Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, Marquis de La Fayette, often known simply as Lafayette, was a French aristocrat and military officer born in Chavaniac, in the province of Auvergne in south central France. Lafayette was a general in the American Revolutionary War and a leader of the Garde nationale during the French Revolution.
In the American Revolution, Lafayette served as a Major General in the Continental Army under George Washington. Wounded during the Battle of Brandywine, he still managed to organize a successful retreat. He served with distinction in the Battle of Rhode Island. In the middle of the war, he returned to France to negotiate an increase in French support. On his return, he blocked troops led by Cornwallis at Yorktown while the armies of Washington and those sent by King Louis XVI under the command of General de Rochambeau, Admiral de Grasse, and Admiral de Latouche Tréville prepared for battle against the British.
Portrait of Marie Joseph de Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, by Joseph Court (1830)
Lafayette was the most important link between the American and the French Revolutions. As an ardent supporter of the United States’ constitutional principles he called on all nations to follow the American example. Lafayette was impressed by George Washington and other Protestants.
On December 7, 1776, Lafayette arranged through Silas Deane, an American agent in Paris, to enter the American service as a major general. Lafayette visited his uncle Marquis de Noailles, the Ambassador to Britain. During a ball at Lord George Germain’s, he met Lord Rawdon, met Sir Henry Clinton at the Opera, and met Lord Shelburne at breakfast. Lafayette refused to toast King George, and left after three weeks. In 1777, the French government granted the American military one million livres in supplies after Minister Charles Gravier pressed for French involvement. De Broglie intrigued with his old subordinate, German Johann de Kalb, (who had previously done a reconnaissance of America), to send French officers to fight alongside the Americans, (and perhaps set up a French generalissimo). De Broglie approached Gravier, suggesting assistance to the American revolutionaries. De Broglie then presented Lafayette, who had been placed on the reserve list, to de Kalb.
Returning to Paris, Lafayette found that the Continental Congress did not have the money for his voyage; hence he acquired the sailing ship La Victoire himself. The king officially forbade him to leave after British spies discovered his plan, and issued an order for Lafayette to join his father-in-law’s regiment in Marseille, disobedience of which would be punishable by imprisonment. The British ambassador ordered the seizure of the ship Lafayette was fitting out at Bordeaux, and Lafayette was threatened with arrest. He travelled to Spain for support in the American cause. On April 20, 1777, he sailed for America, disguised as a woman, leaving his pregnant wife in France. The ship’s captain intended to stop in the West Indies to sell cargo; however Lafayette, fearful of arrest, bought the cargo to avoid docking at the islands. He landed on North Island near Georgetown, South Carolina, on June 13, 1777.
On arrival, Lafayette met Major Benjamin Huger, with whom he stayed two weeks before going to Philadelphia. The Continental Congress delayed Lafayette’s commission, as they had tired of “French glory seekers”. After Lafayette offered to serve without pay, however, Congress commissioned him a major-general on July 31, 1777. Since he was not assigned a unit, he nearly returned home.
Benjamin Franklin wrote to George Washington recommending acceptance of Lafayette as his aide-de-camp, hoping it would influence France to commit more aid. Washington accepted, and Lafayette met him at Moland House in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on August 10, 1777. When Washington expressed embarrassment at the state of the camp and the troops, Lafayette responded, “I am here to learn, not to teach.” He became a member of Washington’s staff, although confusion existed regarding his status. Congress regarded his commission as honorary, while he considered himself a full-fledged commander who would be given control of a division when Washington deemed him prepared. To address this, Washington told Lafayette that a division would not be possible as he was of foreign birth; however, Washington said that he would be happy to hold him in confidence as “friend and father”.
Notes and references
- Holbrook, p. 15
- Charlemagne Tower (1894). The Marquis de La Fayette in the American Revolution. J.B. Lippincott Company. p. 88
- Nelson, ”Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Marquess of Hastings”, p. 55″. Alibris.com
- Unger, p.24
- Holbrook, pp. 15–16
- Gottschalk, p.66-82
- Clary, p. 75
- Holbrook, pp. 19–20
- Holbrook, p. 17
- Gaines, p. 56
- Clary, p. 83
- Charlemagne Tower (1894). The Marquis de La Fayette in the American Revolution. J.B. Lippincott Company. p. 34
- Holbrook, pp. 13, 71
- Glathaar, p. 3
- Cloquet, p. 37
- Grizzard, p. 174
- Martin, p. 195
- Holbrook, p. 20
- “The Moland House”. The Moland House
- Gaines, p. 70
- Clary, p. 100
- Clary, David (2007). Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship that Saved the Revolution. New York, New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 978-0-553-80435-5
- Cloquet, Jules; Isaiah Townsend (1835). Recollections of the Private Life of General Lafayette. Baldwin and Cradock
- Gaines, James R. (2007). For Liberty and Glory: Washington, La Fayette, and Their Revolutions. W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 978-0-393-06138-3
- Glatthaar, Joseph T.; James Kirby Martin (2007). Forgotten Allies, The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution. Macmillan Publishers. ISBN 978-0-8090-4600-3
- Gottschalk, Louis (2007). Lafayette comes to America. Read Books. ISBN 978-1-4067-2793-7
- Gottschalk, Louis (1939). A Lady in Waiting. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press
- Gottschalk, Louis (1950). Lafayette: Between the American and the French Revolution (1783–1789). Chicago: University of Chicago Press
- Grizzard, Frank (2002). George Washington: Biographical Companion. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-57607-082-6
- Holbrook, Sabra (1977). Lafayette, Man in the Middle. Atheneum. ISBN 978-0-689-30585-6
- Martin, David (2003). The Philadelphia Campaign. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-81258-3
- Unger, Harlow Giles (2002). Lafayette. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-471-39432-7