American Revolution: Marquis de Lafayette

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette
Marquis de Lafayette. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Early Life:

Born September 6, 1757, at Chavaniac, France, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette was the son of Michel du Motier and Marie de La Rivière. A long-established military family, an ancestor had served with Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orleans during the Hundred Years' War. A colonel in the French Army, Michel fought in the Seven Years' War and was killed by a cannonball at the Battle of Minden in August 1759. Raised by his mother and grandparents, the young marquis was sent to Paris for education at the Collège du Plessis and the Versailles Academy. While in Paris, Lafayette's mother died. Gaining military training, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Musketeers of the Guard on April 9, 1771. Three years later he married Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles on April 11, 1774.

Through Adrienne's dowry he received a promotion to captain in the Noailles Dragoons Regiment. After their marriage, the young couple lived near Versailles while Lafayette completed his schooling at the Académie de Versailles. While training at Metz in 1775, Lafayette met the Comte de Broglie, commander of the Army of the East. Taking a liking to the young man, de Broglie invited him to join the Freemasons. Through his affiliation in this group, Lafayette learned of the tensions between Britain and its American colonies. By participating in the Freemasons and other "thinking groups" in Paris, Lafayette became an advocate for the rights of man and the abolition of slavery. As the conflict in the colonies evolved into open warfare, he came to believe that the ideals of the American cause closely reflected his own. 

Coming to America:

In December 1776, with the American Revolution raging, Lafayette lobbied to go to America. Meeting with American agent Silas Deane, he accepted an offer to enter American service as a major general. Learning of this, his father-in-law, Jean de Noailles, had Lafayette assigned to Britain as he did not approve of Lafayette's American interests. During a brief posting in London, he was received by King George III and met several future antagonists including Major General Sir Henry Clinton. Returning to France, he obtained aid from de Broglie and Johann de Kalb to advance his American ambitions. Learning of this, de Noailles sought aid from King Louis XVI who issued a decree banning French officers from serving in America. Though forbidden by King Louis XVI to go, Lafayette purchased a ship, Victoire, and evaded efforts to detain him. Reaching Bordeaux, he boarded Victoire and put to sea on April 20, 1777.

Landing near Georgetown, SC on June 13, Lafayette briefly stayed with Major Benjamin Huger before proceeding to Philadelphia. Arriving, Congress initially rebuffed him as they were tired of Deane sending "French glory seekers." After offering to serve without pay, and aided by his Masonic connections, Lafayette received his commission but it was dated July 31, 1777, rather than the date of his agreement with Deane and he was not assigned a unit. For these reasons, he nearly returned home, however Benjamin Franklin dispatched a letter to General George Washington asking the American commander to accept the young Frenchman as an aide-de-camp. The two first met on August 5, 1777, at a dinner in Philadelphia and immediately formed a lasting rapport. 

Into the Fight:

Accepted onto Washington's staff, Lafayette first saw action at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. Outflanked by the British, Washington allowed Lafayette to join Major General John Sullivan's men. While attempting to rally the Brigadier General Thomas Conway's Third Pennsylvania Brigade, Lafayette was wounded in the leg, but did not seek treatment until an orderly retreat was organized. For his actions, Washington cited him for "bravery and military ardour" and recommended him for divisional command. Briefly leaving the army, Lafayette traveled to Bethlehem, PA to recuperate from his wound. Recovering, he assumed command of Major General Adam Stephen's division after that general was relieved following the Battle of Germantown. With this force, Lafayette saw action in New Jersey while serving under Major General Nathanael Greene.  This included winning a victory at the Battle of Gloucester on November 25 which saw his troops defeat British forces under Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis.

Rejoining the army at Valley Forge, Lafayette was asked by Major General Horatio Gates and the Board of War to proceed to Albany to organize an invasion of Canada. Before leaving, Lafayette alerted Washington about his suspicions regarding Conway's efforts to have him removed from command of the army. Arriving at Albany, he found that there were too few men present for an invasion and after negotiating an alliance with the Oneidas he returned to Valley Forge. Rejoining Washington's army, Lafayette was critical of the board's decision to attempt an invasion of Canada during the winter. In May 1778, Washington dispatched Lafayette with 2,200 men to ascertain British intentions outside Philadelphia.

Further Campaigns:

Aware of Lafayette's presence, the British marched out of the city with 5,000 men in an effort to capture him. In the resulting Battle of Barren Hill, Lafayette was skillfully able to extract his command and rejoin Washington. The following month, he saw action at the Battle of Monmouth as Washington attempted to attack Clinton as he withdrew to New York. In July, Greene and Lafayette were dispatched to Rhode Island to aid Sullivan with his efforts to expel the British from the colony. The operation centered on cooperation with a French fleet led Admiral Comte de d'Estaing.

This was not forthcoming as d'Estaing departed for Boston to repair his ships after they were damaged in a storm. This action angered the Americans as they felt that they had been abandoned by their ally. Racing to Boston, Lafayette worked to smooth things over after a riot resulting from d'Estaing's actions erupted. Concerned about the alliance, Lafayette asked for leave to return to France to ensure its continuance. Granted, he arrived in February 1779, and was briefly detained for his earlier disobedience to the king.

Virginia & Yorktown:

Working with Franklin, Lafayette lobbied for additional troops and supplies. Granted 6,000 men under General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau, he returned to America in May 1781. Sent to Virginia by Washington, he conducted operations against the traitor Benedict Arnold as well as shadowed the army Cornwallis' army as it moved north. Nearly trapped at the Battle of Green Spring in July, Lafayette monitored British activities until the arrival of Washington's army in September. Taking part in the Siege of Yorktown, Lafayette was present at the British surrender.

Return to France:

Sailing home to France in December 1781, Lafayette was received at Versailles and promoted to field marshal. After aiding in planning an aborted expedition to the West Indies, he worked with Thomas Jefferson to develop trade agreements. Returning to America in 1782, he toured the country and received several honors. Remaining active in American affairs, he routinely met with the new country's representatives in France.

French Revolution:

On December 29, 1786, King Louis XVI appointed Lafayette to the Assembly of Notables which was convened to address the nation's worsening finances. Arguing for spending cuts, he was one who called for the convening of the Estates General. Elected to represent the nobility from Riom, he was present when the Estates General opened on May 5, 1789. Following the Oath of the Tennis Court and the creation of the National Assembly, Lafayette joined the new body and on July 11, 1789, he presented a draft of the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen."

Appointed to lead the new National Guard on July 15, Lafayette worked to maintain order. Protecting the king during the March on Versailles in October, he diffused the situation though the crowd demanded that Louis move to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. He was again called to the Tuileries on February 28, 1791, when several hundred armed aristocrats surrounded the palace in an effort to defend the king. Dubbed the "Day of Daggers," Lafayette's men disarmed the group and arrested many of them.

Later Life:

After a failed escape attempt by the king that summer, Lafayette's political capital began to erode. Accused of being a royalist, he sunk further after the Champ de Mars Massacre when National Guardsmen fired into a crowd. Returning home in 1792, he was soon appointed to lead one of the French armies during the War of the First Coalition. Working for peace, he sought to shut down the radical clubs in Paris. Branded a traitor, he attempted to flee to the Dutch Republic, but was captured by the Austrians.

Held in prison, he was finally released by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797. Largely retiring from public life, he accepted a seat in the Chamber of Deputies in 1815. In 1824, he made one final tour of America and was hailed as a hero. Six years later, he declined the dictatorship of France during the July Revolution and Louis-Phillipe was crowned king. The first person granted honorary United States citizenship, Lafayette died on May 20, 1834 at the age of seventy-six.