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Forgotten Hero of the American Revolution : Marquis de Lafayette

Updated on May 31, 2020
Chad Claeyssen profile image

Chad loves learning about history and sharing it with others. His favorite topics include US and French history and the history of conflict.

Most people know that the U.S. won its independence from Britain. Less people know that the French were instrumental in our victory. Without one Frenchman in particular we may not have prevailed, his name, Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Many of his family members were killed fighting the British, so he was given the names of all the saints that might protect him in battle. After the revolution, more then fifty U.S. towns were named after Lafayette along with countless streets and squares. At one time an American hero, now most people don't know much about him.

Marquis de Lafayette
Marquis de Lafayette

"From the Moment I Heard the Name America, I Loved Her"

Marquis de Lafayette's father was killed fighting the British when he was two years old. His mother died when Lafayette was eleven. At this time he inherited one of the biggest fortunes in France. When at military post in Germany, Lafayette attended a dinner with the brother of King George of England. The king's brother did not agree with King George about the Americans. Lafayette listened as the king's brother talked about the ideals the Americans were fighting for; human rights, liberty, and democracy. Marquis de Lafayette said that dinner was the turning point in his life. Lafayette, who always thought of himself as a knight who would stand up to tyranny, said "from the moment I heard the name America, I loved her. I burned for a desire to spill my blood for her".

He Bought a Ship Himself, Armed it with Cannons, and Named it La Victoire

On December 7, 1776 Lafayette arranged to enter the Continental Army as a major general with an American recruiter in Paris. He found out later that the Americans did not have enough money to pay for his trip, so he bought a ship himself, armed it with cannons, and named it La Victoire. Marquis de Lafayette's family was embarrassed and the the King of France urged him not to go. Against the wishes of the king, his family, and his pregnant wife, he set out for America anyway.

Lafayette wounded at the battle of Brandywine
Lafayette wounded at the battle of Brandywine | Source

Lafayette was Assigned to Serve Under General George Washington

Lafayette was assigned to serve under General George Washington. General Washington didn't really want a French officer in his army, but liked Lafayette and respected his modesty. When Washington's army was ordered to march out and stop 8000 British and Hessian troops marching toward Philadelphia, he gave command of his right wing to the nineteen year old Frenchman. Although outnumbered and beaten, Lafayette fought hard and oversaw an ordered retreat while wounded in the leg by a British gunshot. After this, he became famous in America and France.

Lafayette Warned Washington

While spending the brutal winter at Valley Forge, Washington grew to like and trust Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette warned Washington when members of congress approached him with a plan to get rid of the general. When congressmen toasted the revolution, Lafayette added, "and General George Washington!". Washington would soon refer to Lafayette as family.

Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington
Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington

Lafayette Returned to France to Lobby Louis XVI for help

After distinguishing himself in several battles, Lafayette returned to France to lobby Louis XVI for help in the revolution. At first, he was placed on house arrest for not obeying the king and going to America. Louis XVI didn't punish him long because he was pleased that Lafayette was killing British. Lafayette said "to cloth the army of America, I would willingly unfurnish the palace of Versailles". The Marquis' efforts worked. He secured almost 6,000 men, uniforms for the Americans, and a French fleet to help fight the British. General Rochambeau was put in charge of the French soldiers and Lafayette would command Americans under George Washington.

Lafayette Chased Cornwallis to Yorktown

Marquis de Lafayette returned to America in 1780. In spite of congress wanting a more veteran officer, Washington sent Lafayette at the head of the Virginia militia to find the British General Cornwallis. Greatly outnumbered, Lafayette had the militia use guerrilla tactics to engage the larger British force until reinforcements arrived. When 5,000 more troops arrived, Lafayette chased Cornwallis to Yorktown.

Facsimile of the certificate from Lafayette commending the service of a slave, James Armistead at Yorktown, who Lafayette used as a spy. Armistead took Lafayette as his surname when freed.
Facsimile of the certificate from Lafayette commending the service of a slave, James Armistead at Yorktown, who Lafayette used as a spy. Armistead took Lafayette as his surname when freed.

Lafayette Led a Bayonet Charge

Lafayette surrounded the British at Yorktown. French Admiral de Grasse led his fleet to block the British by sea. De Grasse insisted that Lafayette attack immediately, but he waited for reinforcements. General George Washington and General Rochambeau arrived in mid September 1781 at the head of 8,000 Continentals, 7,800 French soldiers, and 3,100 American militiamen. During the attack, Lafayette led a bayonet charge on redoubt 9, on the left, while forces under Alexander Hamilton stormed redoubt 10, on the right. After a failed counter-attack, Cornwallis surrendered on October 19,1781. The British would not surrender to the Americans and Cornwallis offered his sword to Rochambeau. Rochambeau shook his head no and made him relinquish the sword to Washington.

Lafayette Continued to Fight for His Beliefs in Liberty and Equality

Lafayette returned to France to live out a tumultuous life. He tried to be a voice of moderation during the French Revolution and made enemies of both sides. He served time in prison and was exiled for some time. At one point, Thomas Jefferson offered him a governorship in the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, but the Marquis declined. Lafayette continued to fight for his beliefs in liberty and equality, urging the U.S., with many letters, to outlaw slavery. Lafayette bought plantations and set slaves free himself.

"Someday America Will Save the World"

Marquis de Lafayette was a hero in America for many years. When he returned for the 50th anniversary of independence, he was greeted by 80,000 people in New York, which had a population at the time of about 120,000. He toured all the U.S. states, at the time 24, at one point saying "someday America will save the world". He visited George Washington's grave with his son George Washington Lafayette. Marquis de Lafayette died on May 20, 1834, and was buried in the Picpus Cemetery in France, under soil he took from Bunker Hill.

Lafayette's grave in Paris, France
Lafayette's grave in Paris, France | Source

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