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Letters from Wilhelm Graf von Schwerin: Eyewitness to Siege of Yorktown

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Wilhelm Graf von Schwerin did not attempt to write a history of the Revolutionary War in America, nor did he try to portray the people living there. Unlike his more famous counterparts such as Swedish Baron Ludwig von Closen, he had no literary ambitions or even skills. He was simply a young German sous-lieutenant in a grenadier company, keeping his family abreast of his whereabouts and his military experiences.

Wilhelm (Guillaume in French) Graf von Schwerin left us with only 10 letters. Yet among them is a particularly important letter of October 21, 1781–one of but three known eyewitness descriptions of the French storming the British-held Redoubt No. 9, a decisive event of the siege of Yorktown, Va. While serving as a member of the Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment of Germans in French pay under Marshal Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, he wrote all 10 between August 1, 1780, and December 20, 1781. His letters are also fascinating social history, as he compares prices and wages demanded in Williamsburg and elsewhere. Meanwhile, noblesse oblige forced him to live beyond his means in a country where even his former family servants had immigrated and become rich. Taken as a whole, Schwerin's correspondence offers numerous rare insights of Revolutionary-era America.

Wilhelm Heinrich Florus Graf von Schwerin was born on July 31, 1754, in Dierdorf, Germany. His father, Leopold Ferdinand, had served as a lieutenant in the Prussian army. In November 1757 Leopold died at age 41, and the task of providing for young Wilhelm fell to his widow's brother, Reingard Graf zu Wied (the uncle to whom the letters were written). Twenty years later, in August 1777, Wilhelm entered the Royal Deux-Ponts as a sub-lieutenant in the grenadiers, followed by his subsequent service at Yorktown. After Yorktown he served variously in France until 1792, when he retired to his mother's ancestral home in Dierdorf, where he died childless on November 18, 1828.

For the remainder of the 19th century, Schwerin's letters from America remained in the archives at Neuwied, part of a larger correspondence covering his service in the French army between June 1779 and April 1782. First catalogued by Marion Dexter Learned in 1912, the 166-page correspondence was copied for the Library of Congress in 1930. The originals remained in Neuwied until the early 1960s, when they were sold to an unidentified American collector. Their subsequent whereabouts are unknown.

Schwerin's correspondence from America began on August 1, 1780, when he informed his uncle of the French fleet's safe arrival in Newport, R.I. As military duties consisted primarily of weekly guard duty in Rochambeau's headquarters, Schwerin spent the winter months learning English. A few months later the campaign was underway. After an arduous march, the French reached Virginia in September. His long letter of October 21 proudly described his part in the confrontation with Lt. Gen. Charles Lord Cornwallis' British army in Yorktown:

'York in Virginia, 21 October 1781
My very dear uncle,
I am delighted to be able to give you my news, and to inform myself at the same time about the state of your dear health. I hope that you have received my last letter that I had the honor to write to you while passing through Philadelphia. Since then we have traveled through a lot of country with the American army and been subjected to a lot of fatigues, but God be thanked that we were rewarded with the capture of the English General Cornwallis, who had been in Virginia for some time already to subjugate it.

'My very dear uncle, I have to tell you the outcome of this campaign without forgetting the least or being led astray by the little things, for example that we embarked at the Bay of Chesapeake to betake ourselves to Virginia, which took 12 days.

'We arrived on the 29th of September less than 1 and 1 1/4 miles from York, where the enemy had fortified himself. Our camp was in such a forest that we could not be discovered. The grenadiers and chasseurs of our army formed the advance guard and were posted within sight of the enemy. During the night the enemy sentinels fired but a few musket shots. We spent a few days in this camp to rest up. The enemy did not appear to be afraid. During the night from 6 to 7 October we began to open our first trench or line to lay siege to Monsieur de Cornwallis.

'When we opened our first line or entrenchment, a lot of cannons were fired at us which did not do great damage to our workers. The work took but three or four days and we already had our fortifications arranged to respond to the first of the enemy, who could respond with but a few bombs and a few small pieces. But one has to admit that our artillery was much superior. We had lots of 24-pounders and an abundance of bombs. Not finding our first siege line close enough to the enemy, our general, Monsieur de Rochambeau, decided that we had to take a position closer to the enemy.

'In order to approach closer one had to take two redoubts which the enemies had on our right and left. On 14 October our company of grenadiers, where I have the honor of still serving, received orders to march into our redoubts. Our chasseurs, the grenadiers of the Gatinais regiment and their chasseurs joined us at nightfall. Our colonel-en-second, [Guillaume,] chevalier de Deux-Ponts, received command of this battalion of grenadiers and chasseurs; [Charles du Houx, Baron] de Viomenil, maréchal-de-camp, had the overall command. At 8 o'clock at night we approached the redoubts, always hidden behind our entrenchments. At 8 1/4 we were ordered to march in attack step up to the enemy redoubt and ascend it in an assault, our colonel-en-second at the head. There was a very lively fire from all sides for about 1/4 of an hour, after which the enemy offered to surrender. The garrison of the fort consisted of 160 men, of which we took no more than 40 prisoners without counting the dead; the others saved themselves as best they could. On our side we lost 80 men killed or wounded. Two officers of the French regiment were killed. Of our company three men were killed and five wounded, our chasseurs had ten killed or wounded. [Lieutenant Wilhelm Friedrich] de Lützow has a strong contusion in the lower half of his body; yet he carries himself perfectly well. I and my dear comrades of the grenadier company all behaved at our very best, for that God be thanked. The enemy maintained a continuous fire from his forts on our redoubts which we had taken, they also had the skill to throw during the night five or six bombs in our redoubt which exploded and which killed a few grenadiers and chasseurs. I assure you, my very dear uncle, that one had to crouch on the ground all night to avoid the cannons and the bombs.'

The position assaulted by the French that night was Redoubt No. 9 on the right flank of the siege line. Concurrently Maj. Gen. Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, ordered a force from General George Washington's Continental Army jointly commanded by Colonels Jean-Joseph de Sourbader, chevalier de Gimat, and Alexander Hamilton to storm and take Redoubt No. 10.

Schwerin's casualty figures are close to those given in the account of Guillaume de Deux-Ponts, who reported 21 grenadiers and chasseurs of his regiment–compared to the 18 claimed by Schwerin–and 56 of the Gatinais killed or wounded, the same figure given by Schwerin. As the attacking force consisted of 400 troops, the casualty rate can be estimated at about 20 percent. The French assault was led by the Gatinais, hence that regiment's heavier losses. Only one officer, Lieutenant Augustin Clément de Berthelot, chevalier de Villeneuve, of the Gatinais, was killed at Yorktown. The other, Captain Jean Jarlan de Sireuil of the same regiment, died in Williamsburg on December 20, 1781. His name is inscribed on a stone tablet at the Wren building, which temporarily served as a hospital for the men wounded in the siege. Two other officers, sous-lieutenant Jean François de Sillegue of the Gatinais and a staff officer known as le comte de Lameth, were wounded.

'During the night 600 of our workers dug a new line behind us; at daybreak the enemy was very surprised to see himself surrounded by our batteries, which did not leave him in a position to resume firing,' Schwerin's account continued. 'On the 16th and 17th our fire was so terrible that the enemy began to make propositions to surrender. Firing ceased forthwith on both sides, and on the 18th the capitulation was signed and Monsieur de Cornwallis was made prisoner of war with his whole army. My very dear uncle, I have the honor to send you a list of the regiments taken prisoner, also of those of the navy. I forgot to tell you that the chevalier de Deux-Ponts, colonel-en-second, was wounded during the capture of our redoubt; a cannon-ball hit the ground before him with such force that pieces of soil hit him in the face and did great damage to his eyes, but he is perfectly well again.'

The list of prisoners was attached to Schwerin's letter. Deux-Ponts' injuries were indeed only minor. On October 21, he departed for Versailles with the official news of Cornwallis' surrender along with Schwerin's letter, which reached Count Reingard on December 19, 1781.

'The French forces consisted of 7,000 men, the Americans 8,000,' Schwerin wrote. 'Normally our forces in this country are only 4,000 men, but Monsieur [Admiral Joseph Paul,] comte de Grasse, who is commander of our Squadron of the Islands, joined Monsieur [Admiral Louis, comte] de Barras, who commands our fleet in Rhode Island, and they betook themselves to the entrance of the Bay of Chesapeake, which is the place where the British could have come to the aid of Monsieur de Cornwallis in Virginia. Monsieur de Grasse landed 3,000 men to join himself to us in a way that the English general, seeing himself surrounded on land and on sea, gave himself up as a prisoner of war on 18 October once he was without hope for the least help. And now we are masters of this beautiful province of Virginia, which the English had already thought was theirs. Our sea forces were 36 ships of the line and frigates without number; the English had but 26. My dear uncle, I can assure you that I can hardly contain my joy at having been part of such a beautiful and glorious campaign, which was so fortunate for us. We have lost in our whole army but 300 men, that is to say killed as well as lightly wounded, which is not much for a siege that lasted 12 days. Hessian officers of the Regiment Erbprinz assured me that they have lost more than 800 men. After the capitulation was signed I went to York to talk to our German prisoners; I assure you that they behaved very honorably toward me. I wanted to inform myself about Count Wittgenstein, but nobody could tell me any news. These are, my very dear uncle, the news from this country.'

French casualties at Yorktown were less than 200 killed or wounded. The Americans lost half as many. British casualties totaled about 600 killed, wounded or missing. Count Wittgenstein was a brother of Count Reingard's wife, fighting with a Hessian unit of the British army. His exact fate remains unknown, but he seems to have been killed during an earlier engagement in the Carolinas.

'The campaign has been pretty hard on us,' Schwerin wrote, 'but in return I had the satisfaction of seeing a large part of the country. Here are the names of the provinces I marched through between 2 June and September 29. We stopped at Philippsburg for 15 days, which is in the province of New York, to rest up; Rhod Island, Connecticut, Jork Statt, Jersey, Pinsilvani, Mariland, Virgini [sic]. Judge for yourself, my very dear uncle, that we were exhausted and desirous to go into winter quarters. The chevalier de Deux-Ponts has returned to France with Monsieur [Captain Johann Christian, Baron] de Wisch to announce the defeat and capture of General Cornwallis. I believe that Monsieur de Wisch has quit the regiment.

'It is time that I talk to you also a bit about myself. Our colonel has asked me that you will have the goodness to reimburse his mother in Forbach for the money I have spent here. I have already had the honor to inform you that I have received 50 Louis d'Ors (1,200 livres) upon the orders of the colonel from my captain, but they are not to be paid to my captain who is returning to France. Of that money I equipped myself, bought a horse, clothed my servants, and for myself bought shirts and stockings, which I greatly needed; beyond that I received nothing without telling you instantly about it. I am keeping my horse for the winter, because if I should get rid of it I am not certain that I will be able to go through a campaign as we will have it next year, and it is very agreeable to have a horse when one has to cover a route of 400 miles as we did. All hardships, ten guard duties which I [was] sent on during the twelve days of the siege have not tired me out, and I pray that the heavens will preserve me my health so that I can continue to serve in this war which, I don't think, will continue much longer.

'On the last day of our stay in Philadelphia I was surprised to see a one-horse-chaise stop before my tent. In it sat two women and a man, who drove it. They said they were from Dierdorf; I asked them to get out of the carriage and recognized the one to be the Henritz who was a servant at the [Reingards'] castle and the other to be her sister, who has already been married to a beer brewer in Philadelphia for 18 years and is very rich. I had dinner with them; they have a perfectly furnished house. In the evening they introduced me to a man named Dichon who had been with you in Dierdorf. He also introduced me to his brother who lives in Philadelphia. Both are very well off, but the one who had been at Dierdorf is the richer of them. I had breakfast with him before our departure from Philadelphia. He had a superb house and lots of ready money, because he showed me a little chest full of Louis d'Ors. He asked me to present his very humble respects to you and to assure you that he was delighted with the way you treated him in Dierdorf. He had had very bad luck. His ship was captured by a British frigate, his merchandise became a prize, and he himself a prisoner for a month. He assured me that he lost close to 40,000 florins, but that does not bother him too much: he is still rich enough….As we embarked to sail for Virginia, various soldiers from each company of our regiment were ordered to clean the transports and to fill the barrels with drinking water. Soldier [Jacob] Fenscher who was among them sailed in a small boat toward land. There were seven in it. The boat was loaded too heavily and turned over. Fenscher alone had the misfortune to drown. I immediately asked for his death certificate, but because of the siege everything is still in such turmoil. I will send it as soon as possible.

'Another fatality. While working on a fortification during this siege, Soldier [Mathias] Eisenbarth from Saar Wellingen was cut in half right down the middle by an enemy cannon ball. I grieve from the bottom of my heart that my countrymen do not fare better….You have seen from my last, which you should have received, that we have waged not only a very glorious but also a very exhausting campaign; we are now masters of the very beautiful province of Virginia, where we are in winter quarters in Williamsburg, that is, the general quarters are there with two regiments, two regiments are quartered in York. Me, I am very content with our winter quarters. I am quartered with my company half a mile from the city of Williamsburg, I hunt a lot: that is my amusement. You may know already that Monsieur de Wisch departed at the end of the siege with a furlough from the court to go and stay with you for some time. Monsieur de Laroche from Coblenz did the same. [sous-lieutenant Friedrich Anton] de Berg, whom you have met at Dierdorf, quit the regiment after the campaign. I believe that he is still in Philadelphia. His conduct was not the best, and I believe he will stay in America for some time until the money from his concordat will be spent.'

The concordat was an agreement among the 69 regimental officers that when an officer left the unit, each officer below him in rank, who now had an opportunity to advance in seniority, if not in rank, was to pay that departing officer the equivalent of two months of his own wages if that officer retired without pension, or one month's worth if he retired with a pension.

'Since my last letter that I had the honor to write to you I advance by one rank,' Schwerin announced. 'You know that when we departed from France I was the doyen of the sous-lieutenants and placed in the company of grenadiers, with which I still had the honor to take part in the siege of York. After that, Monsieur de Bradel [Benoit Franois van Pradelles], lieutenant-en-second, quit the regiment to go to France and he gave me his place. That way I am now the last lieutenant-en-second in the company de Cabannes. I assure you, my dear uncle, that if we had stayed in France I would be a premier lieutenant by now, but in times of war very few officers quit their regiment. I will be the most fortunate man if twenty years from now I will have a company, especially if we stay in this country a few more years.

'You would not believe how everyone is fed up with waging war in this country here,' Schwerin added. 'The reason is quite simple in that one is obliged to buy one's forage with one's own money, and no one gives you your ration that is your due in times of war. You know yourself, my dear uncle, that when one has to constantly keep a hand on one's purse to pay the forage for a horse and one's bread and food stuff how that very much disgusts a young man, especially when one does not have a lot of gold. I found out that it is much better if I keep my horse this winter. It is true that forage is very expensive, but so are horses in Virginia. That is why I kept my horse for the coming campaign. As I only had three shirts left that were halfway passable, I had to buy myself one dozen shirts. I assure you, my dear uncle, that that put a dent in my purse that will take a long time to fill. One shirt with cuffs and labor cost me pretty close to 24 livres, but what can one do? I can not walk around without shirts. After the capture of Lord Cornwallis I made the acquaintance of a Hessian officer who let me have a tent, which I stood in great need of. I had the misfortune that the tent I brought from France tore to pieces because of the weather during our great marches. All is torn. It is true that the one I bought was not very expensive compared to others; it cost me 5 Louis d'Or (120 livres).

'I ask you kindly, my dear uncle, to give me your news. Send your letters to [Anne Camasse] the Countess Forbach, she will make certain they reach me. I could not be more concerned about the fact that I have only received one single letter from you. I ask you, my dear uncle, to assure my dear aunt and my dear cousins of my very humble respects, and I ask you humbly not to forget him who has the honor to remain with most profound respect.

My dear uncle
Your very humble and
Very obedient servant
Guilaume Comte de Schwerin'

Though Schwerin did not return to France until 1783, no further correspondence with Reingard is known to have survived.

His complaints about high prices in America began almost the moment Schwerin set foot in the New World. Like virtually every member of Rochambeau's corps, Schwerin thought that the inhabitants of Newport treated the foreigners fort mal honette (dishonestly), and were anxious to cheat them out of their money. How else could one explain prices of 22 sous for a single pound of bread or 4 to 6 sous for a pound of potatoes, when a fusilier earned but 9 sous 6 denar per day in America, a grenadier 11 sous, a sub-lieutenant such as Schwerin 4 livres or 80 sous? His lunch alone cost him 80 livres per months in Newport; in the evenings he ate 'but a piece of bread' and a lot of potatoes. His servant, who he was required to keep, cost him 15 livres in cash wages and 35 livres for food each month, plus a clothing allowance, while boots sold for 40 livres, and the material for a shirt cost 9 florins or 18 livres, 15 sous, according to a letter dated July 12, 1781, that he mailed from Philippsburg, Pa. At 24 livres (nearly 1 pound sterling) apiece, his shirts in Williamsburg were not out of line with the prices demanded in New England, but nevertheless cost him three months' wages for each dozen he purchased. In July 1775, however, a shirt could be had in Williamsburg for 5 shillings, or about one-fourth of what Schwerin paid in 1781.

In preparation for the 1781 campaign, Schwerin had to hire a second servant and a petit horse for 300 livres. Good horses cost twice that much and more. Since his servants also needed horses on top of costing him 100 livres per month, it is easy to see why Schwerin's 1,200 livres did not cover all expenses. Even the annual subsidy from his uncle paid for only part of his needs, and Schwerin had to borrow liberally while in Virginia. The one bright spot in his campaign had been the storming of Redoubt No. 9 and the subsequent surrender of Cornwallis. That led to his eventual promotion, but even that cost him two months' salary, while the accompanying pay raise was only 15 livres more per year.

In their description of life in America for the officers in Rochambeau's expeditionary corps, Schwerin's letters make it painfully clear how hard it was for a lieutenant to live up to the requirements of rank and status. Like so many of his comrades, he felt he was being fleeced by locals, both in New England and in Virginia. Schwerin found it hard to have to pay his allies for food and forage, when that really 'was your due in times of war.' The American colonies were not poor–his experiences in Philadelphia proved that beyond any doubt. To dine in the magnificent and splendidly furnished house of former servants in Philadelphia, to be shown a chest full of Louis d'Or at 24 livres each, must have been a humbling experience for Schwerin.

For an officer without funds, life was boring and entertainments were few and far between: learning English during winter encampment in Newport, hunting while in Virginia. Schwerin was anxious to get back home, to rise slowly through the ranks. Peace in Europe, paradoxical as that might sound, was better for his career than service in wartime America–and cheaper as well.

This article was written by Robert A. Selig and originally published in the February 2003 issue of Military History magazine.

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