France's active involvement in the American Revolution came quickly on the heels of the Revolutionary army's victory over the British at Saratoga in October 1777. Ever since the end of the Seven Years War and the crippling Treaty of Paris, Frenchmen had been aching to avenge themselves on their perpetual enemy. On February 6th, 1778 King Louis XVI signed a military alliance with the entity they now recognized as The United States of America.
It was realized immediately that the only way to successfully defeat the British was to engage them where they reigned supreme â€¦ upon the sea. As the French Navy was ill equipped to do this immediately, the decision was made to attack them around the edges of their Empire. To do this they needed to recruit marines to both man the vessels and assault British outposts. Thus they decided to create a special formation, recruited exclusively from foreigners and to consist of eight legions totaling 600 officers and 4,500 men. It was named the Volontaires-Etrangers de la Marine and each legion would consist of 70 officers, 4 Infantry Companies, one Artillery Company and 2 Squadrons of Hussars.
The command of this legion was given to an extraordinary man: Armand Louis de Gontaut, Duc de Lauzun, born on April 13th, 1747. His military experience had been mainly during the fighting involved in the annexation of Corsica, but he was a born leader and much in need of a war. He had himself raised two squadrons of Hussars and two of Ulans (or Lancers) before his appointment to the Volontaires and with barely one of the legions yet fully to strength, led them to capture the British Fort St. Louis, a slaving station (taken from France) on the coast of Senegal in January 1779.
By April he was back in France having joined the 2nd Legion, now formed, which was kicking its heels in Brittany waiting for a projected invasion of England. Late in the year this adventure was called off and preparations were finally authorised for an expedition to America early in 1780. The 1st Legion, raised in the West-Indies and had taken part in the capture of Grenada. The 3rd Legion was far away on the Isle-de-France (now Mauritius). The 2nd Legion was therefore the only one available for the American expedition and at this time it was decided that no more Legions would be raised. Instead, based in part on Lauzuns intense lobbying, the 2nd Legion would be reorganized and renamed as the Volontaires-Etrangers de Lauzun.
With 800 men Lauzun embarked for America aboard three transport ships on April 5th 1780. He left behind 396 men and 170 horses due to lack of additional transport. They arrived in Narragansett Bay on July 11th and as soon as they were ashore they set about procuring horses and recruits as replacements for those left behind, not knowing when they would arrive, if ever. The history of the Legions first eighteen months in America remains controversial. They were quartered in Newport, Rhode Island and Lebanon, Connecticut for much of the time, guarding and escorting wagon trains. Not without expectation, it was found out that they were a wild bunch, not unlike the Frei-Corps of the Seven Years War and War of the Palatinate (In which quite a few of the older ones had taken part). They were not popular with the inhabitants as they fought, swore, robbed and otherwise terrorized the locals. Things were not much different when they found themselves in Pennsylvania or Virginia. Duels were fought and desertion (Mostly due to boredom) was high. Many recruits at this time were deserters themselves, mostly from the Hessian and other German regiments employed by the British.
Finally in late July 1781 they saw some action skirmishing around New York engaging a small British Garrison at Fort Knyphausen (now apparently in the Bronx) and sent them scampering off. It was then that they joined the campaign to take on Lord Cornwallis in Virginia and the long march to the south took place with the cavalry of the Legion guarding the flanks of the army. They were embarked on transports at The Head of Elk (now Elkton, MD) and did indeed lose men as a couple of the boats foundered and they ran out of food while waiting to re-embark at Annapolis where they had berthed during a storm.
On arrival in the Yorktown area Lauzun and his Legion were sent off down to Gloucester, opposite Yorktown. He was joined by some marines and a few soldiers from Dillons Regiment plus a small contingent of Hussars from the 1st Legion arrived from the West Indies. On October 4th with about 250 hussars and some infantry, Lauzun was crossing the plain of Gloucester on his way to establish a base nearer the town when some American dragoons galloped up warning of a large force of British cavalry foraging nearby. It turned out to be the notorious Tarleton with 240 of his famous horsemen. Lauzun wasted no time. As his advanced guard exchanged pistol shots with Tarletons men, he ordered his hussars to charge and at the head of his cavalry made straight for Tarleton himself. In the jumble of slashing (and spearing) horsemen, Tarleton was dismounted in a collision with one of his own men and Lauzun was deprived of the honor of capturing him having to satisfy himself only with his horse. The ensuing short battle saw the British, after saving their leader, retreating in some disorder and making for the lines of a company of the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers. This company was in turn forced to retire under pressure from the Americans of Mercers Militia.
Lauzuns victory was made sweeter after the British surrender of October 19th when he met Tarleton in person and an accompanying officer described the meeting as â€œmost cordial and chivalrousâ€? He also said of Tarleton that the 25 year old had â€œa most gentle and genteel face as well as eleganceâ€?.
Lauzun left immediately for France but his legion remained for nearly eighteen more months. It was not a happy time as they reverted to their old ways and made themselves unpopular with the inhabitants of Charlotte Courthouse, North Carolina and along the route home as they made their way back to New York in the fall of 1782. By this time Lauzun had returned to take command of the army from Rochambeau. They finally left America in June of 1783 and upon arrival the Infantry was disbanded much to Lauzuns annoyance.Â
The hussars however, lived on and were made into a regular regiment; the 6th Hussars which later became the 5th Hussars who fought in the revolution and under the Emperor Napoleon at Austerlitz, Wagram and Waterloo (among many others). They became part of the Royal Army and continued to serve the Emperors nephew in the 2nd Empire fighting at Solferino and a detachment was even with Maximilian in Mexico. Their traditions are now apparently carried by an armored regiment in the modern French Army
The infantry coat was light blue with lemon yellow cuffs, lapels and piping on pocket and cuffs. The cuffs were round with two buttons below and two above the rear slit which was piped. The stand collar and epaulettes of the coat varied between legions. The first wore yellow, the second white and the third red. The waistcoat and other small clothes were white as were the gaiters which covered the knees. The Headdress was the black felt hat for fusiliers trimmed white and a bearskin cap without plate or cords for the grenadiers. Both had a large white cockade with black center on the left.Â
The cavalry consisted of hussars and lancers both of whom wore the hussar uniform. The dolman was light blue with lemon yellow pointed cuffs. The pelisse was also light blue with lemon yellow cuffs and cloth edging instead of fur. The dolman and pelisse were frogged with white lace loops and the collar and cuffs were also trimmed in white. The barreled sash was crimson and yellow alternately. The breeches were lemon yellow with a white stripe down the side and trefoil knot on the thighs. The boots wee black knee high with notches in the top and a small white tassel. The cap was a black mirliton (a conical shako) with a cloth wing edged yellow and cap cords and tassels in white. The sabretache was faced light blue, edged with white and the central figure of an anchor within an oval yellow cartouche surrounded by white figuring in white and surmounted by a royal crown. All beneath an inverted chevron in white lace. The saddlecloth was of the single piece hussar style with pointed ends in light blue with a white cloth edging. The carbine belt was of crimson leather and sword was the standard French cavalry saber.
Our illustration shows a Hussar of Lauzuns Legion in the uniform that the three hundred wore for the American campaign. It was probably the same as the uniform of the disbanded Headquarters Company (Compagnie Generale) as they were distinguished from the regular hussars by having yellow lace instead of white lace on all uniform and appointments and red breeches. At least half of the Legions hussars were armed with lances which were used with effect at Gloucester. No pennant is mentioned. It was noted by Lauzun that they took their pelisses to America but later recorded that they had either perished or been lost as none were left.