There is a tiresome, anonymous little platitude that roams the internet nether regions of spam that reads something along the lines of "If it were not for the super-Americans helping during the Second World War, you French would be speaking German." Though one rarely sees them sinking to tit-for-tat-ism, the French can reply: "Were it not for the French Expeditionary Force helping during your Revolution, you would still be a colony."
Briefly: the French Expeditionary Force consisted of over 5500 men serving under the lieutenant-general Rochambeau (in the picture above). It arrived in Rhode Island in 1780, marched across Connecticut in the summer of 1781 and joined Washington's forces on the Hudson. The combined forces joined up with more French under Lafayette, to surround Cornwallis at Yorktown, for whom any escape or assistance by sea had been negated by the French navy, under de Grasse, in the Battle of the Chesapeake. The British surrendered, the United States became independent, all thanks in large part to the French. (The Office of the Historian of the Department of State gives a more detailed version.)
How to find those ancestors who fought in the American Revolution? They are well documented, often more so than are the American soldiers with whom they fought.
- One of the best books on the officers has the book-within-a-title title of Dictionnaire des officiers de l'armée royale qui ont combattu aux Etats-Unis pendant la guerre d'indépendance 1776-1783, suivi d'un Supplément à Les Français sous les treize étoiles du commandant André Lasseray, by Capitaine Gilbert Bodiner. Bodiner uses original military records from the archives at the Chateau de Vincennes. He refers to the works of others, such as Balch's The French in America during the War of Independence and Contenson's La société des Cincinnati de France et la guerre d'Amérique (1778-1783) and corrects some of their mistakes. For each officer, there is a biography which contains family information, a description of the man's military career, bibliographic references to him, and the references to his files in the archives of the Service Historique de la Défense at Vincennes, which is also a co-publisher of the book.
- And if one's ancestor was not an officer? It is more difficult but not impossible. To find genealogical information on an ordinary soldier, one must know his regiment, company and commanding officer. With that, one can then look him up in the Contrôles de Troupes in the archives. These were registers of each soldier, usually giving some aspects of his physical appearance as a form of identity. They also give the soldier's full name and place of birth. The contrôles were well established by 1716 and were produced in duplicate, one copy staying with the regiment and the other being sent to the court of the King. The four volumes of Les contrôles de troupes de l'ancien régime cover all of the pre-Revolutionary military, not just those who fought in the American Revolution, and list the companies for each regiment, the commanding officers and give the archival codes for finding the documents at Vincennes.
- If you have only a name and no regiment, company or commander, there is, on Gallica the book Les combattants français de la guerre américaine, 1778-1783 in its entirety. This book gives the names of combattants in both the army and the navy, their rank and town of origin. It has a most imperfect search facility for the document (click on the tiny tab to the left on which is written vertically Module de recherche). It really has not been well scanned and checked, for a search on the name Martin will bring up Jean, Nicolas, and all sorts of others, along with a few Martins. You could get lucky and find your man, or you could spend the next few years of your life reading down all those lists.
- A bit narrow, this, but if you are descended from a soldier of the Périgord region, there is, again on Gallica, an article entitled Combattants périgourdins de la Guerre américaine (1778-1783) by Joseph Durieux in vol. 24, 1907 of the Bulletin de la Société Historique et Archéologique du Périgord, which lists all men from that region who fought in the American Revolution.
- Finally, LaFayette GenWeb has a database of many of the French soldiers, but it is not infallible. We tested it with a few names of known combatants and it turned up nothing. Nevertheless, it is useful and has more information, including the names of the regiments and of the ships involved.
©2010 Anne Morddel