Friday, July 10, 2009

Lafayette and von Steuben: Thinking about the American Revolution

"A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader."
— Samuel Adams, letter to James Warren (1779)

We have explored, thus far, the primary and secondary founding fathers who are most familiar to us. In the last few days we have looked at a couple of Chief Justices of the Supreme Court and a firebrand activist. The American colonies, at the time of the revolution, did not have military leaders equal to those found in the British ‘Red Coats,’ against whom they must fight. While some of the colonists had served in the British Army, especially during the ‘French and Indian War,’ none of our founding fathers were known as military strategists!

Why was the lack of military strategy important? Well, it mainly had to do with the way wars were fought at the time of the revolution. It was more of a ‘gentleman’s war’ where the gentlemen, the officers, lead a group of soldiers, the ‘people,’ into a battle. The soldiers stood in lines facing each other, like a duel conducted by dozens of combatants, raising their rifles, and firing. It proved to be a battle of endurance, with each side retiring to their encampments each evening to dress their wounds, eat and get some rest before the next day’s confrontation. What made the difference between armies? In short, the more disciplined the army in standing against the other, the more likely the victory. The officers did employ certain standard types of maneuvers that were countered by other standard maneuvers — just like in a chess game. So, given this general plan for battle, the ‘Red Coats,’ with their military training and discipline and large numbers, overwhelmed the colonist where both the officers and the men were less skilled in these techniques.

Was there any hope for the colonists? In fact, YES there was. On the one hand, many of the colonists who had served in the ‘French and Indian War’ had encountered the techniques employed by the French allies, the Indian tribes, that carried out ambushes and other tactics that avoided direct confrontation between the two armies. Washington was familiar with these techniques. In addition, the colonists could hope for help from military staff officers from other European countries to help lead and train the American colonists in military discipline and battle techniques. This would need to be more than just a ‘point and shoot’ confrontation if the colonists hoped to prevail. The ‘virtue’ referred to in the quote from Samuel Adams would not help much!

Into this scene, fate delivered two outstanding European officers to help the colonists — the Marquis de Lafayette (or, more properly, de la Fayette) from France and the Baron von Steubens from Prussia. Let’s look at the contributions of these two men…

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757 – 1834)

“True republicanism is the sovereignty of the people....There are natural and imprescriptible rights which an entire nation has no right to violate.”
— Marquis De Lafayette

“When the government violates the people's rights, insurrection is, for the people and for each portion of the people, the most sacred of the rights and the most indispensible of duties.”
— Marquis De Lafayette

The Marquis de Lafayette was a trained French military officer and a nobleman. Being a member of the ‘Second Estate,’ the nobility and an owner of land, chateau and wealth put him into the inner circle of the French court. In addition of the colonists’ need of trained military officers, they needed money and materiel. Lafayette was a godsend in both of these areas.

He was college educated in Paris and was commissioned into the ‘mousquetaires’ (‘musketeers’) following his schooling. He received formal military training and became a respected officer. During his formal military training, he was introduced to freemasonry and therefore the cause of the American colonists. After spending some time in England, where he refused to toast to the King, he returned to France and came into contact with the ideas of Thomas Payne’s ‘The Rights of Man’ and participated in various ‘thinking groups’ in Paris where these revolutionary ideas were being discussed. In 1776, he volunteered (through Benjamin Franklin) to serve in the Continental Army. This attempt was blocked by the French King, but Lafayette escaped to Spain from which he sailed to the Americas. At first, his efforts to join the Continental Army were rebuffed, but he was eventually accepted by George Washington after Franklin sent him a letter of recommendation; Lafayette then joined Washington’s staff. Lafayette was an important factor in many of the earlier battles of the war, such as that at Brandywine Creek.

But probably as important, if not more so, was his access to funding and support in France. He made several trips back to his native country to help obtain financing, arms and ammunition, and other support for the colonial cause. These efforts finally resulted in the recognition of the American government and commitment of the French naval forces in the support of the colonists. This marked a turning point in the revolution. Between the field leadership of Lafayette and the French navy, General Cornwall was forced to surrender at Yorktown. This essentially ended the Revolutionary War. Lafayette returned to France in time to witness the signing of the ‘Treaty of Paris’ in 1783 with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay. This formally recognized the independence of the United States of America and ended the conflict.

“Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country.”
— Marquis De Lafayette

Lafayette continue to pursue the rights of man in France, and became deeply involved in the French Revolution which we will start to deal with in a few days. He believed in ‘The Rights of Man’ as an ideal, the end of the slave trade with West Africa and the freeing of slaves. After the American Revolution, he returned to his estates to his wife and children. He was recalled to national service in 1788 and worked in the French Revolution until the ‘Reign of Terror’ and the execution of the French King and Queen. At that point, Lafayette attempted to flee to the Americas via the Dutch; however, he was captured by the Prussians and imprisoned until freed by Napoleon in 1799. He resigned his commission and settled at the estate of his wife’s family in France. He never returned to the U.S.

He was granted honorary citizenship in both Pennsylvania and New York. Because of his efforts on behalf of the American colonies in the Continental Army, he is considered one of our founding fathers. His contributions will always be appreciated. Unfortunately, he was not able to steer the French Revolution to a peaceful end as he had helped the colonists to defeat the British.

“True republicanism is the sovereignty of the people. There are natural and imprescriptible rights which an entire nation has no right to violate.”
— Marquis de Lafayette

Thank you, Marquis de Lafayette, for your efforts in the struggle of our young country…

Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben (1730 – 1794)

“A fraud — not really a baron, and holding no high military rank, von Steuben was a skilled drill master who taught the American army what it needed to win the war. He once said: The genius of this nation is not in the least to be compared with the Prussians, the Austrians, or French. You say to your soldier, ‘Do this,' and he doeth it, but I am obliged to say, 'This is the reason that you ought to do that,' and then he does it.”
—Friedrich Wilhelm [Ludolf Gerhard Augustin] Baron von Steuben

Baron von Steuben was a Prussian army general officer who became a Major General in the Continental Army in 1778. He brought the discipline and training of a Prussian general staff officer, generally one of the more professional of army officers in Europe, to the beleaguered Continental Army. He arrived in Valley Forge during that dire winter and managed to ‘whip’ the ‘rag tag’ conglomeration into a disciplined, trained group of soldiers who were ready to confront the best fighting force in the world at the time. In these efforts he provided a great service to his adopted country.

"You say to your soldier, 'Do this' and he does it. But I am obliged to say to the American, 'This is why you ought to do this' and then he does it."
— Baron von Steuben

He had served as a staff officer during the ‘Seven Years War’ in Europe (known here as the ‘French and Indian War’) in the Prussian army. Following the settlement of that war, he was essentially left without a position; he tried become a mercenary for other European countries. That did not work out and his break came when he visited Paris and met Benjamin Franklin who saw the potential of his military training to the benefit of the Continental Army. He sent a letter of recommendation to General Washington for von Steuben based upon his rank of Lieutenant General in the Prussian General Staff. In 1777 the Baron sailed to the American colonies where he landed in New Hampshire and traveled to Boston. He was well received by the Bostonians, but was not immediately assigned to the field.

So, was von Steuben a brilliant military tactician? No, he was not; he was, however, an expert in military discipline and warfare operations. He was assigned to Washington’s army in Valley Forge and immediately set about changing the ‘rag tag’ group into a disciplined army prepared to take on the most powerful army of the time. What did he do? Aside from performing a virtual miracle, he basically set about creating what we call a ‘basic training’ course of training. This included drill practice, the imposition of military discipline, and training in the effective use of the bayonet; this latter tool had been used as a cooking skewer. In addition, von Steuben reorganized the encampment to create an ordered organization and improve sanitation. Following this winter encampment, Washington’s troops were ready to emerge as a true army. This was based, to a large extent, due to the efforts of von Steuben.

He was promoted to Inspector General and took part in the campaign in the Southern States, including the capstone Battle of Yorktown. In 1784, following the ‘Treaty of Paris’ he retired and eventually settled on a small estate near Utica, New York. His focused service in the Continental Army helped transform it into a fighting force that defeated the most powerful military machine in the world.

Thank you, Baron von Steuben, for your service. While not a native son, you provided your adopted country a great service. We are a better people because of your efforts.

Next Time: We will start wrapping up this series by considering the contributions of Aaron Burr. Join us for that examination…

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