By Robert Selig SPRING 2012
In 1780, France sent troops under the command of the comte de Rochambeau to help General Washington and the Continental Army fight the British. They arrived off Newport, Rhode Island that July, and in September Rochambeau met with Washington in Hartford to plan their strategy. [See “The ‘Conference’ State,” Fall 2005.]
Moving large numbers of troops and materiel over long distances requires careful planning—and accurate maps. The French army of the mid-18th century had a large body of cartographic material available and a corps of officers trained in drawing road and other maps. When Rochambeau arrived in Newport, his staff included some of these skilled draftsmen.
In October, the two best-known French topographers, Louis Alexandre de Berthier and his younger brother Charles Louis Berthier, arrived in Newport. The skills of the Berthier brothers and their colleagues were sorely needed in the New World. Before other French “volunteers”—so labeled because France was not yet officially involved in the war — such as Presle DuPortail arrived in the spring of 1777, the Continental Army had no trained topographers or much of a map archive: Most of the military maps were in British hands.
At a second conference in Wethersfield in late May 1781, Washington and Rochambeau agreed to unite their forces outside New York City (though they would eventually engage and defeat the British at Yorktown, Virginia that October). The French troops had already begun their preparations with a thorough road reconnaissance. In early April, Rochambeau’s quartermaster general Pierre François de Béville had used a visit to Washington’s headquarters in New Windsor, New York to inspect the roads across Connecticut. On April 14, John Carter wrote to Jeremiah Wadsworth: “The Quarter Master General sets off tomorrow to mark the Line of March, as soon as that is fixed the Intendant will describe the different Posts where he will want Forage, Wood, Cattle &a provided.” Béville took careful notes, and upon his return his assistants began drawing road maps and selecting campsites. Once that had been accomplished, the task of establishing depots began. On April 25, Carter wrote to Wadsworth, “Late last Night the Intendant gave me his Orders respecting the Camps as far as Hartford.”
Six weeks later, on June 11, Rochambeau’s forces sailed from Newport to Providence; on June 18, the first regiment set out on foot for White Plains. The remaining three regiments, totaling nearly 3,000 troops, followed in daily intervals. On the morning of June 19 they crossed into Connecticut and encamped in Plainfield. There had been no time to execute full, detailed maps, only road descriptions and sketches indicating the locations of campsites.
Berthier and another, unknown, draftsman kept their sketches and took them back to France in 1783. Here they became the basis for road and camp atlases chronicling the movement of French forces through Connecticut and along the East Coast. Most of these sketches seem to have been discarded in America already and after the completion of the atlases in France the remaining sketches were discarded as well: Only a single field sketch, drawn by Berthier of the camp in Farmington on their return in late October 1782, has survived.
These maps, now part of the Berthier Collection at Princeton University and the Rochambeau Map Collection at the Library of Congress, are beautiful works of art. In many cases they also constitute the earliest detailed and extremely accurate maps of small geographic areas such as campsites. A comparison with modern maps confirms the location of many of the churches and taverns they identify. Many of the roads taken by Rochambeau’s forces have become modern roads clearly discernible today; others, long since abandoned, still exist in small segments off the beaten path.
Bob Selig is the project historian to the National Park Service for the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail project. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the Universität Würzburg