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League of Gentlemen: Officers of the 17th and 18th Centuries

By John A. Lynn 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: September 06, 2012 
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George Washington—with, from left to right, European volunteer officers Johann de Kalb, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, Kazimierz Pulaski, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Gilbert du Motier and others—was one of few American officers of the revolution whose wealth and cultural sophistication matched those of his aristocratic counterparts, friend or foe. (Illustration by Frederick Girsch, Library of Congress)
George Washington—with, from left to right, European volunteer officers Johann de Kalb, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, Kazimierz Pulaski, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Gilbert du Motier and others—was one of few American officers of the revolution whose wealth and cultural sophistication matched those of his aristocratic counterparts, friend or foe. (Illustration by Frederick Girsch, Library of Congress)

'The surprising congeniality between the French and British officers at Yorktown illustrates the existence of the cosmopolitan community of European officers that flourished during the late 17th and early 18th centuries'

After the British troops commanded by Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis stacked their arms on Oct. 19, 1781, and became prisoners of the Americans and French at Yorktown, Va., General George Washington hosted a dinner for the defeated commanders that evening. He invited Earl Cornwallis, but the British general had avoided the surrender ceremony by pleading illness, and he turned down this social invitation as well, sending in his stead Brig. Gen. Charles O'Hara. O'Hara had officiated at the surrender earlier in the day, yet he was said to be very sociable that evening. Washington's occasion began a series of dinners over the next few days, with British and German officers as guests of the Americans and French. This exemplified the kind of courtesy extended between victors and vanquished in 18th century Europe and, in this instance, during the American Revolution. In fact, after the British surrender at Saratoga in October 1777, American Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates had similarly entertained vanquished British Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne, who put on quite a show of good spirits on that occasion.

The tokens of amity went beyond dinners and visits. When the French learned Cornwallis was bereft of funds and could not pay his soldiers, Lt. Gen. Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Count of Rochambeau, advanced him £140,000 for the purpose. Cornwallis testified to the gratifying conduct of the French: "[The French officers'] deliberate sensibility of our situation, their generous and pressing offers of money both public and private to any amount, has really gone beyond what I can possibly describe." However, the friendly exchanges between the British and French officers following the surrender at Yorktown irritated some of the Americans. As one French officer, Jean-Baptiste Verger, noted, "The tokens of sympathy shown by the French army toward the English and Hessian officers aroused much jealousy in the American officers." Jean-François-Louis, Count of Clermont-Crèvecoeur, a young, well-born artillery lieutenant serving under Rochambeau, offered an insightful explanation of the cordial relations between Europeans:

The English and the French got along famously with one another. When the Americans expressed their displeasure on this subject, we replied that good upbringing and courtesy bind men together, and that since we had reason to believe that the Americans did not like us, they should not be surprised at our preference for the English.

To an aristocrat like Clermont-Crèvecoeur, Washington, a wealthy landholder, approached this European model, but most of the American generals at Yorktown did not. Benjamin Lincoln was the son of a farmer, Moses Hazen had apprenticed as a tanner, George Weedon was a tavern keeper, and Henry Knox was a bookseller.

The surprising congeniality between the French and British officers at Yorktown illustrates the existence of the cosmopolitan community of European officers that flourished during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. That community both exemplified and shaped the military principles and practices of the age. Understandably, the international command culture entwined with the fundamental self-definition and value system of the European aristocracy, generating social prejudices that in a military environment spawned particularly dismissive attitudes toward common soldiers. These in turn formed the rationale for the characteristic tactical system employed in battle. Ultimately, a mutual respect among officers, even between adversaries, fostered a civility that reinforced the character of conflict in an age of limited war.

European officers comprised an international fraternity of brothers-in-arms. Its most obvious and, to a modern eye, surprising attribute was the ability of officers to leave an army loyal to one ruler and take up service in another serving a different prince. The practice allowed individual officers to serve under more than one flag, in turn fostering personal knowledge and ties among officers of different nationalities.

A noteworthy example was Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663–1736). The greatest Austrian general of his age, Eugene was descended from Italian and French nobility and grew up around the French court. His mother's uncle was chief minister to the young Louis XIV, but because of his mother's addiction to intrigues and Eugene's own effeminate behavior, the king refused him a commission in the French army. Resolved to pursue a military career, Eugene moved to Austria and proved himself in service to the Hapsburg emperors. Louis would have reason to regret his decision, for Eugene would team with England's John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, to defeat French armies at the Battles of Blenheim (1704), Oudenarde (1708) and Malplaquet (1709).

But if the French lost one talented general to the Austrians, they gained another from their neighbors to the east. The most successful French general of the mid–18th century, Maurice de Saxe (1696–1750), was an illegitimate son of Frederick Augustus I, Elector of Saxony. Maurice began his military career at age 12 in the army of none other than Prince Eugene, fighting the French in 1709 at Tournai, Mons and Malplaquet. Maurice later fought for Russian Tsar Peter the Great, and in 1720 he secured a major general's commission in the French army of young Louis XV. He rose to the highest rank, marshal of France, in 1743 and won a string of victories for Louis, most notably at the 1745 Battle of Fontenoy.

Other international generals of note included Levin August Theophil, Count of Bennigsen (1745–1826). Hanoverian by birth, he began his military career in the Hanoverian foot guards but entered Russian service in 1773. Bennigsen commanded troops against Emperor Napoléon I in a number of battles, most notably at Leipzig in 1813.

The list of military commanders who wore foreign uniforms spans the map of the Atlantic world. Officers sought experience, promotion and income by pursuing available opportunities for service. When the American Revolution began, the nascent nation needed experienced commanders, and European officers needed an employer. Aristocrats crossed the Atlantic to fight for liberties they probably would not have provided commoners in their own lands. When he opted to sign on with the Americans, Prussian-born Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was shopping around his services. Polish-born Kazimierz Pulaski was another officer for hire, and such a large number of French officers presented themselves to the Americans that the Continental Congress was said to grow weary of "French glory-seekers." Gilbert du Motier, Marquis of Lafayette, was more idealistic than most, but he remained very much concerned with status.

The psychology behind the acceptance of foreign officers also encouraged states to employ entire foreign regiments, led by their own officers. At Yorktown, Cornwallis commanded not only British troops but also regiments from the German principalities Hesse-Kassel and Ansbach-Bayreuth. Rulers of petty German states contracted on retainer to supply their troops to such nations as Great Britain and the Dutch Netherlands. The best known of these arrangements involved Hesse-Kassel, whose troops earned a strong reputation—hence the common expression "Hessians" for German mercenaries. Creating regiments for hire allowed such petty rulers to maintain larger armies than they might otherwise have been able to afford and provided extra income for the state.

The question of just who was "foreign" to a particular monarch could be a complicated matter. British Kings George I, George II and George III, for example, were also electors of Hanover. (George I was born in Hanover, and his command of English was limited, at least at his succession to the throne.) As electors each fielded German regiments composed of their own subjects. The French kings had German-speaking regiments composed of their own subjects from along the Rhine. The French monarchs also fielded regiments of Swiss, Germans and the famed Irish "Wild Geese" (see "Wild Irish Geese," by Dennis Showalter, in the September 2011 issue of Military History).

Were all this simply a question of officers playing a kind of military musical chairs across national boundaries, or of foreign mercenary regiments fighting as valued units of grand armies, it would be interesting enough. But more important to an understanding of the military history of the 17th and 18th centuries is the way in which the cosmopolitan community of officers was inseparably braided with other fundamental strands of civil and military culture.

The international market for officers and soldiers was not just a matter of money; military service was a critical aspect of elite identity in a Europe still socially dominated by the aristocracy. Men of noble birth, blessed with prestige, power and possessions, enjoyed only a relatively narrow spectrum of job opportunities. Trade and commerce were beneath them, and they risked exclusion from the nobility should they so debase themselves. The remaining choices included managing one's family land—an opportunity usually reserved for the eldest son—or a career in the church or the military.

A military life offered more than a job; it expressed the values of the aristocracy and defended the privileges they enjoyed. Honor was fundamental to the aristocratic identity, and that honor sometimes called for the demonstration of one's courage—which explains both dueling and military service. The latter provided personal validation and justified such aristocratic privileges as land, wealth and political and social pre-eminence. Aristocrats enjoyed tax breaks, including outright exemption, and dominance over political and military offices. Such privileges were important both materially and symbolically. With the waning of the Middle Ages, aristocrats evolved from individualistic fighting knights into officers who served their rulers by leading troops composed of lower-class combatants. Military service nevertheless remained the fundamental justification for the privileges and powers aristocrats enjoyed. Thus, both interest and self-image led the nobility to clamor for military service. As 16th century aristocratic philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) wrote, "The proper, sole and essential life for one of the nobility of France is the life of a soldier."

Across Europe aristocrats saw themselves as the repositories of military prowess and sacrifice. Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I (1688–1740) required the sons of his aristocracy to man his officer corps, and they came to see it as their natural place. The Prussian monarchy rewarded those who served with status and gave them preference of posts. In 1784 an aristocratic observer said of the Piedmontese aristocracy, "A predilection for the military life was the dominant passion among the young nobles."

Paramount among the aristocratic traits embraced and amplified by the community of officers was honor, which inspired them to follow a military life for its own sake, as opposed to fighting for some great cause. French social and political commentator Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron of La Brède and Montesquieu (1689–1755), ranks as the most profound 18th century theorist of honor. For him it was the essential spirit of monarchy, as it inspired a ruler's subjects to serve king and country. He argued that the core of honor was ambition, which he defined as "the desire to do great things." He defined three aspects of honor: the desire to win public acclaim; the codes that set rules of appropriate and praiseworthy conduct; and the desire to live up to such codes and gain in reputation by doing so. All of these have obvious relevance to military performance, but for Montesquieu, a noble himself, honor was not simply a professional attribute but a standard to which individuals of aristocratic upbringing adhered.

The honor-based value system cherished by aristocratic European officers gave them a shared point of reference. It also led officers to regard the enlisted men who served under them as fundamentally different from, and inferior to, their commanders, who considered the common soldier a man without honor. Accordingly, since the rank and file lacked honor and ambition, only discipline could compel them to behave as they should in battle. These beliefs fostered the idea that officers who wore different king's uniforms had more in common with each other than with their own men.

Prussian commander and King Frederick the Great (1712–86) explained that the rank and file of his army was "composed for the most part of idle and inactive men." In his Military Testament (1768) Frederick advised, "All that can be done with the soldier is to give him esprit de corps…and since the officers have sometimes to lead him into the greatest dangers (and he cannot be influenced by a sense of honor), he must be more afraid of his officers than of the dangers to which he is exposed." During the Enlightenment both military officers and men of letters shared such harsh views. Among the latter, French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715–71) wrote, "Discipline is, in a manner, nothing else but the art of inspiring soldiers with a greater fear of their officers than of the enemy." Inspired by honor, the officer could be relied upon to fulfill his duty regardless of risk, aristocrats argued, because aristocratic society and his own value system demanded he prove his courage.

That sense of a difference between officers and men even shaped the rigidly linear tactical system employed by European armies. During the 18th century, infantry troops regularly fought in two- to four-rank formations, with men marching erect on the offensive and standing or kneeling on the defensive. Many historians explain this formation by appealing to the limitations of the smoothbore musket of the day, insisting that its relative inaccuracy and slow rate of fire demanded an infantry battalion stand shoulder to shoulder to deliver the most effective fire. There is certainly some truth to this, but it is worth noting that when the French started to employ skirmishers en masse during the wars of the French Revolution, these men, who sought individual cover and chose their own targets, were armed with the same smoothbore weapons employed earlier by linear infantry. Thus, technology alone did not require the stiff and exposed lines common to 18th century battles. Another critical reason officers formed their ranks in linear array on open ground was that the officers believed they must constantly supervise their men—again, because the common soldier lacked honor.

Perhaps the most wide-ranging, though subtle, impact of a cosmopolitan officer corps—one composed of men who cared more about the process of war than its product—was the more moderate and restrained character of warfare in the century preceding the French Revolution. To call this a period of limited warfare does not mean wars were infrequent; opposing armies fought several major wars. Nor were battles anything but bloody. Rather, there was a civility in warfare expressed by relative consideration for civilian populations, humane treatment of prisoners of war, civility between enemies and other formal flourishes, such as honorable surrender. As Scottish historian Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) put it, "We have mingled politeness with the use of the sword; we have learned to make war under the stipulations of treaties and cartels, and trust to the faith of an enemy whose ruin we meditate."

A leading proponent of limited warfare was Swiss political philosopher Emer Vattel, whose The Law of Nations (1758) is a classic of juristic literature on the law of war. "At present," Vattel asserted, "war is carried on by regular troops: The people, the peasants, the citizens, take no part in it and generally have nothing to fear from the sword of the enemy." He of course pleaded the case for the immunity of noncombatants, who might be enemies but "make no resistance; and consequently we have no right to maltreat their persons or use any violence against them, much less to take away their lives. This is so plain a maxim of justice and humanity that at present every nation in the least degree civilized acquiesces in it." He praised "the polished nations of Europe" for such intelligent restraint and ascribed special credit to officers for limiting violence toward both civilians and those who had surrendered. "If sometimes in the heat of action the soldier refuses to give quarter, it is always contrary to the inclination of the officers, who eagerly interpose to save the lives of such enemies as have laid down their arms."

Vattel wrote of "war in due form," and he further boasted:

At present the European nations generally carry on their wars with great moderation and generosity. These dispositions have given rise to several customs which are highly commendable and frequently carried to the extreme of politeness. Sometimes refreshments are sent to the [commander] of a besieged town; and it is usual to avoid firing on the king's or the general's quarters.

One particular battle account illustrates such military "politeness" to a fault—an exchange from Maurice de Saxe's great victory at Fontenoy in 1745, when he defeated British, Hanoverian and Dutch troops under William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. During Cumberland's main attack the British guards advanced on the French and Swiss guards on Maurice's front. British officers reportedly doffed their hats in salute to their French counterparts, who returned the courtesy. Then Lord Charles Hay advanced before his regiment and gallantly invited the French guards to fire first. To which Joseph Charles Alexandre, Count of Anterroches, replied, "Messieurs, we never fire first; fire yourselves." A series of crashing British volleys followed on the heels of this final pleasantry. The event may be apocryphal, but fact or fiction, it is important in itself, as it revealed that such an act was plausible, and it was related as an example of civility in battle.

The surrender terms offered Cornwallis at Yorktown may have illustrated the trust and respect between officers, but the treatment of his common soldiers told a very different story. The Americans held the British and German troops as prisoners of war and marched them off to camps in Winchester, Va., and Frederick, Md. The victors assigned one field officer to accompany every 50 men and observe and alleviate their imprisonment, although the officers themselves would not be confined to the camps. All other officers were paroled upon giving their word of honor not to serve again in the war unless formally exchanged for American officers. The Americans allowed the majority of these officers to travel to New York under a flag of truce. From there they could voyage to Europe if they so desired. In short they enjoyed the status and privileges of brothers-in-arms.

For further reading John Lynn recommends Military Experience in the Age of Reason, by Christopher Duffy, and War in the Age of the Enlightenment, 1700–1789, by Armstrong Starkey.


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4 Responses to “League of Gentlemen: Officers of the 17th and 18th Centuries”


  1. 1
    McMax says:

    The reason for not letting the rank and file go after Yorktown was that after Saratoga the British just exchanged those soldiers with the garrison of Ireland and had an army to send back to America. By making Cornwallis’s troops POWs HM’s government didn’t have the manpower to replace them and it was one of the reasons for them to begin peace talks.

  2. 2
    Red says:

    Actually, Cornwallis was given the same terms of capitulation that Lincoln did when he was forced to surrender Charles Town (now Charleston).

  3. 3
    Frank Adam says:

    The Fontenoy incident, "Messieurs les anglais, tirez les premiers," was not as daft as it sounds in an age when most musketeers were lucky to fire twice in a minute.
    He who fired first was disarmed whence the salute of firing cannon to prove you had disarmed in the same way as we shake hands or salute with the right hand to show no weapon which is why sinister – the Latin for left handed – is sinister.

  4. 4
    Brian Cornwell says:

    Close enough I suppose to almost make it into the league of gentlemen, from Cornwallis to Cornwell. Excellent coverage of each officer, the 17th and 18th century have always been a fascination of mine, and your research is on par with my historical knowledge. Saw Max's reply and I have to agree with the POW strategy, their simply wasn't enough men available for them to consider any other options aside from making peace. Thanks.



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