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Private Flohr’s America
From Newport to Yorktown and the battle that won the war: A German foot soldier who fought for American independence tells all about it in a newly discovered memoir
December 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 8
“EwrĠe Pöbels in the Nord america bin the werĠe fein Leyds,” wrote Georg Daniel Flohr, composing in very broken English a preface to his memoir of his time as a soldier in the American Revolution. “All the people of North America are fine people.” Sometime in the summer of 1788, in Strasbourg, France, Georg Flohr put down his pen, having completed about 250 pages of script in his native German (except for the English prologue) and some thirty extraordinary illustrations. He titled his volume Account of the Travels in America Which Were Made by the Honorable Regiment of Zweibrücken on Water and on Land from the Year 1780 to 1784 .
He described the treatment of slaves as “against human nature” and Indians’ dancing as “wondrous.”
It lay forgotten in a city library for nearly a century before being rediscovered as the only known account of events in America by an enlisted man in the great army of the Comte de Rochambeau and certainly one of the most vivid accounts of the war by anyone. Flohr viewed life in the Colonies through the eyes of a common soldier, and he remarked on racial diversity, the scene in Boston and Newport, the rural countryside, slaveowning, Iroquois he encountered, American women, and his eyewitness view of the storming of Redoubt 9 at Yorktown, the culminating military moment of the war.
Flohr was born in 1756, the son of a butcher and small farmer in a tiny German village named Sarnstall, near the French border. Nothing is known about his childhood; he was nineteen when he joined the Royal-Deux-Ponts, a German regiment in the service of France formed near his home (Deux-Ponts was French for the German city and principality of Zweibrücken). The regiment’s records describe him as five foot eight, with black hair and black eyes. Unlike most diary-keeping soldiers, Flohr did not interest himself in everyday life in camp; rather he focused on his unique experiences, beginning with the transatlantic crossing in the summer of 1780, a harrowing experience for a landsman.
The journey, he wrote, made plain the “omnipotence of God.” Life on board ship was marked by frequent deaths, boredom, strong language, “godless life,” and spates of feverish prayer during the frequent storms. Flying fish and the sighting of whales, as well as a naval engagement with the British during the trip, brought Flohr only temporary diversion from the onset of scurvy and his pain at watching “how daily our brothers were thrown into the depths of the ocean. Yet nobody was surprised since the food was bad enough to destroy us all.” By the time the regiment reached Newport, Rhode Island, after seventy-two days at sea, “two to three hundred men were sick on every ship, and half of them could not walk anymore.”
How did Flohr feel after this torturous trip about the cause he would fight and possibly die for? He never says, and he probably never gave it much thought. He knew enough to describe Boston as “where the rebellion first started” and an Englishman as “a Tory, meaning a good Englishman, who ran away when the rebellion started,” but he portrayed the role of French troops as simply to protect Americans against the English inclination to “wreak havoc on the country.” War was an accepted part of life in the eighteenth century, a profession, and a soldier like Flohr would expect to go wherever the winds of war might take him.
Once encamped in Newport, Flohr started to look around the countryside. He was impressed by the friendliness of the people, a sentiment not echoed by officers like Count William von Forbach, a brother of the regimental commander, who felt that he had “not met with that reception on landing, which we expected and which we ought to have had.” Flohr discovered that the rank and file “were especially liked by the girls, since we were Germans, and they hold the German nation in very great esteem.” The freedoms enjoyed by young Americans, particularly their custom of bundling, surprised him: “Once they are sixteen years old, their father and mother must not forbid them anything anymore, cannot give them any orders on anything anymore, and if they have a lover he can freely go with them.” Furthermore, no one “may hit them under pain of great punishment.”
He found the citizenry handsome: “You also do not see any difference in their clothing between Sunday clothes and workday clothes. [The women] are always dressed like noblewomen, and even for only half an hour’s journey they always ride on horseback or in a carriage. The women ride as well as the men. They also are the prettiest among all foreign nations, but they are not haughty and talk to anyone, rich or poor.”