philadelphia Pike -- then King's Highway, although that name had, for obvious reasons, fallen into disfavor -- and what is now Market Street through Brandywine Village into Wilmington. They left the city, which then was barely a village, along what is now Maryland Avenue and Newport Pike through Richardson Park, Newport, Stanton and Christiana, then an important though small, river port. They crossed Iron Hill andentered Maryland by way of what is now Old Baltimore Pike.

Camp sites have been identified in the vicinity of Second and Adams Streets in Wilmington, Canby Park just south of the present city, Newport and Christiana.

Of perhaps greater interest, and impact, was the return journey of a contingent of French troops, led by Duc de Lauzun, which established quarters in Wilmington for the winter of 1781-82. Officers were quartered by mutual consent in private homes. Selig said that 559 ordinary soldiers were put up by the Wilmington Academy in a building where the Grand Opera House now stands. He said he is at a loss to understand how that many men were accommodated in a single building but that his research has turned up no references to other quarters.

Several French soldiers deserted or were discharged during their stay in Wilmington and some stayed on as permanent residents. At least one is buried in the cemetery at Old Swedes Church.

Among the anecdotes he uncovered, he said, is an account of an attempted robbery of coins sent to meet the French payroll while they were here.

Delawareans' penchant for regarding big deals as not so big deals evidently existed way back then. Selig said 65 men were enlisted as replacements for casualties in a Delaware unit operating in the Carolinas and they decided to march south with the Colonials. They hung around long enough to be the only troops from Delaware known to have been involved in the siege and battle at Yorktown. Instead of returning home as heroes afterwards, they traveled farther south to fulfill their original intent.

Posted on April 27, 2003

2003. All rights reserved.

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