The American Revolution marked the beginning of an age of democratic revolutions that swept over France and challenged the old order throughout the Atlantic world. The French officers who served in the American War of Independence, whether as idealistic volunteers or resolute soldiers of their king, remembered the experience for the rest of their lives. Many preserved their reflections on the revolution in America in daily diaries, private journals and carefully composed memoirs, leaving us with a remarkable array of perspectives on America, Americans and the first act in the age of revolution.
None of them could have foreseen that the war for America was a prelude to an even greater upheaval that would transform France. The astonishing turmoil of the French Revolution shaped and colored memories of the war for America. For some, the American war was a distant reflection of their unshakable loyalty to their martyred king. Others cast themselves as chroniclers and historians of the American war, recognizing that they were witnesses to events that had changed their world. For the most visionary, the war for America was the first stage in an international struggle for liberty. Together their reflections remind us that historical memory is fragile, always shifting, and often very personal.
Drawn from the Institute’s collections, along with loans from private collections, Revolutionary Reflections features the written reflections of eight French officers paired with life portraits of the writers and other artifacts that contextualize their experiences in America. Among the treasures on view will be the original manuscript memoir of General Rochambeau, who commanded the largest French army sent to America, along with his family’s annotated copy of the published work—neither of which has ever been displayed before. The exhibition reunites the manuscript journals and other writings of François-Ignace Ervoil d’Oyré, a captain in the royal corps of engineers with Rochambeau’s army, with his oil portrait painted late in life by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze (The Schorr Collection). An oil portrait painted by the Spanish artist Vicente López y Portaña of the marquis de Saint-Simon, who commanded 3,500 French troops at Yorktown, appears with his manuscript journal of the campaign (Collection of Comte Patrick de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon). The show also includes examples of the Society of the Cincinnati’s Eagle insignia and membership certificate owned by French officers—symbols of their participation in the fight for American independence and reminders of their lasting ties to the new United States.