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
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
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
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