“The code word is Rochambeau, dig me? . . . You have your orders now, go man go!” (From Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
I originally wrote this post back in December 2022 in honor of the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to the White House:
At the time, there was all sorts of talk about how France was America’s first ally, during our glorious Revolution of 1776. So, I thought it would be interesting to share some nitty gritty details about a local spot where the French Army encamped during the American Revolution on their way down to Yorktown, Virginia where they helped us defeat the British in 1781.
However, the Harry Potter Forbidden Forest Experience had other ideas.
They had loaded in an enormous amount of equipment and closed off a big section of Franklin Delano Roosevelt State Park. And they’d set up right on top of the campsite and the historical markers I sought. But, as of February 15, all is clear and now the story can be told.
(As an aside, if you missed the Harry Potter Experience, it’ll be back next Fall, so try and snag a ticket. They are not cheap, but it’s definitely a fun experience for young and old. (No they’re not paying me to say this!) Plus, the company has left the park better than they found it, with both new and upgraded trails. So win/win.)
On August 21, 1781 Marshal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau and his army first encamped within the boundaries of today’s FDR Park to rest before their big march south to attack the British in Virginia.
Local historian Lincoln Diamant wrote about their sojourn in our backyard in this charming article for the New York Times in 1996 (back when the NYT still published charming articles of local history and culture.)
Now, Rochambeau’s army of 3,500 had arrived in Westchester in early July. They met up with George Washington’s army, camping in Ardsley, and Washington and Rochambeau planned the upcoming offensive.
Rochambeau commandeered the nearby Odell House in Hartsdale as his headquarters. (See here for more on this Westchester Historic Site.)
Diamant mentions that the two armies “exchanged civilities,” and shares a description written by a French officer of a banquet the Americans offered that consisted of ”la haute cuisine Americain . . . vegetables, beef, potatoes, lamb, chicken, salad (dressed with nothing but vinegar), puddings and pie — all heaped upon the same table, and often upon the same plate.”
I can just see the French officers chuckling to each other behind perfumed, lacy handkerchiefs at such peasant fare and rough presentation, can’t you? Oh, those Americains! I dread to think what the French thought about the wine served.
Washington took a few weeks to decide where he was going to launch what he must have known was the Colonies’ Hail Mary attack on the British. By late August, Virginia had been selected as the attack point.
The two armies split up and began marching. The French took a slightly different route, but all were marching through 90* heat, in wool uniforms, carrying heavy loads up to 60 pounds over some pretty hilly terrain.
It’s at this juncture that Rochambeau’s army stopped in what is today FDR Park, camping near Crom Pond, on the property of one Caleb Frost, a Tory who had long before escaped south behind British lines. According to Diamant, the precise location of this campsite is noted as near “Solomon Hunt’s Tavern in the pleasant settlement of what is now Yorktown Heights (near the corner of Hallock’s Mill Road and U.S. 202)”
They only stayed one night, heading off to Verplank to cross the Hudson River at King’s Ferry, marching south to Virginia, to the Siege of Yorktown and the Battle of the Chesapeake (I know I don’t need to tell you what happened there.) Let’s just say that without General Lafayette (who was waiting there in Chesapeake Bay), General Rochambeau, and all the French soldiers fighting and dying for our cause, we would not be the vibrant, independent country we are today.
So yeah, France really IS our first ally.
But the story doesn’t end there. In 1782, on their way up to Boston to embark on ships that would return them to France, Rochambeau’s army would return to this campsite for almost a month’s stay in September/October. As they packed up to leave, Rochambeau was very nearly arrested. You see, mill owner Hallock was miffed that the French army had cut down trees and destroyed some of his fences (3500 men will do that), and so had the local sheriff try to collect 15,000 livres from Rochambeau in damages. Ever the diplomat, Rochambeau defused the situation by offering to pay a significant, but much lower amount. While I certainly understand Hallock’s ire, in the big picture, Hallock would have likely had nothing if the British had won. Plus, the sign below notes that Rochambeau’s army had made improvements to the Crom Pond to give themselves more access to water and their work had also benefited mill-owner Mr. Hallock. I think Mr. Hallock was being unreasonable. Don’t you?
The National Park Service has helpfully put together this Washington – Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Trail Brochure which you can use to follow in the footsteps of these patriots all the way from Boston down to Yorktown, Virginia. (I know what I’m doing this summer . . .)