- 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
Austria at the time was full of spies and suspicious officials quick to check on foreigners who stayed too long in sensitive areas such as Olmütz. So Bollman traveled on to Vienna, promising Dr. Haberlein he would return. It was there that he met Francis Kinloch Huger.
Francis’ father, Major Huger, had been killed in 1779 luring the siege of Charleston, and two years later his wife had shipped young Francis off to England to improve his health. By 1794 he had completed medical studies in London, but before returning to America he decided to see firsthand the war raging in Europe between France and her neighbors. That spring he had set off for Antwerp, the seat of English operations against the French, where he spent several months working in the British hospitals. From there he had moved on to Vienna.
Ready to return to England before sailing for home, the young American was looking for a traveling companion when a mutual friend introduced Bollman to him as a possibility. Speculation on the whereabouts of Lafayette was widespread in Europe, and Huger had more than a passing interest in the topic. He recalled later that it was during his first conversation with Bollman that he mentioned Lafayette’s early visit to his home, and wondered out loud about the general’s imprisonment. Bollman, not ready to take anyone into his confidence, told Huger only that he would write him in the next eight or ten days with a definite answer about returning with him to England. First, he explained, he had to travel to Hungary. Huger waited eight days for the letter, then, anxious to get back to London, was ready to purchase a carriage and leave alone, when Bollman showed up at his room.
The German said he would join Huger if he would promise not to repeat what he was about to hear. Huger agreed, and listened as Bollman traced the events of the past few years. He told of finding Lafayette arid revealed he had not been in Hungary at all during the past week, but in Olmütz, working out the details of an escape.
Immediately upon returning to the Moravian village, he had contacted Lafayette through Dr. Haberlein, and between them they had worked out a plan.
Every other day, Lafayette was driven into the countryside under close guard, ostensibly for his health. Bollman, he suggested, should overtake the carriage and spirit him away on horseback. The general made it sound easy enough. “We are in a phaeton,” he wrote Bollman in the margins of a book; “nobody with me but the corporal—who, by the by, is afflicted with a rupture—and a clumsy driver.... Have a trusty man with you. Stop the driver. I engage to … frighten the little cowardly corporal with his own sword....” He suggested they bring a third horse, saying: “I will not have the least difficulty to jump on a led horse of your man....”
Lafayette left it to Bollman to work out the details and plan the escape route. No mention was made of a specific meeting place or of a contingency plan should anything go wrong. It was arranged, however, that when all was ready Bollman would wait beside the road and, when Lafayette’s carriage passed, make a signal with his handkerchief. This would indicate the attempt was to be made two days later.
When Bollman had explained the plan to Huger, he put the question: Would Huger join the enterprise? It was almost a matter of family pride for Huger. As he said later, “I saw an opportunity to restore liberty to a man who at my own age had risked everything for me.”
Nineteenth-century accounts of the events of the next few days read like a spy novelette, complete with a custorrimade coach containing secret compartments for ropes and saws. But in truth, very little of what happened in the days before the escape is known. It is certain, however, that Bollman and Huger checked in at the Golden Swan in Olmütz on November 5, 1794. The next day they sat on their horses by the side of the road waiting for Lafayette to take his drive in the country. When the carriage passed, the prearranged handkerchief signal was given, letting the general know that the escape would come two days later.
On Saturday morning, November 8, Huger and Bollman paid their bill and sent a servant ahead to Hoff, a village twenty-five miles down the road on the way to the border. Then they set out to watch for Lafayette’s carriage. Afraid of arousing suspicion, they had decided against taking a third horse as Lafayette had suggested; instead Huger rode a horse that was trained to carry two riders. Lafayette would ride alone on Bollman’s horse while his rescuers followed on the other.
After going a few miles down the road without seeing the carriage, the conspirators decided they must have missed it and headed back to town. On the way they met the coach. The corporal sat beside Lafayette. The driver sat in front, and another soldier rode behind the carriage. Bollman and Huger continued down the road a short distance, then turned and trotted after the carriage. When it halted by the roadside, they also stopped and watched as Lafayette and the corporal got out, began walking through a field, and then paused, engaged in conversation.