Excerpts from “Private Flohr’s America” by Robert A. Selig, Battles and Leaders supplement to American Heritage magazine, 1997.
By Joe Wagner
Diaries are a great source of direct and unsophisticated information about life in the revolutionary war period. Diaries contain day to day observations and happenings of a “typical” person that can really be useful to interpreters of that period. They provide the little details of common daily life that flesh out the grand events of the history books. While Joseph Plumb Martin is probably the best known Revolutionary War diarist. This writing is from someone even more of an observer of 18th century America than Martin, since this gentlemen was from Europe, and was seeing America and Americans for the first time. The following looks at just a few of the topics addressed in the diary of a young soldier in the French army.
In 1780, George Daniel Flohr was a 24 year old German soldier of the Royal Deux Ponts, a regiment made up of Germans in the service of Louis XVI of France. The regiment sailed for America in the summer of 1780, to fulfill the French promise of aid for the American Revolution. During this voyage, Flohr began what became a 250-page notebook of his observations and reflections on America at war. The language is somewhat stilted, not only due to the 18th century forms, but because the original was written in German.
The Royal Deux Ponts landed in Newport, RI, after a 73 day Atlantic crossing. Apparently George was on the ship a little too long. His diary early on focuses on a single topic. He notes the rank and file “were especially liked by the girls, since we were German and they hold the German nation in very great esteem. Once they are sixteen years old, their father and mother must not forbid them anything anymore, and if they have a lover he can freely go with them.” In a later passage, lost opportunity appears throughout the entry – “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. There was no lack of women however, and they came into our camp on numerous occasions seeking to buy a soldier free, and they had to go home empty-handed.”
By summer of 1781, the Deux Ponts were headed south to what Flohr called – “a little village named Little Yorck where Lord Kornwallis of the English had dug in with twelve thousand men, ravaging the country very badly.” After digging in themselves, the French began a cannonade – “we could see from our redoubts the people flying into the air with outstretched arms . . . There was misery and a lamenting that was horrible . . .The houses stood there like lanterns shot through with cannonballs.”
The most interesting entry on Yorktown deals with the assault on Redoubt 9, which involved the Deux Ponts, on the evening of October 14, 1781. It contains one of the few documented first-hand descriptions of Revolutionary War hand to hand combat, beginning as the Deux Ponts clear their trenches, are discovered, and come under fire.
“They started firing (cannon) 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, and 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.
“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 (beforehand) that if any soldier or non-commissioned 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 Forback – commander) said the same.
“Under these conditions we conquered the redoubt by storm, and Count William was wounded, but not dangerously. 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. Anyone can imagine what happened once we were inside the redoubt. People of four nations were thrown together: Frenchmen, Englishmen, Scots, and Germans. (Our revolution and not an American in sight.). The Hessians and Hanoverians 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 Hessians 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. . .”
In less than ten minutes from the moment they left their trenches, the French forces captured redoubt number 9, losing five officers and over eighty men. This was almost half of their total losses at the Battle of Yorktown. Three days later, at the surrender ceremony, the Royal Deux Ponts held the place of honor at the front of the French army formation.
The Deux Ponts returned to New England in summer 1782, and left for Europe in December of that year. . .
“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 awhile longer, the Americans were never quit 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.”
George Flohr was separated from the Deux Ponts in 1784, and settled in Strasbourg, France, near the German border. Sometime after that, finding that, indeed, he had not wanted to leave America, George Flohr immigrated to the United States. Details of that return and the remainder of his life are unknown.