Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, more commonly known as simply the Marquis de Lafayette was born on today’s date, September 6 in 1757, in Chavaniac, in the province of Auvergne in south central France, This man (above) deserves a place of honor among America’s Founding Fathers for the role he played in not only securing French assistance during our Revolutionary War, but also for taking an actual combat role — even though he presented himself to George Washington at the young age of 19.
“My heart was enlisted…”
Young Gilbert came from one of France’s oldest fighting families, with ancestry dating back to the crusades and even to Joan of Arc. When his mother died by the boy’s eleventh birthday, Lafayette inherited one of the largest fortunes in France. Yet this very rich young man had little taste for the of an aristocrat; he sought military action. In 1763, he obtained a Captain’s Commission in the Army. In 1775 he was having
dinner in the city of Metz with the Duke of Gloucester who spent much of the time complaining about the American Colonists an their uprising against British rule. The Duke mocked the Americans nonsense about the equality of man, and people ruling themselves. And especially of their having made this George Washington their leader. This made a very ill impression on the young Lafayette: “My heart was enlisted,” he later recorded in his memoirs, “and I thought only of joining my colors to those of the revolutionaries.”
Lafayette Sneaks to America and Meets George Washington
But it wasn’t such an easy matter just to go over to America. First of all, King Louis XVI denied him permission to go. But the defiant young officer simply ignored the King’s order and left for America in early 1777. James Lovell, a Congressman saw in the 19 years old was a man
of substance and recommended him for the rank of Major General. Lafayette met Washington on Aug. 5 (above), and the two men immediately formed a strong bond. Washington had no natural son of his own so naturally he was warmed by Lafayette’s enthusiasm and positive attitude for the American cause. Lafayette stood in awe of Washington: “Although he was surrounded by officers and citizens, it was impossible to mistake for a moment his majestic figure and deportment; nor was he less distinguished by the noble affability of his manner.” he wrote later in his memoirs. Indeed, the two men would develop a father and son relationship during the war.
Lafayette Serves in Combat
Washington assigned Lafayette to join in a tough battle to turn the American flank at the Battle of Brandywine Creek, where he served under the command of Gen. John Sullivan’s forces. Sullivan was being surrounded, and was obliged to retreat, but Lafayette distinguished himself in this action, sustaining a wounded leg. Washington sent his
own surgeons to tend to the wound telling them: “Treat him as if he were my son.” Lafayette gradually became a trusted member of Washington’s inner circle. He also shared in the misery of the brutal winter of 1777 at Valley Forge. The Marquis also took part in the Battle of Monmouth (June 28, 1778). After this he returned to France to take part in the organizing of troops to go to America as a part of the new Alliance between France and the new United States. Overall command of these troops was given to the Comte de Rochambeau (above).
Lafayette is There at the End
By the summer of 1781, Lafayette had returned to the U.S. and was assigned to lead troops in Virginia along with other generals such as “Mad” Anthony Wayne to attack the British foraging parties as well as their rearguard. These various raids kept the British under Gen. Lord Cornwallis from bringing the Americans to full battle until he finally withdrew to the Peninsula at Yorktown, Virginia. There Cornwallis
found himself being encircled with his back to the sea, and the combined armies of the Americans and the French. On Sept. 5, 1781 in the Battle of Virginia Capes the British fleet was decisively defeated by the French. By now the land vice was tightening. In fact, Washington’s own forces linked up with those of Lafayette on Sept. 14. With his sea escape cut off, and thee French and the Americans barking at the door, Cornwallis gave up the ghost and surrendered his army on Oct. 18, 1781 at a ceremony (above) in which Lafayette gladly took part.
“Hero of Two Worlds”
Upon his return to France in January of 1782 Lafayette was hailed as a national hero, in fact “A Hero of Two Worlds” for his service to France and to America. But revolution was in the air in France of a much bloodier kind than it had been in America. With help from Thomas Jefferson – the U.S. Ambassador – He was part writer of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. When the Bastille was stormed
in July of 1789 and a revolutionary government was formed, Lafayette sent the key to the old prison (above) to George Washington as a symbol of French freedom from tyranny. This “Hero of Two Worlds” attempted to steer a middle course between the extremes of the men who unleashed wholesale executions via the Guillotine during the Terror. His arrest was ordered by radicals in Aug. of 1792. He attempted to escape but was captured by the Austrians spending 5 years in jail. But the government of Napoleon Bonaparte restored his French citizenship on March 1, 1800. He made a grand tour of America in 1824 to an adoring reception. He died on May 20 1834 at the age of 76.