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Who were the unknown French who lie buried on the edge of the playing fields of St. John's College? Their names were never recorded, and the circumstances of their deaths are shrouded by the passage of over two centuries of time. During the Revolution, in 1781, Annapolis was the journey's end for some of the 4,000 French who were moving to Yorktown for the decisive battle of the American struggle for independence. They were buried on the shores of College Creek, and in 1911 a monument was erected in their memory.
The Revolutionary War could not have been won without the help of the French. Prior to the opening of the campaign in Virginia, the Marquis de Lafayette encamped with his American forces in Annapolis from March 12 to April 6. The French troops came five months later, in September, as part of the army of Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte Donatien de Rochambeau, which began its long march southward from Newport, R.I., on June 10.
The first contingent of the French-the artillery, grenadiers, and light troops-arrived September 12 after boarding a fleet of transports at the Head of Elk at the north end of the Chesapeake Bay. Bad weather and lack of provisions forced their Annapolis stop.
Then, on September 18, close to 3,000 French troops, with a train of artillery, marched into the city at 7 a.m. They had camped seven miles short of Annapolis the preceding night after marching 17 miles from Bryan's Tavern at what is now Waterloo. The march to Annapolis was "excessively hot," Jean Francois Louis, Comte de Clermont-Crevecoeur, recorded in his journal, noting that there was no spring along the way and the troops "suffered extreme discomfort." From Annapolis most of the men were taken by five frigates and nine transports to the James River. Some of the French also proceeded overland to Williamsburg with a wagon train.
A tactful, stubborn, perceptive man, Rochambeau-along with Washington--decided to attack Yorktown rather than to undertake the more risky effort of capturing New York. He also persuaded Francois Joseph Paul, Marquis de Grasse-Tilly, to come north from the West Indies and join them.
"I thought not to conceal from you that these people are at the end of their resources," he wrote de Grasse. "Washington will not have half the troops he counted upon; and I believe, although he conceals the fact, that he has not now 6,000 men...Such is an actual picture of the lamentable condition of the forces in this country...You can see how necessary it is that you bring troops with you. This country is in extremity; all its resources have failed at once; Continental paper has become worthless."
De Grasse brought a reinforcement of 3,000 soldiers off the Virginia Coast. They embarked from the West Indies through stormy seas, bringing with them some 19,000 sailors and marines. Joining them was Jacques Melchior Saint Laurent, Comte de Barras, who came from the north. Together they employed 19 ships of the line and eight frigates with other vessels from Cape Henry to Cape Charles to bar the retreat of the British general, Cornwallis. The French gained control of the American waters. With the attack at Yorktown by the Americans and French, Cornwallis was bottled up. Although the war dragged on until 1783, it was, in effect, over with the 1781 American victory at Yorktown.
How many French soldiers died in Annapolis and are buried on St. John's back campus is not known; it seems likely there were not many. In all of the war for independence, an estimated 1,112 French lost their lives.
"Old--very old--Annapolitans can recall their great-great grandfathers speaking of a few simple headstones that marked the graves of some of the French dead buried here," an Annapolis paper noted in 1911. Some of the men must have died of illnesses contracted during their difficult march. Both Americans and French soldiers had felt that going into the south would be unhealthy. Because of the extreme heat, they marched at night, folding up tent at 2 a.m. and reaching camp in the hottest part of the day. Abbe Calude Robin, who accompanied the march, wrote that "Since we were forbidden to drink any water unless it was dashed with rum, we had to wait stretched in the dust and panting with thirst." The yokes of oxen bearing the medicinal liquor sometimes did not arrive before nightfall.
From the standpoint of spectacle, the well-equipped, well-dressed, and well-behaved French greatly impressed the residents of the small American cities they passed through, and Annapolitans must have come running to see them, too. (A crowed of 20,000 turned out in Philadelphia.) Most of the uniforms were white. The white broadcloth of the 41st Soissonnai bore vivid crimson facings; the 85th Saitonge, green; and the 13th Boubonnai, black. The Royal DeuPongs marched in blue coats set off by bright yellow facings and cuffs. The calvary wore black felt hussar busbies, white-plumed and gold-laced. Their jackets were sky blue. The officers wore scarlet breeches and had marten fur busbies, crimson baldrics, and tiger skin saddlecloths.
And they made a great hit socially. In Annapolis, the 24-year old Lafayette was a tremendous success even with the Tories. One resident, Mrs. Benjamin Ogle, wrote that Annapolis "would be intolerable were it not for the officers...It's all marquises, counts, etc...I like the French better every hour. The divine Marquis de Lafayette is in town and is quite the thing."
Of Annapolis, Comte de Clermont-Crevecoeur wrote on September 19: "Annapolis is a small town that is quite well built. It is situated on the Chesapeake Bay. The streets are not paved, nor so wide as in Baltimore. There are several fine houses here. The State House of the province is the most beautiful of any in America. ..Everything is delightfully clean."
Henry Marion, a professor at the Naval Academy, suggested the monument to mark the graves of the unknown French dead. He had been in Cherbourg when the body of John Paul Jones was removed from French soil and sent to the Naval Academy. Marion was touched by the care the French gave to the cemetery for America seamen who had been killed June 27, 1864, in a sea fight off Cherbourg between the U.S. sloop of war Kearsarge and the Confederate cruiser Alabama.
It was time, Professor Marion felt, for a reciprocal act which would honor those French who had given their lives to the American cause. The Sons of the Revolution agreed. On March 26, 1906, the monument's cornerstone was laid. Amelia Fowler, great-granddaughter of Comte de Grasse, place the first bit of mortar under the stone, and Madame Jusserand, wife of the French Ambassador, laid a wreath.
The French monument was dedicated April 18, 1911, one day earlier than the bronze plaque it bears indicates in order to accommodate the schedule of President William Howard Taft, who came for the occasion with Ambassador Jean J. Jusserand. At the dedication Miss Fowler and Count Rene de Chambrun, a descendant of Lafayette, pulled the canvas from the pink granite monument. Designed by Baltimore sculptor J. Maxwell Miller, its bronze plaque of a heroic female figure is emblematic of sorrowing memory.