A Revisionist Account of the French Assault on Redoubt 9, Yorktown, 14 October 1781.
An unfortunate injection of a revisionist legend has been promoted in a 2005 publication: Guns of Independence by Jerome Greene – a work which the author and publisher promote as having been coordinated with, and supported by Yorktown NPS staff. This description alleges gory fratricide occurred in the process of the French regiment's assault on the British redoubt 9 at Yorktown, 14 October 1781. The author gives prominent place to this invented incident in the main text of his book; and buries in an endnote a statement that: "Flohr may be the only eyewitness to describe a French vs. French slaughter in the redoubt; his sensational account must be weighed against other evidence and interpretations." The author fails to provide any basis for weighing ‘the evidence', ignores many obvious aspects that make Flohr's description incredible; and does a disservice to ignore the narrative details provided by more reliable eyewitnesses whose reports have been subjected to extensive examination. Correcting the distortions promoted by Flohr's account, in addition to the insinuations made by Mr. Greene, is the task of this webpage.
The specific text is found on pages 247-253 from Chapter 11, "Night of Heroes," in Greene's book. The quoted portions of Flohr's narrative are based upon the work of a single translator who inserts edited remarks in an attempt to place the private's perception of events in context with the traditional accounts of the assault by the Royal Deux-Ponts officers [Vicomte Guillaume de Forbach de Deux-Ponts, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine de Verger, and Wilhelm Graf von Schwerin] who described the assault in their reports/journals/letters written soon after the 14 October action. The principal printed presentation of Flohr's narrative was published in the MHQ The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Autumn 1995, Volume 8, Number 1: "Storming the Redoubts – A recently discovered account by a German soldier fighting for France sheds new light on the night attack that finally doomed a British army at Yorktown," pp.18-27.
A careful reading of the MHQ article reveals that the translator/editor's text goes beyond what is specifically quoted as being from Flohr's journal. The article's author adds his own elaborations by stating that the "French officers lost control of their men" and that "... perhaps nearly all of their [Royal Deux-Pont] two dozen or so casualties-became victims of the Gatinais, if Flohr's account is correct. Neither the count [Guillaume de Forbach des Deux Ponts] nor any other French officer could ever have admitted such a failure." [Text in brackets has been inserted, and text bolded are for this webpage display only.]
Suggesting such a ‘conspiracy of silence' in this instance is like embracing the legends claiming that Jeanne d'Arc was not burned, but lived – as if such a ‘secret' could have been kept among so many different social classes, and adversaries who were witnesses to, or close to the event. The authors [the original translator and Mr. Greene] in embracing the suggestions must presume that not only the French officers, but that the rank-and-file of regiments present, many American, British and Hessian military in the vicinity of Yorktown at the time, were all part of this conspiracy to remain silent on this very serious incident. There is not even a trace of this charge in the same author's translation [in other published articles] of the 21 October 1781 letter by Wilhelm Graf von Schwerin [sous-lieutenant in a grenadier company of the French Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment] to his uncle. The translator's unfortunate editorial elaboration in the MHQ article does not re-enforce this singular and sensational description with the other reports of persons present, but rather attempts to justify accepting the imaginative depiction by merely asserting the need for an alternative to statements made by the many, more qualified observers. The author's caveat "if Flohr's account is correct" is buried in extensive speculation on the ineptitude of the French officers. Probably the most creative rational set forth by the translator/author is found in the following lengthy quote:
".... It is through the eyes of Georg Daniel Flohr, an enlisted man and participant in the assault, that we get a more plausible, if embarrassing, explanation for some of the higher French losses during the capture of that redoubt. This may be why the French never ventured to set the record straight. The success of the French attack was marred by unnecessary blunders, which, if widely known, would have greatly damaged the image of the professional soldier that the French were anxious to maintain. The regiment that had gone out of control, the Gatinais, had been created five years earlier out of two battalions of the dissolved Royal Auvergne Regiment, and its soldiers wanted nothing more than to regain the old regimental name. Shortly before the attack, Rochambeau had promised to help restore the regiment to its former glory if the soldiers performed well. Eager to prove themselves, they had sworn "they would suffer themselves to be killed-even to the last man," according to Rochambeau's memoirs. They "charged like lions," Rochambeau added, and paid a heavy price: fifty-six of the Gatinais were killed or wounded, according to Count William de Deux-Ponts. But when the officers lost control over their men and the assault degenerated into a wild rampage, "very many" men from the Royal Deux-Ponts – perhaps nearly all of their two dozen or so casualties – became victims of the Gatinais, if Flohr's account is correct. Neither the count nor any other French officer could ever have admitted such a failure.
Implicit in the translator/editor's reasoning is that a private's description is more accurate than those of an officer – a perception that appears to find easy acceptance in popular novels and movies, but certainly not among military historians. Interestingly there is no assessment other than an assumption that blunders of command were made and the officers would be embarrassed to admit to them. The background and character of the officers – all from the Royal Deux-Ponts – are certainly as well, if not better, known as that of private Flohr, and there does not seem to be any assessment of a specific officer's culpability. Certainly the presence of the Royal Deux-Ponts officers at the assault is far more certain than is the presence of Flohr.
"There were other reasons the truth would have remained hidden. The selection of the Royal Deux-Ponts, with uniforms so similar in cut and color to those of the defenders, betrayed an inadmissible oversight in the planning of the attack. The indiscriminate slaughter in the redoubt was partly a result of this mistake. For another thing, the plundering of helpless prisoners after victory, also described by Flohr, was incompatible with the honor of French arms." [ MHQ The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Autumn 1995, Vol 8, No 1: "Storming the Redoubts" p.25. Bold added for this webpage presentation.]
Interestingly, Flohr's modern translator has written other articles on the private. One article, written about two years prior to the MHQ article on Yorktown, was more inspective of Flohr as an observer and reporter. This particular assessment also identifies the translator/editor's a priori thesis that written accounts by officers need to be corrected. However, there is no evidence that the officers should be distrusted other than they differ from Flohr's singular account. Interestingly, a July 1993 article by the translator suggests Flohr's descriptions may need to be treated with considerable care:
"Georg Daniel Flohr's journal makes an important addition to our knowledge of life in Revolutionary America as it appeared to a young European peasant. It provides a much-needed corrective to the accounts written by officers. It betrays an inquisitive mind, eager to collect and record information. At the same time, facts and hearsay are often presented uncritically and concurrently, sometimes contradicting each other or, as in the case of the Iroquois, destroying the positive image he has so carefully constructed. At times his emotions get the better of him, prejudices win out over facts, hearsay replaces information gathered by observation." [The article in The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series, Vol. I, No. 3., July 1993, pp.565-590: "A German Soldier in America, 1780-1783: The Journal of Georg Daniel Flohr." p.577. Bold text added.]
It should be noted that there has not yet been a published full translation of Flohr's journal, so comprehensive vetting by historians is not possible. Still there is enough to expose Private Flohr's account of the Royal Deux Ponts soldiers being subjected to bloody assault by other French troops as a fabrication.
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Argument One [archival evidence].
The assertion by Flohr that "the French were striking down everyone in a blue coat" suggests an illogical set of circumstances and implausible sequence of events. The hand-to-hand portion of the attack was roughly around 10 minutes duration of the entire assault, which took about 30 to 45 minutes; and the Gâtinais preceded the Deux-Ponts into the British redoubt. These factors mean that Flohr's account has the leading French unit ignore the British and German-speaking mercenaries immediately in front of them, and turn about to engage members of the following Deux Ponts unit [also a French unit].
Argument Two [archival evidence]
Not only is the derogatory description given by Flohr not even hinted at in the more contemporaneous accounts by two Royal Deux-Ponts officers present, but the official French regiments' records clearly indicate that the main casualties were among the Gâtinais – explicitly, by names, 14 ‘killed' on 14 October 1781 at Yorktown, plus one dying soon after from wounds received during the action. The French archive records for the Deux-Ponts are not easily read, but with effort there appears to be at least 3 of that regiment who reportedly ‘died' on 14 October. The proportion of official casualties are what would be expected by the configuration of the attacking formation, where the Gâtinais were in the forefront of the assault.
Warrington Dawson conducted an extensive study of French archive and civil records to determine the number of French military who died in the United States during 1777 to 1783. His work , published in 1936, provides some basis to trace the higher number of deaths related to wounds received on 14 October 1781. Though speculative, Dawson's higher total tabulations suggest that the relative proportion of casualties among the French Gâtinais and Royal Deux-Ponts units were consistent with proportions reflected in the immediate deaths reported.
See webpage "14 October 1781 Yorktown Redoubt Action Numbers" for an examination of the archival basis supporting the number of French killed and wounded at the Yorktown Redoubt on 14 October 1781.
Besides the conflict with the most reliable archival data, there are other problems with Flohar's account.
Argument Three [Questionable/Improbable Assertions ] Printed narratives of Flohr's account do not explain critical questions that should be foremost addressed: Why it would be only ‘the French' of the Gâtinais regiment that would fail to distinguish individuals wearing dark [blue or red] coats at night? Would not distinguishing between the dark colored [red and blue] coats worn by the Hessian and British defenders and the blue coats of Royal Deux-Ponts, in the second wave of the assault formation, have been a problem for others than ‘the French' present? Would not the others in the supposed confused melee have had the same visual impairment? If there were ‘fratricide' due to this visual confusion, why do only ‘the French' experience this impairment? If any Royal Deux-Ponts present were not engaging others in ‘dark colored' coats, whom where they fighting?
Argument Four [Questionable/Improbable Assertions ] There is another factor to consider in trying to assess the large numbers of wounded many reports attribute to redoubt 9 engagement on the night of 14 October 1781. Very soon after the French seized the redoubt, British artillery batteries loaded an intense barrage on the objective. It is not clear if a considerable portion of the French [including both regiments] casualties may not have been a result of this bombardment. It appears that the ‘wound' [debris blast in the eyes] received by the Vicomte de Forbach de Deux-Ponts was due to this artillery fire. Flohr's description of confusion and stumbling over bodies, once the attackers were in the redoubt, compares more closely to other combat accounts of troops under artillery bombardment than it does to organized, professional troops conducting an assault and engaging in individual-to-individual combat.
Argument Five [Questionable Eye Witness Status] Greene's book has the following endnote, number 27 to notes on Chapter 11, "Night of Heroes", pp.444-450:
"Flohr may be the only eyewitness to describe a French vs. French slaughter in the redoubt; his sensational account must be weighed against other evidence and interpretations."
However, contrary to mutual references to the presence of others who left written records, no other participant in the assault has made reference to Flohr. All that there is his own statement that his regiment was present. His narrative – as published so far – does not use the first person singular so convincing in the famous journal Private Joseph Plum Martin. Flohr's references are mostly to ‘our regiment' and ‘we', as if he were reporting about an event in which his team mates were involved without his presence. Interestingly, in his gruesome, dramatization Flohr does not strike or parry a blow. In contrast, the vicomte gives a very specific account, and relates clearly that there was not yet a bayonet charge ordered [that would have been necessary for a close-order melee engagement], as the defenders surrendered at the rear of the redoubt before such a command could be given.
By all accounts, those rank-and-file truly present at the assault so as to be ‘eye witnesses' had to be grenadiers or chasseurs. One of the early descriptions of private Flohr's status had him transferred, in April 1780, just before the French expedition departed France, "to the elite company of chasseurs under Captain Christian Ludwig Phillip von Sundahl." [Note this was one of the early assessments made by the translator, who may not have had time to inspect the records more thoroughly.] French archival records do not support a documented transfer of Flohr into a chasseur company, but rather imply that he was always in a fusilier company until he left the ranks.
Royal-Deux Ponts records show that Sundahl was not captain of the chasseurs (2nd battalion), but he did take over a fusiliers company (1st battalion) when the previous captain Bode resigned [around April 1780]. Otherwise, prior to the French expedition sailing from France, Sundhal was promoted from second in the grenadier's company (1st battalion) to commanding officer of a fusilier's company, all in the same battalion, where there was no chasseur company. Flohr was not transferred. The captains in command of the Flohr's fusilier company had merely changed in 1780. Flohr was still in a fusilier company, 1st battalion, when he left military service in 1784. By that time, Sundahl's fusilier company had moved from 4th to 3rd numbered company in the 1st battalion of the Royal Deux-Pont Regiment. The fact that Flohr was not even in the battalion that had the chasseur company pretty much precludes his even having been chosen as ‘a filler' in the attack. Further, a fusilier that had been employed as ‘a filler' in such a distinctive action would almost certainly have been promoted to chasseur rank afterwards.
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Reviewing the foregoing arguments makes it is very questionable for historians – particularly military historians that have examined a number of wartime accounts – to reasonably accept Flohr's description over the more disciplined reports of the several officers. The assertion that there was some kind of cover up by the officers from both the Royal Deux-Ponts and the French senior staff appears to have no basis except to excuse Flohr's dramatic and revisionist accusation. Indeed, there is good cause to suspect that Flohr's imagination, or prejudices, have won out over facts. Further, his actual presence at the redoubt might be questioned, as there is some support to suggest that he remained a fusilier throughout his career in the Royal Deux-Ponts and may not have been with the chasseurs and grenadiers in the assaulting force. However, neither Flohr's creative imagination or participation are the real issues. The significant issues are to separate historical fact from legend, and to honor heroic military accomplishments.
In fairness, it should be recognized that the MHQ magazine article was written while the translator, an acknowledged historian, was still exploring the records and accounts. The MHQ article was not presented with institutional support that implied some degree of review by other historians. The author's enthusiasm in discovering Flohr's illustrated and very descriptive journal is understandable. Fully acceptable is the translator/author's eagerness to present this colorful account to Anglophone readers for the first time. Even extemporaneous speculation as to how Flohr's description – "if ... correct" – might change the traditional understanding of the French assault on Redoubt 9 can be allowed under the circumstances, and before the examination of French archives to check if recorded casualties can substantiate Flohr's version. Certainly within a year following the 1995 publication of the MHQ article, history staffs that review text of interpretative markers or subsequently published books in 2005 had the time to recognize the questionable assertions and documented evidence addressed in the previous five argument statements.
The strange, un examined, acceptance of an improbable account that would be an amusing item to explore on a casual basis – particularly as an example of imaginative recasting of an historical incident – but seems to have been misused in this instance as prominent revisionist presentation of an incident which is sufficiently documented so as to discredit the fabrication. There are even features of the account, itself, that should immediately have set off alarms before being used in a history publication or battle ground marker:
- Inexplicable different night visual capabilities between members of the two French regiments at the redoubt.
- How could such a sensational incident of fratricide been concealed by so many individuals of different ranks, social positions, and on opposite sides in the conflict?
- The private's account has been presented without the slightest reference to corroborate with official casualty data.
- The private's singular account, which conflicts with those of more than one confirmed eye witness officer, has been presented with an unsupported assertion that it is more trustworthy than the reports of the officers. Such excuses to promote Flohr's assertion are not accompanied with any rational to support such strained presumptions. No evidence has been put forth to discredit the veracity of the officers who all gave contrasting accounts to what Flohr states. On the contrary, the translator of Flohr's journal has, in other articles, cautioned the reader about Flohr's tendency to exaggerate and fantasize.
- Claims that Flohr is a unique eye witness are most questionable with an absence of support that Flohr was present at the assault. First, the limited text so far presented in English translations does not have him clearly say that he was present – only ‘our regiment'. The regiment's records do not identify him as a member of the elite units that were selected to participate in the assault either before or after the event. Had he been employed as a ‘filler', it is most probable that he would have been promoted to the higher status.
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Return to webpage on "14 October 1781 Yorktown Redoubt Actions' Numbers."
Return to webpage on "Seizure of Redoubts 9 and 10, Yorktown 1781."
Return to webpage on " Yorktown Campaign (1781)."
Page initially drafted 3 March 2006; revised 16 April 2007.