At the war’s outset, there was a dearth of proven military leadership within the thirteen colonies severely limiting the Continental Army’s ability to engage the British on equal terms. This paucity of military leadership was especially pronounced in the technical aspects of war including engineering, artillery and cavalry.
To fill the void, the Continental Congress authorized its diplomatic representatives in Europe to recruit experienced military leadership, especially those with extensive military arts and engineering capabilities. Fortunately peace in Europe provided a large pool of interested, unemployed officers some of which identified with the democratic ideals of the American Revolution.
The initial targeted recruitment turned into hundreds of volunteer officers traveling to America for officer commissions, many of which had suspect backgrounds and credentials. American born Continental Army officers felt aggrieved by these Congressional appointments. Washington wrote Benjamin Franklin, “It would be prudent and just to discourage their coming over…” In addition; some volunteers did not perform well. For example, Brigadier Generals Matthias A. R. de Fermoy and Prud Homme de Borre were disgraced in battle and returned to Europe. Others such as Major General Thomas Conway became embroiled in a political intrigue. Conway was implicated in a plot to replace General Washington, which when not successful, led to Conway’s resignation.
However, many foreign volunteers performed superbly and provided critical military expertise. Marquis de Lafayette is the obvious choice as the “most valuable” foreign volunteer. George Washington and his contemporary general officers highly valued Lafayette’s leadership, courage and loyalty. A more interesting question is which other foreign volunteers were most valuable to the patriot cause. Many French volunteers as well as volunteer officers from Canada, Prussia, Germany and Poland provided noteworthy contributions and today are significantly less recognized.
At the time of the revolution, one’s nationality was a murky concept. Everyone living in a colony was a British subject regardless of birth place, culture or language. However, most people had primary allegiance to their colonial affiliation and not to a common American nationality which had yet to be created from a subset of British colonies. Therefore I consider anyone living outside the thirteen colonies at the war’s outset to be eligible for consideration as the most valuable foreign volunteer. Here are my views within the following military roles:
- Inspector General/Drillmaster – Major General Baron de Friedrich W. A. Steuben
- Infantry Commander – Brigadier General (Brevet) Moses Hazen
- Military Engineer – Brigadier General (Brevet) Thaddeus Kosciuszko
- Calvary – Brigadier General Tuffin Charles Armand, marquis de la Rouerie
- Battlefield bravery – Lieutenant-Colonel Francois Louis Teissedre de Fleury
To be considered for this list, the foreign officers must have earned their honors fighting in the Continental Army, not serving in the French Army in America.
Inspector General/Drillmaster – Major General Baron de Friedrich W. A. Steuben
Baron de Friedrich W. A. “von” Steuben came to America claiming to be a titled noble and a Lieutenant General in the Prussian Army. His grandfather added the “von” to elevate the family’s prestige and the Baron title is attributed to an award of the Order of Fidelity by a German princess. While the title claim has some validity, his claims of nobility were suspect and his rank in the Prussian Army, Captain, was vastly exaggerated. However dubious his credentials, Steuben possessed extensive military education that greatly exceeded the technical military knowledge of American officers.
Steuben quickly gained Washington’s confidence leading to his Congressional appointment as Inspector General. In this capacity Steuben excelled and earned his military reputation. As Inspector General he was responsible for training the Army and is best known as the drillmaster of Valley Forge. During that horrible winter of 1777-8, he led an intensive training program instructing officers and enlisted men in European fighting tactics required to engage the British army in open field battles.
The next winter Steuben authored the first United States Army military code in three parts – a drill manual, a set of official regulations governing army activities and a treatise on conduct of officers and enlisted men. This manual was widely praised by Washington and the Board of War.
However, Steuben’s Continental Army service was not without controversy. Steuben desperately sought to command men in battle. Eventually, Washington relented and sent him south in 1780 to join General Nathanial Greene’s Southern Army. On his way Steuben’s orders were changed when the British under General Benedict Arnold invaded Virginia. Washington was keen on capturing Arnold while protecting Virginia from destruction. In this capacity Steuben failed. He clashed with local militia leaders, turned out to be an ineffective battlefield tactician and was eventually replaced in command by Lafayette.
However in the end, his statue in Lafayette Park across from the White House is a well-earned tribute as he led the transformation of the Continental Army into a competent fighting force, which could hold its own against the British Army on the open battlefield.
Infantry Commander – Brigadier General (Brevet) Moses Hazen
After daring battlefield service during the French and Indian War as a provincial officer, Moses Hazen joined the regular British Army. Prior to the Revolution, he retired as a lieutenant on half pay to live in Canada. Hazen, a large landowner in the Richelieu Valley just north of Vermont had a difficult decision as to which side to support and his initial loyalties were not easily discerned. He was an American by birth but tied economically to Canada and British rule.
To counter the patriot invasion, Governor Carleton authorized Hazen to raise troops for the protection of Canada. Hazen met with both sides but did not raise militia to support either side. The patriot invaders on their way to Montreal and Quebec plundered his estate and briefly detained him. British forces quickly recaptured Hazen and not trusting his loyalties, the local British commander at St. John sent him to Governor Carleton under arrest. During the patriot attack on Quebec, Hazen escaped and considerably aided the patriot forces in the remainder of the Montreal and Quebec campaign. Through these military exploits Hazen became regarded as one of the leading Canadian patriots and was sent to meet with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
As result of his confirmed loyalty and demonstrated military leadership, Congress commissioned him Colonel of the 2nd Canadian Regiment. This unit became known as “Hazen’s Own” and initially consisted of like-minded Canadians interested in independence from Britain but eventually soldiers were recruited from other sources. The 2nd Canadian fought at the battles of Staten Island, Brandywine and Germantown. At Brandywine, Hazen’s Regiment was part of the American right that held fast when the rest of the American front fled the battlefield. During the Yorktown campaign, Hazen commanded the 2nd Brigade of Lafayette’s Light Division.
I selected Hazen as the most valuable infantry unit commander as he skillfully and reliably commanded a combat regiment throughout the eight-year war. However, he was court martialed twice; the first resulted from a clash with Benedict Arnold, the second Baron Steuben. Both times he was acquitted.
Even with these miscues and a tempestuous personality, Hazen’s military contributions were widely recognized. “Hazen’s Regiment seems to have had an exceptionally good record…” He was a reliable battle commander, kept open the threat of Canadian invasion by the patriots and maintained a combat effective regiment throughout the war. Further, at war’s end, he received a brevet promotion to Brigadier General and was granted land in northern New York to reward his service and to recognize his lost Canadian estate.
Military Engineer – Brigadier General (Brevet) Thaddeus Kościuszko
For the most valuable military engineer, the conventional selection would be Major General (Brevet) Louis Lebegue Duportail, the chief engineer of the Continental Army. However, I selected Thaddeus Kościuszko as he provided hands on field contributions leading to the American victory at Saratoga and to the defeat of the British in the south under General Greene.
Thaddeus Kościuszko a former Polish military officer came to America without a formal invitation. He approached Benjamin Franklin, who was impressed enough to recommend Kościuszko as a military engineer. Franklin’s recommendation was sufficient for Congress to appoint Kościuszko to the rank of Colonel on October 18, 1776. Kościuszko’s first assignment was to fortify Philadelphia. Most notably he initiated construction of Ft. Mercer at Red Bank, New Jersey.
In this capacity, Kościuszko caught Washington’s eye and due to a good relationship with General Horatio Gates, Kościuszko was appointed Engineer of the Northern Army. At Fort Ticonderoga he recommended fortifying Sugar Loaf Hill (Mt. Defiance) but was over ruled by General Philip Schuyler, which turned out to be a huge mistake as British cannons on these heights forced the hasty evacuation of Ticonderoga.
After Burgoyne’s surrender, Kościuszko was appointed military engineer at West Point where he greatly strengthened its fortifications. Further he developed a now unknown innovative mechanism for hauling the large chain boom in and out of the Hudson River.
When the fighting shifted to the south, Kościuszko was sent to aid the Southern Army. He was instrumental to General Greene’s campaign strategy by securing boats for crossing the numerous Carolina rivers. Swift and safe river crossings allowed Greene to outpace the British Army contributing to the eventual patriot victory.
Kosciuszko was not the highest-ranking military engineer, but made meaningful contributions in both the northern and southern theaters. He was highly respected by patriot general officers and at war’s end he was rewarded with a brevet promotion to Brigadier General. Further during the southern campaign he became an ardent opponent of slavery. At his death he willed his fortune to assist in the eradication of slavery. There is also a statue of Kościuszko in Lafayette Park by the White House.
Cavalry – Brigadier General Tuffin Charles Armand, marquis de la Rouerie
To better relate with his fellow patriot officers, the Marquis de la Rouerie dropped his aristocratic title and shortened his name to Charles Armand. In an inauspicious start, he was assigned to a ragtag group of German speaking Pennsylvanians called the Ottendorff’s Corps. Interested in cavalry and with his own money, Armand formed the 3rd Calvary Pulaski’s legion and on May 10, 1777 was appointed to the rank of Colonel by Congress. After his first battle on June 26, 1777 at Short Hills, New Jersey, Washington commended Armand for his personal courage in saving a field gun.
Armand led a strong rear guard action at Brandywine allowing an orderly retreat by Washington’s forces. He also participated in battles at Whitemarsh and Monmouth. When Casimir Pulaski was killed outside of Savannah, Armand assumed command of Pulaski’s legion that was renamed Armand’s Partisan Corps. His focus shifted to daring raids and partisan operations in the New Jersey/Hudson Valley region. On November 7, 1779 Armand captured Alderman Leggett, a high-ranking loyalist in his home as he slept. He also captured Major Baremore and Captain Cruser in subsequent operations.
The only question of his battlefield leadership came during the battle of Camden in 1780. Armand contended that General Gates placed Armand’s legion in the front of the Army, an impossible position to defend as payback for a perceived earlier slight. Accounts of Armand’s performance vary with British Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton reported in his memoirs that Armand “played a good countenance” while patriot Colonel Otho Holland Williams wrote “Some of the cavalry of Armand’s legion were wounded, retreated and threw the whole corps into disorder.” Other patriot leaders were neutral. After Camden, Armand traveled to France to raise money and men and was awarded the Chevalier de Saint Louis.
He returned to resume leadership of his legion and under Lafayette’s command fought at the battle of Green Spring on July 6, 1781. Most notably during the Yorktown campaign, he participated in the assault on Redoubt #10 with Colonel Alexander Hamilton.
While Casimir Pulaski is more famous, Armand contributions were more significant to the patriot victory. At the war’s end, Armand received warm congratulations from Washington for his promotion to Brigadier General and chief of cavalry. He was one of the first foreign volunteers to arrive and among the last to leave. Armand proved the value of cavalry in the revolutionary war campaigns and received the following congratulations from Congress:
“…I am directed to write to you, and to express the high sense Congress are impressed with of the services you have rendered to the United States, in the course of the late war with Great Britain; and their entire approbation of the Bravery, Activity and Zeal you have so often evidenced in the Cause of America”.
Battlefield Bravery – Lieutenant-Colonel Francois Louis Teissedre de Fleury
Assessing relative battlefield bravery is subjective and can be controversial. I rated Francois de Fleury first in this category as he was awarded two metals for battlefield valor and was wounded twice. To this day the United States Army Engineer Regiment awards a de Fleury medal to United States Army engineers “who exemplifies boldness, courage and commitment to a strong national defense.”
De Fleury was an early volunteer from France. Commissioned a Captain on May 22, 1777 he served in the forces defending Philadelphia from British invasion. De Fleury was wounded twice, first at Brandywine and then again in the courageous defense of Fort Mifflin. After the Philadelphia campaign, de Fleury was appointed LT Colonel of Engineers and then appointed assistant inspector general under Baron Steuben.
De Fleury returned to active an combat unit and participated in joint American French assault of Newport in August 1778. The next year, he led a battalion in the attack on a strategic British fortress on the Hudson River at Stony Point, New York. To avoid the possibility of a gunshot alerting the British the patriots attacking force used bayonets and unloaded muskets. de Fleury not only led the right wing of the three pronged attack but was the first man into the British works and also cut down the British colors.
Congress formally recognized de Fleury’s valor by awarding a Congressional medal for his “zeal, military genius and gallantry.” He is one of only eleven medal recipients during the revolution and the only one earned by a foreign volunteer. In September 1779 he requested a leave of absence to obtain additional armament and financial support in France for his legion. Returning with General Rochambeau’s army, De Fleury received a second medal, the Chevalier de Saint Louis for distinguished service at Yorktown.
While John De Kalb and Casimir Pulaski died heroically in combat, de Fleury received the highest tribute from his contemporaries exemplified by his medal award resolution; “he has rendered essential benefit to the American cause, he has deservedly acquired the esteem of the army and gained unfading reputation for himself.”
Other than Lafayette, the important contributions of foreign volunteers are often overlooked. While some of the volunteers were mere opportunists and incompetent, these five officers provide substantial evidence that many foreign volunteers deserve recognition on equal footing as native-born military leaders. They also serve as a reminder that one of the best features of American culture is to accept and leverage the most valuable abilities of the people willing to travel to our shores.
 France provided the most volunteers with at least 87 officers as reported in: French Volunteers and Supporters of the American Revolution http://www.xenophongroup.com/mcjoynt/volunt.htm accessed on October 22, 2014.  George Washington to Benjamin Franklin August 17, 1777, The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel. (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008).  Matthias A. R. de Fermoy jeopardized the American retreat by burning his quarters at Fort Ticonderoga and Prud Homme de Borre contributed to the patriot defeat at Brandywine by his insubordination. Both left the Continental Army as a result.  Given the multicultural backgrounds, there are several versions of names. For consistency volunteer names in this paper are from: Heitman, Francis B., Historical Register of the Officers of the Continental Army (Baltimore: Clearfield Company, 2003).  Lyons, Renee Critcher, Foreign-born American Patriots: Sixteen Volunteer Leaders in the Continental Army (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company Press, 2014), e-book screen 4343 of 4861.  Lyons, Renee Critcher, e-book screen 4590 of 4861.  Rossie, Jonathan Gregory, Politics of Command in the American Revolution (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1975), 178.  Berg, Fred Anderson, Encyclopedia of Continental Army Units (Harrisburg, PA.: Stackpole Books, 1972), 17.  In this instance, I did use the more common spelling (Lebegue) versus the one used by Heitman (Lebigue).  Lyons, Renee Critcher, e-book screen 2477 of 4861. Many historians believe that the patriot forces were too small to defend Fort Ticonderoga and the fort would have fallen even if Sugar Loaf Hill was fortified.  Lyons, Renee Critcher, e-book screen 2314 of 4861.  Boatner, Mark M., Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1974), 1128.  Tarleton, Banastre, A history of the campaign of the 1780-1781 in the southern provinces of North America (Dublin: Calles, Exshaw, el al, 1787), 108.  Johnson, William Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanial Greene, (Charleston: Miller, A. E., 1822) Appendix B: A Narrative of the Campaign of 1780 by Otho Holland Williams, 495.  Letters of Delegates to Congress Volume 15 April 1, 1780 – August 31, 1780, August 31, 1780 letter from John Armstrong, Sr. to George Washington, 638-9, references Armand’s Corp on the battle, but only indicates the flight of the militia.  Letter from George Washington to Charles Armand April 9, 1783 The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel. (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008).  Mifflin, Thomas to the Marquis de La Rouerie, Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 21 October 1, 1783 – October 31, 1783, 413 as quoted in http: //memory.loc.gov, accessed on October 13, 2014. Http://www.sgtjd.com/csm/Pages/deFleuryMedal.aspx, accessed October 12, 2014. Provides a description of the medal as well as medal recipients.  Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 13 June 1, 1779 – September 30, 1779, July 27, 1777 letter from Joseph Hewes to Richard Caswell, p. 297 which contains a brief description of de Fleury’s participation in the assault on Stony Point.  Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Friday, October 1, 1779, 1134. http://www.revolutionarywararchives.org/medalsandawards.html, accessed October 12, 2014.  Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Friday, October 1, 1779, 1134. Also see Letter from John Jay to de Fleury dated July 17, 1779 which states, “….your valor, of seeing the Laurels you have gained with so much Reputation in America, flourish & increase in your native soil.”