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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
In February, 1782, Rochambeau sent Dubouchet with a shipload of English prisoners to be exchanged for American prisoners at New York. As he lay outside the harbor, the British Commissioner of Prisoners came aboard. He kept looking at Dubouchet and saying: “Major, I can’t help feeling that I’ve seen you somewhere.” “It’s very possible, my dear Colonel,” said Dubouchet, remembering the winter of 1777. “You must have travelled much, and so have I.”
Dubouchet brought back 104 released prisoners as exchanges. From them he caught jail fever, or typhus, which put him into a delirium for nineteen days. Convalescent, he paid a visit to General Gates, who had retired to his pretty farmhouse by the Potomac, near Shepherdstown. He then embarked with Rochambeau, returning to France in 1783.
Dubouchet was rewarded for his services in America by advancement in the French army, by letters and testimonials of leaders from Washington down, by a silver medal from Franklin commemorating the recognition by France of American independence. “Franklin said that as I had so distinguished myself and as I was the only Frenchman who had fought both at Saratoga and at Yorktown, I had every right to it.”
But Dubouchet was not satisfied. At the war’s end the Americans formed the Society of the Cincinnati, composed of American officers. It admitted likewise French officers who had worn the American uniform for three years, and generals and colonels in Rochambeau’s army. Dubouchet was clearly ineligible. Nevertheless, he hungered for the Society’s medal, which depended from a sky-blue ribbon and bore on one side a bald eagle and Cincinnatus importuned by the Roman senators to leave his plow, and on the other side Cincinnatus returning to his family. Dubouchet had never desired anything so much. After being turned down by Lafayette and Rochambeau, he decided to plead his case in America.
Thus, at the end of March, 1784, he embarked at Lorient on a fast packet. He landed in New York, paused hardly a moment, and hurried to Philadelphia, where the Society was meeting under Washington’s presidency. General Knox presented Dubouchet’s application for membership. It was unanimously accepted, and Washington signed the appointment with kind remarks of approbation. Dubouchet immediately returned to New York and caught the return trip of the French packet. He was in France again after an absence of only three months. Surely few have gone so far, so long, so uncomfortably and dangerously, for a medal. But the capture of the boutonnière brought him more joy, he says, than did that of the Golden Fleece to Jason.
Back in France, Dubouchet resumed his army career. Like most officers, he remained at his post after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. But when Louis XVI was arrested in 1791, every French soldier was forced to question where his allegiance lay. Dubouchet was denounced by a renegade priest as a reactionary. He resigned his commission and, with a false passport, escaped to Worms, where he joined the émigré army of the Prince de Condé. This army was mostly occupied with balls, narties, and disputes about social precedence. After a year of inactivity, Dubouchet ventured into France to rescue his wife and son, whom he had left in Paris. He was caught; his false certificat de rèsidence had been delivered to him by a double spy, who was actually an agent of the revolutionary government. Imprisoned in Grenoble, he became, deliberately, a gay comedian, president of the jolly club des incarcèrès . He found, as have others, that nothing disarms grim inquisitors so ,much as amusing lightheadedness. Having established his harmlessness, he was transferred, after nine months, to a makeshift prison, a former seminary. From this he escaped in mid-December, 1793, and made his way to Switzerland. The account of his adventures would make a fine addition to the literature of escapes and perilous journeys.
He lived, penniless, in Lausanne, whence he communicated his needs to a friend in Lyons by writing a comic song full of double meanings. This a lady friend, bound for France, cut up and wore as curl-papers. But the efficient revolutionary police knew the curl-paper trick; they stripped the lady’s head and interpreted the message. The friend to whom it was addressed was ruined. Dubouchet’s wife died of hardship in Paris; his sister’s mother-in-law, Mme. Conway, mother of Washington’s general, eventually escaped to Switzerland, bringing Dubouchet’s son.
Now began a long period of wandering in central Europe, in Wurtemberg, Prussia, Poland, Bohemia, Austria. Dubouchet lived by many expedients, especially by teaching English. He endured all the sufferings of the èmigrès, everywhere unwelcome.
After the amnesty of 1802, Dubouchet and his son returned to France, but found there no means of livelihood. Napoleon became Emperor in 1804; Dubouchet persuaded himself that his duty was to serve the new imperial France in his soldier’s trade. A commission as brigadier general was the decisive argument. As he was now nearing sixty, he served as the sedentary commander of forts at Ypres and Breda. But when the Allied army advanced against Napoleon in 1814 he rediscovered his legitimist convictions and prudently resigned his commission. It was a wise move. After Waterloo he was rewarded by Louis XVIII with the title of Marquis and the rank of lieutenant general, which comported a comfortable pension and no duties.