Making a French connection

Memorial: Despite current Franco-American squabbles, Annapolis residents gather to honor soldiers from France who died for this country.

October 17, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Annapolis schoolchildren hoisted the French flag and sang "La Marseillaise." Midshipmen in the Naval Academy's French Club paraded in formation as a cannon blasted. And patriotic groups lined up to lay flowery wreaths - all to honor French soldiers who died for America in the Revolutionary War.

The earnest display of Franco-American bonhomie yesterday at the French Monument at St. John's College seemed incongruous in the era of "Freedom Fries" and plummeting Bordeaux sales. But the Sons of the Revolution, the group that built the pink granite monument in 1911, says that tensions between the longtime allies over the Iraq war only heightened the poignancy of its 40th annual rededication and wreath-laying ceremony.

"I think the French being bashed over the past year and half with the Iraq situation, we need something to try to smooth and unruffle the feathers, you might say," said M. Hall Worthington, a retired Army colonel from Millersville who is president-elect of the General Society of Sons of the Revolution.

And so it was that U.S. military officers grinned and clasped hands with their French counterparts yesterday afternoon, each raising a stiff arm in salute as the other's national anthem played. So it was that Midshipman Patrick Daly, the president of the academy's French Club, delivered his remarks in English and French. So it was that the red-white-and-blue flags of two countries flapped side by side in a light breeze.

Still bitter about their defeat by Britain in the Seven Years' War, the French sent thousands of soldiers to the New World to fight for American independence. About 2,100 lost their lives.

On the morning of Sept. 18, 1781, 3,000 French troops marched into the city of Annapolis. Most boarded frigates and wagon trains on their way to a decisive victory against the British at Yorktown, Va. But a small number - the exact figure is not known - died, most likely from disease. They were buried at the edge of what are now the St. John's playing fields, on the banks of College Creek.

Back when they were both fighting for the same cause, the polite French soldiers in dapper white uniforms and the Annapolis locals couldn't seem to say enough good things about each other.

"I like the French better every hour," Mrs. Benjamin Ogle wrote at the time, according to a history compiled by St. John's College. "The divine Marquis de Lafayette is in town and is quite the thing."

The Comte de Clermont-Crevecoeur, for his part, pronounced the city lovely. "The State House of the province is the most beautiful of any in America," he wrote. "Everything is delightfully clean."

In the early 1900s, a Naval Academy professor, Henry Marion, proposed a monument to honor the fallen Frenchmen. The Sons of the Revolution put up the money, and the granite monument, with a bronze plaque bearing the image of a heroine representing "sorrowful memory," was dedicated in 1911. President William Howard Taft went to the ceremony.

The monument had largely fallen into obscurity by 1965, when Claude Deguines, a French Navy captain teaching at the Naval Academy, noticed it one day and arranged the now-annual rededication.

Yesterday's 45-minute ceremony drew about 200 people to the St. John's playing fields, from grade-schoolers at the Naval Academy Primary School to graying members of the Daughters of the American Revolution. An actor portraying the Comte de Rochambeau, the French general who led troops through Annapolis, stood among the dignitaries in a gold-fringed uniform and snowy wig.

Col. Jean-Luc Friedling, a French army attache to the United States, stood rigidly at the microphone and made clear that the unpleasantness over the Iraq war was but a blip in history. Just as the French came to America's aid in the Revolutionary War, he said, France will never forget the muscle the United States lent his country in the two World Wars.

"Sometimes there are different views about ways and means," he said, delicately. "But we want to achieve the same end, and that is freedom and peace for all people around the world."

Lt. Cmdr. Jean-Rene Degans, 32, a French exchange officer who teaches navigation at the academy, said in an interview that his nationality has made him a focus of interest since the Iraq war. "Students ask many questions - `Why does your country act like this?'" he said. He stressed that their questioning was "not aggressive - it is very polite."

He explained that the countries' squabbles over the war are in fact a sign of strength. "It is because we are all friends that we can say, `We do not agree.'"

A few minutes before the ceremony, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy's new superintendent, said he had come to firm up relations with St. John's, the military school's next door neighbor. He demurred when asked whether his presence signaled a desire to patch things up with the wine-and-brie crowd across the Atlantic.

"Nice try, nice try," he said, with a tight smile, anxious not to get ahead of President Bush on matters of foreign policy.

But after the bugle playing, the handshakes and the declarations of mutual admiration, Rempt was in a more expansive mood.

"How's this for a quote?" he said, approaching a reporter as the crowd dispersed for a reception nearby. "The friendship between France and the U.S.A. has gone on for over 200 years and transcends day-to-day events."

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