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Lafayette’s Two Revolutions
Washington was his idol, but he could not apply his American ideals to a France sliding into the Terror
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
Lafayette, at the head of a group of young French nobles, first landed on American soil amid the live oaks hung with Spanish moss on the swampy shores of the little port of Georgetown in the southern Carolinas, in the early summer of 1777. He came in his own private brig, chartered from a Spaniard. He had slipped out of France with a lettre de cachet at his heels amid a welter of bureaucratic intrigue that had all Versailles in an uproar. In the two seasick months at sea he had managed to elude the British cruisers specially detailed to intercept him. Immediately he rode north posthaste to place himself under Washington’s command.
The members of the Continental Congress, cool at first to the young Marquis, were eventually carried away by his titles and his wealth and his personal charm, and by the fact that he offered to serve as a volunteer without pay. He had not quite reached his twentieth birthday when they commissioned him a major general in the Continental Army. Washington took him into his personal family.
Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier came of a minor though wealthy branch of the great De la Fayette family. His lather was killed at Minden when he was two. Both his mother and the grandfather who was his guardian died when he was eleven. He was brought up by elderly and intelligent aunts at the family’s remote stone keep of Chavaniac in the mountains of Auvergne. When he was sixteen a marriage was arranged for him with a girl of the De Noailles family, as powerful in Eighteenth-Century France as the De la Fayettes were supposed to have been two centuries before. By 1776 he was a captain in the Royal Guards. Talk was already stirring at court that it might be to the advantage of the Bourbon cause to encourage the revolt of the English colonists in America. Young Lafayette took fire at the idea.
Vergennes, Louis XVI’s foreign minister, secretly encouraged him in his plans.
Though the Marquis was thought of at first by the embattled colonials as being more ornamental than useful to the American forces, he surprised everybody by his cool bravery during the hapless action on the Brandywine, by the skill with which he disengaged the body of troops under his command at Barren Hill, and by his energy at Monmouth.
When news reached Washington’s headquarters that England had declared war on the French, Lafayette, who by this time spoke fluent though baroque English, offered to return to Versailles to explain the needs of the Americans. At court he found himself already a hero. No more talk of lettres de cachet. Vergennes was delighted with him.
Back in America he was greeted by General Washington with warm affection and placed in command of the troops Washington was sending down from Head of Elk to cheer up the hard-pressed Virginians, grievously harassed by the traitor Arnold’s raids along the James and threatened by a large force marching up from the Carolinas under Cornwallis, whom they were beginning to call the Hannibal of America. Washington meanwhile would attend to what he considered the more important business of keeping Sir Henry Clinton bottled up on the island of New York.
It was only the presence of Washington’s favorite Frenchman that kept the Virginians from complete despair that summer before Yorktown. The Marquis by this time was 23. He was gay. He was wild with enthusiasm lor the American cause. His manners were cordial. With the easy selfconfidence that came from his noble upbringing he allowed himself to treat men of all ranks with equal affability. Wherever he appeared men and women fell in love with him. Where Von Steuben, whom Washington had sent down to teach the Virginians soldiering according to the school of the great Frederick, was middleaged and quarrel-some and peevish in emergencies, Lafayette bubbled over with candor and high spirits.
The campaign was the lark of his life. As summer advanced, by cleverly hanging on Cornwallis’ flank without risking a general engagement, by playing hide-and-seek across the broad creeks and estuaries and through the winding forest paths, the Marquis managed to turn Cornwallis’ triumphal march through ruined tidewater farmlands into something that looked very much like a retreat. Washington kept writing his young friend encouraging letters. Already he had sent the redoubtable Anthony Wayne and his Pennsylvania line down to reinforce him.
In spite of the uncertainty over the outcome of the naval battle between the French and British fleets oft the Capes, the march on Yorktown was assuming a triumphal air. From every battlefront eager young officers were hurrying into tidewater Virginia to be in at the kill.
Surrounded by the camps of the allied armies, deserted Williamsburg came back to life. Officers were quartered at the college. Uniformed throngs packed the inns. Anthony Wayne, who had been wounded in the leg by a triggerhappy sentry, was hobbling about the outskirts on a cane, with a fresh plume on his three-cornered hat. Von Steuben, laid low by gout and by mortification over the sound drubbing the British had given him on the upper James, dragged himself out of bed to be present. Volunteers were trooping into the ranks of the Virginia militia. The French, with their bent for the pomp and drama of war, were beginning to endow the coming siege with the fashionable air of the great military events of the grand siècle in Europe.