Lafayette for Young Americans - Rupert Holland

"I Will Fight for American Liberty as a Volunteer!"

Lafayette, standing outside the door of the American Congress in Philadelphia, refused the commission in the American army that had been promised him by Silas Deane, spoke these words of encouragement to his disappointed and indignant friends who had crossed with him from France. "If the Congress will not accept me as a major-general, I will fight for American liberty as a volunteer!" he said; and, having come to this decision, he immediately proceeded to put it into effect. He went to his lodgings and wrote a letter to John Hancock, president of Congress.

Lafayette's letter explained the reasons why he had come to the United States and recounted the many difficulties he had had r, to overcome. He stated that he thought that the promise he had received from Silas Deane, the approval of Benjamin Franklin, and the sacrifices he had himself made ought to lead Congress to give a friendly hearing to his request. He said that he understood how Congress had been besieged by foreign officers seeking high rank in the army, but added that he only asked two favors. These were, in his own words, "First, that I serve without pay and at my own expense; and, the other, that I be allowed to serve at first as a volunteer."

This letter was a great surprise to John Hancock and the other leaders of Congress. Here was a young French officer of family and wealth who was so deeply interested in their cause that he was eager to serve as an unpaid volunteer! He was a different type from the others who had come begging for favors. Hancock looked up the letter that Franklin had written about the Marquis, and read, "Those who censure him as imprudent do nevertheless applaud his spirit, and we are satisfied that the civilities and respect that may be shown him will be serviceable to our affairs here, as pleasing not only to his powerful relations and to the court, but to the whole French nation."

Hancock was impressed; perhaps they had made a mistake in treating this Marquis de Lafayette in such cavalier fashion. So he sent another member of Congress to see the young Frenchman and instructed him to treat Lafayette with the greatest courtesy. And the ref suit of this interview was that Hancock's emissary was quickly convinced of Lafayette's absolute honesty of purpose and intense desire to help the United States.

Having reached this conclusion Hancock decided to make amends and do the honorable thing, and so, on July 31, 1777, Congress passed the following resolution: "Whereas, the Marquis de Lafayette, out of his great zeal to the cause of liberty, in which the United States are engaged, has left his family and connections, and, at his own expense, come over to offer his services to the United States, without pension or particular allowance, and is anxious to risk his life in our cause, therefore, Resolved, that his services be accepted, and that, in consideration of his zeal, illustrious family, and connections, he have the rank and commission of major-general in the army of the United States."

How fortunate it was that Lafayette had not been daunted at the outset, or discouraged as De Kalb and his companions had been! His great dream had come true as a result of perseverance; he had been welcomed by Congress, and was, at nineteen, a major-general in the army of liberty!

But he did not forget those companions who had crossed the sea with the same desires as his own. In the letter he wrote to Congress, penned in his own quaint English,—a letter now in the State Department at Washington,—after thanking "the Honorable mr. Hancok," as he spelled it, and expressing his gratitude to Congress, he said, "it is now as an american that I'll mention every day to congress the officers who came over with me, whose interests are for me as my own, and the consideration which they deserve by their merit, their ranks, their state and reputation in frame."

He was unable, however, to do much for these friends, though one of them said, "He did everything that was possible for our appointment, but in vain, for he had no influence. But if he had his way, De Kalb would have been major-general and we should all have had places."

Congress felt that it could not give them all commissions. Captain de Bedaulx, who was a veteran officer, was made a captain in the American army, one other was engaged as a draughtsman and engineer, and Lafayette kept two as his own aides-de-camp. Most of the others were sent back to France, their expenses being paid by Congress. As for De Kalb, he had given up his plans for high rank and preferment and was on his way to take passage on a ship for Europe when a messenger reached him with word that Congress, voting for one more major-general in the army, had elected him.

Lafayette, in his letter to Hancock, had said that he wished to serve "near the person of General Washington till such time as he may think proper to entrust me with a division of the army." Events soon gave him the chance to meet the commander-in-chief. The arrival of Howe's fleet at the mouth of the Delaware River seemed to threaten Philadelphia, and Washington left his camp in New Jersey to consult with Congress. Lafayette was invited to a dinner in Philadelphia to meet the commander-in-chief, and accepted eagerly. The Frenchman was greatly impressed. "Although General Washington was surrounded by officers and private citizens," he wrote, "the majesty of his countenance and of his figure made it impossible not to recognize him; he was especially distinguished also by the affability of his manners and the dignity with which he addressed those about him."

Washington had already heard of Lafayette and found a chance for a long talk with him. On his part he was at once strongly attracted by the young Marquis. "You have made the greatest sacrifices for our cause, sir," Washington said, "and your evident zeal and generosity interest me deeply. I shall do my part toward making you one of us. I shall be greatly pleased to have you join my staff as a volunteer aid, and beg you to make my headquarters your home, until events place you elsewhere. I beg you to consider yourself at all times as one of my military family, and I shall be glad to welcome you at the camp as speedily as you think proper. Of course I cannot promise you the luxuries of a court, but, as you have now become an American soldier, you will doubtless accommodate yourself to the fare of an American army, and submit with a good grace to its customs, manners, and privations."

[Illustration] from Lafayette for Young Americans by Rupert Holland


The next day Washington invited Lafayette to accompany him on a tour of inspection of the fortifications about Philadelphia.

The General liked the Marquis, but was not quite certain how the latter could best be employed. He wrote to Benjamin Harrison, who was a member of Congress, "As I understand the Marquis de Lafayette, it is certain that he does not conceive that his commission is merely honorary, but is given with a view to command a division of this army. It is true he has said that he is young and inexperienced; but at the same time he has always accompanied it with a hint that, so soon as I shall think him fit for the command of a division, he shall be ready to enter upon his duties, and in the meantime has offered his services for a smaller command. What the designs of Congress respecting this gentleman were, and what line of conduct I am to pursue to comply with their design and his expectations—I know not and beg to be instructed. . . . Let me beseech you, my good sir, to give inc the sentiments of Congress on this matter, that I may endeavor, as far as it is in my power, to comply with them."

Mr. Harrison answered that Congress intended Lafayette's appointment to be regarded merely as an honorary one, and that the commander-in-chief was to use his own judgment concerning him.

In the meantime Lafayette set out from Philadelphia to join Washington's army. That army, early in August, had begun its march eastward, hoping to cut off any British move about New York; but the appearance of the British fleet off the Delaware had brought them to a halt, and Washington ordered them into camp near the present village of Hartsville, on the old York Road leading out of Philadelphia. Here, on August twenty-first, Lafayette joined the army, just as the commander, with Generals Stirling, Greene, and Knox, was about to review the troops.

It was indeed a sorry-looking army, according to the standards of Europe. There were about eleven thousand men, poorly armed and wretchedly clad. Their clothes were old and ragged, hardly any two suits alike, and the men knew little enough about military tactics. Courage and resolution had to take the place of science; but there was no lack of either bravery or determination. Yet some of the foreign officers who had seen the American army had spoken very slightingly of it, and Washington said to Lafayette, "It is somewhat embarrassing to us to show ourselves to an officer who has just come from the army of France."

Lafayette, always tactful, always sympathetic, smiled. "I am here to learn and not to teach, Your Excellency," he answered.

A council of war followed the review, and the commander asked the Marquis to attend it. The council decided that if the British were planning to invade the Carolinas it was unwise to attempt to follow them south, and that the army had better try to recapture New York. But at that very moment a messenger brought word that the British fleet had sailed into Chesapeake Bay, and, hearing this, Washington concluded to march his army to the south of Philadelphia and prepare to defend that city.

Ragged and out-at-elbows as the small American army was, it marched proudly through the streets of Philadelphia. With sprigs of green branches in their hats the soldiers stepped along to the tune of fife and drum, presenting, at least in the eyes of the townspeople, a very gallant appearance. Lafayette rode by the side of Washington, glad that the opportunity had come for him to be of service.

Very soon he had a chance to share danger with his commander. When the troops arrived on the heights of Wilmington, Washington, with Lafayette and Greene, made a reconnaissance, and, being caught by a storm and darkness, was obliged to spend the night so near to the British lines that he might easily have been discovered by a scout or betrayed into the hands of the enemy.

Meantime General Howe and Lord Cornwallis had landed eighteen thousand veteran troops near what is now Elkton in Maryland, and was advancing toward Philadelphia. To defend the city Washington drew up his forces on September ninth at Chadd's Ford on the Brandywine. One column of Howe's army marched to this place and on September eleventh succeeded in driving across the river to the American camp. The other column, under command of Cornwallis, made a long detour through the thickly wooded country, and bore down on the right and rear of Washington's army, threatening its total destruction.

The American commander at once sent General Sullivan, with five thousand men, to meet this force on the right. Realizing that most of the fighting would be done there, Lafayette asked and was given permission to join General Sullivan. Riding up as a volunteer aid, he found the half-formed wings of the American army attacked by the full force under Cornwallis. The Americans had to fall back, two of General Sullivan's aids were killed, and a disorderly retreat began. Lafayette leaped from his horse, and, sword in hand, called on the soldiers to make a stand.

He checked the retreat for a few moments; other troops came up, and the Americans offered gallant resistance. Lafayette was shot through the calf of the leg, but, apparently unconscious of the wound, continued to encourage his men. Then Cornwallis's brigades swept forward again, and Sullivan's troops had to give ground before the greater numbers. The battle became a general rout. Gimat, Lafayette's aid, saw that the young man was wounded, and helped him to mount his horse. The wounded man then tried to rejoin Washington, but soon after he had to stop to have his leg bandaged.

The first British column had driven the American troops from Chadd's Ford, and the latter, together with Sullivan's men, fell back along the road to Chester. Washington attempted to cover the retreat with rear-guard fighting, but night found him pursued by both divisions of the enemy. In the retreat Lafayette came to a bridge, and made a stand until Washington and his aids reached him. Then together they rode on to Chester, and there the Frenchman's wound was properly dressed by a surgeon.

The battle had been in one sense a defeat for the Americans, but it had shown General Howe the fine fighting quality of Washington's men, and the American commander had been able to save the bulk of his army, when Howe had expected to capture it entire. To-day a little monument stands on a ridge near the Quaker meeting-house outside Chadd's Ford, erected, so the inscription says, "by the citizens and school children of Chester County," because, "on the rising ground a short distance south of this spot, Lafayette was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine, September 11, 1777." And the monument also bears these words of Lafayette: "The honor to have mingled my blood with that of many other American soldiers on the heights of the Brandywine has been to me a source of pride and delight."

The battle-field of the Brandywine was only about twenty-six miles from Philadelphia, and the cannonade had been clearly heard in the city. The word the couriers brought filled the people with alarm; many citizens began to fly from the city and Congress took its departure, to meet at the town of York, one hundred miles to the west. The Americans wounded at the Brandywine were sent to Philadelphia, and Lafayette was conveyed there by water. From that city he was sent up the Delaware River to Bristol. There he met. Henry Laurens, who had succeeded John Hancock as the president of Congress, and Laurens, being on his way to York, took Lafayette with him in his own carriage to the Old Sun Inn at Bethlehem, the quiet home of a people called the Moravians, fifty miles to the north of Philadelphia. In later times Henry Laurens, by one of those strange turns of the wheel of fate, became a prisoner in the Tower of London, and Madame de Lafayette repaid his kindness to her husband by seeking the aid of the French government to secure his release.

There could have been no better place for a wounded man to recover his strength than in the peaceful little Moravian community at Bethlehem. For six weeks he stayed there, and the people tended him like one of themselves. He could not use his leg, but he spent part of his enforced idleness drawing up plans for the invasion of the British colonies in the

West Indies. He also wrote long letters to his wife in France. "Be entirely free from anxiety as to my wound," he said in one of these, "for all the doctors in America are aroused in my behalf. I have a friend who has spoken for me in a way to ensure my being well taken care of; and that is General Washington. That estimable man, whose talents and whose virtues I admired before, whom I venerate the more now as I learn to know him, has been kind enough to inc to become my intimate friend. His tender interest in me quickly won my heart. . . . When he sent his surgeon-in-chief to me, he directed him to care for me as I were his son, because he loved me so much; and having learned that I wanted to join the army too soon again, he wrote me a letter full of tenderness in which he admonished me to wait until I should be entirely well."

Wonderful it was that Washington, beset and harassed with all the burdens of a commander-in-chief, could yet find the time to pay so much attention to his wounded French aid!

Lafayette knew well that matters looked dark then for the American republic. In another letter to Adrienne he said, "Now that you are the wife of an American general officer, I must give you a lesson. People will say, 'They have been beaten.' You must answer, 'It is true, but with two armies equal in number, and on level ground, old soldiers always have an advantage over new ones; besides, the Americans inflicted a greater loss than they sustained.' Then, people will add, 'That's all very well; but Philadelphia, the capital of America, the highroad of liberty, is taken.' You will reply politely, 'You are fools! Philadelphia is a poor city, open on every side, of which the port was already closed. The presence of Congress made it famous, I know not why; that's what this famous city amounts to, which, by the way, we shall retake sooner or later.' If they continue to ply you with questions, send them about their business in terms that the Vicomte de Noailles will supply you with."

It was true that General Howe had taken Philadelphia while Lafayette had to nurse his wounded leg at Bethlehem. It was not until the latter part of October that the Marquis was able to re join the army, and then his wound had not sufficiently healed to allow him to wear a boot. The battle of Germantown, by which Washington hoped to dislodge the British from Philadelphia, had been fought, and the year's campaign was about to close. Two battles had been lost by the Americans in the south, but in the north the British general Burgoyne had been obliged to surrender. Washington's headquarters were now at Methacton Hill, near the Schuylkill River, and there Lafayette went, hoping for active service.

His chance for service came soon. Cornwallis had entered New Jersey with five thousand men, and General Greene was sent to oppose him with an equal number. Lafayette joined Greene as a volunteer, and at Mount Holly he was ordered to reconnoitre. On November twenty-fifth he found the enemy at Gloucester. Their forage wagons were crossing the river to Philadelphia, and Lafayette, in order to make a more thorough examination of their position, went dangerously far out on a tongue of land. Here he might easily have been captured, but he was quick enough to escape without in jury. Later, at four o'clock in the afternoon, he found himself before a post of Hessians, four hundred men with cannon. Lafayette had one hundred and fifty sharpshooters under Colonel Butler, and about two hundred militiamen and light-horse. He did not know the strength of the enemy, hut he attacked, and drove them back so boldly that Cornwallis, thinking he must be dealing with all of Greene's forces, allowed his troops to retreat to Gloucester with a loss of sixty men.

This was the first real opportunity Lafayette had had to show his skill in leading men, and he had done so well that General Greene was delighted. In the report he sent to Washington he said, "The Marquis is charmed with the spirited behavior of the militia and rifle corps. They drove the enemy about a mile and kept the ground until dark. . . . The Marquis is determined to be in the way of danger."

Lafayette had shown himself to be a daring and skilful officer; more than that, he had endeared himself to the men under his command. And this was more than could be said for most of the foreign officers in the American army; many of them devoted the larger part of their time to criticizing everything about them. Baron de Kalb expressed his opinion of these adventurers from across the Atlantic in forceful terms. "These people," said he, "think of nothing but their incessant intrigues and backbitings. They hate each other like the bitterest enemies, and endeavor to injure each other whenever an opportunity offers. Lafayette is the sole exception. . . . Lafayette is much liked and is on the best of terms with Washington."

It was natural, therefore, that Washington, having had such a good account of the young Frenchman at the skirmish at Gloucester, should be willing to gratify his desire for a regular command in the army. So the commander-in-chief wrote to Congress concerning the Marquis. "There are now some vacant positions in the army," said Washington, "to one of which he may be appointed, if it should be the pleasure of Congress. I am convinced he possesses a large share of that military ardor that characterizes the nobility of his country."

And Congress agreed with Washington, and voted that "the Marquis de Lafayette be appointed to the command of a division in the Continental Army." On December 4, 1777, the Frenchman was given the command of the Virginia division. He was twenty years old, and it was only a little more than a year since he had first heard from the Duke of Gloucester about the fight of the American farmers for liberty. He had accomplished a great deal in that year, and had won his spurs by pluck, by perseverance, and by ability.

Naturally he was delighted at this evidence of the confidence that Washington and the American Congress placed in him. He wrote to his father-in-law, the Duke d'Ayen, the man who had tried his best to keep him from coming to America, "At last I have what I have always wished for, the command of a division. It is weak in point of numbers; it is almost naked, and I must make both clothes and recruits; but I read, I study, I examine, I listen, I reflect, and upon the result of all this I make an effort to form my opinion and to put into it as much common sense as I can . . . for I do not want to disappoint the confidence that the Americans have so kindly placed in me."

Events were soon to test both his ability and his mettle.