The end was near. The rats were abandoning ship. Benedict Arnold and his ilk. And then the world turned upside down and we won, after all.

Why?

Whether credit for victory and independence is due to God or the French fleet or sunspots or wavering budget advisers to the Crown in London is still debatable, but what is unarguable is that Washington's troops were disappointed that they had not been paid (some of them for six months) and there had been a few mutinies. Americans were always materialistic.

The French had kept an eye on the Revolution from the beginning, partly, of course, to make the British fret, but partly also because the slogans of freedom touched a good many French intellectual ears at the time.

Rochambeau arrived from France in July, l78l, with 5,500 French troops. Rochambeau has sometimes been likened to Eisenhower -- a man who without fanfare had kept his eye on the training of troops and who had an excellent grasp of which were reliable and which were not. Rochambeau's troops were by no means a catch-as-catch-can rabble, but select men.

Washington's meeting with Rochambeau was somewhat delayed. Washington was dashing madly -- if a man of Washington's dignity may be said ever to have dashed -- from one American camp to another, where mutinies threatened or had broken out. He met the troops face to face. He put his own reputation and integrity on the line, virtually pleading with the men not to desert. His own authority as a man is what kept the army going.

Washington wanted to take New York back from the British, but Rochambeau warned he was not strong enough. Washington listened.

So instead of an almost certain disaster to seize New York, the Franco-American forces concentrated on Virginia, where the British under Cornwallis -- well, never mind all that. Anybody that gives a damn already knows about Yorktown.

But tonight at Mount Vernon, Washington's farm, a dinner will be held on the 200th anniversary of Washington's dinner there in honor of Rochambeau and his family. (Rochambeau called his staff his family, though if you read that Washington entertained Rochambeau and his family you have visions of a wife and little Rochambeaux.)

I heard all about this at lunch at the Lafayette-Rochambeau Society. That is one society that is hard to get into. They have only got l2 members. The Rev. Herbert L. Stein-Schneider, PhD, is president. He is very good at firing off letters to anybody who so much as hints that the victory of Yorktown was not all that critical in the war. He knows how to take care of loons who do not appreciate the cardinal importance of French help during the Revolution. He knows how to look aghast.

The Mount Vernon Ladies Association (long the curators and preservers of Mount Vernon itself) are of course taking part. Historians have been wailing for invitations. Plenty of the White House staff have hinted they'd love to come. They may know that Mme. Stein-Schneider makes a pate' de maison to reckon with. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has accepted. President Reagan was invited to helicopter over and make his Yorktown Celebration Announcement at the dinner, but is not really expected (the White House says there are no plans for him to take part, that they know of).

The Musick of Turkey Run Farm (performers) will make l8th Century noises and Wilton S. Dillon, who runs symposia for the Smithsonian, will carry on for the 20th. There is no better talker in the capital. A biographer of Rochambeau, Arnold Whitridge, will speak.

The American victory at Yorktown will be celebrated there Oct. l6-l9. Washington had marched from New York down to Virginia before that battle, and after two days at Mount Vernon with Rochambeau he continued the march to (as it mercifully turned out) victory.

When Washington gave his fine supper for Rochambeau, it was the only time during the six years since l775 that he visited his own house. You cannot read anything about Washington at all without being struck by his passion for that farm and that house. He saw for the first time his new dining room. He was terribly interested in that room, the grandest one in the house, and the Rochambeau dinner was, of course, the first time Washington used it. The ornamental plaster work was not completed. The splendid marble mantel (notably too grand for the house as anyone may see who visits it) had not yet arrived from London.

It must have been a time of strong emotion for Washington. To be home once more. And yet the war had gone badly the past year. He did not know the status of the French fleet in the Chesapeake, and yet the result of Yorktown depended almost entirely on it. What if the fleet had been defeated by British ships at the capes? What if Cornwallis had escaped with his forces? For the British strategy had been to engage but little, and to leave the Colonies to go broke and weary.

But Washington had no way of knowing what the next few days would bring. Never mind. Today, at least, he could have a proper supper for the Frenchman who had brought the invaluable troops and the invaluable francs. Tomorrow the march to Yorktown -- all that was beyond his ken.

It may have been Marcus Aurelius, I know it wasn't Cicero and surely not Seneca, who understood well that we go through the world not really knowing what will happen and not really able to make things work out as we plan.

That was the grand thing about sunspots, when they were so popular a few years back. It was nice to think the sunspots were responsible.

The incredible thing was that Washington even had an army by l78l, and that he himself was still alive. Incredible that he didn't throw in the towel somewhere along the way. Incredible that his own force of character held the whole l0-headed little monster together in his arms.

If anybody, reviewing the American situation from l775 to l78l, wished to say God was in the plan, or the new republic was in His, I for one wouldn't argue. It's as good an explanation as any I've ever read.