Forgotten Men: Adventurers and the American Revolution, by Angus Waugh


At the moment of the outbreak of revolution in America, it was recognised in its founding constitution that the Americas were being pacified and controlled by European ‘adventurers’. These men were soldiers of fortune, who fought as mercenaries for the British Empire. They included troops such as the Hessians, depicted above, skilled German soldiers from the state of Hessen-Kassel. Roughly 30,000 of these troops were hired by the crown to suppress resistance in the colonies. After the outbreak of the war, the Hessians continued to fight for the British as mercenaries, serving admirably in the likes of Long Island and, after the revolution, in the Nova Scotia theatre, protecting the territory from American encroachment. The Hessians were but a small fraction of a larger group that continued throughout this era to have an impact in the British colonies and the new founded American state.
The Americans saw the presence foreign forces as a problem caused by Britian, and believed that the adventurers and mercenaries were little more that a brutish stick with which they were being beaten. Their constitution stated:

He [George III] is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy of the Head of a civilized nation.

  Yet this indignant condemnation of the British use of mercenaries and adventurers ignored the fact that Americans had their own foreigners. Indeed, the same congress had barely a year earlier enlisted the help of Charles Lee. Lee had been a soldier of fortune, having been a British officer in the Seven Years’ War, before fighting in Poland. As a convinced Whig, and an eye on the chance of promotion, he became the third-highest ranking general in the Continental Army. Lee’s actions during the battle of Monmouth highlighted his mercenary temperament and lack of commitment to the American cause; his surrender at Basking Ridge might show the same. He was a coward and turncoat in the eyes of many, yet succeeded in exacting £11,000 out of the anti-mercenary Congress to pay off old debts and obligations.

Even when the failure of Lee is taken into consideration, other foreign adventurers proved more successful, among them high ranking officers, but also a number of mercenary soldiers. Thus, when Benjamin Franklin was entrusted with the role of Congress’s commissioner abroad, he was responsible for the recruitment of the Marquis de Lafayette, who not only fought for and commanded Patriot forces throughout the war, but also gained French support for the war on the American side. French naval assistance was vital at the battle of Chesapeake, where the French navy, whilst fighting for American, secured a decisive victory for the Colonies. The Marquis was a gifted general and arguably, if not for his junior status, could have led the charge at Monmouth and won. He was, in fact, initially entrusted with the role by Washington, until Lee demanded it as the more senior general. He was also at Valley Forge with Washington, as depicted below by John Ward Dunsmore.


 Franklin went further, enlisting the Baron von Steuben from Magdeburg, a man responsible for the drilling and training of the American forces in the war. Upon his arrival in Valley Forge he was described ‘of the ancient fabled God of War … he seemed to me a perfect personification of Mars’ for his flamboyant attire and weaponry; a true adventurer. He wrote the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States and was responsible for the transformation of American soldiery at Valley Forge and was also influential in their victory at Yorktown, again through his training prior to the battle. It is worth adding that, at Yorktown, it was Lafayette who was in command. Thus, the American army was trained by a German and led by a Frenchman; both, in turn, had Germans fighting for them. The American War of independence was not as independent as often claimed.

 Only when one begins to dig further does it become apparent that the level of foreign inclusion in the American military infrastructure was even more significant. Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish military engineer and patriot leader played a key role at Saratoga, where his fortification saved many American lives, leading to victory and the British surrender. Horatio Gates (left) was a retired British general; as a settler, he fought for the congress to defend his new land and home. Louis le Beque Du Portail was Chief Engineer of the Continental Army, a position he filled with distinction during most of the war.

Each of these men all fought and served for a country to which they held no allegiance, or were breaking with a former allegiance in Gates’ case; all were pivotal in its birth as a modern state. Perhaps, without them we might not have an America today without those foreign adventurers who turned the tide in battles and gained foreign support.

For some, the American war forged a career. After Yorktown, where he fought with such distinction, Lafayette returned to France as a experienced and able soldier, with revolutionary sentiments. It might be no surprise that he was to have a significant political career in revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Some fought for honour. Von Steuben was a volunteer who refused both rank and pay.

In a way, to come to America in search of fame, adventure, a career or new land was, of course, the very personification of the American values he founding facets looked to. The American dream, in some ways, was more true to these adventurers than many of those who came before or after. The men who fought for the colonies, whether for pay or pride, patriotism or ideals , were the men who made America. They were the revolutionaries and warriors who made American ideals reality. It is perhaps an unhappy irony that some go largely unremembered, save for a few rare statues and societies dotted throughout America; even more so that they stood openly condemned by the constitution they fought for. They may be nothing but a small piece of a larger whole: but the foreign adventurers who fought for a country that condemned them mattered.

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