Foreign Fighters for the American Cause of Independence

Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, and other key players

In many respects the American Revolution was the progeny of the Enlightenment, that 17th century intellectual movement in Europe that sparked new ideas about humanity, science, government, and reason. The most influential European philosopher on the American Revolution was Englishman John Locke, who at the end of the 17th century expanded the notion of the social contract between those governed and those governing. Locke’s philosophy of the “social contract” greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson and its themes can be found throughout the Declaration of Independence.

But Locke’s philosophy and the works of other Enlightenment thinkers also influenced many noblemen and men of privilege living in Europe in 1776. These individuals, some with a military pedigree, were excited and energized at the possibilities for humankind that the new United States offered to the world. Many of them wanted to be part of the historical moment. It helped that representing the United States abroad in foreign governments, mostly operating out of Paris, was the wily and savvy Benjamin Franklin. Franklin would be the portal through which many of these foreign fighters found their way to the new United States. To be sure, the lure of a high rank in the nascent American Continental Army played a role as well, but these men must not be viewed as merely bounty hunters. The zeal of freedom was firmly entrenched in their hearts and minds.

Painting of Marquis de Lafayette

While the young Marquis de Lafayette was the most visible foreign presence in the American Army, particularly in the early years, men from Poland and the various German States also served the American cause. Thaddeus Kosciusko and Kazimierz Pulaski were from Poland, Johan DeKalb was from Bavaria, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was from Prussia, and Louis Lebeque DuPortail, like Lafayette, was from France. These men all served within the structure of the Continental Army, made significant contributions to various aspects of the war’s efforts, and in the case of Pulaski and DeKalb, gave their lives to the cause.

The twenty-one-year-old Marquis de Lafayette, whose full name was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Gilbert du Mortier de Lafayette, son of a French nobleman, was recruited into the American Army by another equally shrewd American agent who was helping Franklin find favor in European capitals, Silas Deane, who promised him the rank of Major General in the Continental Army in December 1776. Lafayette embraced the ideals of the enlightenment and as early as 1775 claimed, “My heart was dedicated.” Negotiations between Lafayette and American agents had to be done in secrecy. France at the time was not at war with England, but many in France were looking to find a way to seek revenge against Great Britain, having lost Canada to them in the French and Indian War.

Lafayette left France for the United States surreptitiously in April 1777. He gladly paid for his travel aboard a ship fittingly named La Victorie, as the American Congress had no funds to offer him. He arrived in South Carolina in June 1777 and traveled north to the American capital Philadelphia, where he was introduced to George Washington. Washington was smitten with the young Marquis and brought him into his close family of officers. In many respects Washington became like a father to Lafayette and Lafayette enjoyed his place as a somewhat adopted son (George Washington had no children of his own, but rather two step-children with his wife, Martha.) By September 1777, Lafayette was in command of troops and hotly engaged in the Battle of Brandywine, where he was wounded in the leg. He shivered at Valley Forge that winter during the American encampment, again saw combat with a better trained Continental Army at Monmouth, New Jersey in June 1778.  He was devoted to Washington throughout the course of the war.

In 1779 he returned to France and was immediately arrested and placed under house arrest  “for disobedience to King Louis XVI” for the manner in which he left in 1777 to serve in the American Army. His confinement lasted eight days. By now France had become a full-fledged partner to the Americans, so when Lafayette was released from his house arrest he was warmly received by the King.

In December 1779, Lafayette’s wife, Adrianne, (they had been married in 1774 via an arrangement between their families) had a son and Lafayette immediately named him Georges Washington Lafayette.

During his tenure at home, Lafayette continued to promote the American cause and push for more French support. Lafayette returned to the United States in April 1780 and, still as a member of Washington’s staff, served as a translator and liaison between Washington and French General Rochambeau, commander of the French forces sent to America, when The French Army arrived in the United States.

By 1780, the theatre of operations had shifted to the South and after Horatio Gates was roundly defeated in South Carolina at Camden, the American Army in the Southern Department was in chaos. Daniel Morgan’s stunning victory at Cowpens, South Carolina in January 1781 lifted American spirits and raised hope in the Southern Department. Washington ordered Lafayette to command a division, head south, and work alongside another foreign officer who joined the American cause, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben, better known as Baron von Steuben, was a Prussian officer who is credited with forming the amateur Continental Army into a professional fighting force. Von Steuben was a captain in the Prussian army and aide-de-camp to Fredrick the Great, veteran of multiple battles in Europe. French Minister of War Claude Luis, Compte de Saint-Germain recommended von Steuben to Franklin as an able staff officer in need of a job. Franklin exaggerated von Stueben’s qualifications to Washington, calling him a “Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia’s service.” Von Steuben arrived in North American in December of 1777, making his way to the encampment at Valley Forge by February. Washington, in desperate need of professionals, appointed him as Inspector General.

Despite his inflated qualifications, von Steuben was every bit the professional soldier, and immediately set about inspecting the rag-tag Continental Army. During the fateful winter at Valley Forge, von Steuben trained and drilled the army, reformed the administration, and increased sanitation. By the time the army left Valley Forge it was a force capable of standing up to British Regulars. The Battle of Monmouth proved the effectiveness of von Steuben’s reforms, with American Continentals standing against the Regulars. Von Steuben published his famous “Blue Book,” the first training manual for the American army. After the war von Steuben remained in the United States, dying in 1794.

Lafayette's troops were instrumental in the capture of Redoubt #9, a crucial action in the Siege of Yorktown. Wikimedia Commons

Together, Lafayette and von Steuben would shadow British forces in Virginia. By the fall of 1781, Lafayette and Washington were reunited as the Allied American and French Armies entrenched at Yorktown, Virginia, besieging British General Cornwallis. His American forces were engaged in the successful capture of British Redoubt #9, tightening the noose around Cornwallis. On October 19, 1781 Cornwallis surrendered his army, ending most of the military operations of the War for Independence. By this time Lafayette was a bona fide American hero.

The single most disappointing thing to Lafayette was the American institution of slavery. He could not fathom how a people fighting for liberty could deny it to others. His views on slavery were well known to Washington and in American circles.

After the war, Lafayette returned to France and found himself caught up in the bloody chaos of the French Revolution. For a time he was imprisoned and then later released.

In 1824, Lafayette returned to the United States to mark the 50th anniversary of American nationhood and toured the growing nation in a triumphal manner befitting any head of state. Among the places he visited to pay his respects was George Washington’s Tomb at his Mount Vernon Estate. He made good on his promise, too, to visit each of the states, including the new ones, during his climactic tour. The day after his 68th birthday was celebrated at the White House, September 6, 1825, he left for home. He died in 1834 and America officially mourned his loss. By order of President Andrew Jackson, the nation was directed to mourn Lafayette as it had mourned George Washington upon his death. Both chambers of Congress were draped in black bunting for thirty days.

In 2002, the United States Congress voted to give Lafayette the status of honorary citizenship.

Lafayette’s American biographer, historian Marc Leepson, argues in his 2001 examination, Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General:
“The Marquis de Lafayette was far from perfect. He was sometimes vain, naïve, immature, and egocentric. But he consistently stuck to his ideals, even when doing so endangered his life and fortune. Those ideals proved to be the founding principle of two of the world’s most enduring nations, the United States and France. That is a legacy that few military leaders, politicians or statesmen can match.”