During the cold winter months of February 1778, a 17-year-old Frenchman named Peter Du Ponceau joined the soldiers at the Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, encampment of Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army. Du Ponceau had arrived with Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a former Prussian military officer who had volunteered to serve in the army and train Washington’s soldiers much like professional European soldiers.
The young Frenchman, who also knew how to speak German, English and Italian, was acting as a translator for von Steuben in his new role. Several years later, in 1781, Du Ponceau became a citizen of Pennsylvania; and after the war, he became a lawyer. In 1836, he wrote some letters about his time at Valley Forge, including one particularly interesting story that occurred sometime before the British evacuated Philadelphia June 18, 1778, and the Continental Army left Valley Forge in pursuit.
One morning, while out for a walk before breakfast, Du Ponceau heard a voice singing a fashionable French opera song. In his own words, Du Ponceau wrote: “I cannot describe to you how my feelings were affected by hearing those strains so pleasing and so familiar to me, sung by what seemed to be a supernatural voice, such as I had never heard before, and yet melodious and in perfect good taste. I thought myself for a moment at the Comedie Italienne and was lost in astonishment …”
There, in the woods of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, amid the awful mess that had been the winter encampment of Washington’s Continental Army, was “a tall Indian figure in American regimentals” with “two large epaulettes on his shoulders” singing French opera…