Lafayette for Young Americans - Rupert Holland

Fighting Through the South

The treason of Benedict Arnold prevented the invasion of Canada by an American army, and Lafayette saw no active service for some time. He did indeed outline a plan for a bold attack upon General Clinton on Manhattan Island, but Washington considered that the risk was entirely too great. So the young Frenchman spent the autumn in camp on the Hudson and in New Jersey, drilling his men preparatory to the next year's campaign.

He took great pride in his soldiers, who formed a special corps of light infantry, picked from all branches of the service. "Its position is always that of advance-guard," he wrote Adrienne. "It is independent of the main army, and it is far too fine for our present pacific situation." And apparently his troop was much better fitted out than the rest of the army, for Lafayette sent to France for such luxuries as sabres and banners and plumes for his men. The Chevalier de Chastellux visited the camp at Totohaw, or Second River, in New Jersey, seven miles from Washington's headquarters at Tappan, and said that Lafayette's infantry "were better clothed than the rest of the army the uniforms were smart and military, and each soldier wore a helmet made of hard leather, with a crest of horsehair." He added, "The officers are armed with espontoons, or rather with half-pikes, and the subalterns with fusils; but both are provided with short and light sabres, brought from France, and made a present of to them by M. de Lafayette." Hospitality reigned there also, for when the Chevalier returned to Totohaw from a visit to General Washington at Tappan, he said, "We arrived wet at Marquis de Lafayette's quarters, where I warmed myself with pleasure, partaking, from time to time, of a large bowl of grog, which is stationary on his table and is presented to every officer who enters."

Lafayette entertained many of his countrymen at camp, and later joined De Chastellux in Philadelphia. A number of French officers had gathered there, and they, used to the gayeties of the most brilliant court in Europe, added much to the amusements of the American capital. Everyone liked the French guests, and the foreign officers, on their part, liked and admired their new allies. Sometimes the self-denying seriousness of the Americans, which was an element of their national strength, surprised and amused the gayer Frenchmen. De Chastellux told a story about Philadelphia in his volume of "Travels." He said that at balls in Philadelphia it was the custom to have a Continental officer act as the master of ceremonies, and that at one party he attended that position was held by a Colonel Mitchell, who showed the same devotion to duty in the ballroom that he showed on the field of battle. This Colonel saw a young girl so busily talking that she could pay little attention to the figures of the quadrille, so he marched up to her and said to her severely, "Take care what you are doing; do you suppose you are there for your pleasure?"

Naturally the Chevalier de Chastellux and his friends, fresh from the world of Marie Antoinette, where pleasure was always the first aim, had many a, laugh at the people of this new world. But with the laugh there always went respect and admiration.

But Lafayette by no means devoted himself to pleasure. He wrote every month to his powerful friend at the French court, Vergennes, urging speedy aid for the Republic. When the American Colonel Laurens set out on an important mission to Paris Lafayette gave him expert advice on the court customs and prejudices. Also he wrote to leading men in the different states of the Union, and one of his friends said that "private letters from him have frequently produced more effect upon some states than the strongest exhortations of Congress."

By Colonel Laurens he sent a long letter to his wife. Another child had been born to the Marquis and Adrienne, a son, who was given the name of George Washington. "Embrace our children," wrote Lafayette, "thousands of times for me. Although a vagabond, their father is none the less tender, less constantly thoughtful of them, less happy to hear from them. My heart perceives, as in a delicious perspective, the moment when my dear children will be presented to me by you, and when we can kiss and caress them together. Do you think that Anastasie will recognize me?" And, as he could never write without thinking of the brave men in his army, he added, "Only citizens could support the nakedness, the hunger, the labors, and the absolute lack of pay which constitute the conditions of our soldiers, the most enduring and the most patient, I believe, of any in the world."

On January 11, 1781, Lafayette visited Washington at his headquarters, and the two reviewed the situation. The field of war had now swung from the north to the south, and there it appeared to be going in favor of the British. The original British plan of seizing and holding the larger cities had failed. After three years they held New York and Newport, and very little more. Now they had abandoned Newport. King George was disgusted, but was as determined as ever to suppress the Revolution. So the British government had decided to change its plans and turn its attack to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.

This change in the British plan had worked out well for them. Sir Henry Clinton had sent one force by water and one by land against Georgia. The French fleet under the Count d'Estaing had sailed up from the West Indies to meet the British, but had had no success, and the French commander, whom Washington was hourly expecting to arrive off Sandy Hook, abruptly ordered his fleet to return across the Atlantic to France. Then Clinton caught the American General Lincoln in Charleston, and Lincoln surrendered five thousand men. North and South Carolina appeared about to be overrun by the enemy. Washington detached the picked troops of Maryland and Delaware from his army and sent them south under the Baron de Kalb. But fresh disasters followed; the British General Cornwallis defeated the Americans at the battle of Camden, in South Carolina, and Lafayette's old companion, De Kalb, fell at the head of his men.

Washington next sent General Greene to take command of what was left of the army in the South. Greene, who had been the commander-in-chief's right arm in every campaign, found the forces in great disorder. After he had joined his army he wrote, "I am not without great apprehension of its entire dissolution. . . . Nothing can be more wretched and distressing than the condition of the troops, starving with cold and hunger; without tents and without camp equipage. . . . A tattered remnant of some garment clumsily stuck together with the thorns of the locust tree forms the sole covering of hundreds."

Cornwallis was now near Winnsborough, in the northern part of South Carolina, and Greene was near Charlotte, in the lower part of North Carolina. The British were much superior in force, but notwithstanding that, General Greene divided his small army in two, and marched them at a wide distance from each other, one to the east and the other to the west of the enemy at Winnsborough. Cornwallis decided that he must attack one of these forces, and chose to strike first at the Americans on his left. He sent General Tarleton with one thousand men against the eight hundred under General Morgan, a huge Welshman who had started the Revolution as a wagoner and had become one of the ablest American commanders of light troops. On January seventeenth the two forces met at a place called the Cow-pens, near the borderline between the two Carolinas. The Americans won, Tarleton's force being almost annihilated at the Battle of the Cowpens.

This was cheering news to Washington; but even this victory could hardly allay his anxiety over Greene's small and divided army. Greene, however, proceeded to justify his commander's confidence in him, and skilfully handled his troops. He kept on southward. He said that he would "fight, get beaten and fight again." He forced the British before him, and finally drove them to retire to their fortifications at Charleston.

By now there was another matter that caused Washington great concern. General Clinton, in New York, had sent a strong detachment to Virginia to raid and plunder that State. This expedition was under the command of Benedict Arnold, now a brigadier-general in the English army. The thought of this traitor leading an army to lay waste Virginia caused the greatest resentment throughout the United States.

Arnold was in Virginia with sixteen hundred British regulars, had burned Richmond, and was camped at Portsmouth. Washington's answer to this threat was to send a French naval force to Chesapeake Bay and a detachment from his main army overland to Virginia. The army was to rout out Arnold from his camp, the ships to cut off his escape by sea. The French admiral ordered a ship-of-the-line and two frigates to the Chesapeake, and the commander-in-chief placed twelve hundred light infantry under Lafayette's command. Washington wrote to Lafayette, "You are to do no act whatever with Arnold that directly or by implication may screen him from the punishment due to his treason and desertion, which, if he should fall into your hands, you will execute in the most summary way."

Lafayette felt that this new command, which was of the greatest importance, showed what confidence and trust Washington had in his military ability. The Marquis understood the situation. He must act with the French navy, bottle up the British in the Chesapeake and so force them to surrender. He must get food as best he could. And above all, he must play the fox. Daring was required first and foremost, and daring was what Lafayette had already shown that he possessed.

The Marquis left camp at once. His troops were the New England Light Infantry, and with these he made a feint as if he intended to attack Staten Island, but instead kept on across New Jersey. At Morristown New Jersey troops joined his command. He reached Philadelphia on February twenty-sixth, and on the third of March he was at the Head of Elk, an inlet at the upper end of Chesapeake Bay. He was constantly busy and alert. He wrote to Thomas Jefferson, the Governor of Virginia, with regard to militia, artillery horses and vessels; to General von Steuben, who was in command of the militia there; and frequently to Washington. And Washington wrote to him on March eighth from Newport, giving this welcome news concerning the French naval contingent, "The whole fleet went out with a fair wind this evening about sunset."

Lafayette, on board the Dolphin, arrived at Annapolis, whence he and the Count de Charlus, son of the Marquis de Castries, Secretary of the French Navy, went in a small boat on a reconnoitering expedition as far as Yorktown. They saw no signs of the French fleet, and concluded that it had been delayed by adverse winds. So, while waiting for the squadron, he left his army at Annapolis, and rode with a few officers to consult with Baron von Steuben and seek his aid. He secured some companies of militia at Williamsburg, near the York River, and proceeded to the camp of General Muhlenberg, near Suffolk, and went from there to have a look at Benedict Arnold's defenses at Portsmouth.

Word came to him that a fleet had anchored in Chesapeake Bay, and he thought that it must be the French ships he was expecting under command of Des Touches, who had succeeded Admiral de Terney. But soon it appeared that the fleet was British, and a little later Lafayette learned that the first French squadron had found there was not sufficient water in the bay for them, and had sailed back to Newport, while a second squadron had been driven off by the enemy. The result was that General Arnold's forces were relieved from the danger of being bottled up, and the British were reinforced by two new regiments under General Phillips, who now took command of all the English armies in Virginia.

Naturally this turn of affairs was very disappointing to Lafayette, but he made the best of the situation. He rode to Fredericksburg, where he paid his respects to Mrs. Washington, the mother of the General, and then snatched time for a hasty visit to Mount Vernon. To make up for these indulgences he traveled by night to re join his command, sending orders ahead to Annapolis to have the troops prepared for immediate departure.

He reached Annapolis on April fourth, and found a surprise awaiting him. In the Severn River lay the Hope and the Monk, both British boats, and both blocking his retreat. There were very few horses or wagons or small boats for crossing the ferries, and he seemed to be caught in a trap. But he was a man of resourcefulness, and he had resort to a clever stratagem. He put two eighteen-pounders on a small sloop, which, with another ship under Commodore Nicholson, sailed out toward the enemy vessels, firing their guns as if about to attack. The two English ships on guard withdrew a considerable distance down the bay, and then Lafayette embarked his troops on his own boats and got them out of the harbor and up the bay to Elk. They reached there safely during the night, followed by Lafayette and Nicholson in the sloop.

He landed at Head of Elk one month to a day from the time of his departure. He had failed in trapping Benedict Arnold; but that had not been due to any fault of his, but because Des Touches had not been quick enough in closing the mouth of the Chesapeake. Yet Lafayette had learned much from his expedition. He knew the ground well, and he had shown himself an adroit commander in handling troops in difficult situations.

The arrival of Major-General William Phillips to command the British troops in Virginia increased Washington's anxieties concerning the campaign in the South. The situation of the Americans there was extremely perilous. General Greene was having all he could do to oppose Cornwallis in North Carolina. The Americans were outnumbered, most of the time ragged and hungry. They were often making forced marches over great stretches of primeval forests and undergrowth, fording rivers swollen by torrential rains. They had insufficient arms, ammunition, and artillery. Horses were not always available to draw such guns as they had, and oxen had to be used. And all the time the British were pressing at their heels, forcing them to rear-guard actions, surprising them in continual ambushed attacks. And now not only Cornwallis, but Phillips also was in the field with fresh and well-equipped troops. Washington wondered if General Greene's army was to be annihilated as that of Gates had been. Unless strong opposition could be brought against Phillips the latter might quickly overrun Virginia and unite with Cornwallis. In this predicament the commander-in-chief determined to put the defense of Virginia in the hands of Lafayette.

At the time, Lafayette, with his army, had returned to Head of Elk, and was preparing to start on his march of three hundred miles back to Washington's headquarters. Then came a fresh order that caused him to right-about-face. "Turn your detachment to the southward," Washington wrote. At first the Marquis was disappointed. He thought that the most important campaign would take place around New York, and he wanted to be there. But when he understood that Washington considered it of the greatest urgency that he should support General Greene, he immediately prepared for this new plan.

His troops left Head of Elk on April tenth, crossed the Susquehanna River at the Bald Briar in a storm on the thirteenth and reached Baltimore a few days later. There he borrowed ten thousand dollars from the merchants of the city on his personal security, and with this bought food and supplies. Some of his men had declared that they would rather "take a hundred lashes "than march south; but their new equipment put fresh courage in them. A general who would buy them new shirts and trousers and stout boots was one worth following. Lafayette told them that his business and theirs was to fight an enemy greatly superior in numbers, through difficulties of every sort, and added that any soldier who was unwilling to accompany him might avoid the penalties of desertion by applying for a pass to the North. His men, placed on their mettle, stood by him cheerfully. As a result he said of them, "These three battalions are the best troops that ever took the field; my confidence in them is unbounded."

Before he left Baltimore the citizens gave a ball in his honor, an event Lafayette greatly enjoyed.

On April nineteenth he led his troops toward the Potomac River, and from then on he moved with great speed and cunning. He went to Alexandria, to Fredericksburg, to Bowling Green, to Hanover Court House, and on the twenty-ninth reached Richmond.

Lafayette had arrived at Richmond in the very nick of time, for the British General Phillips had planned to take that city and seize the valuable military stores the Americans had collected there. Phillips had no idea that Lafayette was so near. The British had ascended the James River, driven General von Steuben out of Petersburg, and hastened toward the Virginia capital. One of them said, "Next morning they marched to Manchester, from whence they had a view of M. Fayette's army encamped on the heights of Richmond." Phillips was greatly surprised. Lafayette had only about nine hundred Continentals in addition to his militia, and his opponent had twenty-three hundred men; but Phillips, angry as a hornet, decided the better policy for him was to retire from Richmond.

The Frenchman had marched so fast that he had had to leave his artillery and even the tents for his soldiers to come on later. He wrote to Washington, "The leaving of my artillery appears a strange whim, but had I waited for it Richmond was lost. . . . It was not without trouble I have made this rapid march."

His next move was to keep watch of Phillips, and defeat his plans whenever he could. The British General retreated down the river to Brandon's, and Lafayette advanced to Bottom's Creek and the Chickahominy. The two wily commanders constantly tried to outwit each other. But Lafayette continued to have the better of this dance that lasted nine weeks. He was holding in check a much larger force than his own, which, but for him, might seize Richmond, or join Cornwallis, or harry the army of General Greene.

Cornwallis, however, now decided to take a hand in the game. When he heard how the Marquis had reached Richmond before Phillips he vowed that he would defeat "that boy Lafayette." He stopped his campaign against Greene in North Carolina and determined to take command himself in Virginia. Accordingly he sent word to Phillips to await his arrival at Petersburg. He expected, perhaps not unnaturally, that he, a major-general and an officer of great experience, would have an easy time with this "boy "in command of raw troops.

Lafayette got word of the northward march of Cornwallis, and waited eagerly for the coining of Anthony Wayne, who was to reinforce him. Meantime he wanted to prevent General Phillips from getting to Petersburg. Phillips, however, was nearer to that town and reached it first, forcing Lafayette to fall back on Richmond, though the latter sent out Colonel Gimat, with artillery, to keep the enemy busy.

In Petersburg, on May thirteenth, General Phillips died. It was before this general's guns that Lafayette's father had fallen at the battle of Hastenbeck. Benedict Arnold was second in command, and at this time he had occasion to write to Lafayette regarding prisoners of war. He sent the letter under a flag of truce; but when the Marquis learned the name of the writer he at once informed the men who brought Arnold's communication that while he would be glad to treat with any other English officer he could not receive a message from this one. This placed Arnold in a difficult position and was resented by a threat to send all American prisoners to the West Indies. But when the people of the country heard of the Frenchman's act they were delighted, and Washington wrote to him, "Your conduct upon every occasion meets my approbation, but in none more than in your refusing to hold a correspondence with Arnold."

Benedict Arnold, for personal reasons, had a keen interest in the treatment of prisoners. The story is told that when an American captain who had been taken prisoner was brought to the General's tent, Arnold asked him, "What would be my fate if I should be taken prisoner?" The captain answered, "They will cut off that leg of yours which was wounded in your country's service at Quebec and Saratoga, and bury it with the honors of war, and then hang the rest of you."

But Arnold's day was over. On May 24, 1781, Cornwallis reached Petersburg, and soon after ordered Arnold elsewhere. From then he disappears from the story of the Revolution, leaving only a dishonored name in the memory of his countrymen.

Lafayette now had to face a greatly superior army under command of a vastly more experienced general. At Byrd's Plantation, where Cornwallis had his headquarters, the British commander wrote, "The boy cannot escape me."

And the young Frenchman knew he had a real task set before him.