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Rochambeau’s Instructions

Rochambeau’s Instructions for Service in Allied Command

Questions relating to Washington’s authority as the commander-in-chief of the allied armies in America during 1780-83 can be explained by the French archival material presented in this webpage. French text material was obtained and submitted by M. Jacques de TRENTINIAN, French Sons of the American Revolution and Society of the Cincinnati. Loose English translations have been attempted and added in blue text by this webage monitor

Some misunderstanding exists as to George Washington’s command status in respect to the French army commander Rochambeau. The French War Minister’s instructions to Rochambeau specifically identified George Washington as the overall ‘allied commander’ [‘supreme commander’ in modern terms].

Washington was not made a ‘marshal of France’, as some popular legends suggest, but he was recognized as a ‘généralissme’ of the US Congress. In keeping with European conventions of the times, that title designated an overall commander of all allied land forces in the campaign region. *

The French Minister of War, Montbarrey, wrote instructions to Rochambeau that placed the French general as subordinate to the American commander-in-chief. Indeed one of the reasons Rochambeau was chosen by the French court was his capacity to accept such a subordination without impairing the vital contribution provided by his considerable professional military experience.It should be noted, that the French Minister also called for the French army to maintain ‘unit integrity’ and ultimate national control over combat units. French units were not to be dispersed outside of such command relationship except for brief time periods if the situation required.”Général en chef ” was used in French documents for both for Rochambeau and George Washington, but the Ministre de la Guerre explicitedly identifies the subordination of the former to the latter, qualified as a “généralissime”.

Larousse Universel defines ‘généralissime’ as a general invested with supreme command of troops of one country or of a coalition [forces of more than one country]. The origin of the term is from the Latin generalissmus, superlative of generalis — ‘général’ in French. For example, Général Foch was ‘généralissme des armées alliées’ in 1918. Unfortunatly many Anglophone texts translate the French term ‘généralissme’ as ‘generalissimo’, the Spanish adoption of the Latin expression that is often associate in modern times with military leaders who ascend to political power by a military coup. Therefore, the eighteenth-century French meaning of ‘généralissme’ is best translated today as ‘supreme allied commander’ as it applied to George Washington’s status in 1781- 1783.

* Rochambeau did receive written instructions to render to Washington, the President of the US Congress, and the governors of the various states the honors due a Marshal of France. This was a ceremonial distinction and not a military command relationship.

Exhibit One:

Lettre de service du comte de Rochambeau (archives de la Guerre 3733).”De par le Roy, Sa Majesté ayant jugé à propos d’assembler un corps de troupes dont elle veut et entend que le sieur comte de Rochambeau, l’un de ses lieutenants généraux en ses armées prenne le commandement, elle mande et ordonne aux maréchaux de camp, brigadiers, colonels, mestres de camp, officiers du corps royal d’artillerie et celui du génie, généraux des vivres et autres commis, capitaines, chefs et conducteurs des gens de guerre, tant de cheval que de pied, français et étrangers qui serviront dans ledit corps de troupes, et tout autre qu’il appartiendra de reconnaître le sieur comte de Rochambeau, en qualité de commandant dudit corps de troupes, et de lui obéir et entendre en tout ce qu’il leur ordonnera pour le service de Sa Majesté, à peine de désobéissance.” Versailles, 1er mars 1780.

“By this order the king, His Majesty, having assembled a body of troops waiting to be commanded by the count de Rochambeau, one of the lieutenant generals in his armies, orders the maréchaux de camp, brigadiers, colonels, mestres de camp, officers of the Royal artillery and those of the engineers, generals of logistical services, capitaines, troop commanders, cavalry as well as infantry, French and foreigners that will serve in the afore said troop units, and all others to recognize that the count de Rochambeau, commands all of these troops, and they are to obey him and hear all that he will order of them in the service of His Majesty.” Versailles, 1 March 1780.

Exhibit Two:

Instructions données par Montbarrey, Ministre de la Guerre au comte de Rochambeau. (archives de la Guerre 3733).”Les projets et plans de campagne ou d’expéditions particulières seront ordonnés par le général américain, d’après le concert que Sa Majesté se flatte de voir régner entre les deux généraux en chef, les généraux et les particuliers des deux nations … Les troupes françaises n’étant qu’auxiliaires, devront, à ce titre, céder le pas et la droite aux troupes américaines …” “Dans le cas où la division française ne serait pas immédiatement réunie au général Washington et qu’elle serait détachée pour une expédition avec un corps américain, chacun des deux officiers généraux ou français ou américain sera indépendant l’un de l’autre”. 1er mars 1780

“The projects and campaign plans, or the special operations, will be under orders of the American general, based upon the firm understanding that His Majesty hopes will exist between the two généraux en chef of the two nations. The French troops will be auxiliaries, with this title, they cede the right [field of honor] to the American troops…” “In the case where the French division would not be immediately under general Washington, and where it would be detached on an expedition with an American body, each of the two generals, French or American, will be independent of one and the other”. 1 March 1780.

Instruction secrète du même au même.

“Sa Majesté veut et ordonne au comte de Rochambeau de tenir, autant que les circonstances pourront le permettre, le corps de troupes françaises dont Sa Majesté luy a confié le commandement, rassemblés en un corps, et de représenter dans l’occasion à M. le général Vashington (sic), généralissime des troupes du Congrès et aux ordres duquel les troupes françaises doivent servir, qu’il ne soit fait aucun dispersement des troupes françaises, et qu’elles servent toujours en corps d’armée et sous les généraux français, sauf les cas des détachements momentanés et qui devront sous peu de jours rejoindre le corps principal, …..” 1er mars 1780.

“His Majesty wishes and orders the count de Rochambeau to hold as an assembled body, as much as the circumstances will allow, the French troops which His Majesty has confided to him in this order, and to represent to general Washington, généralissime of Congress’ troops, the conditions under which the French troops must serve. If this is not done, French troops are not to be dispersed, and will always serve in army formations and under French generals, except the cases of brief detachments, where in a few days they will rejoin the main body, …..” 1 March 1780.

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“George Washington’s Rank”. Explain the confusion related to Washington’s American rank as ‘General and Commander in Chief’ of the Army of the United Colonies as designated by The Second Continental Congress; and the significance of the three stars shown on Washington’s epaulettes in contemporary portraits.
The Franco-American Alliance of 1778.

Return to Expédition Particulière main pagePage posted 29 August 2004; revised 1 September 2015.