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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
On the seventeenth Burgoyne capitulated. In the sportsmanlike manner of the century, the victorious Gates invited the vanquished generals to dinner in his tent. The banquet table was formed of planks laid across two half-barrels. The two glasses available were reserved for the rival generals, while the other guests drank rum and cider out of small basins. Gates, with mockery or gallantry, offered a toast to His Britannic Majesty, and “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne replied with a health to General Washington. Burgoyne, sitting opposite Dubouchet, pretended not to see him, thus tactfully seeming to overlook the unofficial French alliance with the rebels. So Dubouchet interprets Burgoyne’s disregard; but perhaps Gentleman Johnny could not look calmly on the red wig.
Dubouchet’s evening fevers continuing, he decided to return to France. Though he ascribes his resignation from the American army to ill health, he admits that he foresaw war between England and France emerging from the American Revolution, and he wanted professional profit from it. “Service far away for an illassured power seemed to me less likely to be rewarded by our government than services under our own flag. I took care not to announce this motive, and merely alleged my weakened health, which demanded a rest of several months for its re-establishment.” Lafayette, informed of his decision, wrote him a flattering letter: “I am very sorry that your poor health obliges you to leave us. It is always a pleasure to find oneself in a foreign country with compatriots who behave as you do.” Dubouchet offered to carry dispatches from the Congress to Franklin in Paris and to return. “To tell the truth, nothing was less certain than my return to America. … I did not dwell much on this final proof of my zeal.”
He took leave of Gates, receiving many kind words from the commander and from Benedict Arnold, Benjamin Lincoln, Daniel Morgan, and others. In order to receive his official discharge from the Congress he walked and hitchhiked in bitter December weather to York, Pennsylvania, where that body was sitting. Congress passed a resolution complimenting him and ratifying his promotion to major. President Henry Laurens gave him a packet of dispatches for Franklin. He proceeded (for a military man always proceeds, he never goes) to Annapolis, where he found a French vessel sailing for Haiti. Thence he could make his way to France.
Five days out, the ship met a heavily armed English corsair and was commanded to stop. While the boarding party approached, Dubouchet had time to strip off his uniform and throw it overside, with his dispatches from Congress. But his money and his testimonials from Congress, Lafayette, and others he thrust into his boots. At his request the French captain hastily added his name to the manifest as a ship’s officer.
The ruse was not successful. The boarding party clambered up the side; the officer in charge said to Dubouchet: “Have you ever seen New York harbor?”
“Well, we’re going to take you there. You’ll enjoy it; it’s the finest harbor in the world.”
“Sir, decent men do not insult misfortune, they respect it!”
“Put this insolent and disrespectful prisoner in irons, at the bottom of the hold!”
To the bottom of the hold Dubouchet went in irons. But after twenty-four hours without food he was released by the English captain, and received the unwilling apologies of the officer who had put him there.
In New York he was consigned to the prison ship Judith , a floating hell, stinking, swarming with vermin, ridden with dysentery, scurvy, the itch. It was very cold weather, and many had their feet frozen. The five hundred prisoners were released from the “foul cloaca” of the hold at fixed hours, to breathe. “Even the air was measured out to us.” The prisoners could hardly hope to survive more than a few months. At the daily distributions of loathsome food, feeble struggles took place. “Woe to him who was too weak to drag himself to the food-issue! He was counted as dead.” Dubouchet subsisted for twenty-four hours on a piece of bacon and a little oatmeal flour, which he cooked on a shovel. Many committed suicide. When one desperate man jumped overboard the British captain shouted: “Let him alone! He insists on dying; you must not use force on anyone!”
A drunken guard, without provocation, struck Dubouchet on the head with his musket; only his tall hat saved him from a split skull. Two Irish guards, sympathizing with a fellow Catholic, crossed themselves and furtively passed him half a loaf of bread.
But after only three weeks on the Judith , fortune came to the Frenchman’s aid. Uproar on deck indicated that the guards were more than usually drunk. The noise dwindled; in the dusk, Dubouchet and six others stole on deck, ran to a small boat on the foredeck, cut the lashings, put her overside, and jumped in. The aroused guards fired at them, but in the darkness their aim was wild.