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Courtesy of Historic Deerfield
Courtesy of Historic Deerfield
In 1782, Pierre “Peter” Charles L’Enfant, a French-born Continental Army engineer, created the panoramic watercolor views of the army’s encampments at Verplanck’s Point and West Point. The son of an artist, L’Enfant studied at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris. He crossed the ocean to volunteer for America. In 1778, during the Valley Forge winter, he received a commission as captain of engineers. Unsatisfied with such a technical role, L’Enfant went south in hopes of distinguishing himself in combat. In 1779, he fought at Savannah, Georgia and was badly wounded in the leg. He rejoined the army in 1780, and fought while leaning on a crutch during the Siege of Charleston, South Carolina. Taken prisoner with the rest of the Charleston garrison in 1780, L’Enfant missed the Siege of Yorktown in 1781. When he painted these watercolors in 1782, he was still nursing hurt feelings that he had missed the chance for glory and promotion at Yorktown. After the siege of Yorktown, L’Enfant returned to the Continental Army, and wrote to Washington from Philadelphia on February 18, 1782, asking for a promotion. He then moved with the army from Philadelphia to the Hudson Highlands in the spring of 1782.

 I wish for promotion and it is on this principle I have taken the liberty to address this to you.”

Captain Pierre Charles L’Enfant to General George Washington, February 18, 1782

L’Enfant the Designer

Because of his engineering and design skills, L’Enfant may have taken a keen interest in the Continental Army’s encampment at Verplanck’s Point, specifically the decorative bowers that the soldiers built. L’Enfant had some experience designing temporary structures. In April 1782, Anne-César, chevalier de La Luzerne, the French ambassador to the United States, recalled L’Enfant to Philadelphia and requested that he design an open-air pavilion to honor the birth of the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne. La Luzerne hosted a large celebration under L’Enfant’s structure on July 15, 1782. Hundreds of people attended, including George Washington and General Rochambeau, who also met to discuss their next campaign.

After the celebration, Washington returned to the Hudson Highlands and so did L’Enfant. The highly ornate pavilion that L’Enfant designed in Philadelphia and another large temporary bower that the Continental Army built at West Point in May 1782, also to celebrate the Dauphin, may have influenced the decorative bowers that the army built at Verplanck’s Point. 

Image Credit: Museum of the American Revolution, Gift of the Landenberger Family Foundation

Hundreds crowded daily to see a large frame building which [La Luzerne] had erected for a dancing room on one side of his house. This building, which was sixty feet in front and forty feet deep, was supported by large painted pillars, and was open all around. The ceiling was decorated with several pieces of neat paintings emblematic of the design of the entertainment.”

Dr. Benjamin Rush, July 16, 1782
Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park Anne-César, chevalier de La Luzerne

Designing Honor

L’Enfant designed one of the American Revolution’s most controversial insignias. In May 1783 at Fishkill, New York, the officers of the Continental Army formed a fraternal organization called the “Society of the Cincinnati.” The Society was named for the Roman General Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus who gave up his military command and returned to his farm. Only former French and Continental Army officers who had served at least three years could join. The members asked L’Enfant to design their badge. He designed a golden eagle-shaped decoration suspended from a blue ribbon. The badge was a hit at Versailles, where French members wore it proudly. In America, Continental Army officers who wore the badge met controversy because they voted to make Society membership hereditary.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Society of the Cincinnati badge
Courtesy of Historic Deerfield Society of the Cincinnati Diploma

Artist of Cities

Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s watercolors have significance for the history of urban planning in America. Though temporary, the Continental Army’s encampments were some of the largest “cities” of Revolutionary America. L’Enfant’s paintings of West Point and Verplanck’s Point allow us to see two encampments through the eyes of the man who became the new American republic’s most significant city planner. In 1791, President Washington appointed L’Enfant to design the new capital of the United States. The current locations of the White House, the Capitol, and the grid- and star-shaped diagonal street system of Washington, D.C., were all laid out by L’Enfant.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C. L’Enfant’s Plan for the City of Washington
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