Wednesday, June 30, 2021

French Adventurers, Patriots, and Pretentious Imposters in the Fight for American Independence

 From Journal of the American Revolution:

Europe was at peace at the time and these jobless officers were hard pressed to find employment as mercenaries. Other French officers were frustrated by their inability to advance in rank or gain valuable experience. Thus, these often-unemployed and destitute officers turned to the war in America as their salvation.

One of the most enduring stories from the American Revolution is the capture of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, who was taken after leaving the safety of his army at Bernardsville, New Jersey, on the afternoon of December 13, 1776. Accompanied by a few guards, Lee spent the night at the isolated Widow White’s Tavern. Loyalists alerted the British to Lee’s position and a detachment of intrepid dragoons surrounded the tavern on the following morning. After they chased off his bodyguards, Lee surrendered and was brought to British held Pennington, New Jersey.

Two French officers were with Lee when he was taken prisoner,René Gaiault de Boisbertrand and Jean Louis de Vernejout.[1] The French did not enter the war as America’s ally in 1778, raising the question of why two French Army officers were with Lee two years prior to the French alliance.

Surprisingly, there were many Frenchmen embedded with the Continental army prior to the entry of France into the war and the arrival of a French army in America; in fact, France provided the majority of the European officers who joined the Patriot cause. Virtually all of these foreigners were either French army officers, trained in France or encouraged by the French government to volunteer for the war in America. Examples include Kazimierz (Casimir) Pulaski. Although Pulaski was Polish, he was in France at the start of the American Revolution where he was recruited to join the Patriot Army. Andrew Thaddeus Kosciuszko was another Polish national who was educated in French military schools. Bavarian-born Johann Kalb (better known as Baron de Kalb) was a lieutenant-colonel in the French Army. The so called Baron von Steuben was an unemployed Prussian officer who was introduced to Benjamin Franklin in Paris by agents of the French government.

Just how many Frenchmen volunteered to join the Continental army is difficult to determine. One problem is that some of them failed in their efforts to be appointed as officers in the Continental army and returned to France or the French West Indies. Another is that Americans were unfamiliar with foreign languages. As a result, they were spelling the names and titles of the French volunteers different ways. Washington, for example spelled Kosciuszko’s name eleven different ways.[2] There are clues to the numbers including a letter Washington wrote to Congress on February 20, 1777. In his missive, Washington said that the aspirants were coming in swarms from old France and the [West Indies]Islands.”[3] In another letter written during the same period, Washington described them as “the shoals of French Men that are coming on to this Camp.”[4] Writing in August 1777, Washington referred to “the numberless applications for Imployment by Foreigners.”[5]

Some French volunteers were not commissioned was because they could not speak English. Washington mentioned this problem in a letter to Congress dated October 7, 1776:I must take the liberty to observe that I am under no small difficulties on account of the French Gentlemen that are here . . . Their want of our language is an objection to their being joined to any of the Regiments.” To communicate with them Washington appointed men as aides-de-camp who spoke French: Tench Tilghman, Alexander Hamilton, and John Laurens. As the war expanded to include contact with Spain, Washington added Dr. James McHenry, who was fluent in Spanish, to his staff.

More French officers were rejected as the Americans became aware that the majority of them were adventurers (an old term to describe mercenaries) who came to sell their services to the Patriots. This was a typical practice in European armies; for example, a quarter of the French army at the time was composed of foreign mercenaries.

French officers mustered out of the army following the end of the Seven Years’ War were looking for a war to add to their military experience, prestige at home through higher rank in a foreign army, and to make money. To improve their chances for a commission in the fledging Continental army, the Frenchmen often disguised their true motivation with expressions of their love of liberty and commitment to the Patriot cause. General Washington soon caught on to this masquerade. Writing to Gen. William Heath on July 27, 1777, the commander in chief warned his subordinate, “however modest, they may seem at first to be, by proposing to serve as volunteers, they very soon extend their views, and become importunate for offices they have no right to look for.”[6] In another letter, Washington described his experience with French officers: “Men who in the first instance tell you, that they wish for nothing more than the honor of serving in so glorious a cause, as Volunteers—the next day solicit rank without pay—the day following want money advanced them—and in the course of a week want further promotion, and are not satisfied with anything you can do for them.”[7]

Another objection to commissioning French volunteers was expressed by Gen. Nathanael Greene. Writing to John Adams in 1777, Greene said that having foreign officers in the army was “an injury to America.” Greene said that he looked upon them as “so many spies ready to take their measure as their interest may direct,” that is, they were vulnerable to being bribed by the British.  The general lectured John Adams that it was important for Americans to lead the army, “for the multiplying of foreign officers gives us no internal strength. A good nursery of officers, nursed by experience, firmly attached to the interest of the country, is a great security against foreign invaders.”[8] (Read more.)


No comments: