There are a handful of men who were indispensable to the American Revolution, men without whom the war effort would have been doomed to fail.
One, of course is George Washington, who became commander in chief before he had an army. Before he even had a country. Knowing full well that the penalty for high treason against the British Crown was death, Washington took command of an army with enough powder for an average 9 rounds per man, in a contest against the most powerful military of its time.
Another indispensable man has to be Benjamin Franklin, whose diplomatic skills and unassuming charm all but single-handedly turned France into an indispensable ally.
A third would arguably be Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, better known as the Marquis de Lafayette.
Lafayette was all of nineteen when he landed on North Island South Carolina on June 13, 1777.
The French King had forbidden his coming to America, fearing his capture by British agents. Lafayette wanted none of it. His own father, also the Marquis de Lafayette, was killed fighting the British when the boy was only two. The man was determined to take part in this contest, even if he had to defy his King to do so. Lafayette disguised himself on departure, and purchased the entire ship’s cargo, rather than landing in Barbados and thus exposing himself to capture.
Franklin had written to Washington asking him to take on Lafayette, in hopes that it would secure an increase in French aid to the American war effort. The two men bonded almost immediately, forming a relationship that closely resembled that of father and son. The fatherless young French officer, and the father of his country who went to his grave, childless.
Lafayette wrote home to his wife Marie Adrienne in 1778, from Valley Forge. “In the place he occupies, he is surrounded by flatterers and secret enemies. He finds in me a trustworthy friend in whom he can confide and who will always tell him the truth. Not a day goes by without his talking to me at length or writing long letters to me. And he is willing to consult me on most interesting points.”
Lafayette served without pay, spending the equivalent of $200,000 of his own money for the salaries and uniforms of staff, aides and junior officers. He participated in several Revolutionary War battles, being shot in the leg at Brandywine, going on to serve at Barren Hill, Monmouth Courthouse, Rhode Island, and the final siege at Yorktown. All the while, Lafayette periodically returned to France to work with Franklin in securing thousands of additional troops and several warships to aid in the war effort.
Adrienne gave birth to their first child on one such visit, a boy they named Georges Washington Lafayette.
It was a small force under Lafayette that took a position on Malvern Hill in 1781, hemming in much larger British forces under Lord Cornwallis at the Yorktown peninsula.
The trap was sprung that September with the arrival of the main French and American armies under Marshal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau & General George Washington, and the French fleet’s arrival in the Chesapeake under Lieutenant Général des Armées Navales François-Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse.
Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781, after which Lafayette returned to France.
The Marquis played an important role in his own country’s revolution, becoming a Commander of the French National Guard. When the Bastille was stormed by an angry mob in 1789, Lafayette was handed the key.
Lafayette sent the key to the Bastille to George Washington, as a “token of victory by Liberty over Despotism”. Today that key hangs in the main hallway at Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon.
There came a time when the French Revolution morphed into the Reign of Terror, and began to eat its young. The Marquis de Lafayette was captured by Austria in 1792 and imprisoned under verminous conditions, while his wife was taken into custody by the French Republic.
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson found a loophole that allowed Lafayette to be paid, with interest, for his services in the late Revolution. An act was rushed through Congress and signed by President Washington, the resulting funds allowing both Lafayettes some of the few privileges permitted them, during their five years’ captivity.
Georges Washington Lafayette was smuggled to America out of France in 1795, while his father was held prisoner. Adrienne was released after four, and persuaded Emperor Francis to permit her and her two daughters to join her husband in prison. After a brutal year in solitary confinement, Lafeyette’s cell door opened on October 15, 1795. He must have been astonished to see his wife and daughters walk in. The four would spend his last year in captivity, together.
Adrienne died on Christmas day, 1807. She had slipped into delirium the night before, her final words spoken to her husband: “Je suis toute à vous“. I am all yours.
Lafayette remained staunchly opposed to both the Napoleonic regime and the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, feeling that both had come to power by undemocratic means.
In 1824, President James Monroe and Congress invited Lafayette to visit the United States, for the nation’s upcoming 50th birthday. Crowds of cheering citizens greeted the French Marquis and his son Georges Washington on their return to Boston, Philadelphia and New York.
Harlow Giles Unger wrote in his 2003 book Lafayette, “It was a mystical experience they would relate to their heirs through generations to come. Lafayette had materialized from a distant age, the last leader and hero at the nation’s defining moment. They knew they and the world would never see his kind again.”
Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier died in Paris on May 20, 1834, and was buried next to his wife at the Picpus Cemetery. He was seventy-six. President Andrew Jackson ordered that he be accorded the same funeral honors which President John Adams had bestowed on George Washington himself, in 1799. John Quincy Adams delivered a three-hour eulogy in Congress, saying “The name of Lafayette shall stand enrolled upon the annals of our race high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind.”
In obedience to his one of his last wishes, several feet of earth were dug up from Bunker Hill, and shipped to France. The man had always wanted to be buried under American soil.