In recent times, considerable pressure has been placed to promote particular ethnic presence and/or participation at Yorktown in September-October 1781. This has led to initiatives that multiply the number of claimed national assocations with the event beyond the the number that were the principal combatants at Yorktown. For the most part, these initiatives are based upon ethnic association with individuals who served among the military units of the principal armed forces in 1781 at Yorktown. The gesture dilutes the true historical accuracy that there were only three true nations committed -- and, in all fairness, such 'particular' initiatives fail to acknowledge the full range of ethnic associations in the event. |
There were deployed in the American colonies Irish, Welsh and Scots in both British and French regiments. France had special regiments that catered to members from Anglophone societies. Some of the Irish ‘Wild Geese' units went back to Louis XIV's time, and by Louis XVI's era, many were commanded by French born descendants of the Irish émigrés. The rank and file was composed of individuals from varied backgrounds, with the most common language being French. Of course, there were no longer independent countries of Ireland, Wales, or Scotland.
During the War in the North American colonies, there were individuals in both the British armies and French regiments from German speaking communities in Europe. These were not part of a German nation, which did not come into existence until 1781. At the time, these communities [principalities, duchies, electorates, etc.] were part of a loose confederation of communities [not all were German speaking] that were associated with an ‘empire' – at the time it was the Austrian-Habsburg Empire, that some call the ‘Holy Roman Empire', some use the expression ‘The Empire of German Nations' or various mixtures of these titles. The association was so loose that some of the communities [such as Hesse-Cassel, Ansbach-Bayreuth who had contingents at Yorktown] sold the services of their military units as mercenaries to be used by Great Britain. Others permitted individuals of their respective communities to serve in French Royal Regiments. The Royal Deux-Ponts was a regiment raised in the Duke of Zweibrücken's lands. Though the duke was technically within the realm of the Austrian-Habsburg emperor, the unit was ‘Royal' because it was under the service to the French king – it was a French regiment and not a hired foreign mercenary unit. The Royal Deux Ponts remained loyal to France even after the French Revolution, and with its new numeric designation (as with all the French military units) would fight against the enemies of France, such as the Austrian Empire.
The French legion of the duc de Lauzun was part of the French Voluntaires étrangers de la Marine – a sort of ‘Foreign Legion' where the commanders were French and the emphasis was to recruit foreigners to fill the ranks. However, at Yorktown, the majority of such units were composed of individuals from French provinces. The legion had an infantry regiment and a cavalry component. The latter followed a popular European trend at the time of replicating Hungarian hussars – colorful uniforms and bravado considered conducive to light cavalry operations. A number of the hussars were of east European origin – or from individuals with such ancestry who lived in French provinces. Such units, at the rank-and-file and simple trooper levels, reportedly spoke the dialects representative of the multi lingual Austrian-Habsburg Empire, where the German language was most common. The French raised units that included island natives from the Caribbean. While some of these fought with the French and Americans at the unsuccessful Siege of Savannah (Georgia) in 1779, they were not present as units at Yorktown in 1781. This does not rule out that such individuals might have been recruited as ‘fillers' among the French units brought from St. Domingue under Saint Simon. It should be noted that there were ‘volunteers' from Poland, Switzerland, etc. that served in the American army. In most all cases these had been sent under the auspices of France.
There was some money, brought on French warships, that came from individuals in the Havana, of the Spanish colony of Cuba. The money was raised with the assistance of the Spanish authorities in Cuba and arrived as the Yorktown campaign was in progress. While this money was certainly needed by the American and French allied armies to sustain their nearly empty war chests, the Havana loan had more impact on events following the Yorktown engagement. In a similar manner, one could recognize that the allied armies of France and the United States were supplied with some military resources that had been funneled through ports controlled by The Netherlands. While not an official commitment or policy of that nation, it reflected contribution by some individuals – even if for commercial motives -- and officials of that country.
In all cases, the presence of forces and matériel at Yorktown was there due to the deliberate decisions and direction of one of the three principal nations: Great Britain, United States, and France. It was their war, their campaign, their victory or defeat that was at stake at that particular commemorative site. The representation of other nations, in being then or to become nations later, is incidental.
This is not an argument to diminish the recognition of the more varied ethnic participation at Yorktown. Participants from many linguistic, cultural, and racial origins certainly contributed as individuals to the great allied victory; but to take this sociological message to blur the political realities of state sponsored acts is a distortion of history. If modern national flags, other than the three principal nations that were committed to the struggle, are displayed at the Yorktown Visitors' Center, the purpose should be clearly defined. ‘Ethnic recognition' by association of individuals present with other ‘nations' should take second precedence to the historically significant roles of the principal combatant countries.
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Related [or Return to] webpages:'World War Context of the American Revolution'.
'Yorktown Campaign (1781)'.
'Spain's Contribution to the American War for Independence'
Page posted 30 March 2004.