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A French Volunter
General Washington was less than charmed by the young Frenchman whose thirst for la gloire was matched only by his ignorance of English. But the newcomer swallowed his pride, served valiantly, and lived to piquantly recall his adventures as
August 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 5
It was n strange army that made the American Revolution—overwhelmingly amateur and commanded by farmers, lawyers, physicians, hooksellers. With the hayseed generals and the chawhacon colonels mingled the French volunteers.
The French were diverse: some were self-sacrificing idealists, like Lafayette; some were devoted and competent officers, like Pierre Charles L’linfant, who later made the plan of the city of Washington; some were outright ne’er-do-wells, fleeing their own ill fame at home. The French had little in common except the courage to cross perilous seas and do battle for a nuhle hut desperate cause. Most of them proclaimed their eagerness to die for America’s freedom from England, France’s ancient enemy; hut most of them harbored mixed motives —republican enthusiasm, delight in adventure, and ambition for glory and distinction—at a high rate of combat pay.
One of the French volunteers was Denis-Jean Florimond Langlois Dubouchct, born in 1752 to a family of the minor nobility, an army family that put its sons in the service and married its daughters to officers. He joined up at fourteen, and went to the artillery school at Bapaume to take the entrance examinations for the officers’ training course. While waiting for the exams he fought a duel and was wounded, seriously, he says, but not too seriously to flee the threat of official punishment for duelling. (All too many gentleman officers seemed bent on killing friend instead of foe.) He escaped to Luxembourg and joined an Austrian regiment composed mostly of French deserters. He did not like the Austrian service; for one thing, his uniform was so tight (hat he could scarcely breathe. Hc succeeded in shifting to (he French Army: he fought briefly in Corsica and was stationed here and there in France. He was only a lieutenant; promotions, in the stagnant peacetime, were slow. He dreamed vainly of glory, honor, and a rise in rank and pay.
In 1776 America declared its independence and improvised an army. General Washington sent urgent requests to t lie American commissioners in Paris, lieaded by Silas Deane. to recruit a few competent engineering and artillery officers. Dcanc interpreted the request liberally. He engaged some capable specialists, who served the Revolutionary army well; he also made incautious promises and even more incautious hints and intimations to a swarm of slippery swashbucklers and bravos.
Among the first to volunteer was Thomas Conway, an Irish colonel in the French Army, who had married Dubouchct’s sister. Conway interviewed Silas Deanc in Paris, and was assured that he would be at least a major general in America. Dubouchct, thirsting, as he admits, for laurels, honors, pensions, and lands, decided to offer his sword to free the oppressed from (heir bonds. He was well aware that a major general’s brother-inlaw is not overlooked in any army.
Conway and Dubouehet took passage in a supply vessel surreptitiously carrying arms to America with the connivance and backing of the French government. The ship swarmed with French officers filled with at least temporary republican zeal. It arrived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in mid-April, 1777, after an eighty-eight-day crossing. The French were greeted enthusiastically as liberators by the massed populace.
Colonel Conway left immediately to carry dispatches from Silas Dcanc in Paris to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. There he was well received and was commissioned brigadier general. Congress thought its appointment handsome, but Conway did not. He should have been a major general, wrote Dubouehet, “much more properly than M. de La Fayette, a mere cavalry captain in France.” Conway’s disgruntlement resulted in the alleged “Conway Cabal,” which, according to a rather doubtful story, aimed to oust Washington from command of the armies.
Dubouchet and his party journeyed to Boston, where they were politely received by Major Ceneral William Heath. Dubouchct found Boston a well-built city, with a fine port. “The people are Puritans, grave, of extreme austerity of behavior; they never laugh. According to their laws a heavy fine is imposed, and even, for repeated offenses, imprisonment, for singing or playing cards or frequenting taverns on Sunday.”
Duboucher and a brother officer, Lieutenant Thomas Mullcns, another Irishman in French service, bought horses and set out to join Conway in Philadelphia. “We traversed a superb country, fairly well inhabited, very fertile.” The two had a chance to show their spirit in a wayside inn. “It is customary, when people drink together in F.nglish America, to propose toasts or healths. Xot to reply to them is an insult. We found installed in the dining room a man of middle age. who fell into conversation with Monsieur Mullens. Soon he (ailed for a bowl of punch and proposed that we drink of it. We accepted; nothing appeared likely to trouble the harmony of our gathering, till suddenly Monsieur Mullens’ fist landed in the middle of the American’s face, covering i( with blood. As 1 did not yet understand English, 1 could not imagine how such a sudden quarrel had broken out. Monsieur Mullens, violent and irascible by nature, didn’t stop there. Hc kicked the man out of (lie house; and the innkeeper, to my extreme surprise, seemed to applaud what he was doing.