In Memory of the Frenchmen who Died for America

The uniform Christian Pabst would have worn, assuming he was an ordinary enlisted chasseur (rifleman).

Who was Christian Pabst? He was a member of the Regiment Royal Deux-Ponts, which was raised in the French-German border provinces, and which came with Rochambeau to America in 1780. We know little of Pabst, except that he gave his life an ocean away from home, during the Yorktown campaign of 1781 — the campaign that ended British aspirations to regain control of most of British North America.

He’s one of the Frenchmen who died for you. Even if your family wasn’t here yet.

There are hundreds of others, and his name, all of their names, came to be forgotten; the graves, even those once known, neglected; and their sacrifice unmarked, not even by a cenotaph, for over 200 years.

In time, both Frenchmen and Americans who understood the importance of honoring such sacrifices knew that they had to correct this neglect. And they did, finally:

During the Bicentennial of the Battle of Yorktown in 1981, members of the French veterans’ organizations attending the celebration noted that there was an area on the battlefield where approximately 50 French soldiers were buried in an unmarked, common grave. Although this area was indicated by a cross and a plaque, none of the names of any French soldier was inscribed there. It has long been a point of cultural tradition in France that the graves of those who died serving France are marked with their names whenever possible, or that the battlefields have a memorial with their names inscribed.

At the urging of French veterans’ groups, the Ambassador of France to the United States, His Excellency M. Emmanuel de Margerie, appointed a committee to correct this oversight. It was the Committee for the Yorktown French Memorial, with Professor Andre Maman of Princeton University serving as its president.

He may have carried a musket like this 1777, or a rifle of similar vintage.

The purpose of the committee, which included both French and American members, was to create a memorial to honor all French soldiers and sailors who gave their lives in the Yorktown campaign in 1781. The memorial was to include the names of the some 600 Frenchmen* who lost their lives in this campaign, including the Yorktown siege and the naval battle of Chesapeake Bay, or the Battle of the Capes, as it is sometimes called.

The committee’s tasks included the design, approval, funding and dedication of the memorial.

The design was completed with the approval of the Ambassador and the National Park Service. Members of the French Societies of the Sons of the American Revolution, Daughters of the American Revolution and the Order of the Cincinnati as well as French veteran and cultural organizations here were engaged in fundraising to reach the goal needed to bring the project to reality. Various American hereditary and cultural societies also participated as a gesture of appreciation for the French forces joining us in those desperate days in 1781 as General Washington and the French commanders adopted the extremely risky plan which led, against all expectations, to the final great victory at Yorktown.

via French Army Casualties at Yorkown – Yorktown Battlefield Part of Colonial National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service).

Thanks to the twitter feed of Angry Staff Officer, whose blog should also be on your to-read schedule. (The best staff officers are often the angry ones, as they’re burning to be back in command). Of this Yorktown situation, he says:

It wasn’t till 1980s that the names of the French soldiers who gave their lives for our Independence were codified.

This makes me sad. Since the French gave us their land to bury our WWI dead, and took great care to honor their memory.

That’s the fact, Jack. The French who work at the cemeteries treat our dead with reverence and veneration.

Our cemeteries became almost shrines for them. While we fed ourself the narrative that we won the RevWar solo cause Merica.

We as Americans are so often that loud, boisterous, braggadocios, dudebro at the international party, making it all about us.

We forget so often our place in the world & how we got there that I sometimes think we don’t deserve all the liberties we have.

Not much to say but we agree. But then, staff officers are good at boiling down issues to a one-page decision memo; it’s what they do. (Well, part of it).

22 thoughts on “In Memory of the Frenchmen who Died for America

  1. Kirk

    Could not agree more with you. The way the French and Polish are treated in popular imagination in the US is abominable–And, the stereotypes are really offensive, given what they stem from.

    Prior to the 1870 debacle, and the 1940 fiasco, the French military tradition was honored and revered in the public imagination–French military thought was respected, and despite the problems with it (“marching fire”, anyone…?), we made a lot of their thinking our own. Of course, nobody really likes a loser, and with the graceless DeGaulle making himself the stereotypical post-WWII face of France and French government…? Well, yeah, things took a bit of a downturn. Which is sad.

    The Poles are another group that has a similar bad rap, and who really shouldn’t. Without Polish smarts and bravery, the whole of WWII would be a different thing, because without them…? No Ultra. Or, at best, we’d have taken a lot longer to break the codes, and might not have managed it in time to make a difference. Every GI whose life was saved due to Ultra intelligence, and there were a lot of them, owes his life to the Poles. Which is a debt rarely, if ever, acknowledged by anyone.

    1. Boat Guy

      During the recent unpleasantness the Poles have stepped up magnificently – especially the GROM.

    2. Toastrider

      Part of the problem, I think, stems from Parisians. I’ve talked to folks who’ve been to France, and they note that most of France is damned nice to us silly Yanks, but the Parisians have had a stick up their ass since… well, forever.

      1. Hognose Post author

        I thought the Parisians were lovely, with the notable exception of anyone whose job involved interacting directly with tourists.

        1. Toastrider

          *shrugs* I got nuttin’, then. Only place I’ve been out of country to is Taiwan and that’s in the entirely wrong direction :)

      2. Pathfinder

        That was my experience. Everywhere else in France, especially Normandy, they were wonderful people. Paris, your typical French stereotype.

    3. Sommerbiwak

      I have never understood the “surrender monkey” meme. Sure they lost in 1870/71 and 1940, but definitely not because of a lack of courage. A french word! And note that US civil war uniforms have been influenced by french military fashions and the suave regiments outright copied the french style. They would nit have copied an army that wasn’t praised at the time.

      And never underestimate the Poles. They see themselves in the tradition of the famous wing hussars and the ww2 partisans and many other successful campaigns. And rightly so. In Spetembre 1939 the polish army did not know what hit it and so lightning fast. You cannot always win, but I would never see them as cowards or inept. And they definitely prepare methodically to defend themselves from Russia should the need arise whereas the fat lazy western europeans bumble about and waste much higher budgets to no effect.

      And while we are at stereotypes, the italian soldier is much better than his reputation, too.

      1. Hognose Post author

        There’s a list of German officer casualties from the Polenfeldzug online and it’s an eye-opener. That victory cost Germany a lot of good men. Wonder how it went down on the east side? (I think most Polish units had been pulled to the West to fight Germany).

        1. Kirk

          The Poles fought well above their weight on both fronts, and the only reason that the Reds didn’t sweep westwards into Germany during the troubles in the 1920s had more to do with Poland stopping them dead than anything else.

          The Poles have always had a very good military reputation–The French used them as cavalry during the Napoleonic era, and if it weren’t for them, the Turks would probably have taken Vienna away from the Hapsburgs.

          The West in general owes the Poles, which is what makes the double betrayal the Western Europeans pulled on them in WWII look so damn bad. Not only did they not do a damn thing when the Germans went in, they also stood by while the Soviets raped them after the war.

          If I were Polish, I think that by this point I’d be seriously considering the value of any alliances, with anyone. They’ve rarely been honored, and the most effective thing the Poles might do as a defensive measure is to nuke up, and build a Strangelovian doomsday device with which to end everything, the next time their borders get violated. God knows, the odds of anyone actually honoring a treaty and coming to their aid is probably nil…

  2. DSM

    Excellent post. We worked with many of our coalition partners, including the French. Never had a bad word to say about them.

    The popular, though to my knowledge unsubstantiated, story of our family lineage is of three brothers immigrating to the colonies and later fighting in the French-Indian War. Given no love lost to the British I would imagine someone in the family had fought in the Revolution. I probably should dig deeper to find the truth one of these days.

  3. joshua

    I used to run past the French Cemetery every weekend… running was the single form of ‘liberty’ I was allowed during OCS. I didn’t know that they’d been forgotten for so long.

    If you are in the area on October 19th, it is Yorktown Day – a local celebration. Speeches, a parade and wreaths laid at the Cemetery. The nearby Naval Weapons Station and CG Training Center provide plenty of participants.

  4. Keith

    Family on both sides goes back to pre revolution times but don’t know for sure if any were in the Rev War. I have never forgotten the French, Polish and German contributions to our country and society. And your correct that French military thought and practice was considered world leading until 1870 (only briefly though) and 1940. After all, the language of diplomacy, until W W II and after, was French.

    Keep your powder dry, remember and honor those who have gone before and your faith in God.

  5. Boat Guy

    I am glad this oversight has been rectified. Unlike the previous posters I do know that one direct ancestor did serve in the Revolution and I continue to be grateful – and more than a little surprised – for the victory that gave us our nation.

  6. Alan Ward

    As my German faculty advisor said (ca. 1988), if you think ill of the French ability in martial arts, find a German veteran of the Battle of Verdun and have and edifing conversation.
    My fathers Amerophilia developed from his youthful contacts with US servicemen during the war. He always wanted to become a US resident then citizen. Thanks to Teddy Kennedy, Canada became the next best thing.
    We have lately found that he had several great grand relatives who emigrated in the 1850s to Utah then on to rural Idaho. There are also hints that further back, one relative on his mom’s side was pressed into the Royal Navy during the war of 1812 and maybe visited Washington for a local bonfire!

    1. Hognose Post author

      That would be a heck of a thing. Great great (to nth degree) grand-uncle was the guy who burnt the White House!

  7. Steve M.

    During the winter of 1780 and spring of 1781, a portion of the French Army camped on our town’s green. There is still a bit of a mound where their earthen bread oven was located. Not far from where they camped, there’s a marker for the grave of an unknown French soldier. It is well overdue for clarification as to who is buried there.

    For the life of me, I can’t fathom why they camped where they did. The wind is unbearable there during the winter. I presume it could have only been worse in 1780 considering that the entire area was nearly treeless at that time.

    Extensive reading on WW1, overhauled my typical American assumption of French cowardice. As with many other situations in life, the popular perception has little to do with established fact.

    1. H

      Reference extensive reading on WW1, likewise a detailed reading of the available literature on Dien Bien Phu will put an end to thoughts of French cowardice there as well. Their leadership may have been questionable, but not their guts.

  8. Light Dragoon

    In 1982, for the celebration of the bicentennial of the signing of the Peace of Paris (which ended the War of Independence for us, at least) a friend of mine, Bill Brown, went over with the Brigade of the American Revolution to take part in a parade down the Champs de Elysee. While waiting in the staging area, he said that a little old lady came over to them (he was with the Honour Guard with the National Colours) and went right to the American flag. He said she petted it reverently, and looked straight into their eyes as she said “Tell your Fathers and Uncles, Thank You for what they did!”.

    Not a dry eye around, and you can bet they stepped out for that parade filled with pride, and love for their own country, and for France. They hadn’t forgotten. As Pershing’s Chief of Staff said when they landed in 1917 “Lafayette, we are here!”

    Hard for me to even write this without getting misty-eyed.

    He added that getting to walk through the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles in full Continental fig was about the coolest thing in the world, BTW. Not only was it neat, he got to watch himself do it, too!

  9. Cap'n Mike

    The British dead from the Battles of Lexington and Concord are all in unmarked graves.
    Some markers are there, but they dont have the names of the soldiers on them. They instead say things like, “Near here are buried British Soldiers” or “Grave of British Soldiers”.

    I guess thats comes of losing the war and having the other guys bury your dead

    At least some of their Identities are known.
    It seems to me their names should be there.

  10. Haxo Angmark

    good write-up @ wiki on the Battle of the Chesapeake. So the French actually defeated the Brits in a major naval engagement; I had no idea. I read somewhere that Graves simply missed De Grasse’s fleet and went on down to the Caribbean looking for him….meanwhile Cornwallis surrendered. Evidently the reality quite different and much more interesting. It somehow figures that the odious French would have significantly contributed to the epic tragedy of ‘Murka’s War of Secession from England, alias the “American Revolution”. Which then flashed-back into the even more destructive “French Revolution” and Napoleon’s subsequent 15-year bloody rampage.

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