In 1882, a few years before France’s gift of the Statue of Liberty to the United States,
this monument was placed to honor in specific the one hundred French soldiers who died near here during their 1780-1782 encampments. More generally, the monument recognized the vital contributions of France during the war for American independence. The French soldiers were led by Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, le Comte de Rochambeau, Commander-in-Chief of the French Expeditionary Force that helped the American colonists defeat the British. Their encampment upon their return march from Yorktown is also marked by nearby monument on Summit Avenue, a few blocks north of Rochambeau Avenue, and by the Jeremiah Dexter house across North Main Street from the cemetery
In ordering Lieutenant-General Rochambeau to aid the new American nation, the French government had instructed him to place himself in a subordinate position to General Washington. He departed France with 5500 men in 1780, and landed at Newport, in territory that has been openly hostile to the French not so long before. Interestingly, delegates from several Native American nations visited Rochambeau at Newport to offer their support for the French against the British. Rochambeau and his men skillfully won over the American people, including George Washington, who was deeply impressed by Rochambeau’s greater military experience and his surprising modesty. In 1781, Washington and Rochambeau brought their forces together in New York, for an attack on New York City that never materialized. While there, they reviewed each others troops. After Washington reviewed the disciplined French in the “grandest parade uniform” on July 8, Rochambeau “had a chance to see the American army, man for man. It was really painful to see these brave men, almost naked with only some trousers and little linen jackets, most of them without stockings, but, would you believe it? Very cheerful and healthy in appearance.... Three quarters of the Rhode Island regiment consists of negroes, and that regiment is the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuvers."
The Marquis de Lafayette meanwhile informed the two commanders of General Cornwallis’s movements in Virginia, and as soon as the situation developed into one favorable to the French and Americans, Washington and Rochambeau rapidly led their men south to Yorktown and to victory.
The idea for a memorial was conceived by Reverend Frederic A. Denison of Providence, who extensively researched the fate of French soldiers who had perished while stationed in the city a hundred years earlier. After exhumations confirmed the location of the unmarked graves, the city graded the landscape and authorized Denison to raise the funds necessary for a monument. In 1781, the French delegation to the Yorktown Centennial visited Providence to examine the gravesite and decorate the unfinished memorial with floral crosses made of bouquets taken from their breasts.
For the July 4, 1882 dedication, the French Minister of War, the infamous General Georges Boulanger wrote, “we will always remember the greeting we received throughout the United States, and in particular in Rhode Island, with sentiments the most sweet and the most cordial.” The expression manifest in the memorial would “cement in an indestructible manner the friendship, that must exist between two peoples so well constituted to understand each other, and to be allied for the promotion of civilization.”
As French Consul-General A. La Faivre noted, among the men buried in the North Burial Ground were French military heroes of earlier eighteenth century wars. Though they died in obscurity, they were the “elite of our land and naval forces.” Most famously, the Knight D’Arsac de Ternay, commander of the fleet that landed successfully at Newport in July 1780, had conquered Newfoundland in 1762, governed Mauritius and Bourbon Island for five years, and was instrumental in persuading the French government to enter the war. But instead of earning greater fame in America he died in camp in December 1780. With gratitude, La Faivre told the crowd that “the honors which you render him today restore to him his legitimate place by the side of his glorious companions in arms.” He closed his remarks by declaring to the citizens of Providence that “on the tombstone, raised by your hands, these two nations, these two sister republics, join hands today across the Atlantic Ocean.”
The 1880s were an era of intense friendship between the nations, as the commemorations of the revolutionary war battles and the wartime alliance led up to the gift and dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886. At least one source suggests that the statue’s designer, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, made his initial sketches during his visit to artist John La Farge's Rhode Island studio.