What You Don't Know About the 8 Foreign Fighters who Helped America Win its Independence
What You Don’t Know About the 8 Foreign Fighters who Helped America Win its Independence

What You Don’t Know About the 8 Foreign Fighters who Helped America Win its Independence

Larry Holzwarth - November 22, 2017

Most Americans recognize the name of Lafayette. The young French aristocrat and soldier who risked his life and fortune to serve the American cause during the War of Independence and is arguably the most famous of the many Europeans who did so. But he was far from alone. Europeans came from several countries and principalities to join the American cause. Some of them were soldiers of fortune, some charlatans, and some gave their lives in the process. Their efforts often provided the inexperienced American army with military expertise in the areas of tactics, battlefield movement, camp construction, engineering and the reduction of enemy fortifications.

While some demanded honors and financial remuneration from a chronically cash-strapped Congress, others served for nothing, or actually – as in the case of Lafayette – spent large amounts of their own money for the privilege of serving the cause of freedom. Many of their names remain part of the American landscape today in the form of names of cities, towns, counties, or landmarks. Many found after the war that they were unable to return to the land of their birth due to the resentment of their former sovereign, others remained having given their lives for their adopted land.

What You Don’t Know About the 8 Foreign Fighters who Helped America Win its Independence
The Marquis de Lafayette in retirement in 1830. Musee de l’Armee

Here then are some foreign warriors who came to help America win its freedom from the British Empire.

What You Don’t Know About the 8 Foreign Fighters who Helped America Win its Independence
Portrait of Casimir Pulaski, founder of Pulaski’s Legion, who died in the service of the American Revolution. Wikimedia

Casimir Pulaski

One of only eight individuals who have been awarded the status of Honorary Citizen of the United States, Casimir Pulaski is widely regarded as the father of the US Cavalry. As the second son of a Polish nobleman Pulaski did not stand to inherit his father’s estates and thus, as did many second sons of European nobles of the day, chose the army as a career. Poland of the time was largely a puppet state of the Russian Empire, and Pulaski joined a confederation opposing the Russians and their influence over his homeland.

After years of fighting, Pulaski was forced to seek refuge in France when the forces he supported were defeated by those of the Czar. With the knowledge that returning to Poland likely meant death at the hands of the Russians, Pulaski allowed himself to be convinced by the American diplomat in Paris, Benjamin Franklin, to emigrate to America in part to escape imprisonment for indebtedness.

Despite Franklin’s glowing recommendations – it was Franklin who bestowed the title of Count upon the officer, which he did not in fact hold – the Congress had no cavalry to assign him to and no general’s commissions to award him.

Pulaski initially served without any rank other than courtesy and commanded troops at Brandywine which saved the Americans from an even worse defeat than that which they suffered there. Eventually he created a troop which became known as Pulaski’s Legion, and is largely credited with creating what became the American cavalry despite his contentious and imperious personality frequently causing conflicts with fellow officers.

Pulaski served in the American south after the shift of focus to that front, and was in numerous engagements there. He suffered from bouts of malaria, an illness common to that time and place, and served with distinction in South Carolina and Georgia before being mortally wounded before Savannah in the fall of 1779, at the age of 34. Fort Pulaski, outside of Savannah was later named for him, as was the US nuclear missile submarine USS Casimir Pulaski. Days set aside in his name are celebrated in both the State of Illinois and Poland, and numerous statues and other memorials exist to his honor in the United States.

What You Don’t Know About the 8 Foreign Fighters who Helped America Win its Independence
Baron Johann deKalb was an officer nearly as popular and respected as his commander, George Washington. Wikimedia

Baron Johann DeKalb

Johann DeKalb was born to a wealthy family – their fortune was from the cloth manufacturing industry – in Bavaria. He used the influence inherent in his family’s money to obtain a commission in a Bavarian regiment serving in the French Army. His service during the War of the Austrian Succession, the portion of which fought in North America was known as King George’s War, won him acclaim and he was honored with the title of Baron.

In the late 1760s DeKalb traveled to the American colonies on a diplomatic mission for the French, tasked with determining the level of discontent between the British colonies and their King. DeKalb found the American determination to resist Parliament’s attempts at coercion to be deep set and reported to the French Court that war was likely.

When the war erupted he returned to the Americas, arriving in early 1777, and bringing with him a young French officer named Lafayette. At first Congress could find no employment for the experienced and talented general and he threatened to return to France before being made a major general and assigned to command troops from Maryland and Delaware – some of the finest in the American army – in the southern theater. When Horatio Gates (who claimed credit for the victory at Saratoga won for him by Benedict Arnold and John Stark) was assigned overall command of the southern theater DeKalb bristled, but remained at the head of his troops.

DeKalb was present at the Battle of Camden, when Gates led the southern army to a disastrous defeat before fleeing the battlefield on a horse noted for its endurance and speed. DeKalb remained on the field and was wounded repeatedly by British bayonets. Carried to a British field hospital he was attended to by British commander Cornwallis’s own surgeons, and was visited by Cornwallis as he lay dying of his wounds.

DeKalb was buried at Camden. The esteem in which DeKalb was held by his contemporaries is indicated by the sheer number of towns, counties, streets, schools, memorials and other places which bear his name.

What You Don’t Know About the 8 Foreign Fighters who Helped America Win its Independence
A stylized portrait of Kosciuszko leading troops into battle. His work in America was primarily engineering. Wikimedia

Tadeusz Kosciuszko

Kosciuszko was a Lithuanian – Polish military leader and engineer of such high regard that he is a national hero in Poland and in North America, although his fame in the latter is limited to those who go beyond basic American high school history. As a young man he made a rash attempt to elope with the daughter of his employer, an indiscretion which brought him a severe beating at the hands of the irate father’s servants.

Kosciuszko served in the ongoing wars against the Russian attempts at influencing Polish affairs and partitioning the country, combining his growing military knowledge with his lifelong love of drawing to become a skilled map maker and engineer. Already a revolutionary by nature, as attested to by his fighting against Czarist authority, Kosciuszko was quickly drawn to the American Revolution, and convinced French noblemen Pierre de Beaumarchais to provide him with a letter of introduction to the American Congress, endorsed by Benjamin Franklin.

Congress assigned the young engineer to the Continental Army as a volunteer without portfolio, meaning that he had no recognized rank or pay, which was soon rectified by a commission as a colonel of engineers. Kosciuszko was instrumental in designing and building the fortifications which stopped John Burgoyne’s army at Bemis Heights in New York, leaving them effectively stranded and without supplies at Saratoga. Both the selection of the proper place to fortify and the fortifications themselves were decisions made by the young engineer, and the final nail in Burgoyne’s figurative coffin.

Kosciuszko remained unpaid by the Congress throughout his revolutionary war service, which continued in the southern campaign following the victory at Saratoga throughout the rest of the war. His skills designing entrenchments and fortifications were reflected in the disposition of the American Army before Yorktown in 1781. Following the war Kosciuszko sued the Congress for payment for his services, which was finally awarded via promissory in 1784.

Kosciuszko returned to Poland and to military service there, visiting the United States in the late 1790s. When he died in Switzerland in 1817 he was renowned as a national hero in Poland akin to the status once enjoyed by Washington in the United States. Kosciuszko has been memorialized throughout the United States for his service, and is regarded as one of the fathers of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

What You Don’t Know About the 8 Foreign Fighters who Helped America Win its Independence
Charles Tuffin, Marquis de la Rouerie, known to his troops as simply Colonel Armand. Wikimedia

Charles Armand Tuffin

The oft used descriptive romantic adventurer could have been coined to describe Charles Armand Tuffin, whose service to the American cause was as long and dedicated as that of his more famous countryman Lafayette. An impetuous youth, before the age of 16 he had fallen in love with an actress over whom he fought a duel with a rival. A member of the gardes francais, the honor guard of King Louis of France, his reputation was found to be wanting and he was dismissed in disgrace.

This led to a failed suicide attempt, and eventually flight from Paris, when he determined to make his services available to the American cause. His journey to America was disrupted by a British frigate, which sank the vessel in which he traveled within sight of American shores. He swam to safety, arriving in America without anything but the clothes on his back, although he retained the company of his servants.

Tuffin joined the Continental Army, awarded the rank of colonel by Washington, and became known to the troops as Colonel Armand. He served with distinction during the remaining portion of the northern campaign, earning battlefield acclaim at the battle of Monmouth, and endured the bitter winters at Valley Forge and the worse but lesser known winter encampment at Morristown.

After the death of Casimir Pulaski Tuffin took command of Pulaski’s Legion, equipping and later paying his men out of his own pocket. In 1782 he returned to France to purchase equipment for his troops and the French Court, temporarily ignoring his earlier indiscretions, awarded him the title of Chevalier (Knight) of the Order of Saint Louis. He then returned to America and remained with the Army under Washington’s command until the end of the war.

Why Tuffin is relatively unknown compared to the famous Lafayette is a mystery unexplained. For the remainder of his life he maintained an affectionate correspondence with George Washington, and he was well remembered and regarded by the American troops he had led. During the early days of the French Revolution he aligned himself with the monarchists intent upon retaining the King on the French throne, eventually getting himself involved in various conspiracies and counterplots. He died at the end of 1793 of an unknown illness. Possibly he had pneumonia, possibly he poisoned himself. By dying he narrowly escaped the ignominy of execution during the Reign of Terror, having been denounced by political enemies.

What You Don’t Know About the 8 Foreign Fighters who Helped America Win its Independence
Louis Duportail gave the American Army professional engineering skills which made them the equal of the British Army in North America. Wikimedia

Louis Lebegue Duportail

Louis Duportail was a graduate of the then prestigious French Military Engineering school in Mezieres, where he acquired the training and expertise of a builder of military fortifications. Duportail entered the army in the immediate aftermath of the Seven Years War (known in North America as the French and Indian War) and his course of study had included the inland waterways and fortifications in Canada, New England, and upstate New York.

When the American Revolution began, the often duplicitous Benjamin Franklin convinced the French Minister of War to dispatch Duportail to America under the guise of studying the entryways to the colonies from Canada. Duportail thus went to America with the full authority of the French government, rather than evading it as had Lafayette and many others.

Once he arrived in America Duportail attached himself to George Washington’s staff, first as a colonel and later as a general. He assumed the duties of General Engineer for all American forces, and designed and supervised the construction of fortifications in Boston Harbor, which remained unmolested by the British for the rest of the war.

He was responsible for the design of the American stronghold at West Point which guarded the Hudson Valley from British intrusion, and later developed fortifications in other American encampments and strategic locations. Duportail also provided counsel to Washington on the overall American strategy, recommending a defensive approach until the French military and navy was in a position to intervene on behalf of the revolution.

Duportail later served as the French Minister of War until the events of the French Revolution forced him to flee for his life. He returned to America and purchased a large farm near what had been his headquarters during the encampment at Valley Forge. When the Napoleonic Wars in Europe beckoned a man of his military and political talents he opted to offer his services to the French First Consul. JWhile journeying to France to assume his new duties he died at sea in 1802. Relatively forgotten today, Duportail served the Revolution longer than any other foreign officer, and became one of Washington’s most trusted staff officers.

What You Don’t Know About the 8 Foreign Fighters who Helped America Win its Independence
The Continental Navy frigate Alliance, commanded by Pierre Landais during the Battle of Flamborough Head. Wikimedia

Pierre Landais

Pierre Landais was a French naval officer who sailed in the flotilla led by the indomitable John Paul Jones during its encounter with HMS Serapis, when Jones supposedly uttered the famous words, “I have not yet begun to fight.” Landais was an experienced seaman, having accompanied Bougainville during a three year circumnavigation of the globe in the late 1760s.

Unemployed in France in 1777 he was awarded a Captain’s commission in the Continental Navy by Silas Deane, and sailed a merchantman loaded with war materials to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, arriving in December 1777. The following year he was given command of the new Continental frigate Alliance, and in early 1779 he sailed that vessel to France, carrying Lafayette on a diplomatic mission to his homeland.

Jones was in France in 1779 arming and preparing BonHomme Richard for sea. Benjamin Franklin wrote orders assigning Landais and Alliance to Jones’s squadron, although they were ambiguous regarding which of the two naval officers – who loathed each other – was to be in overall command. When the squadron sailed Landais repeatedly ignored signals from Jones and when the American squadron encountered Serapis and its escorts Landais deliberately hung back from the close action.

Not until BonHomme Richard was locked together with Serapis did Landais approach, firing into both ships and doing as much damage to the Americans as to the British. After the action the squadron returned to France, where Franklin assigned Jones to captain Alliance. Landais disputed Franklin’s authority to remove him from command and when Arthur Lee overrode Franklin’s order, Alliance returned to America with Landais commanding.

Alliance captured several prizes during its tenure as an American ship of war, and Landais spent a good portion of the rest of his life importuning Congress to pay him for the prizes and his services. At the same time he endured a written campaign by the outraged Jones labeling him a coward and a fool. Jones immortality was secured by his victory over the Serapis, while Landais gradually fell into obscurity. His remaining days at sea were marked by several mutinies by his crews and eventual lack of employment. Eventually he became an admiral in the navy of revolutionary France but the rest of his career passed without distinction, despite the numerous naval engagements between France and Great Britain. He died, broke and obscure, in New York in 1820.

What You Don’t Know About the 8 Foreign Fighters who Helped America Win its Independence
Baron von Steuben leads a bayonet demonstration before an imperious appearing George Washington at Valley Forge. National War College

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben

Baron von Steuben was a Prussian military officer who attained the rank of captain while serving in the army of Frederick the Great. During his service in the Seven Years War he was twice wounded, taken prisoner by the Russians, exchanged and eventually became a member of the King’s staff. While serving Frederick as an aide-de-camp he was part of a class of young officers who received direct instruction in discipline and tactics from the King.

In 1777 von Steuben fled rumors of his homosexuality – then illegal in Prussia – to Paris where he met with Benjamin Franklin. Franklin immediately realized the value of an officer familiar with Prussian military discipline to the American cause and sent him to Washington bearing a letter of introduction which exaggerated the Prussian’s military rank and experience. Franklin ignored the rumors about von Steuben which were rampant in Paris.

Baron von Steuben rapidly proved to be a godsend to the fledging American army encamped for the winter at Valley Forge. The general presented numerous flamboyant idiosyncrasies which endeared him to the American troops, including the wearing of enormous pistols in his uniform sash, cursing in a multitude of foreign languages, all the while being constantly followed by an enormous Italian Greyhound named Azor.

The Baron is remembered for having taught the American army military discipline at Valley Forge, but he did far more than that. Von Steuben established health and sanitary regulations which contributed greatly to the army’s well-being. He rewrote the British manual of arms which had been the basis of the American’s drill, eliminating what he believed to be redundant steps, and under his tutelage the American infantry learned to fire, reload, and fire again faster than their British opponents. When French bayonets began to arrive in the camp he taught the Americans how to use that fearsome weapon in combat.

Baron Von Steuben served in the Virginia campaign and was present at Yorktown, but his services in the field paled compared to his role in the creation of an American Army. He created professional soldiers out of the formerly reticent troops, to the degree that only a short time later the American troops captured a British emplacement at Stony Point using bayonets alone, a clear demonstration that they were the equal of the British and Hessian troops they were fighting. After the troops he had trained fought the British to a standstill in a pitched battle at Monmouth, the northern British army retired to New York, declining battle for the rest of the war. After the war von Steuben remained in America until his death at his home in upstate New York in 1794. His estate was absorbed into the town of Steuben, named in his honor.

What You Don’t Know About the 8 Foreign Fighters who Helped America Win its Independence
George Rogers Clark – seen here accepting the surrender of Fort Sackville – was assisted in his Illinois campaign by Father Pierre Gibault. Indiana Historical Bureau

Pierre Gibault

Father Pierre Gibault was a French Jesuit missionary in the country northwest of the Ohio River, leading several parishes which included Vincennes, Kaskaskia, and Cahokia. As a priest on the frontier where Indian raids encouraged by the British were frequent, Gibault traveled between his parishes well-armed, and was known to use his weapons to defend himself when necessary.

His influence among the settlers and Indians in the area was considerable, and the British authorities in Detroit who oversaw the region for the Crown were wary of the unpredictable priest. When George Rogers Clark entered the region intent on driving the British out using troops from Virginia, Gibault rallied to his side.

Gibault first took the settlement of Vincennes without firing a shot by converting his parishioners to the American side of the conflict, forcing the weak garrison of Fort Sackville to withdraw. When the British retook Fort Sackville, led by Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton, they seized a Spanish citizen as a prisoner. Gibault forced his release by denying the British supplies, and the freed prisoner bore the news of the British position and strength to Clark, who later retook the fort in the winter of 1779.

Catholic clergy disavowed themselves of Gibault for his mercenary activities and the priest continued his religious duties following the war without portfolio or support from the American government he had served. Despite receiving the support and endorsement of George Washington, Gibault was never compensated by the Americans for either his work supporting the Revolution or the expenses he incurred.

Eventually he relocated to the Missouri Territory, where he died in 1802. The Jesuit Order which he served had his body removed to Canada for burial, but the whereabouts of his gravesite are unknown today.