Von Heer's Provost Corps Marechausee: The Army's Military Police
An All Pennsylvania German Unit

David L. Valuska, Ph.D., Von Heer's Provost Corps, "Marechausee"

In July of 1776, as General George Washington rode into the camps of the fledgling American army he was struck by the lack of military discipline. He quickly discovered that few gave orders and few obeyed. The militia men paid little heed to their officers and the camps had little semblance of order.

Some of the enduring problems were desertion, drunkenness, marauding, rioting, and straggling. The army was also plagued by unscrupulous and unlicensed suttlers, as well as undesirable women who had filtered in among the much needed legitimate camp followers. The problem of spies infiltrating the ranks was a constant source of irritation. There was also the question of handling and punishing soldiers guilty of a breach of military conduct or British prisoners captured in the course of battle.

Washington used the British model to meet his needs and on his staff officers he had: A Quartermaster General, Adjutant General, Judge Advocate, Paymaster General, Commissary General of Musters, Commissary General of Provisions, Clothier General, Chief Surgeon, and Chief Engineer, but there was no provision for a Provost Marshal. On July 20, 1775, General Washington petitioned the Continental Congress to create such a position. Congress responded nine days later authorizing the appointment of a Provost Marshal with pay commensurate to other officers in the army. Continental Congress adopted the Articles of War on August 10, 1775 with further amendments on September 20, 1775. These Articles described the rules of behavior for soldiers and civilians affiliated with the army.

The job of the Provost was to oversee the enforcement of the Articles, a thankless and impossible task. To assist the Provost, men were recruited to act as provosts in their regiments. In January of 1777 a regulation was passed indicating the number of men and their ranks to be detailed from the various regiments. There was to be one sergeant and 25 privates assigned at all times from the various regiments. This was not considered permanent duty and the men were given short terms to serve as provosts. From the period of January 1776 until the encampment at Valley Forge the Continental Army had three Provost Marshals.

Washington was not happy with the make shift effort of the Provost, and On January 29, 1778, General Washington declared that there must be a major reorganization of the army and in that reorganization there must be a permanent Provost Corps. The men were to receive higher pay, and there was to be a higher ratio of officer to enlisted men. It is interesting to note that nearly all men recruited into the Provost Corps were Pennsylvania German. The majority of the men were recruited in the Reading, PA area with a large number coming out of Pottstown, PA down into Philadelphia.

On May 20, 1778, the Continental Congress passed a resolution forming a permanent Provost Corps, or as General Washington called the new organization, the "Marechausee" a term used by the French to identify their military police. Bartholomew von Heer of Reading, PA was appointed to command the new corps. Von Heer had written to General Washington in September of 1777, and he pointed out that he had served in the army's of Prussia, France and Spain and that all of these armies had a military police. Von Heer then wrote out the details for an American military police, and eventually was assigned to command this new Corps. ( The Provost Corps was identified by several names during the war: The Marechausee, von Heer's Provost Corps or von Heer's Light Dragoons).

On June 6, 1778, orders were issued for the establishment of the new Provost Corps. There were to be 63 men and they were to be armed, uniformed and accoutered as light dragoons. In addition to von Heer, there were four lieutenants, one Quartermaster Sergeant, and one clerk. The Corps was divided into two troops with a trumpeter, a sergeant and five corporals assigned to each troop. There were 43 dragoons and four executioners. The Marechausee wore blue coats with yellow facings and vests, leather breeches and a visored leather helmet typical of those worn by light dragoons. Von Heer's Light Dragoons were to be mounted giving them the mobility needed to carry out their mission.

On October 8, 1778, a memorandum of instructions was sent from Washington's Headquarters to Captain Bartholomew von Heer with the following orders:

"The principal Duty of the Corps under your command while the army is encamped is to patrole the camp and its environs, for the purpose of apprehending Deserters, Marauders, Drunkards, Rioters, Stragglers and all other soldiers that may be found violating General Orders—likewise all Countrymen and Strangers that may be found near the pickets, or in the Camp, without papers either from the Quartermaster General, the Commissary General of Forage and Provisions, or some General Officer—and are unable to give a good account of themselves—or from their appearance and manner give room to suspect they are spies. Even persons who are furnished with papers as required above are to be secured if their stay in Camp exceeds a reasonable time for the transaction of their business—and is accompanied by any suspicious circumstances—but in all cases, the character of the party, and such authentic credentials as may be possessed of, are to be attended to. As it is impossible to make General Rules which will apply to every particular case that may occur much must be left to your own discretion, but you will always remember that you are as careful to avoid laying innocent free citizens under any unnecessary restraint and inconvenience, on the one hand as risking any mischief to the Army from ill placed lenity on the other.

For the purpose above-mentioned your corps is to be distributed into convenient number of parties, and an officer appointed to each to patrol the Camp and its vicinity in the front and in the rear, for certain distance beyond the pickets, according to the enemy—at different hours by day and sometimes by night; carefully avoiding any fixed times for making the rounds, that they maybe as unforeseen as possible.

As the booths of the unlicensed Suttlers are a great source of disorder and riot, you are to confine all such as have not proper permission to suttle agreeable to the General Orders of—For your direction in this point it will be necessary for you to keep a regular list of the licensed Suttlers—you are likewise when the Army arrives at a new encamping ground, to give notice to such housekeepers as sell liquors either to obtain the Quartermaster General's license—or discontinue the Sale of their Liquor and in the case of their neglect to seize and report it to the Commissary General.

On a day of March you are to remain on the ground with the Provost Corps till the Columns and baggage have moved off in order to bring on all soldiers that have loitered in Camp. During the March you are to patrol on both flanks and in the rear of the columns and take up all stragglers, under which description are included all soldiers absent from their platoons without a Non-Commissioned Officer to conduct them. You are likewise to pay attention to the columns of baggage and take up whatever men and women may be found transgressing the General Orders for the regulation of the baggage on the march.

On a day of action you are to post yourself in the rear of the second line or reserve and send patrols on the roads to the right and left in order to rally and collect all fugitives till a superior officer arrives to take command of them.

You are not to omit having a copy of General Orders each day—and it will be proper that you should take extracts at the orderly office of all standing orders, that you may serve more minutely to point out the offenses which fall under your cognizance.

You are not to apprehend any offenders that are within the encampment of their own Regiments as they in that case will be within the Jurisdiction of their own Quarter Guard—but all offenders that may be found in the encampment of a Regiment to which they do not belong or in the purlieus of the Camp out of reach of their own Quarter Guard—fall under your notice. The persons you apprehend are not to be ill treated by words or actions unless they attempt to escape, or make resistance in which case should your own force prove inadequate, you are authorized to call for assistance from the troops nearest you, but otherwise they are to be conducted peaceably and committed to the Provost Guard, which will be quartered near you for this purpose, and will be under your command.

You are every morning to deliver in a written report of the prisoners confined the preceding day, with the charges against them, to the Adjutant General: and you are to consider yourself as being under his immediate command.

The Executions, etc. are to remain with the Provost Guard and a detachment of the Marechausee will attend the prisoners to the Place of Punishment."

Washington also called upon the Marechausee to act as an honor guard, and on infrequent occasions members of von Heer's Provost Corps acted as a body guard for the commanding general. The Marechausee has the distinction to be one of the last units discharged from the Continental Army after hostilities had ceased.

Copyright © 2007 David L. Valuska. All rights reserved.