It’s Who You Know

Always be nice to your horse. Trust me.

Who you know matters. Knowing when to quit is also key.

After the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, which was a decisive victory for the Continental Army under General Horatio Gates, the French took a more active interest in the war. At the outset, this meant French adventurers coming to America looking for high-level army commissions and pay.

One of the most annoying was Philippe Charles Jean Baptiste, Tronson du Coudray.

Du Coudray was a well-connected French artillery officer. His brother was a lawyer for Marie Antionette (who should have considered better counsel before she lost her head). Du Coudray himself tutored the king’s brothers in the art of war and served as a technical adviser to several French war ministers.

He wrote several treatises on the use of artillery in combat and was selected to determine what kind of military supplies and personnel might be sent to aid the revolutionary cause.

He met Silas Deane, an envoy from the Continental Congress, who was impressed by du Coudray’s knowledge and willingness to cooperate. Deane agreed to give du Coudray a commission as a major general in the Continental Army and put him in charge of the artillery.

Silas Deane had no authority to make this deal.

Not to mention, the Continentals already had a chief of artillery — Henry Knox, who had dragged the guns of Ticonderoga through the snow in the dead of winter to force the British to evacuate Boston after the Battle of Bunker Hill.

He was kind of a big deal.

When du Coudray arrived in America in 1777, a number of American generals, including Nathanel Greene and Henry Knox, threatened to resign if the Frenchman was put in charge of them. The Congress felt that du Coudray was too well-connected in France to offend, so they removed him from field command and made him an inspector general.

Not realizing his good fortune in keeping his commission (he thought it only a matter of time before his command was restored and the upstart colonial generals were put back in line), he adopted an insufferably superior attitude. His aristocratic demeanor did not endear him to the Continental officers, engaged as they were in overthrowing aristocratic rule of their country.

Du Coudray was assigned to survey the defenses around Philadelphia and suggest improvements. He chose to fortify all the forts around the city that George Washington had dismissed as unnecessary. He backed down on his assessments to Washington’s face, but continued to lobby his friends in Congress, to the annoyance of the officers he had to work with on a daily basis. He kept on irritating them with his insistence that the army would soon see the light and he would be put in charge of artillery.

And them.

His insufferability came to an end when he dramatically rode his horse onto a ferry in the Schuylkill River. He drowned when the horse, a better swimmer than du Coudray himself (and likely as annoyed by his master as the Continental generals were), kept going off the far end of the ferry into the river.

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Host of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast — this is the stuff they never taught us in history class.