- Historic Sites
The Imprisonment Of Lafayette
and how, a decade after the Revolution, a melodramatic rescue attempt, involving a grateful young American, went awry
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
Early on the afternoon of June 13, 1777, a French vessel slipped into an isolated inlet on the coast of South Carolina and dropped anchor. On board was the young Marquis de Lafayette, who had purchased the ship for this voyage, along with Baron de Kalb and a group of French nobles, all promised commissions in the “Armies of the States-General of North America” by one of the American agents in Paris, Silas Deane.
The Frenchmen were lost; they had been heading for Charleston, but were driven fifty miles up the coast by contrary winds. As it happened, some slaves belonging to a prominent local patriot, Major Benjamin Huger, were grappling for oysters in the bay. Understanding Lafayette’s predicament, they led him and KaIb to their master’s plantation, where KaIb was able to explain, in his excellent English, why they had come from France. Major Huger, himself a descendant of French Huguenots, welcomed his unexpected guests and invited them to spend the night at his home.
In time Lafayette, KaIb, and their retinue made their way north, joined the Continental Army, and helped win independence for the United States. But among those who first encountered Lafayette on that night in South Carolina was one of Major Huger’s sons, Francis Kinloch Huger, who was then three years old. As a result, seventeen years later young Huger took part in one of the oddest episode’s in Lafayette’s life—a plot to liberate him from a prison in Austria.
The tale of how, long after the American Revolution, Lafayette came to be incarcerated in the central European country begins during the early events of the French Revolution. The marquis, a leading figure in those events, was a moderate who actively supported the concept of a constitutional monarchy, a position that alienated him from both the royalists and the radicals. He was serving as commanding general of the northern army in France when the “suspension” of the king came, on August 10, 1792. With revolutionaries like Robespierre and Danton in control, Lafayette realized that only the guillotine awaited him in France. He crossed the frontier into the principality of Liège with a group of followers just as the Assembly passed a decree calling for his arrest as a traitor. He hoped to take refuge in a neutral country, but when he reached the Austrian lines he was arrested as an enemy of monarchy and sent to Prussia for temporary confinement.
In London the French aristocrats living in exile were disturbed by the arrest and made efforts through diplomatic channels to have Lafayette freed. Chosen to work as the exiles’ agent in Prussia was Justus Erich Bollman, a doctor from Hanover more interested in adventure than in medicine. He had already made a reputation for himself among the exiles by successfully smuggling the ex-minister of war, the Comte de Narbonne, out of France to the refuge of England and the arms of his lover, Madame de Staël.
In early 1794 Bollman was in Berlin appealing for Lafayette’s freedom. Unsuccessful there, he then traveled to Prison Magdeburg, where Lafayette had been incarcerated, but he arrived too late. Lafayette was now being held in Neisse and in May was suddenly transferred out of Prussia to an undisclosed Austrian prison. The emperor of Austria held Lafayette personally responsible for the downfall of Louis xvi and was determined not to let the general’s friends contact him.
Since Bollman kept no journal during his search for Lafayette, the details of what happened are somewhat hazy. The existing accounts, for the most part, were written years after the events and often differ in details. To ascertain what happened it is necessary to check these later accounts against two important documents that have survived: a message written by Lafayette to Bollman and a transcript of a military examination of young Huger.
Three months after Lafayette’s disappearance Bollman’s search took him to Olmütz, a fortress city located on a plain in the Moravian section of Austria (now in Czechoslovakia). There the young German heard talk of increased security at the prison because of the recent arrival of some important prisoners—so important, in fact, that they were referred to only by number to conceal their identities. Even the guards were forbidden to talk to the prisoners, who were locked in their cells behind two doors, one of iron, the other of wood. Bollman felt sure Lafayette was among this group.
Bollman checked into the Golden Swan and during his visit made friends with the prison physician, Dr. Haberlein. How they met is not known, although most accounts claim Bollman feigned illness and sent for Haberlein to act as his doctor. What we do know is that Haberlein, a simple, unsuspecting man, was one of the few people aware of the prisoners’ identities, and through him Bollman confirmed his suspicion that Lafayette was one of the nameless prisoners of Olmütz.
After their meeting Haberlein became an unwitting accomplice, a messenger transmitting notes and books between Bollman and Lafayette. It all seemed innocent enough. The doctor was permitted and even encouraged to read the letters in order to be assured they were simply friendly notes; but each one contained messages written in one of the simplest forms of disappearing ink, lemon juice.