Unlikely allies, p.24

Unlikely Allies, page 24


Unlikely Allies

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  Elizabeth’s death was a vivid reminder of what Deane had sacrificed to serve his country, and of his distance from home and family. He wrote to his brother Barnabas in Wethersfield asking him to send his sickly son, Jesse, to Europe to be near him. Deane proposed that his son go to London on an English ship, which would presumably be safe from English privateers, and from there be brought to Paris. Jesse was all that Deane had left, and he prayed that the English would not take his son for his father’s crimes.



  Paris, August-October 1777

  On a warm evening in mid-August 1777, the Chevalière d’Eon left her home at 38 Brewer Street in Soho and climbed into a carriage in the green-and-crimson uniform of a captain of the French dragoons. She had waited until nightfall to escape London undetected. D’Eon rode down Golden Square and headed toward the docks. For the first time in fourteen years she was heading home to France. The chevalière had had enough of England. She still refused to comply with the requirement in the Transaction that she declare her true gender and dress as a woman. One of the people who had wagered she was female was now battling in the English courts to collect, and while she refused to appear in court, the plaintiff, Mr. Hayes, had produced a motley assortment of witnesses who testified in the most humiliating manner as to their personal knowledge of her female anatomy. The whole spectacle had become a farce. She was embarrassed and offended by the proceedings and feared that one of the parties might try to prove their case by having her kidnapped or killed.

  In court, Lord Mansfield, the most illustrious judge of the eighteenth century, struggled to remain stone-faced before the parade of witnesses. The blackmailer Morande testified that d’Eon on one occasion had opened her blouse to reveal her breasts, and on another occasion he had found d’Eon in bed one morning and teasingly asked her whether she was male or female. According to Morande, she replied, “Come here and give me your hand,” and then surprised him by placing his hand under the covers, which one of the lawyers called “a very singular instance of French levity.” One doctor told the court in French that he had examined d’Eon for a “woman’s disorder.” A surgeon and male midwife claimed that he had examined her “in the very place from which the knowledge of her sex was to derive.” The genteel d’Eon refused to corroborate or deny any of it. Lord Mansfield was disgusted with the entire proceeding and expressed the wish that both sides might lose. However, he could find no basis for holding that the wager was illegal or fraudulent. The jury found that d’Eon was indeed female, and awarded the plaintiff 700 pounds (about $129,000 today) for his wager. The day after the jury’s decision, d’Eon left London.

  According to her account, she went straight to Versailles to clear her name from various slanders against her and to defend her right to wear her military uniform. She also hoped to expose Beaumarchais’s duplicity to the king. At Versailles she was ushered into the office of Vergennes, whom she had never met. She wore on her uniform the Croix de Saint-Louis to remind the foreign minister of her service to Louis XV. Vergennes was polite but cold. He was unhappy to see that she was still wearing her uniform, which contravened the terms of the Transaction. She requested an audience with the king, but Vergennes insisted that first she must permanently abandon her male identity. D’Eon objected that she had nothing but rags to wear, and no money to buy a new trousseau. Vergennes demanded that she change her appearance immediately. To underline this point, the king issued an order two days later prohibiting her from appearing “in any clothes other than those proper to women.” D’Eon later wrote that Vergennes also insisted that she undergo an examination by the physicians to the king and queen. D’Eon explained modestly that “in the presence of these two respectable chief doctors, the ghost of Captain d’Eon disappeared like the shadow of the moon. . . .” The doctors reported to Vergennes that her “nether regions” were in “good order as if they had always been protected by the House of Austria.” D’Eon wrote these words as if to assure her reader that she remained a virgin.

  It was vital to French policy that d’Eon complete the transformation into a woman. Only then could Louis XVI be confident that the planned invasion of England would remain secret, and war with Britain could be avoided. For this reason, Vergennes wanted to keep an eye on d’Eon to ensure her compliance with the king’s order, and so he arranged for d’Eon to remain at Le Petit-Montreuil, the home of the chief administrator of the foreign ministry, Edmé-Jacques Genet. Marie Antoinette took pity on d’Eon and arranged for her own dressmaker, the incomparable Mademoiselle Rose Bertin, to design d’Eon’s new trousseau. D’Eon readily accepted the queen’s generous offer, and soon d’Eon was being fitted by one of the most famous dressmakers in Europe. D’Eon had corsets designed for her by Madame Barmant, and hats by Mademoiselle Maillot. She went to the wigmaker Sieur Brunet for a three-tiered headdress. Louis XVI spared no expense. D’Eon was no doubt dazzled by the finery and probably delighted once again to be the center of attention. In her memoir she described the experience of putting on a dress for the first time: “All that I know is that my transformation has made me into a new creature!”

  As d’Eon later recounted, on October 21, the feast day of Saint Ursula, the patron saint of virgins, Mademoiselle Bertin arrived at seven in the morning accompanied by her two assistants wearing identical straw hats with pink ribbons and carrying d’Eon’s new trousseau. D’Eon at first was reluctant to undergo the transformation. She feared that women would laugh at her for being “dressed in style and done up like a doll or at the very least like a Vestal Virgin.” Mademoiselle Bertin reassured her: “Put aside your concerns about what others will say. Must what the mad say prevent us from being wise?” If d’Eon refused to dress as the king commanded, she would be forced into a convent. “Isn’t it better for you to be dressed by me, who has the honor of dressing the Queen,” Mademoiselle Bertin remarked, “than by some witch in a convent?” It took more than four hours for d’Eon to be sufficiently scrubbed, brushed, combed, powdered, laced, and dressed to appear for the first time as a woman. Mademoiselle Bertin was delighted with her own creation. “I am glad about having stripped you of your armor and your dragoon skin in order to arm you from head to toe with your dress and finery,” she said. D’Eon looked startling in a rich blue satin skirt the color of her eyes. Her blouse revealed large breasts and thick muscular arms bulging through her sleeves. Though d’Eon may have embroidered some of these details, it is known that Bertin dressed d’Eon for the first time as a woman in October 1777.

  In order to prepare her to be presented to the king and queen at Versailles, d’Eon was tutored intensively by Madame Genet in the manners, dress, and toilette of a lady. “What does it matter that I was tormented in every conceivable way,” d’Eon later recounted, “since it all turned out well for me, and I was not embarrassed in any matter as I tried day and night to resemble my virtuous Duchesse in every way.” Her valet was replaced by one of Mademoiselle Bertin’s plump maids, who bandaged d’Eon’s rough hands at night so that she could have “paws of velvet” with which to greet the queen.

  After a month of lessons, d’Eon was ready to be received by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. She wore her blue gown with diamond necklace and earrings. Proudly pinned to her chest was the Croix de Saint-Louis. Either out of nervousness or lack of practice, she seemed to be teetering in heels, her three-tiered headdress balanced precariously on her head. The king and queen seemed curious, if not entirely charmed to meet the person whom Voltaire called the “Amphibian.” To the disappointment of some, d’Eon appeared more masculine than they expected. Her muscularity, assertiveness, and voice seemed incongruous in her frilly dress.

  D’Eon’s miraculous conversion was the talk of Paris. D’Eon’s image was reproduced and widely distributed. She was variously portrayed as a beautiful young woman, the goddess Athena, a bi zarrely costumed hermaphrodite, or a grotesque mannish woman. The public embraced her as a contemporary Jeanne d’Arc, a m
aiden soldier who fought bravely for her country.

  When she returned to see her mother in her hometown of Tonnerre, the townspeople celebrated with a huge party and fireworks. Convents around the country invited her to join them, and she stayed for some time with the sisters at Saint-Cyr, a school west of Versailles, for poor noble girls. She liked the lovely setting and was well-received by the sisters, but d’Eon was not yet prepared to take her vows.

  D’Eon had become a popular icon. In the finest salons in Paris, men and women came costumed as d’Eon. They performed comic skits mocking Beaumarchais with tasteless scenes of their lovemak ing and celebrating d’Eon’s feats of strength and heroism. She lunched with Voltaire, supped with aristocrats, and shared box seats with the king’s courtiers. Now she boasted that she had triumphed as a woman who proved that “the qualities and virtues by which men are so proud have not been denied our sex.”

  Madame d’Eon used her new prominence to attack Beaumarchais. She proclaimed that “I owe nothing but contempt to the man who wanted to empty the pockets of English gamblers and make an infamous fortune out of my sex.” In a published manifesto she denounced him “to all the women of my day for having tried to enhance his reputation by ruining a woman’s,” and she mocked anyone “stupid enough to imagine that I would let Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais marry me.” More ominously, d’Eon publicly referred to Beaumarchais’s “embassy to America in order to export enough tobacco from it to make the entire audience [at The Barber of Seville] sneeze.” D’Eon’s public tirade unwittingly threatened to expose the American smuggling operation, which might have forced Vergennes to shut it down. It was one thing for Stormont to suspect France’s deception; it would have been something entirely different for all the world to know that France had violated its treaty obligations and lied about it.

  D’Eon’s slurs infuriated Beaumarchais. He complained bitterly to Vergennes that she was trying to ruin him, but Beaumarchais already knew that she was not a creature who could be silenced. If he reflected on it for a moment, he would have to concede that he would not have been in a position to help the Americans at all had it not been for her intransigence. Vergennes and Louis XVI would not have needed Beaumarchais’s intervention but for d’Eon’s stubborn refusal to surrender the secret correspondence or her reluctance to appear in a dress.

  In any event, Vergennes would not lift a finger against the chevalière . There was much more than Beaumarchais’s reputation at stake. The king had paid dearly for her transformation. Now that she had publicly appeared as a woman for the first time, she had surrendered her power to blackmail the king in the future. Her allegations that Louis XV had plotted to invade England would no longer seem credible. The king’s correspondence would remain secret.



  Paris, December 1777-March 1778

  While Paris glowed with the spectacle that d’Eon created, the mood at Valentinois darkened. Rumors circulated that the British had captured Philadelphia, and the despondent commissioners wondered if Congress had escaped. Washington had not won a single battle in almost a year. The last remaining troops in New York were stuck at Saratoga, without arms or ammunition, and faced the onslaught of 9,000 well-armed British regulars under the command of General Burgoyne. The French and Spanish were still unwilling to sign a treaty with the Americans. With few good options, the commissioners now discussed seriously whether to open negotiations toward reconciling with Britain.

  On the morning of Thursday, December 4, 1777, Beaumarchais headed to see the commissioners at Valentinois in an angry mood. After unloading arms in New England, Beaumarchais’s ship the Amphitrite had returned to France with a cargo of rice and indigo. Beaumarchais believed that this cargo, sent by Congress, rightfully belonged to his firm, Rodriguez Hortalez, as partial compensation for the arms shipment. Lee, who was writing to Congress that the arms shipments were all gifts from France, insisted that the rice and indigo were the property of Congress for sale by the commissioners.

  Beaumarchais arrived at a particularly inopportune time: the commissioners were having a sobering meeting with their banker, who informed them that their credit was nearly exhausted. In addition, they had recently learned that Captain Lambert Wickes, the American privateer who had brought Franklin to France, had been lost with his ship and crew off Newfoundland. The Americans’ mission was collapsing.

  Shortly before noon, the commissioners and their guests heard a disturbance outside. A messenger had arrived in a chaise pulled by three horses with news from America. The messenger, Jonathan Loring Austin, had left Boston Harbor on October 31 on the Perch and arrived at Nantes with a message from Congress. The commissioners ran outside. Without waiting for Austin to dismount, Franklin shouted, “Is Philadelphia taken?” Austin replied that it was, and the crestfallen Franklin folded his hands in resignation and turned to walk away. Austin quickly added, “But, sir, I have greater news than that.” Franklin could not have imagined what came next. “General Burgoyne and his whole army are prisoners of war!”

  The commissioners were too stunned to react. It was impossible that the British commander had surrendered at Saratoga. Hadn’t the British general Burgoyne and a massive army surrounded the Continental Army at Saratoga, New York, above Albany? The commissioners had not expected the Continental Army commanded by General Horatio Gates (who had replaced General Schuyler after his humiliating loss of Ticonderoga) to survive this assault. How could Gates have captured Burgoyne’s army?

  BEAUMARCHAIS’S SUPPLIES had arrived in Portsmouth in May and June of 1777, and the supplies slowly made their way inland through dense forests over the Green Mountains of western Vermont to the Continental soldiers stranded in Saratoga. As news spread that the Continental Army had enough guns, cannons, powder, and uniforms for 30,000 men, a huge number of volunteers flocked to Saratoga. During the month of September the numbers of American troops at Saratoga swelled to more than 12,000.

  “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne’s army lumbered down from Canada, crossing rivers, mountains, and dense forests until its supply line was stretched beyond its limits. Vain, pompous, and foppish, Burgoyne, at fifty-two, was more of a politician, a bon vivant, and a frustrated playwright than a gifted military leader. He did not allow his military duties to distract from his enjoyment of food, drink, and debauchery. And he brought with him to war his mistress, who was married to one of the commissaries. The general did not travel lightly. He marched with more than forty tons of personal baggage carried in thirty wagons pulled by horses and men who often did not have enough to eat.

  The American rebels ahead of Burgoyne drove off cattle and burned crops to prevent the British from getting fresh supplies. Burgoyne decided to concentrate his forces by abandoning Fort George, Fort Edward, Lake George, Fort Anne, and Skenesborough. It was a clear signal to General Gates that “the General’s Design is to Risque all upon one Rash Stroke.” The British had no idea that as their supplies were dwindling, the Continental Army had been reinforced with more than ten thousand fresh soldiers, well armed for the first time since the war began.

  It did not help that General Burgoyne made a number of poor tactical decisions as well. In August, he realized that he could not continue without more horses to carry baggage for himself and his troops. Rather than abandon excess baggage, he sent more than a thousand men on a raid to Bennington, Vermont, to capture horses and other supplies. On August 16, the British forces were trapped in the thick forests around Bennington, where they were attacked by 600 well-armed rebels in a blaze of gunfire. As many as 900 of Burgoyne’s troops were killed or captured by rebels, and tons of British supplies were lost.

  By October, Burgoyne’s army had dwindled to roughly 6,000 men, and a substantial portion of those remaining were German mercenaries who spoke no English. With General Howe’s troops occupying Philadelphia, Burgoyne had to rely upon General Henry Clinton, who was guarding the British bases on Rhode Island, to provide reinforcements. Clint
on, however, could not believe that Burgoyne really needed the reinforcements and sent only a token force up the Hudson River. In the event, Clinton’s troops became stuck in the shallows of the Hudson and never reached Burgoyne.

  As the two armies began to form lines outside of Saratoga, the American general Gates quarreled with General Benedict Arnold over tactics. While Gates was competent, he lacked imagination and fought defensively rather than offensively. Arnold, by contrast, an aggressive risk-taker, was one of the most brilliant and experienced tacticians in the Continental Army. Weeks earlier, Gates had refused to credit Arnold in a report to Congress for his prior success, and Gates wrote to the president of Congress that he had given Arnold permission to leave his command. Arnold became enraged and the two men had a furious row on the eve of battle. Out of vanity and jealousy “Granny” Gates dismissed Arnold.


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