Born Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette in 1757, the Marquis de Lafayette would later become a major figure in both the American and French revolutionary wars. He was a close friend to the well known American political figures Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. At nineteen, the young Frenchman left his home country of France to aid America during the Revolutionary War in 1777, disobeying strict orders issued by King Louis XVI. After the war, he returned to France and rejoined the French army. However, he fled his country in 1792 only to be captured by Austrians and imprisoned until 1799.
On September 6, 1757, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette was born to parents Michel Louis Christophe Roch Gilbert Paulette du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette and Marie Louise Jolie de La Rivière. He was born in Chavaniac-Lafayette, Auvergne, France at the château de Chavaniac. The Lafayette family had descended from a long line of noblemen in Auvergne, being one of the oldest and most distinguished in not only the province, but most likely in all of France too. From his mother’s side, he was a descendant of the comte de La Rivière, who commanded the Mousquetaires du Roi. Marie Louise Jolie de La Rivière, Lafayette’s mother, was the daughter of the Marquis de La Rivière.
Before his second birthday, Lafayette lost his father. Michel de Lafayette was fighting at the Battle of Minden when struck by a cannonball on August 1, 1759. Though the estate went to his mother Marie Louise, Lafayette inherited the title of Marquis and Lord of Chavaniac. Marie Louise, most likely out of devastation from her husband’s death, left for Paris where both her father and grandfather resided. She did not bring her son to Paris with her though and instead Lafayette was raised in Chavaniac by Marie Catherine de Suat de Chavaniac de la Fayette, his father’s mother. His grandmother would prove to be a great influence on him with her generosity and other qualities.
At eleven years old, the young Lafayette joined his mother and great-grandfather in Paris where they were living in Luxembourg Palace at the comte’s apartments. It was decided upon that Lafayette was to carry on his family’s martial tradition and was enrolled at the University of Paris at the Collége du Plessis. To further train him, Lafayette’s great-grandfather, the comte, sent him to join a program for future musketeers.
On April 3, 1770, Marie Louise Jolie de la Rivière passed away, leaving Lafayette an orphan at only twelve years old. To make matters worse, the Comte de La Rivière then died on April 24, 1770. From this, Lafayette inherited over 25,000 livres, and upon the death of his uncle, he then gained a yearly income of 120,000 livres. At twelve years old, the young marquis was already very wealthy, especially after receiving the estate in Chavaniac that had been his mother’s.
Not even fourteen yet, in May 1771 he was commissioned as an officer given the rank sous-lieutenant in the Musketeers. Lafayette was able to continue his studies though, as his duties were ceremonial and mostly consisted of him presenting himself before King Louis and marching in parades for the military.
Jean-Paul-François de Noailles, Duc d’Ayen at the time had five daughters whom he was looking to marry off, his second oldest daughter being the twelve year old Marie Adrienne Françoise. Lafayette, fourteen years old at the time, appeared to the Duc to be a good husband for his young daughter. So, he approached the new comte, Lafayette’s uncle and guardian, to negotiate a marriage between the two. Henriette Anne Louise d’Aguesseau, the Duc’s wife, believed their daughter to be too young for marriage though. It was then decided that Lafayette and Marie Adrienne Françoise would meet in casual settings from time to time to hopefully become more acquainted with each other until they were old enough. Neither of them knew of these plans, but they seemed to work as Lafayette and Marie Adrienne, though very young, fell very much in love.
In 1773, the marriage contract between Lafayette and Adrienne was signed. Lafayette moved to live with Adrienne and her father in Versailles for the time being as he continued with his education. At the time, he was only fifteen. That April, Lafayette was commissioned in the Noailles Dragoons with the rank of a lieutenant by request of his future father-in-law. The following year, Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles married Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette on April 11, 1774 at her family’s residence in Paris, the Hôtel de Noailles. For a year after their marriage, Adrienne’s mother, still concerned with how young the couple was, managed their courtship and kept them apart.
The couple would go on to have four children. When Lafayette was eighteen, their first daughter and child Henriette du Motier de La Fayette was born in December of 1776. Sadly, Henriette would not live long and died in 1778 at twenty-two months. Three more children followed though. At the time of Henriette’s death, their daughter Anastasie Louise Pauline du Motier de La Fayette was about a year old, having been born in 1777. On December 24, 1779, Georges Washington de La Fayette was born. His namesake, George Washington, was a close friend of Lafayette’s during his time in America. Their fourth child and third daughter Marie Antoinette Virginie Monier de la Fayette was born in 1782.
During the annual training of Lafayette’s unit in Metz in 1775, he met Charles-Françoise de Broglie, Marquis de Ruffec, who was in command of the Army of the East. The two had dinner where they discussed the revolt against British rule in the Americas. Little did Lafayette know that in just a few years, he would join the Continental Army in their fight for freedom.
Not long after, Lafayette returned to his home in Paris when he turned eighteen during September of 1775. After being promised a captaincy in the Dragoons as a wedding gift, he finally received it. Around this time, it became evident that Lafayette believed in the American cause for freedom, convincing himself that the revolution even reflected his beliefs. That December, Lafayette and Adrienne also welcomed their first child, Henriette du Motier de La Fayette.
Upon hearing that King Louis XVI was planning to send officers to America, Lafayette insisted he be one of them. Lafayette met with Silas Deane, the secret United States Envoy to France, to discuss this. Then, Deane enlisted him as a major general on December 7, 1776. When the British heard that France was planning to send officers to America however, the plan was forgotten. Lafayette was scolded by his father-in-law, the Duc of Noailles, to visit the Marquis de Noailles in London. In February of 1777, Lafayette fulfilled his father-in-law’s demands and visited the Marquis de Noailles. When he returned, he hid from his father-in-law after writing to him of his plans to go to America. Furious, the Duc made sure King Louis to issue a decree that stopped French officers from serving in America with Lafayette in mind.
Even after King Louis XVI’s decree that stopped French officers from going to America, Lafayette still went. The Continental Congress did not have the money to fund his voyage, and instead Lafayette paid for his journey on the Victoire with 112,000 pounds. Lafayette made his way to Bordeaux to wait for the Victoire to be prepared. He made sure word was sent to his family in Paris so he could learn of their reactions. Lafayette was thrown into an emotional turmoil when he received responses from relatives, and his wife especially, who was pregnant with their daughter Anastasie at the time. Just after the Victoire left Bordeaux, Lafayette, who was on the ship, ordered it to be turned around, frustrating the accompanying officers. He was ordered by the army commander to report to the Duc of Noailles’s regiment in Marseilles. Although, De Broglie, in hopes of becoming an American political and military leader, convinced Lafayette that the government wanted him to go to America, despite this not actually being true. Lafayette went a few miles east towards Marseilles and his father-in-law, but turned around and went back to the Victoire, which set sail on April 20, 1777.
For two months, fifty-four days exactly, Lafayette sailed to America. His journey was full of both seasickness and boredom that any two month trip on a ship would ensue. Lebourcier, the captain of the Victoire, originally planned to sell cargo on a stop in the West Indies, but Lafayette convinced him otherwise. The Frenchman was worried he would be arrested after disobeying orders from the king. Instead, he bought the cargo and was able to avoid stopping in the West Indies. On June 13, 1777, Lafayette finally arrived in America near Georgetown, South Carolina.
Right away, Lafayette was introduced to Major Benjamin Huger. Huger was a wealthy South Carolinian landowner and allowed Lafayette to stay with him for the two weeks prior to Lafayette’s departure for Philadelphia. The two of them stayed close friends throughout the war.
Silas Deane had recruited so many Frenchmen that it became too overwhelming for the Continental Congress. Many French officers were lacking in military and English skills. Lafayette had taught himself some English words and phrases during his journey to America and it took him only a year to be able to speak the language fluently. He quickly offered Congress he would serve in the military without compensation and they accepted his officer, commissioning him on July 31, 1777 as a major general. Benjamin Franklin, one of the most notable historical figures of the time, was a major advocate of Lafayette, even urging Congress to help accommodate him later on.
On August 5, 1777, Lafayette met General George Washington for the first time at dinner. Washington had recently arrived in Philadelphia, like Lafayette, to give the Continental Congress a briefing on military affairs. According to Marc Leepson, who wrote a biography on Lafayette, the two bonded right away and became fast friends. A fellow mason, Washington found himself impressed by how enthusiastic the young Frenchman was towards the American cause for freedom while Lafayette found himself in awe of him. Washington expressed his embarrassment when he took Lafayette to his military camp of the state of the camp and troops. Originally confused about his status, Lafayette joined Washington’s staff immediately. While Lafayette thought himself a commander who would take control at times, Congress thought of his commission as simply honorary. Washington had to explain to Lafayette that because he was from France, he could not hold the position as a commander. However, Washington welcomed him as both “friend and father”. Washington, who had never had any children of his own, treated many people like they were his sons, Lafeyette being one of them, along with Alexander Hamilton among others.
Lafayette fought in his first battle on September 11, 1777, the Battle of Brandywine in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. General Sir William Howe, planning to lead his troops south to Chesapeake Bay and to from there take Philadelphia, ran into American forces along the way. Washington immediately sent Lafayette to assist General John Sullivan when news of this got around to them. Lafayette made his way to the Third Pennsylvania Brigade under command of Brigadier Thomas Conway where he tried to rally Conway’s unit for an attack. As British and Hessian forces combined advanced towards them, Lafeyette ended up shot in the leg. When American forces began to retreat, Lafayette rallied them for a much more orderly retreat. He waited until all the troops were out of the way until his wound was treated. Shortly after, Washington sent Congress a recommendation letter, stating Lafayette be put in command of his own division. At the time, Congress was evacuating Philadelphia as the British took the city.
Two months later, Lafayette had recovered from his wound during the Battle of Brandywine. He returned in November ready to fight. Soon, he was given command of Major General Adam Stephen’s old division. When General Nathanael Greene was on a reconnaissance mission of British positions in New Jersey, Lafayette was there to join and assist him.
On November 24, 1777, Lafayette led his men at the Battle of Gloucester against Hessian forces. Both sides had about 350 men, but the Hessians were faced with a defeat of sixty total casualties compared to only one for the Continental Army.
During the winter of 1777-78, Lafayette joined Washington and his forces at the harsh conditions of Valley Forge. Horatio Gates, who was leading the Board of War at the time being, requested Lafayette prepare to lead an invasion from Albany, New York to Quebec. However, by the time Lafayette arrived in Albany there were not enough men stationed there to go forward with the invasion. So, Lafayette wrote to prepare Washington of his return. He was able to get the Oneida tribe in New York to side with the Americans before he left Albany. When he returned to Valley Forge, Lafayette made criticisms of the Board of War for wanting to lead an invasion in Quebec during the winter months. Gates left the board when Congress sided with Lafayette on that one. By that time, France and America had publicly signed treaties in March of 1778, officially marking France’s recognition for the American cause.
As the British began evacuating Philadelphia in May of 1778, Washington sent Lafayette with 2,200 men to Barren Hill. The next day, May 18, the British caught wind of this information and sent 5,000 of their men to capture Lafayette at his nearby camp. Two days later on the twentieth, General Howe ordered his 6,000 more soldiers to attack the left flank. Right away the flank began to scatter while Lafayette organized for a retreat. His men were able to escape on a sunken road as some of them fired periodically on the British from a spot in the woods. Lafayette was able to escape with his men and cross Matson’s Ford safely. Only three men were lost that day at the Battle of Barren Hill.
Following the unsuccessful battle and capture of Lafayette, the British fully departed Philadelphia and began marching towards New York. The Continental Army stayed close behind with Lafayette amongst them. At Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey, the Americans attacked with General Charles Lee leading after having been appointed by Washington. Because of his conflicting orders during the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, the battle was chaotic amongst the Americans. When Lafayette tried to get word to Washington that he needed to lead his men, Washington arrived at the battle only to find Lee had ordered a retreat. Washington took command and rallied his men to keep fighting even in the scorching heat. Eventually, the British withdrew after suffering much worse casualties. The British soldiers left that night and made it successfully to New York.
Shortly after, the French began arriving in Newport, Rhode Island with Admiral d’Estaing in charge on July 8, 1778, this time under the new peace treaty signed by France and America. One of the major British bases was located in Newport, hence why Washington had plans to attack. Lafayette, along with General Nathanael Greene, were put in charge of 3,000 men. They lead their men to assist Washington in the attack on August 9. Washington had not even consulted Admiral d’Estaing before his land force attacked. Admiral d’Estaing refused to place his ships in Narragansett Bay that day. The Battle of Rhode Island ended inconclusively due to fleets on both sides being scattered and destroyed from a storm.
When d’Estaing arrived in Boston to repair his ships, he was greeted by angry Bostonians who thought the French had deserted at Newport. Lafayette was sent to try and calm down the Bostonians with help from John Hancock. Once he was able to calm down the situation, Lafayette returned to Rhode Island. There, he had to prepare a necessary retreat after d’Estaing had left. Lafayette made proposals to expand the ongoing war and fight the British in not just America, but also Europe. However, there was little interest made in the proposals.
Lafayette personally requested permission from Washington and the Continental Congress so he could return home to France in October 1778. It had been a few months over a year since Lafayette had been to his home country and seen his family. Congress agreed to let him take a leave. Also, Congress voted on presenting Lafayette once he got to France with a ceremonial sword. Originally intending to leave for France in late 1778, Lafayette fell ill and instead departed for home in January of 1779.
The next month, Lafayette arrived home in Paris. The king immediately put him under an eight day house arrest for disobeying his original orders and heading for America. However, Lafayette was welcomed like a hero at his home. King Louis XVI invited him to go on a hunting trip. William Temple Franklin, the grandson of current American envoy Benjamin Franklin, presented the Frenchman with the ceremonial sword encrusted with gold from Congress because his grandfather was ill.
The twenty-one year old Lafayette did not waste any time and began pushing for an attack and invasion on Britain. Lafayette hoped to be in command of the French if this attack was made. The newly allied Spain prepared to send ships to support France in the English Channel. Spain’s ships did not arrive until August though, and by that time, British ships outnumbering the French and Spanish fleets were on there way. So, the very idea of invading Britain was given up on. Lafayette, who had been very hopeful of this invasion, began preparing to head back to America
Adrienne gave birth to their third child and first and only son on December 24, 1779. They named him Georges Washington Lafayette after the American general who had so generously taken in Lafayette, who at the time was working with Benjamin Franklin. The two of them were able to secure General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau of sending 6,000 French soldiers to assist in America. Lafayette took up his former position of major general upon his arrival in Boston on April 27, 1780 after setting sail that March on the French frigate Hermione. He also acted as a liaison between Washington and Rochambeau. Washington was put in command of not only the American forces, but also the French soldiers in America.
By the time he arrived in Boston, he had already been gone for over a year. Since, the British had fought and won many battles against the Americans, mainly in the south. Lafayette was greeted with great enthusiasm when he arrived back in the Americas. On May 10, 1780, Lafayette was reunited with General George Washington after sailing southwest. Washington and his men were ecstatic to see the Frenchman again and also when they heard the news of more French soldiers coming to America. Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton, a bilingual close friend of both his and Washington’s, worked on a letter to urge state officials to provide the Continental Army with more soldiers and men. Washington had instructed Lafayette to write the letter because of the young man’s popularity in America and with Hamilton to correct any errors.
For the next few months to come, Lafayette awaited the arrival of the next French fleet with Rochambeau. Both had been expecting more men and supplies and were disappointed to realize that was not the case. Rochambeau angered Lafayette when he decided not to attack the British until the arrival of more reinforcements. Lafayette though had a much more grandiose idea on how to take New York back from the British. Washington had to speak with Lafayette to be patient when Rochambeau refused to speak with him until he apologized.
Now in charge of his own division, Lafayette spent the following few months spending lavishly for his men patrolling both Northern New Jersey and New York. Until November, Lafayette and his men hardly even saw minor action and did not engage in battle. Because of this, Washington disbanded Lafayette’s division that November and the soldiers returned to their own state regiments. The war continued to rage on, going especially badly for the Americans. The Continental Army was unprepared with low funds, thus the army was not trained well and they did not have proper supplies to actually win. To make matters worse for the new nation, General Benedict Arnold was found to be committing treason and spying for the British, yet another significant loss.
That winter, Lafayette became the first foreign member elected to the American Philosophical Society while in Philadelphia, where he spent the beginning of the 1780-81 winter. To acquire more funds and supplies for the Continental Army, Congress attempted to persuade Lafayette to return to his home country. The Frenchman sent letters back to France, but refused to leave America, especially as the war seemed to be getting worse and worse for America.
Luckily, the Americans finally defeated the British on January 17, 1781 at the Battle of Cowpens in Cherokee County, South Carolina. The British suffered significant losses with 110 men killed, 229 wounded, and 829 captured/missing while the Americans only lost 25 men with 124 wounded. The battle proved to be a turning point for the Americans as they took back South Carolina from the British.
Washington had given orders to Lafayette shortly after the battle to round up his men in Philadelphia and taken them to connect with Baron von Steuben’s stroops in Virginia. With both men’s combined forces, the plan was to trap Benedict Arnold’s new British forces. French ships would keep the general from escaping by sea, meaning he would be cornered in. The traitorous Arnold was then to be hanged if Lafayette was able to succeed. However, the seas were, at the time, controlled by British forces, ultimately preventing their plan from working. Lafayette was able to meet with von Steuben with a small portion of his force over land in Yorktown, Virginia. Von Steuben proposed a plan to Washington that instead they would trap General Charles Cornwallis’s force with combined land forces and French ships.
Neither von Steuben nor Lafayette heard back from Washington though. When Lafayette began moving towards Philadelphia with his troops, he became angered because he had been ordered to assume command in Virginia. The Frenchman disobeyed his orders, believing that he was being left behind as battles were taking place elsewhere in the country. At the same time, Lafayette was also writing to the French ambassador in Philadelphia, the Chevalier de la Luzerne, about how his troops were in low supply. He had hoped that in response the ambassador would send word back to France, which was just what he did. La Luzerne’s letter to France describing the need for French aid was approved by King Louis XVI, proving to be a very crucial part in the upcoming battles. At the time, Washington was planning to capture Cornwallis, but could not send word to Lafayette in fear the British would find out and/or the letter would end up being captured.
General Cornwallis unsuccessfully tried to capture Lafayette, who evaded the attempt, near Richmond, Virginia in June of 1781. Soon, Cornwallis got word from London to oversee construction on a port in Chesapeake Bay. This would also give him time to prepare an attack on Philadelphia. Lafayette continually sent small squads of his men to attack or forage the traveling British column. This gave the British the impression of Lafayette having more men than he actually did.
After the British departed Williamsburg in preparation of crossing the James River on July 4, Cornwallis sent an advance team to the river’s south side while keeping most of his troops hidden in the nearby northern forest with plans to ambush Lafayette and his troops. Two days later, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne was ordered by Lafayette to go with his about 800 soldiers to attack the British troops north of the river. However, Wayne realized that he was greatly outnumbered when he arrived at the British camp. He did not lead a retreat though, and instead led his men in a bayonet charge. Luckily, the bayonet charge actually bought time for Lafayette and his American forces, as it stopped the British from any attempt at an attack or ambush. That day, the Battle of Green Spring was fought with a victory for the British, who suffered 28 deaths and 122 wounded, while the British only had a total of 75 deaths and injuries. Lafayette’s men had shown a great deal of courage during this battle, bolstering the army.
When Cornwallis landed with his men and established camp at Yorktown, Lafayette and his men positioned themselves at the nearby Malvern Hill. The British had recently been given orders to protect their nearby ships by building fortifications, while Lafayette’s troops stationed their artillery near the enemy camp. Ultimately, the British were trapped in upon the arrival of the French fleet. On September 5, 1781, the Comte de Grasse won at the Battle of the Chesapeake, a very crucial naval battle between the French and British.
Washington arrived at Williamsburg on September 14, 1781 where he combined forces with Lafayette. Fourteen days later on September 28, 1781, the Siege of Yorktown began. The French fleet blocked the British then combined forces with the Americans, the official start to the decisive battle. Along with his 400 men, Lafayette took the British Redoubt 9 as his close friend Alexander Hamilton led his men in a charge at Redoubt 10. The two of them were able to break the British defenses just by attacking the two redoubts on October 14. Five days later, General Cornwallis surrendered with his army after a failed counterattack. Soon after, the British packed up and left America. The Continental Army had just won the American Revolutionary War. Without assistance from the French, or Lafayette for that matter either, the war would have been impossible to win.