Sunday, September 06, 2015

Happy Birthday, Lafayette

Originally posted July 20, 2015. Will post today's Exceptional American at 11 AM.

Born in the Château de Chavaniac -- a magnificent castle in France -- on September 6, 1757, as Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, the man simply known as Lafayette was of royal blood but not regal. He walked with kings -- George III and Louis XVI -- and paupers such as his lifelong friend Peter Francisco, a poor orphan abandoned in the New World. Lafayette was a soldier, statesman, and above all a revolutionary who used his talents and abundant wealth to participate in three revolutions over a span of more than 50 years.

But it is the American Revolution for which he is best known. The Patriots likely could have won the war without him, but why take chances?

As his lengthy Christian name shows, Lafayette was born important, as well as extremely wealthy. His family's martial prominence dated to Gilbert de Lafayette III, who in 1429 led Joan of Arc's army in Orléans. Lafayette's father died in the Battle of Minden in Westphalia on August 1, 1759, felled by a British cannonball. Lafayette was not even 2 when he inherited his marquis title. At 11, his great-grandfather enrolled him in military school, but deaths in his family led him to inherit a great estate that matched his title. At 13, he became a lieutenant in the Musketeers. An arranged marriage followed to a young girl he loved, and by 18 he was living in Versailles and ready to fight in the American Revolution, and volunteered for service in the Continental Army.

Unfortunately for him, the rest of the French army and government were not ready. England threatened war if France allied with the rebels in the insurrection. His father-in-law, who was also his commander, ordered him to go to London to apologize to no less than the King of England. That is an indication of how important this teenage boy was, and the intensity of the strain in French and British relations.

After three weeks of making the social rounds in London, Lafayette returned to France but not Versailles. He wrote his father-in-law and said he was going to America to fight anyway. Infuriated, his father-in-law had Louis XVI issue an arrest warrant. Lafayette went to Bordeaux, bought a ship, and headed to America to fight for liberty.

His ship landed on North Island near Georgetown, South Carolina, on June 13, 1777, and headed for Philadelphia. He greatly impressed George Washington, who was a fellow Mason, but getting the Continental Congress to commission Lafayette as an officer took some doing. Washington nevertheless used this well-trained officer at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, before Lafayette received a commission. Shot in the leg during the battle, Lafayette kept his head and turned a chaotic disaster into an orderly retreat.

While convalescing at the home of at the home of George Frederick Boeckle in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Lafayette met a fellow wounded soldier, Peter Francisco, a big teenage boy who would through the war engage in derring-do, later scaling a 300-foot wall in the Battle of Stony Point, rescuing Colonel Nathan Mayo (after trying to carry to safety an 1,100-pound cannon) at the Battle of Camden, and killing 11 British soldiers in hand-to-hand combat at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. The friendship between the French general and the Portuguese private was touching.

Lafayette healed and rejoined Washington's army as a 20-year-old major general, taking over the division led by Major General Adam Stephen, who had been court-marshaled and drummed out of the army for being drunk in the Battle of Germantown, in which his division fired upon other Americans led by Benedict Arnold.

Outnumbered in the Battle of Gloucester on November 24, 1777, Lafayette nevertheless defeated Hessians. With winter ending the war season, the troops settled in at Valley Forge. A Board of War led by General Horatio Gates came up with the dumb idea of having Lafayette lead an invasion of Canada in the dead of winter. He appealed to the Continental Congress, which nixed the plan. Gates resigned from the board.

France entered the war on the American side in March 1778. This triggered the decision by the British to abandon Philadelphia in favor of New York City, which they also held. This led Washington to send Lafayette after the British with 2,000 troops, but the British caught wind of this plan and tried to trap Lafayette. On a hilltop just west of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia, Lafayette had some of his men fire upon the British which allowed the others to escape. He stayed on the hill until the major portion of his troops were safe, and then crossed Matson's Ford with his remaining troops to safety. If you are ever visit Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania, drop by Lafayette Hill.

Throughout the summer of 1778, Lafayette helped Washington engage the British. In February 1779, the Continental Congress sent him back home to raise funds and a navy. King Louis XVI placed him under house arrest for eight days for disobeying him, but invited him to a hunt later. Lafayette came up with a plan to invade England, as France and Spain were allies this time in a war. Nothing came of it. He returned to America on April 27, 1780, to a hero's welcome in Boston.

Lafayette returned to a nation depressed by a long war and a string of defeats in the South. General Benedict Arnold later switched sides. But on January 17, 1781, General Morgan routed the British in the Battle of Cowpens -- reversing the polarity of the war. Still outnumbered and outgunned, the American soldiers persevered, chasing Cornwallis to Yorktown, Virginia, where he surrendered on October 19, 1781. General Lafayette and Private Francisco witnessed the end.

After the war, he was the hero of two nations. Lafayette was an American citizen before French citizenship existed. Returning to Versailles on January 22, 1782, the French government honored him.

But all was not well with France. He would participate in the French Revolution, at first a hero but he became an outcast for being the lone vote against executing the king and queen. Lafayette fled to Austria, where the Austrians arrested him -- for failing to save Marie-Antoinette, who was Austrian. His wife and children were placed in prison in France. The United States could not save him,, but Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson sent home money -- his pay with interest for serving in the Continental Army from 1777 to 1783. Alexander Hamilton's sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler Church, arranged an escape for Lafayette, but he became lost and the Austrians re-captured him.They placed him in solitary confinement after that.

But the U.S. ambassador to France, James Monroe, arranged for Lafayette's wife and their two daughters to plea their case to the emperor, who allowed them to live with Lafayette in prison. It was a different time.

Napoleon's rise to power led to Lafayette's release on September 19, 1797. He eschewed politics after that -- until July 1830, when after six years of King Charles X, the French people had it with a man who tried to restore absolute power to the throne. At 72, Lafayette was the most powerful voice of protest. The ensuing July Revolution of 1830. It began on Monday July 26, 1830, and ended when the king abdicated on Sunday, August 2, 1830.

Eugène Delacroix took longer to paint "Liberty Leading the People," which commemorated the July Revolution, and not the French Revolution.

His death on May 20, 1834, at age 76, did not mark the end of his legacy. On the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989, a survey found that 57 percent of the people believed the person they admired most from that struggle was Lafayette. Numerous counties and towns in the United States are named in his honor, but the most fitting tribute came in World War I from Colonel Charles E. Stanton, who visited his tomb on July 4, 1917, and said, "America has joined forces with the Allied Powers, and what we have of blood and treasure are yours. Therefore it is that with loving pride we drape the colors in tribute of respect to this citizen of your great republic. And here and now, in the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying this war to a successful issue. Lafayette, we are here."

If that sentiment does not make your heart swell with pride, or bring a tear to your eye, then I pity you.


I am publishing collections of the best in this series of Exceptional Americans, with the second volume published on September 1.

Which is better? "Exceptional Americans 1" or the new book, "Exceptional Americans 2"?

Buy both and tell me.


  1. I got the tear. Another fine vignette.

  2. How he suffered. Recommend the podcast Revolutions, by Mike Duncan who did the History of Rome podcast. Getting close to the end of the French Revolution.
    Glad we had so many good men to lead ours.

  3. PS Has Mr Surber considered a podcast?