Monday, January 28, 2019

An American Soldier in Prussia: Colonel William Stephens Smith

Colonel Smith later in life by Mather Brown
Dear Reader,

As I have already noted on this blog,  the Prussia reviews in the late eighteenth century became something of an international affair, with military men from across Europe traveling to witness the Prussian army of Frederick II. Today, we are examining the experiences of just such a man: American Colonel William Stephen Smith. Smith was an officer in the Continental Army, and served in numerous actions from New York, to Trenton, to Monmouth. He served as a staff officer for both General John Sullivan and  George Washington. Famously, Smith married the daughter of John and Abigail Adams: Abigail "Nabby" Amelia Adams.

In 1785, while traveling with future Latin American revolutionary General Fransico del Miranda, Colonel Smith requested and obtained permission from Frederick II to observe the Prussian reviews. He kept a diary of this journey, which serves as the major source for his movements and actions during this time. Miranda and Smith traveled through Holland and the western Holy Roman Empire, and had the equivalent of "car trouble" when their carriage broke down just west of Magdeburg.[1] Upon reaching the Prussian dominions, Smith immediately began trying to reconcile the myth of Frederick's Prussia with his republican (ie, not monarchist) political leanings. According to Smith, Magdeburg:
is accounted the strongest fortified place in his dominions, and was the place of his residence in the last war. It is situated on the Lower Elbe in Saxony and has about 30,000 inhabitants. Here are about 260 prisoners of the state in the tower- on the citadel, which we visited, are the insignia of despotism. Here a subject is confined for any number of years or for life as his king, in a capricious moment, thinks proper to decide."[2] 
Smith spent considerable time in his diary dwelling on the injustices of absolutism and the fate of political prisoners. These subjects, Smith reminded his diary, were "lessons for republicans, and subjects of the advocates of despotism to blush at."[3] The poverty of Prussia also drew Smith's criticism. He recalled, "the sentinel at his post, high plumed and ready for heroic deeds, with an hungry countenance, will beg your charity- and if he is detected in this, he is punished." Even the Prussian countryside was poor even Smith's view: "the country between this and the Elbe is very poor, sandy- pine producing country- there is nothing remarkable in this place".[4]

View of Berlin, 1780s
After describing Potsdam at some length, Smith recalled meeting his former British foes on the review field. He had served against many of the officers during the war in North America, and had met several of them personally:
a number of British officers appeared on the field, amongst the rest was Lord Cornwallis, General Musgrave and Colonel Fox- these three I knew in America... I observed them notice me at a distance but no advance was made- I know so much of the British character as always to meet them upon the haughtiest ground and when they find you are stationed it is ten to one but they make the advance and become very civil- I took my position and entrenched myself and the morning passed in mutual attention to the manoeuvre.[5]
Much of Smith's diary contains similar observations, lauding and criticizing the individuals and cultures he came in contact. He mocked Frederick's adviser Moses Mendelssohn, calling him "a Jew-Philosopher... an old antediluvian figure—very deformed... [and] the Israelite."[6]
Even as he took in Prussian culture, Smith observed the mock battles and reviews of the Prussian miltitary with great interest. He was not afraid to give critical feedback when the Prussians employed a tactic he thought was outmoded on foolish. Using cavalry attacks as a method of buying time particularly drew his criticism, and he believed that the Prussians employed canister shot at too long a range. He:
went to the field-attended the manoeuvres of 4000 men under General Muellendorf—the governor of this place- the troops are superior to panegeric-- they marched in platoons from the town to their ground- on the word, the line was formed with the greatest perfection-- they advanced in line- advanced by platoon firing, then by regiment, and finally, on a supposition of being pressed by cavalry, they gave ground, retiring in eight detached lines of 500, each, in such a manner as to perfectly cover each other.[7]
Detail from Berlin Scene, 1780s
 At times he praised the Prussian reviews as realistic: "General Mullendorf, when the hussars began their skirmish, detached his jagers and a battalion of grenadiers with two six[pders] to occupy a small wood and hill."[8] Colonel Smith could not fail to be impressed with the movements of the Prussian troops, but found their weaponry to be a mixed bag. He reported that,
"the Grenadiers... move with great order and silence--their fire cannot be very destructive--the breach of their pieces is very light and not calculated to take aim, and the weight of the cylindrical ram-rod bears down the muzzle of the piece so much that it requires very considerable exertion to keep it any time steady."[9]
Despite the problems in aiming the Prussian flintlocks, Smith found some Prussian technological improvements to his liking:
 Each soldier is provided with a case for his lock which preserves the pieces effectually from rain during the march, and in action they fire with it fixed, but in the use of it the same mode of loading with the cylindrical ramrod must be adopted and of course the breach of the piece must be so formed as to admit the powder into the pan thro' the touch-hole, for this the powder must be fine—leather guards against the heat of the pieces.[10] 
Other military observers of the time, such as David Dundas, likewise took note of this particular Prussian invention. Like most visitors to Frederick's Prussia, he could not fail to comment on the person of the king. Lafayette found that Frederick was a dirty old corporal, while
The king commanded with great attention, dressing each platoon personally on the formation of the line—his military abilities are undoubtedly great and had he the affections of his army he might be a second conqueror of the world—his armies are composed of dissatisfied mercenaries, compelled by severity of discipline to discharge their duty... unfortunately the king on the night of the 20th was seized with a fit of the gout and was not able to attend the troops, but so loath is he to part with command that he made arrangements for the maneuvres in his chamber, and assigned every officer his station and business--he says the spirit deserves a better body—sometimes when age hinders his speed he says, "spirit can't you make this carcass move a little faster—march you old bugger-march!"[11]
In addition to taking the pulse of Prussia's military and ruling class, Smith displayed a keen interest in military history. He toured the battlefields of the Seven Years War and War of Austrian Succession. "We arrived at Pirna at twelve—this place is remarkable for the position of the Saxon-army under the command of its Elector in the campaign of 1756 when beseiged by the king of Prussia—it is a most elegant position."[12] Near Dresden, he recalled,  On the 4th. the Commandant sent an Engineer with us to view the field on which the battle of Kesseldorf was fought on the 15th December 1745, between the advance corps of the Austrian Army."[13] Crossing the border into Bohemia, Smith and Miranda walked the field at Lobositz, "On the 8th. accompanied by the School-master and an old woman as an interpreter we reconnoitered the field where Frederick with 24,000 Prussians attacked."[14] By the later third of the eighteenth century, observing battlefields had become something of a pastime for military men, long before the tradition of the staff ride made it a formalized experience.

Edward Francis Cunningham's
“Frédéric le Grand, retournant à Sans-Souci après les manoeuvres de Potsdam accompagné de ses Généraux”

However, despite the splendor of the review, Smith understood that the impressive edifice he witnessed was unstable. Unlike many officers inflicted with the sickness of "Prussomania," Smith found that:
The situation of his armies as to discipline, and the skill of his officers cannot be exceeded, but now they are at their zenith Frederick is gliding rapidly down the current of time, and according to the course of nature cannot float much longer on the surface.[15]
Colonel Smith's impressions of Prussia give us a unique window into the kingdom in Frederick's twilight years. Obviously, his republican sentiments gave Smith reason to criticize Prussia's authoritarian institutions. Despite this, he found himself fascinated by the military culture of Prussia, and from a purely tactical perspective, found something to admire about the Prussian military.

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Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns
[1] William Stephens Smith to Abigail Adams, 5 September 1785
[2] Archivo del General Miranda, Vol 1, 371.
[3] Ibid, 372.
[4] Ibid, 374.
[5] Ibid, 379.
[6] Ibid, 384.
[7] Ibid, 380.
[8] Ibid, 399.
[9] Ibid, 380.
[10] Ibid, 399.
[11] Ibid, 383, 400.
[12] Ibid, 408.
[13] Ibid, 411.
[14] Ibid, 415.
[15] Ibid, 395

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