- Historic Sites
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
He set forth, alone and on foot, on August 8, 1777. He paused in Philadelphia, which he described as clean and well planned, but monotonous in its uniformity. Not only did all the houses look alike, but their inner arrangements and their furniture were disposed according to a common plan. Churches of every sect abounded, for tolerance was a reality, and no bad effects were visible. The Quakers, kindly, industrious, pure in manners, dominated society. The surroundings of the city were charming. Nature was cheery and fecund, and an air of abundance hung over the handsome country houses. “In this fine country is every means of happiness for men who, far from the vices of our old Europe, establish themselves here. The climate is moderate, the soil fertile, the cities picturesque; it is a new Eden. The women are agreeable of feature, svelte of figure, wellcomplexioned, amiable of character, and possessed of an iron fidelity. They have all the virtues that make the glory and adornment of their sex.”
On his way north he was much indebted to women’s hospitality. “Americans cordially offer their produce, bread of a savory whiteness unknown in France, and excellent fruit. They give this not for money, but out of a kindness and simplicity of manners worthy of the Golden Age.”
It was nevertheless a painful journey. He found himself spitting blood; he had a regular evening fever. Much of his hair fell out. In Albany he stopped to buy a wig. He could find only one, very large and red; it covered most of his face and almost met his coal-black eyebrows.
Dubouchet found the American army in Stillwater, twenty-four miles north of Albany. General Gates received this haggard, travel-stained grotesque coolly, if not suspiciously. “What do you want?” he said abruptly. “Opportunities to gain your esteem, General. For this I have left Washington’s army. Will Your Excellency permit me to join the front-line troops as a volunteer?”
This mild request Gates granted, with the observation that he wished all Frenchmen were as reasonable and moderate in their claims. He went further, inviting Dubouchet to dinner at his mess. At this function, remarks were made about foreigners who thought their rank and office should demand deference and appointment to high place in the American army. The foreigners, it was said, displayed an indecent arrogance. Far from taking offense, Dubouchet agreed with the critics, admitting that many of his compatriots had fled Europe to escape punishment for misconduct. He was applauded for his frankness, and complimented on his English, which was rapidly improving.
General Gates assigned Dubouchet to Colonel Daniel Morgan’s famous corps of riflemen or rangers, mostly frontiersmen armed with the deadly Kentucky rifle, longer-ranged and far more accurate than the English musket. Colonel Morgan, “the Old Wagoner,” controlled his woodland sharpshooters with a hunter’s turkey-call. Dubouchet found in the ranks the Chevalier de Kermorvan, a Breton officer who had served in Turkey as colonel and who held a lieutenant-colonelcy in the American army. The Chevalier had, however, provoked Washington and his staff by his criticisms of operations; the post he coveted, Chief of Engineers, was assigned to Kosciusko, the famous Polish volunteer. Kermorvan seems to have joined Morgan’s rangers merely to see some action before returning to France.
Dubouchet went to headquarters to ask for a tent. “They are only for soldiers,” said Gates more than brusquely, implying that a French volunteer was no proper soldier. Humiliated, Dubouchet retired. He cut branches with his sword and contrived a little hut. He had only his overcoat for blanket. At any rate, he says, he was better off than Robinson Crusoe.
General Burgoyne was now attempting to push his army south to Albany; Gates faced him in the woods and cleared meadows of Bemis Heights, above the Hudson River. After a period of stalling, when both sides waited for reinforcements, the armies came to grips on September 19, 1777. Dubouchet describes this encounter, variously called the First Battle of Bemis Heights, or of Freeman’s Farm, or of Saratoga. The British sent out skirmishers ( enfants perdus ), not planning a pitched battle. But the Americans responded so vigorously, sharpshooting from the forest’s edge, that the main British army was committed. It was hot and bloody work. “The noise of musketry and artillery was magnified by the echoes resounding in the hollow.” By nightfall the battlefield, still in British hands, was heaped with dead and dying. “Both sides claimed victory; both have exaggerated their achievements and the losses of their opponents.” At least the Americans proved that in a hand-to-hand encounter they could stand against the well-drilled redcoats and Hessians.
Next day Gates made his inspection of the advance posts. He summoned Dubouchet, gave him a handshake equivalent to a French embrace, and said: “I recognize by your valor a French gentleman; everyone has spoken of it. You did yesterday numberless courageous deeds, which fill me with great esteem for you.” He pointed to Dubouchet’s wretched cabin, ordered his adjutant to provide a tent, and invited the Frenchman to dinner.
On October 7 followed the Second Battle of Bemis Heights, which ended British hopes of invasion. In the action Dubouchet took command of a leaderless company, which captured an enemy battery. On a field piled with dead, Gates brevetted him major.