Volunteer Overload: Foreign Support of the American Cause Prior to the French Alliance

The First Meeting of Washington and Lafayette, engraved by Currier and Ives, 1876. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Aside from being outmanned by the best army in the world when the American Revolution started, it was clear that the American forces were lacking specific skill sets, gaps which had to be addressed in order to assure victory. Early on, Congress identified several functions, the major ones being engineering and artillery, in which a lack of homegrown talent left little choice but to dip into the foreign talent pool. When the door opened for the use of foreign military personnel, more people than just those supporting these two specialties stormed through. The scramble that occurred left in its wake short tempers, finger-pointing, and more than a few bruised egos. It also presented questions as to the appropriateness of the use of foreign troops given the principles of the Revolution. To use an engineering analogy, however, these foreigners helped build the bridge that got the United States from the Declaration of Independence to the French alliance. The alliance “legitimized” the use of outside help, and once they got coordinated the combined forces were enough to defeat the British.

The engineering gap was actually filled reasonably quickly. Benjamin Franklin, working with the French, recruited four men: Antoine-Jean-Louis LeBègue de Presle Duportail, Obry Gouvion, and Bailleul La Radière, commissioned with ranks of colonel, major, and lieutenant colonel respectively, in February 1777, and Lt. Col. Jean-Baptiste-Joseph, comte de Laumoy, a couple of months later.[1] They were the only foreigners recruited at the express direction of Congress. Throughout the war, the revolutionaries recruited very few European soldiers through such directly sanctioned means.[2]

Artillery was led by Henry Knox, a former Boston bookseller who was self-educated in the discipline. This limited scope of his expertise, but his movement of fifty-nine cannon from Fort Ticonderoga to the siege of Boston at the height of the winter of 1775-1776, might not have even been attempted by a more experienced officer. Under Knox’s leadership it was accomplished, and stands as one of the greatest feats, engineering or otherwise, of the war.

Besides artillery personnel, America also needed weaponry and manufacturing capacity. One early pioneer who recognized the American production shortages was Frenchman Louis O’Hickey D’Arundel. Unfortunately his life was cut short in July 1776 by the failure of one of his cannons, the first of many French fatalities suffered in the war.[3] The arrival of French artillerists Claude-Noël-François Romand de Lisle and Louis-Joseph-Henri Robillard d’Antin, more due to timing than need, would later be the straw that broke Washington’s back as far as handling the deluge of foreign volunteers, prompting a February 11, 1777 letter to President of Congress John Hancock pouring out his frustrations.[4]

As the timing of D’Arundel’s involvement indicates, the flow of foreigner military “experts” coming in to assist the Americans had preceded the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Those early comers proved to be some of the least successful imports. Baron de Woedtke was an early arrival who came with strong recommendations, was appointed brigadier-general, but proved to have drinking issues and rendered little service to the American cause.[5] But early failures were mere minor false starts compared with what happened post-Declaration.

The flow of foreign soldiers supporting the American effort for independence emanated  primarily from the same source of the other early foreign support for the war—France. Authorization of volunteers crossed the desks of two American commissioners to France, Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin (the third, Arthur Lee, had little involvement with this business). Deane was the first on the scene, arriving in Paris in June 1776, and Franklin followed in December. While Deane’s written instructions from Congress (likely, ironically, penned by Franklin) included many things, acting as a branch recruiting office for the Continental Army was not one of them. Deane was instructed to “give good countenance to your appearing in the character of a merchant, which we wish you continually to retain among the French, in general, it being probable that the court of France may not like it should be known publickly, that any agent from the Colonies is in that country.”

Deane was to make contact with the French through Edward Bancroft, a former student of his back in Connecticut. Bancroft was many years later identified as having been a British spy during this time—so much for Deane’s merchant cover story. Instructions were quite specific on the procurement role that Deane should perform, requesting “clothing and arms for twenty-five thousand men with a suitable quantity of ammunition and one hundred field pieces.”[6] In this he was fairly successful, working with French playwright and activist Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

Franklin as Envoy to France. (Library of Congress)

Franklin must have been happy he arrived later, though it was not late enough: he was driven to distraction by the never-ending march of position-seekers for the Continental Army. “The noise of every coach now that enters my court terrifies me . . . as soon as I am put in good humor by a glass or two of champagne, [they] attack upon me. Luckily, I do not often in my sleep dream of these vexatious situations, or I should be afraid of what are now my only hours of comfort.”[7] Together, Deane and Franklin wrote to Congress stating, among other things, that “we are hourly fatigu’d with their Applications and Offers which we are obliged to refuse; and with hundreds of Letters which we cannot possibly answer to Satisfaction, having had no Orders to engage any but Engineers, who are accordingly gone. If the Congress think fit to encourage some of distinguished Merit to enter their Service, they will please to signify it.”[8]

Despite their claim they were “obliged to refuse” applications, they approved more than enough to upset everyone involved. It was not just Deane, though history has tended to saddle him with the blame. My review of Franklin’s correspondence with Washington identified one eight-day period in June 1777 in which he sent four letters to Washington with thirteen applicants. After that, there were at least nine more letters recommending twelve candidates from a variety of countries. Even after Yorktown, the Doctor sent at least three more letters to the Washington with more personnel to recommend.

Although Deane had never been asked to do this, or even to remedy the engineering and artillery skill shortfalls, he must have felt some patriotic duty to oblige the contenders virtually knocking down his door. Some blamed Deane for being overly impressed by French contenders with fancy titles, and according to Congress “he has certainly stretched his Commission if not beyond the Letter far beyond all bounds of discretion. it seems as if he could not say nay to any Frenchman who called himself Count or Chevalier.”[9] Deane, for his part, wrote to Congress stating that ““Had I ten ships here I could fill them all with passengers for America.”[10] Deane’s credibility had been further damaged by a December 6, 1776 letter to Congress that along with granting commissions for high ranks to sixteen soldiers, ended with an “oh, by the way” suggestion that France’s Comte de Broglie might be useful to replace Washington as commander-in-chief, a suggestion Congress mercifully disregarded without comment. De Broglie’s nephew was one of Franklin’s future recommendations to Washington and served later in the war.

Besides Deane and Franklin in Paris, back home in America Congress and General Washington were just as frustrated with the situation. In fairness, communication between Paris and Congress was partly to blame for Deane and Franklin’s profligate ways with commissions; communication lags and difficulties resulted in sporadic and untimely direction. However, the flow of applicants (eventually, by one estimate, close to four hundred)[11] eventually drove Congress to take action. Responding to Washington’s February 11 outburst, Congress authorized him to inquire into the military abilities and conduct of these men and permitted him to dismiss those unworthy of their commissions, effectively pushing the issue right back to him.

They also did what Congresses typically do—they formed a committee, in this case a three-man team to review the applications and qualifications. Congress also directed its Committee of Secret Correspondence to tell its agents abroad to discourage foreign officers from coming to America by warning them they would not be employed unless they spoke English.[12] One committee member observed drily that this requirement “will be construed as a patent for those who do [speak English].”[13] That man, James Lovell of Massachusetts, became the most prominent voice on the committee. He had some cutting words for Deane, asking “Ought not this weak or roguish man to be recalled?”[14] Eventually, he was.

For all its bluster and criticism of others, Congress could also be over-impressed by the nobility (real or feigned) and alleged credentials of some of the soldiers who paraded before them. The fact that Deane or Franklin had signed off on these commissions also put Congress in a tough spot. Congress could renege on these agreements, potentially upsetting their (at the time illicit) ally France or accept them and annoy Washington. Or, even worse, they could irritate Washington further by simply punting the decision over to him.

This brings us to Washington, the beleaguered commander-in-chief. In his February 11 missive he complained to Congress that “You cannot conceive what a weight these kind of people are upon the Service, and upon me in particular, few of them have any knowledge of the Branches which they profess to understand, and those that have, are intirely useless as Officers from their ignorance of the English Language.”[15] Separately, he later sent a sharp rebuke to Deane:

The difficulty of providing for those Gentlemen in a manner suitable to the former ranks of some, and the expectations of many, has not a little embarrassed Congress and myself. The extravagant Rank given to the Officers who first came over from France, most of whom have turned out but little better than Adventurers, made those of real Merit and long Service, who came over with proper credentials, naturally conclude that they should enjoy the highest posts in our Army; indeed it could not be expected that they would consent to serve in this Country in an inferior Station to those whom they had commanded in France.[16]

These foreign contenders (pretenders?) played havoc with commissioned ranks, and exacerbated contention for higher ranks, a problem that was already well-ensconced among the native-born in the American army. This provided no end of headaches for Washington. At one point, a frustrated Washington wrote to congressman Richard Henry Lee, asking, “Under the previledge of friendship, I take the liberty to ask you, what Congress expects I am to do with the many Foreigners they have, at different times, promoted to the Rank of Field Officers?”[17]

Having established that everyone was angry with everybody else, let us pause to ask: Why did foreigners seek to help the American rebellion, and the rebellion seek them? Foreigners came for all kinds of reasons. Some were adventure seekers and the Revolution was the main venue of action around the globe at this moment; others were looking to burnish their military resumes with wartime experience. Some were running from problems in their home countries, while still others were looking to make a little money. Many were looking to settle old scores against the hated British from the Seven Years’ War. The last and smallest portion, unfortunately though probably not surprisingly, were there because they believed in the nobility of the American cause. Not surprisingly, the latter group generally provided the best results.

The major reason the colonial rebels sought the services of foreigners was obvious—the need for specific skills they possessed. First, as explained earlier, the Americans were lacking homegrown talent in certain specific technical disciplines. Second, the American bench was not very deep. It was somewhat short on leadership, experience, and tactical expertise. Third, Washington himself desired an army that would be trained to fight like and to take on a European force, a responsibility ultimately addressed by Prussian Baron von Steuben.

There was a certain hypocrisy associated with this approach. One of the “long train of abuses and usurpations” by King George III enumerated in the Declaration of Independence is the following: “He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”[18] Yet the American side made plentiful use of foreign soldiers throughout the Revolution. According to historian Eric Spall, “We explained our way out by emphasizing American Revolutionary leaders simply cloaked their mercenaries in the guise of the ‘disinterested and heroic’ volunteer. By portraying them as volunteers, many Americans chose to depict foreigners in the Continental Army as men who were dedicated to Revolutionary ideals rather than motivated by self-interest.”[19] Washington recognized the contradiction, writing “it is by the zeal & activity of our own People that the cause must be supported, and not by a few hungry adventurers.”[20]

History is littered with the use of mercenaries, whether the users were short-handed or not. It may be difficult to ignore the hypocrisy of the Americans doing likewise, but perhaps harder to envision that the Americans would not have employed qualified outside assistance, as and when needed, to secure victory for the cause. After all, even Washington wanted to fight the British on the standard of European style warfare. The cliché that one country’s mercenary is another’s freedom fighter applied then and still applies even today.

Steuben probably warmed Washington’s heart when he claimed to desire the “title of a Citizen of America.” To many Americans, this desire for citizenship, unrepresentative though it might have been, further separated the foreigners who served in the Continental Army from those employed by the British.[21] Steuben also grasped the uniqueness of the American cause, writing, “a considerable number of German barons and French marquises have left the country, and I always feel uneasy when a baron or a marquis is introduced. We are living in a republic, dear friend — here the baron is not a farthing more valued than Master Jacob or Mister John is, and such a state of things is very unpalatable to the taste of a German or French baron.”[22]

Regardless of such talk, Washington maintained a dim view of foreigners in service to the cause, even one as useful as Steuben, who was still considered a soldier of fortune.[23] When the Baron was campaigning for a promotion, Washington wrote to congressman Gouverneur Morris of New York stating, “Baron Steuben I now find is also wanting to quit his Inspectorship for a command in the line, this will also be productive of much discontent to the Brigadiers. In a word, altho I think the Baron an excellent Officer, I do most devoutly wish that we had not a single Foreigner among us, except the Marquis de la Fayette, who acts upon very different principles than those which govern the rest.”[24] But in the end, Steuben and Lafayette were the linchpins: one trained the army, and the other cemented the French alliance.[25]

So many came, in fact, that many had to be turned away. The familiar phrase “your results may vary” was never truer when applied to the performance of this bevy of volunteers. To illustrate the two ends of this spectrum, let us turn to the cases of Lafayette and Philippe Charles Tronson du Coudray. Their experiences provide excellent case studies of the advantages and pitfalls of widespread utilization of foreign volunteers.

Philippe Charles Tronson du Coudray. (Parismuseescollections.paris.fr)

Lafayette, one of the twenty-two candidates listed by Deane in his letter of December 6, 1776, had his dedication to the cause fully tested, not only in his escape from France against the orders of the King and the wishes of his family, but once he arrived in America. Fifteen of those twenty-two candidates, including Lafayette, made their way across the Atlantic aboard the Victoire. What happened after the crossing was reported in the account written by officer candidate the Chevalier Dubuysson. Arriving in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 20, after a nearly three-month voyage, their next task was to get to Philadelphia and Congress. They made a “large part of the journey on foot, often sleeping in the woods, almost dying of hunger, harassed by the heat, several of us with fever and dysentery. At last, after thirty-two days travelling, we arrived in Philadelphia, in a still more pitiful state than when we entered Charlestown.”[26]

Arrival in Philadelphia was on July 26, after a 600-mile trek. They made an appointment to meet with Congress the next day. Arriving at the appointed time, they were left to cool their heels for an extended period outside Congress’s meeting place before being greeted at the door, according to Dubuysson’s diary, by a “Mr. Moose,” actually Robert Morris. Morris pointed to his companion, Lovell: “this gentleman speaks French very well and is appointed to deal with all those of your nation, so that it is he with whom you will deal in future.” Lovell, after referring to the group as “adventurers” (to their ears, this meant mercenaries—not a compliment) proceeded to ask the men if they had “seen Deane’s powers,” that Deane had only been commissioned to send four engineers and that he had instead sent Du Cordray and other “pretend engineers.” He went on to say that Franklin had sent the four engineers and that the Americans had no further need for officers. Lovell then turned and re-entered the building.

Baron de Kalb, center, introducing the Marquis de Lafayette to Silas Deane. (New York Public Library)

The group, led by Lafayette and Johann De Kalb, “knew not what to think of it. It would not be possible to be more amazed than we were . . . We decided to wait and seek the motive of this affront before complaining of it. We rightly attributed it to the bad conduct of our compatriots who had come before.”[27] Despite his hostility toward foreign officers and to Deane, Lovell soon came to his senses, realizing that this was the long-awaited Lafayette, whose reputation had preceded him via a letter to Congress from Franklin. Along with William Duer of New York, he met with Lafayette the next day to apologize for the rude reception.[28] In the end, Lafayette stayed, endearing himself to Washington by initially stating, “I have come to learn and not to teach.”[29] The rest is history. Some of his staff were deployed in the army, while Congress granted the rest all-expense-paid return trips to France. One of those, De Kalb, who proved quite valuable and later died in the southern campaign, was recalled at the last instant, and given a position.

This brings us to the story of du Coudray, the man whose exploits were responsible for much of the negative feelings about foreign officers and illustrated vividly the drawbacks of their use. Du Coudray was a Deane signee under an agreement allegedly dictated by himself and signed by Deane.[30] Beaumarchais had set up transportation to America aboard the Amphitrite. The trouble began when, facing an impending embargo on departures from France, du Coudray showed up with forty-nine passengers instead of the ten that had been expected. The ship, though not stocked to handle this many, left with all forty-nine, not surprisingly returning two weeks later to resupply, angering Deane and jeopardizing the whole mission. When he finally arrived in America, du Coudray promptly informed Washington that he was a major general and the new artillery and engineering leader, which came as news to the commander-in-chief.[31]

The matter was kicked to Congress, whose problems instantly multiplied when three top American generals, Nathanael Greene, Knox, and John Sullivan all threatened to resign over the situation. Congress was unsure with whom to be angriest; du Coudray for his imperious ways (at one point, for example, du Coudray unsuccessfully petitioned Congress to dismiss Massachusetts delegate James Lovell from any committee related to his affairs because of Lovell’s hostility toward him),[32] the generals for their resignation threat, or Deane for striking such an outrageous agreement (though Franklin had co-signed it).

Congress was on the horns of a dilemma, as summarized by John Adams: “If We dissagree to that Contract, what will our Constituents say? What will foreign Nations say. Our Journals upon which the Three Letters must appear, will be read by both. Will not foreign Nations Say, that the Ambition and Turbulence of three of our best officers, necessitated Us to violate our public Faith?”[33] What to do?

First, Congress censured the generals for not accepting civilian authority over the army. Second, five days later, they voided Deane’s contract with du Coudray, citing Deane’s lack of authority to make such commitments.[34] It was du Coudray’s turn to be upset. To mollify him, Congress offered an inspector general’s position, which was a title with little real authority. Du Coudray spurned the offer and announced he would serve as a volunteer. No one ever got to see what that would look like. In September, crossing the Schuylkill River on a ferry, he chose not to dismount his horse. Something spooked the animal, and it jumped into the river, drowning the still mounted du Coudray. This accident bailed everyone out of a sticky situation. As John Adams expressed succinctly, if coldly, in his diary “This dispensation will save us much altercation.”[35] The three generals withdrew their resignations and much of du Coudray’s entourage returned to France.

The above examples illustrate the extremes in the use of foreign resources, from the sublime (Lafayette) to the ridiculous (du Coudray). The process was disruptive, fraught with risk, and arguably a contradiction of national ideals. There are many other foreigners falling between these two extremes who made significant contributions, names such as Kosciuszko, Pulaski, and Hazen, among others. Sloppy and contentious though the process was, the Continental Army leveraged this assistance and more than held the fort until they struck the French alliance, which permitted help to be mobilized much more easily (though this arrangement certainly had its own set of problems).

The employment of foreign soldiers, pragmatic though it was, was a messy and somewhat hypocritical move by the Americans and caused lots of angst for all involved. But it was essential for keeping the army in the field until the French alliance brought the process out into the open and eventually sealed the American victory.

 

[1]James Lovell to George Washington, July 24, 1777, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-10-02-0379,Footnote 1.

[2]Eric Spall, “Foreigners in the Highest Trust: American Perceptions of European Mercenary Officers in the Continental Army,” Early American Studies Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring 2014), 359.

[3]Larrie D. Ferreiro, Brothers at Arms (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 122.

[4]Washington to John Hancock, February 11, 1777. Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-08-02-0327.

[5]Louis Clinton Hatch, The Administration of the American Revolutionary Army (New York, Longmans, Green & Co., 1904), 50.

[6]The Committee of Secret Correspondence: Instructions to Silas Deane, March 2, 1776, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-22-02-0222.

[7]Benjamin Franklin to Jacques Barbeu Dubourg, after October 2, 1777. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Sponsored by The American Philosophical Society and Yale University, Volume 25, franklinpapers.org/framedVolumes.jsp?vol=30&page=018a.

[8]The American Commissioners to Committee of Secret Correspondence, April 9, 1777, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-23-02-0305

[9]Edmund Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, Volume 2, July 5, 1776, to December 31, 1777 (Washington, DC: The Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1923), 448.

[10]Deane to the Secret Committee, December 3, 1776, from The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, Volume I, Jared Sparks, ed. (

[11]Milton C. Van Vlack, Silas Deane, Revolutionary War Diplomat and Politician (McFarland & Company, 2013), 130.

[12]Stephen R. Taaffe, Washington’s Revolutionary War Generals (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), 93.

[13]Lovell to Franklin, July 9, 1777, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-24-02-0203.

[14]Lovell to William Whipple, July 29, 1777, Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 7 May 1, 1777—September 18, 1777, memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?hlaw:28:./temp/~ammem_XBrX:.

[15]Washington to Hancock, February 11, 1777, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-08-02-0327.

[16]Washington to Deane, August 13, 1777, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-10-02-0593.

[17]Washington to Richard Henry Lee, May 17, 1777, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0448.

[18]Declaration of Independence: A Transcription,National Archives, www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.

[19]Spall,“Foreigners in the Highest Trust,” 365

[20]Washington to Richard Henry Lee, May 17, 1777, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0448.

[21]Spall,“Foreigners in the Highest Trust,” 363.

[22]Hatch,The Administration of the American Revolutionary Army, 52. The author is quoting a letter from Steuben to Baron de Frank, July 4, 1779.

[23]Louis Gottschalk, “The Attitude of European Officers in the Revolutionary Armies toward General George Washington,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society Vol. 32, No. 1 (March 1939), 37.

[24]Washington to Gouverneur Morris, July 24, 1778, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-16-02-0169.

[25]Hatch, The Administration of the American Revolutionary Army, 70

[26]Elizabeth Kite,“Lafayette And His Companions on The ‘Victoire’” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, Vol. 45, No. 2 (June, 1934), 148-154.

[27]Ibid., 153.

[28]James R. Gaines, For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008), 66.

[29]Gottschalk, “The Attitude of European Officers,” 50.

[30]Sir George Otto Trevelyan, The American Revolution, Volume 4 (University of California, 1922), 39.

[31]Taaffe, Washington’s Revolutionary War Generals, 95.

[32]Ibid., 96.

[33]John Adams to Nathanael Greene, July 7, 1777, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-05-02-0144.

[34]Taaffe, Washington’s Revolutionary War Generals, 96.

[35]John Adams, Works, ii, Online Library of Liberty, page 280 (diary entry from September 18, 1777).

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1 Comment

  • Salut –
    may I suggest this text for Mr. Werther to fill out the picture: Catherine M. Prelinger, “Less Lucky than LaFayette: A Note on the French Applicants to Benjamin Franklin for Commissions in the American Army, 1776-1785” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History Vol. 4, (1976), pp. 263-270.
    For a lesser-known individual volunteer who, like Fleury, returned with Rochambeau in 1780: “A French Volunteer who lived to rue America’s Revolution: Denis Jean Florimond de Langlois, Marquis du Bouchet” Colonial Williamsburg. The Journal of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation vol. 21, no. 3, (June/July 1999), pp. 16-25.
    Bob Selig

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