The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 13: June 2010


For want of this precaution so many Men lose their Arms:" Official, Semi-Official and Unofficial American Artillery Texts, 1775-1815 Part 6

By Donald E. Graves

The Beginning of French Influence: De Scheel's Treatise and the Founding of West Point, 1795-1802

The system of tactics in use in our service are those of the French; not that opinion is settled among our officers on this point; some preferring the English. In favor of the French, it may be said, that there is really more affinity between the military aptitude of the American and French soldier, than between that of the former and the English; and that the French systems are the results of a broader platform of experience, submitted to the careful analysis of a body of officers, who, for science and skill combined, stand unrivalled; whereas the English owes more to individual than to general talents.

Dennis Hart Mahan, Out-Post, 1847

The years immediately following the publication of Stevens’ Pocket Companion were interesting ones in the history of American artillery literature. One man, Louis de Tousard (1748-1817), played a prominent role and his career is therefore worth examining at length. Tousard first arrived in America in 1777 as a member of du Coudray's party of French military advisors. Unlike many in that group he proved his worth and fought with distinction at Brandywine and Germantown in 1777, suffered through the long winter at Valley Forge, and lost an arm at Newport in 1778 while leading an attack on a British battery. For this action Congress awarded Tousard a lifetime pension of $30 per month (no small sum) and, at the end of hostilities, Tousard was made a member of the Order of Cincinnati. He returned to Europe in 1783 where he received the Cross of St. Louis and re-entered the French army. In the late 1780s he campaigned in Santo Domingo as the commander of an infantry regiment but was recalled to France in 1792 by the new revolutionary government and imprisoned as a suspected royalist. He was released in 1793, possibly as a result of American diplomatic intervention, and returned to the United States where he purchased property near Wilmington, Delaware. In 1795, with the backing of President George Washington, Tousard was commissioned a major in the U.S. Artillery and Engineers with the primary duties of constructing and repairing coastal fortifications and proofing ordnance.[1]

A graduate of French military schools Tousard was concerned with the training of American artillery and engineer officers. It was a concern shared by Washington, a personal friend, who "often lamented the absolute want of an elementary treatise on artillery, and the scarcity of English books on this branch of the service" which the president regarded as "an obstacle to the progress of instruction."[2]

Tousard looked at other ways of increasing his adopted country's military preparedness. He suggested to a recent immigrant, Eleuthere du Pont de Nemours, a former student of the renowned Antoine Lavoisier, that du Pont establish a gunpowder factory because Tousard knew the poor quality of American powder and doubted the wisdom of the republic relying on better quality foreign powder. This advice was taken; Du Pont Chemical had its beginning; and the rest is corporate history. In 1798, when tensions between France and the United States reached the point of undeclared war, there was widespread fear that the French would launch an attack on the seacoast and the U.S. Engineers put much effort into strengthening existing fortifications and building new ones. Ironically, many of the military engineers in American service at this time were expatriate Frenchmen including Tousard. He was concerned that if the United States became involved in a shooting war (particularly with France), it would have to turn to civilian engineers. He believed that the United States should be able to educate its own military specialists and, in 1798, submitted a lengthy memorandum to Secretary of War James McHenry entitled "Formation for a School of Artillerists and Engineers."[3]

The idea of a military academy was not a new one in the United States. During the Revolutionary War the Regiment of Invalids of the Continental Army had operated a basic training school for gunners and engineers. Between 1784 and 1798, various proposals had been put forward to start a national academy, most with the backing of President Washington, but had foundered on disinterest or lack of funds. Tousard's lengthy memorandum differed from previous proposals in that it provided a detailed and comprehensive curriculum. He patterned it after the artillery schools of Britain and France with emphasis on the students' notes forming their reference manuals for their future service. Although the major emphasis was on engineering, Tousard did not neglect artillery and instructed that two afternoons of the cadets' week were to be spent on live firing practice with mortars, howitzers and field pieces.[4]

Secretary of War McHenry liked Tousard's ideas and used his memorandum for his own proposals which he put forward to the Committee of Commerce and Defence late in 1798. At this point, Alexander Hamilton, the inspector-general of the large army being raised for a possible war with France, got hold of the proposal and enlarged it into a much more ambitious scheme for the creation of a training academy that would serve both the army and the navy. All cadets would complete a "Fundamental" course of two years, which would be followed by a specialized course for their respective services: two years for the artillery and engineers and one year for navy, infantry and cavalry. This plan was submitted to Washington who approved it on the day preceding his death in December 1798 and it then went forward to Congress but problems concerned with political infighting, shortage of funds, personal agendas and a forthcoming election delayed progress. Along the way the naval component was dropped but a location for the new institution was chosen at West Point, New York. The first teacher, George Baron, a former member of the faculty of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, was appointed in January 1801. Three months later, Tousard was appointed inspector-general of artillery and ordered to West Point where he "was to give all the assistance" in his power to "the instruction of such officers and cadets" as might be at that post.[5]

Given his background and his interest in officer education Louis de Tousard had the reasonable expectation that he would eventually be appointed the superintendent of the new institution.  Although his duties as inspector-general necessitated his absence on lengthy journeys, he did what he could to get the new institution up and running and was present on 21 September when Baron gave the first class to twelve cadets. In December of that year, however, Tousard learned that Major Jonathan Williams, the inspector-general of fortifications, had been named superintendent of the academy and worse news shortly followed. The coming to power of Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party had resulted in a government that disliked large permanent military establishments and foreign-born officers. This, coupled with a decrease in tension as the United States settled its differences with France led to a reduction in the size of the American armed forces and the dismissal of most French officers in the service of the United States. Tousard saw that it was time to go and asked for his release. He received an honourable discharge on 1 June 1802, returned to the French army and three months later was serving in Santo Domingo. We have not heard the last of him.

The new superintendent of West Point, Jonathan Williams (1751-1815), had been in the army less than a year when he received his appointment but he had a distinguished background. The son of Benjamin Franklin's niece, Williams accompanied his famous great-uncle on a number of diplomatic missions abroad, before and during the Revolutionary War. He was serving as commercial attaché at Nantes in the late 1770s when he became interested in the subject of fortifications, an interest incited by his personal inspection of the medieval fortresses in that city. He graduated from Harvard with an A.M. in 1787 before serving as a judge in Philadelphia and as secretary of the American Philosophical Society which had among its members most American interested in science, including Jefferson, who became a personal friend. Williams' interest in matters military never waned, however, and in 1799 at the behest of Secretary of War McHenry, he translated from the French portions of Henri Othon de Scheel's Mémoires d'Artillerie. The result, published in 1800, became the first official text of the United States Artillery.[6]

It was a good choice. De Scheel's work had first appeared in 1777 but a larger, revised edition had been brought out by Magimel of Paris in 1795, as part of the explosion in French military literature that occurred during the early years of the French republic.[7] De Scheel offered the best source for the construction of the materiel of the système Gribeauval as Gribeauval's own plates were not published until 1792 and only then in a very limited edition of 104 copies with circulation restricted to French military circles.[8] The U.S. War Department, aware now of the importance of the Gribeauval system and wanting a text for the design and construction of artillery and artillery carriages to replace the obsolescent works of Muller and Stevens, was willing to translate that part of de Scheel's Mémoires relating to those matters and to foot the cost of engraving a new set of plates to illustrate them. The abridgement and translation was done by Jonathan Williams in 1798-1799 and the result was the printing in 1800 of a thousand copies of A Treatise of Artillery: Containing A New System, or The Alterations made in the French Artillery, Since 1765, Translated from the French of M. De Scheel, in two volumes: one of text and one of plates.[9] The publication of this work marked the formal introduction of the système Gribeauval to the United States and the beginning of the decline of British influence in French artillery circles.

(To be continued)


[1]. Graves, Donald E., "Louis de and his Artillerist's Companion: an investigation of Source Material for Napoleonic period Ordnance," The Canadian Journal of Arms Collecting, 21 (2), 51-53.  

[2]. Tousard, Louis de, American Artillerist's Companion, or Elements of Artillery 2 vol. Philadelphia, 1809 vol. 1, v.

[3]. Wilkinson, Norman, "Forgotten 'Founder' of West Point," Military Affairs, vol. 24 (March 1960), 178.

[4]. Wilkinson, "Forgotten Founder," 179.

[5]. Wilkinson, "Forgotten Founder," 180.

[6]. On Williams see D.E. Graves, "Louis de Tousard and his 'Artillerist's Companion'' Canadian Journal of Arms Collecting, vol. 21, no. 2 (May 1983).

[7]. William worked from Mémoires d'Artillerie, contenant l'Artillerie nouvelle; ou, Les changements faits dans l'Artillerie françoise en 1765. Avec l'exposé et l'analyse des objections qui ont ete faites contre ces changements 2 vol. Paris, 1795.

[8]. Jean-Baptiste Gribeauval, Tables des Constructions des Principaux Attirails de l'Artillerie Published in Paris in 1792 in three volumes of text and a large atlas of plates.

[9]. The printer was John Ward Fenno of Philadelphia. A new edition, introduced and annotated by the author, was brought out in 1984 as De Scheel's Treatise on Artillery.




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