Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Chadds Ford, Delaware County
The French Marquis de Lafayette became a general in the Revolutionary War. He is the namesake of Fayette County.
The Marquis de Lafayette, born in 1757, is best known in the United States for his involvement in the American Revolution. Through his heroics and diplomacy, he was able to secure French support and achieve victory. His fight for liberty extended not only to America, but to his home country as well. After many battles both on the field and in the government, Lafayette was laid to rest on May 20, 1834. He is the namesake of Fayette County.
The Marquis de Lafayette, Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, was born on September 6, 1757. He was the only son of a Colonel of the Grenadiers named Michel-Louis Christophe Roch Gilbert Paulette du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, and Marie Louise Jolie de la Rivière. The correct spelling of Lafayette has been disputed for many years. According to author and historian Olivier Bernier, prior to 1789, the Marquis signed all his documents as “La Fayette,” however, afterwards he consistently spelled his name as “Lafayette.”
Lafayette was born and raised in the small village of Chavaniac in the region of Auvergne, He was raised by his mother and paternal grandmother, Marie-Catherine de Chavaniac. Lafayette never met his father who died from a battle wound during the Battle of Minden in the Seven Years War. Following the death of his father, the young Gilbert became the new Marquis de La Fayette, in addition to inheriting other titles from the loss of other relatives.
The future Marquis was originally educated by the women of his household; however, as he grew older, tutors were assigned to instruct him on more difficult material but at the same time learned the proper etiquette of nobility. In 1768, at the age of 11, he decided to move to Paris with his mother, who was looking to secure the financial wealth gathered from inheritance.
On April 11, 1774, Lafayette married Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, daughter of the 5th Duc de Noailles. Through this marriage came many benefits. Although he already had made a fortune from his estate and from the untimely deaths of wealthy relatives, he received an extra 400,000 Livres (or about $1.6 million in today’s currency) from Adrienne’s father as part of her dowry. Due to his father-in-law’s influence in the region, Lafayette was appointed as captain and placed in command of a company in the Noailles Dragoons Regiment.
In 1775, he was introduced to the Comte de Broglie, Charles François, commander of the French Army of the East. Through Broglie, Lafayette became associated with the Freemasons, who advocated freedom both in France and America. One of the most memorable events in the Marquis’ life occurred when de Broglie invited the Duke of Gloucester to dinner and the Duke criticized the colonists. After hearing the reasons as to why the colonists where fighting for their freedom, the Marquis became convinced that he had to join in the effort. Lafayette wrote, “When I first learned of that quarrel, my heart was enlisted and I thought only of joining the colors.” After this encounter, the Marquis convened with like-minded gentlemen in Paris to discuss the involvement of France in the American Revolution.
In 1777, French involvement with the Americans was evident by way of money and supplies, and Lafayette saw his opportunity to fight in the American Revolution. The Comte de Broglie was able to convince the minister to send Lafayette to help the colonists in their struggle. because the colonists could not pay for his voyage, Lafayette bought his own ship. As he was preparing for his voyage, English spies learned of his plans and the British Ambassador pressed the French king to stop the Marquis voyage; the king complied and seized Lafayette’s ship. The Marquis, however, was not going be stopped as easily; he evaded capture, and traveled to Spain. From there, he took a ship and sailed to Georgetown, South Carolina.
Lafayette arrived in America with the idea that he would be easily and graciously accepted into the Colonial Army and be given a command of his own regiment as a Major General would have. Due to the past experience the Continental Congress had with most foreign generals, who joined the war only for their own glory, they were skeptical about the young Frenchman. To the surprise of many in the Continental Congress, Lafayette offered his services as an unpaid volunteer, and was soon given the title of Major General, although he did not receive his own unit to command.
Little did Lafayette know, the man that he would meet on August 10, 1777 would change his life forever. That man was George Washington. Prior to this event, he was considering returning home due of the lack of importance and action given to him as a major general. Benjamin Franklin persuaded Washington to make Lafayette his aide-de-camp and take Lafayette under his wing. Only a few weeks after they had met, Lafayette wrote a letter to his wife describing his relationship with Washington: “That estimable man, whose talents and virtues I admire—the better I know him the more I venerate him—has been kind enough to become my intimate friend. His tender interest in me quickly won my heart; I am established in his household and we live like two devoted brothers in mutual intimacy and confidence.”
On September 11, 1777, Lafayette participated in his first battle in the continental army near the Brandywine River in Pennsylvania. As the battle progressed, it was clear that the British were winning, and if the army did not retreat, Lafayette and his troops would be completely annihilated. Due to the lack of discipline, the retreat was very unorderly and, if not corrected, would cause many more deaths. Lafayette was able to rally a small number of the men to stall the British while the rest of the Continental Army retreated. During the control point defense, he was shot in the leg, but kept on fighting until all the men were able to escape. As soon as Washington had heard what had occurred, he sent his personal doctor to treat Lafayette “as if he were [his] son.” For his bravery, Washington advised Congress to grant Lafayette a division of troops. The Marquis was forced to recover for two months from the wound, but when he came out to fight again, he was given the command of Major General Adam Stephen’s division.
In the midst of the Philadelphia Campaign, Lafayette conducted several reconnaissance missions to observe the movements of the British who were stationed in New Jersey. According to the New Jersey Gazette, he demonstrated his abilities in combat by defeating a much larger force in Gloucester, New Jersey. Later that winter, he rejoined the rest of the Continental Army in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. During his time at Valley Forge, Lafayette learned of a scheme devised to make the Marquis invade Canada and General Horatio Gates become commander-in-chief. Before Lafayette left for Albany, the Marquis left Washington a letter explain that “there are open dissensions in Congress…stupid men who without knowing a single word about word about war undertake to judge you, to make ridiculous comparisons; they are infatuated with Gates.” He marched to Albany to prepare the invasion, but when he arrived, he saw that there were too few men—attacking in the winter would be disastrous. Congress agreed with Lafayette and discontinued the mission.
In May 1778, Lafayette was sent to gather intelligence about the British troops station in the area near Barren Hill, Pennsylvania. In the process, British forces discovered his position and attacked him. The enemy forces particularly wanted to capture Lafayette, due to the newly announced alliance between France and America. Although Lafayette’s forces were greatly outnumbered, they held their ground as long as they could, while the rest of the army was able to escape into the forest. In recognition of his bravery and skill, the hill was renamed Lafayette Hill.
After the retreat at Barren Hill, Lafayette, along with the Continental Army, followed the British and faced off at the Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey. The Americans had an advantage over the British in the beginning, but the leading commander, General Charles Lee, unexpectedly began to call a retreat. Lafayette immediately told Washington, and they rode off to rally the troops. They were able to withstand the incoming attacks from the British and the battle was considered a stalemate as the heat exhausted both sides.
On July 8, 1778, a large French fleet arrived in America, and the colonist’s goals seemed to be becoming reality. Washington wanted to attack Newport, Rhode Island, where the British had been using it as a base to attack New York; he sent Lafayette to conduct a joint Franco-American attack on the city. The French navy wished to mount a frontal attack, while the Americans wanted to siege the city. Due to this disagreement, the French decided not to engage in the battle. Later, when the Americans asked the French to leave the fleet of ships in Narragansett Bay, the allies refused and instead attacked the British. In order to repair the ships that had been damaged, the fleet sailed to Boston where the townspeople had heard of the lack of help that the French were giving and began to riot. Lafayette was sent to quell the riots. He also knew that he would need to go back to France if the Americans wanted to continue to receive French aid.
In order to ease tensions between the French and Colonists, Lafayette returned to France. When he arrived, he was exulted by the shouts and cheers of thousands of people on the street and even in the court; however, he was placed under house arrest for disobeying the king’s orders, but was released two weeks later due to Queen Marie Antoinette’s admiration for Lafayette. He was then granted an audience with the king and explained his plans for the war. The king was very impressed, and approved more reinforcements and more supply for the American cause, the king also reinstated him to his position as dragoon captain. During this time, his wife gave birth to a boy, whose name was Georges Washington de Lafayette. In March of 1780, he departed for America and, a few months later, landed in Boston with cheers from the townspeople. Lafayette became a hero of two worlds.
Upon his arrival, Continental Congress sent Lafayette to Virginia to replace General Baron von Steuben, whom he had met during his time at Valley Forge. Lafayette cleverly escaped various scenarios undertaken by the British General Charles Cornwallis to try to capture him. His most important battle was the battle to end the war. By August of 1781, Cornwallis established a base in Yorktown, Maryland and, in turn, Lafayette positioned his troop on a hill nearby named Malvern Hill. Lafayette’s position on the hill allowed him to contain the British Forces until September 14, when General Washington joined Lafayette with reinforcements: A key element in containing the British was the French fleet that had been blockading the port. On September 28, the American and allied forces attacked Yorktown and began an almost month-long siege. On October 19, General Cornwallis finally surrendered.
Soon after the battle at Yorktown, he sailed back to France and was received with great praise and honor. Author Jason Lane depicts that as Lafayette was attending the play Iphigenie en Aulis, “At the point that the lead actress was to crown Achilles with laurel, she advanced to the footlights and offered the crown to Lafayette.” The king of France awarded him the rank of marechal de camp, the equivalent of an American Major-General. Soon after his arrival, the Marquis was blessed to see the birth of his daughter, Marie-Antoinette Virginie, who was born two months pre-mature. Along with Thomas Jefferson, they organized trade agreements between the Unites States and France. In 1784, when most of the trade agreements had been reached, Lafayette decided to visit America. He traveled through all of the States except Georgia; his most notable stop was at the estate of his good friend and “father” George Washington. They continued to write to each other until the death of Washington.
In 1786, Lafayette was appointed to the Assembly of Notables by King Louis XVI. He pressed for a governing representative body representing the three different social classes. Its success formed the National Assembly. Lafayette became involved in the French Revolution, and was named the mediator in making a constitution. After the revolution was over, he became commander-in-chief of la Garde nationale, after which the American National Guard is named. After many problems and confrontations with the government, he became considered a traitor under the Assembly for not siding with them, and, as a result, fled from the country to try to reach the United States. In August of 1792, he was captured by the Austrians along with his supporters and placed in a prison. He was there until 1797, and not able to return to France until 1799.
After the events of the 18th century, Lafayette was tired of politics and decided to retire to his estate. In 1807, his wife passed away due to pre-existing conditions that she had incurred during her time in prison. In 1815, he returned to the French government as a member of the Chamber of Deputies. In 1824, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to take a tour of the United States for a year. The Marquis accepted and arrived in New York City on August 1. His private secretary described the scene saying that, “It is impossible to describe the majesty of this sail towards the City. The sea is covered with boats of all kinds, elegantly decked out, and loaded with an innumerable throng…soon we were able to recognize the crowd which covered the shore everywhere, discern it excitement and make out its shouts of joy [of 200,000 people].” In the following year, Lafayette traveled to every state and was received with same great praise and honor as in New York City. One of the most important stops in his journey was at George Washington’s tomb, as he was unable to attend the funeral. During this journey, he also became the first foreign dignitary to address Congress.
After he finished the tour of America, Lafayette returned to France. In 1830, he was given the opportunity to become dictator of France; however, he declined and instead was reinstated as commander of the Garde nationale. As the Mayor of Paris, Jean-Sylvain Bailly, once said, “The world has many Caesars, but few Lafayettes.” In 1834, the Marquis suffered from pneumonia, due to a wet and cold winter; he recovered, but he was severely weakened. On May 20, 1834, Lafayette became very sick for the second time and passed away. He was given a military funeral and was buried at the Cimetiere de Picpus under soil from Bunker Hill with an American Flag flowing over his grave, next to that of his wife. When the news broke about the Marquis arrived in the United States, the country devoted the coming month to the mourning of the great figure. Congress went as far as to ask everyone to wear black for the next month in honor to Lafayette.
Lafayette’s legacy has not been forgotten in France or the United States. Many cities and counties in the United States are named in his honor for his valiant efforts and strong friendship with Washington, such as Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Out of the 59 cities and counties, however, Fayetteville, North Carolina was the only town that Lafayette had actually visited. In 1893, a memorial service was held at the site of the Battle of Brandywine to remember his heroic acts. Even a century after his death, he was still remembered; during World War I, when the Americans entered France, Colonel Charles E. Stanton said “Lafayette, we are here.” The Colonel emphasized the honor that it was to come to Lafayette’s country’s rescue, just as Lafayette had arrived to aid America. Although the states of Maryland and Virginia had already given the Marquis Honorary Citizenship prior to the Constitution, it was deemed unconstitutional; however, in 2002, under a Joint Resolution Congress presented Lafayette with honorary United States Citizenship.
A Complete History of the Marquis de Lafayette, Major General in the Army of the United States of America, in the War of the Revolution: Embracing an Account of his Late Tour through the United States to the Time of his Departure, September, 1825. Hartford: S. Andrus, 1846.
Bernier, Olivier. Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1983.
Lane, Jason. General and Madame de Lafayette: Partners in Liberty’s Cause in the American and French Revolutions. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade, 2003.
Lewis, Charlton T. Lafayette at Brandywine: Containing the Proceedings at the Dedication of the Memorial Shaft Erected to Mark the Place where Lafayette was Wounded in the Battle of Brandywine, with Supplementary Paper on Lafayette and the Historians. West Chester, PA: Chester County Historical Society, 1896.
The Life and Times of Major-General the Marquis de Lafayette. Beadle’s lives of great Americans ; no. 5.New York: Beadle and Adams, 1870.
Loth, David. The People’s General: The Personal Story of Lafayette. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951.
Marie, Lafayette,. Letters of Lafayette to Washington, 1777-1799. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1976.
The New Jersey Gazette [Burlington, NJ] 31 May 1780.
Nolan, J. Bennett. “Lafayette in Pennsylvania.” Pennsylvania History. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. 1934. 135-46.
United States. Cong. House. Committee on the Judiciary. Conferring Honorary Citizenship of the United States Post-Humously on Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette. By Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (WI). 107th Cong., 2nd sess. H. Rept. 107-595. 2002.