French soldiers' sacrifice honored

Ceremony an annual thank-you to soldiers of past

October 30, 2005|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

Forty U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen arrived at the St. John's College campus under an autumn sky on a mission: to honor French soldiers who fought side by side with Americans during the Revolutionary War.

Like everything else in the 42nd annual Wreath Laying Ceremony at the National Monument for French Soldiers and Sailors Thursday, midshipman Brian Chadwick's speech hit a trans-Atlantic note -- delivered in both French and English.

Addressing the gathering of about 200 people by the banks of College Creek, the final resting place of an unknown number of French soldiers, Chadwick acknowledged the nation's debt to the young Marquis de Lafayette and thousands of French troops who served under General George Washington's command in the early 1780s.

About 3,000 French troops marched into Annapolis on Sept. 18, 1781, most on their way to a decisive victory against the British at Yorktown, Va. But some died -- probably from disease -- and they were buried at the edge of what are now the St. John's playing fields.

In his talk, in front of an audience that included senior French naval officers, Chadwick, 20, confronted the strain -- or, as he put it, the political disagreements -- that mark the present-day relationship between the countries.

"Something we do not remember well, however, is France's continued dedication to America. ... France remains deeply committed to our goal of eradicating terrorism," said Chadwick, president of the academy's French Club.

The granite memorial, dedicated in a 1911 ceremony that was attended by President William Howard Taft, is a testament to the centuries-old bond between the nations, Chadwick said.

"We would do well not to forget it," he concluded.

With the sounds of old muzzleloaders and taps played by a midshipman trumpeter piercing the air, words of friendship went beyond formalities.

Capt. Patrick Harmand, the French embassy's naval attache, came to Annapolis with facts about the final major engagement of the American Revolutionary War.

At the siege of Yorktown, nearly half of Washington's army was made up of French soldiers, numbering about 6,000, he said. More than 2,000 French soldiers are estimated to have died for the cause of the American republic. Most historians agree that the help of France made a crucial difference to the patchwork American army.

Yorktown "was the decisive battle that ended the war," Harmand said, referring to the surrender of Gen. Charles Cornwallis, commander of the British troops.

At a reception afterward inside the college's boathouse, Harmand addressed the recent tension between his country and the United States.

"We are not with you [America] in Iraq," he said. "We are working together except in Iraq.

"There's no question about it," he added, "We have the same problems and fears about terrorism, and we support the same initiatives, like intelligence ... operations."

William Atwell made the drive from Monrovia, just outside Frederick, to lay a wreath on the monument on behalf of the state chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He expressed the same view.

"The French should be recognized," he said at the reception. "I have nothing against them."

Two young French officers assigned to the Naval Academy said they have not encountered French-bashing.

French Navy Lt. Cdr. Hughes A. Laine, an exchange officer at the academy, is instructing midshipmen in navigation and seamanship. Second Lt. Vincent Augier, a student at Saint Cyr, the French army academy, is living in Bancroft Hall, the vast academy dormitory.

"People are very friendly and welcoming," Augier said.

For Harmand, hearing a chorus of children sing "La Marseillaise" -- the marching song composed when France had a revolution of its own, not long after America's -- was most memorable.

"Very well, with good accents," Harmand said to a group of fifth-graders at the Naval Academy Primary School. "It is a present to us to hear American children sing [the French national anthem] so well."

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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