Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: Admiral de Ternay

Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: Admiral de Ternay

Undated portrait of Admiral de Ternay.
Undated portrait of Admiral de Ternay. (Wikipedia).

Commander of the Marine Royale.
by John Williams Haley

This article comes from an Old Stone Bank educational pamphlet published by the Providence Institution for Savings on January 25, 1932. Transcribed by Christopher Martin.

WHEN war-weary Newport peered through the lifting fog on July 11, 1780, and beheld the welcome Fleur de Lis floating from the masts of forty-four vessels bearing more than five thousand French allies, the inhabitants rose to the occasion with all the fervor and excitement which even today distinguishes that colorful and hospitable "city-by-the-sea." The town was illuminated, and the arrival of the fleet and the army was greeted with the fullest demonstrations of joy and gratitude. Complimentary addresses were made by a committee of the General Assembly, then in session, both to Admiral Charles d'Arsac de Ternay, Admiral of the fleet, and to Count de Rochambeau, Commander of the army which had been sent by a generous ally to aid this nation in its struggle for independence. To these addresses both the skillful naval officer and the courageous military leader responded with most spirited and patriotic replies, and no time was lost in introducing them and their gallant associates to the exclusive circles of Newport's social elect. The arrival of the French proved a boon to the town; Thames Street presented a continuous parade of brilliant uniforms just as it does today, except that white plumes, grenadier caps, cockades, and ruffles then gave fighting men an air of romance, adventure, and dash which seems lacking in these days of standard blues, regulation ties, and serviceable khaki. Ships were again seen at the docks laden with wares; all the stores began doing a thriving business; the social calendar was crowded with elaborate functions of all sorts, and people began to laugh again, play again, and to talk of victory.

This spirit of gayety, this rejuvenated interest in the frivolous pleasures of life, which had been sorely dampened by the long occupancy by the enemy of the town, increased as time went on, to the mutual pleasure of honored guests and agreeable hosts, and hostesses, until death came unexpectedly to one of the most illustrious members of the French expedition and he was laid to rest in American soil, under the protecting care of the flag which he had crossed the Atlantic to defend. Before leaving France, Admiral de Ternay had suffered an attack of the gout, and while on his way with Rochambeau to meet General Washington in Hartford, Connecticut, shortly after the arrival in Newport of the fleet, he became seriously ill. In October he contracted a fever and was confined to his bed on board the flag-ship Duc de Burgogne for many weeks. Finally his condition became so serious that his physician ordered his removal to the shore, and he was taken to the head-quarters of the French naval command in the Hunter-Wanton house which is still standing today on the water side of Washington Street at the foot of Elm Street. It is recorded that the Admiral was placed in the southeast corner room on the second floor directly above what was used as the treasure room of the French army. He breathed his last on December 15, 1780, and, on the following day, he was borne to his final resting place in Trinity Churchyard.

Hunter House, 2008.
Hunter House. (June 7, 2008).

There remains very little of record in regard to the early life of Admiral de Ternay, and history includes but brief accounts of his activities on this side of the water, once he had brought a great army safely through the dangers of an ocean voyage which was hazardous at its best in that century. But, considerable has been written about the "strange, fascinating and mournful scene" which so deeply impressed the populace of Newport when the commander of the French fleet was buried amid much pomp and impressive ceremony. One account of the funeral reads: "Every mark of honor was paid to the remains of the brave Admiral. The catafalque upon which he was placed was draped in black crepe, but its distinctive decoration was the national flag, with the hat, the epaulettes and the sword of the deceased, together with the medals of honor which he had received and the insignia of the Orders to which he belonged. He was carried from the place of his death (which dwelling is today owned and occupied by the St. Joseph Convent) to Trinity church-yard by a select body of sailors from his own flag-ship. The funeral cortege was very imposing, as it took its way along Washington Street, up the long wharf, through Thames Street, and up Church Street. The bands of the army and navy played their mournful and melancholy strains as the brilliant procession passed along the streets. Every eligible place was used by the people to witness the scene; every window and housetop was crowded along the way. There, in the procession near the bier of their late commander, appeared the most distinguished Captains of the French navy, with badges of mourning. In the funeral train the forces of the navy were quite numerous."

"All eyes were directed upon the more celebrated officers of the French army. The body of the French Admiral was carried into the church-yard by a select number of French sailors. The coffin was sadly lowered into the grave, which was prepared for the Admiral in the north-east part of Trinity church-yard, and the troops gave their last salute to their brave commander." This was probably the largest and most impressive funeral that had ever taken place in Newport up to that time—the procession, headed by chanting priests, reaching from the old house on Washington Street, to the church which is located on Church Street. It is interesting to note that this church, although of Protestant denomination, welcomed to the grave-yard the remains of the distinguished Frenchman, and that the Roman Catholic burial service was said over his grave.

Shortly after peace was declared with England, the King of France placed a memorial in the shape of a small stone building over Admiral de Ternay's grave, and over it was placed a slab of black Egyptian marble, whereon was cut, in gold Latin letters, an inscription which reads in part as follows:

"In the name of God
Knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem
Though the Vows of the Order he had never acknowledged
descended from an ancient and noble family of Bretagne
One of the Admirals of the King's Fleets
a Citizen, a Soldier, a Chief,
serviceably faithful to his King and country,
for 42 years,
now rests beneath this marble."

This memorial was placed above the grave in 1785, and in 1794 the inscription slab had become so broken and chipped that it was agreed among a company of French officers who were visiting in Newport at the time that the stones should be removed and the top slab placed against the outside wall of the church building. This was done and later the slab with the long Latin inscription was placed in an upright position inside the church vestibule where it remains today one of the most treasured historical relics of the many which have been preserved in the city of Newport.

Unfortunately, the removal of the original monument caused considerable confusion in later years regarding the exact location of the place of interment. Dr. David King of Newport had preserved the only known trace of the grave's location and he, in 1850, instituted a series of explorations in the church-yard which resulted in his discovery of the precise place of burial. He marked the spot with some large marble slabs and it remained in that condition until the summer of 1872 when the Marquis de Noailles, a relative of Lafayette, and at that time Minister of France in Washington, provided the granite stone which today can be found easily by visitors, close to the iron fence in the northeast corner of the historic burying ground.

Rochambeau wrote of the distinguished Admiral who brought him and his troops to this country: "His greatest enemies can never deny that he had great probity, and that he was a skillful navigator. The French Corps rendered him the justice to say that it was impossible to conduct a convoy with greater vigilance and skill than he displayed in bringing it to its destination." The Newport Mercury, of December 22, 1780, says: "His talents, zeal, and distinguished services had merited the confidence and favor of his government and country." Usually on Bastille Day and Memorial Day Newport Protestants and Catholics unite in joint service at the de Ternay grave when flowers, bound with the French colors, are laid on the final resting place of the French Admiral who gave his life for our cause.

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John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

Editor's Notes
"...these days of standard blues, regulation ties, and serviceable khaki": When this article was written in 1932, Newport, a major naval port and training center, was crawling with sailors. The Navy's presence was substantially reduced when the Cruiser-Destroyer Force of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet left the area in 1973, devastating the local economy, but Newport in 2020 is still the home of the U.S. Naval War College and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center.

The Dr. David King mentioned is very likely Dr. David King, Jr (1812-'82). Preservation Society of Newport County research fellow Holly Collins had this to say about him in her paper "Kingscote's Coming of Age": "Dr. David King, Jr. was a founder of the American Medical Association and a president of the State Board of Health of Rhode Island. A passionate historian, he became the leading founder of the Newport Historical Society, was an integral organizer of Island Cemetery, and a devotee and president of Redwood Library." King married the daughter of the rector of Trinity Church, Sarah Gibbs Wheaton, in 1837.

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