Who Served Here?
General Chevalier Louis Lebègue dePresle Duportail
General Duportail was one of the dynamic personalities who came to America from France to aid in the War for Independence. Benjamin Franklin, on his trip to France in 1776, enlisted the aid of Duportail, at the time a member of the Engineering Corps of the French Army. Duportail arrived in America in 1777, and was commissioned colonel of engineers.
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 to capture Philadelphia. Duportail was charged not with leading troops in battle, but with surveying the area to gain valuable intelligence on enemy movements, terrain, etc., and with devising defenses based upon this intelligence.
On September 26, 1777, despite the efforts by Washington, Duportail and others, the British captured Philadelphia. Washington and his generals agreed that the Continental Army should camp for the winter at Valley Forge. Duportail, the experienced engineer, was promoted to Brigadier General shortly before the encampment, and played a key role in establishing the camp, 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."
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 Von Steuben, 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.
As 1778 drew to a close, the army took up winter quarters at Morristown, NJ. Duportail was again enlisted to help plan the encampment. Washington relied on the Frenchman's engineering background to determine the optimal location for the army to camp and help devise appropriate defenses from that position.
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 south of 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. But with the French now on their side, the Americans scored victories elsewhere. On October 19, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. 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 few years before returning to France. The French government recognized Duportail's talents and his service to the American cause, promoting him to maréchal de camp in the French Army. In 1790 he became minister of war, but resigned in December 1791. By this time the French Revolution had engulfed France in turmoil. Not wishing to meet his end on the guillotine at the hands of radical Jacobins, he fled to the United States, buying a farm not far from where he had camped with Washington at Valley Forge.
The French Revolution continued to run its bloody course, but by 1802, with Napolean firmly in power, Duportail again sailed for the now-safer France. Alas, he never made it, dying at sea, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, between his home country of France and the adopted nation he helped to create.