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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
“As soon as [Mullens] had regained some composure J asked him what could have driven him to such extremes. Hc told me that the victim, ill intentioned toward the American government, was talking disrespectfully of General Washington, and had just refused to drink to his health; and that Mullens had undertaken to punish his insolence the more willingly as the scoundrel had just made some impertinent remarks about the French officers recently arrived from Europe. The exit of the victim rectified everything; this action brought Monsieur Mullens the reputation of being a good Whig, a man singularly attached to the cause of independence. The story, to his honor, spread; it was even told to General Washington; and though he disapproved of the violence of the action, he could not help laughing at it.”
At another inn the two officers were awakened by a tumult below. They descended to the parlor, to find in progress an informal judicial inquiry on a case of bondelage , bundling, that quaint native custom permitting lads and lasses to share a bed, under proper guarantees. “The rules permit innocent caresses, all the affection proper to brother and sister; anything more is rigorously forbidden. In this case the confidences of the girl divulged enterprises of an odious nature. The young man had been unable to confine himself to permissible favors; he would have invaded the conjugal domain, had not the girl’s courageous resistance interposed an obstacle. The tribunal of public opinion held that he should be forever barred from the Temple of Hymen. The decree would have been enforced by the agreement of all the maidens concerned with the observation of the laws of bundling, had he not obtained his pardon and promised before us all to take the offended girl to wife the following week.”
Dubouchet and Mullens reported at army headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey. General Washington gave them an honorable but cool reception, “in accordance with his reserved, thoughtful character.” (In accordance also with his irritation at the arrival of a throng of young French adventurers expecting high commissions in the new army, despite their ignorance of English. The clever ones had made a deal with Silas Deane in Paris; thus the Chevalier de Borre forced on Washington his appointment as brigadier general. Dubouchet regretted that he had not had equal foresight; he had been too exclusively concerned with la gloire .)
As no commission appeared for Dubouchet, he wrote a letter to Washington (May 20, 1777) pointing to his sacrifices and his ardor, honor, and gentility, and avowing that he had learned with pain that the General planned to employ him only when he should learn English. Dubouchet ended by offering to join any regiment of grenadiers as a gentleman volunteer.
On June 3 he received a commission as a mere captain, “out of consideration for Conway.” He was deeply offended; was he entitled to no consideration for himself? He was tempted to return the commission, but, hiding his sufferings, he drilled the soldiers of Conway’s brigade in French army exercises. Thus he demonstrated that even a swaggering Frenchman could accept discipline. Some of his companions, who had come to America only to escape French justice, had already tarnished the French reputation: “They befouled the name of Frenchman by their profound immorality. I tried daily to destroy these distressing impressions.”
Dubouchet made the acquaintance of the army’s eminences. He worshipped General Washington, already world-famous, who dominated the army by his character and spirit. Dubouchet describes his insight, his force of mind, his power of conceiving great plans, his calm courage, his imperturbable self-possession. “He possessed all human perfections.” He admired also Colonel Alexander Hamilton, brilliant and competent. “His enlightened mind, his political and military talents, made him very worthy of his post.” He knew also Generals Greene and Knox; and Lord Stirling, impressive and well-mannered, though a toper (“I saw him completely drunk at a party on 24 June 1777”). Rumor said that Stirling was fighting not for liberty but out of resentment because the title of Lord, readily accorded in America, was refused him in England, on the pretext that he was the son of a baker.
Dubouchet’s report of army and civilian morale is contradictory. At one moment he admits general indiscipline and discouragement; at another he describes the general patriotic enthusiasm, with recruits signing up and asking no pay. (They were not likely to get much, anyway.) White-haired fathers, he says, would bring in their sons to enlist; fiancées would agree to marriage only when their young men should have made one or two campaigns.
Since Dubouchet did not like his subordinate position, nor in fact the company of his brother-in-law Conway, he decided to join the northern army, which was then retreating south from Fort Ticonderoga before Burgoyne’s invasion. He asked permission of General Washington to join General Horatio Gates. This was granted with suspicious readiness.