- Historic Sites
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
Once the regiment had left Newport, wherever it made camp “such a great number of inhabitants gathered around that you had to wonder where they all came from, since we had encountered only a very few houses during our day’s march. As soon as we came to a new camp it was always surrounded by Americans. However, you saw very few men among them; they were only women. If you saw a man he was invariably old or crippled, for all men between fourteen and sixty had to join the colors. … There was no lack of women, however, and they came into our camp on numerous occasions seeking to buy a soldier free, which was invariably and harshly denied them, and they had to go home empty-handed.”
Flohr’s officers tended to prefer Virginia, with its aristocratic pleasures, to New England, but he felt the opposite, and the treatment of slaves in Virginia “ashamed” him: “You can see at all times the black people or moors running around naked as God has created them. All in all, Virginia has the richest gentlemen you can find in the country. They have up to a hundred and fifty or more slaves, or moors. These moors stand under the command of white overseers to do the work of their masters. You can see them working, men and women, young and old, without any clothes on, which seems very strange to someone who has never seen this. … I was very surprised when I saw this for the first time and felt very ashamed for them, since I saw that other white people were around too, men and women, who were quite used to it. … Many times I asked why they could not clothe these moors, since it was altogether too disgraceful to let them run around naked. They answered that it would cost too much …
“I also saw, which surprised me very much, how they are kept like cattle and their young are raised in a state of nature just like young cattle. The more young ones they have, the better the masters like it. They are kept in a state of nature in various ways that I do not want to explain here in detail, since it is completely against human nature.”
Higher-born foreign observers tended to be more accepting of American slavery. The assistant quartermaster of the French forces wrote that “severity, which seems inhuman to a European, is necessary” and that American slaves are still “more fortunate than most of our peasants, who despite their labors often lack for bread.” Flohr offered no such mitigation.
He also took a relatively unprejudiced view of American Indians. When a delegation of Iroquois visited Rochambeau’s camp in Newport, the officers described the natives’ “bizarre manners,” “gibberish,” and “distasteful dancing, disgusting to all the spectators.” Flohr called the Indians “savages”—common usage in the eighteenth century —but he evinced genuine interest in their culture, enough to, unlike his officers, visit the Iroquois in their camp several times with a translator.
He explains: “On August 20, twenty savages, or rather their chiefs, arrived from Albany; among them was even a king. The savages had been sent by four of their guilds [nations] from Albany to inquire about our arrival and offer us their alliance. With the help of interpreters … our general ordered them to be brought before him. … Except for carpet plaited from tree bark, which they had hung around their bodies, these savages were completely naked. On their feet they wore stag or deerskin instead of shoes. When they talked to one another their language sounded like geese cackling. Every soldier could see them daily in and outside the city, and every day they were led to the parade at noon to watch it march by. They were entertained with all available amusements, such as music and comedies, and it was amazing to watch them there. I was surprised by their behavior several times, especially when I saw them dance to their wild music according to their own ways. … One of them had a very small drum, poorly made from wood, on which he beat a peculiar beat with a stick. The others danced in a wondrous way, always in one place and all naked, except that on their legs they had deerskin up to their knees. Above the knees their thighs were bare, just like their upper bodies; their private parts were girdled with interlaced tree bark. Their whole bodies were painted in various colors. They had dyed their hair all red and adorned it with all kinds of feathers. After they had danced for about an hour, some of them repainted themselves in other colors and put all kinds of rings in their noses and ears. … They never use chairs but always sit on the ground. …
“On several occasions I had conversations with the German translator, [who] told us all about how he had gotten here. He told us that he was a Palatine, and that his father had emigrated to America and taken him with him when he was still a little boy, and that after his father’s death he had ended up living with the savages for twenty-three years, and he wanted to stay with them.”