General Chevalier Louis Lebègue dePresle Duportail
General Duportail, by Charles Willson Peale, probably from life, c. 1781-1784
General Duportail was one of the dynamic personalities who came to America from France to aid in the War for Independence. He held a very important and responsible position in the Engineering Corps of the French Army. It was Benjamin Franklin, on his trip to France in 1776, who enlisted the aid of Duportail with approval from the Continental Congress and the French government. Duportail arrived in America in 1777.
When Duportail entered Continental service, Congress was in session in Philadelphia, but later assembled in the temporary capital, York, Pennsylvania since Philadelphia had been captured by the British. Duportail was first commissioned colonel of engineers and later was promoted to brigadier-general.
One of the first official orders given to Colonel Duportail appears in Weedon's Orderly Book where General Washington directed Duportail as follows: Camp Wilmington, 8 Sept. 1777: A fatigue of 100 men from the divisions to parade immediately to be commanded by a field officer who will receive orders from Col. Duportail engineer. The British under Howe and Cornwallis and the Hessians under Knyphausen were marching toward Wilmington.
Washington knew the enemy were invading Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania in order to capture Philadelphia. Washington established strong fortifications near Wilmington, but the enemy would not risk a frontal attack. Howe tried to outflank Washington, and camped at Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, on September 10, 1777. Washington, marched his troops to Chadds Ford.
During the following weeks, Washington kept his army some distance from Philadelphia, ready to strike if necessary. It soon became evident, however, that the British were content to spend their winter where there was lodging, food, and entertainment. After consultation with his staff, Washington decided to go into winter quarters with his army on the hills of Valley Forge. Generals Knox and Duportail agreed Valley Forge presented a good strategic location for the troops. Knox established the general lines of the camp and Duportail worked with him to develop the details, as expressed in the following order issued by Washington: "Valley Forge Jan 15, 1778. Consult with General Duportail on the proper means and number of men necessary to execute the works in the different wings and several lines."
With the arrival of Baron von Stueben at Valley Forge, the training of the army began. Knox and Duportail assisted with the training in the department of the artillery...the maneuvering and handling, etc. While in winter quarters at Valley Forge, Washington organized his plans for the campaign of 1778. During May, Congress issued orders to Washington to convene a council of war, to which he responded. Congress had not ceased to issue orders to Washington, which they had the authority to do. However, Washington informed Congress that it was not always possible for him to follow their directions. Washington called the council, attended by his leading officers and Duportail was present and took part in the deliberations. The Commander-in-Chief gave the council a detailed statement of the enemy's forces — approximately sixteen thousand excluding cavalry and artillery, and pointed out that with reinforcements, the American army could number about twenty thousand. (Without reinforcements the army consisted of approximately eleven thousand eight hundred, including the sick; fourteen hundred at Wilmington, Delaware; and about eighteen hundred at North River — not including artillery and cavalry).
The council discussed the situation and rendered a unanimous decision that under the conditions at the time, the plan should be defensive rather than offensive. When a favorable situation opened, then an offensive plan could be undertaken. There was agreement among the council that the enemy occupied positions which were well protected by locations and fortifications. The entire army marched out of Valley Forge on June 19, 1778. The defeat of the British at Monmouth, New Jersey attested to the work in the training of the soldiers by Stueben, as well as Knox and Duportail.
Duportail worked with another foreign officer, Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko, from Poland and later with Colonel Alexander Hamilton. Duportail and Hamilton were sent to Sandy Hook to watch for another French officer, Count d'Estaing, with his fleet of French soldiers by sea. Hamilton and Duportail waited in vain for d'Estaing's arrival, and proceeded to Great Egg Harbor. It was becoming late in the year to launch an effective naval campaign, so they returned to Headquarters. In the meantime, Washington had word that d'Estaing and his men were ready to attack Savannah, Georgia and General Benjamin Lincoln and his soldiers marched from Charleston, South Carolina.
The Americans and the French launched a terrific assault against the British, but were unsuccessful. Count d'Estaing was even wounded. Lincoln and d'Estaing held a conference regarding plans. Lincoln wanted to continue, but d'Estaing was adamant about not continuing. He and his soldiers sailed home and Lincoln marched his forces to Charleston.
The army headed north and eventually took up winter quarters once more at Morristown. Duportail was once again to..."meet the quarter-master-general to-morrow morning and in consequence with him examine all the grounds in the environs of our present encampment, and make a written report to me, without delay, of the different spots which appear most proper to be occupied, in case of any movement of the enemy toward us; pointing out the comparative advantages and disadvantages of each...The positions in the first case, are to be considered relatively to an army of ten thousand men; and the order of battle prepared, as far as circumstances and the nature of the ground will permit, is in two lines, one of three divisions, and the other of two divisions; but as the number will be diminished sometime hence, by the expiration of the time of service for which a part of the men are engaged, you will pay attention to this, in the consideration of the position we now occupy and the works proper for its defense."
The French sent forces to the United States under the command of Count Rochambeau. In order to facilitate plans for a campaign, a conference was held between Rochambeau, his staff, Washington, Knox and Duportail at Wethersfield, four miles below Hartford, Connecticut. The discussion centered around the possibilities of an attack against the British in New York. From New Windsor, May 28 1781, Washington sent Duportail the following message: "As you are perfectly acquainted with the plans which have been concerted with his Excellency Count de Rochambeau at Weathersfield, I need not enter into a detail of particulars. I have only to request, therefore, that you will be pleased to make the estimate of the articles in your department necessary for the operation, and that the previous arrangement for the seige as far as they are within the limits of our ability, may we put in the best train, which the circumstances will admit. In the meantime as it has become necessary, from the decay of the works, the demolition of the barracks, and other circumstances, to abandon the post of Fort Schuyler, and erect new fortifications at or near Fort Herkimer, I have to request, that you will send an engineer to superintend the works in that department."
The plan to undertake the seige of New York was unfortunately later abandoned. Contributing causes were the arrival of British reinforcements in New York and the fact that the English navy was larger than the French. (However, if the fleet of the Comte de Grasse would have sailed from the south to Sandy Hook and joined the French fleet there, the British ships could have been contained. The Comte de Grasse would not venture further north than the Chesapeake Bay.) At the same time though, General Greene was successful in forcing Cornwallis out of North Carolina into Virginia and Lafayette harassed him into a retreat at Yorktown. Washington knew his hour had come! The American and French forces headed south, and on September 25, the last of the allied troops reached Williamsburg, Virginia. The seige at Yorktown had begun in earnest. Washington had held conference previously on the French flag-ship "Ville de Paris" with Rochembeau, de Chastelleux, Knox and Duportail, discussing the French and American accord to defeat the British and their plans to accomplish it. On October 19, Cornwallis surrendered. Washington commended the conduct of both the French and American armies. He particularly commended Rochambeau, Generals Lincoln, Knox, Lafayette, Duportail and Steuben. Washington promoted Duportail to Major-General on October 26, 1781.
Duportail remained in the United States for a couple of years, a good friend and comrade of Washington. Washington wrote Duportail on his sadness at the possibility of his departure from Rocky Hill, New Jersey in October. Washington said farewell to his troops on November 2, 1783, again commending those around him that aided in the Independence of the United States of America.
France, in turn, recognized the talents of Duportail in his service to the American cause. On his return, he was Marechal-de-Camp. In 1790 he became minister of war, but resigned in December 1791. Later he was engaged in military service in Lorraine, where he was warned by friends that his life was in danger from the Jacobins. He fled secretly and found safety in the United States. In 1802, on a return to France, he died at sea.
Abridged from the article by Charles William Heathcote, Ph.D., The Picket Post, Valley Forge Historical Society; February 1959