A French Connection
Often times we hear great “facts” from local people of what happened in their towns during the American Revolution. Sorting fact from fiction is not often easy. Time and things like fire, mold and floods can destroy the historic paperwork that contains these facts.
The Second Continental Light Dragoons guiding the Army of Rochembeau across Connecticut and showing them where to stay is just such a case. Sorting out the facts is hard because what was considered common duty was not recorded only really special events of high importance would get mentioned. Forensic history has to be employed. Many instances and reports, normally considered separate events, must be put together to form a picture of what happened. The jigsaw puzzle of this secret event of the American Revolution has suffered much as almost 90% of the papers of Col. Sheldon are still unaccounted for. As you will see, there was just a little truth in all of the “local history.” Sheldon’s Dragoons’ story begins long before the French arrive.
In the fall of 1778, the regiment of Baylor’s Dragoons suffered a terrible massacre at the hands of Colonel “No Flint” Grey. Baylor’s were the primary horse escort for General Washington. Sheldon’s Dragoons are selected as their replacements.
In 1779, negotiations are moving forward and supplies are being prepared. A Congressional Committee of Co-operation is set up to deal with the problems of supporting not just the Continental Army, but also a French Army of up to 11,000 men and supporting personnel. The travels of the French staff and advance logistics was a matter of the highest secrecy, being so close the British Army headquarters in New York.
Colonel Sheldon and Major Tallmadge would be the “behind the scenes” players in veiling the routes and times of the march of Rochembeau’s Army. The scene is set for 1780 when the French decide it is time to act. They arrive at Newport, Rhode Island on or about July 10, 1780.
The long crossing, lack of fresh fruit and fresh water shortage, as well as storms and having to avoid the British Navy, causes about 30% of the French to be sick. What the French need is time. Time to organize, and time to recover, so they could help the American cause.
In January of 1780, General Washington begins a re-organization of the Army to prepare for the joint operations with the French. Much of this is recorded in both the Writings and the Papers of George Washington. We are concerned with following the “horse trails” of Sheldon’s Dragoons.
On January 12, 1780, Gen. Washington changes the reporting of the various personnel of each regiment to a stricter accounting. “On command” now meant for military duty only.1 On June 4th, Sheldon has 300 men equipped for duty,2 and he would need them all. His duties included guarding the Western counties of Connecticut, and Westchester and Putnam Counties of New York State. He would also have to assign to Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge some dragoons to help in the intelligence raids on Long Island.
Sheldon has to go to war with even fewer dragoons, as more are taken for duty as Gen. Washington’s personal bodyguard on horse.3 Meanwhile, Sheldon has been ordered into action, to scout the enemy up the Hudson river and warn the Army.4 The campaign of 1780 is in full operation, but there would be two major distractions for Sheldon. One would be the Arnold-Andre affair over West Point, the other, a court martial hearing about Sheldon himself. He would acquit himself well on both counts, at the same time showing he was a man to get the job done.
On July 31st, the opening of communications with Rochembeau begins, at the same time as the duties of the Westchester front. The communications needed to be secure, secret and quick. Sheldon was to establish his part from Gen. Washington’s headquarters, wherever he was, to New London.5
In war, things do not always go according to plan. On August 5th, Washington writes a series of letters to Chevalier De Lauzun, Comte De Rochembeau, and Chevalier De Ternay using and mentioning the new expresses set up by Sheldon. Shortly thereafter, Sheldon’s dragoons are carrying all of the expresses right to French headquarters, because of a failure to enlist state or private express riders by Mr. Nathaniel Shaw, who had been given the civilian duty to do so. Captain George Hurlburt states this in a letter of August 8, 1780 to Gen. Washington.6
The need for safe and undetected routes of communication causes a change on August 27th as the British parties had intercepted one of Sheldon’s dragoons.7 The change in routes and stations prevents the British from any further intercepts for the rest of 1780.
In September 1780, Washington meets with Rochembeau and follows the same route to Hartford, with slight alterations, used by Sheldon’s expresses. Gen. Washington writes for quarters to be prepared, bringing with him twelve to fifteen dragoons.8 This meeting will set the stage for co-operation not just between Washington and Rochembeau, but between Sheldon’s and Lauzun’s legions as well, as both are providing security escorts for their respective Commanders.
The fall passes under a great deal of stress because of Gen. Arnold’s defection to the British. The expresses continue, as communication is vital to armies working together. Col. Sheldon is acquitted in his court martial, and returns to duty.
On November 1st, with armies of both sides settling into winter quarters, Gen. Washington continues his reshaping of the American army in preparation for working with the French.9 The result is that Sheldon’s dragoons are placed on a legionary-cavalry organization. This allows the use of more dismounted dragoons, and consequently more bases of operation.
Winter comes on and Sheldon is busy trying to rest both horses and men. Getting supplies of clothing for the men, stabling and forage for the horses, and re-equipping both becomes vital. The expresses, however, continue to drain men and horses. Finally, on December 8, 1780 Gen. Washington orders Sheldon to stop the expresses, and take a rest to refit the regiment.10
Normally, a cavalry regiment relies on the 6-month “winter” to heal horse and rider. Sheldon’s would not get that rest. Washington needs his expresses with the French. Sheldon’s is ordered on duty in winter.11
Preparations for the new campaign are under way by February 1781. Both the political and military meetings are more often held despite the season. Into this, Sheldon arrives quietly.12 He will be dealing more with the Duc De Lauzun.
Winter gives way to the Spring of 1781, and it finds Sheldon’s getting ready to take the field of battle. The French are now planning the routes to take. Gen. Belville takes different routes to and from New Windsor, NY to Rhode Island. Gen. Washington keeps the expresses going and sends letters of planning and intelligence to the French and the Connecticut suppliers.13
As spring goes by the armies prepare to join up for action against the British in New York. More dragoons are used for the daily communications between Rhode Island and Washington’s headquarters. Washington has only two dragoons for himself!14
May is a good month for Sheldon’s. Despite the expresses and meetings, his unit’s officers’ hard work pays off, and by late May the regiment boasts 300 men. By May 31st, the regiment appears to be fully equipped. None of this has escaped Gen. Washington. He writes to Governor Trumbull that Sheldon’s is to be “under my immediate command.”15
The time to act has come, and Sheldon’s is ready, with the additional confidence of Gen. Washington. At this point Sheldon’s has earned a reputation for its service. The aide de camp for Rochembeau gives us a good reason why Sheldon’s was picked. On November 24, 1780, he writes in his journal, “These dragoons are perfectly mounted, and do not fear meeting the English dragoons, over whom they have gained several advantages.”16
The Army of Rochembeau begins its march on or about May 18, 1781. Washington has a new aide de camp, David Cobb, who is appointed on June 15, 1781. His responsibility will be to follow on with the French and escort them to Gen. Washington.17
On June 29th, Cobb writes Washington from Newtown, Connecticut. He reports that the divisions are moving well, and he will send horsemen in advance to the General, with notice of the march’s progress and position, so that all may be ready when they arrive.18 Chastellux remarks that Cobb “since he knew all the country perfectly, he was to remain with us to help plan our marches.”19 On June 27th, Washington assigns Cobb to attend Rochembeau.20
Cobb had been give some of Sheldon’s dragoons to assist in the escort. References were made by the liaison of Washington and Rochembeau’s aide de camp, Von Closen on July 1st at Ridgebury. “The American Dragoons occupied a position halfway between our army and General Washingon.”21 Another verification is the journal of Clermont Crevcouer who is part of the staff family of Rochembeau who remarks on July 2, 1781, “We had besides 160 American Dragoons, Sheldon’s – Col. Cobb commanding.” The French staff member was well impressed with Sheldon’s, as he went on to say, “Who are incontestably the best troops on the Continent. They are permanently attached to Gen. Washington and form his bodyguard. He is always attended by an escort of these brave men.”22
Military practice dictated that you send a visiting commander an escort of your best troops as a gesture of honor and respect. In keeping with military tradition, Sheldon’s was obviously a good choice for both sides.
Although there is no great revelation in the real facts, the march of Rochembeau was communicated by Sheldon’s expresses, and the intelligence provided by Capt. Hurlburt and Maj. Tallmadge in 1780 and 1781. The march was completely escorted by Sheldon’s from Newtown to Peekskill and Bedford, New York. The facts found so far show some involvement of, and appreciation of the French for, Sheldon’s dragoons. It is quite possible other earlier escorts with Washington also escorted some of the French officers. This would be based upon the fact that they would fall into the realm of daily routine duties and would not be something special to write about. It may be due to the secrecy that was needed that they were sure not to write it down.
Sheldon’s dragoons did their duty to both armies and in the process did a faithful service to their own memory which by facts written on some old letters lets them live again. Let us never forget the sacrifices and efforts made by a few for the benefit of so many not of just this country but for the world.
- General Orders Jan. 12,1780 Writings of George Washington
- G.Washington to Sheldon June 4,1780 Writings of George Washington
- General Orders July 21,1780 Writings of George Washington
- G.Washington to Maj Genl. Robert Howe June 21,1780 Writings of George Washington
- G.Washington to Sheldon July 31,1780 Writings of George Washington
- Hurlburt to G. Washington August 8,1780 The Papers of George Washington
- G.Washington to Sheldon August 27,1780 Writings of George Washington
- G.Washington to Col Nehemiah Hubbard Sept 13, 1780 Writings of George Washington
- General Orders Nov.1,1780 Writings of George Washington
- G.Washington to Sheldon Dec.8,1780 Writings of George Washington
- G.Washington to Sheldon Jan. 31,1781 Writings of George Washington
- G.Washington to Rochembeau Feb.14,1781 Writings of George Washington
- G.Washington to Col Jerimiah Wadsworth Apr.30,1781 Writings of George Washington
- G.Washington to Ebenezer Hazzard May 9,1781 Writings of George Washington
- G.Washington to Gov. Trumbull May 22,1781 Writings of George Washington
- Travels in America Chastellux pg108
- General Orders June 15,1781 Writings of George Washington
- Cobb to Washington June 29,1781 The Papers of George Washington
- Journal of Baron Von Closen 1780-1783 pg87
- G.Washington to Rochembeau June 27,1781 The Papers of George Washington
- Journal of Baron Von Closen 1780-1783 pg88
- Rochembeau’s Travels in North America Vol I