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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
“Every Friday these savages move to a different place. They have their divine services and sacrifices, and they say that God was a good man but they must make sacrifices to the devil so that he may remain well disposed toward them. Every year they have a sacrificial feast. They collect a large pile of wood and gather there with their priest. Then they light the fire and dance around it with heartrending screams. At some point their priest will hit one of them with a battle-ax on the head. As soon as the others see this they come and help throw the victim into the fire. This is their sacrifice.”
“At their departure [from Newport] they were accompanied by Americans into their lands. The following spring they Visited’ the English and ravaged the country so badly that it was impossible to live in the border area. …”
“When they caught an American officer, they tied him to a tree and stripped him completely naked and stabbed his body full of holes with sharp sticks or knives. When they saw that he was about to breathe his last, they took straw or similar material and wrapped it around him and burned him alive.”
In Philadelphia in the summer of 1781, the troops learned that they were to march to Virginia, to what Flohr called “a small village named Little Yorck,” where “General Kornwallis of the English had dug in with twelve thousand men, ravaging the country very badly.” Private Flohr was heading straight for the climax of the American Revolution.
Lord Cornwallis had built a base at Yorktown for attacks on Virginia, and Washington and Rochambeau were placing it under siege. The siege began as soon as the French forces—including Flohr—reached the city. The soldiers set to work preparing fortifications “contentedly and with good courage.”
They began digging trenches on September 3 as cannonades thundered forth between the French and the English. Flohr felt sorry for his enemies: “We could see from our redoubts the people flying into the air with outstretched arms. … There was a misery and a lamenting that was horrible. … The houses stood there like lanterns shot through with cannonballs.” But from a distance, he had to admit, it “was the greatest fun to see and hear.”
Attacking at Yorktown, “we fell just like snowflakes” and “were almost annihilated.”
The culmination of the siege was the storming of two fortifications known as Redoubts 9 and 10, on the night of October 14, 1781. Cornwallis and his troops were cornered without any avenue of escape and had already been forced back from their outer line of defenses. In a climactic thrust companies of the Gâtinais and the Royal-Deux-Ponts stormed forward on the allied left against Redoubt 9, while Americans under Alexander Hamilton moved in on the right. In an uncommonly vivid account of Revolutionary-era hand-to-hand combat, Flohr describes what followed:
“They started firing at us from all around until it was as bright as daylight. We however did not worry and kept on marching as if nothing was happening. Once we got closer to the redoubt, and they could reach us with their muskets, they fired so heavily at us from out of the redoubt that we fell just like snowflakes. One could think it was raining bullets, as we were completely surrounded by the enemy and were almost annihilated. One screamed for help here, another there—but to no effect, since we had to run at a double-quick pace until we finally reached the redoubt and got into a ditch where we were without protection from fire from within the redoubt.
“The carpenters cut down the palisades with the utmost speed. As soon as there was an opening, the attack had to be made up into the redoubt, from which many a man would never return.”
“As soon as by sheer luck some of us got up there, the English ran away. Once we realized this was happening, we cut off their retreat so they could escape no farther. The enemy troops stood on top of the redoubt and lowered their bayonets against those who wanted to climb up. Many of them had axes to defend themselves with, and they split the heads of many of us with them as we ascended.”
“The Baron de Viomenil performed bravely, girdled with a leather belt over his uniform in which two pistols were stuck and holding a saber in his hand. He announced that if any soldier or noncommissioned officer reached the top of the redoubt ahead of him and gave him a hand up, he would remember him and reward him. Count William [von Forbach] said the same.”