- 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
At that point Huger and Bollman spurred their horses, galloping up as Lafayette pulled the corporal’s sword out of its sheath. But the “little cowardly corporal” failed to be frightened; instead, he grabbed the sword blade, cutting his hands, and yelled for help. Peasants working in nearby fields looked up, but merely watched the struggle; the driver also failed to answer the call. Only the other soldier took action, heading back toward the fortress, shouting and waving his hat to attract the attention of the sentries on the walls of the fortress, which was some distance off but still visible across the flat plain.
Lafayette’s miscalculation of the character of the orporal led to a rapid series of unexpected complications in the plan. Instead of being able to hold him at bay with the sword, the general was struggling with the corporal for its possession. Bollman rode up to help Lafayette, leaped from his horse, and threw the reins to Huger. Frightened by the clamor, the horse lurched—and Huger watched helplessly as it galloped away. Bollman pulled the corporal away from Lafayette, but the tough little man gave up the sword only to seize Lafayette by the cravat. The general weakly cried, “Il m’étrangle!” —“He’s strangling me!”—as Huger joined the fight, first being careful to pass his arm through his mount’s bridle. Failing to intimidate the corporal with a pistol, Huger stuffed it back into his pocket and managed to pull the bloody hands away from the general’s throat. Lafayette, evidently in poor shape from the encounter, fell to the ground as Bollman dragged the corporal down, pinning him and pushing a handkerchief into his mouth.
Huger helped Bollman keep the guard subdued as Lafayette struggled back to his feet. Huger then shouted to Lafayette to take his horse and “get to Hoff,” the village where the servant had been sent. The general mounted and started to trot away, then stopped, apparently unwilling to leave the two behind. Waving him on, Huger anxiously repeated “get to Hoff!” and the marquis rode off. Bollman and Huger conferred for a moment and then released the corporal, who took off on foot after his escaped charge.
A peasant boy had managed to stop Bollman’s frightened horse and was returning with the prize when Huger spotted him. Calling to his companion, the American ran to the horse and had mounted it by the time Bollman was helped up behind him by the obliging boy. With Lafayette still visible on the road ahead, they urged their horse forward to catch up with him.
Unfortunately Bollman’s horse, unlike Lafayette’s, was unused to the double load. When urged faster than a trot, he gave a buck that dumped Bollman, who was then unable to climb back up. Huger dismounted and helped his companion into the saddle. Their progress had been so slow that when Huger mounted behind Bollman, he was helped by the same peasant boy, who had been following them on foot. Bollman pushed the horse into a gallop and it again bucked, throwing both of them. This time Huger told Bollman to take the horse and follow Lafayette. He would follow on foot.
After Bollman had ridden off, Huger ran along a road leading to the mountains. Just when he thought he was safe, he heard shouting and looked back to see three men running after him. He began to run again, hoping to reach the mountains and slip into Prussian Silesia, but he was overtaken by a peasant on horseback who had joined the chase. Seeing that it was impossible to escape, Huger gave himself up to the horseman. The three on foot joined them, and Huger was escorted back to Olmütz, where he was turned over to soldiers.
He was immediately taken before General D’Arco, the commandant of the fortress, for examination. D’Arco’s reputation was certain to be tarnished by the escape of such an important prisoner, and he was determined to uncover the whole plot. Huger answered the often pointed questions truthfully and in some detail, telling of his meeting with Bollman and the events surrounding the escape itself. He said he felt justified in what he had done: “I did not think of harming any one; and I was assured that it was the purpose of M. Lafayette to cross immediately to America and not to mix himself any more in the affairs of the Empire.”
This ingenuous argument did nothing to help Huger’s case. D’Arco noted at the end of the transcript of the examination: “The culprit was turned over by the military authorities to the ordinary Olmütz court, put in irons, as a criminal, and held in the strictest custody.” All Huger’s possessions were taken, an iron was put around an ankle, another around a wrist, and he was chained to a staple in the wall over the wooden bench that served as his bed.
Lafayette, meanwhile, was alone in an unfamiliar area. The only times he had been allowed outside his cell had been for the carriage rides, which never took him more than three miles from the fortress, and Hoff was twenty-five miles away. Complicating matters further, Bollman had never told Lafayette what escape route they would follow. Indeed, it appears that during the confusion resulting from the corporal’s resistance, Lafayette had misunderstood Huger’s frantic advice for him to “get to Hoff.” Not recognizing the name of the city, he thought the American had simply told him to “get off.” Separated from his guides, the general reached a fork and chose the road leading him away from Hoffand the waiting coach.