Delaporte’s Folly: Virginia’s French Corps of 1777-1778

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One of the most enjoyable aspects of when I worked for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation was the opportunity to research and publish about lesser known Williamsburg stories and personalities. The story of the short-life of the Virginia French Corps was one example. This article was originally published in the Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, Volume 24, Number 1, Spring 2003.


When the Chevalier de Pontgibaud came ashore near Hampton in the autumn of 1777, it was no doubt not the arrival in America that he had hoped for. His ship had been run aground in its efforts to escape a British warship patrolling Hampton Roads; once lodged, the ship became the target of a raiding party of loyalists and ex-slaves who looted the vessel of any valuables. Pontgibaud’s belongings, that he had planned on selling to pay for his passage to the Continental Army’s camp near Philadelphia, were gone and he found himself with just “nine or ten louis” that he just happened to have in his pockets. Pontgibaud walked from Hampton to Williamsburg, hoping that he could obtain information on the best manner with which to proceed to Washington’s camp. This adventurer, unable to speak the language, thousands of miles from home and for the most part penniless, worried that he would be unable to even find meals much less the Continental Army. One can imagine Pontgibaud’s surprise when, upon arriving in the capitol city of Virginia, “Frenchmen. . .are to be met with everywhere.” Adding to Pontgibaud’s surprise must have been the presence of a small cadre of French speaking soldiers, some from France itself while others were from the various islands of the West Indies, who were at that time providing guards for the some of the city’s public buildings. These troops were members of a short lived unit of the Virginia State Garrison Regiment under the command of Captain Bejeau Delaporte (de la Porte), recently transplanted from the island of Martinique.

Map of the island of Martinique, 1775. (Source: loc.gov)

Delaporte, by trade a merchant, had been a friend of the Russian traveler Theodore Karjavin during the latter’s stay on the island of Martinique and had traveled to Virginia sometime in the early part of 1777. Delaporte formed a plan to obtain permission from either the Continental Congress or the State of Virginia, to recruit several hundred Frenchmen from the islands of Martinique and Santo Domingo to enter the service of the Continent against Great Britain. Delaporte, referred to in the Council’s journal as Delaporte DeCrome, along with “several French Gentlemen” applied to the Council of the State of Virginia in April 1777 for permission to recruit, train and dress a company of men “in the manner of French troops.” The Council approved the petition, believing that such a corps would introduce “good discipline, neatness in the dress and laudable spirit of emulation amongst our troops and wou’d [sic] most probably greatly interest the french in general.” Delaporte was ordered to enlist as many foreigners as will fill a company and, upon so doing, he would receive the Captaincy of the company. Delaporte, while he welcomed the decision of the Virginia Council, was also interested in his plan being approved (and perhaps adopted) by the Continental Congress and Continental Army. To that end, Delaporte also sent the plan to Congress, and the Board of War, for its consideration.

Delaporte, along with Monsieur de Grandmaison and Monsieur de Rondemare, petitioned Congress in early May 1777 for permission to recruit “3 or 400 troops” with an eye towards “as many Tradesmen and Artificers as possibly may be got” in order that “at the end of the War” there would be a “useful little colony” of Frenchmen in America. Delaporte went on to state that he and his compatriots had already petitioned the Governor of Virginia and his Council for just such a plan, erroneously (and somewhat misleading) stating that its approval would only be forthcoming if the Continental Congress approved. Delaporte did not have long to wait for Congress’s answer. The Board of War decided later in May to postpone any decision on Delaporte’s petition and the Frenchman, undoubtedly disappointed, received the news while he was recruiting in and around Williamsburg. Delaporte had failed to convince Congress of the efficacy of his plan, but he had already begun recruiting the men for his French Corps as a part of Virginia’s military establishment.

Patrick Henry, Governor of Virginia, 1776-1779.

Delaporte’s recruiting was hampered by his inability to travel extensively to the port communities of Virginia and North Carolina, so to assist him, the State of Virginia provided him with a horse and about one hundred and eighty pounds to enhance his ability to recruit the necessary quota of men. Other Frenchmen were also petitioning the Council for permission to recruit men for Delaporte’s corps. Joseph Carlivan, serving as a Lieutenant in the company, attempted to raise enough men to confirm his Lieutenancy while serving garrison duty with the corps in Williamsburg during the summer of 1777. James Louis de Beaulieu was issued a warrant for sixty-four pounds in October 1777 so that he might raise enough men to obtain a vacant Ensigncy in the French Corps. De Beaulieu must have raised his quota, for in February 1778 he was issued his commission as an Ensign in the French Corps. Other men, like Piere Du Chatelier and Peter Du Bar were merely given funds by the state in the ongoing effort to keep the company at full strength. Not surprisingly, recruiting for a company of Frenchmen in Tidewater Virginia and North Carolina proved difficult, but not impossible. In April of 1778, Delaporte was warranted a further sum of one hundred two pounds eight shillings to recruit another Second Lieutenancy quota of men. De Beaulieu’s success as a recruiter garnered for him a First Lieutenancy in the company. The desire to maintain the unit in service is demonstrated by the Council’s willingness to continue to offer monies for the ongoing recruiting, including the commissioning of yet another Frenchman, Andre LeBaud as an Ensign. Delaporte’s recruiting took him to North Carolina as well, where he apparently found himself in “a quarrel” significant enough to warrant an intercession on the part of Governor Patrick Henry.

Recruiting for the company continued throughout its twelve month or so existence. The biggest challenge in clothing the company came from Delaporte’s desire to have the men dressed “in the manner of French troops.” Delaporte and his subordinates were being issued uniform material from the public store in Williamsburg for the men they had managed to recruit. The end of April 1777 found the men then recruited for Delaporte’s company issued hats, hose, shoes, blankets, linen and thread. A few days later, Delaporte’s command must have grown, as he requested considerably more cloth, including shalloon, linen and more valued at nearly fifty-eight pounds. Recruiting for the French Corps must have gone on fairly well during the initial months of its establishment, as Delaporte once again was issued clothing stores for the unit in June 1777. This time the unit was issued more hats, shoes, linen and thread for the fabrication of uniforms valued at thirty three pounds. During the summer of 1777, the unit continued to draw supplies from the Public Store in Williamsburg including shirts, shoes, hose and blankets. The company, in early June, received twenty one yards of cloth for coats, six yards of oznabrugs, 18 yards of shalloon, nearly 32 yards of linen for jackets, 26 yards of material for breeches, and two dozen of the “best plated” buttons. It would appear that, rather than the hunting shirts commonly worn by Virginia forces, the French Corps was having success in being uniformed in more traditional French-style regimental coats.

During the French Corps’ short existence, its military activity was limited. As mentioned above, the company served to garrison the city of Williamsburg, protecting the various public buildings and stores. During this time First Lieutenant Carlivan primarily commanded the company, as Delaporte continued to travel throughout the Tidewater area recruiting men for the company. The company appears to have remained on garrison duty in Williamsburg until the spring of 1778, during which time Delaporte himself took part in a celebration of Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga. On the orders of Lieutenant Governor John Page, the company prepared to travel to either Portsmouth or Hampton in April 1778 to relieve the small-pox weakened garrisons there. Delaporte’s preparations included drawing more supplies from the Public Store in Williamsburg, comprising enough material to fabricate fifty regimental uniforms. There is no record of whether the company ever actually marched to either town, but the cost of the preparations placed an incredible financial burden on the company’s commander, Delaporte.

Virginia Gazette, Purdie, 1 May 1778.

The French Corps began to disintegrate in the spring of 1778. The officers were no longer able to limit their recruiting to Frenchmen, as evidenced from the following desertion advertisement:

. . .Deserted from Capt. Le Laporte, the following soldiers, viz. Patrick Cary, an Irishman, about 5 feet high, has chestnut coloured hair, round face, blue eyes, flat nose, small mouth, has the mark of a sore upon his leg, and is about 26 years old; had on when he went away a brown coat and breeches, and dark jacket. . .

Virginia Gazette (Purdie), 1 May 1778.

Further evidence of desertions being a serious problem in the French Corps is found in Delaporte’s resignation, in which he asserted that his company was “being reduced by Desertions & other accidents, to a very inconsiderable Number.” The Governor and his Council accepted Delaporte’s resignation, and with it the French Corps ceased to exist. The men who remained were absorbed into the existing Virginia State forces and many of the Frenchmen who served as officers in the company vanished from the historical record. Delaporte left Williamsburg shortly after and established a store in Edenton, North Carolina. Delaporte’s troubles however did not end with his resignation. Many of the supplies he had been issued from the Public Store in Williamsburg had not been paid for, and Delaporte was held responsible for the debt. Delaporte found himself under arrest in August 1778 as a result of the debts he carried (over three hundred sixty pounds) on the Public Store’s account books. Once again the Governor interceded on Delaporte’s behalf and ordered the Frenchman’s release, on the understanding that he would eventually pay off the debt.

Bejeau Delaporte returned to his business of importing European goods from his store, along with his new partner Galvan Debernoux, in Edenton. Their store offered customers everything from French pins to German steel, as well as a variety of English manufactures. Ships from Bordeaux and Cadiz called at Edenton with goods for Delaporte’s store. However, business in Edenton must not have been what Delaporte expected, for in June 1779, he advertised that he was selling his “top gallant sail schooner” of 50 tons burden. A week later Delaporte advertised for the sale of his house and lot in Edenton. Not having met with much success in North Carolina, Delaporte returned to Williamsburg. Using his old rank as part of his advertising campaign, he advertised in June of 1779 that his old Russian friend from his days on Martinique, Theodore Karjavin, was offering language lessons from Delaporte’s store “next door to Mrs. Vobe’s.” “Captain Delaporte” moved his store to “the house lately occupied by Mr. Beall” in October 1779, where he offered “rum by the gallon” among other items. Delaporte operated his store in Williamsburg until at least May of 1780, when he advertised that a man named Thomas Andrews had purchased over twelve thousand pounds worth of goods with a fraudulent draft on the state treasury. Shortly after this event, Delaporte once again was on the move, opening a store in Fredericksburg with his old business partner Bernoux. Bernoux, deciding to return to France, left the business in Fredericksburg entirely in the hands of his partner in September 1780. Delaporte apparently oversaw the business, then known as Laporte, Galvan and Company, until his death in 1782 when the “dry goods, household furniture and a schooner, late the property of Bajieux Laporte, deceased” were offered for public sale.

Virginia Gazette, Dixon and Nicolson, July 10, 1779, pg. 3.

Ultimately Virginia’s French Corps, and its commanders, were of no military significance during the American Revolution. Their service to the State of Virginia, short and without battlefield experience, amounted simply to providing security to the various state buildings and military camps in and around the city of Williamsburg. The boredom of this task likely, and the attractions of the Virginia countryside, led to the wholesale desertion of the French Corps’ ranks and its eventual absorption by more stable military organizations. The French Corps was significant, however, simply because it existed and its existence speaks volumes about the Williamsburg community as a whole. Williamsburg, as capitol of the new State of Virginia, was no longer the provincial little town of two thousand souls. The city now teemed with bureaucrats and politicians from throughout Virginia, foreign adventurers, artificers in state employ and of course, soldiers, hundreds of them. Men from Russia, Sweden, France and the West Indies descended on Williamsburg during the few years it served as Virginia’s capitol. There were so many foreigners in town that the Governor, “having experienced very great inconveniences for some time past,” felt the need to have an interpreter of “French & other foreign Languages.” That interpreter, the famous Charles Bellini, had served in Delaporte’s French Corps. Thus the real value in an examination of the history of Delaporte’s folly lies in how it illuminates the view of life in Williamsburg during the turbulent years of the American Revolution.

Sources:

Peter F. Copeland and Marko Zlatich. “Captain De La Porte’s French Company, Virginia State Forces, 1777-1778,” Military Collector and Historian, Vol. XVIII, No. 1 (Spring 1966).

Robert B. Douglas, ed. and trans. The Chevalier de Pontgibaud, A French Volunteer of the War of Independence. Paris: Charles Carrington, 1898; reprint, New York: New York Times & Arno Press, 1969.

Mary R. M. Goodwin. Clothing and Accoutrements of the Officers and Soldiers of the Virginia Forces, 1775-1780 from the Records of the Public Store at Williamsburg. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Research Report, 1962.

H.R. McIlwaine, ed. Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia, Vol. I, July 12, 1776 – October 2, 1777. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1931.

H.R. McIlwaine, ed. Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia, Vol. II, October 6, 1777 – November 30, 1781. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1932.

H.R. McIlwaine, ed. Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia, Volume I, The Letters of Patrick Henry. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1926.

E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra. A Guide to Virginia Military Organizations in the American Revolution, 1774-1787. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1978.

Virginia. Records of the Public Store in Williamsburg, 1775-1780, Day Book, October 12 1775 – November 30, 1778. Richmond: Virginia State Library; Williamsburg: John D. Rockefeller Library, microfilm, M-1016.1.

Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Volume VII, 1777, January 1 – May 21. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1907.

© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.

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