by Don Vitale
Are you ready for this? His real name was– hold on to your hats, this may take some time–Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Rocj Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette Marquis de La Fayette.
Actually, his pals called him Marquis de La Fayette for short. In America he was just plain La Fayette.
It seems that’s the way it was two hundred years ago in France. Especially if you were an aristocrat.
But I got to tell you, friend, this La Fayette was no ordinary aristocrat. He somehow got it into his head that he personally wanted to help America achieve its independence from Great Britain. You heard me right.
Here he was, a respected military officer in the French Army with visions of travelling 4000 miles across the Atlantic to enter a shooting war alongside those fanatic Americans. A reckless “French glory seeker” who had no qualms leaving his wife and baby to pursue his dream.
Oh, I forgot to tell you…he was a teenager to boot. Make more sense?
What in Good Godfrey’s name, you may ask, does all this have to do with a 45-year-old General who’s been handed a war using ragtag soldiers against imposing odds…and a 19 year-old teenager?
Okay, let me tell you….its all about friendship. I mean friendship that’s totally sincere, unabashed, heartfelt down to its core, and honest. The real deal. That kind of friendship.
We begin at the beginning.
La Fayette’s father was killed in a battle fighting the British two years after La Fayette
was born. No surprise that the boy grew up hating the British. I’m no psychologist but
it’s possible La Fayette may have seen America’s fight for independence a way to vindicate his father’s death. Like I say, I don’t know for sure, it’s just an uneducated guess.
How did this 19-year-old teenager enter America? Silas Deane, an American agent who was recruiting French officers in Paris to serve in the American army, signed him up.
In planning his “American Adventure,” La Fayette went against the king and his family. Because of his lineage– one of the oldest in France– he was one of the richest
young men in France.
Let’s face it, the boy was not selected for his military prowess…but for his relationship
to the Court of Louis XVI.
After he arrived in America, he entered the Continental Army as a volunteer Major General. La Fayette served without pay, contributing his own money for salaries and uniforms of his staff. That alone tells you of young La Fayette’s desire to be part of the American Cause.
At a dinner in Philadelphia Washington invited La Fayette to tour the city’s defenses.
Wrote La Fayette in his memoirs:
“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.”
Washington, who had no natural children of his own, began to play a guiding role in La Fayette’s life, taking on the part of mentor. Acting as “friend and father.”
La Fayette first saw action at the Battle of Brandywine where he was wounded. Though he was shot in the leg, he continued to fight without treatment until after he organized
a successful retreat. Washington cited La Fayette for courage under fire, for “bravery
and military ardour”, recommending him for the command of a division.
Writing his wife, La Fayette said of Washington:
“His tender interest for me soon won my heart to him…
when he sent me his personal surgeon, he told him to take care of me as if I were his son, because he loved me like one.”
Later serving in the Battle of Rhode Island, his zeal and dedication impressed Washington who assigned La Fayette to the Battle of Barren Hill and the Battle of Monmouth.
Washington was impressed with the young man’s performance, his enthusiasm and fervor for America’s fight for freedom. Add to that La Fayette’s growing mastery in fighting against British forces.
To say that the two men bonded like father and son would be the understatement of the century.
While at Valley Forge in a letter to his wife La Fayette wrote;
“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.”
In 1779 his petition to allow his return to France was granted. He hoped
to convince the King to send ships and troops to assist America in its fight for independence. In a plea to Congress Washington pointed out “During the time he has been in France he has uniformly manifested the same zeal in our affairs which animated his conduct while he was among us, and has been, upon all occasions, an essential friend to America.”
Correspondence between the two men continued. While in France hearing
that Washington was recovering from a serious illness, La Fayette wrote:
“What could have been my feelings, had the news of your illness reached me before I knew my beloved General, my adopted father, was out of danger?….For God’s sake, my dear General, take care of your health!”
After Lay Fayette won approval of French support, he returned to America on
the French frigate Hermione carrying supplies for the American war effort.
Those supplies helped the French and American forces trap British General Cornwallis at the Siege of Yorktown. La Fayette’s 400 men fought the British in hand-to-hand combat, a key attack that forced the British to surrender. America finally gained her freedom!
Even though they were separated by an ocean both men maintained their
friendship after the war. In fact, La Fayette named his only son George Washington La Fayette.
In 1794 La Fayette returned to visit his “General” in an emotional reunion.
He stayed at the Washington home for 10 days.
The two men continued their friendship through letters until Washington’s death
In 1824 a quarter century after Washington’s death, La Fayette, then sixty-seven years old, toured all of America’s 24-States to jubilant crowds and well wishers. It would be his final visit across the ocean.
Professor Emeritus Lynn Miller comments on La Fayette’s trip:
“When he visited Washington’s estate to pay his respects at the tomb of
his adopted father, he sent everyone else away, including his son George.
He meditated at the tomb for an hour in silence.”–dv