- 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.
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.
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.
Covered with mud and blood from the fight, he rode into a village and offered two thousand crowns for a fresh horse. The large sum, his accent, and his disheveled appearance aroused suspicion, and he was taken into custody. Brought before the mayor for an examination, he kept a cool head, gave a plausible explanation, and was about to be released when someone in the crowd recognized him. The general first denied the identification, but when the mayor insisted he be taken to Olmütz to make certain, he admitted that he was indeed Lafayette, and was escorted back to his cell.
Bollman was the only one to reach Hoff. Not finding Lafayette there, he guessed that the general had gotten lost. Crossing the border into Silesia, he searched for Lafayette, hoping he had been able to make it into Prussia along a different route. A week later, Bollman, too, was arrested, and after two weeks he was taken to Olmütz to join Huger.
In the meantime the civil examination of Huger had begun. Since Huger spoke no German, a Professor Passi, a tutor employed by a Russian nobleman living in the vicinity of Olmütz, served as interpreter.
For three months Huger and Bollman were kept in solitude and brought separately before the tribunal for examination. The early investigation centered on a suspected political plot involving Austrians. Finally the judges determined the two had worked independently of any local help and for the sole purpose of freeing Lafayette. The charges were reduced to “forcing a military post,” and after that they were allowed a little more freedom and better food. But the examinations continued, this time on the revised charge.
There were efforts on many fronts to help the two. Huger managed to smuggle letters out to Thomas Pinckney, former governor of South Carolina, who was then the American minister in London. He first wrote him on January 5, 1795, asking Pinckney to write his mother and closing with the plea “Don’t forget us.”
At home Huger’s family wrote to George Washington, asking that the President intervene to obtain his freedom. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering informed them that the President was concerned, but “the cause of Mr. Huger’s confinement would render an application delicate and difficult, the United States having no public functionary in the Austrian dominions....”
In Olmütz the prisoners had more influential help. Their interpreter had hinted several times that there were friends working in their behalf. It seems that Passi’s regular employer, a certain Count Mitrowsky, took a sympathetic interest in the case. He gave Passi the money necessary to bribe the judges, and when Bollman and Huger were found guilty the sentence was unusually light: one month’s labor in irons, followed by banishment from Austria. With a little more encouragement from Mitrowsky the judges saw fit to reduce the sentence to fourteen days’ further confinement and banishment. Eight months after the attempted rescue Huger and Bollman were released.
Passi made all necessary arrangements for them, allowing them to see their benefactor briefly, then hurrying them across the border. They left none too soon. The crown lawyers had reported to Vienna, and a directive came back upbraiding the judges for their leniency and demanding that the trial be reopened.
Lafayette continued to be held prisoner until a young French general named Bonaparte invaded the Austrian dominions in 1797, forcing the emperor to sue for peace. The Directory told Bonaparte to demand the release of Lafayette and the others at Olmütz as a condition to a peace settlement. The famous general was freed September 19, 1797, five years after his arrest along the frontier.
But the story does not quite end there. Following their release from prison Bollman sailed with Huger to the United States in 1796. Afer failing repeatedly in business ventures, he became an agent of Aaron Burr in 1805. He first served the former Vice President as a land promoter but soon became entangled in Burr’s alleged scheme to establish a western empire in the Louisiana Territory. In late 1806, shortly after delivering an incriminating message from Burr to General James Wilkinson, Bollman was arrested and—for the second time in twelve years—imprisoned. He declined Jefferson’s offer of a pardon on the ground that it would be tantamount to an admission of guilt, but regained his freedom when the case against Burr failed to stand up. In his later years he wrote several pamphlets on the banking systems of the United States and England; he died in Jamaica in 1821.
Huger, meanwhile, had finished work on his degree in 1797, graduating from the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to South Carolina, married one of Thomas Pinckney’s daughters, and divided his time between his plantation on the Santee River and a summer home in Statesburg, choosing the life of a rice farmer instead ofthat of a doctor; he also served two terms in the South Carolina legislature.
Then in 1824 Lafayette arrived in America for a tour iat took him to every part of the country. After landing in New York City he got in touch with Huger, with whom he had previously corresponded. Referring to him as “my dear deliverer,” Lafayette asked him to join his party in New York. Huger did so and then accompanied the general to Yorktown for special ceremonies there.
In 1825 Huger again joined Lafayette during his visit to South Carolina. Meeting in Columbia, they traveled to Charleston, where Huger’s friends and neighbors in the port city considered him a tie between their city and “the guest of the nation” and made a point of including him in the celebration. Auguste Levasseur, a member of Lafayette’s official party, wrote: “At the dinner, at the theatre, and the ball, in short every where, the name of Huger was inscribed with that of Lafayette....”
The story of an American who was sent to prison because he attempted to rescue Lafayette had a romantic appeal and was mentioned in many of the popular though not always accurate accounts of the general’s life that appeared in the mid-1820’s. There was even a popular play, entitled Lafayette, or the Castle of Olmütz . The rather free adaptation of the events amused Huger. An admirer in Boston asked if he was the hero. He replied: “Oh, no, indeed. Heroes are always married at the end of the play and I am not so fortunate. I am represented, however, as desperately in love with the daughter of the governor of the castle, and I am left in the same unhappy situation at the end of the play.”
Huger remained a retiring, modest man until his death in 1855. Although he was willing to tell the story of his youthful adventure to those who asked, he said of himself: “I simply considered myself the representative of the young men of America, and acted accordingly.”