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.”
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.”
“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.”
“Under these conditions we conquered the redoubt by storm, and Count William was wounded, but not dangerously. Anyone can imagine what happened once we were inside the redoubt. People of four nations were thrown together: Frenchmen, Englishmen, Scots, and Germans. The Hessians and Hanoverians [fighting on the English side] surrendered the moment they saw that everything was lost, but the noise was so great that our general could not become master of the situation. The soldiers everywhere were so furious that our people were killing one another. The French were striking down everyone in a blue coat. Since the Deux-Ponts wore blue, many of us were stabbed to death. Some of the Hessian and Anspach troops wore uniforms almost identical to ours, and the English wore red that in the dark of the night seemed blue as well, so things went very unmercifully that night.”
“On our side every soldier was determined to win booty, and many did. … Our general gave orders that the first soldier who harmed a prisoner would pay for it with his life. Things started to quiet down. You heard nothing but lamenting and commiseration. Here one screamed; there one cried that for God’s sake we should kill him off completely. The whole redoubt was so full of dead and wounded that you couldn’t walk without stepping on them.”
The whole battle took less than ten minutes, during which the French alone lost approximately five officers and eighty men dead or wounded—more than a third of their casualties for the entire siege. Three days later, on the morning of October 18, the articles of capitulation of the English army in Yorktown were signed. The defeated army marched out that afternoon, and the Royal-Deux-Ponts held the place of honor among the French troops present. Afterward the troops were freed to inspect the damage they had inflicted. Flohr was horrified: “Everywhere dead bodies lay around unburied, the majority of them blacks.”
On July 3, 1782, the Royal-Deux-Ponts broke camp in Virginia and began their march back to New England. That November they reached Providence. There, Flohr wrote, “we received a nice farewell letter from the governing men of America, in which they and the country thanked us very politely for the help we had rendered in the country’s cause. But when we remained there a while longer the Americans were never quite at ease with us, but kept on thinking that we might want to keep this area for ourselves since we just did not seem to want to leave.” On December 23, 1782, they set sail, and the American portion of Flohr’s journal ended.
Flohr was discharged by the Royal-Deux-Ponts in 1784 and settled in Strasbourg. Nothing is known of his later life. His manuscript eventually passed to a half brother who used empty pages at the back to record the births of his five children. Sometime after 1870 it entered the city library of Strasbourg (which was under German rule at the time). Its existence became known in the mid-1970, when excerpts were published in a local paper by a Zweibrücken resident. Still, it attracted no attention.
I learned about it when I doing research on the Royal-Deux-Ponts in 1987 and first had a chance to read the manuscript, at the Strasbourg library, three years later. Soon anyone who wants to should have the same opportunity, for arrangements are being made for a scholarly press (we’re not yet certain which one) to publish Flohr’s unique book in its entirety, after two centuries of eclipse.
Robert A. Selig is a visiting assistant professor of history at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan. He would like to thank the city of Strasbourg for its permission to publish text and images from the Flohr diary.