France was defeated in the Seven Years War. The defeat resulted in France losing valuable colonies, and prestige and influence in Europe. Desperate to regain her past glory, France began to modernize and rearm its army and navy. Realizing that its defeat in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) was mainly the result of a weak navy, France undertook an ambitious program of building new and modern warships to rival Britain’s Royal Navy.
Tension in America suited France’s aims. The French became interested in the Americans and sent spies to report back on the growing unrest. Once the rebellion began, the French wanted to keep the war going and they supplied the rebels with war materials. Everything the French did was kept secret to avoid a war with Britain until they were ready.
The French rearmament program included purging the army of mediocre officers.
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. 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. 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.” In another letter written during the same period, Washington described them as “the shoals of French Men that are coming on to this Camp.” Writing in August 1777, Washington referred to “the numberless applications for Imployment by Foreigners.”
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.” 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.”
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.”
The first French volunteers arrived randomly during 1775 and 1776, many from the French West Indies. These early arrivals were later described by the capable Chevalier Dubuysson des Hayes, an aide-de-camp to Lafayette, as “officers who are deeply in debt and discharged from their units in Europe.” He accused the governors of the Caribbean islands of getting rid of them by sending them to America with glowing letters of recommendation.
These unemployed French officers arrived with inflated resumes and elegant uniforms to improve their changes for a commission. They had to make a favorable impression as they paid for their voyage and expenses with no financial aid or recognition from the French government. For example, in 1777 a French merchant ship was intercepted and boarded by a Royal Navy cruiser. The British found three French officers and two sergeants onboard bound for America. They arrested the lot. When confronted with the incident, the Comte de Vergennes, the French foreign minister, replied, “having left France without permission to serve the Americans, the representative of the [French] King cannot involve himself in their situation.”
Some early French arrivals were successful, commissioned by Congress as captains, majors and colonels in the army and shipped off to General Washington’s headquarters. This arrangement was disruptive, as evidenced by a letter the commander in chief wrote to John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress, written from Morristown in February 1777. The General declared, “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 entirely useless as officers from their ignorance of the English language.”
At Washington’s urging, Congress took steps in March 1777 to curtail the appointment of Frenchmen in the Continental army. Their actions included a resolution advising American ministers in Europe to “discourage all gentlemen from coming to America with expectation of employment in the service, unless they are masters of our language and have the best recommendations.”
Contributing to the Patriots’ cynicism was the conspicuous failure of several early French volunteers who were commissioned as generals by Congress—Philippe-Hubert, Chevalier de Preudhomme de Borre, a sixty year old former French Army lieutenant colonel; Frederick William baron de Woedtke, who claimed to be an aide to King Frederick the Great; and Matthias-Alexis, Chevalier de La Rochefermoy, an indigent officer living in the French West Indies. De Borre, who barely spoke English, was unable to prevent the disorderly retreat of the Maryland brigade he commanded at the Battle of Brandywine. He claimed that it was not his fault if “the American troops run away from the first fire of the enemy.” Infuriated by criticism of his leadership, de Borre tendered his resignation, which was accepted by Congress.
Baron de Woedtke served as a major in the Prussian Army. He later went to Paris where he was appointed a captain and inspector of cavalry in the French Army. When he heard about the war in America he decided to go. De Woedtke arrived in Philadelphia with bogus credentials invented by friends in France describing him as “late a Major General of Cavalry in the Prussian Service and Aid du Camp to that King, and celebrated for his love of Liberty and Military Knowledge.” The gullible members of Congress appointed him a brigadier general in the Continental Army on March 16, 1776. De Woedtke, who was thirty-six years old at the time, was ordered to join the American troops fighting in Canada. He was described as “a very heavy drinker” and “not the best bred up by his Prussian Majesty.” The Baron lasted only three weeks as an American general. According to Dr. Benjamin Rush, de Woedtke died on July 28, 1776 “from the effects of hard drinking.” Commenting on the news of his death, John Adams wrote, “The Baron is dead—has not left a very good Character.”
Matthias-Alexis, Chevalier de La Rochefermoy was another conspicuous failure. He was particularly artful in getting his appointment as a brigadier general (he was a captain in the French Army) with extravagant claims that he was a confidant of the French royal family. Rochefermoy served with the Northern Army and was stationed at Fort Ticonderoga in July 1777. When the fortress proved untenable, its commander, Gen. Arthur St. Clair, ordered a nighttime evacuation on July 5 with no lights or sounds to alert the nearby enemy. Rochefermoy failed to notify all of the troops under his command of the retreat and compounded his incompetence by setting fire to his headquarters, illuminating the night sky. His error alerted the British to the American evacuation. He later had the audacity to defend his action and demand a promotion to major general. Rejected by Congress, Rochefermoy resigned his commission and returned to the West Indies.
The trickle of French officers who arrived in 1775 and 1776 increased to a torrent in 1777 through the single-handed activities of Silas Deane. A Connecticut merchant and former Congressman, Deane arrived in Paris in July 1776, his mission to secure military aid and loans from the French government. Deane was also given blank Continental army commissions. The rationale behind this action can be traced back to a July 10, 1775 letter General Washington wrote to Congress in which he mentioned “a want of engineers to construct proper works.” Benjamin Franklin visited Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few months later. During his visit, Washington told Franklin that he had an urgent need for at least two engineers. Franklin was a member of the Continental Congress’s Secret Committee whose purpose was to seek aid from France and other European nations. It was the Secret Committee that arranged for Deane to go to the French capital. Remembering Washington’s request for engineers, Franklin’s committee instructed Deane to recruit French army engineers, and gave him blank Continental army commissions to expedite his recruiting efforts.
The parochial Deane, from rustic Wethersfield, Connecticut, was dazzled by Paris and the procession of French officers who called upon him. He was impressed with their smart uniforms, claims of military prowess and connections to the French government and the Royal family. Deane believed he was aiding the Patriot cause by issuing commissions to the most impressive French officers he met in Paris. His disciples arrived in Philadelphia where they presented their commissions to Congress. The delegates were befuddled and solved the problem by sending the Frenchmen to Washington’s headquarters.
One of Deane’s seemingly promising recruits was Thomas Conway, an Irish-born colonel in the French army. French officers had been arriving in America individually, but Conway arrived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on April 22, 1777 accompanied by thirty-one additional French volunteers. He joined the army as a brigadier general in the following month.
Conway proved to be a troublemaker who was barely able to conceal his contempt for Washington’s generalship. His criticism fueled the so called Conway Cabal in 1778 which was quickly squashed by Washington and led to Conway’s resignation.
Noteworthy among the officers who arrived with Conway was Denis-Jean Florimond de Mautherville, chevalier du Bouchet, who commanded a company of Morgan’s Rifle Corps during the Saratoga campaign. Du Bouchet was cited for his “distinguished service and notable bravery” at Saratoga by General Horatio Gates.
Washington patiently cooperated with Congress to handle the influx of French volunteers until an arrogant French officer named Philippe Tronson du Coudray showed-up at headquarters. Du Coudray was a talented but egotistical artillery major in the French Army. In 1775, he was ordered by the French government to visit the nation’s ten arsenals and prepare a list of surplus artillery and muskets that could be sold to the rebels. After completing his mission, the major convinced Deane to appoint him a major general and commander of the Continental army’s artillery and engineering corps. Deane signed a contract with the Frenchman on September 11, 1776.
In December 1776, Benjamin Franklin arrived in France to assist Deane and was promptly introduced to du Coudray. Franklin endorsed du Coudray’s appointment after learning of the major’s reputation and high regard by the French government.
Du Courday arrived in Boston in April 1777 accompanied by twenty-seven French officers and twelve artillery sergeants. The delegates to Congress were stunned by this latest invasion and directed their anger at Deane. They insisted that Deane had no authority to grant commissions and paid for the majority of the Frenchmen to return home. Du Coudray stayed and proved to be a pompous windbag who was finally mitigated by appointing him Inspector General of Ordnance and Military Manufactories. While crossing the swollen Schuylkill River in a flatboat on September 15, 1777, Du Coudray insisted on remaining on his horse during the dangerous crossing. He drowned when his skittish horse plunged into the river with the insolent Frenchman in the saddle.
Meanwhile Deane was recalled, leaving Franklin as the principle American envoy in France. Franklin became the new target for French officers eager to join the Continental army. Franklin claimed that he was hounded at every dinner or ball he attended “by some officer or officer’s friend . . . who begins his attack upon me” for a commission in the Continental army. Harassed by applicants “from morning to night . . . the noise of every coach now that enters my court terrifies me.”
While he did not issue commissions, Franklin wrote glowing letters of recommendation and encouraged French applicants to journey to Philadelphia to offer their services to the Continental Congress. One result was that Henry Laurens, the president of Congress at the time, wrote from the rebel capital complaining that “French officers beset my door like bailiffs watching a debtor.”
General Washington was also hounded by “foreign gentlemen.” He constrained his volatile temper in favor of calm reasoning with the venerated Franklin. Writing to the elder statesman on August 17, 1777 Washington explained, “Our corps being already formed and fully officered, and the number of foreign gentlemen . . . continually arriving with fresh applications, throw such obstacles in the way of any future appointments, that every new arrival is only a new source of embarrassment to Congress and myself.” Washington continued, “as they have come over in such crowds, we either must not employ them, or we must do it at the expense of one half the officers in the army.”
In time Franklin realized the trouble he was creating back home by helping the friends and families of unemployed or derisory French officers who hounded him. He wrote, “frequently if a man has no useful talents, is good for nothing and burdensome to his relations, or is indiscreet, profligate and extravagant, they are glad to get rid of him by sending him to the other end of the world.”
Despite the reality of the situation, the romantic notion that French Army officers volunteered because of their love of liberty remains embedded in our culture based on a handful of outstanding French volunteers, the most famous of them Marie Jean Paul Joseph Roche Yves Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette was a wealthy and venerated young French aristocrat enthralled by the rebellion in America. He was introduced to Deane in November 1776, their meeting arranged by retired French army Lt. Col. Johann Kalb who was also interested in joining the rebels. Kalb, a native of Bavaria, was described as “one of the bravest and most skillful soldiers in France.” Deane signed a contract with Lafayette and Kalb on December 7, 1776, appointing them major generals in the Continental army.
The two Frenchmen arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in 1777 with an entourage of fellow French army volunteers. They traveled overland to Philadelphia where they arrived late in July 1777. Congress gave Lafayette and his cadre a cool reception. The best that the wealthy Lafayette could achieve was to serve as an unpaid volunteer. Many of the other French officers who arrived with him were turned away and returned to France. Kalb remained behind; he was fluent in English and had toured America in 1768 as a secret agent of the French government to evaluate the colonists’ “seeds of discontent.” His persistence was rewarded and Congress appointed him a major general in September 1777. Lafayette was also ultimately appointed a major general.
Franklin was also responsible for recruiting the Baron von Steuben, a talented, unemployed Prussian officer living in Paris. Franklin was introduced to the Prussian by Comte de Saint-Germain, the French minister of war, who believed that von Steuben’s military experience would be useful in organizing the rebel army and disciplining its troops.
There were other French volunteers who proved to be valuable Continental army officers. One of the lesser known ones was Charles Noël Romand, Sieur de l’Lisle. Appointed a major in the Continental army, Lisle married an American woman with whom he had several children. One of Major Lisle’s progenies founded the Lisle Corporation, a tool manufacturer that continues to operate as a family owned business to the present day.
It was in the field of military engineering that the French arguably made their most valuable contribution to the Patriot cause. The Americans were desperate for engineers who could design resilient fortifications. Writing to Washington in July 1777, influential Congressman James Lovell mentioned that French engineers were held in high esteem: “The corps of Engineers is very honorable in France; and officers from it are sought by different European Powers.”
Early in the war, Washington was fooled by several French officers claiming to be engineers. They turned out to be frauds. The commander-in-chief warned Richard Henry Lee, a delegate to Congress, of French officers posing as engineers, telling him, “Gentleman of this profession ought to produce sufficient and authentic testimonials of their skill and knowledge, and not expect that a pompous narrative of their services, and loss of Papers (the usual excuse) can be a proper introduction into our army.”
The lack of trained engineers was evident in the ill-fated November 1776 American defense of Fort Washington. The fort, built on the highest point of northern Manhattan, was considered virtually impregnable by the Patriots, but its garrison of 2,700 men surrendered after a four-hour assault by British and Hessian troops.
There was one French trained engineer in America when Fort Washington surrendered in late 1776, Thaddeus Kosciusko. A Polish national, Kosciusko spoke fluent English. He attended a military school in Warsaw after which he was awarded a scholarship to attend the prestigious Ecole Royal Militaire (Royal Military School) in Paris. While in Paris, he also studied painting and architecture at the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture). He next attended the Ecole du Corps Royal du Génie Militaire (Royal Engineering School) located in Mézières, France. Kosciuszko returned to Poland in 1774 to find the country in chaos. With no prospects to pursue his military career at home, he returned to France. It was there that he met other ambitious young officers talking about the war in America. Perhaps with a letter of introduction to the General Charles Lee, who had served in the Polish Army, Kosciuszko arrived in Philadelphia in August 1776. He petitioned Congress for a commission on August 30. While waiting for an answer, he got a job as a civilian engineer with the Pennsylvania Committee of Defense and set to work fortifying the Delaware River. Impressed with his engineering skills, Congress commissioned Kosciusko on October 18, 1776 as a colonel in the Continental army. He was only one man, however, and the Americans desperately needed other competent engineers.
The French government came to the rescue of the rebels by secretly loaning them four outstanding French army engineers in a clandestine arrangement negotiated by Franklin and Deane with the French minister of war and signed in Paris on February 13, 1777. The senior French army engineer sent to America was Antoine-Jean-Louis LeBègue de Presle Duportail, thirty-four years old and a member of a noble French family. Duportail was commissioned a colonel in the Continental army on July 8, 1777 and soon given command of the Patriots Engineering Corps. The three other engineers who accompanied Duportail were also commissioned as officers in the Continental army, Bailleul La Radière, Obry Gouvion and Jean-Baptiste-Jospeh, Comte de Laumoy.
The French engineers first demonstrated their expertise by constructing two temporary bridges across the Schuylkill River at Swede’s Ford (modern Norristown) during the night of December 12, 1777. They brought a bridging train, a convoy of wagons loaded with building materials including lumber and tools, to the site. Using this material, the Frenchmen built one bridge by laying a wooden roadbed over floating rafts. The other bridge was made by placing thirty-six wagons in the shallow ford with wooden rails across them.
The French government aided the rebels with military equipment as well as talented engineers during the first years of the American Revolution. Why would France, which was ruled by a king, support a revolution whose goal was to overthrow a fellow monarch and establish a representative government? The answer is that the colonist’s rebellion was looked upon by King Louis XVI and his minsters as a golden opportunity to weaken Britain. They reasoned that the war would compel Britain to send part of its army and navy to America to suppress the uprising, easing the way for a French invasion of England. The Revolution would also force Britain to borrow money to fight the rebels, making it more difficult for them to finance a war with France. Thus, it was in France’s best interest to keep the Revolution going as long as possible by aiding the rebels. The outcome of the war was of little interest to France in 1775-1777. King Louis just wanted the fighting to continue to bleed Britain’s military power while France prepared for war.
On March 1, 1778, a treaty of cooperation between France and America was announced at the Valley Forge encampment. The often-repeated story that France entered the war as America’s ally because of the Patriot victory at Saratoga is an oversimplification. Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga influenced the French but they were determined long before the Saratoga campaign to declare war on Britain. The alliance was the result of several years of negotiation by the Patriots, which included the Declaration of Independence that convinced France that the Americans were fighting for independence. Without this assurance, France would be concerned that the colonists might rejoin the British Empire and unite to seize France’s remaining rich Caribbean island colonies.
France’s entry into the war ended the flow of volunteer French officers to America, closing a unique chapter in the story of the American Revolution.
Jean Louis de Vernejout was commissioned a captain in the Continental Army on September 19, 1776. Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, The Lee Papers, 4 vols. (New York: The New York Historical Society, 1871-1874), 1: 389. His surname is spelled Virnejoux in The Lee Papers.
Alex Storozynski, “The Fiasco of July 4, 1777.” Huffington Post Blog, May 25, 2011. For example, in a letter to Henry Laurens dated August 31, 1778, Washington spelled Kosciuszko’s name as Cosciusko.
George Washington to John Hancock, February 20, 1777, in Edward G. Lengel et al., eds., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series(24 vols. to date) Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1985-2016), 8: 382 (PGW).
Nathanael Greene to John Adams, May 7, 1777, Richard K. Showman et al., eds., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, 13 vols. (Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1976-2005), 2: 70-71.
Benjamin Rush to Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, September 16, 1776, Paul H. Smith et al., eds., Letters of Delegates to Congress 1774-1789, 26 vols. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976-2000), 5: 283-184.