Lafayette for Young Americans - Rupert Holland

How Lafayette Ran Away to Sea

Lafayette did actually run away to sea, with the officers of King Louis XVI. hot-foot after him. When he learned that his plans were known and that he would surely be stopped if he delayed he ordered the captain of the Victory to set sail from Bordeaux without waiting for the necessary sailing-papers. His intention was to run into the Spanish port of Las Pasajes, just across the French frontier on the Bay of Biscay, and there complete his arrangements for crossing the Atlantic, for the sloop still needed some repairs before starting on such a voyage.

At Las Pasajes, however, he found more obstacles and difficulties. Instead of the sailing-papers he expected letters and orders and French officers were waiting for him. The letters were from his family, protesting against his rash act, the orders were from Louis XVI.'s ministers, and charged him with deserting the army, breaking his oath of allegiance to the King, and involving France in difficulties with England. And the officers were from the court, with documents bearing the King's own seal, and commanding Lieutenant the Marquis de Lafayette of the regiment of De Noailles to go at once to the French port of Marseilles and there await further orders.

The news that affected the runaway nobleman most was contained in the letters from home. He had had to leave Paris without telling his intentions to his wife, much as he hated to do this. He knew that she really approved of his plans and would do nothing to thwart them, but the letters said that she was ill and in great distress of mind. He would have braved the King's order of arrest and all the other threats, but he could not stand the idea of his wife being in distress on his account. So, with the greatest reluctance he said good-bye to his plans, left his ship in the Spanish port, and crossed the border back to France.

It looked as if this was to be the end of Lafayette's gallant adventure. The Baron de Kalb, very much disappointed, wrote to his wife, "This is the end of his expedition to America to join the army of the insurgents."

It might have been the end with another man, but not with Lafayette. He rode back to Bordeaux, and there found that much of the outcry raised against him was due to the wiles of his obstinate father-in-law, the Duke d'Ayen. It was true that the English Ambassador had protested to King Louis' ministers, but there was no real danger of Lafayette's sailing disturbing the relations between England and France. New letters told Lafayette that his wife was well and happy, though she missed him. The threats and the orders were due, not to the anger of his own government, but to the determination of the Duke that his son-in-law should not risk his life and fortune in such a rash enterprise.

When he learned all this the Marquis determined to match the obstinacy of the Duke with an even greater obstinacy of his own. His first thought was to join his ship the Victory at once, but he had no permit to cross into Spain, and if he should be caught disobeying the King's orders a second time he might get into more serious trouble. His father-in-law was waiting to see him at Marseilles, and so he now arranged to go to that city.

In Bordeaux Lafayette met a young French officer, named Du Mauroy, who had also received from Silas Deane a commission in the American army, and who was very anxious to reach the United States. The two made their plans together, and the upshot of it was that they presently set out together in a post-chaise for Marseilles.

They did not keep on the road to Marseilles long, however. No sooner were they well out of Bordeaux than they changed their course and drove in the direction of the Spanish border. In a quiet place on the road Lafayette slipped out of the chaise and hid in the woods. There he disguised himself as a post-boy or courier, and then rode on ahead, on horseback, as if he were the servant of the gentleman in the carriage.

His companion, Du Mauroy, had a permit to leave France, and the plan was that he should try to get the Marquis across the Spanish frontier as his body-servant. The chaise went galloping along as fast as the horses could pull it, because the young men had good reason to fear that French officers would speedily be on their track, if they were not already pursuing them. They came to a little village, St. Jean de Luz, where Lafayette had stopped on his journey from Las Pasajes to Bordeaux a short time before, and there, as the Marquis, disguised as the post-boy, rode into the stable-yard of the inn the daughter of the innkeeper recognized him as the same young man she had waited on earlier.

The girl gave a cry of surprise. "Oh, monsieur!" she exclaimed.

Lafayette put his finger to his lips in warning. "Yes, my girl," he said quickly. "Monsieur my patron wants fresh horses at once. He is coming just behind me, and is riding post-haste to Spain."

The girl understood. Perhaps she was used to odd things happening in a village so close to the border of France and Spain, perhaps she liked the young man and wanted to help him in his adventure. She called a stable-boy and had him get the fresh horses that were needed, and when the disguised Marquis and his friend were safely across the frontier and some French officers came galloping up to the inn in pursuit of them she told the latter that the post-chaise had driven off by the opposite road to the one it had really taken.

At last, on April seventeenth, Lafayette reached the Spanish seaport of Las Pasajes again and went on board of his sloop the Victory. After six months of plotting and planning and all sorts of discouragements he was actually free to sail for America, and on the twentieth of April, 1777, he gave the order to Captain Leboucier to hoist anchor and put out to sea. On the deck of the Victory with him stood De Kalb and about twenty young Frenchmen, all, like their commander, eager to fight for the cause of liberty. The shores of Spain dropped astern, and Lafayette and his friends turned their eyes westward in the direction of the New World.

When news of Lafayette's sailing reached Paris it caused the greatest interest. Though the King and the older members of his court might frown and shake their heads the younger people were frankly delighted. Coffee-houses echoed with praise of the daring Lieutenant, and whenever his name was mentioned in public it met with the loudest applause. In the world of society opinions differed; most of the luxury-loving nobility thought the adventure of the Marquis a wild-goose chase. The Chevalier de Marais wrote to his mother, "All Paris is discussing the adventure of a young courtier, the son-in-law of Noailles, who has a pretty wife, two children, fifty thousand crowns a year, in fact, everything which can make life here agreeable and dear, but who deserted all that a week ago to join the insurgents. His name is M. de Lafayette."

And the Chevalier's mother answered from her chateau in the country, "What new kind of folly is this, my dear child? What! the madness of knight-errantry still exists! It has disciples! Go to help the insurgents! I am delighted that you reassure me about yourself, for I should tremble for you; but since you see that M. de Lafayette is a madman, I am tranquil."

A celebrated Frenchwoman, Madame du Deffand, wrote to the Englishman Horace Walpole, "Of course it is a piece of folly, but it does him no discredit. He receives more praise than blame." And that was the opinion of a large part of France. If a young man chose to do such a wild thing as to become a knight-errant he might be criticized for his lack of wisdom, but on the whole he was not to be condemned.

Meantime, as the Victory was spreading her sails on the broad Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin was writing to the American Congress. This was what he said: "The Marquis de Lafayette, a young nobleman of great family connections here and great wealth, is gone to America in a ship of his own, accompanied by some officers of distinction, in order to serve in our armies. He is exceedingly beloved, and everybody's good wishes attend him. We cannot but hope he may meet with such a reception as will make the country and his expedition agreeable to him. Those who censure it as imprudent in him, 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 the court, but to the whole French nation. He has left a beautiful young wife; and for her sake, particularly, we hope that his bravery and ardent desire to distinguish himself will be a little restrained by the General's prudence, so as not to permit his being hazarded much, except on some important occasion."

The Victory was not a very seaworthy ship. Lafayette had been swindled by the men who had sold the sloop to his agent; she was a very slow craft, and was poorly furnished and scantily armed. Her two small cannon and small stock of muskets would have been a poor defense in case she had been attacked by any of the pirates who swarmed on the high seas in those days or by the English cruisers who were looking for ships laden with supplies for America.

In addition to the defects of his ship Lafayette soon found he had other obstacles to cope with. He discovered that the captain of the Victory considered himself a much more important person than the owner and meant to follow his own course.

The papers with which the ship had sailed from Spain declared that her destination was the west Indies. But ships often sailed for other ports than those they were supposed to, and Lafayette wanted to reach the United States as quickly as he could. He went to the captain and said, "You will please remake your course as direct as possible for Charlestown in the Carolinas."

"The Carolinas, sir!" exclaimed the captain. "Why, I cannot do that. The ship's papers are made out for the West Indies and will only protect us if we sail for a port there. I intend to sail for the West Indies, and you will have to get transportation across to the colonies from there."

Lafayette was amazed. "This ship is mine," he declared, "and I direct you to sail to Charlestown."

But the captain was obstinate. "I am the master of this ship, sir," said he, "and responsible for its safety. If we should be caught by an English cruiser and she finds that we are headed for North America with arms and supplies, we shall be made prisoners, and lose our ship, our cargo, and perhaps our lives. I intend to follow my sailing-papers and steer for the West Indies."

No one could be more determined than Lafayette, however. "You may be master of the Victory, Captain Leboucier," said he, "but I am her owner and my decision is final. You will sail at once and by the directest course for the port of Charlestown in the Carolinas or I shall deprive you instantly of your command and place the mate in charge of the ship. I have enough men here to meet any resistance on your part. So make your decision immediately."

The captain in his turn was surprised. The young owner was very positive and evidently not to be cajoled or threatened. So Leboucier complained and blustered and argued a little, and finally admitted that it was not so much the ship's papers as her cargo that he was troubled about. He owned that he had considerable interest in that cargo, for he had smuggled eight or nine thousand dollars' worth of goods on board the Victory and wanted to sell them in the West Indies and so make an extra profit on the side for himself. The real reason why he didn't want to be caught by an English cruiser was the danger of losing his smuggled merchandise.

"Then why didn't you say so at first?" Lafayette demanded. "I would have been willing to help you out, of course. Sail for the port of Charlestown in the Carolinas; and if we are captured, searched, robbed, or destroyed by any English cruisers or privateers I will see that you don't lose a sou. I will promise to make any loss good."

That satisfied Captain Leboucier. As long as his goods were safe he had no hesitation on the score of danger to the ship, and so he immediately laid his course for the coast of the Carolinas. Lafayette, however, realizing that the Victory might be overtaken by enemy war-ships, arranged with one of his men, Captain de Bedaulx, that in case of attack and capture the latter should blow up the ship rather than surrender. With this matter arranged the Marquis went to his cabin and stayed there for two weeks, as seasick as one could be.

The voyage across the Atlantic in those days was a long and tedious affair. It took seven weeks, and after Lafayette had recovered from his seasickness he had plenty of time to think of the hazards of his new venture and of the family he had left at home. He was devoted to his family, and as the Victory kept on her westward course he wrote long letters to his wife, planning to send them back to France by different ships, so that if one was captured another might carry his message to Adrienne safely to her. In one letter he wrote, "Oh, if you knew what I have suffered, what weary days I have passed thus flying from everything that I love best in the world!" And then, in order to make his wife less fearful of possible dangers that might beset him, he said, "The post of major-general has always been a warrant of long life. It is so different from the service I should have had in France, as colonel, for instance. With my present rank I shall only have to attend councils of war. . .

As soon as I land I shall be in perfect safety."

But this boy, nineteen years old, though he called himself a major-general, was not to be content with attending councils of war and keeping out of danger, as later events were to show. He was far too eager and impetuous for that, too truly a son of the wild Auvergne Mountains.

And he showed that he knew that himself, for later in the same letter to Adrienne he compared his present journey with what his father-in-law would have tried to make him do had Lafayette met the Duke d'Ayen at Marseilles. "Consider the difference between my occupation and my present life," he wrote, "and what they would have been if I had gone upon that useless journey. As the defender of that liberty which I adore; free, myself, more than any one; coming, as a friend, to offer my services to this most interesting republic, I bring with me nothing but my own free heart and my own good-will,—no ambition to fulfil and no selfish interest to serve. If I am striving for my own glory, I am at the same time laboring for the welfare of the American republic. I trust that, for my sake, you will become a good American. It is a sentiment made for virtuous hearts. The happiness of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she is destined to become the safe and worthy asylum of virtue, integrity, tolerance, equality, and peaceful liberty."

This, from a boy not yet twenty years old, showed the prophetic instinct that burned like a clear flame in the soul of Lafayette.

He knew very little of the English tongue, but that was the language of the people he was going to help, and so on shipboard he set himself to study it. "I am making progress with that language," he wrote to his wife. "It will soon become most necessary to me."

The North Atlantic was stormy, the Victory met with head winds, and through April and May she floundered on, her passengers eagerly scanning the horizon for a sight of land. On the seventh of June the Marquis wrote in a letter to Adrienne, "I am still out on this dreary plain, which is beyond comparison the most dismal place that one can be in. . . . We have had small alarms from time to time, but with a little care, and reasonably good fortune, I hope to get through without serious accident, and I shall be all the more pleased, because I am learning every day to be extremely prudent."

Then, on a June day, the Victory suddenly became all excitement. The lookout reported to Captain Leboucier that a strange vessel was bearing down in their direction.

Leboucier instantly crowded on sail and tried to run from the strange ship. But the Victory was not built for fast sailing, and it was soon clear that the stranger would quickly overhaul her.

"It's an English man-of-war!" was the message that ran from lip to lip. In that case the only choice would be between resistance and surrender. Leboucier looked doubtful as to the wisest course to pursue, but Lafayette and his companions made ready to fight. The two old cannon were loaded, the muskets distributed, and the crew ordered to their stations.

The stranger drew nearer and nearer, sailing fast, and the Victory floundered along in desperation. Lafayette and De Bedaulx stood at the bow of the sloop, their eyes fixed on the rapidly-gaining pursuer. Then, just as escape appeared utterly out of the question, the oncoming ship went about, and as she turned she broke out from her peak a flag of red, white and blue, the stars and stripes of the new United States of America. A wild cheer greeted that flag, and the colors of France were run up to the peak of the Victory in joyful greeting to the flag of Lafayette's ally.

The Victory headed about and tried to keep up with the fleet American privateer, but in a very short time two other sails appeared on the horizon. The American ship ran up a danger signal, declaring these new vessels to be English cruisers, scouting along the coast on the watch for privateers and blockade runners. Having given that information the American ship signaled "good-bye," and drew away from the enemy on a favoring tack.

The Victory could not draw away so easily, however, and it was clear that her two cannon would be little use against two well-armed English cruisers. In this new predicament luck came to the aid of the little sloop. The wind shifted and blew strongly from the north. This would send the Victory nearer to the port of Charlestown, the outlines of which now began to appear on the horizon, and would also be a head wind for the pursuing cruisers. Captain Leboucier decided to take advantage of the shift in the wind, and instead of heading for Charlestown run into Georgetown Bay, which opened into the coast of the Carolinas almost straight in front of him.

Fortune again favored him, for, although he knew very little of that coast, and nothing of these particular shoals and channels, he found the opening of the South Inlet of Georgetown Bay and sailed his ship into that sheltered road-stead. The English vessels, working against the north wind, soon were lost to sight. On the afternoon of June 13, 1777, Lafayette's little sloop ran past the inlet and up to North Island, one of the low sand-pits that are a fringe along the indented shore of South Carolina.

The long sea-voyage was over, and Lafayette looked at last at the coast of the country he had come to help.