Frederick Gotthold Enslin: An obscure military life

by Maureen Renee Zieber

As it entered the port of Philadelphia on Sept. 30, 1774, a ship called Union, commanded by Andrew Bryson, completed its long voyage that began in Rotterdam, Netherlands, some months before. The ship held 132 souls on board, but one man in particular was bound for new adventures. According to ship records, this man arrived in the colonies alone and in relative good health for a man in his late 20s to early 30s. On the ship’s roster, the name would appear as “Gotthold Fried. Enslin,” but he would be known as Frederick Gotthold Enslin in future, fractured accounts of his whereabouts. According to his military records with Valley Forge, Enslin (b. 1740) was living in New Jersey when he enlisted in the Continental Army in March 1777.

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, military companies were community-based militia that protected the boundaries of their towns and surrounding areas. To protect the fledging country, more companies were needed, and those who enlisted were more often than not sent from their villages to strategic areas of conflict. So when Enslin enlisted, he awaited his assignment and was mustered into Malcolm’s Regiment, June 1777, in Ramapo, N.J. The regiment made its way toward its temporary quarters in Valley Forge.

The military rank and order during that time was slightly different than the military rank and order of today’s U.S. military. To become familiar with the rank and order of early colonial armies, it will help further explain the events which unfolded for Lt. Enslin in his last days in the military. One rank that was abolished from the United States Army in the early 19th century was the rank of ensign. This rank came about to designate the person holding the ensign of the military unit, also called the unit flag, token or symbol. The ensign was considered a junior rank of a commissioned officer. The ensign answered to a lieutenant, and a lieutenant position would answer to a captain. The captain would be in charge of the company and answer to the field officers with the rank of major, lieutenant colonel and colonel.

Little to nothing is known about the early life of Enslin, but is it believed he was educated and from a family of high standing in Europe, possibly southern Germany, due to reports that his command of the English language was outstanding and his penmanship was well formed. His approximate year of birth was 1740. When Enslin enlisted, he was given the appointment of lieutenant in the Continental Army. His assignment was under the command of Col. William Malcolm and Lt. Col. Aaron Burr. Malcolm’s regiment was formed in mid-1777, and placed into the 3rd Pennsylvania Brigade after a lengthy encampment at Valley Forge.

Enslin’s life began to crumble in February 1778. Camp gossip started to circulate of suspicious behavior between Enslin and a private in the ranks. An official report was given by Ensign Anthony Maxwell to Malcolm on Feb. 27, stating that Enslin was caught in his quarters with a private, and Enslin was guilty of “attempted sodomy with a private.” Enslin tried to quell the rumors, calling the charges slander against his character. Thus, charges of slander were set against Maxwell, and brought before the commanding officer in charge of the issue, which was Burr, as Malcolm was in New York.

Maxwell’s court-martial stated he was “propagating a scandalous report prejudicial to the character of Lt. Enslin.” After due diligence was made and a report filed, Burr acquitted Maxwell on March 10, 1778, once evidence was brought forward against Enslin. This began a persistent investigation on the report of sodomy against Enslin and the private. It was officially documented that the private entangled in the “attempted sodomy” charge was Pvt. John Monhort.

The investigation was degrading to Enslin, and no matter what defense he took, he was ultimately found guilty for the charge of “attempting to commit sodomy.” Additionally, a second charge was placed against him, for perjury. The perjury charge found Enslin was guilty “in swearing to false accounts, found guilty of the charges exhibited against him, being breaches of 5th. Article 18th. Section of the Articles of War” (Library of Congress). Tried and convicted by Burr, the case was then brought before Gen. George Washington. On March 14, 1778, Washington’s secretary made a notation that Washington quickly looked over the charges, and sentenced Enslin to be dismissed from his post and the military service with “Infamy” (Library of Congress). Ensign’s humiliation didn’t stop there.

The next morning, under watch from the field commanders, and in front of the entire regiment, Enslin was officially — literally — drummed out of camp to fife and drum. One diary entry, by Lt. James McMichael, described the ceremony. McMichael, a Scotland native, was enlisted the 13th Pennsylvania Regiment under the command of Col. Weedon. After Valley Forge, his diary was mailed home. After the war, his ship sank returning to Scotland. The diary entry is as follows:

“March 15. — I this morning proceeded to the grand parade, where I was a spectator to the drumming out of Lieut. Enslin of Col. Malcom’s regiment. He was first drum’d from right to left of the parade, thence to the left wing of the army; from that to the centre, and lastly transported over the Schuylkill with orders never to be seen in Camp in the future. This shocking scene was performed by all the drums and fifes in the army — the coat of the delinquent was turned wrong side out.”

Being drummed out ensured the guilty party would be recognized and not allowed to reenlist in the future.

This was a major blow to now-private citizen Enslin. For the rest of his life — and to present day — he would become known as the first person to be dishonorably discharged due to his sexual orientation. If broken down to figure out the exact meaning of the charges, it reads that Enslin was being dismissed on a case of attempted rape of a soldier. The only other person there that could have detailed the event was Monhort. It is only known that Monhort received a court-martial after Enslin was drummed out. Nothing describes the severity of the court-martial, or whether Monhort was also dismissed from the military, jailed or fined. No other records have been found to ascertain the rest of Monhort’s life.

After the war, the life of Enslin seems just as unclear as his early life before the war. Laws regarding sodomy charges at the time called for imprisonment, but in this case, Enslin was publicly dismissed from the military for his actions. His absence after that event is still perplexing. Some have theorized Enslin changed his name so that he could start his life over after his short military career. Another explanation would be his death, which would account for the lack of further information. Though the rest of his life may have been obscured by history, Enslin secured a place in American history — and gay history.

Maureen Renee Zieber has a bachelor’s degree in history and women’s studies from University of Delaware. She is interim managing director of Iron Hill Museum in Newark, Del.

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