From the Veuve de Précorbin and Other Commission Seekers
ALS: American Philosophical Society
Even as the peace negotiations were getting under way, Franklin continued to receive letters soliciting commissions in the American army.5 The earliest of these, printed below, is from a widowed mother of four who seizes on Franklin’s reputation for generosity toward the unfortunate to plead the case of her irresponsible eldest son. Franklin’s endorsement indicates a negative reply.
On April 5, two young officers write from Donaveschingen (in the small German principality of Fürstenberg), where one, Ferdinand de Rembau, is a lieutenant in the Hohenzollern Cavalry Regiment in the service of the circle of Swabia, and the other, Dupont d’Aisÿ, from Normandy, is in the 6th Regiment of Light Cavalry. Their greatest desire is for glory and thus they seek to serve the American cause. They expect to receive a rank higher than their present one, though to prove their sincerity, they will accept short term appointments as gentlemen cadets. Since neither of them has come into an inheritance yet, they will also require pay suitable to their station. Extracts of their baptismal records and certificates of nobility and conduct will be forwarded on request. They await Franklin’s orders impatiently and would prefer to embark at Ostend.6
The chevalier O’Gorman recommends Dr. O’Connor on April 11 for service in the American army or its hospitals. Both he and Dr. MacMahon have a high opinion of the doctor: he studied medicine at the University of Paris,7 has practiced in military hospitals in France and the West Indies for nine years, and his doctor’s certificates are in order. O’Connor himself will deliver this letter.
On June 4, the sieur de La Bassée, captain of dragoons and chevalier de Saint-Louis, presents his respects and the service of one of his sons, who for the past four months has pestered him to be allowed to serve America.8 While he could call on any number of influential people to press his case, he has allowed himself to write only his relative M. de Saint-Paul, a high official in the bureau de la guerre.9 The young man, eighteen years old, is strong, handsome, and very brave, and he has served as an officer on different privateers out of Dunkerque and Boulogne. The father received favorable reports on his son’s conduct from each commanding officer.1
On June 16, the prince de Sulkowski2 writes from Paris to “l’Ami de l’Humanité” to introduce a Polish gentleman for whom he is confident Franklin will find a place in the American service. The attached memoir describes M. de Kurowski as a young infantry officer who advanced through the ranks to become captain and aide-de-camp to Lieutenant General comte de Stipkowski. Seeing that further advancement would be very slow, Kurowski obtained the Polish King’s permission to resign and seek his fortune abroad.
From Simmern near Mannheim on July 20 the baron de Strasser relates in what he admits is “unfirm” English a tale of romance and disappointed expectations. As an ensign in the Hessian service when war with America was declared, he was one of the 12,000 auxiliaries to enter British pay for service in the colonies. In Charleston, S.C., he managed to win the heart of Miss Nancy Elliott, descended of Bernard Elliott, whom Franklin must have known.3 The “handsome and lovely Nancy” promised to help him obtain a commission in the continental service and gave him several letters to carry to Generals Moultrie, Lincoln, and Scott, held on parole at Haddrel’s Point.4 The generals assured this German auxiliary that he would be appointed major of a brigade. He obtained his discharge, but was imprisoned, sent to England, and returned to his native country, where he has no employment and is “deprived of the Sweet hopes to accept the advantageous match with miss Nancy Elliott”. He begs Franklin to support his petition to rejoin his regiment at his former rank. The baron de Siking, ambassador of the Elector Palatine, well acquainted with his uncle, baron de Ritter, minister at Vienna, will inform Franklin of his family background.5
A low-ranking officer of a distinguished Languedoc family writes on July 23 from Paris where he is staying with relatives on the chaussée d’Antin. This Dupuy, in service to the German infantry regiment of Laczj, has done his utmost to distinguish himself, but only a very small number of individuals are able to advance in times of peace. He wishes a position at his current rank in one of the French or German units serving in America and hopes that Franklin will write letters on his behalf to Washington. He has all the necessary supporting documentation as well as 18 years’ tactical experience in the best troops of Germany. His desire for honor and to serve honorably will compensate for his lack of fortune. Wishing no longer to impose on his relatives, he urges Franklin to grant him an interview as soon as possible.
Next come two letters from the south of France. On July 28, Henry O’Neill, writing in English from Tournay, is furious with Franklin for obstructing his military career. He is on his way back to Ireland from Madrid where he failed to obtain even a lieutenant’s commission, and accuses Franklin of thinking it in the interest of America that the Irish be ill-treated in Europe so that more of them will emigrate to America. He holds the French ministry and the conde de Aranda responsible as well. His own family, now ruined by service to the French and Spaniards, had deposited a sum of money in the Irish community in Paris sufficient for two of the name and family to be educated on the interest.6 If O’Neill carries the story of his mistreatment back to Ireland, his countrymen may be moved “to joyn Sincearly with England and supply thire Armies and navy with numbers of brave men.” Under this threat Franklin is directed to let O’Neill know if something can be done for him.
The vicomte de Lomagne writes from Berenx on August 12 hoping to enlist Franklin’s assistance in obtaining a rank in the French army equal to the one he held in the American army. The long memoir he encloses recounts his five years of service in the United States, beginning with Lafayette’s recommendation for a commission in February, 1778, and a promotion two months later to major in Colonel Armand’s legion.7 In May, 1781, von Steuben sent him to Philadelphia where he contracted smallpox. Congress granted him permission to recuperate in France and he arrived finally with the marquis de Chabert.8 He is mortified now to find that other French officers with much less experience and rank in the American service might be given positions of higher rank than he.9 He also wishes Franklin to help him receive payment for a loan office certificate left with Jonathan Williams, Jr.1
a Caen rüe St Etienne ce 28 mars 1782.
La veuve d’un gentilhomme, qui avoit servy sa patrie avec honneur, chargée de quatre Enfants prend La Liberté de s’adresser à vous, sans en Etre Connüe; parcequ’elle sait quelle est La sensibilité de vôtre Coeur, et vôtre inclination à secourir les malheureux. Mon fils ainè, nommè alexandre, felix, moisson, apres avoir été Elevé à L’Ecole Royal militaire, Etoit entré dans Le Rgmt. de Neustrie;2 des discussions avec ses Camarades L’ont engagé à en quitter; et il se trouve aujourdhuy sans Etat. Son pere Etoit chevalier de st. Loüis pensionnaire de sa majesté, et Lieutenant de Nos SS. Les Marechaux de france à Caen, sa fortune Etoit au desous de La Mèdiocrité;3 ses pensions sont Eteintes avec Luy, et il ne reste à ses Enfants, que le souvenir cruel d’estre sorty de luy sans pouvoir L’imiter. La derniere avanture de Lainé le prive de toute resource, sy vôtre, exelence, ne daigne Luy subvenir, en ayant La bonté de luy procurer D’occasion de servir la juste Cause des Etats unis de L’amerique; et de luy menager un pasage dans vôtre patrie et luy procurer un grade qui le mette en Etat de supsister.
Daignés Monseigneur, ne pas refuser une veuve Desolée, et l’honorer d’une reponce favorable.
Je suis avec un profond respect, Monseigneur, Vôtre tres humble et tres obeissante servant
Ve. De PRÈCORBIN
Notation: Precorbin Mde. De 28. Mars 1782.
Endorsed: The Armies of America full Not possible
5. Unless otherwise noted, the letters discussed in this headnote are in French, are at the APS, and carry no indication that BF replied.
6. A note filed with their letter states that on April 8 it was sent to Capt. Frey, who had left some time before. Capt. Frey, originally from Konstanz, 40 miles from where the two officers were stationed, was then at Paris: XXIV, 156n, XXXVI, 690n.
7. Where MacMahon was on the medical faculty: XXV, 4n.
8. Charles-Marie-Hubert de La Bassée writes from Boulogne. His son Mathieu (1764–1830) served in the French army during the Revolution and the Empire, passing through the ranks to become brigadier general in 1803. He was made a baron in 1809: Jean-François-Eugène Robinet et al., Dictionnaire historique et biographique de la Révolution et de l’Empire, 1789–1815 … (2 vols., Paris, 1898); DBF under “Delabassée”; Six, Dictionnaire biographique.
9. Saint-Paul’s duties included nominations, commissions, and brevets for officers: Almanach royal for 1782, p. 247.
1. WTF’s notation “Repe.” indicates that an answer was sent.
2. August Casimir Sulkowsky (1729–1786), Duke of Bielitz and Palatine of Posen, had been a contender for the crown of Poland: Lewis, Walpole Correspondence, XXXIII, 279–80.
3. While living in Charleston under British occupation, Ann (Nancy) Elliott (1752–1848) was called “the beautiful rebel” for the bonnet she wore with 13 small plumes as a sign of her attachment to republican principles. She subsequently married Lewis Morris (1752–1824), aide-de-camp to Gen. Greene: Walter Whipple Spooner, Historic Families of America (2 vols., New York, ), II, 219–20.
There are several Bernard Elliotts in this family; see Henry A. M. Smith, “The Baronies of South Carolina,” S.C. Hist. and Geneal. Mag., XV (1914), 70–1, 162–3; Edward McCrady, LL.D., The History of South Carolina in the Revolution 1775–1780 (London, 1901), p. 179.
4. Haddrel’s Point, in Charleston Harbor, was occupied by the British on April 25, 1780. When Lincoln surrendered the American army on May 12, the officers were confined there. The events recounted here must have occurred soon after the capitulation, for Lincoln was in Philadelphia in July: Mark Mayo Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (New York, 1966), pp. 474, 636, 750, 995; Alexander R. Stoesen, “The British Occupation of Charleston, 1780–1782,” S.C. Hist. and Geneal. Mag., LXIII (1962), 76.
5. Karl Heinrich Josef, Graf von Sickingen zu Sickingen (XXVII, 391), a count since 1773, was the joint Bavarian and Palatine envoy to France until his death in 1791: Repertorium der diplomatischen Vertreter, III, 21, 304; Almanach royal for 1782, p. 148.
Heinrich Josef, Freiherr von Ritter, was named Bavarian minister plenipotentiary to Vienna in 1777 and remained so until his death in July, 1783: Repertorium der diplomatischen Vertreter, III, 18.
6. Among BF’s papers is an undated note from a Mr. ONeill, who invites BF to the defense of his thesis, hoping that the Doctor will “condesend if possible to honour him forever with a moment of his presence.” Hist. Soc. of Pa.
7. Jean de Lomagne-Tarride, known as Maj. Lomagne, had benefited from BF’s assistance once before: XXIV, 499n. The present letter is at the University of Pa. Library.
8. Joseph-Bernard, marquis de Chabert (1724–1805), commander of the Saint-Esprit, 80, was promoted chef d’escadre in 1782: Larousse; Ministère des Archives étrangères, Les Combattants français de la guerre américaine 1778–1783 (Paris, 1903), p. 152; Almanach royal for 1783, pp. 169–70.
9. Lomagne was unable to obtain a commission in the French army until the Revolution: Gilbert Bodinier, Les Officiers de l’armée royale combattants de la guerre d’Indépendance des Etats-Unis: De Yorktown à l’an II (Vincennes, 1983), pp. 265, 406; Bodinier, Dictionnaire, p. 495.
1. Lomagne had been reimbursed for back pay and given a gratuity in bills of exchange and loan office certificates: JCC, XXI, 998; Morris Papers, II, 360–1n.
2. Précorbin was a sous-lieutenant of this infantry regiment: Etat militaire for 1781, p. 186.
3. M. Moisson de Précorbin was a lieutenant des maréchaux de France: Etat militaire for 1781, p. 47; Mazas, Ordre de Saint-Louis, I, 440.