Marquis de Lafayette

If you ever travel to Washington, DC, you are quite familiar with Lafayette Park.  Have you ever wondered who was the man that inspired our country's leaders to name a park near the White House after him?  Many know that the French aided the United States when it rebelled against Great Britain, but few know the great sacrifices many made when they came over here.  The Marquis de Lafayette was one of the Frenchmen who not only risked his life, but used his own money to help our troops - to feed them, clothe them, and train them into good soldiers.
Marquis de Lafayette

The Marquis de Lafayette defied not only his family, but his government when he decided to join the Americans in their battle for freedom. Even though he knew his father-in-law would be upset, he was determined to make his mark in the world.  He had no formal training on the battlefield, but he joined the Continental Army as an officer.  “You will be astonished, my dear papa, by what I am about to tell you, but I have given my word, and you would not have respected me if I had gone back on it.”

On June 9, 1776, the Marquis de Lafayette signed an oath of allegiance.

I, the Marquis de Lafayette, major general in the Continental Army do acknowledge the United States of America to be Free, Independent and Sovereign States, and declare that the people thereof owe no allegiance or obedience to George the Third, King of Great Britain; and I renounce, refuse and abjure any allegiance or obedience to him; and I do swear that I will, to the utmost of my power, support, maintain and defend the said United States against the said King George the Third, his heirs and successors, and his or their abettors, assistants and adherents, and will serve the said United States in the office of major general which I now hold, with fidelity, according to the best of my skill and understanding.”
Lafayette's oath of allegiance to the United States

His Early Life:
 Gilbert de Lafayette was born on September 6, 1757.  His father died during the Seven Years War before Lafayette was even two years old.  He never even knew his father and was raised by his grandmother, aunts, and a private tutor while his mother went to Paris to make proper connections for her young boy. He inherited his titles and lands when he was barely two years old.  When he was eleven, he traveled to Paris to become a gentleman and learn about court manners.  When he was only 13, his mother died, then his grandfather.  He became an extremely wealthy boy.  His great-grandfather enrolled him in a military academy, little realizing what path he was sending Lafayette.  He joined the Black Musketeers as a cadet. While in school, he studied with the comte d’Artois who would later become the king of France.  When he was only 16 he was married to Adrienne (the duc d’Ayen’s second daughter) on April 11, 1774.  His wife was only 14.

He was made a lieutenant in the Noailles Dragroons.  He was promised a commission as a captain when he turned 18 years old.  He and his wife had a daughter, Henriette.  When there were cuts in military spending, he became a man with a commission but no experience.
Louis XVI

Marie Antoinette

His military career:
When he was barely 18, he had dinner with the duke of Gloucester.  While they were dining, they men spoke about the American rebellion.  Lafayette realized he had man similarities with the men.  “When I first heard of [the colonists] quarrel, my heart was enlisted.”

When he spoke to some of his compatriots, he realized many of them felt as he did about them.  The France longed to pay England back for taking Canada during the Seven Years War (we called it the French and Indian War).  When he spoke to some of his friends, he realized they also wanted to fight for American independence.  France begins to offer volunteers to enlist.  The Marquis really wanted to do it with them.  He is introduced to Silas Deane is recruiting Frenchmen to join the cause.  Baron Johann de Kalb is helping to recruit the volunteers.  When Lafayette joins, he is the first soldier who is an aristocrat to join.  Lafayette is full of ideas and he convinces the baron that because of his status, he should be at least a general (he hopes his high rank will appease his father-in-law and smooth the way for him to get permission to go.). The baron speaks with Silas Deane, the Patriot who has come recruiting Frenchmen and the man agrees.  Lafayette is promised a commission as a major general, hoping his high rank would save him or/and the life the patriots by supplying goods.  On December 7, 1776, the contract is drawn up.
Lafayette charging on the battlefield

Unfortunately, when France learns so many young men are leaving to fight in the war, the king is furious.  Some are too young (even Lafayette at the age of 19 is considered under age and must ask permission).  The king orders the ports closed to ships leaving and that any man found leaving should be arrested.  Lafayette is determined to leave so he uses some of his great fortune to purchase a ship – La Victoire – to transport many of the volunteers.  He has the ship refitted and prepared to depart. When he reaches the ship, they travel to San Sebastian in Spain before a messenger from the king reaches them.  He hopes to convince the king of his cause (after all, France is supporting the patriots secretly, so why not let them go and have a glorious victory?).  The baron does not want Lafayette to change his mind, so he sends his own messenger stating the king will support him and that ALL of Paris thinks he is quite the adventurer.  (This is far from the truth).  On April 26, 1777, La Victoire finally leaves for the American colonies.  It took 54 days to travel across the ocean.
Independence Hall

East Conference Room

When Lafayette reaches the colonies, he lands on a beach in South Carolina, far from the town of Charleston which is being blockaded by British ships.  Lafayette is first laughed at, but once he explains he has a ship full of supplies for the colonists, they take him in and celebrate him and all the Frenchmen who have arrived.  His ship is unloaded and sent back to France for more supplies (all of which he uses his own money to purchase for the colonists).  Then Lafayette and his men travel to Philadelphia to speak to the Continental Congress and bring their letters of intent from Silas Deane.
George Washington

Thomas Jefferson

When they reach Philadelphia on July 27th, they are first turned away.  An influx of volunteers from foreign countries has arrived over the past year and they do not need any more foreign officers.  Disappointed, Lafayette is determined (as any young teenager would be) and he decides he will just return again to plead his case.  He doesn’t need to because Congress sends for him, deciding an officer who is titled like the marquis will be a valuable asset in the war and perhaps France will send more help.  When Lafayette speaks with Congress he states:  “I have the right to exact two favors: one is to serve at my own expense and the other is to serve as a volunteer.” 

Congress finally agrees he can serve and they accept his pledge, but they only let him keep his rank of major general because of his noble status.  They also will not give him command of his own troops because he has never been in battle before.  George Washington likes the young Frenchman and decides to take him under his wing, allowing the man to work with him, but tells Lafayette, he will not get a command until he decides the young man is ready for it.  The two men form a comfortable companionship – like a father and son.  In their letters over the years, one can read the fondness they have for each other.
Room with King Louis' portrait

Room with Marie Antoinette's picture

Lafayette’s first experience with battle comes at Brandywine in Pennsylvania.  The battle is intense and the young Frenchman tries to keep the patriots from retreating too quickly.  He realizes they cannot be captured and leads them to safety.  In the exchange, he is wounded in the leg, but even with the wound, he continues to keep his men safe.  Washington meets up with Lafayette in Chester, where the young man is organizing his men to defend a bridge at Chester Creek, refusing to give it up to the British.  More than 1000 men are wounded or killed in the Battle of Brandywine, but only 500 British.  Washington orders the young man to get his leg treated.  He sends Lafayette to Philadelphia to recuperate, but when he learns the city will be attacked, he orders the evacuation.  Congress heads to York and Lafayette is sent to Bethlehem for more recuperation.  On September 26, 1777, Philadelphia is occupied by the British.

When Lafayette returns to command, he asks to join General Greene who will be checking to see how strong the British outposts around Philadelphia are.  Lafayette is given a command of 400 riflemen for the task.  They attack the outpost and push the British back.  Washington lauds him for his bravery in the exchange.  Now Washington feels the young man is capable of handling his own division.  At the age of 20, Lafayette becomes the youngest general in the Continental Army (and it’s not honorary any longer).  Lafayette picks a division of Virginians in honor of Washington’s home.

During the upcoming winter, Washington and his troops decide to remain at Valley Forge.  The location is ideal to watch over the British.  It is on a plateau, it is heavily wooded so the trees can be used to build log huts, and it is easily defended against attack.  While the troops are there, Lafayette longs to travel to Canada, to retake New France from the British (land taken during the Seven Years War).  He feels his country will be excited if he takes this back for them.  Unfortunately, when he reaches Albany, he discovers the troops and supplies are not enough.  Instead, he joins General Schuyler who is traveling to speak to the Six Nations (the Iroquois).  The Native Americans are impressed by the Frenchman and call him Kayewla – after an Iroquois warrior. 

By the time he returns to Valley Forge, it is overflowing with supplies and a German – Baron von Steuben is there.  The baron is whipping the ragtag patriots into shape, teaching them how to march and maneuvers.  While at Valley Forge, Lafayette wrote home to his family and friends to support the patriots.  During this time, France finally recognized the United States as a free country.  Silas Deane’s brother brought the news to Lafayette that the two countries had signed a treaty.
Baron von Steuben

On May 18, 1778, he was sent to see what was happening in Philadelphia.  Washington heard rumors that Howe was being replaced by Clinton who would bring thousands of troops with him.  Lafayette took 2500 troops and 5 cannons to check out the situation.  He also brought along 47 Oneida Indians who had joined him from Albany.  Lafayette camped on Barren Hill, about 2 miles from Philadelphia.  While he was there, a deserted left his camp and snuck into Philadelphia to tell Howe of the patriots.  On May 20th, the British came up from behind and attacked the men.  Howe sent 8000 men, thinking he would capture the Frenchman and bring him back to England as a prize.  Lafayette managed to escape across the Schuykill River with his men.  Word had reached Washington who sent von Steuben to help Lafayette.  Howe was forced to retreat.  Lafayette returned to Barren Hill the next day.  They discovered the British evacuated Philadelphia once they learned French troops would be arriving on ships to blockage the city and kick the British out.  Clinton wanted to leave before the French arrive.  As the British are leaving, Lafayette is told to follow them and annoy them.  As they are leaving, Lafayette’s men shoot at them along the way and generally make their life miserable.  The British make it to Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey.  As Lafayette and his men are getting closer, the British sneak away under cover of night.

Lafayette still wants to travel to Canada and retake New France.  He asks to travel to France to speak with the King of France to ask for even more assistance, knowing if he does, he will succeed.  Benjamin Franklin, who is the ambassador to France, is told to work with Lafayette to garner more help.  On February 6, 1779, he returns to France for the first time in 2 years.  He is placed under house arrest for 8 days as punishment for defying the king’s orders when he first left France. Lafayette writes an apology to the king and waits.  The king finally accepts his apology and even praises him for his bravery.  He has returned a hero.  Unfortunately, Canada is not an option.  He asks for other assistance.  France agrees to send troop but they are not given to Lafayette.  Instead, the troops are given to a more seasoned man – the comte de Rochambeau.  Lafayette would merely be the liaison between Rochambeau and Washington.

While in France, he learns his first daughter, Henriette had died while he was in Valley Forge.  His wife gives him a son who is named George, after Lafayette’s mentor – George Washington.

On March 5, 1780, Lafayette leaves France with part of the French fleet and a promise the rest would follow.  On April 27, 1780, they land in Massachusetts.  He rejoins Washington in Morristown, New Jersey.  Rochambeau does not bring the rest of the troops and ships right away.  Washington is disappointed, but once he listens to the older Frenchman’s ideas, he agrees.  The French will break the British blockage first and then send the rest of the troops.  While waiting, Lafayette is given command of 2000 troops.  He gives them new uniforms and trains them every day.  He longed to see more battle, but Washington warned him to be patient.  Washington felt the battles should be focused in the South, not the North. 
Comte de Rochambeau

He sent Lafayette to Virginia with 1200 men.  He was to go against Benedict Arnold, capture him, and if need be, hang the traitor.  He reached Richmond and fought the British attack.  He managed to fool the British that he had twice the number of men by firing off volley after volley in quick succession.  General Cornwallis decides to go help Arnold and sends troops north.  Benedict Arnold escapes north.  Cornwallis exclaims “The boy cannot escape me.  I shall now proceed to dislodge him from Richmond.”  He vows to capture Lafayette and send him to London in chains.  Lafayette is outnumbered 4 to 1.  He retreats to the Richmond countryside to await reinforcements, but wreaks havoc on Cornwallis by sniping at the troops who are trying to find him.  He picks off the troops, sabotages his advance, and tricks them at every turn.

Cornwallis did not capture him!

Instead, Cornwallis is given orders to more to the Virginia coast to create a port for the British to reach Philadelphia.  Lafayette follows Cornwallis and continues to harass him as he goes.  Because of this move, word spreads across the countryside that Lafayette is chasing Cornwallis who is seen as retreating instead.  In July, the reinforcements finally join Lafayette.  Cornwallis is stopped in Yorktown.  Lafayette surrounds Cornwallis and continues to strike out at the general, making the British totally confused by the attacks. 

Washington learns that 29 French ships are coming.  Rochambeau leaves New York and heads south to join Lafayette and Washington at Yorktown.  He meets Washington in New Jersey first and they head for Yorktown.  Over 20,000 men face Cornwallis at Yorktown.  The siege starts on October 9, 1781.  Washington assigned Redoubt #9 to the French and Redoubt #10 to be taken by Lafayette.  Unfortunately, Hamilton charged #10 and took it with little resistance.  Lafayette joined the French in capturing #9.  On October 17, 1781, Cornwallis asked for a truce.  On October 19th, he surrendered.  The Revolutionary War was finally over and the Patriots had won, with assistance from Lafayette and other Frenchmen like Rochambeau.
Lafayette's cannon

Map of Yorktown

Redoubt #9

Redoubt #10

In January of 1782, Lafayette returned to France a hero.  He was celebrated wherever he went.  He returned to his wife, Adrienne.  They had another daughter, Virginie, who was named in honor of Washington’s home.  In 1784, he returned to America to see his good friend, Washington.  He traveled around the country meeting people and they all thanked him for his assistance.

He spent the rest of life working for liberty with his own people.  He was accused of treason.  When noblemen were being captured by the citizens and killed, he surrendered to France’s enemies.  He was imprisoned in Prussia and Austria.  Members of his wife’s family were killed during the French Revolution.  His wife was sent to prison but was freed with the help of Gouveurnor Morris, one of the leading men in America’s fight for freedom, and James Monroe, who eventually became the fourth president of the United States.  She was able to join him in prison in Austria.  He became known as the prisoner of Olmutz.  In 1797, he was finally released and went to live in Denmark for the rest of his life.  Finally in 1800, he was allowed to return to France.
Gouveurnor Morris

In 1824, he was 67 years old and he was invited to return to the United States.  He toured all the states ad spoke to those who came to see him.  One person commented he spoke very good English.  His response was:  “And why should I not speak English?  I am an American after all – just returned from a long visit in Europe.”  He toured the country for thirteen months.

In 1834, Lafayette died.  He was buried outside of Paris on a plot of land created from soil he brought back during his travels ten years before.  The soil was from Bunker Hill and Brandywine Creek.  He wanted to be buried on American soil.

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