Louis de La Couldre, French Hero of the American Revolution

Anthony Lacoudre, a French lawyer in New York, recently made a surprising discovery while researching his family tree. He found that a distant ancestor was an officer in the French royal navy during the American Revolutionary War, and was even decorated by George Washington himself! After extensive digging, he has managed to retrace the extraordinary life of Louis de La Couldre, Comte de La Bretonnière.
Robert Lefèvre, Portrait of Comte Couldre de La Bretonnière. © Cherbourg-en-Cotentin – Musée Thomas Henry

France-Amérique: Did you know about your ancestor before moving to the United States?

Anthony Lacoudre: No, not at all. I discovered his name several years after I arrived in 2004, by chance, while reading the names of the members of the Society of the Cincinnati. This is a highly prestigious American patriotic organization on this side of the Atlantic, founded in 1783 to recognize military officers for their achievements during the Revolutionary War. I was astonished to read that a certain Louis de La Couldre (1741-1809) was listed alongside the Marquis de Lafayette, the Comte de Rochambeau, and General George Washington.

Is this Louis part of your direct lineage?

That is hard to say, as our names are not exactly the same. However, our families are both from Normandy, and our name – taken from the word la coudre, meaning “hazelnut” or “hazelnut tree” in Old French – was written La Coudre, La Coudres, La Couldre, Lacouldre, and Lacoudre, according to different sources and time periods. During his retirement, my father carried out an enormous amount of research, looking back through our direct ancestry right up to a certain Claude La Coudre, born in 1626 and deceased in 1681, in the village of Coudres in the Eure département. But despite later hiring a professional genealogist, I was unable to go back any further. However, this was enough to launch another research project to find any potential connections between our two family branches – a project which is currently underway.

What have you learned about Louis de La Couldre?

Louis was born in July 1741 at the Château de La Bretonnière in the town of Marchésieux, located in the current département of La Manche. He was part of the ancient nobility of Lower Normandy. He joined the royal navy at 14, became an officer two years later, and fought in the Seven Years War (1756-1763). Upon returning to Normandy, he was tasked by the Duke d’Harcourt, governor of Normandy, and Pierre André de Suffren, lieutenant-general of the navy, to inspect the coast of the Channel to identify a site for a military port in 1776. He recommended Cherbourg, opposite England, and designed a project for a military harbor.

A project that was interrupted by the American Revolutionary War?

Precisely. He reappears in 1779 as a lieutenant on the Aigrette, 130-foot frigate armed with 30 cannons. After setting sail for America, she was pursued by the English frigate Arethusa off the coast of Ushant. The Aigrette riposted, and after a violent, two-hour exchange of cannon fire, the damaged enemy vessel was forced to retreat and ran aground on the reefs near the island of Molène. Louis then commanded the Tourterelle, a 32-cannon, 140-foot frigate weighing 150 tons. Leading a crew of 260 sailors, he escorted French and American ships transporting military supplies to Boston. Next, he was sent on a mission in the Caribbean, was named ship’s captain in 1780 – the highest rank among naval officers – and remained in America until the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783.

When did he join the Society of the Cincinnati?

I don’t know the exact date, but on February 1, 1784, he sent George Washington a letter presenting his service record, which is now kept as a microfilm at the U.S. National Archives. Writing in the third person, he explains how “he first escorted a convoy of 12 American vessels and several French vessels loaded with ammunitions and officers.” After arriving in Boston, he then sailed to “Saint-Domingue [Haiti], where he escorted, in June 1780, a second convoy of American ships to Bermuda, where he seized control of two English privateers, the 28-cannon Bellone and the 18-cannon Ambuscade, along with two ships they had plundered.” These acts of bravery were confirmed by the Comte de Barras in another letter to Washington, and saw La Couldre accepted into the Society of the Cincinnati for “his services to commerce in the United States.”

The Languedoc ship of the line approaching the American coast, July 7, 1778. The French navy commissioned this painting from Breton artist Cartahu, a member of the Académie des Arts et Sciences de la Mer. It was completed in 2017 and is now exhibited in the officers’ mess on the Languedoc anti-submarine frigate. © Cartahu

Your research revealed that one of your wife’s ancestors was also a naval officer during the American Revolution, and received the Cincinnati medal. Could you tell us more?

It was an extraordinary coincidence! What’s more, they were both from Normandy; I am sure that they knew each other. Georges-René Le Pelley, Seigneur de Pléville (1726-1805), joined the merchant navy as a ship’s boy at the age of 13. Five years later, in 1744, an English cannonball took his right leg. He was nicknamed the “peg-legged privateer” from then on! In April 1778, after a series of fantastical journeys through North America and the French Caribbean, he traveled to Toulon and joined the Comte d’Estaing’s squadron, comprised of twelve ships of the line and five frigates, to help the American insurgent. During the blockade of Newport that summer, he commanded the Languedoc, a 197-foot vessel equipped with 80 cannons – the finest ship in the fleet! He then took part in the siege of Savannah in September 1779 before being appointed intendant-general of the squadron in Boston. After being seriously wounded during a riot that broke out in peculiar circumstances, he returned to France at the end of the year. He was one of the first French officers to become a member of the Society of the Cincinnati in 1783.

What happened to your ancestor after he returned to France?

Louis de La Couldre became the commander of the navy in Cherbourg and oversaw the construction of the military harbor. In 1786, he even hosted King Louis XVI, who had come to see how the project was progressing! By the king’s decree, he then became a count in 1787 and joined the royal and military order of Saint-Louis under the rank of knight. During the French Revolution, he was imprisoned for 16 days, but his commitment to the American revolutionary cause saved him. He was reinstated in the navy, but as an ordinary seaman. It was only after an intervention from Napoleon Bonaparte, the first consul at the time, that he was restored to his rank as ship’s captain before being named military chief of Boulogne and Dunkirk. However, after falling ill he resigned in 1804. The same year he was named a knight and then an officer of the Legion of Honor.

What heritage has Louis de La Couldre left behind?

In the United States, his letter to George Washington can be seen in the Society of the Cincinnati archives in the federal capital. But in France, despite his fascinating life, no one remembers him and he has never become a major historical figure. There is one notable exception in Cherbourg, where the commercial and military ports he founded are flanked by the Rue de la Bretonnière and the Boulevard de la Bretonnière. Meanwhile, his portrait, painted by artist Robert Lefèvre in the late 18th century, is kept at the city’s fine art museum!