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It did not take long for friction to develop between the dispossessed inhabitants and the wintering French late in 1781. William Reynolds wrote movingly from York on November 16, [1] reporting that: "The french troop's march'd in 13th inst: and have taken possession of part of some, and the whole of most of the houses in this Town. Some of the Inhabitants are turn'd out and others with their familys confin'd to a room, a situation little better than a prison." He cited a few examples for Governor Thomas Nelson to whom he was writing. "Mr. Mitchell could not obtain part of your house on your order. Mr. Powell let his family have two rooms at his house, but the Count Viomini, who commands at this place turn'd them out of one." Reynolds painted a rather dismal picture and then gave some of the reasons for the situation:

The inhabitants in this Neck are plunder'd and some of them left destitute of the necessary of life, corn — It gives me real concern to say our friends seem disposed to make the situation of the people more miserable than the British left them. I fear from some expressions they make use of that they have been prejudiced against us in this part of the country. They think us disaffected, & that they have a right to enjoy what they captur'd. I am afraid that you will receive letters on this disagreeable subject from the other Towns, for I am told our situation is not singular.

Reynolds continued:

Indeed my friend, this part of the Country merits the attention of the Executive, the situation of the people (distress'd you know sufficiently before) is enough to excite the compassion of the most unfeeling. Judge then my situation. Complaints hourly and without the power of remedy, and unless some measure is adopted to convince these Gentlemen that they were sent to assist not to distress us, we in this part of the country may bid adieu to liberty, property and everything dear to man. The civil power is done away, and a lock is no bar to the curiosity of a petty officer. The wisdom of your hon'ble Board, will I trust suggest some method to alleviate our distresses and free us from this second Tyranny. Yr: Excellency is well acquainted with my attachment to the French nation & therefore cannot suppose I would wish to exaggerate matters. Two of my children being very Sick, and the present distress'd State of my family and constitutents prevent my attending a summons from the House of delegates.

Perhaps David Ross had a more detached view when he wrote from York to Col. William Davies on November 17:

The French Troops are going into Winter Quarters as fast as they can get houses, I dare say there is a necessity for their taking up all the room they've hitherto done, but the people are far from being satisfied — there is a degree of harshness in a soldier's coming & taking a man's house, that our people have not been used to, nor can they put up with it quietly. Perhaps it would have been more agreeable to the people & more consistent with our Constitution that the civil magistrate had appropriated Quarters for the Troops — it may be prudent to begin by times, to exert the authority of the civil power, which cannot fail to make people respected by the military, although there has been some murmuring & perhaps some instances of insolence, which will be the case where there is an army. I should certainly do the French Army great injustice, if I did not say they are a sett of very orderly men. I have no doubt, but that in a little time, things will go smoothly, 'tis not impossible, but they may have come here with the same prejudices the Northern Troops did at first. I hope to get away from this place in a few days now, at which I will be extremely happy. [2]

At least one American soldier who remained for a time in Yorktown after the surrender took note of the housing situation and the pre-emptions of the French. He was Joseph Plumb Martin, a member of a detachment from the "Corps of Sappers and Miners," which was detailed to a small schooner in the harbor loaded with 20 tons of beef. He related:

We were obliged to remain behind to deal out this beef in small quantities to the troops that remained here. I remained part of the time on board and part on shore for 18 days after all American troops were gone to the northward, and none remaining but the French. It now began to grow cold, and there were two or three cold rainstorms. We suffered exceedingly while we were compelled to stay on shore, having no tents nor any kind of fuel, the houses in the town being all occupied by the French. [3]

In letters which Virginia's governor, Benjamin Harrison, wrote on December 4 to Dudley Digges, Comte de Rochambeau, and Baron de Viomenil it is clear that the considerable friction between the local inhabitants and the French army forces had not subsided. [4] Rochambeau had made application for the appointment of a person near him who could advise him "on smaller Matters of Government and who may attend to the Interests of the Inhabitants of the Country around his Incampment." The French commander had informed the Chief Executive that he had already given orders to "Mr. De Veville his Quarter Master to settle the disputes with the Inhabitants who have had their forage taken without Orders & to grant them receipts for it."

Harrison, in his request to Dudley Digges to serve as advisor in this capacity, urged him earnestly to "not decline the Task however disagreeable it may be." Showing a clear understanding of the local populace, he wrote that:

he supposes [it] a Matter of difficulty as two or three Armies have been in the neighborhood; the Board is of the same opinion & have therefore appointed you to this business and most earnestly request you to undertake it, not only for Williamsburg & its District, but for York also, from which last place there are many Complaints of the greatest oppression.

Harrison, in his letter to Rochambeau, expressed high approval of the measures the French commander had taken "to settle the Accounts of forage used by" the French troops. He also informed him of the appointment of "the Honble Dudley Digges to assist in that business, and any other small matters, that you may have to communicate." [5] Harrison's letter to Baron Viomenil also informed him of the appointment of Digges. Actually this letter to the Baron was a tardy reply to a letter that he had written Harrison on November 6 assuring the governor that the troops would be kept in line. Harrison commented:

I am to thank you for myself & the rest of the Executives for your intentions of preserving the strictest Order and Discipline over the Troops under your Command. Complaints have been lodged by some of the inhabitants of York Town that too great a proportion of their houses have been taken from them. I wish you to look into, this matter and have no doubt of your setting every thing right.

He added that Digges had been appointed "to assist you in this and any other difficulties as may occur." One such other difficulty was detailed later, just prior to the departure of the French army. In a letter to Rochambeau on June 26, 1782, Governor Harrison used the opportunity to raise a sensitive point insofar as the local inhabitants were concerned. "Complaints are made every day to me of Negroes being concealed in York and Williamsburg amongst the Troops." He pointed out that "the pretence that some make of their being free and of their being property of the British is without foundation and is inculcated into them to serve the purpose of detention." [6]

Digges accepted his assignment and began work soon after his appointment on December 4, 1781. He was careful in keeping his record in the form of "A List of all Claims against the French Army and the Continental Army, where no receipts or Certificates were given for the Articles mentioned therein." [7] His list was dated January 1, 1782, indicating that he completed his consideration and endorsement of claims in less than a month. Essentially all of the approved claims had to do with forage seized in the town area and more particularly in the countryside. [8] The majority of the claims were from Warwick, York, and Gloucester counties (in that order) though there were a few from James City and Elizabeth City counties and from Williamsburg.

When the French moved into Yorktown, they established a hospital in the courthouse and this led to some disruption of public business. On January 23, 1782, William Reynolds detailed this in a letter to the governor when he wrote from Yorktown: [9]

The day before our Court Day I rece'd a Commission for a sheriff for this County. I had previous to the rec't of the Commission directed the Clerk to write to the magistrates to desire their attendance, four of which with the gentlemen who was to qualifie as sheriff did attend. It was their opinion that we could not set, to do business in any other House but the Court house, which at present is used by the French as an Hospital. The variety of disorders therein, and the disagreeable smell of the House deter'd the Gentlemen from going in. I thought it proper to acquaint yr: Excellency, as perhaps by an application from you the House may be given up — the necessity for a Sheriff and Court in this County was perhaps never greater than at present, the situation of the inhabitants of this town is peculearly [sic] hard, If the French army are to stay any time, we hope Barracks will be built to the chimneys of the former. [10]

Civil government was moving slowly, however, and the French would remain for another six months. In May 1782 the Virginia Assembly, meeting in Richmond, did empower the "justices of the peace for the county of York" to hold their sessions "at such place in the county as they may think proper, so long as the court-house in the town of York shall be occupied by the troops of our allies." [11] The York County Court failed to implement this for some five months, about four months after the major part of the French troops had gone. Evidently they stuck with the courthouse despite its condition. On October 21, however, the justices did meet and adjourned "to the House of Mrs. Gibbons," a leading ordinary in town located nearby on Lot 30. [12]

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2010