Lafayette for Young Americans - Rupert Holland

Rochambeau Arrives

Lafayette, on his way to board the Alliance, rode into the town of Fishkill-on-the-Hudson, and there fell ill of fever. He had been entertained by friends and well-wishers all the way from Philadelphia to the camp on the Hudson, and the fatigue of these continual receptions, combined with chilly, wet weather, brought on malaria. He became very sick; Washington, greatly concerned, rode daily from his headquarters eight miles away to inquire about the Frenchman's condition, and sent his own physician to attend him. This physician, Dr. John Cochran, Surgeon-General of the Continental Army, devoted himself to the Marquis, and when he was able to travel again went on with him to Boston. Washington wrote Lafayette, "I am persuaded, my dear marquis, that there is no need of fresh proofs to convince you either of my affection for you personally or of the high opinion I entertain of your military talents and merit."

The Alliance, a Continental frigate of thirty-two guns, sailed from Boston for Brest on January 11, 1779. On board the ship in the harbor Lafayette added a postscript to a letter to Washington. "The sails are just going to be hoisted, my dear general," he said, "and I have but time to take my last leave of you. . . . Farewell. I hope your French friend will ever be dear to you; I hope I shall soon see you again, and tell you myself with what emotion I now leave the coast you inhabit and with what affection and respect I am forever, my dear general, your respectful and sincere friend, Lafayette."

The voyage of the Alliance was beset with obstacles and perils from the outset. There was so much difficulty in making up the crew that a number of English prisoners and deserters in Boston were pressed into service as sailors. This makeshift crew came very near to proving disastrous for the Marquis, since there was an English law that offered to pay the full value of any American ship to the crew that would bring it into an English port, and there were considerably more English prisoners and deserters in the crew of the Alliante than there were American and French sailors.

The commander of the frigate was a Frenchman in the service of Congress, Captain Pierre Landais, of St. Malo, but the ship was under the orders of Lafayette. The Chevalier de Pontgibaud, who made the voyage, wrote: "The port of Boston was then frozen, and we were obliged to cut a passage for the ship through the ice. The wind was extremely violent, though favorable. We put up our main-sail only and that alone took us along at the rate of ten knots an hour. . . . Off the Banks of Newfoundland we were assailed by a terrible tempest. It lasted so long and grew so much worse, that first inquietude, then alarm, and at last consternation, seized everybody on board. M. de La Fayette was invariably very ill at sea; he was down on the sick list."

The storm continued for three of the twenty-three days of the voyage. The Alliance captured two British vessels, and everything promised well. But then came the great excitement; nothing less than rank mutiny. "While we were at dinner," wrote the Chevalier, "thinking no more of bad weather but of France, from which we were now only some five hundred miles distant, one of the crew entered and asked to speak to M. de La Fayette. He took the Marquis on one side and told him a good deal in a few words, namely, that the English sailors had laid a plot to kill us, take possession of the vessel and turn her head for England. The time set for the rising was five o'clock when the English sailors came off their watch. Arms were hidden in the hammocks."

The sailor who had given the warning had been taken for an Irishman by the mutineers, and had been offered the command of the frigate in case of success. A lookout was to give the signal "Sail ho!" and as the officers came on deck in a group they were to be shot down by cannon loaded with grape-shot and the ship sailed into an English port, where the mutineers would divide the profits.

"There was not a moment to be lost," the Chevalier continued. "We numbered in all fourteen officers. We began by securing the man who had warned us. . . . Some of us then went to fetch the bravest and trustiest of our sailors . . . thirty of us went down between decks. The ringleader was seized and bound before he was awake. . . . The scoundrels were so taken by surprise that they made no resistance. They had noticed amongst the baggage of M. de La Fayette some very heavy cases which they supposed contained treasure."

Thirty-three mutineers were captured and clapped into irons, and the rest of the crew sailed the frigate into the French harbor of Brest a week later.

On shore the mutineers were kept in irons to await trial. Finally they were sent back to America on different vessels, but it is not reported what became of them there.

Lafayette landed in triumph. The young fellow who had run away to sea in the Victory was returning a hero in a warship of the new American republic. He hurried at once to Versailles, then to Paris; and all along his route he was greeted by joyful, acclaiming crowds. He was amused, as well as delighted, when he compared this welcome with the way in which his family and friends had treated him when he left France to fight for American liberty. "I could not but recall the attitude of nay country," he said, "of America, and my own situation, at the time when I went away, as I saw the port of Brest recognize and salute the flag that was now flying on my frigate."

He saw his daughter Anastasie for the first time. The welcome he cared for the most was that from his wife, who had followed him in her thoughts all the time he had been in America, and had always sympathized with him and wished success for his plans. The Duke d'Ayen was delighted to see him, and listened with hearty approval to his son-in-law's story of what he had done in the young republic across the Atlantic. The court at Versailles, remembering that the Marquis had disobeyed the King's order, was obliged, for the sake of appearances, to show him no attention at first. But friends came to see him at the Hotel de Noailles; and one day the Queen, Marie Antoinette, his old playmate, happened to meet him as he was walking in the palace gardens and summoned him to her. He told her his adventures. Soon afterwards the King sent for him, and ordered him under arrest as a deserter, but with a twinkling eye declared that his prison should be his father-in-law's great house in Paris, and his jailer his wife Adrienne.

Then the King forgave him for running away to America, congratulated him, and, with his ministers, consulted the Marquis about affairs in the United States.

His reception in Paris was enough to have turned the head of any man less well balanced than Lafayette. Whenever he appeared on the street he was cheered by throngs. The actors in the theatres put special lines in their speeches to honor him; poems were written about him; and the young man of twenty-one became the lion of France. This was partly because he represented the connecting link in the alliance that now united the two countries, and that alliance was in great favor with the people. It was also because he stood for that ideal of "liberty "which was rapidly becoming the ruling thought of France.

It would have been easy for him to rest on his laurels now, and feel that he had accomplished all that was needed of him. But instead he used all this hero-worship to further his one aim more help for the young republic across the sea. "In the midst of the whirl of excitement by which I was carried along," he wrote, "I never lost sight of our Revolution, the success of which still seemed to me to be extremely uncertain: accustomed to seeing great purposes accomplished with slender means, I used to say to myself that the cost of a single fete would have equipped the army of, the United States, and in order to provide clothes for them I should gladly have stripped the palace of Versailles. . . . I had the honor of being consulted by all the ministers, and, what was a great deal better, of being kissed by all the women."

Maurepas and Vergennes were the two leading statesmen of France at that time, and they made use of the Marquis to obtain first-hand information of men and affairs in America. They wanted to obtain his help quite as much as he wanted to win theirs. And the wise Benjamin Franklin, at the court of France, saw that his own tireless efforts in behalf of his country would be helped tremendously by this young enthusiast, and made the most of the golden opportunity. Several plans were concocted between them. One was to carry the war into England. The Alliance was kept at Brest, by Franklin's order, and placed under the command of Captain John Paul Jones, who also had three French vessels. According to the arrangements Lafayette was to go with Paul Jones, and the ships were to attack Liverpool, Lancaster, Bristol, Bath and Whitehaven. The force was to be made up of 15,000 infantry, six pieces of artillery and some cavalry. Lafayette was to command the land forces and Paul Jones the fleet. Tribute was to be levied on the cities and towns and the proceeds were to be sent to the United States to help equip and clothe the army.

While they were arranging this the French government suggested a more ambitious plan, which was an attack upon England with the combined forces of France and Spain. Details of this were being worked out when John Paul Jones put to sea in his ship, the Bon Homme Richard, and on September 22, 1779, fought his famous engagement with the Serapis.

Meantime Lafayette was very busy. He was given a commission in the French army again, and made a colonel of the King's Dragoons. He spent much time in affairs of state at Versailles. Vergennes, the minister, was continually consulting him. They discussed how England could best be invaded, whether the King of Sweden could be persuaded to lend America some of his ships of the line, how to induce other countries to lend money to the new republic. Edward Bancroft was chosen to go to Ireland to see whether the people there were ready for rebellion; but he reported that "the fruit was not ripe; "so the plan for enlisting Irish aid was temporarily abandoned.

While he waited in France Lafayette wrote to the President of Congress by the hand of Monsieur de la Luzerne, who was going to Philadelphia, "The affairs of America I shall ever look upon as my first business whilst I am in Europe. . . . I hope to leave this place before long, in order to play a more active part and come nearer the common enemy." And to Washington he wrote, "However happy I find myself in France, however well treated by my country and my king, I am so accustomed to being near to you, I am bound to you, to America, to my companions in arms by such an affection, that the moment when I sail for your country will be among the happiest and most wished for of my life."

Later to Washington he sent word, "I have just received, my dear General, an express from court, with orders to repair immediately to Versailles. There I am to meet M. le Comte de Vaux, Lieutenant-General, who is appointed to command the troops intended for an expedition. In the army I shall be employed in the capacity of aide-Maréchal-general des logis, which is, in our service, a very important and agreeable place, so that I shall serve in the most pleasing manner, and shall be in a situation to know everything and to render services."

The expedition he referred to was the long-talked of joint attempt of France and Spain against England. French troops were already gathered at various of their home seaports along the English Channel when on June twenty-first Lafayette accompanied the Count de Vaux to Versailles, where the King gave them his instructions. After that Lafayette went to Havre, and stayed there until the expedition was finally abandoned, because the fleet from the south under the Count d'Orvilliers failed to appear. The fleet did arrive eventually, a hundred ships of the line and frigates, but it came too late; it could not convoy the French troops across the Channel because by that time a powerful British squadron had been collected at Portsmouth. The failure of this plan must have been a great disappointment to Lafayette and his friends, but he went on busily with other schemes.

While he was waiting at Havre the Marquis was presented by Franklin's grandson with the sword that the Congress of the United States had ordered should be given to him. It was a beautiful sword; the handle made of gold, exquisitely wrought, and decorated, as well as the blade, with figures emblematic of Lafayette's career in America, with his coat of arms and his motto, "Cur non?"

By now the young Frenchman had come to the greatest of his plans, and had induced the government at Versailles to see that a French expedition to aid the Americans was both practicable and necessary. He had shown the King's ministers that they were making a mistake in limiting their efforts to a naval war in the West Indies. What they ought to do, he said, was to send a great army and navy to assist Washington. He wrote many letters to Vergennes about this, and soon both Vergennes and Maurepas were agreeing with him. There was some opposition from the court, for neither Louis XVI nor Marie Antoinette nor the royal princes who surrounded them cared to encourage the spirit of liberty too far; but the people, backed by a few powerful leaders, demanded that Lafayette's plan be carried out; and at last his and their persistency won the day. The government decided to send an expedition, commanded by Lieutenant-General the Count de Rochambeau, with a fleet of warships and transports and six thousand soldiers, to the aid of America.

Lafayette was to go ahead to carry the welcome news to Washington and Congress, and to let them know that there would be no more of the jealousies and disputes that had hindered the success of the French and Americans in the field before. He had arranged that the French troops should be under Washington's orders, that they should accept the leadership of the American officers on the latter's own ground, and that officers of the United States should be recognized as having equal rank with those of France. This harmony that Lafayette secured had a great deal to do with the final successful outcome of the American Revolution.

Rochambeau's appointment was announced on the ninth of March, 1780. On March eleventh Lafayette went on board the frigate Hermione at the Isle d'Aix. Captain Latouche, in command, said of h= s passenger, "I consider it a favor that an opportunity has been given me to prove the high esteem in which I hold him." Sailing from Rochelle on March fourteenth, Lafayette was almost six weeks at sea, and had plenty of time to study the instructions that had been given him by the French government.

The Hermione, flying the French flag, arrived in Boston harbor on April 28, 1780. Word that she had been sighted had spread through the city, and the wharves were lined with people. When Lafayette landed a great throng gave him a rousing welcome, and the people of Boston followed him, cheering, through the streets to the house of Governor John Hancock on Beacon Hill. That sturdy old patriot and signer of the Declaration of Independence was not a whit behind his fellow-citizens in his enthusiastic greeting to this friend of the Republic.

At once Lafayette sent off a letter to Washington, who then had his headquarters at Morristown. Washington, to whom the news of aid from France was like the coming of spring after a long, weary winter, replied with the greatest delight. "I most sincerely congratulate you," he wrote, "upon your safe arrival in America, and shall embrace you with all the warmth of an affectionate friend, when you come to headquarters, where a bed is prepared for you."

Lafayette reached Morristown on the tenth of May, and the two friends discussed the situation. The young Frenchman told of the coming of Rochambeau with a fleet and an army, and the American commander's eyes shone with joy. He himself could only tell of the hardships his soldiers had borne during the winter, the difficulty of securing recruits, and the general discouragement of the country. But all was changed now. Greatly cheered, Washington sent Lafayette to Philadelphia to make his report to Congress, and set himself to the work of rousing his army and the people to welcome the men from France.

On May sixteenth Lafayette made his appearance before Congress in Philadelphia, and received official thanks for the services he had lately rendered in Europe. According to a plan made with Washington, he did not tell Congress anything definite about the coming of General Rochambeau and the fleet under Admiral de Terney. But he did speak about the need of equipping the American army if it was to be made into an efficient fighting force. He described how at Morristown he had found Washington's troops half-fed and half-clothed, with only four thousand out of six thousand soldiers fit for duty. And he said to the President of Congress, "Though I have been directed to furnish the French court and the French generals with early and minute intelligence, I confess that pride has stopped my pen and, notwithstanding past promises, I have avoided entering into any details till our army is put in a better and more decent situation."

Congress and the country were roused, and before the French fleet arrived the American army was in much better condition.

Lafayette kept the details of the French expedition secret, but various rumors concerning it quickly got abroad. It was suspected later that General Benedict Arnold, whom Washington implicitly trusted, had tried to betray the plans to the enemy. At any event, Sir Henry Clinton received information that Canada was to be attacked by Rochambeau. Rochambeau arrived with his army at Newport, Rhode Island, on Admiral de Terney's ships, on July 10, 1780, and at once sent word to Washington, declaring, as his government had instructed him, "We are now, sir, under your command."

On July twenty-fifth Lafayette welcomed the French commanders on behalf of General Washington. There was a great deal of excitement, both on the fleet and on shore, owing to rumors of an intended British attack at Newport. The British Admiral Graves had indeed joined his ships to those of Admiral Arbuthnot, and the combined fleet was cruising just outside Narragansett Bay. Moreover Sir Henry Clinton had planned to arrive with an army; but at the last moment he countermanded his orders and turned back. So the excitement subsided. But while there was danger at Newport Lafayette remained there. Only when it was definitely known that Clinton was not coming did he return to the American headquarters, which had been moved to Peekskill.

When he reached camp he learned that Washington had given him the command of a corps of light infantry, made up of six battalions, in two brigades, under General Hand and General Poor. He had plenty to do in organizing this "flying army," as he called it; but he also found time to write criticisms of what he considered bad management of affairs at Newport. These criticisms came to the notice of Rochambeau, and so irritated him that he was on the point of quarreling with Lafayette. But fortunately wiser counsels prevailed, and the dispute was smoothed over. Afterwards the two became warm friends, and each had the highest admiration for the other's military judgment.

[Illustration] from Lafayette for Young Americans by Rupert Holland


Rochambeau had his troubles to contend with. The second division of his fleet was still in French waters, blockaded by thirty British ships at Brest. For the present he could do little. Washington held a council of war on September sixth, and it was decided not to attempt an attack on New York until Rochambeau's second division arrived. On the twentieth of September Washington, with Lafayette and General Knox, met Rochambeau and Admiral de Terney at Hartford, and Lafayette had the opportunity he had long looked forward to of presenting his American hero to his fellow-countrymen from France. Rochambeau's aide-de-camp, Count Jean Axel de Fersen, described this meeting in a letter to his father. "During our stay in Hartford," he wrote, "the two Generals and the Admiral were closeted together all day; the Marquis de La Fayette assisted as interpreter, as General Washington does not speak French nor understand it. They separated quite charmed with one another, at least they said so."

It was during this meeting that one of Lafayette's pet schemes was discussed and practically decided on, the invasion of Canada by the joint American and French armies. The details of this invasion were to be entrusted to General Benedict Arnold, who was to be put in command of the forces.

But at the very moment when Washington and Rochambeau were making their plans, events were taking place elsewhere which were not only to frustrate this scheme but to put the whole American cause in the greatest jeopardy.