Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Other Prussian in the Continental Army: Friedrich Wilhelm de Woedtke


Reenactors portray Prussian Infantry Regiment No. 12
Dear Reader,


Today, we are going to examine a Prussian soldier who came to North America, in order to serve the fledgling United States against Britain. The most famous Prussian, of course, is Freiherr de Steuben, the famous, "Baron von Steuben" of Valley Forge.[1] However, Steuben was not the first, or even the most senior Prussian to travel to assist the United States.  Steuben had been a Captain in a Frei Infantrie Regiment von Mayr at Rossbach, served on the staff of Johann Dietrich von Hülsen, was seconded to Frederick II's staff late in the war, and selected for a special class of officer training by the monarch after the war.

Another Prussian officer Friedrich Wilhelm, Freiherr de Woedtke (who does nothing to erase the Anglophone perception that all Prussian men were named Friedrich Wilhelm), traveled to North America early in the American War of Independence. He arrived in Philadelphia in May of 1776, and then traveled North to assist the continental army in northern New York, before dying of disease on 31st July 1776. He lies in an unmarked grave near Fort George.

Prussian officers with Frederick the Great before Leuthen
as reimagined by a 19th century artist

Unlike Steuben, Woedtke served originally in the Prussian cavalry, in the Leibregiment zu Pferde, or Cuirassier Regiment Nr. 3. His father and brother both served in the Prussian army, his father Georg Eggert was a colonel in the Regiment von Kalckstein, his brother Leopold Christian rose to the rank of captain in Dragoon Regiment Nr. 4. On paper, he seemed to be the perfect soldier. At age 22, in 1758, he was attached to the suite of Friedrich II of Prussia, and was promoted to Brigade-Major in 1762. Woedtke developed a sense of cynicism and insubordination in the Seven Years War. Georg Heinrich Berenhorst, also serving as an officer with the King's suite, recalled:
"Frederick no longer commanded love, respect, or even fear among the nearest and most intimate members of his suite. I can say this because I saw it with my own eyes. When we rode behind him there was a mischievous young brigade-major of the cavalry, called Woedtke, who set out to amuse us by going into comic contortions behind his back, imitating the way he sat in the saddle, pointing at him and so on. Wodtke bestowed on Frederick the nickname 'Grave-Digger'. Later on he abbreviated it to 'Digger', and this is what he called the great hero when we came together in private for jokes and malicious talk."[2]
Rolf Zahren, dearly departed reenactor
of Frederick the Great
This type of behavior eventually led to career disaster. While traveling in Poland in 1771, Woedtke married the daughter of a German merchant without the king's permission. He wrote for permission after the fact, but the king treated him stubbornly, charging him with desertion, putting out warrants for his arrest. Although temporarily put under arrest, he eventually fled to Switzerland, and then to Paris.[3]Benjamin Franklin forwarded Woedtke to Congress, writing a letter of recommendation that he was as successful Prussian officer who would assist the American cause.

Like the later Steuben, it seems that Woedtke was only presented to Benjamin Franklin he was in Paris, and therefore no longer in high regard in Prussia. Indeed, American observers thought that Woedtke cut an odd figure.
"Though I had frequently seen him before, yet he was so disguised in furs, that I scarce knew him, & never beheld a more laughable object in my life. Like other Prussian officers, he appears to me as a man who knows little of polite life, and yet has picked up so much of it in his passage through France, as to make a most awkward appearance."[4]
Woedtke, who spoke little English, and wrote French haltingly, seemed to genuinely support the idea of the American Revolution.[5] When speaking with Congress, he exclaimed, "Ah, liberdy is a fine ding! I likes Liberdy, the Koenig von Prusse is a great man for liberdy!"[6] Upon reaching the front lines, Freiherr de Woedtke exerted little influence on military affairs. His only major contribution was to vote for retreat in a council of war. Officers noted that he was hard to find, and that he seemed to be more concerned with his comfort than leading the army.

Friedrich Wilhelm, Freiherr de Steuben
Americans frequently complained regarding Woedtke's drinking, some going as far as to suggest that this caused his death. William Allen, an officer in the 2nd Pennsylvania regiment, told a soldier, "No doubt the beast was drunk, and in front of the army."[7] Benjamin Rush wrote that Woedtke died from, "the effects of hard drinking."[8] While it might be possible to dismiss some of these reports, it does appear that  Woedtke drank heavily. Indeed, Steuben, writing to a Prussian aristocrat after the war, noted: "Our poor friend, Woedtke, found a grave in this country. Bile and French brandy finished him at Lake Champlain."[9]

However, disease plagued the Continental Army at this juncture, and it is unlikely that Woedtke simply drank himself to death. Ten days before his death, on July 20th, 1776, he was still attempting to manage military affairs. He wrote to Major General Gates:
"Sir: I have to inform you that I still lie in a very weak and low situation. I find the Canadians are gone on to Albany. I beg leave to advise the General to recall them to this place, with the person who has assumed to himself the title of Major, one Mr. Hare, who, when he arrives here I pray may be put under arrest... I have the honor to be your Excellency's most obedient Servant, "[10]
Despite possessing a number of personal flaws and suffering from a debilitating illness, Woedtke served with the American army in the field and died before he could make a serious impact on the cause of liberty. His credentials came closer to a high ranking Prussian officer than Steuben's did, which in itself is an important lesson. On paper, Steuben was a less attractive candidate than Woedtke, but it was Steuben, not Woedtke, who would forever be associated with Prussian contributions to the cause of the United States. 

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Thanks for Reading,


Alex Burns

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[1] The most recent scholarly biography of the Freidrich Wilhelm, Freiherr de Steuben in English is Paul Douglas Lockhart's, The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army. 
[2]Georg Heinrich Von Berenhorst and Eduard Von Bülow, Aus Dem Nachlasse Von Georg Heinrich Von Berenhorst , 181.
[3]Rolf Straubel has recently treated this event in his masterful 2012 book: "Er möchte nur wissen, dass die Armée mir gehöret": Friedrich II. und seine Officier", pg. 305-307. Although an excellent treatment of the Prussian aspects of Woedtke's career, Straubel makes several mistakes, suggesting that Woedtke joined the English army and that he died in 1782 in Canada.  
[4] Life of Archbishop Carroll, 42.
[5] Douglas R. Cubbison, The American Northern Theater Army in 1776, 137.
[6] Alexander Graydon, Memoir of his own Time, 139.
[7] James Wilkinson, Memoirs of my own times, 53.
[8]Butterfield, Rush Letters, Vol 1, 110–12
[9] Friedrich Kapp, Life of Frederick William Von Steuben, 698
[10] American Archives, Series V, Vol 1, pg. 475.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I knew of Wodtke from the anecdote you quote, when he was an Officier de la koniglichen Suite, which Duffy also quotes. But I never knew that he came to America. Very interesting!
    I'm not sure I agree that Wodtke's qualifications "came closer to a high ranking Prussian officer than Steuben's did", though. Steuben was last a Quartiermeisterlieutenant, if I remember correctly, so I'd rather consider them more or less equally experienced.

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