Marquis de Lafayette from the National Archives
Editor’s Note: As the French tall ship replica L’Hermione makes her way up the East Coast to celebrate the relationship between France and the United States for more than two centuries, a series of blogs will discuss four topics: the Marquis de Lafayette; the ship that brought him to America the second time in 1780, L’Hermione; the critical Battle of the Virginia Capes on Sept. 5, 1781, and the Franco-American relationship as it has grown over the past years.
From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Intrigue and danger. Adventure and adversity. Disguises and deception. An escape with an assist from an innkeeper’s daughter. Fueled by passion and courage, bravery and commitment, love and honor, all wrapped up in a teenage French nobleman for whom cities, towns and streets would be named in America.
Such is the life of Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, or as he was most simply known, the Marquis de Lafayette.
His lineage came from warriors fighting for French causes, including serving in Joan of Arc’s army. Born Sept. 16, 1757, Lafayette was not yet two when his father died during the Battle of Minden in 1759. The death of his mother and two other male relatives made him an orphan with great wealth by age 13. He was commissioned an officer in the Musketeers at 14; two years later, he married Marie Andrienne Francoise de Noailles, a 14-year-old relative of King Louis XVI.
But the tall, blond and handsome Lafayette barely tolerated the social aspects of nobility. His serious and reflective disposition created an “unfavorable impression” at the French Court. He was among several younger noblemen who regularly voiced their dissatisfaction with the old institutions of former regimes.
‘A Noble and Just Cause’
In August 1775, the Duke of Gloucester, the brother of British King George III, was traveling through France. The governor of Metz hosted a dinner to honor the Duke, and among the invitees was a young nobleman and officer, Lafayette.
During this dinner Lafayette first heard about the plight of the American colonists in their fight for independence. The Duke disagreed with how his elder brother was handling the uprising and the repressive measures imposed on the colonists following the Battle of Bunker Hill at Charlestown, Mass. June 17, 1775.
Lafayette, just 17, was transfixed by the “just and noble cause” and decided to offer his services to the American Revolution. Lafayette knew his wealthy family would have “nothing but opposition,” yet he remained undeterred, buying a vessel for the trip. He met with American Commissioner Silas Deane, admitting he had more zeal than experience to offer. Deane signed off on a contract with Lafayette in December 1776, offering him a position as a major general.
Lafayette wrote his father-in-law, Duc d’Ayen, he was sailing to America. “I am filled with joy at having found so good an opportunity to increase my experience and to do something in the world. “
Duc d’Ayen disagreed with Lafayette’s “folly” and dispatched a “lettre-de-cachet” forbidding Lafayette to leave France. To escape notice, Lafayette signed port documents at Bordeaux on March 22, 1777, as Gilbert du Motier, using his lesser-known family name.
On March 26, 1777, Lafayette, on La Victoire, sailed for the Spanish coast. He was met by a French courier at Los Pasajes with a directive to return to Bordeaux. Upon his arrival there, Lafayette sent a letter requesting the French Court remove the order. After several days with no reply, Lafayette wrote again, stating their silence was tantamount to consent.
As he left Bordeaux accompanied by an officer, Lafayette told the commandant he was returning to Marseilles. But once outside the gate, the officer, Lafayette’s friend Vicomte de Mauroy, sat in the chaise while the Marquis changed into the clothes of a post-boy and rode along on horseback, headed not for Marseilles, but Los Pasajes.
Their scam was discovered when the innkeeper’s daughter recognized the striking post-boy as the nobleman she saw traveling toward Bordeaux a few days before. When officials following Lafayette’s chaise stopped by, she furthered Lafayette’s ruse by sending the officials in the wrong direction. Lafayette and de Mauroy arrived in Los Pasajes, and they set sail April 20, 1777.
Lafayette, who suffered from sea sickness, spent the long days writing letters to his wife filled with love, longing and the regret he left without seeing her and would not be there for the birth of their second child.
He explained how the quest for freedom drove him to leave his family and country.
“As the defender of that liberty, which I adore, free myself beyond all others, coming as a friend to offer my service to this most interesting republic, I bring with me nothing but my own free heart and my own good will, no ambition to fulfill and no selfish interest to serve; if I am striving for my own glory, I am at the same time laboring for its welfare. …The happiness of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she is destined to become the safe and venerable asylum of virtue, of honesty, of tolerance, of equality, and of peaceful liberty.”
Lafayette Arrives In America
La Victoire sailed into South Inlet, near Georgetown, S.C. on June 13, 1777, after a 54-day cruise and avoiding patrolling British frigates. Needing a pilot to bring them into the bay, Lafayette and a small group of men were taken to the summer home of Maj. Benjamin Huger, who arranged for them to travel to Charleston by horseback while a pilot brought the ship into harbor, an event noted in local newspapers, according to Volume IX of the “Naval Documents of the American Revolution.”
During the 900-mile trek to Pennsylvania, they suffered heat and dysentery, yet through it all, Lafayette kept his optimism and a dry wit, as evidenced by a July 17, 1777 letter he sent his wife from Petersburg, Va.: “You have probably heard of the beginning of my journey and how brilliantly I started out in a carriage. I have to inform you that we are now on horseback, after having broken the wagons in my usual praiseworthy fashion, and I expect to write you before long that we have reached our destination on foot.”
He reached Philadelphia July 27, 1777. His reception was more a “dismissal than a welcome,” Lafayette noted later in life. The Continental Army had attracted a large number of foreigners who wished high rank in the Army. Many were without merit, forcing even Gen. George Washington to despair of hiring foreign officers.
Lafayette traveled too far to be dismissed so easily. He insisted on appearing before Congress, where he made his offer to serve without pay at his own expense.
His youthful enthusiasm and nobility persuaded Congress to a second meeting, and they accepted Lafayette’s commission as a major general. He asked to serve “near the person of General Washington till such time as he may think proper to entrust me with a division of the Army.”
Washington was quite taken by Lafayette’s passion. The two would develop a close bond that would last the rest of Washington’s life.
Lafayette’s first test in battle came during the Battle of Brandywine Sept. 11, 1777, in Delaware County, Penn. The Continental Army had been surprised after the 18,000-strong British Army split into two divisions. Lafayette was shot in the leg while organizing a retreat.
After wintering in Valley Forge with Washington and suffering the same hardships, Lafayette proved his military mettle escaping a British force of 5,000 attempting to capture his 2,100 troops at Barren’s Hill (now renamed Lafayette Hill), Penn., in May 1778, and then a month later was part of Washington’s rally at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey that kept the British from advancing.
L’Hermione during the Battle of Louisbourg, courtesy of The Hermione Project 2015
Lafayette Gains French Support and Ships
Lafayette returned to France in February 1779 where he was placed on house arrest for disobeying orders two years earlier. A week later, he was back in the good graces of the French Court. Appearing before King Louis XVI, Lafayette wore his American major general uniform upon which was stitched his motto: “Cur Non?”, which meant “Why Not?” Adorning the uniform was a gold-encrusted ceremonial sword commissioned and gifted to Lafayette by the Continental Congress. Lafayette persuaded the king to provide 5,500 troops and a fleet of ships to the American cause.
Unlike Lafayette’s first voyage to America, under stealth and subterfuge, he left France on the frigate L’Hermione with the full backing of the French regime. Lafayette arrived in Boston April 28, 1780 to great fanfare.
Back on the battlefield, Lafayette commanded troops in the Siege of Yorktown against British Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis’ army in Virginia. On Sept. 5, 1781, the French and British fleets battled off the Virginia Capes. After the British ships sailed to New York for repairs, the French fleet tightened the blockade of Chesapeake Bay. When army divisions led by Gen. Washington and France’s Comte de Rochambeau surrounded Cornwallis’ troops in late September, and with no respite from the blockade, Cornwallis surrendered Oct. 19, 1781. It was the last major battle of the Revolutionary War.
Following Cornwallis’ surrender, Lafayette left the United States to return to France in December 1781, rejoining the Royal Army. He organized trade agreements with Thomas Jefferson, the American ambassador to France.
The Hero of Two Worlds
As his country edged closer to its own revolution, Lafayette wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, influenced heavily by Thomas Jefferson. He also advocated for a governing body that represented the First Estate (clerics), Second Estate (nobility) and Third Estate (commoners).
When violence broke out in 1789, Lafayette was the commander of the Paris National Guard. His centrist position put him in danger on both sides: The revolutionists felt he was loyal to the royals he protected, while the royals believed he was too sympathetic to the opposition. As the revolution became increasingly radicalized, Lafayette fled the country in 1792, but was captured and imprisoned by Austrian forces.
In 1794, a young medical student named Francis Kinloch Huger, along with others, concocted a scheme to have Lafayette escape from an escorted carriage. Huger was the son of Maj. Benjamin Huger who had assisted Lafayette when he first sailed to America in 1777. Lafayette did escape, but got lost and was recaptured.
Lafayette’s wife, Andrienne, and her two daughters, Anastasie and Virginie, had been held under house arrest and then imprisoned in France. Her sister, mother and grandmother were not as lucky. They were guillotined in July 1794. But in October 1795, Lafayette’s wife and daughters were released from prison to join him for the remaining two years of his captivity.
Upon hearing of Lafayette’s fate, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson put in a request to Congress to pay the French nobleman for his services as major-general from 1777-1781, which was signed by President Washington. That money allowed for more privileges while Lafayette was held in captivity.
Lafayette’s son, Georges Washington Louis Gilbert du Motier, went into hiding with his tutor following the September Massacre in 1792, and then escaped to America in April 1795. He stayed at Mount Vernon with George Washington’s family while studying at Harvard.
Following Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power as emperor of France, Lafayette returned to his homeland in 1799, where he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. Napoleon, however, kept Lafayette from attending the funeral of his close friend, Washington, when he died in December 1799.
Following Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in July 1815, Lafayette argued for Napoleon’s abdication. Throughout the reigns of Charles X and then Louis-Philippe, Lafayette often broke support with the ruling party to press for human rights, liberal nationalism and the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment.
In 1824, Lafayette and his son, Georges Washington, returned to the United States for a grand tour as the young nation ramped up for its 50th anniversary. Along the way, he collected soil from a memorial erected at the location of the first American Revolutionary War battle at Charlestown, Mass. This had been one of the battle stories Lafayette heard during that serendipitous supper in August 1775 with the Duke of Gloucester that sparked his passion to join forces with the colonists.
For their return to France, Lafayette and his son sailed on USS Brandywine, a 3-masted, 44-gun frigate named in honor of the battle where Lafayette shed his own blood for American independence.
The “Hero of Two Worlds” died May 20, 1834. Covering his grave was the soil from the Bunker Hill Memorial.